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James Mason vs Frank Marshall
Monte Carlo (1902), Monte Carlo MNC, rd 10, Feb-18
English Opening: King's English Variation. Reversed Sicilian (A21)  ·  0-1



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Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  FSR: Gad, what a crush. Hard to believe that Mason was the world's strongest player in 1877-78.
Jul-28-13  Abdel Irada: A rather <jarring> irruption of reality for White.

Premium Chessgames Member
  fredthebear: A pair of discovered checks in the same game is not so common.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: <FSR> Expresses wonder that a former top player such as Mason could produce this game as White. By this stage of his career, age and undue recourse to the bottle had taken its toll on Mason. But he could rouse himself and challenge even the best players when he was so inclined. In 1901-1903, Mason somehow always seemed to be able to defeat Janowski, defeating him at Monte Carlo 1901 (where Janowski finished first) and here, and inflicting the only defeat on Janowski at Hanover 1902 (which Janowski won).

In this game, he unwisely decided to match tactical wits with Marshall. Marshall had beaten Mason in their two previous encounters (including a crushing win at Paris 1900), and ended up with a final record against Mason of 5 wins and one loss.

This game hardly shows Mason at anything like his best. Much of the commentary about this game, however, as I will try to show, is misguided.

1. c4

The English Opening was seemingly a good choice for Mason against a tactician such as Marshall at this early stage of Marshall's career. But Marshall soon turned the game into the sort of brawl he liked and at which he excelled:

1... e5
2. Nc3 f5

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Marshall was itching for fisticuffs from the get-go.

3. e4

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"?"--(Tournament Book)(Soltis)

"Correct was 3. d4 or 3. e3." (Tournament Book)

"More positional would be 3. g3 or 3. e3. The text can only help Black to open the f-file." (Marshall)

"This and his fifth and seventh moves are part of a doomed strategic plan to occupy the light-covered squares..." (Soltis)

Actually, 3. e4 is not bad at all. I too might prefer 3. e3 or 3. g3 (or even 3. d4). But, these distinguished commentators notwithstanding, there was nothing wrong with Mason's 3rd, 5th, or 7th moves here. [I don't much like his 4th move, but nobody else seems to be unhappy with that choice]. So far as I can see, Mason was OK until his very poor 8th move. Even then, he was--thanks to some doubtful play by Marshall--still fine until his weak 12th move (which nobody has mentioned) or his losing blunder on move 13 (which, again, gets no mention in prior commentaries).

There has been a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking in the discussion of this game. Yes, Mason got crushed as White in 25 moves, and could probably have resigned by move 13. But that does not mean that everything in his opening preparation was wrong.

I do, however, agree that 3. e4 was a very bad choice for Mason against Marshall. It suited Marshall's style, and not his.

For what it's worth (and in opening play our silicon friends can often mislead us), Fritz gives White a small edge after 3. e4, and Stockfish had the game about even.

3... Nf6?!

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A pawn sacrifice of questionable soundness, but very much in Marshall's style. "Correct" for Black here was 3...d6. But I can't imagine Marshall playing that.

4. d3?

Since he took the Black f-pawn on his next turn, Mason should probably just have bitten the bullet and played 4. exf5 here. Fritz and Stockfish give White a significant edge after that capture. The text, by contrast, gave Marshall an immediate opportunity to seize the initiative at little or no cost, the position now being:

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As will be seen, however, Marshall took no half-measures--and took several chances--in this game. He played for a quick kill, and got one. However, he had lots of upcoming help from Mason.

At this point, chances are theoretically about even. But I imagine Marshall was quite happy with developments.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

4... Nc6?!

"Offering the pawn to gain time for development." (Marshall)

Marshall would have been fine with either 4...Bb4 or 4...fxe4, and maybe with 4...d6 as well. But he wanted to attack at all costs, and giving up a pawn was no problem for the young Marshall.

The position was now:

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5. exf5

"?"--(Tournament Book)

"White tries to win a pawn. Black uses this weakness very well and energetically." (Tournament Book)

Soltis also questioned this move. But it seems clearly best. White is behind in development, but---a pawn is a pawn.

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5... Bb4
6. Bd2

Mason could also have played 6. g4 here.

The position was now:

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6... 0-0?!

Continuing his full-steam-ahead approach. On the face of the position, 6...BxN 7. BxB d5 looks best. But Marshall decided to press Mason as hard as possible, and--given what occurred--as a practical matter he was correct.

7. g4

"Consistent enough if he is to hold the Pawn; but White's game is already starting to wobble." (Marshall)

Soltis also questions the text.

But, along with Fritz and Stockfish, I find the text best and see White--far from wobbling at this point--with a clear advantage with his extra pawn.

7... d5!

Even better than 7...BxN, and consistent with Marshall's hyper-aggressive strategy:

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Beginning here, Mason began to fall apart.

8. cxd5?

"?"--(Tournament Book)(Marshall)(Soltis)

"Heading directly for a catastrophe. Much better was 8. h3." (Tournament Book)

"White is headed for a catastrophe. 8. h3 should have been tried." (Marshall)

8. h3, or maybe 8. Bg2, were far better than the text and would give White answers to anything Black might try.

Soltis recommends 8. g5,and in fact says that Mason "had to try" it; but after 8...d4 White's position looks porous.

After the very weak text, Marshall could have secured much the better game with serious winning chances.

8... BxN
9. BxB Qxd5
10. Qf3

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Now Marshall faced a serious question: Should he just play 10...QxQ 11. NxQ Nxg4 and settle for a clearly better position (especially with Mason's isolated doubled f-pawns) or should he go for more?

