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The Romance of Chess - A Perspective on the Art of Odds-giving
April 2007

"After Anderssen's departure, Paul Morphy declared he would play no more even matches, and, certainly, his resolve was justified by the unheard of manner in which he had walked over all opponents."  -Frederick Edge

Although such a public declaration has yet to be documented, Morphy's intentions were undoubtedly clear. Before William Steinitz there was really no concept of a World Champion, and, indeed, international chess was only just beginning. Yet, somehow it seems more dramatic - more romantic - not to declare himself World Champion but instead to coronate himself the King of Chess and to express his victory through the symbolic "Pawn and move." [1.]

Some Historical references

There are scant records of game scores prior to the Labourdonnais-M'Donnell match of 1834. While odds-giving was written about in Pietro Carrera's 1617 book, Il gioco degli scacchi, and undoubtedly played back before chess was chess, the earliest recorded odds games seem to be a several played by Philidor, two of which are given below.

In the first game, played in 1780, Philidor offers the odds of Pawn& move to Carlier & Bernard and loses.
The second game is one from a blindfold simul conducted by Philidor in 1783 in which Philidor offered his opponent, Maseres, the Pawn & move. This game is won by Philidor.

It's apparent that by 1780 odds-giving was already popular, but to what extent seems much less certain. Paris cafés (and probably those elsewhere) were noted for their players-in-residence who regularly gave odds to entice their victims.  It's known that Deschapelles, a café denizen, after a certain age, played nothing but odds games. Yet as early as 1806 he claimed to have challenged the best German players at Rook odds.

The lack of early odds game scores evidently has more to do with the absence of any custom of recording games than with the lack of popularity.


Click "Choose Game" for 2nd  game (sometimes you must click twice)

Jacob Henry Sarratt in his 1817 translation of The Works of Gianutio, and Gustavus Selenus on the Game of Chess  included games at odds with the explanation:

The Translator has inserted several games in which Odds are given; and he presumes to hope that they may be considered as a useful addition to a work, which he submits to the Publick, with the conviction, that, it will afford instruction and entertainment to all those who are desirous of  excelling in a game, which some have called a delightful recreation of the mind, but which Leibnitz has honoured with the appellation of Science.

Later, under the chapter, "Games in which Odds are given, Surratt goes on to reveal the early 19th century perspective on odds:

The following games will be found to be exceedingly instructive; and no treatise on Chess contains a more copious collection of games in which Odds are given. It is almost unnecessary to remark, that no person can ever attain the rank of a first-rate player, unless he be perfectly acquainted with all the odds that are usually given, and with the different débuts which he is obliged to adopt in consequence of giving these odds. That a person who is desirous of being a very good player,  must also be able to contend successfully against an adversary who gives him odds, is too obvious to require illustration. In these games the amateur will find a regular system of defence as well as of attack.

John Cochrane's A Treatise on the Game of Chess trumped Surratt's book by a milestone in giving about 125 pages specifically to conducting games at odds, even dividing it into sections on Rook odds, Knight odds, and Pawn odds with or without the move.

The Purposes for Odds-giving:

The main purpose for giving odds was the most obvious one - to allow players of diverse skill levels to contend games together with somewhat equal chances for both sides. But it goes a bit deeper than that. Chess wasn't always as popular as it is today and finding suitable opponents, especially in an era when the industrial revolution was only just beginning and players still mainly came from the upper class who had time for such recreation, was haphazard at best. Prof. George Allen, the great American chess historian, described the initial failed attempts at establishing a chess club in the Athenaeum in Philadelphia. Individuals who, at home beat their family members, joined expecting to display their prodigious skills, only to find that there were such players who would beat them every game.

Not an individual of the hundred, I suppose (except always the sprinkling of old stagers), but expected to astonish his new antagonist by his prowess - for among those who play only at home, the growth of "invincibilities" is exceedingly rapid. But this feverish combativeness - so my informant assures me -was cooled with singular effectiveness by the administration of really strong players, who were so liberal of "Fool's Mates," "Scholar's Mates," and other unseemly forms of checkmates, that they soon had the room entirely to themselves."

