13 Jul

The Gallant Scottish Captain

After Paul Morphy prematurely retired from chess, his place as U.S. champion (by popular “acclamation”) went, in 1871, to arguably Scotland’s greatest-ever player: the gallant figure of Hall of Famer “Captain” George Henry Mackenzie (1837-1891), who with an adventurous military backstory many historians have said that there lurks an intriguing book still waiting to be written on him.


Mackenzie was born in North Kessock, a small village on the Black Isle north of Inverness in Scotland, and he went on to lead a somewhat colourful and interesting life both on and off the chessboard. First and foremost he was a professional soldier, serving in the British army with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in Africa, India, and Ireland. In 1863 he went to America, enlisted in the Union army in the Civil War, and achieved the rank of captain in charge of a Black regiment.

According to Hooper and Whyld’s Oxford Companion to Chess, “he was discharged a few months later, allegedly for desertion and impressment. He rejoined the army in 1864 to fight with distinction in three battles, after which he was arrested (for his earlier desertion) and imprisoned. After his release in May 1865 he settled in New York and devoted most of his time to chess.”

And if there wasn’t enough intrigue there for a book about Mackenzie, then following his military service there came an even more gallant career as he turned his attention full-time to chess. He inherited the U.S. title when Morphy retired but justified the honour by dominating the American chess scene for the next 20 years, winning multiple American Chess Congress titles. He also enjoyed a fine international career, capped by a clear first in the 1887 5th German Championship in Frankfurt, besting a world-class field that included Blackburne, Zukertort, Paulsen and Tarrasch.

Little remembered today, Mackenzie is rated one of the half-dozen best players of his time. Jeff Sonas, the statistical number-crunching guru behind Chessmetrics.com that rates players from the past, estimates his peak rating at 2684, which for a brief period made the Scot world-ranked second only to Wilhelm Steinitz, who in 1886 beat Johannes Zukertort to become the first official world champion.


In 1888, while still touring in Europe following his remarkable win in Frankfurt the previous year, Mackenzie returned home to Scotland where he recorded his single Scottish Championship victory in Glasgow - and your writer returned to the scene of Mackenzie’s sole victory, as he dropped in on the current 123rd Scottish Championship being held at Strathclyde University in the city, which back in the day of the gallant captain was known as "the Second City of the Empire".

This venerable event is considered as one of the world’s oldest continuously running national tournaments. It was a closed event for many years, though recently changed into a more player-friendly International Open with the Scottish Championship title going to the highest-placed Scot in the tournament.

Three of the four Grandmasters in the field, Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant, Matthew Turner (England) and Danny Gormally (England), all reached 3.5/4, with the other, Colin McNab, a half point behind on 3-points. The best game of the tournament so far witnessed the English-invading top seed Gormally denting the hopes of eight-time champion IM Roddy McKay adding to his near-record title haul, with a spectacular sacrificial encounter that wouldn’t have been out of place had it been played in the swashbuckling times of Mackenzie himself!

IM Roddy McKay - GM Danny Gormally
123rd Scottish Open Ch., (3)
English Opening
1.c4 e5 2.d3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.Nc3 Bc5 5.a3 d6 6.e3 Although this is an English Opening it is, in all intents and purposes, a Reversed Sicilian with White playing it in classical style by putting his bishop on e2 rather than the more normal English method of fianchetto with Bg2. 6...0-0 7.Be2 a6 Black's trump card is his strong dark-squared bishop; and ...a6 is designed to safely tuck his bishop on a7. 8.0-0 Ba7 9.b4 h6 10.Rb1 Be6 11.a4 a5! Black want to avoid 12. b5 axb5 13.axb5, as White's rook can return quickly to a1 to challenge the a-file and pose problems in the future. 12.b5 Nb8 A strategic retreat. The obvious call looked like 12...Nb4 - but Gormally wants to keep his options open and looks to better develop his knight with Nb8-d7-b6 (or -c5). 13.h3 Nbd7 14.d4 White looks at trying to restrict the potential of his opponent's dark-squared bishop. 14...Re8 15.Qc2 With the not-too-subtle threat of d5 winning the bishop. 15...exd4 16.exd4 Nb6 17.d5 Bc8 While it looks like Black is retreating, he has, in fact, achieved much here: White's queenside pawns are now fixed (and can become extremely vulnerable heading into an ending), but more importantly, he's succeeded in opening up the a7-f2 diagonal for his dark-squared bishop. White obviously sees this as Black's trump card, so decided to challenge it immediately, not realising there lurked an unlikely decisive attack. 18.Be3 Rxe3?!? This exchange sacrifice is a calculated gamble from Gormally, as with accurate play, Black should have nothing here. But you can see it from his point, as suddenly all of Black's pieces now spring to life and he also gets a pawn. But thanks to an error from his opponent, he gets much, much more than he could have ever imagined. 19.fxe3 Qe7 20.Rfe1? The problems facing White is he has to let the pawn go, as he can't play 20.e4? as the discovered check is deadly after 20...Nbxd5+ 21.Kh1 Nxc3 22.Qxc3 Nxe4 23.Qe1 Bf5 and Black has two pawns and very active pieces for the exchange and is easily winning. In hindsight, much better would have been giving up the e-pawn in a different way that clears the e-file and brings White's rooks into the action with 20.Bd3! Qxe3+ 21.Kh1 Qe7 (there's no other option but a safe retreat) 22.Rbe1 Qd8 23.Ne4 Nbd7 24.Nxf6+ Nxf6 25.Bf5! and Black is struggling, having to show what he actually has here for giving up the exchange for a pawn. The only conciliation here for Black is that his dark-squared bishop is strong and White's queenside pawns are fixed and immobile, so endings may not be easy for White to win. 20...Qxe3+ 21.Kh1 Qf4! Now we see the difference between 20.Rfe1 and 20.Bd3 - with the latter, apart from that there would still be a rook on f1 to challenge the queen, with the bishop vacating the e2 square, the riposte Ne2 forces the Black queen back onto the e-file when Rae1 is close to winning. 22.Qd2 Qg3 23.Nh2 It's all started to get just more than a little awkward for White. He wants to stop Black playing ...Nh5-f4 while at the same time seeking to play Qd3 to relieve the pressure by exchanging off queens - but White has overlooked that there's an almighty thunderbolt coming that dramatically turns the game. 23...Bf5 24.Rbd1? Unaware of what now comes, White centralises his rooks, not realising the reasons why he urgently had to play 24.Ra1 Nbd7! (threatening ...Be3! and ...Bf4). Besides, all the action is going to come in the centre of the board and on the kingside, isn't it? Well, isn't it...? 24...Nxa4!! (See Diagram) A bolt out of the blue that wins another pawn, and suddenly sees all of Black's pieces swarming like angry bees right in the heart of White's position. 25.Bf3 If White takes the knight, it leads to a picturesque mate aided by the powerful bishop tucked safely away ages ago on a7: 25.Nxa4 Ne4 26.Qc1 Bxh3!! 27.Bf3 Qxg2+!! 28.Bxg2 Ng3#. 25...Nc5 The knight is heading into d3 and a deadly series of discovered checks with ...Nf2+. 26.Re2 Nd3 27.Rf1 Bd4! The threat now is ...Be5 and forcing home a mate on h2. 28.Ne4 Bxe4 29.Bxe4 Nf2+ 30.Rfxf2 Bxf2 31.Bf3 If 31.Rxf2 Nxe4 and Black will have won a treasure chest of material. 31...Bc5 0-1 White resigns, as Black has emerged from the tactical melee not just with two extra pawns but will simply push his a-pawn quickly down the board. 

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