Part of this article are my own words, part came from a posting by
at chessgames.com, part came from some
In the 19th century chess was conducted in an
entirely different fashion that it is today. There
were few organizations and those that did exist were relatively weak and
usually local rather
than national or international. Since there were no organizations
that could standardize all the
rules, conducts and conditions, each confrontation between players was
Before the latter part of the 1800's there had been very few tournaments
(for the same reason that there were no organizing bodies). The London
Tournament of 1851 was the first international tournament and it was
really a series of matches in which the winners of the first series of
mini-matches would play one of other the winners of that series, etc.,
until one person was left standing. The 1st American Chess
Congress followed a similar course. But soon some tournaments started
experimenting with other approaches and with variables such as the use
Eventually the tournaments evolved. But in the time of
Morphy, they weren't held in any particular esteem. Morphy himself felt
they turned chess from an estimation of skill into a gamble of luck. They
were enjoyable but not as conclusive as a match would prove to be.
So, it could be concluded that until perhaps as early as the 1870's but
probably even later,
tournaments were somewhat negligible as compared to match play. There were
too few tournaments for a player to make a living, or even expense money,
from and they didn't enhance one's reputation as much as match play.
Match play was certainly the main conveyor of chess up
until the 1870's and as such, there was a certain decorum about them. This
is where stakes and odds enter the picture.
Stakes were money put up by both players, usually obtained from
backers, and employed just like a bet - winner takes all. The purpose for
the stakes was multi-pronged. First, they ensured the match was taken seriously and
that the opponents were sufficiently credible that someone would back
them. Second, some of the best players were professional and made a
portion or all of their living through playing. Third, the stakes were a
guarantee that the match conditions would be met. Fourth, the stakes
helped defray the expenses, particularly in a prolonged match.
The custom of giving odds was an attempt to equalize different
players' skill levels. In this way a lesser skilled player could reasonable
play against a more highly skilled player. Stakes were usually required in
odds matches also. Odds were also a measure of status, something like a
rating and a way to determine whether one player was justified in
challenging another player: If player A
beat player B even, and player C lost to Player B at odds, then player C
had no justification to challenge player A.
Occasionally the custom of odds giving was used, or
rather misused, to preserve a players reputation. If a certain player
refused to play even, he could never be beaten conclusively.
who has a keen interest in all aspects of the Victorian era as well as a
specific interest in the chess of that time period, offers this
An interesting tidbit about chess played at stakes, which was a
common coffeehouse activity in Victorian chess, often conjoined in the
same arena of Odds, is that among some there was a queer house rule: If
a player was mated by a pawn it was looked upon as so humiliating that
he forfeited double the amount of the wager to the victor.
One of the chapters in on odds, and delves in greater depth than
Soltis' book [Karl Marx Plays Chess -SBC].
Odds-giving, apparently, was the first informal rating system for
players during the day. If a town or village included a chess master
among its number, amateur challengers were given odds according to their
respective ability. The old chess texts of the day assigned sobriquets
such as "a rook-odds player" [or a Rook player -
SBC] or "a pawn-and-move player" with the same implied denotation
of strength as our "D player" or "A Player" titles today.
Odds was such a commonplace and accepted equalizer in Victorian chess
that even openings books included whole swathes of opening theory to the
"Knight Odds Opening," the "Pawn-and-Move Opening" and so forth. Louis
Paulsen was even known to be studying openings for hours a day in
preparation for undertaking a pawn-and-move match with Morphy (which
never materialized). [Paulsen wasn't convinced that removing the queen
knight's pawn was a disadvantage to the odds-giver -SBC]
The giving of odds has fashionably gone the way of the bowler hat and
waistcoat, that is, rare and eccentric. Many players, even novices, feel
insulted at being offered odds. There is an interesting double-standard
at play, since most are adverse to receiving odds from the outset but
absolutely relish the chance at snagging a decisive opening edge (which
a would-be odds-giver can easily facilitate by playing garbage
openings). Speaking for myself, I give and accept odds frequently when
the gap in playing strength calls for it and my opponents are open to
the possibility, though I'm the only chess player in my local cadre of
players to do so.
According to Shibut's book [Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess
Theory -SBC], odds-giving started to decline
due to a couple of factors: The rise of the
Soviet Chess Establishment in the 20th century which strongly disdained
odds-giving in chess as garrulous and unscientific in its approach to
the game, harboring back to its decadent image as a 19th-century pastime
played at stakes in smoky gentlemen clubs and cafés (and by the
bourgeois nobles of the day). The second was the rise of the chess
clock, which supplanted material odds-giving with time-odds, far more
popular today. (personally I abhor time-odds, and find it doesn't matter
as much, nor is it nearly as interesting, as giving material odds,
especially when the odds-giver is rattling off nearly all his moves at
breakneck speed anyway. That wouldn't be possible in odds-chess proper,
if for no other reason that most openings need to be reappraised.)
