William Pollock is not the only chess player I’ve been reading about recently. I’ve been waiting three decades to read Jimmy Adams’ book Gyula Breyer, The Chess Revolutionary. published by New in Chess. It was well worth the wait.
You probably know two things about Breyer, that he played 9… Nb8 in the Ruy Lopez and that he claimed (perhaps because of 9… Nb8) that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes. But neither of these is true, or at least there’s no evidence. The Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez was named by Barcza and other Hungarian players in the 1950s: they had been told by Viennese players that Breyer had recommended it in an essay, but the essay in question has not yet come to light. It was Tartakower who first claimed that Breyer had written that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes, but again there’s no evidence that he wrote anything beyond saying that White’s position was compromised.
Like Pollock, Breyer had a short life and a short career. He was born in Budapest in 1893 and died of heart disease at the age of only 28 in Bratislava in 1921. His career started early, by the standards of his day, and he won the Hungarian Championship in 1912. He played at Mannheim in 1914, and was sharing fourth place when the tournament was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. There was no international chess for the next four years so he was only able to take part in national competitions. His best result came in Berlin in December 1920, when he scored 6½/9, finishing a full point ahead of Tartakower and Bogoljubov, but 11 months later he was dead.
Breyer’s historical importance was as a founder of the Hypermodern School of chess. He was a friend of Réti and a big influence on Nimzowitsch. Breyer may not have said that after 1. e4 White’s game is in its last throes, but he made some pretty sweeping and controversial statements about openings.
He believed, for example, that 2. d4 in the French or Caro-Kann was a mistake, preferring instead 2. d3, not, as we might today, playing a King’s Indian Attack but instead going for a reversed Philidor. He also recommended 1. e4 Nf6 2. d3, considering 2. e5 a mistake, and planning to meet 2… e5 with 3. f4, claiming a white advantage.
After 1. d4 Breyer awarded 1… d5 a question mark, and, if instead 1. d4 Nf6, 2. c4 also received a question mark because of 2… d6. I guess you can see what he’s getting at. Any pawn in the centre could be a target for attack. Did he actually believe his assessments or was be just being, like many chess players, a professional contrarian? Who knows?
His chess playing style was unconventional, as well, favouring paradoxical ideas and obscure manoeuvres, but also demonstrating an extraordinary combinational talent.
This book is very different from the scholarly biographies published by McFarland. What we have, in a hardback book of 876 pages, is a compendium of 240 games played by Breyer, with annotations collated from many sources, along with Breyer’s essays, articles and newspaper columns (he was a prolific journalist), translated into English for the first time, and articles about Breyer from many other sources. The material is arranged chronologically and interspersed with a biography of our hero.
Let’s examine Breyer’s most famous game. He’s playing white against Johannes Esser, in a tournament played in Budapest in 1917.
1. d4 d5
2. c4 c6
3. e3 Nf6
4. Nc3 e6
5. Bd3 Bd6
6. f4 O-O
7. Nf3 dxc4
Most of us would recapture without much though, but Breyer has his eyes set on a king-side attack.
9. e4 Be7
10. Ng5 h6
This is Breyer’s immediate idea: the same idea as the Fishing Pole Trap. The intention is to mate Black down the h-file.
At this point Breyer claimed he’d seen up to move 26. Do we believe him? I have my doubts.
13. hxg5 Nd5
This extraordinary move is the reason this game became famous. The immediate point is to avoid a potential pin if Black plays Bb4, but the grandiose idea only becomes clear many moves later. White wants to avoid a potential Bh4+.
15. bxc3 Bb7
This looks suspect: how does this move help defend his king-side. Qe8 and Nd7 were better alternatives.
16. Qg4 Kg7
17. Rh7+ Kxh7
18. Qh5+ Kg8
19. Bxg6 fxg6
20. Qxg6+ Kh8
21. Qh6+ Kg8
Now we see the main point of Kf1. If the king was still on e1 Black would have been able to defend with Bh4+ here.
23. gxf7+ Kxf7
24. Qh5+ Kg7
Black could draw here by playing Kg8. Now 25. f5 fails to Qf8 so White has nothing better than perpetual check. However, I can find no mention of this in the book.
25. f5 exf5
Some sources stop the game here claiming either that Black resigned or that White won in a few moves. White did win – eventually, after mutual blunders in time trouble. 26. e6+ would have forced mate in 9 moves, as would either Ke2 or Bf4+ but Breyer’s choice didn’t spoil anything.
27. Bg5+ Kg8
28. Qg6+ Kh8
29. Bf6+ was the quickest way to win.
White could still return to the previous position but now Black can escape.
31. Qxf5+ Kg7
32. Bh6+ Kxh6
33. Ke2 Bc8
34. Rh1+ Bh4
35. Rxh4+ Qxh4 36. Qf8+ is a perpetual check. Now Black can win by returning one of his three extra pieces: 35… Bxe6.
36. Qf4+ Kg7
37. Rxh4 Qxe6+
38. Kd2 Na6
38… Bd7 was a possible improvement.
39. Rh5 Qf6
The final mistake. After 39… Bd7 White would win the black queen under less favourable curcumstances and Black would have been able to fight on. Now a series of forks will pick up Black’s loose pieces.
40. Rh7+ Kxh7
41. Qxf6 Bg4
42. Qh4+ Kg7
43. Qxg4+ Kf6
44. Qf3+ Ke7
45. Qxc6 Rg8
46. Qxa6 Rxg2+
47. Kc1 1-0
A flawed masterpiece, you might think. The same could also be said for the book. The amount of research, much of which was carried out three decades ago, is prodigious and the material endlessly fascinating. It’s strange, though, that, although twenty pages are devoted to discussing this game, quoting analysis and articles from many sources, and some computer analysis has been carried out, there’s no mention of 24… Kg8, which demonstrates that Breyer’s combination, spectacular though it was, should only have sufficed for a draw.
There are a few minor oversights: for example, the tournament table on p853 is incorrectly captioned. There has been, understandably some criticism concerning insufficiently detailed sources. This might be annoying if you’re a serious chess historian and want to refer to the originals but will be of no concern to most readers.
If you have any interest at all in chess history this book is an essential purchase. If you have an specific interest in the development of chess ideas over the years, again you have to buy this book.
One final thought. Last week I suggested that we were living in a golden age for chess history, with outstanding books such as this one being published regularly. Now chess is becoming a game for small children and professional players, will there be anyone left to write, or even read books like this in twenty years time? Or is chess history in its last throes?