Chess Archaeology HomeChess is a scientific game and its literature ought to be placed on the basis of the strictest truthfulness, which is the foundation of all scientific research.W. Steinitz

Free Points Theory — Sixth Match, 1834 La Bourdonnais-Macdonnell Matches
Researched by Nick Pope

(Return to Main Index)

The following is an analysis of the theory that Bourdonnais gave McDonnell "free points" to start the sixth match as an explanation of why Bourdonnais has four consecutive games with the first move in the games as presented in George Greenwood Walker's book and in Chess Studies.

The sixth match witnessed a further evolution of McDonnell's play, who dictated the action more frequently than the minimal margin of one point indicates. The records suggest that the Irishman was given a three game "head start" in the match, which was scheduled to be decided by the first player to score eight wins. Thus de la Bourdonnais began with four consecutive whites—the "missing" games serving as free points for his opponent.*

* Murray, page 882.
De la Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834, Cary Utterberg, Jefferson 2005, p281

Cary Utterberg cites Murray as the source for his conclusion.

Checking Murray's A History of Chess we find:

The exact details of the matches are not known,[13] but De la Bourdonnais won a considerable majority of the games.
[...]

[13] The authorities are: (a) Greenwood Walker's edition; (b) Report of Westminster Club, 1834 (by Geo. Walker); (c) Geo. Walker's Chess Studies; (d) Geo. Walker in CPC., iv, 369; (e) Reprint of games in CPC., ii and iii (? supplied by Lewis); (f) Palamede, 1836, 26 (De la Bourdonnais); (g) Palamede, 1844, 266 (Saint-Amant says De la Bourdonnais told him that he allowed MacDonnell some games in the last match). Cf. CPM., 1864, 72, 115, 161 (Geo Walker), 161, 203, 232.

Five matches of 21, 9, 11, 11, 11 games (excluding draws) were played out, and part of a sixth. All agree as to the score of the first four matches (I, B. 16, M. 5, Drawn 4; II, 4, 5, 0; III, 6, 5, 1; IV, 8, 3, 7. According to (d) the other matches resulted: V, 7, 4, 1; VI, 5, 4, 0. The score of the existing games of VI is, however, 4, 5, 0.

Greenwood Walker says that he took down all the games as played, and gives the score of 83, and mentions one (No. 14) as omitted because it was badly played. His total score is 41, 29, 13. The other editions of the games add No. 85 (won by M.), which was first published in CPC., ii, 232 (where it is not described as a game of the match). The total score is given in (b) as 44,30,14 = 88 games; in (c) as 46, 26, 13 (but the games themselves give 45, 27, 13) = 85 games; (d) 44, 28, 13 = 85 games; (e) 44, 28, 13 = 85 games. In (a) M. plays first in games 70-74; (c) reverses the players in 71 and 73, (e) in 73 only. From internal evidence (c) seems to be right, and if we correct the totals in (a) accordingly, and an obvious misprint in the result of game 82, and then add the results of games 14 and 85, the revised totals of (a) are 45, 27, 13, and agree with the corrected figures for (c). All the editions make B. play first in games 77-80, and internal evidence supports them, though it was clearly impossible that B. could have played first in four consecutive games in the ordinary course of events. Centurini (CPM., 1864, 232) suggested that B. gave M. the odds of three games in the last match (to be of 15 games), and that these were assumed to be the games that should have come between 77 and 78, 78 and 79, and 79 and 80. This would make the total score 45, 30, 13 (cf. (b)], and agree with M.'s statement that he won eight of the last twelve games [cf. also (g)] This may be the explanation, but it is also possible, since Geo. Walker only obtained the games of the last match en bloc, that they have been disarranged; some may be wrongly ascribed, thus, internal evidence suggest that M., not L. opened and won game 80. According to (f), B. played other than match games with M., and even attempted to give him odds. B. speaks here of a total of 100 games.

There appears to be two things to check from Murray; the first is Centurini's suggestion to see if it is supported by any evidence and the second is to check to see what St. Amant wrote.

As we are working backwards in time let's start with Centurini. In his 5th "data" point he states:

THE GAMES OF LA BOURDONNAIS AND MACDONNELL.

TO THE EDITOR OF "THE CHESS PLAYER'S MAGAZINE."

