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Modern Ideas in Chess by Richard Rèti

17. Americanism in Chess

The difference between European and American intellectual life had to find itself also in chess. I shall contrast here two masters, and contemporaries, as representatives of the antithesis, namely, Rudolf Charousek and Harry Nelson Pillsbury. I once wrote the following sketch of Charousek: “Youth has still its dreams and its ideals: but in the struggle for life they wear off. The ordinary citizen soon gets immersed in the troubles of everyday life and ii its sorrows and joys. The right man is he who stands firm by his own ideas; they form the main support of his life and his labours. Still there comes a time when he may renounce them and run his head against the wall. He adapts himself to stern necessity: tardily, gradually, and by circuitous path does he bring his goal by ever so little within his reach.”

“But seldom do we meet with the man who is child-like, yet so great, as to disregard the sharp edges of reality even when they hurt him. His dreams for him are actualities, he walks straight out towards his goal which no road leads. On that account, to those who come after him, does his performance seem so incomprehensively simple.”

“It is a delight to watch a young and gifted chess player. To him have come no sinister experiences; to him continual carping care is foreign. Therefore he loves the attack and the bold sacrifice; for therein lies the shortest way to his ultimate objective.”

“But that state of things does not last long and through failure he becomes wise. Soon the boldness disappears: we find him more concerned with safety and he gathers in the advantages which come into his hands direct. In that way the majority of people play. Here and there we find a player, who is not so easily cowed by untoward experiences. He is still rich in plans, but he bears in mind that he is not playing alone. Therefore he is careful and gets to love the ready-made roads, at most improving them. In that way does the master play.”

“It was otherwise with Charousek. He had to carry out his ideas. He knew no opponent: he only knew his goal. When he ran his head against a wall, he found its weak points and went right through. Always going straight ahead, his execution appears to us to be most simple. And yet no one could emulate him in this very simplicity.”

Is the picture I have just drawn really that of Charousek? No indeed; it is only an ideal, the idealistic picture of a chess master as it floats before my eyes: an ideal to which the real Charousek perhaps approached.

For such is the strength and weakness of the European thinker and plodder, that he always strives after the impossible. The American is steady and turns what is possible to account. The great American chess masters (Morphy, Mackenzie, Pillsbury) astonished the world by their successes at their first appearances. Morphy retired early from chess: Mackenzie and Pillsbury in the long run were bound to acknowledge the greater depth of the worlds champions Steinitz and Lasker. To the European mind has undoubtedly belonged the past; possibly to Americans belong the present and the future.

Pillsbury in his play was a true American. His games, free from all plodding depth of thought and simple in their scheme, show astonishingly big lines in their undertakings and have a refreshing effect upon the onlooker through the energy in their execution. Pillsbury was a disciple of Steinitz: but the latter’s persistent seeking and plodding was foreign to Pillsbury’s character. He adopted indeed the complete practical results of the Steinitz theories and the latter formed the groundwork of Pillsbury’s technique.

Pillsbury is most wonderful when he sets himself out to exploit weaknesses in a hostile position. Then does his play on big lines assert itself; not content with storing up small advantages, he always finds the right method for destroying his opponent’s position root and branch. His games attained a height above the ordinary level and placed Pillsbury in the rank of the great masters.