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Harry Nelson Pillsbury vs William Ewart Napier
Buffalo (1901), Buffalo, New York USA, rd 7, Aug-15
Spanish Game: Berlin Defense. Closed Showalter Variation (C66)  ·  1-0



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Kibitzer's Corner
Dec-14-03  Shadout Mapes: I was very surprised with 17.Qxc6. It's a humorous combination, Pillsbury gets no material, but doubles two of his opponent's pawns heading into the endgame. The endgame play is very aggressive.
Dec-15-03  aragorn69: What exactly happens on 17.-Qxb2, one might ask ?
18.Qxb7 Qxc2 19.Rac1 wins at least a pawn (because Rfb8 is a blunder : Qxb8+).
Dec-15-03  mack: what a dull game, rook and pawns by move 19...
Dec-15-03  Kenkaku: <mack> Pillsbury wasn't the kind of player to dawdle when he sensed the win.
Premium Chessgames Member
  nizmo11: Hilbert's book on Napier (game 125) cites Napier's notes to the game from Chess World September 1901 issue. In these comments Napier greatly under-estimated his position in the end-game. On move 23...f5. "White has a slight advantage, but the text move loses a pawn for nothing.", and then on move 26...: "Loss of time; Black ought to have tried for counter attack by 26...Rg8."
But it seems that 23...f5 was a good move and white's 26.g4 a mistake: after 26... Rb8! 27.Rb1

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Now 27...Rg8! 28.h3 h5 and it is White who needs to fight for a draw.

Premium Chessgames Member
  nizmo11: At the very end:

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Napier played here 46...Rb2??,and had to resign after 47.a7 (Rxb3 48. Ka2! Rb2+ 49, Ka1) But looks like He could have drawn with 46... Rf1!: 47. Ka4 Ra1+ 48. Kb5, and now either 48... Kxb3 or 48... Rb1/Ra3. Some good moves would still have been required, for example: 48... Ra3 49. Rxf5 Rxb3+ 50. Kc6 Rb1! 51. Rf4!? Ra1 52. Kxd6!? Kb4!

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: While Pillsbury ran away from the field at Buffalo 1901, when this game began the identity of tournament winner was still very much in doubt, especially since Pillsbury's 5th round game against Karspinski had been postponed. When Pillsbury and Napier sat down to play this game, Pillsbury had 4.5 points in five games and Napier had 4.5 points in 6 games. Even assuming Pillsbury ultimately won his postponed game with last-place Karpinski (as indeed he did), Napier was still just one point back.

The game itself was a close struggle. While <mack> considers it boring since it reduced to a Rook and pawn ending by move 18, those of us who enjoy endings--especially complex double-Rook endings--find it a treat.

The best analysis of this game is that by <nimzo11> just a few days ago. As only he seems to have recognized, Napier's 23...f5 was an excellent move and not the error the Tournament Book suggests. As <nimzo11> has further shown, the game remained a theoretical draw until Napier's blunder on move 46 which led to immediate loss.

As reported in the contemporary accounts in the American Chess World and in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Napier "made the critical move unnecessarily fast, owing to the incorrectness of his own score sheet." In light of this account, Napier's commentary on the game is incomprehensible. Thank goodness <nimzo11> has set matters straight.

One further note, the score given on this site is inaccurate. Pillsbury's 13th move was h3, not a3. 13. h3 is given in the Tournament Book and in Sergeant/Watts' book on Pillsbury, and makes the other moves more comprehensible.

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

The Berlin Defense was very popular at the turn of the century.

4. 0-0 Be7

Since the Kasparov-Kramnik match, 4...Nxe4 has been recognized as Black's best play. It gives Black near-equality and is a hard nut for White to crack, as Kasparov learned to his chagrin in his match with Kramnik.

The text, however, is playable.

5. Nc3 d6
6. d4 Bd7

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7. BxN

One of several lines White can adopt to try to maintain his edge; the other choices being 7. d5 and 7. dxe5.

7... BxB
8. Qd3

Pillsbury had played this before. This move was later tried by Alekhine (twice), Lasker, Maroczy and others.

8... exd4
9. Nxd4 Bd7

I prefer 9...0-0 immediately in lieu of the more passive text (which seeks to retain the two Bishops at the cost of a tempo). This may, however, just be a matter of choice.

10. b3

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Pillsbury played this on a total of three occasions, winning all three games. 10. Re1, 10, h3, and 10. Bf4 look marginally better. Napier claimed that 10. Bg5 was normal here, but Black then equalizes easily with 10...0-0 or 10...c6. The text has been played by Anand.

10... 0-0
11. Bb2 Ng4?!

