Frank Marshall, United States Chess Champion

A Biography With 220 Games

Andy Soltis

Reviewer: Donald K. McKim
383 pages (Hardcover)

Grandmaster Andy Soltis has given us a splendidly enjoyable book on Marshall (1877-1944), “the most beloved chess master America has ever produced.” Marshall was the U.S. Chess Champion for a record twenty-seven years, captained four world champion U.S. Olympiad teams, and had been named one of the first five grandmasters of chess. His long career brought him in contact with some of the game’s luminary players, whose respect he earned, and his love for the game was so deep that he even took a pocket chess set to bed. He played chess nearly every day for fifty-seven years.

Grandmaster Soltis, as a youth, joined the Marshall Chess Club, established by Marshall and after his death run by his wife Caroline (Carrie), whom Soltis knew during the last nine years of her life (she died in 1971). His book goes beyond Marshall’s own My Fifty Years Of Chess with materials drawn from handwritten notes Marshall left.

Soltis traces Marshall’s career from his birth in Manhattan, on the site of what became the home of the Second Madison Square Garden. In 1885 the Marshalls moved to Canada where they resided for eleven years. It was at the Montreal Chess Club where Marshall won his first chess tournament. It was there also, in 1893, that young Frank played World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz during one of his last exhibitions as World Champion. Steinitz said in a local newspaper that he “had never met an amateur of his age who had given him so much trouble,” adding also a prediction of “a brilliant future for him if he continues to play chess.” Soltis includes this game as one of the 220 games of Marshall in this book. Along the way we meet a uniquely “colorful” figure who was well over six feet tall, “dressed like a Victorian gambler, and was rarely without his ascot tie,” and usually chewed a cigar. “When he entered a public place,” said Chess Review in a tribute, “people turned to look at him, then leaned their heads together and whispered.”

Back in New York in 1895, Marshall joined the Manhattan and Brooklyn Chess Clubs and met nearly all the nation’s best players. He established a strong record for winning and was sent by the Clubs to London in 1899 where he won the minor tournament event.

Emmanuel Lasker wrote that it was the Paris tournament of May-June 1900 that “first opened the eyes of the chess world to the caliber of skill that Marshall possessed.” There he tied for third (with Maróczy), behind Lasker and Pillsbury. He defeated Lasker, the world champion, to inflict Lasker’s only loss in the tournament and his only loss to Marshall for four decades. He also defeated Pillsbury. The tournament book described him as the “clever young American” and Marshall received 1750 francs, plus a gold pin in the shape of a knight. He also received a tremendous boost in reputation.

From 1901-1904, Marshall devoted himself solely to chess and played in seven international round robin tournaments and supported himself further by giving simultaneous exhibitions and lectures, as well as by a few small-stakes matches. After a disappointing performance in Monte Carlo – where the roulette wheel proved an allure, the quality of Marshall’s games began to improve. His great triumph came with his victory at the Cambridge Springs (western Pennsylvania) tournament in 1904 where he defeated top players with eleven wins and four draws. As Soltis notes, “to finish undefeated in such a strong event was virtually unheard of.” Lasker’s Chess Magazine said, “This marvelous performance holds the record in international chess.” This event was to change Marshall’s life as Marshall began to be considered the best player on the continent.

On January 6, 1905, Marshall married Carrie D. Krauss after a whirlwind two-week courtship. Six hours after the ceremony, they were sailing to Europe where Marshall was to participate in the Paris tournament.

“Consistently Inconsistent” is the title of Soltis’ chapter on Marshall’s play in 1905, quoting the printed remark of Marshall’s friend William Napier. He sometimes played “logically and flawlessly” (Lasker’s magazine), but other times made glaring mistakes. He became a “streak player.” According to Soltis: “Lacking the self-discipline to steady himself after a bad game with a draw or two, he would often lose several games in a row in an effort to win back the first lost point.”

1906 was an eventful year for Marshall. He took first place in the Nuremberg tournament where world-class players Tarrasch, Schlechter, Janowsky, and Chigorin participated. Marshall went undefeated with nine wins and seven draws. This victory made him “Champion of Germany” and with the death of Pillsbury in June, Marshall also assumed the title of American Champion.

After difficult negotiations, a match with Lasker was arranged in New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Chicago, and Memphis from January 26-April 1907. To prepare, Marshall said that, “he trained by cutting down his tobacco consumption to 10 cigars a day, compared with the 15 he would normally smoke in a three-hour session.” But it was to no avail. Lasker defeated Marshall 8-0 with seven draws. Not for sixty-five years would another American (Bobby Fischer) play for the World Championship and it would be eighty-three years before another world title match was played in the United States (Kasparov-Karpov; New York, 1990).

