‘De la Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834: The Eighty-Five Games of Their Six Matches, with Excerpts from Additional Games Against Other Opponents’ –
McFarland & Company, Inc, North Carolina (2005; now in hardback in 2012)
The matches between Alexander McDonnell and Louis Charles Mahé de la Bourdonnais represented the origins of modern chess. There were 85 games in these matches, played in the summer of 1834, and all these games were recorded to posterity. Every strong player, for many decades, would have studied each of these games in depth, admiring the originality of the two players, but also noticing their weaknesses, of which there were many. Staunton, Morphy and Anderssen were close students of these matches, and the influences of McDonnell and de la Bourdonnais clearly influenced their later play.
It is a travesty to suggest, as many leading writers of the 20th century have, that there was nothing really worth considering in chess between the days of Philidor, and the start of Morphy. There was a massive gap in the middle. It is of course more than likely that after the death of Lasker, and up to the start of the internet era, very few players would have found the opportunity to play through the games of 1834.
It is about time for this gap in understanding to be removed. Anyone with the computer will be able to go through all 85 games. To add to this, we have a detailed work by Cary Utterberg, whch should really have been reviewed much earlier, closer to the publication date of 2005. All credit to Utterberg. In a 400 page book, he has given notes to all the games, quite an effort. The annotations he has written are workable, and give a reasonably good indication of what was going on in these games, but unfortunately do not give the fizz of a modern strong player. Utterberg clearly wants to be able to go through the opening with detailed theoretical understanding, but unfortunately, this was not his stength. There were to many random question marks in his analysis of the opening, a few comments by writers such as Staunton and Morphy, and, slightly bizarrely, various notes from ECO, dated between the 1970s and 1990s. A much more up-to-date response would be to trawl through the major databases and chess engines. The Evans Gambit, beloved by de la Bourdonnais and McDonnell, and also by Morphy and Andersson, does not survive, in modern terms.
Or, at the start of the very forst game, play went (de la Bourdonnais as white) with 1 e4 e5 2 d4 exd4 3 Nf3 c5. McDonnell was given the first question mark with the game, with 3…c5?!, but surely defending the pawn was good and logical. The query should be given instead with 3 Nf3?!. Utterberg does however note Morphy’s comments, on 3…c5 4.d4 d5!?. An interesting move, suggesting perhaps that Morphy was the first to think about how Black should try to equalise, before thinking about playing for a win.
There is vastly more to be looked at. The games between de la Bourdonnais and McDonnell are an absolute gold-mine in terms of chess thinking and psychology. These were the two strongest players in the world, and they each want to play to their utmost. Just about all the other opponents would be playing at only around 130 strength or below, and to make games interesting, most games would be played at odds. How would the two players opponents of their own strength? How quickly would they be able to handle their games? What would they need to do, in order to improve? And did their play improve? If so, how did much later players improve on all this? Was there a start of a chess revolution in chess thinking, born in 1834 in London?
A sad note. Neither player was able to play in Staunton’s 1851 London event, because both players had died a long time previously. McDonnell, still only in his mid-thirties, died just a year after his 1834 matches, and de la Bourdonnais, very slightly older, also was in ill health, and died in poverty a few years later. It seems that chess killed them both.
IM Colin Crouch