Genoa (Italy), July 1864.
Sir,—The writer of the "Glimpses, &c." (Chess Player's Magazine, p. 204), says that my hypothesis is founded upon no data. I believe that this is a mistake on his part, or that he has overlooked the fact of my founding my hypothesis on the two following data, viz.:—

1. Upon the Westminster Club Report;

2. Upon the assertion of Mr. Greenwood Walker, that out of the Evan's Gambits played between these two players, each won ten games.

Now, although it has been proved of late, by new investigations, that these two data do not deserve much credit, and albeit I must confess that my hypothesis was, perhaps, erroneous, yet it could not be said that it was founded up no data whatever. Meanwhile, I beg to present to the kind consideration of your impartial readers another hypothesis, founded upon the following five data:—

1. The Report of the Westminster Club is now disavowed by its author, Mr. George Walker; consequently, it no longer merits any credit (Chess Player's Magazine, 1864, p. 162).

2. Mr. George Walker assures us no victories or defeats were place on the wrong shoulders; therefore, Mr. Greenwood Walker's theory with regard to the ten Evans' Gambits falls to the ground, and it is useless to propose variations of the games of the two players, with a view of rectifying the statements of Mr. George Walker.

3. The last match, unfinished, registered in the "Chess Studies," contains four games (77, 78, 79, 80), all opened successively by Labourdonnais, which is contrary to all rule and custom. We may therefore suppose that three other games opened by Macdonnell are missing, which must be added to the four games in the "Chess Studies." It is very likely that those three games have either not been taken down, or have been lost altogether.

4. The assertion made by Macdonnell, "Of the last twelve games I won eight," authorises us to believe that these "last twelve games" are nothing else but the nine games in the last match, recorded by the "Chess Studies," and the three games mentioned above. The eight games won by Macdonnell would therefore, be the five registered, and the three not recorded.

5. Mr. Saint Amant, in his Palamède, 1844, p. 266 says he has heard from La Bourdonnais himself, that in the last match he "avantageait son adversaire de quelques parties"—(he allowed his opponent some games to start with); it stands, therefore, to reason to suppose that one or two of the three missing games were the odds given by La Bourdonnais, and that in the last match the player who won the majority out of fifteen games was declared the victor.

Games in "Chess Studies"Opening Player.Winning Player.L.M.
177L.M.1
2Game not recorded or lost, or given as odds by LabourdonnaisM.M.1
378L.L.1
4Game not recorded or lost, or given as odds by LabourdonnaisM.M.1
579L.L.1
6Game not recorded or lost, or given as odds by LabourdonnaisM.M.1
780L.L.1
881M.M.1
982L.L.1
1083M.M.1
1184L.M.1
1285M.M.1
————
48
Preceding Games4221
————
4629
————
Drawn Games 13

I have the honour to be, Sir,        
Your most obedient servant,    
Louis Centurini.


Centurini also points the finger at St. Amant. So let's check the source that both Murray and Centurini cite:

LABROUDONNAIS ET MACDONNELL.

On avait publié, il y a déjà long-temps, les cinquante plus belles parties jouées entre Labourdonnais et Macdonnell, ces deux illustrations de l'Échiquier ravis sitôt à notre admiration. M. G. Walker, dans son Encyclopédie de mille vingt parties, a placé au début de l'ouvrage les quatre-vingt-cinq parties qu'ils ont jouées ensembles, et qui peuvent être certainement considérées comme la plus riche collection de ce genre. Louons notre siècle et la nation anglaise qui ont recueilli ces monumens du génie! Que n'en était-il de même dans les temps passés! nous aurions à méditer, je ne dis pas seulement sur les parties de Palamède et de Calchas au siége de Troie, mais sur les luttes encore plus positives du xvi siècle entre Boy de Syracuse, Ruy Lopez et G. Léonardo, et de tant d'autres célébrités dont la négligence de nos ainés a laissé à peine parvenir le nom jusqu'à nous; tandis que les nôtres, tout modestes et rapetissés qu'ils soient, sont sans doute destinés à traverser quelques âges, grâce à la publicité de nos travaux.

Il résult de cette collection méthodique des quatre-vingt-cinq parties, dont pas une n'a été égarée, que Labourdonnais et Macdonnell ont engagé ensemble six matches, dont voici le tableau synoptique:

Labourdonnais.Macdonnell.Remises.
Match.-I17 parties.4 parties.4 part.25 part.
II4509
III65112
IV83718
V74112
VI4509
46261385

Ainsi donc, la majorité de Labourdonnais sur son adversaire a été de près du double, deux contre un. Le second match seulement aurait été gagné par Macdonnell, car le sixième ne fut jamais achevé. Labourdonnais fut obligé de revenir en France après avoir perdu, s'il faut s'en rapporter à l'ordre établi dans Chess Studies, les trois dernières parties. Mais nous avons toujours entendu dire à Labourdonnais lui-même, qui l'a écrit et imprimé, que, dans ces matches, il avantageait son adversaire de quelques parties, qu'il lui donnait d'avance, ne pouvant lui faire aucun avantage matériel en pièces et en traits.

