Brutally Frank

Mark Carney’s appointment as the next Governor of the Bank of England has had the unfortunate consequence of reviving the tired old jokes about Canadians“God’s frozen people” being among the least objectionable, if only because it is not based on the stereotype that Canadians are intrinsically dull.

Yet it set me to thinking: has there been a truly great Canadian chess player? The answer, sadly, seems to be no: although before he quit chess in favour of the more lucrative world of financial analysis, Grandmaster Duncan Suttles played many games of stunning strategic originality during the 1970s. Yet even Suttles did not start life a Canadian: he was born and brought up in San Francisco, and took Canadian citizenship only as an adult. But if childhood and early career make the man, then Canada can indeed claim to have produced one of the most brilliant exponents of the struggle over 64 squares: Frank Marshall. 

Marshall had the remarkable achievement of being US chess champion, without interruption, for 27 years until he relinquished the title voluntarily in 1936. Yet his father had moved the family from New York to Montreal when young Frank was eight years old. It was then and there that he picked up the game and became enraptured by it, an all-consuming love affair that lasted his whole life. Marshall came to public attention as a rare talent when he won the Montreal championship in 1894 at the age of 17. As his autobiography records, “I began to look for new worlds to conquer. Fortunately for me, my family returned to New York a couple of years later . . .”

In the end, Marshall did not succeed in conquering the whole world of chess: although he was universally feared for his slashing attacks and astonishing eye for tactical opportunities, he himself admitted that against the very greatest defensive techniques his method was unsuitable. This explained his crushing defeat at the hands of the great defender Emanuel Lasker in 1907, the one occasion on which Marshall played a match for the supreme title. Yet for his implacable ferocity Marshall was loved by chess followers in the way that the brutal boxer Jack Dempsey was by fight fans during the same era. This was a comparison Marshall himself favoured: “I suppose I am a bit like Dempsey as a fighter. He used to start slugging at the opening gong and never gave his opponent a chance to get started . . . I have always tried to knock out my opponent with a checkmate as soon as possible.”

His approach—of not even allowing the opponent to “get started”can best be illustrated by a celebrated victory against Amos Burn in the Paris tournament of 1900. Here it is, with Marshall’s own witty notes—which explain why this has gone down in history as “the pipe game”: 1.d4 d5 (Britisher Amos Burn was a very conservative player who liked to settle down for a long session of closed, defensive chess. He loved to smoke his pipe while he studied the board) 2.c4 e6 (Burn began hunting through his pockets for his pipe and tobacco) 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 (Not much thought needed on these moves, but Burn had his pipe out and was looking for a pipe cleaner) 5.e3 0-0 6.Nf3 b6 7.Bd3 Bb7 8.cxd5 exd5 (He began filling up his pipe. I speeded up my moves) 9.Bxf6 Bxf6 10.h4 (Made him think on that one. And he still didn’t have the pipe going) g6 11.h5 Re8 12.hxg6 hxg6 (Now he was looking for matches) 13.Qc2 Bg7 14.Bxg6 fxg6 (He struck a match and appeared nervous. The match burned his fingers and went out) 15.Qxg6 Nd7 (Another match was on its way) 16.Ng5 Qf6 (He was puffing away and lighting up at last, but too late) 17.Rh8+ Kxh8 18.Qh7 mate (Poor Burn. I think I swindled him out of that one. If he could only have got his pipe going, it might have been a different story. He took it good-naturedly and we shook hands. Then his pipe went out.) 

Marshall’s name is most closely linked to the unequalled genius that was José Raúl Capablanca, and for several reasons. It was against Capa that Marshall, after years of secret preparation, detonated the bombshell now known as “The Marshall Gambit”. The Cuban won that game, but Marshall’s invention remains one of the most feared of all chess openings after almost a century’s further examination.

It was against Marshall in 1909 that the youthful Capablanca demonstrated his extraordinary talent to the world, by beating the then US champion by the devastating margin of eight wins to one. Most players would have resented such a mortifying defeat to a much younger rival; but Marshall’s generous nature and open-hearted love of the game led him to do all he could to promote Capablanca, especially in Europe where there lingered a condescending attitude to players from the New World.

Yet Marshall did enjoy one notable triumph over Capablanca-and next month marks its 100th anniversary. In February 1913 Havana staged a great tournament, intended as a sort of victory march for its dazzling new star: Capablanca had just beaten Marshall to first place in a tournament in the American’s backyard, New York. But to the dismay-and doubtless astonishment-of the Cubans, Marshall managed to push Capablanca into second place by the narrowest margin. The key was the second individual encounter between the two (this was a double-round event) which Marshall somehow won after surviving a completely lost position in the middle-game.

In his autobiography, Marshall describes an extraordinary scene (more like a bullfight than a chess game) with characteristic vividness: “There was a tremendous crowd, which filled the street outside. Capa had a win, which would have given him first place, but the tension and excitement were too much for him. He played some weak moves and I eventually won the game and first prize. When the result was announced, the crowd let out a terrific roar. At first I thought they were after my blood for defeating their idol and asked for an escort to my hotel. It turned out, however, that the good Cubans were just showing their sportsmanship and were cheering me!”

Maybe the good Cubans were also aware that Marshall had done more than anyone to further the career of their native son. Or perhaps, in common with chess fans the world over, they just loved Frank Marshall.


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