The annual Christmas holiday tournament held in the Sussex town of Hastings, England, may have peaked a little early, but it’s still been a reliable producer of top-flight chess in the 125 years since its unforgettable opening act.
The storied Hastings Tournament of 1895, sensationally won by unheralded American entry Harry Nelson Pillsbury over a field that included Emanuel Lasker, Siegbert Tarrasch, Mikhail Chigorin, Wilhelm Steinitz, Isidor Gunsberg and Carl Schlechter, is widely considered one of the great round-robin clashes in the history of the game. A quarter-century later, British organizers began staging elite annual international chess “congresses” at the seaside resort, alongside large open tournaments and amateur events.
If they never quite captured the magic of that very first tournament, Hastings nevertheless became a popular fixture on the chess calendar. World champions who have played — and won — at Hastings included Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal and Anatoly Karpov. Bobby Fischer never played Hastings, but three Americans matched Pillsbury’s achievement: Frank Marshall (1928/1929), Reuben Fine (1935/1936) and Sammy Reshevsky (1937/1938).
That rich history is engagingly retold in a new book by German authors Norbert Wallet and FM Jurgen Brustkern: “The Chess Battles of Hastings: Stories and Games of the Oldest Chess Tournament in the World,” (NewInChess, 375 pp., $32.95 hardcover), though the publishers might want to rethink that subtitle given that New York in September staged what organizers say was the 144th annual state championship.
There are stories galore of memorable tournaments and individual accomplishments. Czech GM Salo Flohr won or tied for first four years in a row in the early 1930s and the great Yuglosavian GM Svetozar Gligoric won Hastings a record five times between 1951 and 1963 and also came in second seven more times.
The book offers a generous sampling of the action over the years, often with annotations from the players themselves. Ukrainian-born Soviet great David Bronstein claimed three Hastings titles, with the first coming in 1952/1953 and the last more than two decades later. His first game on his way to first place at the 1975/1976 51st Christmas Congress paired the 51-year-old Bronstein against Argentine GM Julio Kapaln, a talented former world junior champion.
Bronstein plays provocatively as Black in the early stages of this French Defense, remarking that he went with 8. Qd2 c5!? 9. d5!? (also playable was 9. 0-0-0 f5 10. Ng3 cxd4 11. Qxd4 with a slight edge) just to get his plainly reluctant opponent to advance his d-pawn. Things quickly get sharp after 9…f5 10. dxe6 (Ng3 Nf6 11. 0-0-0 was another way to go, with an edge) fxe4 11. exd7+ (exf7+?! Kxf7 12. Qf4+ Kg7 13. Qg4+ Kf8 14. Qxe4 Nf6, and Black defends) Qxd7 12. Qc3 — White has a lead in development and the better pawn structure, but the position is not without a dash of poison for both sides.
Kaplan goes awry on 14. 0-0-0 Qxf2 15. Nxe4? (recovering the pawn right away allows Black to seize the initiative and mobilize his army; better, according to Bronstein, was 15. Bc4) Qf4+! 16. Nd2 Bg4 17. Re1 Bg5 and suddenly it is White who is tied down.
Things come to a head on 21. Rf5 Bh6 (Bronstein, one of the game’s great annotators in addition to his marvelous skill at the board, remarks here: “Such a lovely bishop! If there had been a few even safer squares further along the diagonal, I would have retreated him even further!”) 22. Bxe2 (Re1 Qg3!, and if 23. Rxe2??, 23…Qe1+ wins on the spot) Qxc3 23. bxc3 Rxe2 24. Rd5 (see diagram; Black exploits the adage that the best way to exploit a positional bind is to tighten it even further) Rxd2!!, setting White an insoluble problem.
After 25. Rxd2 Rd8 26. Rhd1 c4!, Kaplan’s predicament becomes clear: Black doesn’t want to recover the exchange but will just wait until White runs out of pawn pushes and must move his king away from c1, costing him a full rook. White resigned.