It was published a long time ago, the fifty most beautiful games played between Labourdonnais and MacDonnell, these two illustrations of chess soon delighted our admiration. Mr. G. Walker, in his Encyclopedia of one thousand games, placed at the beginning of the book the eighty-five games they played together, and that can certainly be regarded as the richest collection of this kind. Praise our century and the English nation who collected these monuments of genius! That was not the same in times past! We would have to think, I do not say only the games of Palamède and Calchas at the siege of Troy, but on the more real struggles of the sixteenth century between Boy from Syracuse, Ruy Lopez and G. Leonardo, and so many other celebrities whose neglect of our elders left behind just their names to us; while ours, while modest and small as they are, are probably intended to pass through several ages, thanks to the publicity of our work.

The result of this methodical collection of eighty-five games, not one was lost, and that Labourdonnais Macdonnell engaged all six matches, including the following synopsis:

Labourdonnais.Macdonnell.Remises.
Match.-I17 parties.4 parties.4 part.25 part.
II4509
III65112
IV83718
V74112
VI4509
46261385

Thus, Labourdonnais' majority of his opponent was almost double, two against one. Only the second match was won by Macdonnell, as the sixth was never completed. Labourdonnais was obliged to return to France after having lost, we must refer to the established order in Chess Studies, the last three games. But we always heard from Labourdonnais himself, who wrote and printed, that the advantage his opponent allowed in a few games, early on, he could not gain any material benefit in pieces or moves.

Based upon my translation it would appear that Centurini and Murray read a little more into the meaning of what St. Amant had written. Before checking what Bourdonnais actually wrote, let us examine this tidbit from George Walker who published the following as a response to what Bourdonnais had written:

Again, M. La B. is evidently "poking his fun" at us, when he speaks in the following words of the play in this country, in 1834, between him and Mr. M'Donnell—"Toutes les fois que je voulus faire avantage a M. MacDonnel, je fus battu: a but, je gagnai toujours. Je vis que la question pouvait ainsi se resumer entre nous deux: j'etais plus fort, mais je ne pouvais faire avantage. Je declare que M. M'Donnel est le plus habile amateur d'echecs que j'aie connu, apres M. Deschapelles, &c." Surely the writer does not mean "Jean Rost bif" to suppose he ever gave odds to Mr. M'Donnell—though what else can be inferred from his words? The fact was, the parties played always on terms of strict equality; and that, although of the 88 games thus played in all, M. La B. won at first in a large proportion, yet of the last 42 our lamented countryman won 22, and of the last eleven won eight. A friend solved our dilemma as to Monsieur's meaning by saying, that perhaps La B. means to say that he fancied he played certain games, giving odds to Mr M.—in his mind's eye—while lying a bed o'mornings, and has thus brooded over the amiably absurd eclusion, till he has written it down as earnest. In this assertion, then, M. La B. plays the part of "Le Sonnambule;" we fear the English bystanders will open his eyes somewhat roughly.

George Walker gives a partial quote of what Bourdonnais had written. But clearly, as Walker himself points out, "the parties played always on terms of strict equality". Bourdonnais never gave odds to McDonnell in these matches. And clearly not in the sixth match where Bourdonnais' playing strength was but a shadow of what it was during the first match. McDonnell needed no odds to beat his esteemed opponent.

However, let us proceed to the complete, original statement written by Bourdonnais:

