Chess Cunning, Gamesmanship and Skulduggery

Edward Winter

C.N. 2761 quoted from pages 164-165 of Complete Chess Strategy: Play on the Wings (London, 1978 and New York, 1979), where Ludĕk Pachman related a piece of foxiness to which he resorted in his game against Zbigniew Doda of Poland at the Capablanca Memorial Tournament in Havana, 1965:


Doda (Black) has just played his knight to e5 from d7, threatening to bring it to either g4 or d3. Pachman relates:

‘My first reaction was to consider immediate resignation at this point, but I then saw the glimmer of a chance. If I could ward off the immediate threat with Qd2 and after …Nd3 guard the b-pawn by Nd1, leaving the f-pawn en prise, instead of playing the obvious but passive Nce2, then it would be dangerous for Black to capture the f-pawn in view of the sudden resurgence of White’s attack by Nf5! However, it seemed too slender a prospect that my opponent would readily fall in with my plan. He only had to check that it would be risky to capture the f-pawn after Nd1!? and White’s position would be hopeless in view of the strongly-placed black knight. Was there any way of “bluffing” my opponent into capturing the pawn? If I were in time-trouble he might imagine that Nd1 was a blunder on my part, but I had more than one hour for the remaining 13 moves! This meant that, in order to attempt this ploy, I would have to devote most of the remaining time to “thinking about” 28 Qd2, and then play 29 Nd1 very quickly in my artificially created time-trouble! And so I stayed quietly at the board for a whole hour, thinking of anything but chess and patiently suffering the sight of my fellow competitors gathering around the board to gaze upon the ruins of my position. I allowed myself a mere three minutes for the remaining 13 moves, the absolute minimum required in case my opponent should err. Meanwhile he was walking about on the stage, no doubt pleased with his position and returning to the board occasionally to check the time on my clock.

At three minutes to the hour I played 28 Qd2 and after 28…Nd3 the immediate 29 Nd1, whereupon Doda glanced at my clock, thought for no more than 30 seconds, then captured the pawn 29…Nxf4? (of course 29…Bg4 was one of the various ways to win). The rest of the game followed at lightning speed, with my opponent in no way short of time but clearly depressed by the piece sacrifice: 30 Nf5! gxf5 31 Rg3+ Kh8 32 Qxf4 Rb3? (even after the better 32…Qxe4 White would have a strong attack by 33 Qd2 f4 34 Rf3 and 35 Rxf4) 33 Nc3 Rxb2 34 exf5 Bd7 35 Ne4 Re2 36 Nxf6 Rxf6 (after 36…Re5 37 Ng4 Rxf5 38 Nh6! Rf8 39 Rg5! wins) 37 Qg5 Re1+ 38 Kh2 1-0.’

Pachman annotated the full game on pages 59-61 of his subsequent book Jak přelstít svého soupeře? (Pliska, 1990). An ironic point not mentioned by him in either work is that according to page 78 of the tournament book (IV Torneo internacional “José Raúl Capablanca”, published by Editorial Sopena Argentina S.A., Buenos Aires in 1965) Black lost by overstepping the time-limit.

Later on, in C.N. 2853, Javier Asturiano Molina (Murcia, Spain) pointed out that a slightly different version of this episode was related by Pachman on pages 85-87 of his book Ajedrez y Comunismo (Barcelona, 1974), i.e. the Spanish version of Jetzt kann ich sprechen (Düsseldorf, 1973):

‘The clock indicated that there were still two minutes until the time-limit. In fact, that was the margin that I had intended for executing the ten remaining moves. I made the move that I had thought of one hour previously. Doda quickly returned to the board and, after thinking briefly, took my pawn. With feigned alarm, I looked at the clock and, at the speed of light, I put another pawn before his nose. He shook his head, glanced at my clock and took the pawn. He certainly thought that I was lost and that, on account of Zeitnot, I had lost all control and would sacrifice one piece after another. With stunning speed, yet another sacrifice. This time Doda suspected something; he put his head in his hands and thought intensely. But it was already too late. (...) With blow after blow I was cornering the black king. Barely two minutes had sufficed to carry out the devastating attack. Shortly before the time-control, my opponent resigned.’

See also pages 56-57 of Pachman’s book Checkmate in Prague (London, 1975).

This familiar anecdote from pages 12-13 of The Bright Side of Chess by Irving Chernev (Philadelphia, 1948) was given in C.N. 4386:



Chernev did not specify his source, but the story had appeared on page 25 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 24 June 1885 and on page 232 of the June 1885 BCM, with both magazines recording that, according to the Melbourne Leader, it had been related by Blackburne. See also page 222 of the November 1915 American Chess Bulletin. The wording is similar in all four cases.

The C.N. item mentioned that we had not come across any publication of the tale during Harrwitz’s lifetime (he died in 1884) or any further information about the position in question. On the other hand, we added that under the title ‘Skulduggery’ C.N. 2157 had given a position which had appeared in the Chess Weekly (19 December 1908, page 25):

chess weekly

The over-the-board play corresponds perfectly to the Harrwitz story: White made an illegal move with a knight which was under attack by a pawn and, after moving his king as a penalty and having his knight captured, he announced mate in four. Can all this be a coincidence, or does a more complicated explanation exist?

Next, a more innocent episode. Page 243 of the June 1892 BCM had the following position, which was discussed in C.N. 4450:


Jackson Whipps Showalter v Professor J.E. Logan (White to play)

W.H.K. Pollock commented:

‘And here we can save a separate chapter on “Showalter’s Chess Finessing, or High Cunning”, by giving a diagram of a game-ending which does seem to illustrate the peculiar feature called finesse – like a trap, good play, if the prey snaring himself, the trapper loseth neither bait nor tackle. This was the outcome of an Evans, played by correspondence, between Mr S. and a strong amateur of Louisville.

