A review of De la Bourdonnais versus MacDonnell, 1834 by Cary Utterberg

Reviewed by Paul Kane

De la Bourdonnais versus MacDonnell, 1834
By Cary Utterberg
McFarland & Company, September 2005

The full title of the book pretty much gives you an accurate account of its contents, so here it is to start: De la Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834: The Eighty-five Games Of Their Six Chess Matches, With Excerpts From Additional Games Against Other Opponents. Cary Utterberg has written an interesting and substantial account of the first great match (or rather, match series) in the history of chess.

Who came out on top? That is the first question to ask. Well, Louis Charles de la Bourdonnais has to be declared the winner. Of the six matches played, de la Bourdonnais won four to McDonnell’s two and he also won most games overall (to be precise: de la Bourdonnais won 45 games, lost 27 and 13 games were drawn). Perhaps the real story of the series, though, was about the growth of McDonnell as a player. In the first match, McDonnell lost 16 (!) games and won only 5; in the sixth and final match he emerged victorious, winning 5 games and losing 4. Gradually, one feels, he was getting the measure of his opponent. It might also be claimed that McDonnell played the more brilliant chess (consider e.g. the queen sacrifice 13 … Nd5! in game 50, a concept that still has its echoes to this day: look at Black’s 18th move in Bologan-Piket, Biel 1999), though this is a matter of subjectivity, of course.

The author enhances his account by including a fair amount of background material: on the rivalry between England and France and the chess scene in both London and Paris; on the conditions and circumstances of the match (e.g. White didn’t always move first, the games were not played to a time limit and draws didn’t count; drawn games were “replayed”); on the lives of de la Bourdonnais and McDonnell and their mentors and contemporaries. Some of this is quite fascinating, and not only from the perspective of chess history. So we learn that McDonnell worked as a merchant in the West Indies from 1816-1820 and that later “he became secretary of the Committee of West India Merchants in London, where he monitored bills in Parliament that were related to the merchants’ concerns” (page 14). This seems to touch on the grand political current of the time. Although the slave trade was outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, through the efforts of Wilberforce and others, slavery itself was abolished only in 1833. Did McDonnell use his position to argue for slavery? One would very much like to answer No here, but the continued existence of slavery would certainly be in the interest of West Indies merchants (and Cowper for one satirizes these types for this, and for their pleas for “compensatory payments” if they were to relinquish their slaves, in his poetry written about this time).

Anyway, back to chess! Naturally, the games are at the heart of the book. Whilst the openings chosen seem rather primitive and there are, to a modern eye, perhaps too many positional errors, one has to say: what dynamic, courageous players de la Bourdonnais and McDonnell were! Each player, almost as a matter of honour, accepts the opponent’s gambit pawn and attack is invariably answered with attack, as in the magnificent cut and thrust of game 21. This romantic, duelling ethos is not always the wisest or most circumspect policy, but it serves to create complex, messy positions rich in tactical possibilities. Tartakower coined the epithet “triple-edged” to describe the kind of positions which arise in these games, though of the three possible outcomes – win, loss or draw – the latter is always the least likely. There were also theoretical battles in this match, as in later ones. In particular, it was important for showcasing and testing the Evans Gambit. The Evans’ was played by both players, appeared in 22 of the games, and emerged successful (+12, -7, =3).

The author’s annotations are, on the whole, pertinent and perspicacious and he makes judicious use of analysis and notes by (amongst others) Kasparov, Lasker, Staunton, Morphy and de la Bourdonnais himself. I’d disagree with his judgements on some points (e.g. the assignment of ?! to McDonnell’s 10.Kf2 in game 28, in a position similar to that which arises after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ and now here 9.Kf2 is a respectable move) but spotted only one clear oversight in his notes (to wit: in the note to White’s 20th move in game 19, 20 … Bxf5 is incorrect and would lose material; Black is only a pawn up).

Summing up, De la Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834 is both a wonderful tribute to the two outstanding chess players of the early nineteenth century and a worthy record of a match series whose importance has been too much neglected and too little recognized. The book is rather pricey, but Cary Utterberg’s thorough scholarship and thoughtful annotations coupled with McFarland’s superlative production – this is a sturdy high-quality hardback, bound in green cloth, measuring approximately 18 by 26 centimetres – make it good value. And it is well worth paying a regal ransom, charging a dragon, or even braving torrential rain, to be at ringside when De la Bourdonnais and McDonnell, noble warriors both, swashbuckle and clash!

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com