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Bird - Blackburne Match

Joseph Henry Blackburne4/5(+4 -1 =0)[games]
Henry Bird1/5(+1 -4 =0)[games] Chess Event Description
Bird - Blackburne (1888)

Frederic Hyman Lewis, a barrister, provided the funds for the match. He originally proposed that it be a match dedicated to the Evans Gambit (C52). "Match.— Bird v. Blackburne. A short match consisting of a series of five games, having been arranged by Mr. F. H. Lewis, who also provides the stakes, was commenced on Monday at the British Chess Club ... Originally, Mr. Lewis proposed that all the five games should be Evans Gambits; but Mr. Blackburne thought that in such a contest little scope for originality would be left to the players, and it was agreed to play only two Evans. In both cases the defence won ...". (1)

The terms of the match

According to the British Chess Magazine of June 1887: "I understand that arrangements are now being made for a match between Messrs. Bird and Blackburne, on similar terms to the match now being played between the latter player and Zukertort. The principal conditions are:

1st. No stakes, but a purse of £25 to be played for, £15 to go to the winner, £10 to the loser.
2nd. The winner of first five games to be victor, draws not to count.
3rd. Time-limit 20 moves per hour.
4th. Play to commence about a fortnight after completion of pending Blackburne-Zukertort match.

It is evident that these short and friendly matches continue to maintain their popularity, and I trust they long may do so, as it is evident that Chess gains thereby". (2) This suggests that the match was arranged before May 1887, and the purse matched Blackburne - Zukertort (1887) which also had a purse of £25, and a £15/£10 apportionment (£15 is approximately £1,450/$2,420).

George Alcock MacDonnell mentioned in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 4th June that he was requested to act as stakeholder and umpire. The match was held in the British Chess Club, 37 King Street, Covent Garden, London, in November 1888. "A match of five games between Messrs. Bird and Blackburne was commenced at the British Chess Club on Monday. Mr. Bird won the first game, and the remainder were won by Mr. Blackburne, who was therefore victorious by four games to one. The match was arranged by Mr. F. H. Lewis, one of the conditions being that the Evans Gambit should be played once by each player. This was done, and it is noteworthy that the defence won in both cases." (3)

The players

In 1878, Blackburne had defeated Bird in a match with a 5-2 score. Their previous games usually ended in a decisive result. According to the Chessgames database prior to this match their score was: 6 wins to Bird, 11 to Blackburne, with two draws. Their last six games in the database before this match included no draws and had five wins for Blackburne. The database is not complete, but this gives a good impression of two players who enjoyed combat which allowed them to exercise their tactical flair. In 1886, Blackburne had won tournaments with Bird coming in second place behind him - the BCA Handicap Tournament and the "Criterion" tournament.

Alexander Alekhine later commented on the "English school and style of chess" which he stated was founded by Blackburne, James Mason and Bird: "Bird, always lay greater stress on a thorough study of each tactical unit of a scheme than on judging the expediency of such a scheme. That they had good results despite such a primitive conception of chess was due, especially by Blackburne, first to their extraordinary combinatorial talent and, second, to the fact that Wilhelm Steinitz ’s epoch-making explanations of the principles of chess strategy were then only beginning to become popular." (4)

Blackburne was now 46 years old, and this match took place during his peak period between 1886 and 1888. In 1887, he played three matches defeating George Alcock MacDonnell and then an ailing Johannes Zukertort (May-June 1887). Both he and Zukertort then travelled to Frankfurt (1887) (July-August 1887), where Blackburne came a close second to George Henry Mackenzie in a very powerful field. Within weeks of this strenuous achievement, he was contesting a match with his nearest British rival Isidor Gunsberg (who had tied for first in 1887 British Championship and would win the title outright in 1888) - Blackburne - Gunsberg (1887) (September-November 1887). It was reported that Blackburne's health had broken down during the match (Morning Post, Monday 17 October 1887, p. 2), and this time he lost, the match concluding +5 -2 =6 in Gunsberg's favour.

