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Harry Nelson Pillsbury vs Joseph Henry Blackburne
6th Anglo-American Cable Match (1901), London ENG / New York USA, rd 1, Apr-19
Sicilian Defense: Four Knights Variation (B45)  ·  1-0



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Kibitzer's Corner
Jul-03-09  Calli: 6th and last cable match between these two. A modern looking opening that Blackburne carries to extreme with his h5-4-3 demonstration. The h8 rook remains out of play and Pillsbury converts his Qside majority neatly. Notably, watch the WS bishop circle the e4 pawn a couple of times. Finally Harry had scored a win in the cable match. Blackburne still won the cable series 2-1-3d.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Pillsbury is generally (and correctly) remembered as a far stronger player than Blackburne. But their head-to-head record would suggest otherwise. Including this their final game, Blackburne had a lifetime record against Pillsbury of five wins, three loses, and four draws (including wins against Pillsbury in both their games at London 1899).

In the six cable matches between the USA and England (as <Calli> has long-ago noted here), this game in their final meeting in such matches was Pillsbury's only win. In the five prior matches, Blackburne won two games and drew three games against Pillsbury.

Pillsbury's win here was nonetheless important. It allowed the USA to split this 1901 10-board match.

The game was not a thing of beauty. Pillsbury mishandled the opening and permitted Blackburne to push his h-pawn to a dangerous (for White) position on h3. But Pillsbury then outplayed Blackburne from his inferior position, and finally attained a winning minor piece ending. But, amazingly for this endgame wizard, Pillsbury botched what should have been an easy win, and only came back to win when Blackburne blundered in turn.

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 e6
4. d4 cxd4
5. Nxd4 Nf6

The Sicilian Four Knights

6. Ndb5

The text 6. NxN and 6. g3 are the main lines. Of these three choices, the text is the most aggressive line (and what else would we expect from Pillsbury?). Another good choice (though less frequently played) is the positional 6. Be2.

6... Bb4

6...d6 transposing to less violent variations (i.e., the Pelican Variation) is probably soundest, but the hyper-aggressive text is what Pillsbury probably expected from the likes of Blackburne.

7. a3


7... BxN+
8. NxB d5

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9. Bg5?

A new move but hardly a good one. The normal 9. exd5 is best for White and yields a small advantage.

9... d4!
10. Ne2

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The above diagram tells the story and reflects the predictable result of Pillsbury's poor 9th move.

10... Qa5+

Even simpler for Black was 10...h6 after which Black would have, if anything, the better chances.

11. Bd2 Qb6
12. Ng3

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12. f3 would have been better. Blackburne now played vigorously and began pushing his h-pawn down the board (<Calli> calls this strategy by Blackburne "extreme," but--much as I generally like Calli's comments on this site, in this case I side with Blackburne):

12... h5!
13. Bd3

Pillsbury should doubtelss have halted the advance of this pawn with 13. h4.

13... h4!
14. Ne2 h3!
15. g3

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Thus far, Blackburne was having things his own way. But from here the game turned as Blackburne overplayed his hand and Pillsbury's genius helped him turn a bad position into a winning one in fairly short order.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

15... e5

This looks strong and gives Black an edge, but there were superior options. The most radical choice was 15...Qxb2. After 16. Qb1 QxQ+ 17. RxQ b6, which seems to leave Black a pawn up. White has the two Bishops, but that is not sufficient compensation.

Other plausible choices were the positional 15...Bd7 and 15...Ne5. But the text was hardly a mistake and still leaves Black comfortably placed.

16. Nc1 Be6

Another reasonable move, but Blackburne could have made life much easier for himself with 16...0-0. As will be seen, however, Blackburne was reluctant to abandon the placement of his Rook on h8. This reluctance was soon enough to to lead Blackburne into trouble.

17. b4 Ne7

Not fatal, but perhaps an indication that Blackburne was losing the thread of the game.

18. Rb1 Nc8
19. Nb3

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Blackburne had pretty much squandered any real edge, but his position was certainly not bad. But from here, he began playing bizarre chess and was almost certainly lost within the next several moves.

19... BxN?

Awful strategy. Why allow Pillsbury to play with two Bishops against two Knights. Blackburne could simply have played 19...Nd6 or just castled.