The implementation of odds was almost necessary and nearly unavoidable if any small club of widely diverse talent was to exist and these clubs, even more so than coffeehouses, would be the building blocks for later national, then international, organizations. But the coffeehouses were having their day long before chess clubs took hold. Coffeehouses weren't the exclusive property of chess players and the tables and rooms were shared among other things such as billiards, tarot-reading and whist. Some coffeehouses were little, quiet places in which to casually read newspapers, but the popular, gaming ones were loud and boisterous where the betting was heavy and professional game players plied their trade:

"What odds will you give me?" asked a provincial youth of a well-known player at the Divan, as they were arranging the pieces on a board close to the table at which I was sitting. "Well, let me see," said the celebrity. "How do you play with Mr. B. and Mr. O.?" (naming two magnates). "They give me a knight, and win a slight majority." "Then I will give you a rook."

-George Alcock MacDonnell, referring to Daniel Harrwitz

Just as in the above example, odds were also used to rank players on a complex, comparative basis. Not only could a person know that one player was better than another, but roughly how much better. Of course, it was an inaccurate system at best and often yielded surprising results, such as Player A losing a series at Pawn and move to Player B, but then winning a series at Pawn and two.

Deschapelles was said to have used odds-giving to preserve his reputation by refusing to play even games and chance being beaten. Thirty or forty years later, Howard Staunton would employ the same strategy, though at least some of Staunton's games have been preserved.[2.]

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in her 1868 book Belgravia, recounted a delightfully detailed history of the Turk with surprising accuracy. She explained another reason why a master might offer odds:

The automaton quickly passed again into Maelzel's hands. It was exhibited in Paris, M. Boncourt, a very strong player, conducting the figure's chess. In 1819, it was exhibited a second time in London. M. Maelzel engaged the assistance of Mr. Lewis, an excellent chess-player, who conducted the automaton chess for something like a twelvemonth. After this, M. Mouret, one of the best French players of the school of Deschapelles, took charge of the figure's play. The automaton (to use the incorrect name by which the figure at this time was constantly designated) now undertook to give the odds of pawn and move to all comers - in other words, his king's bishop's pawn was removed from the board and his opponent took first move. There was as much prudence as caution in this arrangement. Many players who could have conducted a tolerably strong game against Mouret, playing even, would find themselves at a disadvantage in playing the odds-game against him. To him all the resources of this game would be known, to nine-tenths of his opponents the just manner of conducting it would be unknown. Unquestionably with even players the odds of the pawn and move are considerable But the removal of the king's pawn is not an unalloyed loss to the giver of the odds. So soon as he had castled on the king's side, his rook has strong rule over the king's bishop's file, ordinarily impeded (so far as the rook's range is concerned), by his own pawn of that file. Indeed, in the best known of all the gambits, this pawn is sacrificed chiefly with the object of getting command of this file in question. The sacrifice requires a move, which is saved when the pawn is given, yet the player who constantly gives the pawn gains much by constant practice in the same line of play, at any rate as against players of less experience in the same game. Mouret hardly lost one game in a hundred at these odds. He numbered among his opponents such skillful players as Brand, Cochrane, Keen and Mercier.

In the Chess Player's Chronicle, Staunton affirmed the fact that the Turk, in 1819, started playing exclusively pawn and move odds. the year 1819, [the automaton] was once more established in London. Crowds of visiters [sic] again flocked to the exhibition; the periodical literature of the day gave it almost unqualified praise; and, from the circumstances of the Automaton vanquishing nearly every adversary, the proprietor, M. Maelzel, resolved that he should in the future give odds of a Pawn and Move to all antagonists.

A volume, entitled, "A Selection of Fifty Games, from those played by the Automaton Chess Player during its Exhibition in London in 1820. Taken down by permission of M. Maelzel, at the time they were played," was published about this time, from which we learn, that of nearly three hundred games played by the Automaton Chess Player (giving the Pawn and Move), it lost only six.

Types of Odds:

Odds could be whatever the two players contracted them to be and this led to some very strange variations, most of which were pointless outside that single game. For odds to have a more universal meaning that allowed two players of disparate skills to contend on equal footing and to allow the results of that contest to be the basis of some comparable judgment, there had to have been some standard of classical odds. There doesn't appear to have been any codification in this regard, but rather a general agreement that certain odds were considered practical. These types of odds were treated in books and spoken about in periodicals and communications.

The Classical odds were:

Pawn and move - the giver takes black and removes the "f" pawn.
Pawn and two - the giver takes black, removes the "f" pawn and white moves twice.
Knight odds - giver takes white and removes the Queen's Knight.
Rook odds - giver takes white and removes the Queen's Rook.
Queen odds - giver takes white and removes the Queen.