Now White (as the moves will shew) would like Black to play ...Nc4. Therefore he does not play Qf5 at once, but makes a move to prevent ...Nc4, in other words puts it into his opponent’s head to play ...Nc4. The game proceeded 18 Qg4 h5 19 Qf5 Nc4 20 Rxc4 Qxc4 21 Nd5 Qc5 22 Qe6+ Kf8 23 Bxf6 Re8. White announced mate in seven (24 Ne7, etc.).’

The full game-score of the game was given in C.N. 2694 (see page 199 of A Chess Omnibus), from page 382 of La Stratégie, 15 December 1890. For the record, the moves were: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 b4 Bxb4 5 c3 Bc5 6 d4 exd4 7 O-O d6 8 cxd4 Bb6 9 Nc3 Na5 10 Bg5 f6 11 Bxg8 Rxg8 12 Bh4 Bg4 13 e5 dxe5 14 Re1 Bxf3 15 Qxf3 Qxd4 16 Re4 Qd7 17 Rd1 Qf7 18 Qg4 h5 19 Qf5 Nc4 20 Rxc4 Qxc4 21 Nd5 Qc5 22 Qe6+ Kf8 23 Bxf6 Re8. The announced mate in seven moves is 24 Ne7 Qxf2+ 25 Kh1 Qxf6 26 Ng6+ Qxg6 27 Rf1+ Bf2 28 Rxf2+ Qf6 29 Rxf6+ gxf6 30 Qxf6.

Our final example was recorded in C.N. 5145. From pages 24-25 of Not Only Chess by Gerald Abrahams (London, 1974):

‘... Cold-blooded gamesman-planning is rare. But I have one pretty example. At my first British Championship, [at Ramsgate] in 1929, a friend of mine – who is a magnificent analyst and celebrated in the chess world – found himself in a very bad position. But there was a way out. Given that his opponent (a very strong player) did not see the threat, it was possible, with a series of sacrifices, to achieve stalemate. But he had to include in his play a clearly inadequate move, which would inevitably warn his opponent. After all, one plays chess on the assumption that the opponent sees everything. (That is why the word “trap” is not a good chess term.) But my friend devised a psychological trap. He sat and looked at the board with a despairing face until he was well and truly in time trouble. Then he fumblingly made the crucial moves. His opponent, tempted to a little gamesmanship himself, was playing very quickly. Quick came the erroneous capture. Even quicker came the series of sacrifices and, while the flag was tottering, stalemate supervened. Now could he have improved on things in the following way: touched the piece, taken his hand away, and let himself be compelled to move the piece at random? No, he had thought of that, but dismissed it as sharp practice.’

Abrahams then gave the relevant position:


‘Time control at move 40. At move 31 Black has played R-Kt6, a good move, because, if either rook guards the bishop, RxB wins.’

Play continued: 32 Bd2 Rg3+ 33 Kh1 Rxh3+ 34 Kg1 Rd3 35 Bc1 (‘Leaving himself less than half a minute on his clock.’) 35...Rc7 36 Bg5 (‘Finger staying on his clock; and Black falls for it.’) 36...Rg3+ 37 Kh1


37...Rxg5 38 R1f7+ Rxf7 39 Rxf7+ (‘Forcing stalemate or perpetual check.’).

Abrahams did not name the players, but the position after White’s 37th move was given on page 346 of the September 1929 BCM. W.A. Fairhurst was White against T.H. Tylor.

See also C.N. 6837 (Machiavellian match-players).

A topical thought in conclusion. Unspecific accusations of dishonesty concerning chess players will result in an international news story. Specific proof of dishonesty concerning chess writers will result in international silence.

The above article originally appeared at, on 23 January 2011.

From page 308 of the July 1920 Chess Amateur:


After correction of a couple of obvious errors in the Forsyth notation the position, it will be noted, is the same as the one given on page 25 of the 19 December 1908 issue of the Chess Weekly (which did not mention Harrwitz).



Another version of the tale, this time with Blackburne supposedly claiming that he was the player in question:

‘A good story is told by J.H. Blackburne, which runs as follows:

“When playing a game once at a London Chess Club I saw that by moving my king and allowing my opponent to capture my knight I could announce mate. Fearful that my opponent would notice this, I deliberately made a false move with the knight, and my opponent pounced upon this and made me move my king. Needless to say, my man took the knight, and I blandly announced mate in four.”’

Source: Chess Amateur, November 1921, page 36.



White to move

In this position, wrote Irving Chernev on page 158 of 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (New York, 1955), White was ‘cunning as a fox’ by playing 11 Re1, and not Rd1.


Chernev also gave the game on page 29 of Wonders and Curiosities of Chess (New York, 1974), but this time dated 1877:


It is unclear why, in both books, Chernev stated that the venue was New York, given the references below to New Jersey.

The cunning of Alfred P. Barnes in this game was remarked upon on page 29 of Brentano’s Chess Monthly, May 1881:


The game had been published by James Mason on page 483 of Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, 26 December 1874:


However, when Mason included the score on pages 77-78 of Social Chess (London, 1900) it was not presented as an odds game:




A similar item, with no date or venue, appeared on page 74 of The Fireside Book of Chess by I. Chernev and F. Reinfeld (New York, 1949).

Concerning the Milan Matulović/j’adoube affair, see C.N. 9737.

Latest update: 29 February 2016.

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