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Harry Nelson Pillsbury vs Moritz Billecard
Munich (1900), Munich GER, rd 8, Aug-02
Spanish Game: Berlin Defense. l'Hermet Variation (C67)  ·  1-0



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Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Pillsbury tried an unusual line against Billecard's Berlin Defense. He emerged from the opening with about equal chances, but then went astray, and by move 20 found himself in an inferior endgame.

It is interesting to watch Pillsbury deal with the endgame problems he face. Playing to win (as always) he first addressed the problems wit his position, then fought his way back to equality, and then, taking advantage of poor play by Billecard on moves 36-39, he [despite a few hiccups] obtained a winning position which he then won with dispatch after Billecard's awful 42nd move.

Not a masterpiece by Pillsbury, but the sort of game someone fighting for the Tournament lead--as Pillsbury was, being tied with Schlechter at 6-1 going into this game--has to find a way to win when matched against a weaker opponent.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6

The Berlin Defense.

4. 0-0 Nxe4
5. d4 Nd6
6. Ba4

6. BxN is normal and best. The text, according to Sergeant and Watts in their book on Pillsbury and according to the Tournament Book, was first played by Showalter against Pillsbury himself. Other than as a means of avoiding a prepared variation, the move has little to recommend it.

6... e4

6...6xd4 is best and would likely (according to Sergeant and Watts) have been followed by 7. c3 Be7 [or perhaps 7...b5].

7. Re1

7. Ne5 would likely transpose into what occurred in the game.

7... Be7

7...b5 looks interesting, but the text is probably best.

8. Ne5

The classic "Pillsbury move." I doubt any player achieved as many fine wins as White with Ne5 as did Pillsbury.

8... 0-0
9. Nc3 f5

The Tournament Book and Sergeant-Watts suggest 9...Nf5 as an alternative, but the text seems much better.

10. f3

"!"--Tournament Book.

The Tournament Book notwithstanding, this can hardly be best. There appear to be many superior alternatives: e.g., 10. Bb3+, 10. Nd5, 10. Bf4.

10... exf3

This lets White off the hook. Billecard should have either gotten his King off the b3...g8 diagonal with 10...Kh8 or just played 10...NxN.

11. Bb3+

The simple 11. Nxf3 was better.

11... Kh8
12. Qxf3

"!"--(Tournament Book)(Sergeant-Watts).

12. Nxf3 was also OK. I fail to understand assigning a "!" to Pillsbury's move here.

The position now was:

click for larger view

Pillsbury's active play was some compensation for the pawn, and Black will probably have to return it soon.

12... NxN

The Tournament Book and Sergeant Watts, claim that 12...Nxd4 would be bad since it would allow allow 13. Qh5 (threatening Ng6+). But Black would then play 13...Qe8 with both a material and positional advantage. After 12...Nxd4, 13. Qh3 (with approximate equality) would have been best.

In any case, Billecards actual move was better than 12...Nxd4

13. dxN

This left:

click for larger view

So Pillsbury, though perhaps having slightly the worst of the position, had pretty much what he wanted from the opening, a game with many tactical chances in which his pieces had free play. In fact, and as I will discuss in my next post on this game, Pillsbury overplayed his hand here and wound up in an inferior ending (which, as was so often the case) he went on to win anyway.

Dec-01-18  sudoplatov: These positions from the 1870 to 1900 era seem foreign. I cannot generally find a good plan. Not that I do too well now but I'm more familiar with later stuff.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: <sudoplatov>Games from this era can indeed present challenges. But there is one major plus in reviewing these games: there was less theory so the games did not begin after 10 to 20 moves of prepared analysis. The best players from that era (Lasker, Pillsbury, Tarrasch) would be at a disadvantage if they played today because of their comparative lack of knowledge of opening theory. Once past that, however, the strongest players would--I think--hold their own (e.g., if they played Fischer Random chess).

In any case, I often learn more from these old games than from contests from our era.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

13... Ne4

"Black must give back the pawn to free his position." (Sergeant-Watts).

The Tournament Book and Sergeant-Watts were correct in stating that 13...Ne8 was not best, but their analysis was faulty. If. 13...Ne8, Pillsbury could then have gotten the better game with 14. Nd5 rather than the suggested 14. Bf4 (which would allow Black to get the better game with 14...c6--better than their suggested 14...Bc5+). After 14...Bc5+ Kh1 Black would be fine with 15...c5 (and not the suggested 15...d6? which would have gotten crushed by 16. e6!, which would be even better than 16. Rad1 as given by the Tournament Book and Sergeant-Watts.

With best play, 13...Ne8 would be at least as good as the text. But best for Black here would have been 13...Nf7.

14. NxN fxN
15. Qxe4 d6

15...c6 was another good option.