To the last three, the giver sometimes also gives "the move,"  that is, he plays black.

Classical Odds

 Pawn and move

Pawn and two
La Bourdonnais' analysis of Pawn and two)

 Knight Odds

Rook Odds
(notice the placement of the "a" pawn)
Queen Odds
(three examples)
Click "Choose Game" for subsequent games (sometimes you must click twice)
Rook and the Move 



The next group of Odds type may be called Uncommon Odds since they seemed to have been occasionally used and seldom, if ever, expressed in terms of assessing a player's level of play. These might include:

Queen Rook + Queen Knight Odds
King Rook + King Knight Odds
Rook + Pawn and Move Odds
Queen Rook +
(King Bishop)  Pawn and move Odds
Pawn and Three Odds
Capped Knight Odds
Capped Pawn Odds
(Pion Coiffé)

Uncommon Odds

Queen Rook + Queen Knight Odds
King Rook + King Knight Odds
  Rook + Pawn and Move Odds
 Queen Rook + (King Bishop) Pawn & move Odds
Pawn and Three
see ancillary page for annotations on this game
and an essay by Howard Staunton

In capped odds, the giver places a marking on the piece or pawn he contracts to mate with. Mating with any other piece or pawn loses the game. These are rare but exquisite odds. (special note: according to Staunton in the Chess-Player's Chronicle, in games employing a "marked-pawn," at no time can that pawn "Queen.")
Capped Knight Odds
Max Lange contracts to mate with his Queen Knight
 Capped Pawn Odds (Pion Coiffé)
Howard Staunton contracts to mate with his King Knight pawn

Roger Cooper at the Chess Variants site presented an odds hierarchy that adds to the above list. I replicated that hierarchy along with some richer detail in an article on stakes and odds entitled, Odds and Ends.

From Howard Staunton's Chess Player's Handbook:

Rules For Playing The Game At Odds.

I. In games where one player gives the odds of a pieces, or "the exchange," or allows his opponent to cont drawn games as won, or agrees to check-mate with a particular man, or on a particular square, he has the right to chose the men, and to move first, unless an arrangement to the contrary is agreed to between the combatants.

II. When the odds of Pawn and one move, or Pawn and more than one move, are given, the Pawn given must be the King's Bishop's Pawn when not otherwise previously agreed on.

III. When the odds of two or more moves are given, the player receiving the odds shall begin the game with these moves, but may not, in making them, advance any piece beyond his fourth rank.

IV. When a player gives the odds of a Rook he may move his King as though to castle with the Rook given, provided the square of the missing Rook has been unoccupied throughout the game, and provided the ordinary conditions as to squares and the King are complied with.

V. When the odds of a Pawn, Knight, Bishop, or Rook are given, it is understood that the King's Bishop's Pawn, or the Queen's Knight, Queen's Bishop or Queen's Rook, is intended unless special agreement to the contrary is made.

These "Rules" indicate that there are certain odds that were considered standard. Any other odds needed special arrangements or agreements between the combatants.

Additionally, in the Chess Player's Chronicle, Staunton often offered advise in his annotations and replies to correspondents, such as:

When such large odds as a Rook are given, it is advisable for the second player to exchange pieces of equal value as frequently as it can be done with safety. It is especially desirable for him to exchange Queens early in the game; and get rid of his adversary's Knights, because their eccentric movements are commonly productive of embarrassment and discomfiture to the inexperienced Chess player.

The player who receives the odds of a Rook, will generally find his advantage in Castling early in the contest.

Odds-giving goes out of vogue:

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when odds-giving went from ubiquitous to unusual as the practice seemed to fade from the top on down through the amateur ranks. Attitudes change less easily. William Cook, in his 1880 book, The Chess Primer, wrote this concerning odds:

This brings me to the second assumption referred to, that a knowledge of Chess is difficult of attainment. There never was a greater mistake. It may be - I admit it is - exceedingly difficult to attain to first-rate skill, and it takes long-continued and attentive practice to become even a good player; but a moderate proficiency is easily acquired, and there is this advantage in it compared with most other games, that even beginners derive an equal or possibly a greater amount of pleasure than adepts: one of the latter playing against a learner, and giving sufficient odds to render the contest even, both will be gratified and excited in an equal degree.


Do not object to accept odds from a superior player, so that the game may be made interesting to him as well as to yourself...

