Bird in the Hand

I have a Bird in my hand at the moment. A big fat blue Bird. Or, to be precise, a book about Henry Edward Bird.

H.E. Bird A Chess Biography with 1,198 games, written by Hans Renette, a Belgian FM and chess historian, and published by McFarland. A handsome, large format hardback of more than 600 pages, going into immense detail about Bird’s life and times, and with about 40% of the games annotated, often in considerable depth, using both contemporary sources and computer-aided analysis.

Of course we all know the name. We’ve encountered Bird’s Opening (1. f4), still popular with club players seeking to avoid theory with White, and favoured by two of my regular Thames Valley League opponents. We also know about Bird’s Defence to the Ruy Lopez (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4), seen occasionally at GM level even today. Carlsen lost the only time he played it, but it’s been played several times by the young Hungarian talent Richard Rapport, as well as by the likes of Morozevich and Sokolov. Bird was also a pioneer of the Dutch Defence and the Sicilian Dragon, and favoured the currently highly fashionable c3+d3 in the Giuoco Piano, although his plan of rapid queenside expansion with b4, b5 and a4 is considered rather inflexible today. The likes of Aronian, So and Short, have tried it, though, and it’s often been played by Jobava.

Bird was the coffee-house player par excellence, with his crowd-pleasing style, and brilliant and creative ideas marred on occasion by gross blunders. I guess it’s the experimental, left-field players like Rapport and Jobava who can be considered Henry Bird’s heirs today.

If you’re interested in chess history you’ll be aware of his long chess career, spanning half a century, from the first modern tournament (London 1849) to the great London International Tournament of 50 years later. You may also have read about his personality, outgoing and friendly but occasionally disputatious.

For these reasons, he’s better remembered than some of his stronger contemporaries, but the details of his life are less well-known. Henry Edward Bird was born in 1829 in Portsea, now part of Portsmouth, which also saw the birth of two illustrious near-contemporaries: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806) and Charles Dickens (1812). A few years later the family moved to London where the teenage Bird picked up the moves in a coffee house, soon coming into contact with the celebrated chess playing historian Henry Buckle. Our hero was active in London chess circles for several years, but the game soon came to take a back seat to his chosen profession of accountancy, specifically railway accountancy. Sadly for accountancy, but happily for chess, his business ultimately proved unsuccessful and in 1870 he was declared bankrupt. At the end of 1872 he decided to return to his first love, playing in Vienna in 1873, spending two years (1876-77) in America and, on his return, becoming a regular on the international chess circuit. He reached his peak in the middle to late 1870s, when in his late 40s, but his later years, when he was increasingly incapacitated by gout, saw an inexorable decline in his powers.

How strong was he? Jeff Sonas and Rod Edwards have both done an impressive amount of analysis of 19th century chess results, Sonas only using formal competitive games and Edwards using everything available. They also use slightly different mathematical models to produce their results. Sonas has retrospective monthly lists while Edwards has only annual lists. Edwards keeps inactive players on the list longer than Sonas.

Sonas gives Bird a top rating of 2635 in September 1875 and a highest position of 2nd in March and April 1876. Edwards rates him much lower: with a top rating of 2545 in 1878 and a highest position of 10th in both 1877 and 1878. I consider Edwards’ figures more accurate in this case. He usually finished somewhere mid-division in top international events, behind the elite players such as Steinitz, Zukertort and Blackburne but ahead of the local players at the foot of the table.

One of Bird’s claims to fame was as the first recipient of a brilliancy prize: for his imaginative but, as engines now demonstrate, queen sacrifice in this game. His opponent, James Mason, had missed a fairly simple win a couple of moves earlier.

This is a 5-star book in every respect: outstanding historical and chess research combined with outstanding production values, as you would expect if you are at all familiar with McFarland’s chess history books. Much more than just a handsome addition to your library shelves. If you have even the slightest interest in chess history and culture you should rush out and buy a copy now.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.