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Joseph Henry Blackburne vs Isidor Gunsberg
Monte Carlo (1901), Monte Carlo MNC, rd 2, Feb-05
Three Knights Opening: General (C46)  ·  0-1


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Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  Phony Benoni: Blackburne has a reputation as a swashbuckling Pirate of the Caribbean, but he had a lot of dull days too. This was one of them. Mixing a slow opening with the wild gash 14.g4 is not to be recommended, and Gunsberg shows he knew what to do.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Blackburne and Gunsberg were long-time rivals. Their encounter at Monte Carlo 1901 was the 43rd time they faced off across the board, and they were to play three more times after this contest, with their final encounter being at St. Petersburg 1914. They were closely matched. Blackburne was +2 against Gunsberg going into this game and ended up +1 in the final tally.

The Blackburne-Gunsberg game at Monte Carlo 1901 shows Blackburne at his very worst. His opening play was bizarre and his 14. g4?--as pointed out by Phony Benoni on this site about eight years ago--was terrible ("suicidal" according to the Tournament Book). Blackburne's wretched play here continued even after 14. g4?, and to compound the atrocity he continued on long after any sensible player would have resigned.

Blackburne was a talented tactician who, when at his best, could produce games that are a joy to behold. He scored the only win against Lasker in the double-round robin tournament at London 1899, finishing off the World Champion with a gorgeous Rook sacrifice. At his worst, however, and as here, Blackburne's games can be painful to play over.

1. e4 e5
2. Nc3

A Vienna Game maybe?

2... Nc6
3. Nf3

A Four Knights game?

3... Bc5

Perhaps stung by his first-round loss to the little-heralded Reggio--Gunsberg sought complications with the oft-denounced Three Knights' Game. The Tournament Book perhaps went overboard in assigning a "?" to this move. The problem, of course, is that White can obtain an excellent game with 4. Nxe5.

But Blackburne had other ideas.

4. Be2

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"?"--(Tournament Book)

"Not to be recommended." (Tournament Book)

This does have the merit of getting Gunsberg out of any possible opening preparation. I see little else to commend this move.

In fairness to Blackburne, White is still OK even after 4. Be2. But shouldn't White seek more than that against the Three Knights' Game?

4... d6
5. d3

Less than dynamic. There is more than a chance that White will eventually seek to play d4 (as Blackburne in fact did here on his 9th move), in which case the text is a waste of time.

5. 0-0 is fine here. But probably best is 5. Na4 to force a trade of Black's best-placed piece--his Bishop on c5. Blackburne apparently recognized this on his next move, but only after giving Gunsberg a chance to preserve the Bishop.

5... Nge7

Missing his chance to provide a refuge for his c5 Bishop with 5...a6 (or perhaps the more double-edged 5...a5).

6. Na4

Better late than never.

6... Bb6
7. NxB axN

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8. 0-0 Ng6

8...f5 was more dynamic, although the text is certainly OK.

9. d4 0-0
10. c3

10. Re1 was perhaps more accurate.

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

10... h6

As the Tournament Book correctly points out, Gunsberg here rightly avoided 10...f5? 11. Bc4+ Kh8 12.Ng5 which would leave Black--to say the least--very badly placed.

But 11...exd4 immediately was perhaps best for Black here.

After 10...h6 the position was:

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11. Ne1?

Needlessly tying up his own forces in the apparent hope of being able to launch a King-side assault with a later f4.

The Tournament Book's suggested 11. dxe5 was good enough for equality, though the line it gives was not best: 11. dxe5 dxe5 12. Be3 [12. QxQ or 12. Qc2--if White wants to avoid the exchange of Queens--was better] Be6 (12...Nf4 or 12...Qf6 would be better) 13. Qc2 with a roughly equal game.

Best for White here was probably either 11. Be3 or 11. Re1

After 11. Ne1? the position was:

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Not exactly the best set-up for the ferocious King-side attack Blackburne was intending.

11... exd4

Probably sufficient for equality, but Gunsberg could have tried to capitalize on Blackburne's dithering with 11...d5!

12. cxd4 f5

"!"--(Tournament Book)

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I am not bursting with admiration at the Black set-up here, but I agree that 12...f5 was probably best play (though Stockfish likes 12...d5).

13. exf5

"Perhaps 13. f3." (Tournament Book).

I don't see that White gets much of anything with 13. f3. The main alternatives to the text are the aggressive but committal 13. d5 or Stockfish's 13. Bc4+. In any case, White gets at most a tiny edge.

13... Bxf5

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In this position, Blackburne went overboard with:

14. g4?

"?"--(Tournament Book)

"Suicidal" (Tournament Book)

"Not to be recommended" (Phony Benoni)

"Blackburne commenced a premature and suicidal advance of the g-pawn after having castled on the king's side, and Gunsberg vigorously took advantage of this mistaken notion..."