The London Chess Club continued holding it's annual Handicap Tournament all through the second half of the 19th century. Other places also held such material-handicap tournaments. The British Columbia Chess Federation Bulletin #97 informs us:

Players of different classes within a tournament might receive or give different odds, depending on the difference in strength. For example, in the Handicap Tournament held in London in 1862, Class I gave move odds to Class II, pawn and move to Class III, pawn and two moves to Class IV, and knight odds to Class V. At the international level such events died out as the general level of chess skill improved, but handicap tournaments remained popular in chess clubs.

Actually, just 3 years prior a similar affair was planned, but never executed:

Such neglect [of the Cafe de la Régence by Morphy] did not suit Monsieur Lequesne, who soon organized a tournament of a novel description at the café, in which all the prominent frequenters of the place took part. The object was to obtain funds with which to offer an entertainment to the young American, previous to his departure from the French capital; each contestant paying an entrance fee. In this new-fashioned tournay, there were five different classes, composed as follows: --

     1. Even Players                      4. Knight Players
     2. Pawn and Move Players    5. Rook Players
     3. Pawn and Two Players

In each section there would, necessarily, be a winner, and it was arranged that the five champions should each play against our hero, the even players receiving pawn and move from him, and so on through the different grades. The Knight class would, therefore, receive the rook and the last section, the rook and a knight. Circumstances, however, prevented the tournament's completion, Mr. Morphy being called suddenly home.
     -Frederick Edge

In his delightful article about the 1894-1895 Mechanics Institute Championship, chess historian, Neil R. Brennen wrote:

While the 1894-1895 tournament was not billed as a club championship, the awarding of a gold medal to the winner as well as the sheer size of the event implies something more than just pride was at stake.
On December 8, 1894, play began in the Tournament. There were only two first class players among the twenty-five entrants, V. Q. Quiroga and the twenty-five year old Walter Romaine Lovegrove, already at the beginning of his lengthy career at the Chess Rooms considered a leading player. The remaining combatants were ranked from second to fifth class. The tournament was run as both a double round-robin and a handicap event, with higher classed players giving piece or material odds to the lower-ranked. The odds for the difference in class ranking broke down like this:

Difference of one class - higher ranked player gives odds of Pawn and Move
Difference of two classes - higher ranked player gives odds of Pawn and Two Moves
Difference of three classes - higher ranked player gives odds of Knight
Difference of four classes - higher ranked player gives odds of Rook

What this meant for the tournament was that Lovegrove and Quiroga had to play forty-six of their forty-eight games with a material handicap, with no less than sixteen of them at Rook odds. Lovegrove was a strong master, capable of beating Harry Nelson Pillsbury and Emanuel Lasker during their visits to the Mechanics' Institute. However, his very strength told against him in the 1894 tournament; in the first of his two games below, Lovegrove successfully copes with odds of Pawn and two moves, but in the second game, a Rook was just too great a gift to make to his opponent.

The British Columbia Chess Federation Bulletin #22 and #97 also refers to such tournaments held in the 20th century:

"there was an 18-player double round robin in Victoria in 1900-1901, in which those in higher classes gave various odds to those in lower classes."

"the newly-formed Vancouver Chess Club conducted a handicap event in 1913-14. The latter is historically more interesting as a dozen of the games were published in the chess column of the Daily News Advertiser. Here they are, in ascending order of odds given:
     -Equal strength
     -Pawn and move odds: the odds giver plays Black and without an f-pawn
     -Pawn and two move odds: the odds giver takes Black, plays without an f-pawn, and White begins with
       two  moves.
     -Knight odds: remove White's Queen Knight"


Even as the 19th century moved into its second half, there were indications of some Masters distancing themselves from odds-giving.
A striking example is the 1860 conflict between Paul Morphy and Louis Paulsen  concerning a proposed match between them. Morphy, who was a firm traditionalist, had little desire to play any more public chess but was willing to play Paulsen under his own terms - a right he felt he earned. Morphy's terms included a few games at Pawn and Move odds. Paulsen wanted to play even. Eventually Morphy tired of it all and ended the negotiations. Paulsen, a more modern style player than Morphy, considered material odds as meaningless and even questioned whether the giver of the odds (the "f" pawn) in a Pawn and Move game might actually gain more than he gives:

Louis Paulsen to Henry Harrisse
October 2, 1859
     "As soon as I received your letter I commenced analyzing the pawn and move game. I have not yet finished my work. Should the result prove that in the pawn and move game the advantage is really on the side of the player who receives the odds, I will play a match with Morphy at these odds; and should I beat him he will be obliged to play a match on even terms . . ."

