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Overlooked U.S. stars
Question of the Day
Beside the brilliant achievements of such American greats as Morphy, Marshall, Pillsbury and Fischer, the records of some of the country’s lesser stars tend to be eclipsed. On this most patriotic of weeks, we offer a look at a couple of former U.S. champs that even aficionados may not immediately recognize.
George Henry Mackenzie, born in Scotland in 1834, was a full-time soldier before turning to chess full time in the 1860s. He served with the British army in India and in 1863 emigrated to the United States and rose to be a captain in the Union army.
He inherited the U.S. title when Morphy retired from competition in 1871, but justified the honor by dominating the American chess scene for the next 20 years, winning multiple American Chess Congress titles. He also enjoyed a fine international career, capped by a clear first in the 1887 5th German Championship in Frankfurt, besting a world-class field that included Blackburne, Zukertort, Paulsen and Tarrasch.
Little remembered today, Mackenzie is rated one of the half-dozen best players of his time in the “Oxford Companion to Chess.”
Mackenzie finished fourth in a strong international tournament in Vienna in 1882, but he did score an impressive victory in the very first round against Polish master Simon Winawer, who would go on to share first prize with world champion Wilhelm Steinitz.
This Berlin Ruy Lopez takes a much sharper turn than the more modern treatment favored by current world champion Vladimir Kramnik. It’s not clear if Mackenzie, playing White, just misses Black’s tactical trick after 16. exd6 Bxd6 17. Bc4!? or whether he calculated the open h-file would be sufficient compensation for the two lost pawns.
Still, it’s a wide-open struggle after 17…Bxh2+! 18. Kf1! (some sources give 18. Kh1?? here, which loses at once to 18…Qh4 19. g3 Bxg3+, while 18. Kxh2? Qh4+ 19. Kg1 [Qh3 Qxc4] Qxc4 is very pleasant for Black) Qh4 19. Bb3! Qxh6 20. g3 Qf8 21. Kg2 Bxg3 22. Qxg3 gives White good pressure against the Black king.
Winawer puts up a stout defense, but finally cracks under the strain: 26. Kf1 Qf5 (see diagram) 27. Rd8+! Kg7 (Nxd8?? 28. Qxd8+ Kg7 29. Qxe7+ Kh8 30. Rxh7 mate) 28. Qd6 Qg5! (the only move: 28…Rf7 29. Bxe6 Qxe6 30. Qxe6 Bxe6 31. Rxa8 wins) 29. Rg1 Qc5?, when it’s still a game after 29…Qh4! 30. Ne4! Nxd8 31. Qd4+.
Black’s move loses to a cute little combination — 30. Rg8+! Kxg8 31. Qxc5, and the suddenly pinned knight can’t recapture. Black resigned.
n n n
One of the more obscure U.S. champions has to be IM Stuart Rachels, who shared the 1989-90 title with GMs Roman Dzindzichashvili and Yasser Seirawan. The Alabama native had won the 1988 U.S. junior title, earning a spot in the championship in Long Beach, Calif., but few expected the 20-year-old Southerner to do well.
But Rachels had the tournament of his life, going undefeated with wins over such veteran grandmasters as Walter Browne, Dmitry Gurevich and Igor Ivanov. Rachels is the last nongrandmaster to win or share the U.S. national title.
One of his best games at Long Beach came while playing Black against GM Sergey Kudrin early in the tournament. White’s 12. a4 Bh3 13. Ra2?! is one of those super-subtle moves apparently designed to befuddle an inexperienced opponent, but Rachels‘ straightforward play refutes White’s plans.
Thus: 20. Rg2 (the rook lift was designed to shore up the second rank so White could pursue his own attacking plans) h4 21. gxh4 Rxh4 22. f4?! (fxg4 was playable, as 22…0-0-0 23. g5! Bg7 24. Nf5 is strong) Nd7 23. Nb5 0-0-0!, letting the a-pawn go to get a second rook into the attack.
White may have underestimated his opponent’s threats on 26. Qe1 g3 27. Qa5? (Bg1! Bd4 28. Nb5! [Bxd4? Rxh2+ 29. Rxh2 g2+] Bxg1 29. Kxg1 Rxh2 30. Rxh2 gxh2+ 31. Kh1 Qd3 32. Qf2 Qe4+ 33. Qg2 holds; Kudrin’s threat now is 28. Nc6+ bxc6 [Kc8 29. Qa8+ Kc7 30. Qa5+ is a draw] 29. Qa7+ Kc8 30. Qa6+ Kd8 31. Qa5+, when 31…Ke8? loses to 32. Qa8+ Nb8 33. Qxb8+ Kd7 34. Qb7+ Kd8 35. Bb6+ Ke8 36. Qc8 mate) Rxh2+ 28. Rxh2 Qe4+!.
By Michael P. Orsi
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