The position was now:

click for larger view

Pillsbury's position was clearly for choice here. White is better developed, and he need only take care for his King and keep his exposed Queen from getting chased. But here, Pillsbury got careless:

16. Bf4?

Hard to believe from Pillsbury. 16. Be3 would have solved most of his problems and allowed him to start looking for winning chances. But now he got in trouble. Sergeant-Watts gave 16. e6?! as a possible alternative, but after 16...c6 17. Qd3 (better than the suggested 17. c4) Pillsbury's edge would be gone.

16... d5!

This gave Pillsbury a passed pawn (which may explain why Pillsbury let himself in for this) but the pawn is weak and Black suddenly has all the chances.

17. Qe3 Be6

Good as this move was, Billecard should have considered the possibly even stronger 17...c5, which would have given him a dangerous pawn phalanx.

18. Rad1

This looks natural and may well be best. But I would have gotten my Queen off the b3...g1 diagonal with 18. Qd2.

18... c6

Nicely supporting his pawn at d5. 18...b6 was the main alternative, since it would relieve his Rook from the defense of the a6 pawn.

19. Kh1?

A surprisingly wimpy and weak move by Pillsbury. He had plenty of useful moves to consider before playing this: (e.g., 19. h3; 19. Rf1; 19. c3; 19. Bg3.

19... Qb6

Billecard clearly wanted to get the Queens off the board and limit the attacking prospects of his dangerous opponent.He certainly had ways to seek the advantage with Queens on the board (e.g., 19...Bg4 or 19...Qa5). On the other hand, the text did get him into an endgame in which he has the better chances.

20. QxQ

20. Qc1 was a good alternative.

20... axQ

This left:

click for larger view

How should we evaluate this position. Pillsbury had a passed but unprotected e-pawn. A strength or a weakness? With Black controlling the two open files, the edge seems to be with Black. As I will discuss in my next post on this game, Pillsbury flirted with disaster in this endgame before finally finding a way to outplay Billecard and turn the game around.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

Pillsbury faced difficulties in the position with which I ended my last post. His efforts to solve his problems went nowhere during the next approximately 10 moves:

21. Be3 Bc5

"21...b5 afforded better drawing chances." (Sergeant Watts). What game were they watching. Why would Black be anxious to retain "drawing chances" given his better position. The text seems clearly best in any case.

22. Kg1 Kg8

Billecard should probably have traded off Bishops immediately, though given the pin created by Pillsbury's last move there was no great hurry.

23. c3 BxB+
24. RxB Bf5
25. a3

Beginning the project of repairing his position before making serious winning tries. Pillsbury had to block the a-file prior to finding a better use for his Bishop.

25... Bf5

This left:

click for larger view

26. Rf1

I would have expected 26. Rde1 from Pillsbury, trying to make use of his passed e-pawn.

26... Rae8

Billecard should have solidified his King-side immediately with 26...g6.

27. h3

Remarkably passive play from Pillsbury. He wants to keep the Black Bishop off g4. But 27. Ref3 or 27. Rf4 were more active.

27... h5

Needlessly presenting targets for Pillsbury. the simple 27...Bg6 was best.

28. Rf4

Preparing for a4. But the open file he creates will not solve his problems. 28. Bd1 looks best. 28. Ref3 was also better than the text.

28... g6
29. a4 bxa4
30. Bxa4

This left:

click for larger view

30... Ra8
31. Rf4

This could have spelled trouble for Pillsbury, who should have been content with 31. Rd4. But Pillsbury was courtly complications, counting on eliciting mistakes by Billecard.

31... b5

He should have played the obvious 31...Ra1 with much the better chances.

32. Kh2!

Preparing for g4.

32... Rae8

Fear of Pillsbury's e-pawn apparently scared Billecard, who needlessly abandoned the a-file.

33. g4

Premature. He needed at least one more preparatory move (33. Bd1!) before committing himself to this advance.

33... hxg4
34. hxg4

The position was now:

click for larger view

Billecard had the only legitimate winning chances here. With 34...Bb1!, Pillsbury would have had to struggle to save the game. But the diagrammed position was to be the turning point of the game. As I will discuss in my next post on this game, in very short order Billecard went from having winning chances to finding himself in a lost position.

Dec-02-18  RookFile: Up until fairly recently we used to laugh at these old players for playing the Berlin Defense. Nobody's laughing now. Just goes to show how much fashion influences what everybody does.
Dec-02-18  sudoplatov: Steinitz, Lasker, and Capablanca used to win with the Old Steinitz Defence to the Ruy Lopez.
Dec-02-18  Sally Simpson: ***

Sorry, not meaning to nit-pick, I only know this because I was looking here for something else a few weeks back (did Lasker play the Birds Opening? No.) and was a wee bit surprised when I spotted Lasker never played 3...d6 The Old Steinitz Defence v the Lopez either.