Marshall’s longest trip abroad took place for the next twenty months. In 1908, he played 103 serious games against masters. After the Marshall’s return to New York in 1909, he played in a few American tournaments, matches, and gave simultaneous exhibitions and lectures. He became known for his speed and later in Berlin, it was calculated that he made 900 moves in 140 minutes, or less than ten seconds per move. In 1909, also, Marshall played a match against an up and coming Cuban player, José Raoul Capablanca. The result was an 8-1 win for Capablanca, with fourteen draws. In 1909 as well, Marshall played Jackson Showalter for the U.S. Championship, after the recognition that the championship should have reverted to the last living titleholder, Showalter, upon Pillsbury’s death in 1906. Marshall defeated Showalter to give him official recognition as the U.S. Champion. Ironically, however, while receiving this title, he had lost his match with Capablanca – which took place in the U.S.

Marshall also became known for his “swindles,” which he saw as an especially imaginative method of rescuing a difficult and perhaps “lost” position. His third book was titled Marshall’s Chess Swindles. Soltis’ chapter highlights some of Marshall’s greatest “swindles.”

Marshall went on to play in great tournaments from 1910-1914: Hamburg, New York, and San Sebastian. He was considered in these years to be tied with Alexander Alekhine as the sixth best player in the world, behind Lasker, Capablanca, Rubinstein, Schlechter, and Vidmar.

The greatest chess tournament held to this time took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1914. Marshall was invited to face Rubenstein, Capablanca, Janowsky, Tarrasch, Bernstein, Alekhine, Nimzovich, Gunsberg, Blackburne, and the champion, Lasker. Marshall finished fifth. But as one of the five finalists, he joined the elite company of Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch, and Alekhine to be dubbed by Czar Nicholas II as “Grandmaster.”

During a follow-up tournament at Mannheim, World War I broke out and Marshall, as a neutral American, was permitted to leave. He would not play again in Europe for a decade. Marshall left Russia without having retrieved his trunks from his hotel room. But they showed up in New York, five years later, with their contents intact, including his Fabergé cup from the St. Petersburg tournament!

The war years were devastating to chess in many ways. Marshall played in only two tournaments during the four and a half years. He made his living by depending on amateurs who were willing to play him in his simultaneous exhibitions and on readers of his books. After the war, the Marshalls spent summers in Atlantic City, New Jersey where Marshall gave lectures, simultaneous exhibitions, and individual lessons. He also made lengthy, multi-state tours. In January 1922, Marshall played 155 games in about seven hours, winning 126, drawing 21, and losing 8. When he returned to New York, according to several sources, he was able to recall the moves to all but two of the games!

In 1915 Marshall had opened the Marshall Chess Club, which featured annual tournaments. In 1920, Marshall won the American Chess Congress and in 1924, defended his title of U.S. Champion against Edward Lasker. When the great New York Tournament of 1924 came along, Marshall won six, lost four, and had ten draws for a fourth place finish behind Emmanuel Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine.

Marshall returned to Europe in 1925 and was fourth again in the Moscow tournament. Over the next years, his skill declined, but he captained the American teams to the first five modern Olympiads, winning four of them. His last European tournament as an individual was at Liège in 1930. In 1936, he turned over his U.S. Champion title to Samuel Reschevsky. Marshall presided as “honorary vice-president” over the Marshall Chess Club, which had become the meeting place of the top U.S. players who lived in New York.

During his last years, Marshall played much bridge and bingo. He was profiled in Life magazine in the January 29, 1940 issue who described him as a “preoccupied old gentleman who looks like a Shakespearean actor.” His My Fifty Years of Chess was published in 1942 and is, according to Soltis, “one of the most entertaining of American chess literature.”

On November 9, 1944, Marshall was returning home from Jersey City where he had gone for an evening of bingo. He collapsed while walking on Van Vorst Street and died. Three-hundred people attended his funeral at the Greenwich Presbyterian Church on November 13. His friend Napier said, “It seems to me that an epoch began with this man.”

Soltis’ fine study insures that we will remember the life and achievements of this great American chess player. His annotations to Marshall’s games, some of which had never before been published, enhance both the enjoyment and the value of this study. The colorful Marshall is gone; but his memory lives on!