Golden Age

We’re currently living in a golden age for chess history, due in no small measure to the American publishing house McFarland & Co, who, for some years now, have provided us with a constant stream of elegant, beautifully produced hardback books concerning the history of the Royal Game.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading one of this year’s offerings, a biography of William Henry Krause Pollock, written by two of McFarland’s most experienced authors, Olimpiu Urcan and John Hilbert.

Pollock was a relatively minor figure in the history of chess, with a career of only a decade or so playing at master level. His highest EDO rating, 2463, ranked him 36th in the world in 1892. His short but interesting life, together with his attractive style of play, make him a worthy subject for a full biography.

William Pollock was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Cheltenham in 1859, the son of a clergyman. After various postings his father, now a widower, eventually settled in Bath. William studied medicine in Dublin, qualifying as a surgeon, but decided to forsake the operating theatre for the chessboard.

He started off playing in club matches and in lower sections of congresses, but by 1885 had graduated to the Masters sections. The 2nd Irish Chess Association Congress in 1886 provided him with what would be his greatest success, when he beat the visiting masters Blackburne and Burn as well as all the local players, the strongest and most interesting of whom was Richard Whieldon Barnett, also an expert rifle shooter, who would become the Conservative and Unionist MP for St Pancras West, and later St Pancras South West.

In 1889 Pollock crossed the Atlantic to take part in the 6th American Chess Congress in New York, one of the great international tournaments of the time. He finished 11th out of 20 competitors with a score of 17½/38, well behind the leaders Chigorin and Weiss (29/38), Gunsberg (28½), Blackburne (27), Burn (26), and Lipschütz (25½). He did, however, have the consolation of winning the Brilliancy Prize for his Round 35(!) victory with the black pieces over one of the joint winners, the very strong but now forgotten Miksa (Max) Weiss (1857-1927), who would give up professional chess soon after this event. Oh, look! It’s game 11111 in my database!

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Ba4 Nf6
5. d3 b5
6. Bb3 Bc5
7. c3 d5

The opening is of some interest. Weiss plays the sort of slow set-up with c3 and d3 much favoured today, and Pollock hits back in the centre, offering a pawn sacrifice in the style of Marshall.

8. exd5 Nxd5
9. Qe2 O-O
10. Qe4 Be6
11. Nxe5

This is too dangerous. 11. Ng5 g6 12. Nxe6 was to be preferred.

11… Nxe5
12. Qxe5 Nb4
13. O-O Nxd3
14. Qh5 Bxb3
15. axb3 Re8
16. Nd2 Qe7
17. b4 Bxf2+
18. Kh1

18. Rxf2 loses to 18… Qe1+ 19. Rf1 Qe3+. Black has many good moves now, but Pollock, typically, chooses the most spectacular option.

18… Qe1
19. h3

Allowing the following queen sacrifice.

19… Nxc1
20. Rxe1 Rxe1+
21. Kh2 Bg1+
22. Kg3 Re3+

22… Ne2+, regaining material, was also possible but Pollock correctly prefers a mating attack.

23. Kg4 Ne2
24. Nf1 g6
25. Qd5 h5+
26. Kg5 Kg7
27. Nxe3 f6+
28. Kh4 Bf2+
29. g3 Bxg3#

After this event Pollock decided to stay in America, even though there were fewer opportunities for competitive chess there than in Europe. He travelled the country giving simuls and meeting local players, and, for a few months in 1892, he acted as Steinitz’s secretary in New York. He later moved to Canada, and it was as Canada’s representative that he was invited to take part in the famous Hastings tournament of 1895.

Not surprisingly, he found the competition there a bit hot and finished 19th out of 22 competitors with a score of 9 points. His victims, though, included both Tarrasch and Steinitz.

Shortly after the tournament his health worsened due to tuberculosis, and Hastings proved to be his swan song. He died at his father’s house a year later.

So that was Pollock. Consistently inconsistent, I suppose you could say, typically finishing below the recognised masters but above the local players who were there to make up the numbers in most 19th century events. A player capable of beating anyone on his day, a producer of brilliancies but also likely to lose games due to unsound attacks or careless oversights.

While there are many more distinguished practitioners of our game who have yet to receive a full biography, if you have any interest at all in chess history of this period you should buy this book. You’ll find almost 200 pages of biography followed by 523 games annotated using both contemporary sources and modern insights. I have just two minor complaints. I’d have liked to see the cross-tables of the tournaments in which Pollock participated, and would have preferred more detailed solutions to the problems which appear in various places in the book. The quality of research, writing and production are all exemplary and, as a matter of principle, writers and publishers of such a high quality product should be supported. If you don’t have any interest in chess history, I’d suggest you should. It’s part of our history, part of our heritage, and, although the openings may be old-fashioned there’s still much to learn from the games. It’s also a delight to witness the attacking skill of Pollock at his best. You might think that, just as the early 21st century is a golden age for chess history, the late 19th century was a golden age of chess playing.

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.