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Harry Nelson Pillsbury vs Clarence Seaman Howell
Buffalo (1901), Buffalo, New York USA, rd 9, Aug-16
Sicilian Defense: Classical Variation (B58)  ·  1-0



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Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  HarryP: This game has attracted attention because of its interesting endgame. Cherniaev says of 16.f5, "After this move White gains he initiative." He also says that instead of 23...Kf8, "A better try was 23...e5 24.dxe6 Rxe6 25.Kf2 d5." Wenman says, after Black's 27th move, "Black has isolated pawns and an immobile rook. In the ensuing endgame these disadvantages are used and magnified with admirable skill until the black position collapses."
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: With this win, Pillsbury clinched first-place at Buffalo 1901 with one round to go. (In fact, with Delmar's 21 move win over Napier, Pillsbury was probably assured of first-place even before his game against Howell was finished. By losing, Howell fell to fourth place, a point behind Napier and Delmar. He still had a chance to catch Napier, since his last-round game was against Napier. But Howell lost that came, and ended up still in fourth.

This game was an example of the error of playing a slightly inferior ending against Pillsbury.

1. e4 c5

Howell was the only player Pillsbury failed to defeat in the first lap at Buffalo 1901. While playing the Sicilian might not seem the best way to play for a draw against Pillsbury, Howell's plan, as will be seen, was to copy Pillsbury's play against him in their earlier (drawn) game in which Pillsbury had Black.

2. Nf3 Nc6
3. d4 cxd4
4. Nxd4 Nf7
5. Nc3 d6
6. Be2

Trying the positional approach against the Sicilian rather than the more aggressive 6. Bg5 or 6. Bc4.

6... Bd7

The first tournament game of which I am familiar in which this move was made. Howell likely played it in order to mimic Pillsbury's play in their earlier game at this tournament.

The move is playable, but probably inferior to the more usual 6...e6 or 6...e5 or 6...g6.

7. Be3

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By transposition, the position reached was identical to that after White's 7th move in Howell-Pillsbury from the same tournament.

7... g6

This same position was reached in Lasker-Capablanca at Moscow 1936 and in So-Carlsen in 2017. Both Capablanca and Carlsen played 7...e6 here. Capablanca won and Carlsen drew.

8. 0-0 Bg7

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Still identical to Howell-Pillsbury from Round 4. But here Howell played 9. f3, but Pillsbury varied:

9. Qd2

Both Pillsbury's move and that of Howell in the earlier game were reasonable. One wonders if Pillsbury varied in order to prevent Howell from continuing to follow the 4th round contest.

9... 0-0
10. f4

Following a plan suggested by Napier in commenting on the earlier Howell-Pillsbury game.

Afeter 10. f4, the position became double-edged:

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10... Ng4?!

Now having to play on his own, Howell immediately created problems for himself. Sergeant/Watts in their book on Pillsbury correctly stated that: "This looks tempting, but it does not result in the desired exchange of Knight for Bishop."

So far so good, but the move Sergeant-Watts recommended: 10...e5, was not much of an improvement if White responds 11. Ndb5 exf4 Baf4. Better chances for Black were offered by 10...Rc8 or 10...Rc8 or 10...a6 or 10...NxN.

But here, Pillsbury erred, the position after 10...Ng4?! being:

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11. NxN?

A surprising misjudgment by Pillsbury. With 11. BxN BxB f5 (or 11...BxN 12. BxB(d4) BxB 13. f5) White would have a major if not winning advantage.

11... bxN

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12. Bd4?

White would still be OK with 12. BxN BxB 13. Rae1. After the text, Howell could have gotten much the better game:

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

For a moment, Howell was on top. But this didn't last long:

12... BxB+?

Needlessly giving up his fianchettoed Bishop and forfeiting any advantage he had enjoyed. Howell should have played 12...e5! Play might then have continued 13. fxe5 c5 14. Be3 NxB 15. QxN Bxe5. Among other things, this line would have avoided the problem of the backward e-pawn from which Howell soon suffered.

13. QxB

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13... Qb6

Trading Queens was a reasonable strategy, especially against an attacking wizard such as Pillsbury. But, as Pillsbury immediately demonstrated, the text allows White to reduce to a slightly advantageous ending. Given that going into this game a draw guaranteed Pillsbury at least a tie for first place, and given that his game in the final round was against last-place Karpinski, Pillsbury must have been delighted to get to an ending in which he had virtually no chance lose and all sorts of ways to play for a win.

Howell might instead have tried 13...Nh6 or 13...Nf3 with only a slightly inferior middle-game.

14. QxQ axQ

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As Wenman pointed out in his commentary on the game, Pillsbury here cleverly traded Bishop for Knight in order to be able to create weaknesses in the Black position that would haunt Howell for the rest of the game.

15. BxN BxB
16. f5!

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White's threat of winning the Black Bishop forced (once again paraphrasing Wnman) the upcoming weaknesses in the Black position.

