- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Like Greek poetry, American chess started at the top and has worked to recover its original brilliance ever since.

Just as Homer set the bar pretty high with his first couple of works, so an unknown young New Orleans player, Paul Morphy, would win this country’s first real chess tournament, New York’s First American Chess Congress in 1857, and go on to become one of the game’s greatest talents. Not until Bobby Fischer emerged a century later would the U.S. produce a world-beating talent on a par with Morphy.

And as with Homer, Morphy’s achievements were so monumental that they obscure those who came before him. On this patriotic week, we shine a red, white and blue spotlight on two players who thrived in the pre-Morphy era.

Like many of the best early stars of the American game, the combatants in today’s game were immigrants. Charles Vezin (1781-1853) was a German who settled in Philadelphia, while James Thompson (1804-1870) was born in London before emigrating and settling in New York. Thompson was the more accomplished player — he founded the New York Chess Club, played in the landmark 1857 Congress and even took a few casual games from Morphy despite an 0-6 record in tournament play — but here Vezin uses a nice sacrificial attack to take the point.

Morphy may have perfected many of the ideas of modern positional play, but this game makes clear his predecessors knew a thing or two about tactics. When Black wastes time repositioning his knight, Vezin immediately goes on the attack

Thus: 12. b3 Nh8? (see diagram; with the f-file open and White’s bishops raking the kingside, Black needs to get other pieces into the game) 13. Bxh7+! Kxh7 14. Ng5+ Kg8 (forced, as Bxg5? 15. Rxf8 Bxc1 16. Qh5+ is deadly) 15. Rxf8+ Kxf8 16. Qh5, already threatening 17. Qxh8 mate.

Black desperately tries to create a diversion on the queenside, but White keeps his eye on the prize. The absence of any defenders leaves Thompson’s king helpless after 19. Bxg5 Qb5 (Black does get in a mate-in-one threat, but it’s still hopeless) 20. Nd2 (stopping the mate and freeing the White rook to join the attack) Kg6 20. h4 Qe2 21. Rf1 cxd4 22. Bf6! (one last mini-combination: 22gxf6 23. Rxf6 mate) Qxd2, and Black resigned before Vezin could deliver the clincher with 23. Qxg7+ Kh5 24. g4 mate.

Vezin-Thompson, Match, Philadelphia 1845

1. e4 c5 2. f4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. e5 Nc6 5. c3 Be7 6. Bd3 f6 7. Bc2 Nh6 8. d4 O-O 9. O-O Qb6 10. Kh1 fxe5 11. fxe5 Nf7 12. b3 Nh8 13. Bxh7+ Kxh7 14. Ng5+ Kg8 15. Rxf8+ Kxf8 16. Qh5 Bxg5 17. Qxh8+ Kf7 18. Bxg5 Qb5 19. Nd2 Kg6 20. h4 Qe2 21. Rf1 cxd4 22. Bf6 Qxd2 and Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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