The Mysteries of Szén Check out these

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Part One

I tried to resist the urge to use this trite title, but it really seems that
everything we know about the great master Szén has been wrapped in a
fog of dubious history. Even the spelling of his first name is unclear:
Josef, Jozsef, and Joseph are given by people who are generally quite
careful about such things. Frederick Edge spelled his last name to Zsen,
but that was called a mistake by other writers of the time. Szén was one of
the strongest masters of his day, and well loved by people who knew him,
but everything written about him seems just a little bit off.
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József Szén

A small whiff of this strangeness can be detected in this quote, from the St. Petersburg 1909
Living Age of October 23, 1897. It gives Szén as a contrast with more by Emanuel Lasker
irritable chess players, but in a way that strikes me as slightly double-

Play through and download “But chess also has its amenities, and gives opportunity for free play
the games from of the more generous nature. Every chess-player has met the in the counterpart of Szén, the Hungarian master, who with unaffected
DGT Game Viewer. kindliness would say to his defeated opponent: ‘Oh no! it is not I
who have won; you have merely lost.’”
The Complete
DGT Product Line Despite the strange phrasing, Szén was genuinely considered to be an
especially friendly player. Löwenthal and Falkbeer speak warmly of their
friendship with Szén. The following quote is from Kennedy’s book Waifs
and Strays, Chiefly from the Chess-board, in which he describes the Lasker's Manual of Chess
various players who attended the London tournament of 1851. by Emanuel Lasker

“Szén is, so to speak, the most jovial of players. There was an air of
insouciance about him; a rollicking good humour, perpetually
dancing in his large round eyes, that contrasted strikingly with the
care-worn looks of some of the other combatants in the tournament,
and was very pleasant to behold. Izaak Walton advises the young
angler, in impaling his worm on the hook, to ‘do it as if he loved
him:’ in like manner Szén, with an irresistible Pawn, thrusts his
opponent to death in the most affectionate manner possible; and
when he himself is moribund, to look at his cheerful countenance,
you would think that to be checkmated was the pleasantest thing in
the world.”

Then again, Mongredien, reminiscencing in the British Chess Magazine
of 1888, pg 274, gives a very different view of Szén:

“With this sturdy Hungarian player I only had a few games during
his short visit to London in 1851, and I came off second best. His
style was about the slowest, the heaviest, and the most tedious that I
ever came across, and the man himself was eccentric, ungenial, and
dreamy. His great power of abstraction, however, enabled him to
concentrate all his attention on the game, and he was great at
unravelling the knot of an intricate position.”

According to Gaige, Szén was born in Budapest, Hungary on July 9,
1805. His first appearance in the greater chess world came when he took a
long trip in the mid-1830s, and here we already get contradictory reports.
We start with his performance in Paris and London.

Szén played a long series at odds with Labourdonnais. There are different
reports of both the result and the odds, despite the fact that this was
between the world’s most prominent player and a very distinguished

One possible source of confusion is in the meaning of “pawn and move”
and “pawn and two.” In P+1 odds, the black pawn on f7 is removed; the
“move” simply means that the player with the extra pawn is White,
getting the first move. In P+2 odds, the player with the extra pawn not
only is White, but gets to make the first two moves (typically e4 and d4).
The difference is important in estimating how Szén compared with the
other major players of the time, since pawn-and-two odds, which rules out
most standard opening systems, is a considerably greater handicap than P

Some sources, such as Feenstra-Kuiper’s Hundert Jahre
Schachzweikämpfe, give a match between Szén and Labourdonnais at P+2
odds in 1836. This is consistent with both the games I have seen that are
preserved between the two players, and a letter from Labourdonnais that
will be discussed later; this is what I believe to be the most likely odds in
their games. Several other sources say P+1, which cannot be ruled out,
since these could be games played at a different time than the known P+2
games. There are a number of interesting attempts to have it both ways.
The Oxford Companion plays it safe and says that Labourdonnais gave
Szén odds (pawn and move, or pawn and two). A nice article on Szén by
Bottlik in the Quarterly for Chess History, volume 9, tries a different
approach; it says the games were played at P+1 odds, and then describes
conditions which are clearly P+2!