There was a Morphy-Thompson knight-odds game where Morphy played a
classically hypermodern Bird's opening, in such a style that strongly
evoked Nimzovitch. It was especially fitting, actually, since in the
Bird's opening the QN often has difficulty finding a happy home, and
it's a closed system that deters early simplification. (and in that game
Thompson was crushed)
Roughly 15% of Morphy's games were played at one form of odds or
another. [My own research finds this to be closer to 25% -SBC]
No other margin exists in any other major player's record [Staunton has
the most recorded at odds games -sbc]. Morphy's
mastery in taking the reins of incipient, disadvantageous positions in
odds-games is another fascinating aspect of his historical legacy.
A pawn-and-move match against a player like Harrwitz or Löwenthal would
have been especially interesting, as I believe those players employed a
style that offered more resistance to Morphy than Anderssen.
The excellent Karl
Marx Plays Chess by Andrew Soltis is a collection of various chessic
potpourri from his "Chess to Enjoy" column spanning the late 70s
throughout the 80s. Among the various offbeat topics and anecdotes there
is some info on odds-giving:
Pawn and Move: The odds-giver takes black
and removes his f-pawn. Amusingly, some players thought this was in fact a
sneaky way to give BLACK an advantage, via castling and a rapid attack
along the semi-open f-file!
Pawn and Two Move: The odds-giver takes
black, removes his f-pawn, and white moves twice before play commences
normally. This form of odds requires a lot of finesse because 1 e4 & d4
give white an impressive command in the center and freer development lines
against an already semi-nude king-side.
takes white and (usually) removes his QN. Sometimes not as much of a
handicap and one might think, as there have been a number of brilliancies
based on white's ability to swing his a-rook to the center faster with one
less minor piece obstructing his way.
Exchange: A rare 19th-century specialty, and
favorite of Blackburne. The odds-giver takes white and typically removes
his QR and his opponent removes his QN.
Rook: Odds-giver takes White and (usually)
removes his QR. Soltis pointed out an interesting stipulation that either
the a-pawn or the h-pawn was also bumped one square so that the pawn is
naturally defended, though I can't remember this surfacing in any of the
odds games I've gone over. Apparently, castling is also legal; white just
leaps his king to the normal castling square, whether or not a rook does
Queen: The toughest form of normal odds,
though according to Soltis playing a rookless game requires more skill. A
good queenless opening is: 1) d4, 2) Nc3, 3) Bg5, and 4) 0-0-0
Soltis also spoke about a Marshall Club experimental tourney in New York
where the participants gave odds based on their ratings and the results
were encouragingly not as skewed as one might think (the odds-givers only
lost once to their lower-rated handicap takers). Material isn't
Opening theory also was a different bad of tricks. In pawn-and-move 1) e4
e5?? Is now a horrific blunder due to the devastating 2) Qh5+! 1) ... c5!?
is actually an offer of a second pawn, also due to the queen check. 1) ...
g6, Nc6, and e6 were common black approaches to pawn-and-move in
19th-century chess. Morphy favorites were 1) ... d6 with the idea of a
Philidor-type position, and the whimsical ...Nh6!? which doubtless baffled
a few of his victims.
|A more detailed list of odds was given by
Cooper at the Chess Variants
Move: Weaker player plays White.
Draw: The weaker player wins if the
outcome is a draw under the usual rules.
Time: Weaker player receives more
time on his clock.
2 Moves: Weaker player plays White and
starts the game with 2 moves, which may not cross the 4th rank.
6 Moves: Weaker player plays White and
starts the game with 6 moves, which may not cross the 4th rank
Pawn & Move: The stronger player
takes Black and removes the pawn at f7. This was the most commonly given
odds during the 19th century.
Pawn & 2 Moves: The stronger player takes
Black and removes the pawn at f7. White makes 2 moves, neither of which
may cross the 4th rank.
Knight: The stronger player takes
White and removes his Knight at b1.
Rook: The stronger player takes
White and removes his Rook at a1. His Pawn at a2 is moved to a3.
Rook & Move: The stronger player takes
Black and removes his Rook at a8. His Pawn at a7 is moved to a6.
Rook & Pawn & Move: The stronger player
takes Black and removes his Rook at A8 and his pawn at f7. His pawn at a7
is moved to a6.
2 Minor Pieces: The stronger player takes
White and removes two of his Bishops or Knights, of his choice.
Rook & Knight: The stronger player takes
White and removes his Rook at a1 and his Knight at g1. His Pawn at a7 is
moved to a6.
2 Rooks: The stronger player takes White
and removes both his Rooks
Capped Knight: The stronger player
takes White. He must deliver mate with his Knight that started at b1 or
lose. The loss of the Knight or any normal draw situation results in a
loss for the stronger player.
Queen: The stronger player takes
White and removes his Queen.
Capped Pawn: The stronger player takes
White. He must deliver mate with his Pawn that started at f2 or lose. The
loss or promotion of the Pawn or any normal draw situation results in a
loss for the stronger player.
Queen-side: The stronger player takes
White and removes the pieces starting at a1, b1, c1 and d1.
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