Mason was the more experienced end-game player. Marshall was by far the better middle-game tactician. So guess which approach Marshall decided to take.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

10... Qc5?!


"Far superior to 10...QxQ 11. NxQ Nxg4 when 12. Bh3 offers White drawing chance." (Soltis)

I must dissent.

For one thing, Marshall was nowhere near having a won game after the text. Fritz and Stockfish rate the game as about even, as as I will attempt to show, after 10...Qc5?! Mason should have been fine. He lost the game because of his upcoming errors.

Second, in the line Soltis gives after 10...QxQ, White would be lost after his suggested 12. Bh3 {a clear error); e.g., 12...Bxf5 13. Rg1 Nxh2 14. Bg2 NxN+ 15. BxN Rf6 leaving Black two pawns up in an endgame he certainly should be able to win. Instead, White would play 12. h3 or 12. Bg2, leaving him with a difficult but likely savable position [e.g., 12. h3 Rxf5 13. hxN RxN 14. Bg2 Rxd3 15. Be4 Rd6 16. Bxh7+ Kf7 17. Be4 Bxg4 18. Rh4 Bd7 19. f4 Re8 20. Kf2 Rf6 21. Rg1 Nd4 22. Bxb7 leaving Black a pawn down but with the two Bishops; or 12. Bg2 Bxf5 13. h3 Nf6 14. Nxd5 NxN 15. BxN Rae8 16. d4 again with a difficult but likely holdable ending).

While 10...QxQ would on any reckoning have left Marshall with the better chances, after his actual 10...Qc5?! things were not so clear:

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"Now Black's Knight threatens an entrance t d4 or b4." (Soltis)

True enough, but White had resources as well, as I will discuss.

11. Ne2

Mason could instead have played 11. h3, making Marshall work to regain the sacrificed pawn and yielding a position in which chances would be about even.

But the text was also reasonable, and there was no reason Mason had to lose, let alone get mated within 14 moves.

11... Nb4

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"Regaining the Pawn in the event of 12. BxN, and leaving White nothing to show for his ruined position." (Marshall)

But, yet again, I ask: was Mason's position all that dreadful? I think not. But all that changed very quickly.

12. Rc1?

With 12. Rd1, or even just 12. Bg2, Mason would have been OK. The text, by contrast, left Mason in difficult straits:

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12... Nxg4?

"!"--(Tournament Book)(Marshall)(Soltis)

"With this move, which has been 'in the air' for some time, White's position is smashed up irretrievable." (Marshall)

Despite all the praise that has been lavished upon this move, it was in fact a mistake. Much better, though by no means winning, was 12...Bd7. Even 12...Nxa2 was probably better than the text.

But let's have a look at the position after the supposedly winning 12...Nxg4:

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All of the commentators seem to assume that Mason now had to capture the White Knight on g4. But that was in fact the losing blunder.

Instead of 13. QxN?, Mason could have played 13. Ng3 after which 13...Nxd3+ would not have been available. After 13. Ng3, White survives: e.g., 13...Nf6 14. Bd2 Qe7 15. a3. Black would still be better, but I see nothing even close to a win for White here.

After Mason's actual move here (13. QxN?), Marshall wiped Mason off the board.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

13. QxN?

Remarkably, none of the commentaries on this game make any mention of this move, which in fact cost Mason the game.

13... Nxd3+

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From this point on, Mason's King was a hunted animal. He was now a dead duck.

14. Kd2 Bxf5

14...Nxf2 also wins.

The text left:

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15. Bb4

"As good or bad as anything else." (Marshall)

Soltis ways that "to make the game interesting, Mason here had to play 15. Qg3. But after 15...Rad8, I see nothing of interest in the massacre that would follow.

15... QxB+

A simple way to win. 15...Qb6 also is sufficient to finish White off.

16. QxQ NxQ

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"White could have resigned here." (Soltis)

True indeed. White is two pawns down in this ending, and his King-side remains undeveloped. What is interesting in what follows is Marshall's relentless continuation of his attack. Mason might have spared himself what now transpired, but perhaps he didn't want to lose too short a game as White.

17. Nc3 Rad8+
18. Ke3 Nc2+

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19. Kf3

"The Knight must be taken [i.e., 19. RxN]." (Tournament Book)

"19. RxN would tame the attack, but then Black's material advantage [the exchange plus two pawns--KEG] would win easily." (Marshall)

19... Rd4

19...Be4+ would be faster. But, with his next move, Mason allowed Marshall to finish the game off quickly and in fine style.

20. Rg1

"20. Kg3 [or 20. RxN or 20. h3--KEG] would have held out a bit longer." (Marshall)

20... Be4+

"White has nothing left but forced moves." (Marshall)

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21. Kg3

Opting for a quick execution. 21. Kg4 would have extended the game for few moves.

21... Rf3+
22. Kg4 Bd5+

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23. Kg5

The only way to delay mate for a few moves was 23. Ne4. But then White loses all sorts of material--and then gets mated.

Mason must surely have seen what was coming after the text, but apparently decided to give the fans the chance to watch the brutal finale.

23... h6+
24. Kh5 Bf7+
25. Rg6 Rf5 mate

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Premium Chessgames Member
  perfidious: <KEG....(With 2....f5), Marshall was itching for fisticuffs from the get-go.....>

Faced this a few times in bygone days, and a one-time teammate beat Yasser Seirawan in the National HS Championship with the line at Cleveland, 1977 in what turned out to be a crucial game to both our sides' fortunes.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: <perfidious>Hope all this went well for you and your team.

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