A review of The New York State Chess Association Congresses – Buffalo 1894 and 1901 by John S. Hilbert

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The New York State Chess Association Congresses – Buffalo 1894 and 1901
By John S. Hilbert
Caissa Editions
1996, Hardcover: 97 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0939433230

This book has a rather dry title, agreed, yet its contents make it a fascinating read. At its centre is an account of the New York State Chess Association Congress held at Buffalo in August 1901. The great Harry Nelson Pillsbury won the Masters’ tournament, a ten-round affair where the six players met each other twice. Pillsbury was far superior to the rest of the field and finished two and a half points ahead of the second-placed players (Eugene Delmar and William Ewart Napier), amassing nine points out of a possible ten. Altogether, twenty-nine of the thirty games are given – only one, the Marshall-Karpinski game from round nine, could not be traced – and quite a number are accompanied by notes from contemporary sources: the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the Buffalo Morning Express, the Albany Evening Journal… it seems as though every newspaper in America had a chess column at that time. Playing through these games, one sees that it was Pillsbury’s prowess in the endgame that set him apart. An unexpected finding, since one normally thinks of Pillsbury as an attacking player, on the basis of his most famous game, the victory against Tarrasch at Hastings 1895. Incidentally, Napier annotates some of the games and an understated comment on Marshall’s play – ‘the idea of giving up a pawn and struggling to regain it is not compatible with accepted notions of sound chess’ – raised a smile.

Pillsbury also played in the earlier tournament, held at Buffalo in 1894, but here he came second to Jackson Whipps Showalter: a formidable opponent with a formidable name. This event was somewhat smaller than the later one – four players met each other twice over six rounds – and, again, all but one of the games is given. Here, though, the loss was perhaps not so great: the missing game was an eight move draw.

Quite a bevy of treasures are to be found in the appendices of the book. There is an account of Pillsbury’s sixteen game blindfold exhibition, which took place during (!) the Buffalo 1901 tournament: here he played against sixteen different opponents at once, and without sight of the board. There are all eleven of the serious competitive games between Pillsbury and his great rival Frank James Marshall. And, most fascinating of all, there is an article by Pillsbury entitled ‘The Chess Player’s Mind’, published originally in 1900.

Although rather short, ‘The Chess Player’s Mind’ is of interest for a number of reasons. First, because Pillsbury relates some of his experiences of playing blindfold chess, and the system that he uses to remember each position. Second, because he singles out the chief cognitive, or perhaps meta-cognitive, qualities needed for chess. Here he lists concentration; curiosity – often evidenced (ironically) by a keen interest in matters outside of chess, or the achievement of prominent success in a certain profession; patience and self-control; and finally, accuracy of foresight or calculation. Overall, it seems his aim in this article was to demystify the thought processes involved in chess, and so publicize the game. Toward the end of the article, Pillsbury writes about his ambition to play a match with Emanuel Lasker for the world championship. Unfortunately this never came to pass, and he died in 1906 at the early age of thirty-three.

John S. Hilbert’s erudite and informative book will be of interest to admirers of Pillsbury’s brash yet subtle chess, as well as to those curious to learn about the chess scene in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Throughout, it sparkles with insights and facts about the chess personalities and institutions of those far-off, distant days. Can one conclude that this was a quieter, a more leisurely and civilized age? Well, not quite. For as Hilbert points out, President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo itself, just a few weeks after the1901 chess congress ended.


For readers in the USA, this book can be ordered directly from the publisher:

Caissa Editions
P.O. Box 151
Yorklyn DE 19736

For readers in the UK, this book can be ordered from:

Chess & Bridge Ltd.
369 Euston Rd.
London NW1 3AR 

British Chess Magazine
44 Baker Street
London W1U 7RT


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