Louis Paulsen to Paul Morphy
October 3, 1860
     "A match even, consisting only of open games, or, to make it more definite, a match of six Evans Gambits, each player to conduct three times the attack and three times the defence; and of twelve Gambits on the kings side, attack and defence to be played alternately by each player throughout the match. I am aware that you have declined playing with our most prominent chess players, except at odds of pawn and move. Allow me to reply to express the opinion that the odds of the pawn and the move are a doubtful advantage, while it invariably and necessarily results in a kind of mongrel game, never advancing the cause of Chess and rarely proving interesting to the great majority of amateurs.
     If your high and justly acquired reputation as a Chess-player makes it a matter of necessity on your part never to meet an adversary without imposing the condition of receiving odds, I beg leave to suggest an advantage which, without marring the beauties of our noble game, may still prove acceptable to you, viz.:
I shall receive as many games out of the match as in your opinion would make the chances of winning the match perfectly even, or yield your opponent an advantage equal to pawn and move."

Paul Morphy to Henry Harrisse
October 6, 1860
      "I have received Paulsen’s letter, and am quite astonished that he should ask me to play a match with him on even terms, after my repeated declarations that I had not come North to play chess, and would only encounter him, if at all, at odds, and in an occasional game or two at the club.  I am getting heartedly tired of the subject, and would request you, should you see him before I do (I went to the club yesterday but did not meet him there) to inform him of the resolution I have taken."

The typical attitude of Masters towards odds grew even less inviting as the century progressed. James Mason, in his 1902 book, The Principles of Chess in Theory and Practice, wrote:

"Strictly speaking, odds play is somewhat foreign to the general improvement of the player - giver or receiver - than serious conduct of the game on proper even terms. This would be so for the weaker party, if only because correctness of development must needs be missing, the whole theory of the opening being disturbed and distorted; and it would be so, for the stronger party, if only because of the habit of speculative and unsound combination odds play naturally induces - a habit which if once acquired is difficult of rejection, and whose effects cannot fail to prove inconvenient to its subject, when confronted by a foeman entirely worthy of his steel, and call for the full exercise of all his powers."

Amateurs tend to follow the trends set by the Masters. Just as openings go in and out of style according to what the upper-echelon are playing, the custom of giving odds went from being ubiquitous to being a novelty, even at the club level - though, just like everything in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the lag was much greater than today. Between WWI and today, there are many references to "handicap" tournaments, but often the type of handicap isn't specified. Handicap tournaments include those at time-odds or even point-odds. Club-level chess hasn't been well documented - the novelty games and tournaments even less so than the standard ones. Still there are enough references to "material-odds handicap tournaments" to safely say that the attraction to giving-odds persisted throughout the years, though certainly not with the same importance as it held in the previous century.

Besides the changing of attitudes towards odds-giving, there may have been other reasons for the decline of this custom.
The 1883 London Tournament employed the double-faced mechanical chess clock developed Thomas Bright Wilson.  According to a recent NY Times article :

"A contemporary account describes Wilson's clock thusly: ''This apparatus consists of two small clocks, one for the Black and one for the White player. The clocks are fastened together on a movable iron table, so arranged that at the time one clock is going, the pendulum of the other is stopped.'' 

This clock, like the one pictured, built by Fattorini & Sons in 1890, allowed the players to establish differential time-controls. It's likely that the fascination with new technology and the idea that time-odds doesn't alter the game physically made this form of odds-giving popular. It's impossible to determine how affordable and available such clocks might have been.

The rise in popularity of chess and the new frequency of tournaments that sprung up in the latter part of the 19th century gave both a larger pool of players from which finding suitable adversaries was more likely and more opportunities to play those equal opponents. With an adequate number of people to play even, playing at odds became less necessary in many cases.


Odds-giving today:

The practice of odds-giving never entirely vanished and it's still practiced today at various clubs, especially in their handicap tournaments. Most handicap tournaments do not use material odds, but of the ones that specify that particular type of play, the Hobart International Chess Club of Tasmania serves as a fine example. This club was formed in 1994 by acquiring the equipment from the original Hobart Chess Club founded in 1887. They hosted blitz odds tournaments. Their method of applying odds is that the stronger player must offer 1 pawn's worth of material for each 100 pt. rating difference.  Another such club is the Winchester Epiphany Chess Club of Winchester, Massachusetts. Their "Herbert Handicap Chess tournament," played at 20/10 has a very specific formula, listed on the link above, for who gets what odds.