Two games between the players at P+2 odds (one win for each) are given
in the 1843 edition of the Handbuch des Schachspiels. The Oxford
Encyclopedia of Chess Games gives the same, but on first glance in one
game it looks as though Szén is giving odds to Labourdonnais; the
Encyclopedia preserves the fact that White did not always move first in
those days, so Szén has Black but confusingly gets the first two moves,
e7-e5 and d7-d5.

Several letters from Labourdonnais are given in the Chess Monthly of
1860. On pages 44-45 Labourdonnais says that he has played
approximately thirty games with Szén at P+2 odds without either
obtaining an advantage.

Now that we understand the state of confusion over the odds, let us deal
with the results of the match. Labourdonnais’ letter seems to place the
two as equal. Feenstra-Kuiper (and Bottlik, in his Quarterly for Chess
History Article) give a precise score of 13-12 in favor of Szén;
Labourdonnais’ wording is sufficiently vague so that either result is
plausible. The Oxford Companion again plays it safe and vague, saying
that “the advantage lay with Szén, but whether he led by a narrow or
decisive majority of games is not known,” and says simply if vaguely that
they played “many games.” A strange account of the match, by Edge, will
be discussed later.

Let us now turn to Szén’s other results on his trip, which are if anything
less clear. The Oxford Companion cites Walker as saying in 1837 that
Szén was stronger than any player in Vienna, and that he could beat all
the London players. I believe that this may be something of a twist on a
very interesting article titled “Continental Chess-Clubs, and Players,”
which appeared in the Philidorian of February 1838, pages 118-121. Here
is the key paragraph dealing with Szén:

“The Chess-players of Vienna meet at the Cafe de l’Argent, their
strongest amateur being M. Witholm. The Hungarian, M. Szén,
resides at Pest, and he and Witholm are about equal in power. M.
Szén has never met with any other player in Germany, who could
make a stand against him, though he has visited Berlin, Dresden,
&c. M. de la Bourdonnais could give the Pawn to either Szén or
Witholm, though M. Szén, when in London, beat all the good
players who could screw up their courage to face him.”

Later in the article, Szén is mentioned briefly again, when St. Amant and
Boncourt, the two best French players after Labourdonnais, are called
“fully as strong as M. Szén.”

It is not clear to me from this if Szén actually played matches against
Witholm or played Labourdonnais at P+1. In A Century of British Chess,
Sergeant says that Szén’s visit to Paris in 1836 did not get the attention it
deserved, and that the previous year in Paris he played a level match
“with honours easy” (meaning the games were split evenly) against
Boncourt. Murray (page 885) says that Szén barely held his own against
other French and English players, scoring three wins, four losses, and
three draws against Boncourt, Walker, and Slous. Bottlik’s article says
“Against Boncourt in Paris and Slous and Walker in London, he scored a
minimal plus; in all other cases, he clearly dominated the opposition,” and
that “it may be stated with certainty that, outside of Labourdonnais, there
was no one stronger in Paris than Szén.” Scores against other opponents
in Paris and London are hard to find; Labourdonnais’ letter in Chess
Monthly 1860, page 45, seems to indicate that Szén defeated the lesser
player Calis twelve games to one. Basically, by picking your quotation,
you can justify a wide range of views when comparing Szén to the
leading players of Paris and London other than Labourdonnais.

Outside of his stays in Paris and London, Szén’s most important other
encounters on this trip were in Berlin, and again there is confusion from
various sources as to his results there. One encounter that definitely
occurred was Szén played against four of the Pleiades members during a
brief stopover on his return trip from Paris and London. According to the
Schachzeitung of January 1847, page 13, these games were all played at
the Berlin Chess Club on April 16-17, 1839. He went 2-1 against Lasa, 1-
1 against Bledow, 0-1 against Bilguer, and 0-2-1 against Mayet. These
scores agree with accounts in the Chess Player’s Chronicle 1856, page 1.

