Dennis M's Chess Site

This is a blog for chess fans by a chess fan. I enjoy winning as much as anyone else, and I've had a reasonable amount of success as a competitor, but what keeps me coming back to the game is its beauty. And that, primarily, is what this site will be about! All material copyrighted.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I Was Right!

In my post "Naming and Contingency", I wrote the following:

"To take a relatively recent and prominent example [of an unjustly named variation], the ...Qb6xb2 line in the 6.Bg5 Najdorf deserved to be named after Bobby Fischer if any variation did, but apparently it came to be known as the "Poisoned Pawn Variation" when some journalist during the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match asked about the opening and was told that Fischer had snatched a poisoned pawn."

Victor Reppert commented to say that this story was mistaken: "The term 'poisoned pawn variation' was around long before 1972. I'm old enough to know." I replied in sackcloth and ashes, attempting to blame Edmar Mednis's book How to Beat Bobby Fischer, but reporting that a friend's search came up empty.

It turns out that I was right the first time; my mistake was only having my friend look at game 61 in the Mednis book (Spassky-Fischer, game 11 from their 1972 match). I subsequently recalled that Fischer lost on the White side of the variation to Geller in 1967, and then went in search of a local copy of the book to see what Mednis said in his notes to that game. Voila:

"There is no knowledgeable chess person who does not give Fischer full credit for making 7...Q-N3 [DM: That's 7...Qb6 for the descriptive notation-illiterate out there. While algebraic notation is vastly superior to descriptive, it does behoove at least Americans to be "bilingual," as there are many outstanding, inexpensive old chess books - many published by Dover - whose only "flaw" is that they are written in descriptive. Reading it will most likely be transparent to you in a week or two, and meanwhile you'll have acquired some great books dirt cheap.] playable. After a few brief sorties in the middle 1950s, Black's debacle in Keres-Fuderer, Goteberg 1955, dissipated all confidence and interest in it.

"Until 1961, that is, when Fischer resurrected it against Parma at Bled. His never-ending stream of contributions and discoveries, analytical and practical, have clearly imparted his name to 7...Q-N3. Yet what is its name? Unaccountabley, for over 15 years it had no name, just something like 7...Q-N3.

"This changed, for the worse at that, in the summer of 1972 when in the 7th match game against Spassky, Bobby played 7...Q-N3. Immediately after 8...QxP [DM: 8...Qxb2] the phones rang at the Marshall Chess Club in New York: various radio, TV, and newspaper people wanted know what call the variation. A reply that it had no name obviously wasn't satisfactory. So someone (let him remain nameless) after some seconds of contemplation (media people are in a hurry) came up with "Poisoned Pawn Variation." And that's what it is called today.

"What a horrible appellation! It utterly slights the real discoverer, and is also inaccurate for there is no clear proof that the QNP [DM: b-pawn] is actually poison. It may be too late to do anything about it (the power of the media, etc.), yet I propose the following accurate, understandable short name: 'Fischer's QNP.'" (Edmar Mednis, How to Beat Bobby Fischer (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), p. 201 [paragraph breaks added].)

Mednis was a friend of Bobby's, possibly there at the time of the aforementioned phone call(s), and writing less than two years after the fact (the first edition of the book came out in 1974); Victor, are you sure you're right? Maybe it was sometimes jokingly called the "Poisoned Pawn," but not in any sort of official way pre-1972. In any event, I'm glad I remembered the Mednis book correctly, even 17+ years after I last went through it; as for the truth of the matter, I'll have to defer to my elders and those with pre-1972 volumes featuring the variation.


  • At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In Evans' Modern Chess Brilliancies, published in 1970, Game 88, R.Byrne-Evans (US Championship 1966) is annotated and Evans writes after 7...Q-N3, 8.Q-Q2 "... it is known affectionately as the Poisoned Pawn Variation"

    The British Chess Magazine June 1967, p.158 refers to Fischer's loss to Geller in the Poisoned Pawn variation.

    These are just two easily accessible references and the line was certainly known as the Poisoned Pawn from the mid 60s. At the time I thought Mednis' claim about the invention of the name was disingenuous.


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