20. RxB Nd6
21. Qe2

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21... Kf8?

Truly bad. Blackburne now stranded his Rook on h8. He might still have recovered, but from here on Blackburne was--at best--on the ropes. He should just have played 21...0-0 or 21...Rc8

22. 0-0

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22... Re8
23. Rc1 Qc6

Worse than useless. Black's position was definitely difficult, but the text did nothing to solve his problems. He might have considered 23...a6 (anticipating b5 from White), tried to unblock his first Rank beginning with 23...Kg8, or maybe tried to reboot with 23...Qc7 or even 23...Nc8.

24. b5

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24... Qd7

Further tangling his already disjointed position. 24...Qc8 was not great for Black, but that--or perhaps 24...Qb6--was the best he had.

25. c4!

At the cost of allowing Black a protected passed d-pawn, Pillsbury had obtained a powerful Queen-side majority that was set to steam-roll Blackburne. The game was now almost certainly strategically won for White (two Bishops versus two Knights; hopeless King position; running pawns on the Queenside:

click for larger view

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

25... b6
26. c5!

A powerful breakthrough. Pillsbury was not poised to win the game on the Queen-side:

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26... bxc5
27. Rxc5 Nb7
28. Rc2 Rc8
29. Rbb2

Even stronger was RxR+ immediately.

29... Kg8

Still hampered by his awful 21...Kf8. Blackburne could, however, have had better changes with 29...RxR or 29...Nd8. Thanks in part to the text, Blackburne's King ended up out of play on the King-side when it was needed for defense on the other wing.

30. RxR+ QxR
31. Rc2 Qd7

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32. a4

Pillsbury was understandably eager to press his edge on the Queen-side and obtain a passed pawn. But even better was 32. f4 to undermine the Black passed protected d-pawn. Also strong was the double-edged 32. Qf1.

32... Kh7?

Continuing his superficially attractive but actually misguided plan. 32...Nd8 was his best shot.

33. Bb4?

This doesn't blow his winning advantage, but best by far was 33. f4!

33... Rc8
34. f3

Even better were 34. a5 or 34. RxR

The position was now:

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34... Ne8

34...Rc7 was much better.

35. RxR QxR
36. Qc2!

Chasing the Black Queen off the c-file, since Blackburne could hardly have afforded to trade Queens here, right?

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36... QxQ?

Hard to believe. White was already in fine shape. But allowing Pillsbury to trade down to an ending here was hopeless strategy.

37. BxQ

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Pillsbury should have been able to win this in a walk. His two Bishops were dominating Blackburne's Knights, and his Queen-side pawns were ready to pounce. Meanwhile, Blackburne's one trump card (his protected passed d-pawn) could easily be held in check and/or undermined at an appropriate moment with f4; and his King was hopelessly out of play.

But strange things can happen in endings, even with so fine an endgame artist as Pillsbury.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

37... Nc7

I originally thought this was a mistake and that Blackburne should have been bringing his King out of isolation with 37...Kg6. But every time I played the game over from there Black got crushed. Perhaps the position is too hopeless for Black for him to be able to offer any real resistance.

Blackburne's idea of counterattack may be the best practical chance.

38. Bd3

Essential to be able to play a5.

38... Ne6

Still hoping to create counterplay. Probably futile, but the best hope remaining.

39. a5

The winning Queen-side advance was underway.

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39... Nbc5

As usual, Blackburne was not willing to go quietly.

40. Bc4 Kg6

40...d3, distracting White's Bishops, was perhaps the only way to delay Pillsbury's Queen-side march.

After 40...Kg6, the position was.

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41. b6?

This doesn't blow the win, but immediately crushing would have been 41. f4! exf4 42. gxf4 f5 (the best try, but Black must lose at least a piece) 43. b6 axb6 44. axb6 and Black must part with one of his Knights to stop the White b-pawn. After the text, Blackburne no doubt detected a glimmer of hope.

41... axb6
42. axb6

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42... Nb7
43. Bd5 Nec5

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44. Kf1

Wanting to get the King into the action, but 44. BxN NxB 45. b7 Nd7 46. f4 Kf6 47. Kf1 Nb8 48. Ke2 Na6 49. Kd2 Nb8 50. fxe5+ Kxe5 51. Bxf7 looks easier (since if 51...Kxe4 52. Be6 picking up the Black h-pawn).

