The father of Modern Theory
Most chess players today–if asked ”What can you tell me about Louis Paulsen?” —would probably respond that his name is associated with a well known variation of the Sicilian defence, and that he lost to Paul Morphy in a sensational game from the 1857 New York Chess Congress.
(NOTE: This article was originally published on the 9th of July 2011)
And they would not be wrong about these two things. But there is so much more to Louis Paulsen, the chessplayer. He is the father of modern chess theory.
At a time when opening theory was little studied and very one dimensional , it was considered normal to answer 1.e4 with 1…e5 or 1d4 with 1…d5, Louis Paulsen liked to experiment with systems of defence based on assymetry and an eye for counterplay. His bold ideas were so far advanced for his time, that it was not until decades after his death that the chess community began to show interest in his contributions!
Today it is hard to imagine what the chess world would look like if his ideas had continued to be ignored!
Just a few examples will convince the reader of Paulsen’s enormous contributions:
He invented the Khan/Paulsen variation of the Sicilian defence
This system of defence caught on when the generation that included Tajmanov, Tal and Polugaevsky molded it into a dynamic tournament weapon in the 50s and 60s. Today it is one of the most common openings in the modern grandmaster’s repetoire. I personally have been playing it for more than 30 years, with great success. The list of those who play it include virtually every modern world champion!
He invented what would later in the 20th century be called the Boleslavsky variation of the Sicilian defence
When Isaac Boleslavsky started to popularize this line in the Sicilian in the 1940s, it was considered a revolution in theory! Black voluntarily weakens the d5 square and allows his d-pawn to become backward. The chess world was suspicious, but could not find a refuation! Later Najdorf borrowed the idea and applied it to what would become the most popular move order in any king pawn opening (the Najdorf Variation)!
He invented what was later to be known as the Schevenigen variation of the Sicilian defence:
The Schevenigen Sicilian, is today the cornerstone of every Sicilian variation. Black lines up his queen and rook on the semi-open c file, tries to get in b5, and provokes white into prematurely advancing in the centre. Counterplay is the catchword in this variation: black hopes to get in d5! just as it seems that white is bearing down on the black king. Every strong master has played this system at one time or the other in his games. No world champion has not played it.
Paulsen’s games (the 19th century) in this opening system became models for future generations of masters.
He invented the King’s Indian /Modern systems of defence characterized by a kingside fianchetto:
Defences based on the kingside fianchetto are today so fundamental to opening theory. We have the King’s Indian, the Grunfeld, the Benoni and the Leningrad Dutch (this last one also invented by Paulsen himself!). Some say that he also invented the Dragon variation, and this may be true.
Louis Paulsen laid the foundation for modern chess praxis. His fertile imagination and deep understanding of the game gave the chess world ideas that have made a big difference. Unfortunately, he was not much of a writer.
Also a great blindfold player
Louis Paulsen was born in Germany on June 15,1833 into a relatively wealthy family. He and his brother Wilfred were taught chess by their father and both became strong chess masters. Though it is difficult to say with any certainty, by today’s standards Louis was probably of grandmaster strength in his strongest period. In particular, Paulsen enjoyed researching and analyzing chess openings in the quiet of his study during the evenings.
He lived in the US between 1854 and 1860 in Dubuque, representing the family business (tobacco). Paulsen played chess irregularly until his talent was discovered by a Minneapolis player (known today only as Allison )who arranged for Paulsen to visit the Chicago Chess Club where he demonstrated his astonishing ability to play blindfolded.
But it was at the 1857 New York Chess Congress that he became known nationally, finishing second behind the legendray Paul Morphy. He was crushed by Morphy in their individual encounters, but it must be pointed out that both Morphy and Paulsen completely outclassed the rest of the competition.
Paulsen and Morphy playing
His prowess at blindfold chess made him a star with the media and soon he was in great demand giving simultaneous exhibitions through out the US. Newspaper accounts of these events are still available today. Louis returned to Germany around 1860 but continued to play and give blindfold exhibitions.
He played three matches with Adolf Anderssen, doing very well (winning twice and drawing once) establishing himself as one of the best in the world. His tournament participation was also quite successful, including a second place finish in the famous 1862 London tournament. Paulsen died on July 10 1891 of problems related to diabetes.
Louis Paulsen crushed Anderssen in match play just like Morphy
In those days, chess clocks were unheard of and the players could take as long as they wanted to make their moves. As a result, some players abused this to their own advantage. Louis Paulsen , in paricular, was a dreaded adversary, and his encounters with Paul Morphy are well recorded for history. Some of games these lasted more than 15 hours!
In one game, Morphy is said to have used only about one hour total thinking time, and Paulsen more than 11 hours!
Almost in tears against Paulsen
Morphy was so infuriated with Paulsen’s slowness of movement, that he insisted that the time consumed by both players for each move be recorded for posterity!