Beyond the club level, there have been a couple noteworthy contemporary odds-giving experiments.

On April 21-2, 2001 Garry Kasparov played Terence Chapman a series of four games - two per day, alternating colors - at odds.

Terry Chapman is an extremely successful business man who founded The Terence Chapman Group which specializes in Information Technology consultancy and is valued (at that time) in excess of £100 million. No stranger to chess, Chapman was once the British under-14 champion. Although his chess became more limited as he devoted his time to business, his interest never waned and, in fact, he became a generous chess promoter. Chapman approached Kasparov, possibly the strongest player of all time and one of the most opened to creative concepts, with the idea of playing a match at odds. The bait that secured the deal was the condition that Chapman would contribute, along with Kasparov's forfeiture of a fee, £100,000 to The Kasparov Chess Academy, a non-profit organization for the promotion of scholastic chess located in Israel.

The games were slated to be played at the famous Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in London, harkening back to the 19th century when games at odds were de rigueur. Not only were the games to be played at material odds, but also at time odds: Kasparov was allowed 60 minutes for all his moves while Chapman was allotted 90 minutes. At move 50 both players received a 10 second increment.

The material odds were strange but mutually agreeable:


odds      White    Black   
Game 1   Kasparov removes his a and h pawn     Chapman - 0   Kasparov - 1
Game 2   Kasparov removes his a and d pawn     Kasparov - ½   Chapman - ½
Game 3   Kasparov removes his a and b pawn     Chapman -1   Kasparov - 0
Game 4   Kasparov removes his a and e pawn     Kasparov - 1   Chapman - 0

Kasparov won overall 2½ - 1½

Click "Choose Game" for subsequent games (sometimes you must click twice)

In a recent Chessbase article, David Levy wrote:

When the strongest human players have no chance at even games, let us give the human pawn odds. At the present time this would allow the very strongest human players to make a plus score against the programs, but this could perhaps be mitigated by speeding up the games. There is, undoubtedly, some rate of play, whether it is an average of 2 minutes per move, or 1 minute, or 30 seconds, at which pawn odds would be a fair match. As programs become stronger still, the rate of play could be slowed down, eventually reaching, say, 3 minutes per move (on average). When the best programs of the day can give the world's strongest human player pawn odds at 3 minutes per move, we simply increase the odds to two pawns and reduce the rate of play again.

Such a match was even more recently attempted. The Estonian Grandmaster, Jaan Ehlvest, played a short match with the computer program Rybka resulting in the outwardly lop-sided result of 5½-2½ in the computer's favor. Hans Ree gave a jusifyably cynical assessment of the affair that's worth reading.  In the match Rybka gave the rather mild, and hard to assess, odds of Pawn. which meant the computer played white and removed a pawn. There were 8 games - one for each pawn on white's second rank. The results of the 8 game match were:

  game 1
remove  h2
game 2
remove  g2
game 3
remove  f2
game 4
remove  e2
game 5
remove  d2
game 6
remove  c2
game 7
remove  b2
game 8
remove  a2
Rybka 1 1 1 ½ 1 0 ½ ½
Ehlvest 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 ½ ½

IM Larry Kaufman, who wrote an article for Chess Life (Sept. 2006) concerning Pawn and move, organized the match between GM Ehlvest and Rybka as an experiment: "I would love to have Rybka offer the traditional "pawn and move" (f7) handicap, but in my
opinion Rybka is not yet quite strong enough to offer this handicap (the biggest possible pawn handicap) to a player like
Ehlvest in a serious match and expect to win the match." [3.]

Click "Choose Game" for subsequent games (sometimes you must click twice)

Odds-giving has delighted chess players for centuries and though it has lost its function at a means of ranking players, it it still a reasonable alternative to time-odds (which seldom, if ever, really bridges the gap between players of different levels) or point-odds which don't allow diverse players to play a challenging game together. Some clubs either recognize this potential (or simply like the novelty of it) and incorporate odds-giving into their tournament mix, demonstrating that it does attract participants. Meanwhile, computer people seem to think it could be a valuable tool for future human-machine play. There is also the consideration that odds games fulfill some of the purposes that Fischer-Random (or Chess960) was designed for - there is far less theory and book knowledge to draw from and more reliance on  players' technical and creative abilities  - without losing the aesthetic quality of chess, a problem F-R chess can't overcome.  Whatever the case, odds-giving has drawn a lot of attention lately and probably will draw more in the future.