Hastings has had just one female winner in its long history, and there’s no bonus points for guessing who: Hungary’s great Judit Polgar, who shared first in 1992/1993 at the age of 16 on her way to becoming the greatest woman player of all time. In her Hastings win, Polgar not only tied Russian GM Evgeny Bareev, rated No. 4 in the world at the time, but defeated the Russian twice, including a last-round victory that allowed her to catch her rival.
It’s another French Defense that goes in a very different direction, and Bareev may have underestimated his young opponent’s attacking skills on 16. c5 Be7 17. Bd3 Bxg2?! (Bd5 18. Qc2 Nxe5 19. dxe5 and Black is at least equal), grabbing a pawn but opening up a very dangerous file.
Both players miss shots as the tension grows, but the defender’s oversights are always more costly in these positions: 20. Ng6!? Re8?! (later it was found that the exchange sacrifice with 20…Rf6 21. Rg3 Rxg6! 22. Rxg6 Nf8 23. Rg3 Bf6 gives Black a very promising game) 21. c6 Nf8 22. Ne5 Bh4? (Bf6! 23. Qe2 Qe7 24. Qh5 Kh8! defends) 23. Qe2?! (Brustkern says both players saw 23. Rxg7+ Kxg7 24. Rg1+ Kh7, but missed the follow-up 25. Qe2! [falling short is 25. Bxf5+? exf5 26. Qxf5+ Kh8 27. Nf7+ Bxf7 28. Qxf7 Bg5!] Qf6 26. Qh5, with a raging attack) Qf6 24. Qh5, when 24…Re7! is clunky but holds the line.
Polgar is not one to miss a rook sacrifice twice after the game’s 24…Red8?. It’s over on 25. Rxg7+!! Kxg7 (Qxg7 26. Qxh4 Ng6 27. Nxg6 Qxg6 28. Rg1 Bg2 29. Bf1 and wins) 26. Rg1+ Kh8 (Kh7 27. Ng4! wins) 27. Nf7+ Kh7 28. Nxh6, and Black resigned not needing to see 28…Qxh6 (the desperado 28…Bf3 is refuted by 29. Ng4+ Kg7 30. Nxf6+ Kxf6 31. Qxh4+) 29. Qf7+ Kh8 and either the White queen or rook can deliver mate on g8.
Speaking of traditional tournaments and great fields, the just-announced Masters section of January’s 85th Tata Steel Tournament in the great Dutch chess town of Wijk aan Zee will have world champ Magnus Carlsen, world No. 2 Ding Liren, and top American GMs Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So in the 14-player field.
Just as intriguing is the next-generation contingent who will also compete, including a trio of impossibly young and talented Indian junior GMs: Dommaraju Gukesh (better known as Gukesh D.), Arjun Erigaisi and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Kaplan-Bronstein, 51st Hastings Christmas Congress, Hastings, England, December 1975
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 gxf6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Qd2 c5 9. d5 f5 10. dxe6 fxe4 11. exd7+ Qxd7 12. Qc3 O-O 13. Nd2 Qf5 14. O-O-O Qxf2 15. Nxe4 Qf4+ 16. Nd2 Bg4 17. Re1 Bg5 18. Bd3 Rae8 19. Ref1 Qe3 20. h3 Be2 21. Rf5 Bh6 22. Bxe2 Qxc3 23. bxc3 Rxe2 24. Rd5 Rxd2 25. Rxd2 Rd8 26. Rhd1 c4 White resigns.
Polgar-Bareev, Hastings international Congress, Hastings, England, January 1993
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Nbd7 6. Nf3 h6 7. Nxf6+ Nxf6 8. Be3 Bd6 9. Qd3 b6 10. Ne5 Bb7 11. Qb5+ Nd7 12. O-O-O a6 13. Qb3 b5 14. c4 O-O 15. f4 Be4 16. c5 Be7 17. Bd3 Bxg2 18. Rhg1 Bd5 19. Qc2 f5 20. Ng6 Re8 21. c6 Nf8 22. Ne5 Bh4 23. Qe2 Qf6 24. Qh5 Red8 25. Rxg7+ Kxg7 26. Rg1+ Kh8 27. Nf7+ Kh7 28. Nxh6 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.