- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The estimable Chess Journalists of America has just handed out its 2019 awards and our humble little effort here has once again been named the “best regular newspaper chess column” in the country.

Much as I enjoy adding the magic phrase “award-winning” to my title as chess journalist, the honor does inspire a little melancholy. The roster of newspaper chess columns has thinned dramatically in recent years, as so much great chess writing, reporting and CJA award categories have gravitated to the internet. It’s only through the loyalty of my readers and the indulgence — or perhaps inattention — of The Washington Times’ editors here that we still get our little weekly space for these past 26 years.

‘Twas not always thus. Every newspaper worth its salt once carried a quality chess column, and such greats as Wilhelm Steinitz, Israel Albert Horowitz, Larry Evans, Robert Byrne, John Peters, Lubomir Kavalek and my own great predecessor Edwin Albaugh once bestrode the land, their dispatches eagerly awaited by news-starved chess fans.

(As if to mark the end of an era, the great Shelby Lyman, PBS commentator for the Spassky-Fischer match in 1972 and a syndicated chess columnist with Newsday for decades, died Sunday at the age of 82.)

Perhaps the greatest of them all was Brooklyn-born Hermann Helms. Helms founded the American Chess Bulletin in 1904 and was a promoter who helped organize the two great New York tournaments of 1924 and 1927.

Most notably, however, Helms began a chess column for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1893 and kept it up until the paper folded 62 years later. He also had columns in The New York World, The New York Post and The New York World Telegram, a career of impressive achievement and longevity that earned him the unofficial title of the “dean of American chess.” (Since I’m not even halfway to Helms‘ longevity mark, perhaps I should be known as the “adjunct associate professor of American chess.”)

Helms was also a fine player, a two-time New York state champ and a staple of the city’s chess scene. He collected some notable scalps, including several wins over longtime U.S. champion Frank Marshall. A great attacker, Marshall found himself overwhelmed by the columnist’s aggressiveness in a particularly entertaining 1897 game.

The Ponziani is a rare visitor to master chess these days, and Helms as Black accepts the challenge with 6. 0-0 a6 7. exd5 axb5! 8. Qxa8 Nxd5 (already threatening 9…Nb6 trapping the queen) 9. b4 Bd6 10. Qa3 0-0 11. d3 h6 — with a big lead in development and a far more coherent position, Helms has full compensation for the exchange.

White unwisely opens up the play with the premature 16. d4?, and the battle comes to a head on 21. Ng2 f4 22. Bd2 f3 23. Qxe4 Bh3 24. Ne3 Nf4!?. One threat is 25…Ne2+ 26. Kh1 Nf5 27. Qxe8 Rxe8, with the idea of 28…Rxe3 and 29…Bg2 mate. Under intense pressure, White fails to find the best defense: 25. gxf4? (Rfe1 Bd7 26. Kh1 Qh5 27. c4 finally gives White some counterplay) Rxf4 26. Nd5 (Marshall was famous for his swindles, but this time the mark doesn’t bite; on 26. Qd2, Black has 26…Qh5 27. c4 [Rae1 Rg4+ 28. Kh1 Bg2+ 29. Nxg2 Qxh2 mate] Rg4+ 28. Nxg4 Qxg4+ 29. Kh1 Qg2 mate) Rxe4 27. Nf6+ Kf7 28. Nxe8 Kxe8 29. Nxb5.

White keeps his material edge, but Helms wins a king with 29…Rg4+ 30. Kh1 Bg2+ 31. Kg1 Bxh2+! 32. Kxh2 Rh4+ 33. Kg3 Nf5 mate.

Helms‘ endgame technique was on display in a May 1935 game from his column, covering a Manhattan Chess Club match with Philadelphia’s Mercantile Chess Club. In today’s diagram, the queens have just come off the board after 26. Bc2xd1, and Black goes to work in the very interesting ending that ensues: 26…Ke6 27. Be2 Kd5?! (more accurate, as will be seen, was 27…Bxe2 28. Nxe2 Bf6 29. Kf1 Nc5 30. f3 Na4 31. e4 Bg5, with a clear edge) 28. Kf1 Nc1 29. Bxc4+? (White misses a great chance to change the dynamic with 29. e4+! fxe4 30. Bxc4+ Kxc4 31. Nxe4 Na2 32. Bd2 Kb3 33. Nc5) Kxc4, and now Black’s king invasion proves decisive.

The finale 30. Ne2 (e4 f4! 31. Ne2 Na3, with Kc4-b3 to come) Na2! 31. Ke1 Kb3 32. Kd2 Nxc3 33. bxc3 a5 34. Nc1+ Kxa3 (decisive) 35. Kc2 Ka4 36. Nb3 Kb5 27. Nd2 a4 38. e4 Kc5 39. f3 h5 40. Kb2 b5 41. Ka3 Bh6 42. Nb1 Bc1+ 43. Ka2 Kc4 44. Ka1 Kb3 and White resigned.

Marshall-Helms, Brooklyn, 1897

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 d5 4.Qa4 f6 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.O-O a6 7.exd5 axb5 8.Qxa8 Nxd5 9.b4 Bd6 10.Qa3 O-O 11.d3 h6 12.Be3 b6 13.Qb3 Be6 14.Na3 Qe8 15.Qc2 Nce7 16.d4 Bf5 17.Qb3 e4 18.Nh4 Be6 19.g3 f5 20.Qc2 g5 21.Ng2 f4 22.Bd2 f3 23.Qxe4 Bh3 24.Ne3 Nf4 25.gxf4 Rxf4 26.Nd5 Rxe4 27.Nf6+ Kf7 28.Nxe8 Kxe8 29. Nxb5 Rg4+ 30.Kh1 Bg2+ 31.Kg1 Bxh2+ 32.Kxh2 Rh4+ 33.Kg3 Nf5 mate.

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

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