However, other versions of the results in Berlin can also be found.
According to the Oxford Companion, Szén’s worst result was a narrow
defeat by Bledow at Berlin in 1839. The games against Mayet are
sometimes given as Mayet winning by a score of +3 –2 =1; Feenstra-
Kuiper gives Mayet winning by that score in 1839. All these matches are
sometimes given as played in 1838 rather than 1839. I understand that
some of the confusion may come from the rather archaic phrasing in the
Schachzeitung article on the Mayet scores, which could at first glance
seem to indicate a different score than the actual 2-0-1 which was
intended. In addition, there is some confusion on the scores of games
played during this visit; a fourth game is sometimes listed as Mayet-Szén
but has also been published as Szén playing a Mr. A. There is also a
dubious story regarding Szén and Bledow, involving Bledow agreeing to
a draw in a game he had won. Could some of these be referring to an
earlier trip, as the Philidorian quote seems to indicate? For example,
might Mayet have beaten Szén in 1836 by 3-2-1? But if we are justifying
an earlier trip, about which so little seems to be known, on the basis of the
Philidorian article, Szén was supposed to have beaten all the Berlin
players, making a loss to Mayet inconsistent!

Shouldn’t these matters regarding the pride of Hungarian chess be easy to
resolve? After all, he was considered sufficiently important to be assigned
an official curator, as explained in Bottlik’s article on Szén. The first
curator was Ferenc Erkel, a strong chess player who wrote Hungary’s
national anthem. The task was passed to Istvan Marki, but Marki’s
manuscript on Szén and all research materials went missing upon his
death in 1885 at age forty-three. Grimm had some detailed records of
Hungarian chess, but these also disappeared mysteriously.

There is some confusion on other issues, though the source in this case is
Edge reporting long after the time in question. St. Amant refused to play a
match with Szén while he was in Paris. This did not sit well with
Labourdonnais, who in his letter reprinted in Chess Monthly 1860, pages
76-77, notes that St. Amant had twice promised to accept Szén’s
challenge, and did not play in either case. This refusal was remembered
years later, as a nice series of articles on the Cafe de la Régence describes
St. Amant as “rather a stickler for reputation, St. Amant declined risking
his laurels upon the occasion of Szén, the Hungarian, visiting Paris ... The
fact excited some surprise ...” Edge, however, claims that Labourdonnais
had his own reasons for refusing a match on even terms with Szén:

“Zsen [sic] went to Paris in 1831, and played some games with
Labourdonnais at the odds of Pawn and Move, winning the
majority. He then told the great Frenchman that he did not like
playing for stakes as a general thing, but that he would propose to
him a match of 21 even games for 200 francs; but Labourdonnais
declined. And who will say he was wrong? For what pleasure could
there be in sitting down day after day before the dullest player in
Christendom, for the eventuality of 200 francs? Zsen was so
frightfully slow, even in ordinary games, that he would have worn
out 200 francs worth of pantaloons before the match was half

We see here two new assertions about Szén, besides a clearly incorrect
year for the encounter. In Edge’s account, Szén was a slow player, and he
did not like playing for stakes. I do not believe either claim. Szén
certainly was not slow in his brief trip to Berlin. To quote from the 1856
Chess Player’s Chronicle, “In mentioning these results, it is proper to
remark that the eagerness of our players to combat Herr Szén was such as
to tax his time and powers to a degree that must have greatly fatigued
him. As a proof we need only state that the three games against V.H. Der
Lasa, and the three against Mayet, were played in one day, April 17,
1839.” Six serious games in a single day, and nine in two days, is hardly
indicative of slow play.

