Maryland’s Theophilus Thompson paved the way for black chess players, despite obstacles
As the birthplace of, among others, Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Eubie Blake and Thurgood Marshall, my adopted state of Maryland has a multitude of native black sons and daughters who deserve to be celebrated.
But since it’s Black History Month and this is a chronicle about chess, let’s focus on another notable Free Stater: Theophilus Thompson, the first great figure in rich history. black american chess.
Born into slavery in Frederick, Maryland, in 1855, Thompson showed a natural aptitude for the game after learning the moves as a teenager. His brief but brilliant legacy rests on a series of games he played in the 1870s and the remarkable “Chess Problems: Either to Play or to Mate”, an 1873 collection that established him as one of the first big problematists in the country.
Today’s opener could be something of a scoop. It was first published in John K. Hanshew’s “Our Chess Column” in the March 23, 1876 edition of the Maryland Chess Review, but does not appear to be included in later collections of Thompson’s games. This is a series of mail-order games with Charles Blood of Maine, a series that Thompson easily won.
Declining White’s King’s Gambit is perfectly playable for Black, but allowing the King’s Bishop to be traded and wasting several tempos with the Queen’s Knight gets Blood in trouble quickly. White is 11. f5! takes up space on the kingside and Thompson’s offense quickly overwhelms.
Thus: 11…Nb8 (looking for exchanges to ease the pressure, but White doesn’t force it) 12. Bc4 c6 (h6, keeping the knight out of g5 isn’t much better after 13. Nxe5! dxe5 14. Qh5 Rf8 [g6 15. fxg6 fxg6 16. Bf7+ Kf8 17. Qxh6+! Rxh6 18. Bxh6 mate] 15. f6 g6 16. fxe7 gxh5 17. exf8=Q+ ! Kxf8 18. Bxh6+ Kg8 19. Rf7 Qe8 20. Rxd7+ Kh8 21. Rf7 Nd7 22. Raf1, with a crushing position) 13. Ng5 d5 14. Qh5!, with a winning attack.
It’s quickly over on 14…Rf8 (g6 15. fxg6 fxg6 16. Qf3 Bf5 17. exf5 dxc4 18. fxg6) 15. Nxh7 dxc4 16. Nxf8 Kxf8 17. f6! (opening the f-file is the central idea of the King’s Gambit, and Thompson shows why) Ng6 18. Bg5 gxf6 19. Rxf6 Qc7 20. Qxg6 Be6 21. Qh6+ and Black resigned. One path to victory is 21…Kg8 (Ke8 22. Rxe6+! fxe6 23. Qxe6+ Kf8 24. Bh6+ Qg7 25. Rf1 mate) 22. Rf3 Nd7 23. Rg3 Nf8 24. Bf6+ Ng6 25. Qg7 mate.
Thompson’s chess career proved tragically short. There is no record that he played any other games or composed any new problems after the 1870s. His later years – including the date of his death – are shrouded in mystery, but his talent and his legacy of pioneering will endure.
Today’s second match, as well as being a display of otherworldly imagination and courage, has its own historical significance – the first rated match (of only two) between two of the African-American players the most notable of the last half-century: Maurice Ashley, America’s first black grandmaster, and the late incomparable MI Emory Tate, whose tactical imagination and fierce drive made him in many ways America’s Tal .
We have nothing near space to do justice to that incredible Sicilian Richter-Rauzer battle from the 1993 New York Open. Suffice it to say that Ashley as Black bravely but barely survives at White’s first cascade of sacrifices, reaching a position where his bishop, knight, and kingside pawns seem to promise an easy victory.
But this 15-round heavyweight battle resumes after 33. Kc2 h5? (Bxa8 34. Rxa8 Be3! cuts the white king) 34. a4! Bxa8 (bxa4?? 35. b5+ wins the bishop) 35. axb5+ Kd7 36. Rxa8, and suddenly Tate has his own armada of past queen-side pawns ready to sail.
White hopes remain on the razor’s edge until 51. Re1 f2? (last mistake; 51…Kf6!, avoiding the next check, seems to win after 52. Rxe5 g2 53. b7 f2 54. b8=Q f1=Q+ 55. Kc2 Qc4+) 52. Rxe5+! Kxe5 (now White’s b-pawn threatens to checkmate) 53. Ke2 Nf3 54. b7 Nd4+ 55. Kf1 Nc6 56. b5 Nb8 57. c6 Kd6 (see diagram), and, surprisingly, it’s a draw, as after 58. Kg2 Nxc6 59. bxc6 Kc7 neither side can force passed pawns to pass.
“We actually laughed at each other,” Ashley later wrote of the game’s ending, “two fighters earning a lot of respect for each other’s attitude on the board.”
Thompson-Blood, Matching Game, Maryland, 1874(?)
1. e4 e5 2. f4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. Na4 Bb6 6. Nxb6 axb6 7. Bc4 Na5 8. Bb5+ Nc6 9. d3 Bd7 10. OO Nge7 11. f5 Nb8 12. Bc4 c6 13. Ng5 d5 14. Qh5 Rf8 15. Nxh7 dxc4 16. Nxf8 Kxf8 17. f6 Ng6 18. Bg5 gxf6 19. Rxf6 Qc7 20. Qxg6 Be6 21. Qh6+ Black resigns.
Tate-Ashley, New York Open, New York, April 1993
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qd2 a6 8. OOO h6 9. Be3 Qc7 10. f3 Kb8 11. g4 Ne5 12. f4 Nexg4 13. Bg1 e5 14. Bb5+ axb5 15. Ndxb5 Qd8 16. Bc5 d5 17. Ba7 Ra8 18. Nxd5 Nxd5 19. Qxd5 Qxd5 20. Nc7+ Kd7 21. Nxa8 Qd6 22. Bb8 Kc6 23. Bxd6 Bxd6 24. Rd36 b.5 Rh. Rd8 Kxd8 27. Rxd8 Bb7 28. h3 Nf2 29. fxe5 Nxh3 30. c3 Nf2 31. b4 Be7 32. Kb8 Bg5+ 33. Kc2 h5 34. a4 Bxa8 35. axb5+ Kd7 36. Rxa8 f4 37. Rf8 Ke7 38. Rh8 h4 39. Rxh4 g5 40. Rh8 Bxe5 41. Rg8 f6 42. b6 Kf7 43. Ra8 g4 44. Ra1 g3 45. Rg1 Nxe4 46. c4 Ke6 47. Kd3 f5 48. Ke3 Ng5 49. c5 f4+ 50. Kd3 f3 51. Re1 f2 52. Rxe5+ Kxe5 53. Ke2 Nf3 54. b7 Nd4+ 55. Kf1 Nc6 56. b5 Nb8 57. c6 Kd6 Draw granted.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]