En 1834, je fis un voyage en Angleterre, pour entrer en lice avec un amateur qu'on disait d'une force extraordinaire: c'était M. Mac-Donnel. J'avais déjà joué avec lui en 1823, mais à cette époque je lui avais fait un fort avantage. Nous engageâmes, en 1834, une partie assez importante. Les Anglais, toujours hardis et fort parieurs, mirent aux enjeux une forte somme. Les journaux de Londres annoncèrent ce défi, comme ils l'auraient fait pour une véritable campagne militaire. Il fut convenu que nous ferions vingt-et-une parties. J'en perdis six [sic], et j'en gagnai seize. Après en avoir joué neuf, j'osai parier contre mes adversaires intéressés que j'en gagnerais huit sur les douze qui restaient; j'en gagnai neuf. Plusieurs défis suivirent ce premier. Toutes les fois que je voulus faire avantage à M. Mac-Donnel, je fus battu: à but, je gagnai toujours. Je vis que la question pouvait ainsi se résumer entre nous deux: j'étais plus fort, mais je ne pouvais faire avantage. Je déclare que M. Mac-Donnel est le plus habile amateur d'échecs que j'aie connu, après M. Deschapelles, notre célèbre amateur français. M. Mac-Donnel aimait ce jeu de passion, il le travaillait assidûment, il m'a souvent étonné par la force et la profondeur de ses combinaisons. La mort vient de l'enlever, à la fleur de l'âge; il était riche, heureux, admirablement organisé, et occupait à Londres un poste éminent.

Sur cent parties que j'ai jouées avec M. Mac-Donnel, cinquante ont été jugées dignes de l'impression; elles ont été publiées en Angleterre. Ces parties, j'ose le dire, sont aujourd'hui classiques et deviennent des objets d'étude pour les amateurs.

In 1834, I made a trip to England, to enter the lists with an amateur was said to be of extraordinary strength: it was Mr. McDonnell. I had already played with him in 1823, but at that time I was much superior. We engaged, in 1834, a rather important match. The English, always bold and strong bettors, the stakes began at a large sum. The London newspapers announced this challenge, as they would have done for a real military campaign. It was agreed that we would play twenty-one games. I lost six [sic] and I won sixteen. Having played nine, I dared to bet against my opponent's interests that I would win eight out of the twelve remaining; I won nine. Several challenges followed this first. Whenever I tried to take advantage of Mr. McDonnell, I was beaten: the aim, I always tried to win. I saw that the matter could be summarized thus between us: I was stronger, but I could not benefit from it. I declare that Mr. McDonnell is the cleverest amateur chess-player I have ever known after Mr. Deschapelles, our famous French amateur. Mr. McDonnell loved this game with passion, he worked diligently, the strength and depth of his combinations often surprised me. Death comes to take him at the prime of life; he was wealthy, happy, admirably organized, and occupied a prominent position in London.

Of one hundred games I've played with Mr. McDonnell, fifty were considered worthy of printing; they were published in England. These games, I dare say, are now classics and become objects of study for amateurs.

What Bourdonnais says, based upon my understanding of French, and the context in which these statements were made, is that whenever he tried to press for a win (take advantage, gain, benefit) against McDonnell, he was beaten. And he always tried to win. This sounds more like someone making excuses for his losses and not making a declaration about giving or receiving odds against his opponent, let alone specifically during the sixth match.

It strikes me that the confusion was probably due to avantage (advantage) being construed as "odds" by George Walker (and Centurini) when a proper interpretation, given the context, would be "initiative."

Now, other than stating he had lost six instead of five games in the first match, Bourdonnais does not make any untrue statements nor does he mention anything about giving McDonnell pieces, moves or "free points". He does state that the two had played 100 games together which means that there were an additional twelve games played outside of the six matches. Perhaps the missing twelve games were games played between the two during the 1823 visit; a series of games played prior to the matches in 1834; a combination of the 1823 visit and some pre-match games in 1834; or, possibly, Bourdonnais was just giving a rough estimate regarding the number of games played in the six matches. Bourdonnais had arrived in London in early June and was playing daily at the Westminster Chess Club before the arrangement of the first match. It seems to reason that if he were superior to McDonnell in 1823 then they must have played a few friendly games to see if McDonnell had improved in skill since that first meeting.

St. Amant appears to have tacked a portion of Bourdonnais' statement at the end of his discussion about the last match being unfinished, which probably led Centurini and Murray to misconstrue the meaning (as George Walker had done), and used that non sequitur piece of information as the basis for the theory that McDonnell had been given three free games in trade for Bourdonnais getting the first move in four consecutive games of the nine games published from the sixth match given in Chess Studies.

Based upon this research, I conclude that the "free points" theory is not valid and was nothing more than a fiction suggested by Centurini to explain inconsistencies between the printed records of the matches (stated to be 88 games) and the known published games (the 85 games given in Chess Studies).

[Archive] [Excavations] [Gallery] [Journal] [Library] [Links] [Legend] [Market]
© 1999-2021 Jacques N. Pope. All Rights Reserved.