The issue of some players’ alleged slowness has often been contentious.
Regarding the London 1851 tournament, Staunton was very harsh toward
the supposed slowness of Elijah Williams. Anderssen wrote an amusing
letter regarding what he viewed as the poor playing conditions at London
1851. In addition to complaining about the seats and the crowds,
Anderssen complained about the speed of play. These translate roughly as
follows. I note that I have gotten this translation in a very roundabout
way; the letter was presumably originally in German, I found it online in
the Finnish paper, Allman Tidning, of July 31, 1851. This is a Swedish
language paper, and the chess historian Anders Thulin translated this into
English. I found a German version on the dust cover of the Olms edition
of the 1851 tournament book, and made a few changes based on this.
Thus, it is certainly possible that a few nuances are obscured from the
original letter.

“Comfort is not particularly high, chairs and tables are small and
low; all free space next to the players was occupied by a copier [i.e.
the person recording the game], in short there was not a single place
where you could rest your weary head during the hard fight. For the
English player, more comfort is not required. He sits straight as a
poker in his chair, keeps his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, and
does not move until he has motionlessly surveyed the chess board
for half an hour. His opponent has sighed hundreds of times when
the Englishman suddenly and decisively moves his piece.”

Note that Anderssen’s opponents in the tournament were successively
Kieseritzky, Szén, Staunton, and Wyvill. He says here that it is the
English players who were slow; this would mean Staunton and/or Wyvill
were slow, not Szén. I would also note that the characterization of
Staunton’s board side manner in MacDonnell’s Chess Life in Pictures
seems to jibe quite well with Anderssen’s description. In contrast to such
players as Labourdonnais’ opponent Mac Donnell, who would sit
sideways on the chair, or Boden, who would talk to himself, Staunton
“was very quiet in his demeanour; he always sat with his arms folded
before his, and, resting on the table, he daintily manipulated the pieces,
never made any remarks about the game whilst it was progressing, nor
betrayed any impatience at the slowness of an opponent.” I am one of
those who believes that Staunton’s complaints regarding Williams’ slow
play were more in the nature of excuses than true reflections of a serious
issue, and that Staunton was himself on the slow side by standards of the

As far as Szén’s supposed reluctance to play for stakes, this seems to be
complete fiction. Edge, having witnessed Morphy’s reluctance to accept
money, probably thought such an attitude was common and noble, while
in fact it was rare and often considered eccentric. This was put forth most
colorfully by Deschapelles, who replied to a potential opponent who said
that his religion forbade him for playing for stakes by replying that
Deschapelles’ religion forbade him from being ridiculous.

In fact, we have unusual documentary evidence regarding Szén’s playing
for money. According to the Quarterly for Chess History article, the
mayor of Pest, in supporting Szén’s application to travel to London 1851,
wrote that Szén had already shown his ability to support himself with
earnings gained on the chessboard. In fact, there is a story in the same
article seeming to show that Szén could be something of a hustler. He
would play the “three-pawn problem” with white having king on d1, and
pawns on a2, b2, c2, and black with king on e8, pawns on f7, g7, h7. The
challenge was for white to win, or black to draw, and Szén would play
either side. He is said to have won a large number of bets on this position
in Paris and London, and one story tells how a player facing Szén for a
second time was surprised when Szén chose a different opening, to which
Szén replied that the earlier game was not played for money.

Szén’s style was very different from the predominant style of his time.
There are numerous references to Szén as the great pawn master, and he
was happy to simplify into endgames. He often preferred maneuvering in
closed positions to wild attacks in open games. We see that clearly in this
game from the Labourdonnais match.