11...c6 or 11...Re8 seems to yield near equality for Black. After the text, the position was:

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Napier's 11th move gave Pillsbury chances to attack which he ultimately squandered in his desire to reach a slightly favorable endgame.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

12. Nd5! Bf6

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13. h3

The score on this site mistakenly gives this move as 13. a3. Back in the days of descriptive notation, the difference was between P-KR3 and P-QR3. If the move was recorded as 13. P-R3, the possibilities of mistake are easily understandable. As will be seen, the mistake has caused confusion in some of the commentary on this game, including the mistaken criticism of Pillsbury's 26th move by <nimzo11> (whose commentary on this game is otherwise brilliant).

13... Ne5
14. Qc3

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14... Nc6

This allowed Pillsbury to make a series of advantageous exchances. Best for Black here was 14...Rc8

15. NxB+ QxN
16. NxN BxN

Not 16...QxQ?? 17. Ne7+.

After the text (16...BxN), the position was:

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17. QxB?!

Unnecessary, and forfeiting much of his edge. Best for White is simply 17. QxQ fxQ 18. f3 with an opposite color Bishops ending in which Black wrecked King-side pawn structure gives White ample winning chances with little risk of losing. But Pillsbury wanted to avoid Bishops of opposite colors, confident he could win a slightly superior double-Rook ending.

17... bxQ!

Not 17...QxB which runs into 18. Qxc7 (not <aragoma's> 18. Qxb7 after which black should play 18...Qc3 with good changes of holding instead of the suggested 18...Qxc2 which loses a pawn and probably the game to 19. Rfc1 Qb7 Qxc7.

18. BxQ gxB

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Given his endgame prowess, Pillsbury obviously fancied his chances of winning this ending. But over the course of the next few moves, his play was less than accurate, allowing Napier to reach a theoretically drawn endgame.

19. Rad1 Rfe8
20. Rfe1

20. Rd4, maintaining options for play on the fourth rank, was better.

20... a5

Napier suggested 20...Re5 preparing to double Rooks on the e-file. That looks reasonable, even if slow. 20...c5 is also good. The text, however, was hardly fatal.

21. a4

21. Rd4 was still better.

21... c5

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

22. c4?

Locking the Queen-side and leading to what should have been a draw. Better was to play on the other wing with 22. f3 or 22. g4.

22... Kg7
23. Re3

Now Black has a clear route to a draw. 23. f4 (or maybe a waiting 23. Kf1 were the remaining options to play for some sort of advantage.

23... f5!

Sergeant-Watts in their book on Pillsbury contended that the text loses a pawn "for nothing." This is entirely wrong, as <nimzo11> has already pointed out on this site. The lost pawn will either come back, or else White's pawns will be immobilized. The "loss" of the f6 doubled pawn is of no real consequence here.

After 23...f5! the position was:

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24. exf5

24. e5 is no better.

24... RxR
25. fxR Kf6

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The value of 23...f5! is now clear. The ending should be drawn with decent play by Black.

26. g4

White's best chance. <nimzo11> calls this a mistake, but that is presumably based on his thinking White's h=pawn was on h2 (see discussion of move 13 above).

After 26. g4, the position was:

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26... Rb8

Sergeant/Watts said in their book on Pillsbury that this was a mistake and that Napier should have played 26...Rg8 followed by h5. But White just plays 27. Kf2 after which 27...h5 would be a mistake since White would than have the edge with 28. Kf3.

27. Rb1

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27... Ke5

<nimzo11> claims that Napier should have played 27...Rg8 here, but he seems to be operating on the assumption that the White h-pawn was still on h2 (based again on the mistaken 13th move given on this site). In the actual position, 27...Rg8 would get Black no where after 28. Kf2.

28. Kf2 Ke4
29. Ke2 f6
30. Kd2

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30... h5

Simplest was probably 30...c6

If 30...Kf3 Pillsbury could just have answered 31. Kd3 since 31...Kg2? would lead to trouble for Black after 32. Ke4!

31. gxh5 Rh8
32. Rg1 Rxh5

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Pillsbury was still nominally up a pawn, but that clearly wouldn't remain the case for long. So Pillsbury decided on active attacking play rather than futile defense with 33. Rg3 (sufficient to draw but providing no winning chances).

33. Rg7 Rxh3
34. Rxc7 Rh2+
35. Kc3 Kxf5

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Pillsbury had done what he could to create complications in this drawn Rook and pawn ending. But the position is still a theoretical draw. As will be seen, however, Pillsbury kept trying and eventually Napier blundered.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

36. Ra7

Pillsbury's plan is clear: Queen his a-pawn. As a theoretical matter, 36. Re7 is just as good as the text. But that would be playing defense. Pillsbury wanted to find a way to put Napier in a situation in which an error would be fatal. In this, he ultimately proved successful.

36... Ke4

Playing to obtain his own passed pawn, i.e., his f-pawn.

