A Romantic Visitor from London

The latest issue of the magazine New in Chess has an article by the Belgian FM and chess historian Hans Renette about the English master Henry Edward Bird (1829-1908). It can be seen as a synopsis of the monumental biography of Bird that Renette published last year.

The biography lies on my desk as an alluring and towering challenge, a massive tome of almost 600 big and densely printed pages.

There is an episode in Bird’s life, not discussed in the New in Chess article, but of course it is in the biography, that is important in the history of Dutch chess. In 1880, Bird became champion of the Netherlands, though not really in the modern sense. He is on our list ofnon-official champions and, considering the opposition, it wasn’t a magnificent feat. Nevertheless, this Englishman counts as one of our early champions.

Bird had come from England to Amsterdam to earn some money with simuls and individual games for a stake, but the money he earned had to be continually replenished because he promptly squandered it in the Nes, a street in the center of Amsterdam full of café’s and brothels.

The Amsterdam chess community wanted to get rid of him. They made him a member of their club and thereby of the Dutch Chess Federation, and they sent him to Gouda, to the annual “Bondswedstrijden” (federation competitions) which later were dignified with the title of “unofficial Dutch championships.”

There were many arguments and quarrels before it was decided that Bird would be allowed to compete.

In the first round, Bird was still struggling with the after-effects of a jolly Amsterdam night and he had to concede a draw to Levi Benima from Winschoten, a town in the northeast region of the Netherlands. Then he pulled himself together and he became our champion with the score of 9½ out of 10.

Later, another Dutch champion, Rudolf Loman, would recall the devastating effects of Bird’s visit on the chessplayers of Amsterdam: “Never, in my opininion, was there more botched chess in Amsterdam than after this visit. All Bird’s peculiarities – the advance of the edge pawns to h5 and a5, the defense Nd4 in the Ruy Lopez, or other moves that, with Bird, result from a completely personal and sometimes quite correct conception – were now used haphazardly, without people having the slightest notion of the intention of the move.”

I don’t think his visit had a lasting influence. Neither 1.f4 nor 3...Nd4 in the Ruy Lopez nor other idiosyncrasies of Bird have become unduly popular in the Netherlands.

Bird was a romantic player who often preferred beauty over correctness. He won the first brilliancy prize in chess history for a game in New York in 1876 against James Mason. Ruthless modern engines show that the exclamation marks that were showered on his sacrifices by eminent commentators as Reuben Fine and Savielly Tartakower were not quite justified, but the game still remains a fine spectacle.

Click here to view Bird-Mason, New York 1876.