Szén-De la Bourdonnais, match, Paris, 1836 (remove Black’s f-pawn;
notes by Taylor Kingston, assisted by Fritz8): 1.e4 … 2.d4 e6 3.c4 Nc6 4.
Nf3 d5 5.e5 Bb4+ 6.Nc3 Nge7
7.Bd3 Better was 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3, both fortifying White’s center and
forcing some simplification with an eye to the endgame, but Szén may
have been observing a custom of the time, under which it was considered
unsporting for the player receiving odds to simplify too early. 7...0–0 8.
Bg5 Qe8 An interesting alternative is the long forcing line 8...dxc4 9.
Bxc4 Rxf3 10.gxf3 Qxd4 11.Qxd4 Nxd4 12.Bxe7 Bxe7 13.Nb5 Nxf3+ 14.
Ke2 Nxe5 15.Nxc7 Rb8 16.Bxe6+ Bxe6 17.Nxe6, but when the smoke
clears White is a clear exchange up. 9.0–0 Qh5 10.Bxe7 Nxe7 11.Ne2
dxc4 12.Bxc4 Nd5

13.h3 The Handbuch correctly notes here that White could have played
13.Bxd5 exd5 14.Qb3 with advantage. 13...c6 14.Nh2 Bd7 15.Bxd5?!

Now this relinquishes much of White’s positional advantage. Better 15.
Qb3 a5 16.a3 a4 17.Qg3. The text greatly improves the lot of Black’s bad
bishop, whichever way he recaptures. 15...cxd5 15...exd5, opening the c8-
h3 diagonal, seems preferable. 16.Qd3 Ba5 17.Ng3 Qh6 18.Ng4 Qh4 19.
Ne2 Bb6 20.f4 Be8 21.Rad1 a6 22.Qg3 Qxg3 There is no good way to
avoid exchanging queens. If, say, 22...Qe7 23.f5 with dangerous pressure.
23.Nxg3 Rc8 24.Ne3 Rc7 25.b4 25.f5 at once was better. 25...Bb5 26.
Rf3 Rc3 27.f5
27…g6?! There was more counterplay in 27...Ra3 28.Rd2 (not 28.fxe6??
Rxf3 2.gxf3 Rxe3) 28...g6 29.f6 Ra4. 28.f6 A long trench-warfare siege
looks likely. 28...h5?

A serious mistake; better 28…Rfc8 or 28…Kf7. 29.h4?! Missing 29.
Nxd5! Rxf3 29.Ne7+ Kf7 30.gxf3, which Black now prevents. 29...Kf7
30.Nef5 An idea similar to the last note, though not as effective, since the
knight has not captured a pawn. 30...Rxf3 Preferable was 30...Rc6,
intending if 31.Nd6? Rxd6! 32.exd6 e5!. 31.Nd6+ Kg8 32.gxf3

32…Rd8? Another major mistake. 32...Bc6 put up a much stouter
defense, though White should still win eventually. 33.Kf2 It is hard to
understand why Szén did not play 33.Nxb7 here. Nevertheless, White is
still winning. 33...Rd7 34.Nxb5 axb5 35.Ne2 In this kind of position the
knight is much superior to the bishop. 35...Kf7 36.Ke3 Rc7 37.Rc1 Rc4
38.Rxc4 bxc4 39.f4 Bc7

Black can do nothing but watch White’s king and pawns advance. 40.Kd2
Bd8 41.Kc3 b6 42.a4 Bc7 43.Ng1 “und gewinnt,” says the Handbuch.

Szén was reputed to have outstanding endgame technique. For example,
the Chess Player’s Chronicle of 1856, in reference to this position from
an 1839 game between von der Lasa (himself a fine endgame player) and
“Herr Szén has a Pawn more than his opponent: in his hands that
advantage is almost irresistible.” It is said that Szén won in twenty more
moves. I would love to be able to show you how, but apparently the
Chronicle considered it such a foregone conclusion that they did not give
the remainder of the game!

One ending we can show is from a game of unknown date, published in
the Chess Player’s Chronicle of 1854, pp. 151-152. I believe it was
probably played in Paris in 1853. Notes preceded by “JS” are mine, “TK”
indicates Taylor Kingston; all other notes are from the Chronicle.