Maybe it's time to put some of the Romance back in Chess.



1.    Contrary to popular belief, Morphy was not the only player, nor even the first player, to challenge the world at odds. Deschapelles made the same
       offer, but at Pawn and Two. In discussing his own match with St. Amant, Staunton noted that:

...on the feeling that players, representing two great countries, play for a higher aim than mere stakes; and recollecting that this had been distinctly enunciated by M. Deschapelles, when he challenged any player in the world to play at the odds of Pawn and two, and proclaimed that although he fixed the stake at five hundred pounds on each side, his sole object was "to call into existence fine games,' and the 'he had no other aim in view." [back]

2.    The Rev. John Donaldson writing about Staunton in the 1891 edition of the British Chess Magazine:

     Staunton came here in June, 1852 and we did little but play chess and discuss Shakespeare together. That was a strong point with him, and I never met anyone, except perhaps one or two Germans, who had the same critical knowledge of the "Bard of Avon" as Staunton had. He was indeed, apart from chess altogether, a most agreeable and intellectual man - one of the most so who ever visited me here.  The person who was upsides with him in intellectual and literary activity was my dear friend, Sheriff Bell, who wrote the beautiful poem upon Queen Mary Stuart, and who figures as Tallboys in the Dies Boreales, being photoed there by his great friend, Christopher North. Staunton, when he came here, declined to play equal with me, but insisted upon giving me the odds of Pawn and two moves, as at that particular opening he had vanquished Capt. Evans and some of the strongest English players. I said that I knew nothing of that opening, and would much prefer playing equal with him, after what Löwenthal had told me, but as he insisted upon it, I foolishly gave in to him as my guest. The consequence was that I lost the first six games slick off, I then drew the next five and won the last six games.  I played too confidently at first,  and tried coups de force, which did not play with so astute an old matador, who was down upon me like an extinguisher ay my very first slip. He lay en garde waiting my attack, and I fell at first into the extraordinary traps that he laid before me! After the first six games, I altered altogether my style of play, and the result was different. As Staunton talked I thought "rather big" after his opening victory, I, after the first draw, offered to play him at the stake of a sovereign a game, but he wisely decline that ! Unfortunately, I sent him off the whole seventeen games at these odds, and did not retain duplicate copies, so they are lost, except the two or three which he published. There can be no doubt that Staunton played splendidly at that particular opening, as well as La Bourdonnais. He had made a special study of it and gare à qui le touchait
     We wound up with one game equal, which was drawn. Staunton, in 1852, and afterwards, certainly played the Pawn and Two game much better than the game without odds! Anyone who marked his fine frontal development might have seen at once that he was no ordinary vis à vis antagonist.Staunton was not by any means a slow player, though at times I have seen him take half-an-hour over a move in a crisis of the game. I did not object to that at all. He found fault with me that I played far too fast, so fast, indeed, that I did not give him time enough to excogitate some of his ideas. [back]

3.   Larry Kaufmann continued his rationale:

   It is certainly true that White will have some compensation for the missing pawn in all cases except the "f" pawn. However, in the case of "b" "c" "e" and "g" pawns, the compensation is at best one tempo, since simply moving that pawn would open all the same diagonals and also control some good squares. As the usual rule (which I think is reasonably accurate) states that three tempi equal a pawn, it is clear that these are all significant handicaps. The "d" pawn's removal gives slightly more comp, because the queen is on a half-open file, but this should hardly be worth more than the squares that would be controlled by a pawn on d4, so even in this case the compensation is clearly insufficient. Actually removing the "d" pawn is similar to playing a Smith-Morra Gambit a tempo down, except that the "c" pawns are off the board. The Smith-Morra is considered dubious at GM level normally; a tempo down it should be quite unsound.
   This leaves the two edge pawn handicaps. Only in these cases can it be seriously argued that the compensation is anywhere near to being enough. Edge pawns are worth less to start, and the semi-open file for the rook is quite nice. In my opinion Black will still have an advantage even in these two cases, but his advantage may be only slightly more than the advantage White normally has in an even game.  [back]


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