Repertoire Explorer: Emanuel Lasker (black)

Some games may have transposed into a known Old Steinitz position but no 3...d6. He preferred 3...Nf6 which if my ailing memory serves, he recommended in his 'Common Sense in Chess'.


Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: <RookFile>This, among other examples, shows that the old masters' choices of opening were often well-reasoned, even if they lacked all the theory we have today. Another reason I study these old games.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

In the diagrammed position, 34...Bb1 is the only way to restrain White's be Bishop (i.e., to keep it off c2). But Billecard played:

34... Bd7?

In one fell swoop, Pillsbury's major problems were solved. Any edge Billecard had enjoyed was now gone.

35. Kg3

He could also have played 35. RxR.

35... Kg7

More frightened thinking from Billecard. He would have been fine after 35...g5 or 35...RxR.

36. Bc2!

Thanks to Billecard's awful 34...Bd7?, Pillsbury's Bishop now comes into the game with a vengeance.

The position was now:

click for larger view

36... Be6?

Giving Pillsbury the chance to trade down to a won Bishop and pawn ending. Billecard had to try 36...Rf7 or 36...RxR.

37. b4?

Whoops! With 37. RxR RxR 38. Rf3 RxR+ 39. KxR Pillsbury would have a clearly won position. He rarely missed such endgame opportunities. Fortunately for him, however, Billecard was about to give him numerous further chances to win.

37... RxR?

Putting Pillsbury back in the driver's seat with excellent winning chances. Billecard should have played 37...Kh6 or 37...g5.

38. KxR

This left:

click for larger view

38... Bf7?

If Billecard was to hold this endgame, the text was not the way.

The only alternative considered by the Tournament Book was the even worse 38...Ra8? This would,, as Sergeant and Watts noted, lose to 39. Kg5. But after 39...Rf7 White could win easily with 40. e6. Sergeant and Watts' suggestion, 40. Rf3 is less convincing: 40...Ra2 [clearly not 40...Re8 41. RxB+!] 41. Bd3 Rd2 42. Kf4 and Black would still have chances.

The best chances were offered by 38...Re7 or 38...c5. After the text, Billecard would have been in trouble after the simple 39. Re1 (or 39. Re2). 39. Kg5 might also have done the trick. But Pillsbury played:

39. Bd3?

Pillsbury seems to have taken Billecard lightly and--in portions of this ending--lacked his usual precision.

39... Re7?

Not to worry, Billecard was seemingly too befuddled to offer tight resistance. He should have played 39...Rd8 here. Even 39...Rf8 would have been better than the text.

40. Re2 Re8

Not 40...Ra2? 41. e6!

41. Re1

Not 41. Ra2? d4!. But 41. g5 seems even stronger than the text.

41... Re7

41...Ra8? loses to 42. e6!

42. Ra1

This does the trick, but 42. Kg5 looks like a crusher.

This left:

click for larger view

Billecard was still hanging in there grimly. As I will discuss in my next post on this game, however, Billecard blundered on his next move allowing Pillsbury to finish nicely.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post V

If there was a way for Billecard to say the game from the diagrammed position with which I ended my last post, it lay in 42...g5+ (43. Kxg5 Rxe5+ 44. Kf4 Re7). But Billecard instead played:

42... Re8?

Perhaps the worst move at Billecard's disposal. It gave Pillsbury control of the 7th rank and ended Billecard's chances of playing g5+.

43. Ra7!

Pillsbury immediately grabbed the 7th rank.

43... Kf8

A sad necessity.

44. Rd7

44. Rc7 was also a winner.

44... Re6
45. Rd6

The position was now:

click for larger view

45... Ke7

As Sergeant and Watts pointed out in their book on Pillsbury, 45...RxR would lose to 46. exR Ke8 [46...d4 fares no better] 47. g5 (47. Ke5b also wins) 47...Kd7 48. Ke5 Be8 49. Be2 (this wins, but 49. Kf6 was a faster road to victory) Bf7 50. Bg4+ Kd8 51. Kf6 Be8 52. Be6 Bd2 53. BxB KxB 54. Kxg6 and White must win with his outside passed g-pawn.

46. RxR+

This exchange should win easily for White.

46... KxR
47. g5

Locking up the Black position.

47... Be8

This left:

click for larger view

48. Bf1!

Pillsbury can break through once he gets his Bishop to h3.

48... Bd7

As Sergeant-Watts note, if 48...Bf7 49. Bh3+ Ke7 50. Ke3 wins. 48...Ke7 and 48...d4 were also hopeless. After the text, the game came to a quick conclusion.

49. Bh3+ Ke7
50. Bxb KxB

Pillbury now had an easy won King and Oawn ending:

click for larger view

51. Ke3!

White's breakthrough can not be stopped.

51... Ke6
52. Kd4 Kf4
53. Kc5


The coming 54. Kxc6 will be decisive.

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