Part of a photograph of the official time keeping
Steinitz wrote of an amusing incident that took place during this famous match that has been reproduced in many books. It is not clear if the account was somewhat exagerated, but it is probably very close to the truth. Certainly the spirit is captured: At one point after about 5 or 6 hours waiting for a move from his adversary, Morphy asked Paulsen if he could expect his move any time soon. Paulsen looked up and replied: ”Oh, is it my move? I thought it was yours!”
Towards the end of his life, Louis Paulsen’s tournament participation declined in frequency. It is thought that the introduction of the chessclock and mandatory time controls might have had something to do with it.
Here is a fine demonstration of Louis Paulsen’s chess prowess. The spirit of black’s play is so modern that you would have thought to have been played just recently! It is a beautiful example of how to play the French defence.
Schallopp E. – Paulsen L.
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 The Classical variation of the French defence has become popular again in recent times.
4. e5 Nfd7 5. Nce2 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. f4 Qb6! This is considered the best move even today
8. Nf3 f6! This game is the earliest recorded example of this line, and is a model of precision
9. a3 Be7! In those days, there was no internet, databases nor good opening manuals.
10. Ng3 not so popular today, but even so , I have tried it once in my own praxis 10…O-O 11. Bd3 cxd4 12. cxd4 fxe5 13. fxe5 (13dxe5 is a much better move)
This sacrifice is today considered common place: for the exchange black gets the centre pawns and a big initiative. When Paulsen played it, it must have come as a big surprise to his opponent.
14. Qxf3 Qxd4 15. Ne2
15… Qh4! A very precise move
16. g3 Ndxe5 17. Qe3 Nxd3 18. Qxd3 Qf6 19. Rf1 Qe5 20. Bd2 Bd7 21. Bc3 Qd6 22. O-O-O
22… Be8! A wonderful idea: the bishop is transferred to the b1 h7 diagonal. Today this manoeuvre is considered standard play.
23. h4 Rc8 24. Nd4 Bg6 25. Qe3 e5!
With this move white is blown away. Considerations such as the black a pawn do not even enter the the mind. The white king is the target
26. Nxc6 Rxc6 27. Qxa7 d4!
28. Qxb7 Qe6 29. a4 dxc3 30. b4 h5! The final precise move before the attack zeros in on the white king.
31. Qd7 Bxb4 32. Qxe6 Rxe6 33. Rd8 Kh7 34. a5 Ba3 35. Kd1 c2 36. Kd2 c1=Q 37. Rxc1 Bxc1 38. Kxc1 e4 39. Ra8 e3 40. a6 e2 41. Kd2 e1=Q# [0:1]
A beautiful game , from Black’s perspective. And it was played 132 years ago!
When I see old games like this–that are really great models of how to play chess– I often wonder how good the best players were 150 years ago or so. Chess literature today seems to give the impression that all of Morphy’s opponents were patzers! And this is clearly not the case. When you look at the games of Paulsen, Staunton, and Anderssen you see greatness!
It is true that some of the openings played by the average player in those times were inferior, and demonstrably so, but I think that that is the case mostly because opening theory is the modern chessplayer’s obsession: he judges a player only by his openings! We today mistake our ability to memorize good opening moves as being an indication of our ability to play good chess. We do not recognize (or don’t want to recognize) that once out of the opening, the level of the average players play drops hundreds of elo points!
I think that much of our modern chess literature has an unfair bias towards our real history. Unscrupulous chess authors have been unfaithful to the game. That the truth has been bent inorder to serve agendas, to sell more books, to make our stars seem greater than they really are.
Before Lasker was born (1868) , virtually all that there was to know about the endings was already published around the world. 99% of endgame theory was known. One of the first things Lasker learned in chess was how to mate with bishop and knight. How to play rook and bishop against rook. The basic rook and pawn endgames….etc. He learned exactly the same stuff as we learn today when we study endgames.
Chess literature in those days was primarily found in magazines, of which there were hundreds. I have seen some collections of these magazines and you would be blown away by the high quality of analysis and commentary.
Morphy , as a young boy, was discouraged to play chess , and to dedicate more time to his school work, but in his room hid away and devoured all of the existing literature that he could get his hands on (his family was wealthy, so cost was not a factor. He bought everything.). When he played in the 1857 New York Chess Congress, he was the best prepared player in the world. Anderssen realized this in their match at one point, and decided to play 1.a3 with white, because he knew that it was only by avoiding known theory that he could compete against the American genius.
No, I think that today we over-rate ourselves. Most of what there is to discover in chess was discovered long ago. The vertical learning curve has been replaced by a horizontal curve: we are simply working out chess to a greater number of digits…the old masters certainly knew how to play chess, and opening theory apart, we would have nothing to show them that they did not already know.