Bird was of master strength, but by profession he chose to be an accountant specialising in railway finance. He was 57 years old, and was in decline from his peak rating in 1875-1880. (5) By the mid-1880s, Bird was suffering with gout, although still active in tournaments and travelling to give exhibitions. At Vienna (1882) he had been ill with gout for five rounds, and of his performance at the Second British Chess Association Congress, London 1886, a sympathetic commentator remarked: "Frequently in tourneys of late years has Mr. Bird, for the first half of the contest, held the foremost place. But then his health fails, gout comes on, and the veteran favourite has a hard struggle for even a low place in the prize list. Of course it would be a very hard thing for Mr. Bird to train for anything, such a sufferer is he from chronic gout." (6)

Bird's recent form had been mediocre. In June 1886, he had lost a match to Gunsberg by five games to one - affected by gout his form collapsed. After being a game in the lead he lost five games in a row. He had then come 5th at the 16th Counties Chess Association Congress (CCA) in Nottingham (August 1886), behind Amos Burn, Emil Schallopp, Gunsberg and Zukertort, and at the CCA Congress in Stamford (August 1887), Bird shared a disappointing third place with William Henry Krause Pollock and Edmund Thorold. In December 1887 in London, Bird was a distant 7th in the Third Congress of the BCA. He showed a return to better form in the Handicap Tournament at Simpson's Divan (March-May 1888), coming 2nd to Gunsberg, only to plunge to 9th at the Fourth Congress of the BCA at Bradford in August 1888.

London, 22-30 Nov 1888

1 2 3 4 5 Bird 1 0 0 0 0 1 Blackburne 0 1 1 1 1 4

Progressive scores:

1 2 3 4 5 Bird 1 1 1 1 1 Blackburne 0 1 2 3 4

Bird had White in the odd-numbered games. Mr. Lewis seems to have got the type of match he had wanted, highly tactical and with sharp play and combinations. The match was hard fought, with no draws.

Reflection on the match

"I forgot to mention some time ago that Mr. F. H. Lewis, with his usual generosity, provided the stakes for the recent match between Bird and Blackburne. This match was commenced on a Monday and closed on the following Friday. A game was played on each of the five days, and the whole affair passed off very quietly and satisfactorily. Bird's play seldom reached the full height of his genius, but Blackburne's play was in many instances superb. Bird magnanimously said to me a few evenings ago, "Blackburne's play against me was very grand. I think it was the finest exhibition of combined force and beauty that I have ever seen on Blackburne's part." And here I may observe that Bird fully agrees with myself and Mackenzie, that Blackburne's genius for chess would suffice to make half-a-dozen Steinitzes or Zukertorts." (7)

The games

Game 1
Bird accepted Blackburne's Evans's Gambit, and was two pawns up at one stage. Blackburne did not play accurately enough to maintain an attack. Bird then sacrificed one of his additional pawns, and after a blunder by his opponent was then able to force two connected passed pawns through on the Q-side.

click for larger view

32.a7 would have given Blackburne a chance to draw, but instead 32.Ne2?! lost.

Game 2
This time Blackburne accepted the Evans's Gambit, and for most of the game Bird had the initiative, in a tense game with the Kings on opposite wings. Bird seemed to be on the verge of breaking through on the Q-side, but eventually blundered and fell into mating net.

Game 3
Bird chose to defend with an open Sicilian Defence, but played the opening very poorly. As a consequence, Blackburne won a Knight for two pawns. Bird defended tenaciously, but was slowly ground down, losing in 70 moves.

Game 4
Blackburne met Bird's eponymous opening 1.f4 with the aggressive From's Gambit. Blackburne played energetically,

click for larger view

and Bird's King was too slow to escape to a safe refuge on the Q-side. Blackburne finished off the game quickly.

Game 5
Bird played a Queen's Fianchetto Defence to counter Blackburne's 1.e4. Blackburne smashed through Bird's King-side and ended the game with a pretty Bishop sacrifice:

click for larger view



(1) The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (quoting The Field), Saturday 26th January 1889, p. 201, and H. E. Bird: A Chess Biography, by Hans Renette. McFarland, p. 401.
(2) British Chess Magazine, volume 7, June 1887, p. 263.
(3) Morning Post, Monday 3rd December 1888, p. 3.
(4) New York Times, 25th August 1929, pages 1 and 2 of the sports section, Alekhine.
(5), and
(6) Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Saturday 6th October 1888, p. 96.
(7) MARS in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Saturday 22nd December 1888, p. 403. George Alcock MacDonnell wrote under the name of "Mars". See Winter's Chess Notes 3974, The Steinitz-Wormald-MacDonnell controversy.

