Romance in Chess
What could possibly be less romantic than chess?

Romance in chess? ‘What could possibly be less romantic than chess?’ you might be asking. After all, chess is a game of war based on logic, isn’t it? There is nothing romantic about war or logic.

Many players are familiar with the famous quote by Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch from the preface to his classic manual The Game of Chess : ‘Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy’ (which politically correct writers of more recent times change to ‘the power to make people happy’). Less familiar is Tarrasch’s preceding sentence, ‘I have always a slight feeling of pity for the man who has no knowledge of chess, just as I would pity the man who has remained ignorant of love.’

Chess once served a social function of allowing young men and women to meet above the board. Echecs et F�odalit� : Raoul de Cambrai(Chess and feudalism; from Culture et curiosit�s, see the link box at the bottom of this article) tells of a poem by Bertolai, a 10th century poet from Laon, France. The poem, about a war of succession in Northern France, references chess twice. In the second reference chess is used as an excuse by the daughter of the new overlord Guerri to woo the hero Bernier to her chambers. Her chamberlain, assigned the task of arranging the meeting, says to Bernier, ‘My young lord, you can be proud of yourself, since the daughter of Guerri, the most noble woman from here to the south of France, asks that you join her in her apartments, to play chess. You should comply, but don’t play chess.’

The significance of this might be lost in our age of instant gratification, but as recently as 100 years ago, chess still occasionally served as a means to a more romantic end.

This popular illustration by Clarence Frederick Underwood (American, 1871-1929), is often listed under various titles. Our favorite is Knight takes Queen. This theme is not as unique as you might think. One web site has a collection of more than 50 drawings and photos, all with the theme ‘Couples playing chess’ (see the link box again). The images invariably have titles like ‘The right move’, ‘The greatest game in the world’, or variations on the word mate : ‘Impending Mate’, ‘Check and mate’, etc. The word ‘checkmate’ even figured in at least one early valentine.

‘My little love do you remember,
Ere we grew so sadly wise,
When you and I played chess together,
Checkmated by each others eyes?’


The scientific view of chess as a game of logic based on first principles took hold at the end of the 19th-century. The romantic period in chess, where players sacrificed pieces for the sake of introducing tactical complications, is generally considered to have reached its peak during the mid 19th-century. The greatest proponent of the romantic style was undoubtedly Adolph Anderssen, the unofficial World Champion from that period. His daring lives on in games that have been given romantic names.

  • Immortal game : Anderssen – Kieseritzky, London 1851
  • Evergreen game : Anderssen – Dufresne, Berlin 1852

The Evans Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4) is the chess opening most closely associated with the romantic period. The position in the following diagram, showing the b-Pawn being sacrificed for tactical complications, was a magnet for the romantics.

Anderssen played the Evans Gambit, as did Mikhail Chigorin, one of the last, great romantic players of the 19th century.

  • Evans Gambit 4…Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 : Anderssen – Zukertort, Barmen 1869
  • Evans Gambit 4…Bxb4 5.c3 Bc5 : Chigorin – Dorrer, Correspondence 1884

Anderssen’s opponent in our example game, Johannes Zukertort, was himself no stranger to piece sacrifices.

  • English Opening : Zukertort – Blackburne, London 1883

Who was the first of the romantic players? We would say Louis-Charles de La Bourdonnais (French, 1797-1840), the first unofficial World Champion. The award winning The Oxford Companion to Chess by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld (link box again) calls the opening 1.e4 e6 2.f4 both the Bourdonnais Attack and the Romantic Attack.

Who was the last of the romantic players? No one. More modern players like Mikhail Tal and Alexei Shirov continued the romantic tradition, often spurning logic to make their opponents hack through mind spinning complications.

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