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Ignatz von Popiel vs Harry Nelson Pillsbury
Monte Carlo (1902), Monte Carlo MNC, rd 4, Feb-07
Sicilian Defense: Classical Variation (B58)  ·  0-1



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Kibitzer's Corner
Oct-05-06  Tenderfoot: Why was the a pawn just offered up like that? I mean, I know he was trying to get passage for his c pawn, but I think there were more graceful ways to do it than that. And then white doesn't even try & stop the promotion...a poor end game, I think.
Apr-17-10  wordfunph: Popiel-Pillsbury

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<Tenderfoot> black is clearly winning. White's king will be destined to work full-time in safeguarding his a-pawn while his h-pawn will be no match to black's g and h my patzer's view. :-)

Jan-27-19  zydeco: Efficient win by Pillsbury, knowing the king-and-pawn endgame was a win and simplifying into it.
Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: von Popiel put up a good fight for a while, in part because Pillsbury was never comfortable in this or other variations when he played the Sicilian as Black.

von Popiel was better until he became terrorized by Pillsbury's 21...e5?! and 22...f5. Then he wilted quickly and was soon lost.

The main interest of this game is Pillsbury's recognition on move 36 that he could win by reducing to a pawn ending. This solution is obvious once it's pointed out, but probably a tough find for most of us over the board.

1. e4 c5
2. Nc3

von Popiel began as if he would play a Closed Sicilian, but he quickly transposed to normal Open Sicilian lines.

2... Nc6
3. Nf3 Nf6
4. d4 cxd4
5. Nxd4 d6
6. Be2

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Pillsbury first faced this variation against Albin at New York 1893 in a game Albin won. Brody and Maroczy played it against him at Paris 1900. Pillsbury won against Brody, but only after getting into some difficulties. His game against Maroczy in this line at Paris 1900 was a draw. Pillsbury later confronted this move in his win over Teichmann at Monte Carlo 1903.

6... g6

The more normal 6...e6 or 6...e5 are probably better, but the text--which Pillsbury played in the four games mentioned above--is certainly sound.

7. Be3 Bg7
8. h3

Sound but very passive. The more usual 8. 0-0 or perhaps 8. f3 or 8. a3 are probably better.

8... Bd7
9. 0-0 0-0

"Pillsbury does not again venture on 9...Qa5 (as he did against Brody in a game Pillsbury won in 18 moves thanks to weak follow-up by Brody).

10. Qd2 NxN
11. BxN Bc6
12. Bf3 Qc7

Pillsbury played 12...Qa5 here against Maroczy. Best here is probably 12...Nd7 or 12...Re8 or maybe 12...b5.

13. Rfe1

13. Nd5 immediately was stronger.

13... Rfd8

Very slow. Given the likelihood that Nd5 was coming, Pillsbury should probably have played 13,,,Rac8 or 13...e6 or maybe 13...e5.

14. Nd5!

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von Popiel had clearly emerged from the opening with the better game.

14... BxN
15. exB Ne8

Preparing for a later f5, but this is too tentative at this point in view of von Popiel's greater space and two Bishops. He might have tried more active play with 15...Re8 (with Nd7 to follow) or 15...Rac8 (creating play on the c-file) or 15...e5 (seeking counterplay in the center)

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16. c4


16... BxB

"Naturally he cannot capture the pawn and allow his e-Pawn to go." (Sergeant-Watts).

17. QxB Ng7

Still preparing for a King-side break. Pillsbury was not going to stay passive for long.

The position was now:

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Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post II

18. Rac1 b6

This might have cost Pillsbury against a more polished opponent. Better chances for Black were offered by 18...Qa5 or 18...Re8.

19. Rc3

Both the Tournament Book (quoting Janowski) and Sergeant Watts claimed that von Popiel should have played 19. b4 here. Janowski reportedly said this would have led to a "strong positional advantage" for White. But after 19. b4 Re8 20. c5 dxc5 21. bxc5 Nf5 Black would be better than in the game.

White could attempt a King-side attack here beginning with either 19. h4 or 19. Qd2 with h4 to follow, but that does not seem to leave White much better off than does the text.

After 19. Rc3, the position was:

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Beginning here, Pillsbury made a major push to take charge.

19... a5

"!"--(Tournament Book)

"To stop b4." (Sergeant-Watts)

20. a4

"?"--(Sergeant Watts)

20. h4 may be far more dynamic, but the text hardly looks like any sort of horrible mistake to me. It certainly had little to do with von Popiel's loss.

20... Ra7

"Preparatory to his next move, which gives him the superior game." (Sergeant-Watts).

Pillsbury's next move, as Sergeant-Watts seems to recognize, only gave him the better game because of von Popiel's poor play thereafter.

21. g4

21. b3 or 21. Qd2 may have been more prudent, but the text was a reasonable fighting effort by von Popiel.

21... e5?!


This worked beautifully given von Popiel's response. But objectively it was hazardous, and 21...Qc5 or 21...Re8 were better.

