Saturday, 20 September 2008

Chess Reviews: 61

Adolf Albin in America
A European Chess Master’s Sojourn, 1893-1895

By Olimpiu G. Urcan
McFarland & Company

I’m delighted to welcome McFarland books to Marsh Towers. I recently received four of their new works to review; three are covered in this article and the final one will follow very soon.

The first impression of a McFarland book is ‘quality’. This volume is no exception, enjoying, as it does, a fine black hardback binding beautifully augmented by gold lettering.

The 278 pages are split into the following sections:

Foreword by Neil Brennen
Part 1: Albin in America
Part 2: The Chess Games
Appendix A. Adolf Albin: Master of Opening Innovation
Appendix B. Albin’s Results in America, July 1893 to June 1895
Appendix C. Albin’s Lifetime Tournament and Match Record
Select Bibliography
Index of players, openings, illustrations and a general index.

Chess Historian Neil Brennen pens a very nice foreword, setting the scene for what is to come.

‘The ‘American Dream’ has become the stuff of legend and clichés. How many times have the familiar images of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island been used indiscriminately in novels, television, and films to provide a warm glow of patriotism to the immigrant experience? And how often has the same plot been recycled, varied as the dramatists dictate, leading to the same happy ending of the foreigner’s succeeding in his new life in the United States?’

Chess players dream as much as anybody, but the nature of their work makes turning their dreams into reality very difficult. Brennen goes on to list numerous players who ended up being only temporary American residents. Adolf Albin was there for two years and it is this short phase of his life which is scrutinised in this book.

Urcan continues to set the scene in the introduction, shedding the first light on how the Romanian Albin came to be tempted to travel to America.

‘The aim of the present book is to unravel Albin’s American experience by bringing to life as many specifics as I can: previously unpublished data, tournament reports, newspaper articles, and offhand, simultaneous, blindfold or consultation games played by Albin against American or European masters found stateside.’

One of the great strengths of McFarland books is the way they are apparently very willing to publish top-quality books on relatively minor chess personalities and to afford each subject an abundance of space, care and attention.

I’m sure most players will have heard of Albin, thanks, of course, to the existence of the Albin Counter Gambit, but I feel certain that the vast majority of games and information in this book will be absolutely new and fresh to nearly every reader.

Few people exist in complete isolation. Another great McFarland strength is the way they typically devote the space necessary to construct a picture of the whole chess world of the time, bringing in a plethora of personalities and events to provide a vivid backdrop for the main subject.

It’s important to put the reasons for Albin’s journey to America in context with the chess world of the time. In America, there was still a wave of Morphy-based enthusiasm and the successful series of American Chess Congresses looked set to continue. Urcan describes all of this in detail. He then goes on to discuss the drive for a seventh American Congress, to be held in Columbia. This is what attracted a number of European masters to America, but they were destined to be disappointed as the congress was cancelled.

However, there was still much chess excitement to be had in America, especially with the presence of such giants as Steinitz and Lasker. Indeed, they played a match for the World Championship in 1894 and Albin enjoyed analysing the games.

The chapter titles of the first section give an explicit implication of Albin’s activities from arrival to departure:

A Tale of Disenchantment: The Columbian Chess Congress, 1893
Sailing to America, July 1893
The Match with Albert B. Hodges, August 1893
The Impromptu International Tournament, September-October 1893
The City Chess Club Tournament, December 1893
The Match with Eugene Delmar, February 1894
The Staats-Zeitung Cup, August 1894
Another City Chess Club Tournament, October-November 1893
The Match with J.W. Showalter, September 1894
A Guest of Philadelphia, February 1895
Three Months in New Orleans, March-May 1895
Sailing Back to Europe, 1895

The depth of research is very impressive. For example, even the passenger list of the steamship Columbia, clearly showing Albin’s name, is reproduced and the text is augmented by numerous quotes from Albin himself, from the very start of his adventure.

‘Around 20 July I embarked on the Columbia with a ticket in second class and by 30 July I have already reached New York as one of the leading masters of the Old World. This innocent introduction I owe to my heroic act of defeating Goliath at Dresden’.

This is a reference to Albin’s famous victory over an almost invincible Tarrasch. Albin’s account of the spectators crushing around the board to witness the dénouement is reproduced here too, along with an abundance of other quotes from Albin and his contemporaries.

