Person of day - 5 DECEMBER 2023
Pillsbury made himself acquainted with chess at a late age- at 16. Just 7 years later, he had seen the whole world. Having first come to Europe in 1895 to participate in the Hastings tournament, which brought together all the strongest chess players of the world, Pillsbury won, playing brilliantly and showing an amazing final result- 16,5 points out of a possible 21. European chess was astounded by the triumph of an unknown American. “His success was marvellous, given that he participated in a large tournament for the first time. Pillsbury is a genius chess player, and his game is full of deep ideas…” wrote Tarrasch while analysing the results of the tournament.
At the end of that same year, Pillsbury was a competitor in the six-round tournament of the world’s four strongest chess players. This grand competition saw Emanuel Lasker, ex-champion Wilhelm Steinitz and the best Russian grandmaster Mikhail Chigorin come together. Pillsbury started the tournament brilliantly, winning twice against Lasker, and after halfway he had a confident lead of 6,5 points out 9 (a point ahead of the world champion.” However, in the second half of the tournament, Pillsbury was unrecognisable. Having lost a match filled with drama to Lasker in the fourth round, he was so disappointed that he suffered five more defeats and finished in third place, despite winning a mini-match against the world champion.
After this, the American grandmaster successfully participated in multiple tournaments, but he could not replicate his Hastings achievements. As one chess historian accurately noted, Pillsbury spent the remainder of his life trying to chase his own self of 1895, but he never did catch up.
Harry Nelson Pillsbury was a master of blind chess. He travelled the world with his sensational performances and played over a thousand matches. In 1902, Pillsbury visited Russia and set a peculiar world record- he played against 22 strong Muscovite chess players. He won 17 matches, drew 4 and lost just 1. This spectacle was witnessed by the nine-year-old Alekhine, who later recalled: “Pillsbury’s achievements had a staggering effect on me, just as they did on the whole world.”
Pillsbury dies in June 1906 in Philadelphia, aged just 33. “Pillsbury was doubtless the greatest treasure of American chess, after Murphy” wrote Alekhine. Another world champion, Emanuel Lasker, called him a genius.