37. Rxa5 Re2

To be able to capture the White e-pawn with check.

38. Ra7 Rxe3+
39. Kc2 Re2+
40. Rc3+ Re3+

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This repeats the position achieved two moves ago. But this time, Pillsbury plays to win by getting his King to a3 and then push his a-pawn.

41. Kb2 Re2+
42. Ka3 f5

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Let the pawn race begin! As previously stated, this is a clear draw as a theoretical matter. But squaring off against Pillsbury in this sort of endgame must have been frightening.

43. Re7+ Kd3

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Sergeant/Watts in their book on Pillsbury said that 43...Kf3 "would have offered better drawing chances." This is nonsense, and Sergeant/Watts notably provided no analysis to support their claim. The fact is that BOTH moves are sufficient to draw. The text, by not blocking his own f-pawn, seems more logical than the suggested 43...Kf3. But either move would do the trick--if followed up properly.

In the diagrammed position, Pillsbury could have swapped Rooks, but then both pawns would Queen and neither side would have any realistic winning chances. So Pillsbury tried another line.

44. Rf7

The only way to create any complications.

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44... Rf2

Forced. If 44...Ke4 45. a5 winning, since Black cannot play 45...Re1 to be able to play Ra1+ because White would have the killing skewer 46. Rd7+. So the game would likely continue 45...Rf2 46. a6 Rf1 47. Ka4 Ra1+ 48. Kb5 Ke5 49. Re7+ Kd4 50. Re6 f4 51. Rxd6+ Ke3 52. Kxc5 f3 53. Re6+ Kf4 54. Rf6+ Kg5 55. Rxf3 Rxa6 56. b4 with an easily won Rook and two pawns versus Rpok ending.

If instead 44...Re5 White wins with 45. a5 d5 (best, though hopeless) 46. cxd5 Rxd5 47. Ka4 c4 48. b4 Re5 49. Rd7+ Kc3 50. Rd1 Re2 51. Ka3 Re3 52. Rf1 Kd3 53. Ka4 Re2 54. Rf3+ Re3 55. RxR+ KxR 56. a6 which leads to a Queen and Pawn versus Queen ending that White should ultimately win (I will spare you all the long variations).

After the text (44...Rf2), however, Napier still had the draw in hand... theoretically.

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post V

45. a5

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45... Kc3

I initially thought this was the losing move, and indeed 45...Rf1 or 45...f4 are easier routes to a draw. But the analysis of <nimzo11> has persuaded me that Napier still had the draw in hand even after the text.

45. a6

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46... Rb2??

As <nimzo11> has demonstrated (see his recent post), 46...Rf1 draws in all variations. In order to draw, Napier had to be able to threaten Ra1. After 46...Rf1, 47. Ka2 (to prevent 47...Ra1) Black just responds 47...Rf2+. The crucial lines come after 46...Rf1 47. Ka4. But as <nimzo11> has shown, Black can still draw.

After 46...Rb2??, the position was was suddenly an easy win for White:

47. a7

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Napier evidently saw that 47...Rxb3+ loses to 48. Ka2 Rb2+ 49. Ka1! and Black cannot stop 50. a8(Q).

Pillsbury once again found a way to win a drawn ending.

Pillsbury then hung around that day to play and win his postponed 5th round game with Karpinski. This put Pillsbury two points ahead with three rounds to go. Since Pillsbury's remaining three games were against the three players at the bottom of the standings (against whom he had scored 2.5 out of 3 points in the first lap), there was little doubt about who would win the tournament.

Premium Chessgames Member
  nizmo11: <KEG>: thank you for excellent analysis, as always, and also compliments.
I was indeed following the incorrect game score published here. Fortunately the scores 'converge' after move 33, so the analysis after that was not affected.
To add, Hilbert's book on Napier (1997), game 125 has the the correct core, including a diagram after move 33.Rg7 where Whites pawn stands at h3.
<KEG>: Are you perhaps planning to analyze games from Cambridge Springs (1904)
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: <nimzo11>I have not seen Hilbert's book. Thank you for confirming the score I believed was correct.

I have been working my way through the major tournaments chronologically. I had gotten through Vienna 1898 when I joined this site, and began with London 1899 here. I have a few more tournaments to review before I get to Cambridge Springs 1904, but that event is definitely on my horizon.

I am still trying to get a copy of the tournament book for Cambridge Springs 1904. I am hoping not to have to pay a gigantic price, so I'm still hunting around. One way or another, I will get the tournament book even if I have to fork over the nutso prices I have seen on the Internet.

Thank you again for finding the key to this Pillsbury-Napier game. Apparently, no one before you had discovered the key point where the Napier went wrong. You made my task in analyzing the game quite easy.

Thank you!

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