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Harry Pillsbury
Harry Nelson Pillsbury
Full name Harry Nelson Pillsbury
Country  United States
Born December 5, 1872(1872-12-05)
Somerville, Massachusetts, United States
Died June 17, 1906 (aged 33)

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (b. Massachusetts, USA December 5, 1872 - June 17, 1906), was a leading chess player. At age 22, he won one of the strongest tournaments of all time, but his illness and early death prevented him from challenging for the World Chess Championship.



Early life

Pillsbury was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, moved to New York City in 1894 and then again to Philadelphia in 1898.

By 1890, having only played chess for two years, he beat noted chess expert H. N. Stone. In April 1892, Pillsbury won a match two games to one against World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz, who gave him odds of a pawn. Pillsbury's rise was meteoric, and there was soon no one to challenge him in the New York chess scene.

Hastings 1895

Harry Pillsbury

The Brooklyn chess club sponsored his journey to Europe to play in the Hastings 1895 chess tournament, in which all the greatest players of the time participated. The 22-year-old Pillsbury became a celebrity in the United States and abroad by winning the tournament, finishing ahead of reigning world champion Emanuel Lasker, former world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, recent challengers Mikhail Chigorin and Isidor Gunsberg, and future challengers Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter and Dawid Janowski.

The dynamic style that Pillsbury exhibited during the tournament also helped to popularize the Queen's Gambit during the 1890s, including his famous win over Siegbert Tarrasch.

St. Petersburg 1895

His next big tournament was in Saint Petersburg the same year, a six-round round-robin tournament between four of the top five finishers at Hastings (Pillsbury, Chigorin, Lasker and Steinitz; Tarrasch did not play). Pillsbury appears to have contracted syphilis prior to the start of the event. Although he was in the lead after the first half of the tournament (Pillsbury 6½ points out of 9, Lasker 5½, Steinitz 4½, Chigorin 1½), he was affected by severe headaches and scored only 1½/9 in the second half, ultimately finishing third (Lasker 11½/18, Steinitz 9½, Pillsbury 8, Chigorin 7). He lost a critical fourth cycle encounter to Lasker, and Garry Kasparov has suggested that had he won, he could well have won the tournament and forced a world championship match against Lasker.[1]

U.S. Champion 1897

In spite of his ill health, Pillsbury beat American champion Jackson Showalter in 1897 to win the U.S. Chess Championship, a title he held until his death in 1906.

Decline and death

Poor health would prevent him from realizing his full potential throughout the rest of his life. The stigma surrounding syphilis makes it unlikely that he sought medical treatment. He succumbed to the illness in 1906.

Pillsbury is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading, Massachusetts.

Lifetime records

Pillsbury had an even record against Lasker (+5-5=4). He even beat Lasker with the black pieces at Saint Petersburg in 1895 and at Augsburg in 1900 (however this was an offhand game, not played in a tournament):

Chess zhor 26.png
Chess zver 26.png a8 rd b8 c8 d8 qd e8 rd f8 g8 kd h8 Chess zver 26.png
a7 pd b7 pd c7 pd d7 e7 bd f7 g7 pd h7 pd
a6 b6 c6 d6 e6 f6 g6 h6
a5 b5 c5 d5 pl e5 f5 pd g5 h5
a4 b4 c4 d4 e4 bd f4 pl g4 bl h4
a3 b3 c3 bl d3 e3 f3 g3 ql h3 nl
a2 pl b2 pl c2 pl d2 e2 f2 g2 pl h2 pl
a1 b1 c1 kl d1 rl e1 f1 g1 h1 rl
Chess zhor 26.png
The position after 16. Bxg4

1. e4 e5 2. f4 d5 3. exd5 e4 4. Nc3 Nf6 5. Qe2 Bd6 6. d3 O-O 7. dxe4 Nxe4 8. Nxe4 Re8 9. Bd2 Bf5 10. O-O-O Bxe4 11. Qg4 f5 12. Qg3 Nd7 13. Bc3 Nf6 14. Nh3 Ng4 15. Be2 Be7 16. Bxg4 (see diagram) Bh4 17. Bxf5 Bxg3 18. Be6+ Rxe6 19. dxe6 Qe8 20. hxg3 Bxg2 21. Rhe1 Bxh3 22. Rd7 Qg6 23. b3 Re8 24. Re5 Bxe6 25. Rxc7 Qxg3 26. Kb2 h6 27. Rxb7 Rc8 28. Bd4 Qg2 29. Rxa7 Rxc2+ 30. Kb1 Qd2 0-1

Pillsbury also had an even score against Steinitz (+5-5=3) and Tarrasch (+5-5=2), but a slight minus against Chigorin (+7-8=6) and surprisingly against Joseph Henry Blackburne (+3-5=4), while he beat David Janowski (+6-4=2) and Geza Maroczy (+4-3=7) and crushed Carl Schlechter (+8-2=9).

Blindfold skill

Pillsbury was a very strong blindfold chess player, and could play checkers and chess simultaneously while playing a hand of whist, and reciting a list of long words. His maximum was 22 simultaneous blindfold games at Moscow 1902. However, his greatest feat was 21 simultaneous games against the players in the Hannover Hauptturnier of 1902—the winner of the Hauptturnier would be recognized as a master, yet Pillsbury scored +3-7=11. As a teenager, Edward Lasker played Pillsbury in a blindfold exhibition in Breslau, against the wishes of his mother, and recalled in Chess Secrets I learned from the Masters:

But it soon became evident that I would have lost my game even if I had been in the calmest of moods. Pillsbury gave a marvellous performance, winning 13 of the 16 blindfold games, drawing two, and losing only one. He played strong chess and made no mistakes [presumably in recalling the positions]. The picture of Pillsbury sitting calmly in an armchair, with his back to the players, smoking one cigar after another, and replying to his opponents' moves after brief consideration in a clear, unhesitating manner, came back to my mind 30 years later, when I refereed Alekhine's world record performance at the Chicago World's Fair, where he played 32 blindfold games simultaneously. It was quite an astounding demonstration, but Alekhine made quite a number of mistakes, and his performance did not impress me half as much as Pillsbury's in Breslau.


  1. ^ Kasparov on Pillsbury, Chessbase, 17-Jun-2006

Further reading

  • Cherniaev, Alexander (2006). Harry Nelson Pillsbury: A Genius Ahead of His Time. Books from Europe. ISBN 5903229034.  

External links

Preceded by
Jackson Showalter
United States Chess Champion
Succeeded by
Jackson Showalter

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