Blackburne's position certainly did not warrant this sort of advance. The Tournament Book's proposed 14. Be3 was certainly better. Best of all was probably 14. d5.

Was Blackburne lost after his zany 14. g4?:

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Fritz rates the game as (-0.69) at this point. Stockfish is more severe in its assessment of (-1.07).

In any case, Further wild and careless play by Blackburne on his 15th and 18th moves left his forces open to a crushing attack by Gunsberg, and further blunders by Blackburne on his 20th and 21st moves left him in a hopelessly lost endgame by move 24.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

14... Be4

"!?"--(Tournament Book)

15. f3

This only made matters worse for Blackburne. 15. f4 or 15. d5, while still not leaving Blackburne in great shape, were certainly better than the text.

The Tournament Book criticized 15. d5 as leaving to a "very easy game for Black." But: (i) the Tournament Book's line was hardly best; and (ii) with best play White might still be able to survive after 15. d5. Let's look at the Tournament Book's line:

15. d5 Nce7 16. Bc4 (not terrible, but 16. a4 is stronger) Ne5 17. f3? (The Tournament Book is correct in assessing 17. Bb3? Bf3 as winning for Black [though 17...N7g6 may be even better]; 17. Be2 is White's only chance, and might well enable him to hold the game, while after 17. f3? it would be clear sailing for Black) 17...NxB 18. fxB RxR+ 19. KxR Ng6.

After 15. f3?, Blackburne's game was, even if not clearly lost, definitely in the last throes:

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15... Bd5
16. Ng2 Qf6
17. Be3


17... Qe6?

This might have let Blackburne off the hook. 17...Nh4 was much stronger.

The position was now:

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18. Bd3?

Now Blackburne was done for, as Gunsberg quickly demonstrated. 18. Qd2 would have given White good chances of saving the game.

18... Nh4!

"!"--(Tournament Book)

"This strong move demolishes the White position:

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19. NxN QxB+

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20. Kg2?

Hopeless. 20. Rf2 was the only (although remote) chance.

20... Nxd4

This was sufficient to win, but 20...Qg5 was even stronger.

21. Nf5?

Blackburne must have overlooked the coming exchanges that left him with a completely hopeless endgame. Perhaps he missed the fact that after 24. KxN his King would be on the same file as Gunsberg's Rook, allowing the latter to pick up the wayward White Knight on f5 with 24...g6.

If he wanted to play on, Blackburne might have tried 21. Re1 (minimal as his chances would have been even after that move). After the text, the rest was easy for Gunsberg, the position after 21. Nf5? being:

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

21... Bxf3+

Blackburne may have thought this was bad for Black since Black attacks f3 three times and White defends it three times. Thus, he may have believed that Gunsberg was losing two pieces for a Rook. As already noted, in so thinking Blackburne must have overlooked the upcoming pin on the f-file and the crushing 24...g6.

22. RxB QxR+
23. QxQ NxQ

If my supposition is correct, this is the position Blackburne mis-evaluated:

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24. KxN

If Blackburne had expected to win this piece with impunity, he must have been brought back to Earth by Gunsberg's reply:

24... g6

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Blackburne was now fated to end up down the exchange plus a pawn. His situation was plainly hopeless.

25. Re1

In a futile effort to drum up some sort of attack, Blackburne only made matters worse for himself with this move. While resignation was appropriate, if Blackburne wanted to play on for a while (perhaps Gunsberg was in time trouble with the 30-move time control approaching) he should have tried something like 25. Bc4+, 25. b3, 25. a4, or maybe 25. Rc1.

25... gxN
26. Re7

This can't be right, since Blackburne now loses another pawn. 26. gxf5 or 26. Bxf5 remaining "only" down the exchange and a pawn was the best way to play on.

26... fxg4+
27. Rxa4+

While the text was best, Gunsberg could even have walked into a pin with 27...Rf7 28. Bc4 (28. Re6 would be "better") because 28...Ra4 would now be crushing.

28. Kh5 Rf7

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Blackburne could safely have called it a day here, but he chose to play on and try for some kind of highly unlikely King-side mating net. This, needless to say, got him nowhere.

29. R36 Kg7

29...Rf3 was perhaps a faster way to close out the game, but the text was fine as well.

30. Rg6+ Kf8
31. Rg2 Rf6

31...Rf3 might have induced Blackburne to give up here.

32. Bb1

Guarding the a-pawn and hoping for some kind of miraculous attack.

32... Raf4
33. Bh7 Rf2
34. Rg8+

A spite check.

34... Kf7
35. h3 Rxb2

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Down the exchange and three pawns, Blackburne finally lowered his flag. 36. Rc8 does not pick up any pawns for White in light of 36...Rb5+ and 37...Rc5.

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