Original collection and text by User: Chessical. Games 2, 3 and 5 were submitted to the database 2nd March 2017.

 page 1 of 1; 5 games  PGN Download 
Game  ResultMoves YearEvent/LocaleOpening
1. Blackburne vs Bird 0-1481888Bird - BlackburneC51 Evans Gambit
2. Bird vs Blackburne 0-1481888Bird - BlackburneC51 Evans Gambit
3. Blackburne vs Bird 1-0701888Bird - BlackburneB27 Sicilian
4. Bird vs Blackburne 0-1331888Bird - BlackburneA02 Bird's Opening
5. Blackburne vs Bird 1-0271888Bird - BlackburneC00 French Defense
  REFINE SEARCH:   White wins (1-0) | Black wins (0-1) | Draws (1/2-1/2)  

Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  offramp: Very well done; thanks, User: Chessical.

Among other things, bringing the three new games to light is a major plus.

Premium Chessgames Member
  MissScarlett: <Bird magnanimously said to me a few evenings ago, "Blackburne's play against me was very grand. I think it was the finest exhibition of combined force and beauty that I have ever seen on Blackburne's part." And here I may observe that Bird fully agrees with myself and Mackenzie, that Blackburne's genius for chess would suffice to make half-a-dozen Steinitzes or Zukertorts.>

The rest is also eminently quotable:

<Provincial and metropolitan nobodies are very fond of placing the masters in order of merit, and think they have settled the question when they have got some obscure column to publish their opinions. Stupid, vainglorious, and often jealous creatures be these! And now be it known unto them that the masters whom I have consulted on this subject hold that only masters themselves are competent judges of the relative merits of the masters.>

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, December 22nd 1888, p. 403

Sep-09-18  zanzibar: Again, I assume <George Alcock MacDonnell> is the me in "said to me"?

Was the byline always <Mars>?

And what was MacDonnell's tenure on ISDN?


Premium Chessgames Member
  MissScarlett: From footnote 7 above:

<MARS in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Saturday 22nd December 1888, p. 403. George Alcock MacDonnell wrote under the name of "Mars". See Winter's Chess Notes 3974, The Steinitz-Wormald-MacDonnell controversy.>

I don't know why Winter is being credited there.

<And what was MacDonnell's tenure on ISDN?>

Harding, in <BCLT1914>, has: <The first [chess editor] R.B. Wormald, died on 4 December 1876 and there was no column on the next three Saturdays but it resumed on 30 December. Whyld gives the commencement date of the Rev. G.A. MacDonnell as 21 April 1879, which seems to be a misprint (as that was a Monday). However, internal evidence strongly suggests that MacDonnell was Wormald's immediate successor although the first "Chess Chat," bylined "Mars," was published only on 21 June 1879. [...] MacDonnell retired through ill health in 1896, when his final "Chess Chat" appeared on 8 August.>

Just a pity there's no-one to maintain a record of important chess columns and their respective editors.

MacDonnell was very much taken with Blackburne at this time. From the October 6th 1888 column (see footnote 6): <But happy are his friends in knowing that his games on that occasion [the recent Bradford tournament] show his powers to be uninjured, his genius undimmed. His splendid victories over Burn and Mason were feats of strategy unequalled by any others on that occasion. To find their equals, indeed, we must go back to '51 and '62, when the star of Anderssen was in the ascendant, when men played not to win games but to win glory, and winning both, achieved immortality.>

Those games aren't (yet) in the DB.

Sep-09-18  zanzibar: Ah, the good Captain <Missy>'s ship bearing straight and true despite the troubled seas she sails upon.

(Too bad Zanchess' <Chess Columnists> lies in the waters of Terra pericolosa)

Sep-09-18  TheFocus: <MissScarlett> <Just a pity there's no-one to maintain a record of important chess columns and their respective editors.>

See <Chess Columns - A List> by Kenneth Whyld, 2002, Olomouc, 587 pages.

Why don't you take up his work? Make it your passion.

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