44... f5!

The best shot at making trouble.

45. BxN

This probably wins, but 45. exf5+ Kxf5 46. Ke2 was better technique and what one might have expected from Pillsbury.

45... NxB
46. b7 Na6

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Blackburne had definitely made Pillsbury task more difficult. But the win was still there, and on a good day Pillsbury would probably have won from here in a short while. But Pillsbury never seemed to be at his best in the Anglo-American cable matches, and here he nearly threw away a winning ending, as will be seen.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post V

47. Be6?

This placed Pillsbury's win in jeopardy. Best and simplest was 47. exf5+ Kxf5 48. Ke2 with f4 to follow if Black retreats with his King. The Black pawn at e5 blocks Black's King from playing the role is should, and the win should be easy from here. But after the text:

47... fxe4!

This allows White's Bishop to nab the Black pawn on h3, but now Black's King can join effectively in the defense.

The game is still a theoretical win for White, but now it's tricky.

48. fxe4 Kf6
49. Bxh3 Ke7

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50. Kf2

A nothing move by Pillsbury. Hardly what one would expect from this endgame maven. 50. g4 or 50. Bf5 were more to the point.

50... Kd6

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Blackburne's King was very much back in the picture, and poised both to hassle the White b-pawn or, alternatively, to support his own d-pawn as circumstances might dictate.

White now had only one move to keep his theoretical win. In this case, Pillsbury did not disappoint:

51. Bf1!

Timing is everything is such endings. This move was the beginning of what could have been a winning line for White.

51... Nb8

click for larger view

52. Bc4??

With this lemon, Pillsbury's win was probably gone. With the Black King on d6, White had to begin advancing his King-side pawns, and then use his Bishop to prevent the Black Knight from interfering, e.g., 52. h4 (52. g4 first also works, of course) Kc7 53. g4 Nd7 54. g5 Nc5 55. Kf3 Nxb7 56. h5 Nd6 57. Kg4 this temporary pawn sacrifice allows White to get a Queen.

But now, after the text:

52... Kc7

Freeing the Knight to support his pawns and eye any King-side advance of White's pawns.

53. Bd5 Nd7
54. h4!

The only winning chance:

click for larger view

54... Nf6??

Having fought so hard and creatively to get back into the game, Blackburne faltered here, and now the game was over. He could almost certainly have saved the crucial half-point (and brought his team victory instead of a tie in the match) by 54...Nc5! 55. g4 Nd3+ 56. Ke2 Nf4+ 57. Kf3 Kb8 58. h5 Ka7 59. Kg3 d3! 60. Kf3 d2! 61. Bb3 Kxb7 62. Ke3 Kc7 63. Kxd2 Kd6 and Black, although a pawn down, should be able to hold the game.

After the text, Pillsbury made no further mistakes and played in his best endgame style to cinch the point.

55. Kf3!

Not 55. Ke2? Ng4.

After 55. Kf3!, Pillsbury had everything under control:

click for larger view

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post VI

55... Kb8

55...Nh7 would have offered more stubborn resistance, but there was no saving the game at this point.

56. g4!

With the Black King on b8 out of reach of the King-side, this advance was crushing.

56... Kc7

Now White wins in a walk. 56...d3 or 56...g6 would have made Pillsbury work a tad harder to finish off the game.

57. g5

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57... Nh5?!

A final effort to complicate and try to advance his d-pawn. But Pillsbury had everything calculated at this point.

58. Bf7 Nf4
59. h5

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59... g6

A final effort to muddy the waters. But at this point Pillsbury was not to be denied.

60. h6! Nh3

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61. Kg4 Nf2+
62. Kh4

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White is one tempo ahead and is thus able to Queen. If 62...Kxb7 63. h7. If instead 62...d3 63. h7 d2 64. b8(Q)+ KxQ 65. h8(Q)+ and now if 65...Ka7 66. Qxe5 d1(Q) 67. Qc7+ and Black must sacrifice his Queen to avoid mate, or 65...Kb7 66. Bd5+ Kb6 67. Qb8+ Kc5 68. Qxe5 d1(Q) 69. Bb3+. Note how the White b-pawn hamstrings Black and allows the White h-pawn to decide the game in these variations.

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