Szén-Budzinski, Paris (?), 1853 (?): 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 Qh4+ 4.Kf1
g5 5.Nc3 d6 6.d4 Bg7 7.Nf3 Qh5 8.h4 h6 9.e5 g4 10.Ng1 dxe5 11.Nd5
Kd8 12.dxe5 Bd7 13.e6 White plays all this attack extremely well. 13…
fxe6 14.Nxf4 Qf5 15.Bxe6 Qb5+ 16.c4 Qe5 17.Qxg4 Kc8 18.Bxd7+
Nxd7 19.Nf3 h5 He has no better move in his power. If Qf6 or Qe7 to
guard his Bishop, the Q’s Kt. attacks her with terrible effect.

20.Qxd7+ A good move, but we feel that Qg6 would have been still
better. JS: Szén does not play 20.Qg3 which would lead to great
advantage. I feel Szén sees a path to a win, and is not really looking for
more complex lines that lead to greater immediate advantage. TK: Szén’s
choice is eminently practical. True, he could win at least a piece with 20.
Qg3, viz. 20…Qf6 21.Nd5 (threatening mate) 21…Qc6 22.Qxg7 Qxc4+
23.Kg1 Qxd5 24.Qxh8, or 20...Qe8 21.Qxg7 Ngf6. However, that still
leaves queens on the board, with potential for complications. The line
Szén chooses not only wins the exchange, but simplifies the position
considerably. The Chonicle’s recommendation of 20.Qg6 not nearly as
good. 20…Kxd7 21.Nxe5+ Bxe5 22.Ng6 Bd4 23.Nxh8 Rf8+ 24.Ke2

TK: The dust settles, leaving White up the exchange and a pawn, a fairly
clear win that is the proverbial matter of technique.25.Be3 Nf6 26.Rad1+
Kc6 27.b4 a6 28.a4 b5 29.cxb5+ axb5 30.Rc1+ Kb7 31.axb5 Nd5 32.
Bd2 Bd4 33.Rhf1 Re8+ 34.Kd3 Bf6 35.g3 Rd8 36.Kc2 Be5 37.Rf3 Bd6
38.Kb3 Rg8

39.Rc5! Well played. TK: Again, Szén chooses clarity. It was possible to
defend the g-pawn with 39.Bg5, since if either 39…Bxb4? 40.Rd3 or 39…
Nxb4? 40.Rd1 Bc5 41.Rf5 Kb6 42.Kc4 Black loses more material. But
the text allows Black no good alternative to further simplification. 39…
Bxc5 40.bxc5 No man knows the value of two such Pawns as these, or
the way to play them to the most advantage, better than Mr. Szén. 40…
Rg4 41.Ba5 Kc8 42.c6 Kb8 43.Rd3 Nb6 44.Bxb6 cxb6 45.Rd5!

Bizarre as this move looks at first sight, it will be found to be the most
expeditious mode of terminating the struggle. TK: Szén’s technique
reminds one somewhat of Capablanca, for example his famous game
against Tartakower at New York 1924. 45…Rxg3+ 46.Kc2 Kc7 47.Rxh5
Rg4 48.Kd3 Rb4 49.Kc3 Rb1 50.Rf5 Kd6 51.h5 Ke6 52.Rg5 Kf6 53.
Kc2 Rb4

54.Rc5!! White’s concluding moves are very clever, and remind one of
some of Mr. Szén’s moves in his palmiest time. 54.bxc5 55.c7 1-0 Black

An important boost to Szén’s reputation came in the correspondence
match between Pest and Paris in the early 1840s. The French players
assumed that since Paris was the center of the chess world that they could
win a match against any other city handily. The Hungarian team was led
by Szén, with his chief assistants being Löwenthal (praised in der
Humorist, Febuary 28, 1844 for his brilliant attacks), and Grimm, as well
as secondary players such as Oppenheim and the brothers Zenner (or
Cenner). Other members of the Pest community taking part are noted in
der Humorist of December 1, 1842. It greatly boosted the prestige of
Hungarian chess when Pest won, and Löwenthal and Grimm were
acknowledged, along with Szén, to be among the great chess masters of

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