The position after 21...e5 was:

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22. Qd2?

"?"--(Tournament Book)(Sergeant-Watts)

As all commentators agree, von Popiel should have played 22. dxe6 e.p. here. But the Tournament Book's contention that after the text Pillsbury had a "clearly superior position" is an overstatement.

22... f5!

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It is remarkable how Pillsbury had managed to transform his position in just a few moves.

23. b3 Qe7
24. Bd1 Qh4

This worked better for Pillsbury than it probably should have. On the face of the position, 24...Rf8 or 24...f4 appear better But by this point von Popiel seems to have become shell-shocked.

At the moment, however, von Popiel was not in such awful shape.

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From here, however, it all went downhill for von Popiel.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post III

25. gxf5?

Thanks to this lemon, Pillsbury's attack picked up steam. White would be OK with 25. Qe3.

25... Nxf5

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26. Qe2?

Despite his prior move, White would probably have a defensible position with 26. Bg4. After the text, Pillsbury never allowed von Popiel to recover.

26... Nd4

One of many strong options at Pillsbury's disposal here. He would also have been in great shape with 26...Qg5+ or 26...Rf7 or 26...Rf8 or even 26...Qh6.

After 26...Nd4, the position was:

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27. Qg4 Qf6

Far better than trading Queens at this stage.

28. Rg3 Rf8
29. Rf1 Raf7

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Pillsbury's heavy pieces certainly look menacing, but there was no need for von Popiel to collapse as he did. His game may be theoretically lost, but there were at the very least practical chances to put up a fight.

30. Qg5?

30. Qe3 or 30. Rg2 offered far better chances of resistance.

30... Qg7

"Threatening Rf4, R8f6 and h6." (Tournament Book)

In fact, strongest for Black here may be either 30...Nf3+ (31. BxN QxQ 32. RxQ RxB) or--leading to the same thing: 30...QxQ (31. RxQ Nf3+ etc.).

31. Qd2

Planning b4. But 31. Rg4 offered more hope.

31... Rf4
32. b4

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"?"--(Tournament Book)

"Allowing a decisive simplification. 32. Kg2 was better."

32. Kg2 Qf6 hardly looks more appetizing for White.

"A belated attempt to make use of his extra Pawn on the Queen-side." (Sergeant-Watts)

The text was brilliantly exploited by Pillsbury, who immediately saw its implications for a pawn ending. But it is doubtful that anything else would have saved the day for von Popiel.

32... axb4
33. Qxb4 Qf6
34. Qd2

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Although it looks obvious after seeing Pillsbury's upcoming combination, the notion that Black now has a winning pawn endgame is quite exquisite. It perhaps does not require the genius of Pillsbury to see a won King and pawn ending in the diagrammed position, but the beauty of the conception is still a delight to behold.

Premium Chessgames Member
  KEG: Post IV

34... Nf3+


With this move Pillsbury initiated a series of exchanges that reduced the game to a clearly won King and Pawn ending.

There were, of course, other winning methods, including the elegant combination starting with 34...e4 and then if 35. Rg4 [best] Nf3+ 36. BxN RxB 37. Rxe4 Rg3+ 38. Kh2 Rxh3+!! 39. KxR Qf3+ 40. Kh2 QxR and White--though equal in material--cannot handle all of Black's threats.

35. BxN RxB
36. RxR QxR

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37. Qe3

This allowed Pillsbury to get winning Pawn ending, but everything else loses as well: e.g., 37. Kh2 Rf4 and White's position collapses.

37... QxQ

"Pillsbury, by the series of exchanges, has clearly led up to a won endgame." (Sergeant-Watts)

38. fxQ RxR+
39. KxR Kf7

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"Black must win the pawn ending as the White King is restricted by the Black King-side pawn majority, where the Black King can go to a5." (Tournament Book)

40. Kf2 Ke7

Marching over to the Queen-side in order to pick up the isolated White a-Pawn. With his King forced to keep and eye on Black's King-side pawns, White is helpless.

41. Kf3 h6

Leaving von Popiel no chance to attack his King-side pawns. In fact, Pillsbury could have won even more simply by just continuing to march his King cross the board with 41...Kd7 (or 41...Kd8).

42. Ke4 Kd7
43. Kd3 Kc7
44. Ke4 Kb7

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45. a5

<Tenderfoot> asked on this site why White parted with this pawn, and <wordfunph> explained the situation nicely.

The move is of course sheer desperation by von Popiel, but there was nothing better. Better to go down in a blaze of glory!

45... bax5
46. c5

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Pillsbury of course can simply ignore the White center pawns, while White cannot guard both side of the board. The game was over, though von Popiel played on for a while.

46... a4
47. cxd6 a3
48. Kxe5 a2

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Now the a-pawn Queens and it is all over.

49. Kf6 a1(Q)+
50. Kxg6 Qe5
51. Kxh6 Qxe3+

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