16... gxf5
17. h3 Bh5
18. exf5 f6

Pretty much forced.

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The problem of the backward e-pawn is one Howell never was able to solve adequately. He ultimately erred by advancing it on his 25th move, after which his game entered the last throes.

19. Rae1

19. Rf4 was another good option for try to press White's advantage.

19... Rfe8

19...Rf7, exploiting the fact that 20. g4 would allow Black to free his Bishop via the pin with 20...Rg7 was perhaps a better choice for Black here.

20. Rf4 Bf7
21. Rb4

Utilizing the horizontal power of the Rook, a positional tactic at which Emmanuel Lasker later exhibited amazing mastery in his opening game victory in his 1907 match against Marshall.

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Pillsbury certainly had the superior chances here, but Howell's game was far from lost. But defending such positions requires either hard-nosed patience or the ability to find hidden tactical chances in the ending. Howell was not up to the task, however, and soon drifted into trouble from which there was no escape against so formidable an endgame player as Pillsbury.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

21... Ra6

Howell's strategy in this ending, beginning with this move, left his Rook poorly placed. Though criticized as poor play, better here was in fact offered with 21...b5 22. Rbe4 Kf8 with decent chances of survival.

22. a3 h5

Anticipating a possible g4 by White.

23. Ne2

"Aiming for e6." (Wenman)

This strategy, though it worked out fine in practice, looks dreadfully slow. I do not, however, see anything much better.

After 23. Ne2, the position was:

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23... Kf8

Sergeant/Watts recommended 23...e5 for Howell here, But after 24. fxe6 e.p. Rxe5 25. Kf2 Black's two isolated pawns spell trouble. If Black wants to avoid complete passivity, he might consider 23...c5 and then get his Rook off a6 after 24. Rf4 or perhaps try e5 if White plays 24. Rh4 since he would be able to play 24...e5 25. fxe6 e.p. Rxe6 26. Kf2 Re5 with some play to offset his weak pawns.

All in all, Howell's idea of sitting pat for a bit looks reasonable.

24. Re4

With Howell's King now on f8, this doesn't accomplish much. 24. Kf2 (to avoid any pins on the e-file) or 24. Nf4 or 24. g3 a bit better.

After Pillsbury's actual move, however, Howell began to lose patience:

24... d5

Better were 24...Ra5 (getting his Rook into some sort of active play) or 24...c5 (if passive defense was noxious to him). But even after the text, Howell's position was far from beyond hope.

25. Re3

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25... e5?

Pillsbury quickly punished this over-eager effort by Howell:

26. fxe6 e.p. Rxe6
27. RxR BxR

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"Black has isolated pawns and an immobile Rook. In the ensuing endgame these disadvantages are used and magnified with admiable skill until the Black position collapses." (Wenman)

28. Nf4 Bf7
29. Ne6+ Kg8
30. Nd8 c5
31. Re7 Bg6
32. c3

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I'm not certain whether even Magnus Carlsen could have held the Black position against Pillsbury. In any case, from here Howell's play was feeble, and he was promptly dispatched by Pillsbury even though the latter did not always select the most forceful winning procedures in finishing off the game.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

32... Ra5?

Awful. Nearly anything (e.g., 32...Kf8; 32;;;Bf5; 32...Ra4; 32...b5).

Sergeant and Watts in their book on Pillsbury have demonstrated the problems wit 32...d4, i.e., 33. cxd4 cxd4 34. Ne6 d3 35. Rg7+ Kh8 36. Rd7 Ra4, etc. But the text was not much of an improvement even on that.

After 32...Ra5, the position was:

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33. Nc6

This is good enough to win. But 33. Re6 and probably also 33. Rd7 were even stronger.

The position (after 33. Nc6) was now:

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33... Ra6?

33...Ra8 was the only chance. The text (which again shut in the Black Rook on the edge) allowed White a crushing retort, the position now being:

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34. Re6?

This again does not blow the win, but I am shocked that Pillsbury missed 34. Nb8! (34...Ra4 35. Nd7 d4 36. cxd4 cxd4 37.Nxb6 after which Black can safely resign).

34... Kf7?

Huh? Wjy allow Pillsbury pick up a tempo by giving check with the Knight when 34...Kg7 avoided that problem?

After this last error by Howell,Pillsbury finished briskly:

35. Nd8+ Kg7
36. Rd6

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Black is busted.

36... Be4?

Another awful effort by Howell. He could, however, be comforted that even the "better" 36...Bf5 or 36...d4 would have changes the result.

37. Ne6+ Kf7
38. Nxc5

"Winning a pawn at least, but the whole game goes with it." (Wenman)

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From here, Pillsbury cruised:

38... Ke7
39.. Re6+ Kf7
40. Rc6 Ra5
41. Nb7

41. NxB also wins easily.

41... Ra7

Hopeless, but by this point it hardly mattered.

42. Rxb6

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