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On Chess: Brilliancy In Chess

The first brilliancy prize in a tournament was awarded to the Englishman Henry Bird for his victory over James Mason of Ireland in 1876.
World Chess Hall of Fame | Carmody Creative

Compared to other arts or sports, chess is an easy game to learn but a difficult one to master. Just how difficult?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book "Outliers: the Story of Success," postulates that “the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” 

However, while that might get you to the level of national master (2200), it is nowhere near the top of the ladder. The international master (2400) and grandmaster (2500) titles are well above this, yet far from becoming champion (2800+).

Gladwell’s judgment is not new. Forty years ago, in a paper in American Scientist, Herbert Simon and William Chase drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:

"There are no instant experts in chess — certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions."

The level of national master is the point at which a player becomes capable of playing a mistake-free game from beginning to end, but this is more of a technical than artistic achievement. To go beyond this and play a game which is both sound and filled with imagination — where standard rules are cast aside — requires something much more. So rare and special are these games that they are referred to as brilliancy prize games.

Since chess was first played, fans of the game have put the highest value on games which feature shocking and surprising moves, ones that raise the pulse from 60 beats per minute to 160 in a matter of seconds. These mind-over-matter battles, in which the normal pace is transcended, ensure the winner and the loser instant immortality, their names destined to be remembered for as long as chess is played.

Brilliancy for the ages

The first brilliancy prize in a tournament was awarded to the Englishman Henry Bird for his victory over James Mason of Ireland. Bird sacrificed his queen for a rock, obtaining long-term compensation, but no immediate win. The game took place in New York in 1876, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, but is still played over and reviewed by chess players today.

One of the first games to be universally recognized as a true brilliancy was played between the champions of the U.S. and Russia in Breslau, Germany, in 1912.

There, Frank Marshall defeated Stepan Levitsky in a smoke-filled tournament room crowded with onlookers, finishing the game by playing a spectacular move that allowed his queen to be captured three different ways, but which offered Levitsky no defense.

Legend has it that the spectators were so caught up in the moment that they showered the board with gold pieces to honor Marshall for his fantastic feat of imagination. More skeptical souls have speculated that this exciting game generated a lot of betting action and that the incident at its conclusion was just the losers paying up.

This historic encounter later inspired a doppelganger brilliancy prize won by Nicolas Rossolimo against Paul Reissmann at the U.S. Open in San Juan Puerto Rico in 1967.

Rossolimo, in the spirit of Marshall, moved his queen to a seemingly impossible square where it could be captured by two different pawns.

Marshall and Rossolimo, New Yorkers who both managed chess clubs (the Marshall Chess Club and Rossolimo’s Chess Studio), were kindred souls who shared both an artistic temperament for the game and a romantic and adventurous outlook on life.

Marshall was known to walk even the most dangerous streets of New York, comforted by his cane which doubled as a concealed gun, while Rossolimo drove a taxi, practiced judo, recorded folk albums and was an expert linguist. Both were expert chess alchemists who could make their pieces come to life.

Chess is often referred to as part sport, part science and part art, and it is the latter category where the brilliancy prize fits.

While art and sport don’t always mix, in chess they sometimes do, and it should come as no surprise that world champions have won more than their fair share of brilliancy prizes. International master Jeremy Silman, in an article written for chess.com, calculated that Mikhail Tal, the “Wizard of Riga,” is the all-time brilliancy prize holder with 15 prizes, followed by Gary Kasparov with 12 and Anatoly Karpov with 10.

Bobby Fischer, who admittedly had a much shorter career, won only four, but if one single battle by a world champion is to be remembered, it might be Bobby Fischer’s victory over Donald Byrne in the 1956 Rosenwald tournament, where the 13-year-old sacrificed his queen in what Hans Kmoch dubbed the “Game of the Century.”

If that doesn’t do it, there is always Fischer’s win over Byrne’s brother Robert Bryne in the 1963-1964 U.S. Championship. Rumor has it that the two grandmasters in the commentary room thought that Fischer was lost, just before he played his final move which caused Bryne’s resignation.

Changes to brilliancy

The late international master Danny Kopec, in his introduction to "Winning the Won Game: Lessons from the Albert Brilliancy Prize," writes about how what constitutes a brilliancy prize has changed over time.

The importance of the underlying soundness of the game is now deemed essential. Flawed play, imaginative though it might be, no longer passes muster. He also quotes the Russian professor A. Smirnov, writing in 1925, whose definition of brilliance in chess is still relevant today:

"Brilliance in chess is a complex concept, as complex as the nature of chess itself, combining features of art and science. Its main indication is practical expediency, with which it not only accidentally coincides, but is also intrinsically linked. Scientific thought appears brilliant to us, when it appears distinctly, apparently unexpectedly, and most important fruitfully. It’s precisely this that constitutes intrinsic brilliance in chess."

No matter what the formal definition of brilliancy in chess is, chess players know it when they see it. As long as the game is played, these inspired games and the players who create them will be remembered.

For more information about brilliancy prizes or to learn about the related exhibition, "A Beautiful Game" at the World Chess Hall of Fame, click here or visit the museum, seven days a week. The exhibition is on view through March 22 with free admission.

International master John Donaldson served as chess director of the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco from 1998 to 2018. He worked for Inside Chess magazine from 1988 to 2000 and has authored over 30 books on the game. He is also a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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