Albin was a dangerous, tactical player, capable of causing problems for event he very best players. In the City chess club of New York International tournament he defeated the great Steinitz, although the end to the game was unusual.

Steinitz - Albin

Steinitz lost on time, but there was controversy and it led to a small war of words. Albin’s letters to the newspaper are reproduced here and they make very interesting reading.

As an opening innovator, Albin will be remembered forever thanks to his ambitious Albin Countergambit (1 d4 d5 2 c4 e5).

Some of his games feature ideas which have become more popular in recent times. One particularly eye-catching lunge came in the following position:

Hanham - Albin
Manhattan 1893

Albin now anticipated the trends the distant future with the undermining thrust
11...g5! ...and went on to win.

Other games see him anticipating two other fashions: the trendy …a6 in the Slav and the pawn sacrifice 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7 6 h4 in the French.

The game annotations are taken from a large number of sources, including Albin himself and a whole host of magazines and newspapers.

Albin’s relatively short spell in America was brought to an end when he set sail for the famous Hastings tournament of 1895, together with Pillsbury and Steinitz. All three were representing America, with high hopes of taking major honours against the best players in the world.

‘Albin’s results from the previous two years empowered him to be one of the chess experts representing America at Hastings. He joined the veteran Steinitz and the Wunderkind Pillsbury in an attempt to achieve a great success for America - success that confirm not only the high quality of the chess activity that took place in the United States in those years but also the hopes for another Morphy-like era.’

Pillsbury won the tournament but the other two ‘Americans’ weren’t at their best. Albin decided not to return to America; the specific reasons are still unclear.

Urcan covers the rest of Albin’s life succinctly before concluding that the period covered by the bulk of the book marked…

‘…the peak of his chess life; he arrived in the New World as an advocate of new, ingenious and daring chess’.

The games ably support the opinion of Albin’s style. Here’s a few snippets to whet the appetite.

Albin - Showalter
24 Rxh7! (1-0, 45)

Allies v Albin (Albin was blindfolded)
11...Bxh2+! 12 Kxh2 Rxd5!! (0-1) 37

The book is very well indexed and the bibliography clearly indicates the amount of research done. Enhanced by numerous drawings and photographs, this is well up to McFarland’s high production standards.

Chess history can be an acquired taste and books such as these might not to appeal to all players, especially those looking to add a quick opening fix for their next tournaments. However, this is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in the chess world of a bygone era, a world populated by pioneers, giants and fabulous events. This is definitely one of the best chess books of the year.

Chess Results
1941 - 1946
Gino Di Felice
McFarland & Company

Chess Results
1947 - 1950

Gino Di Felice
McFarland & Company

Gino Di Felice is clearly a man with a mission: to preserve a consistent archive of definitive chess tournament crosstables and match results.

The events are all regular, men’s tournaments and matches, but that is not to say that others have been completely forgotten:

'Women’s and correspondence competitions have both been excluded in the present volume, with the thought that they can be the object of separate works. '

The author makes the point that Jeremy Gaige’s famous volumes went only as far as 1930, leaving nearly 80 years to catch up with.

The tournament tables include, with very few exceptions, the full names of all of the players, relevant dates and sources. The material is indexed by the name of event and the names of the players.

The 1941 - 1946 volme presents a record of 810 tournaments and 80 matches and runs to 366 pages. The Second World War obviously had an impact on the amount of chess played but there was still much of interest going on. It’s particularly interesting to trace the movements of the top players during this period, particularly with the controversy attached to the likes of Alekhine and Keres, whose lives would never be the same again.

1947 - 1950 is an even bigger volume, with 485 pages featuring the results from 980 tournaments and 155 matches. The growth in the strength and numbers Russian players becomes more apparent as the years tick by.

Although the material is split into chronological years, the events within the years are listed alphabetically. I don’t think this was necessary and would much prefer the criteria to remain chronological; the index provides a perfect alphabetical listing as it is.

Although these two books are (rarely, for McFarland) paperbacks, production values remain very high. The layout is very clear and the spines are relatively sturdy.

The two volumes covered here are the sixth and seventh in the series. Gino Di Felice has his work cut out to bring the story completely up to date but he is clearly the ideal man for such a labour of love.

These books will attract a much a smaller readership than most. They are good books for browsing and chess historians should welcome the completeness and standardisation of players’ names.

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