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One of the world's leading chess historians, Olimpiu G. Urcan was born in Romania in 1977. In his first three decades he's traveled more broadly than many people do in a lifetime. This is Olimpiu's third article for The Campbell Report and the first devoted to American chess. He's never physically been in the United States, but as a historian he's devoted much time and bandwidth to writing about the country's chess past. Currently living in Singapore, he's brought his own background as an immigrant to writing about the chess of a nation of immigrants. Along the way, he's won two Chess Journalist of America awards for Best Historical Article. He's also won fans for both his own work, and chess history in general. I know; I'm one of them.
- Neil Brennen

Olimpiu Urcan's CJA Best Historical Article award winners:
  2005 - Living the American Dream
  2006 - The Mysterious Chess Life of Rudolph L. Sze
Olimpiu Urcan's articles previously published at The Campbell Report
  The path to self-damnation: the dangers of self-publishing
  The Saddle of Correspondence Chess - An episode from Old Singapore 1900-1902
Also see Neil Brennen's "An Interview with Olimpiu Urcan" at Chessville

Captain Vladimir Sournin:
A Russian Chess Player's Exploits in America

by Olimpiu G. Urcan
(posted 1 September 2006)

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Olimpiu G. Urcan
Olimpiu G. Urcan

Vladimir Sournin was an migr that found in America both a home and a fruitful field for his trials at the game of Kings. Initially associated with the Manhattan Chess Club, Sournin would eventually become the most preeminent chess player in the history of the Washington Chess Club. Beyond his achievements on the chessboard, Sournin, an Army officer who won from Marshall, Pillsbury and Lasker, made his mark in unique, yet seldom remembered, ways.


At the end of July 1898 the American troops initiated the preparation for the assault on the island of Puerto Rico. Practice sessions with shells blowing up targets into pieces were heard in all the military camps hosting the artillery batteries established on the roads leading to the heart of the island. The Spanish-American War was a couple of months old. The growing negative portrayal of the Spanish Colonial rule in Cuba and its brutal solutions to the Cubans' struggle for independence played an essential role in persuading the American public. The unexplained sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine anchored in Havana on February 15, 1898 gradually led to the first important conflict America was involved with after the Civil War. Isolationism came to an end and America claimed the remnants of the Spanish Empire in the Western Pacific and Latin America. It was a one-side war in which the American forces gained almost everywhere against the Spanish.

The American forces assaulting Puerto Rico were concentrated on the beachhead in Gunica, on the southern coast of the island. The anti-Spanish feelings among the Cubans helped the American forces to penetrate the towns of the island, yet some heavy fighting did take place in such places as Guayama, Salinas, Monte del Gato, Villodas or Asomante. But in the rest of the island, the American troops were cheered as they entered cities and in the Ponce Casino a ball was organized in the honor of General Nelson Appleton Miles, the commander of the American troops. Thus, brief celebrations were held for the Volunteer Infantry units, following the heavy fighting.

One of the soldiers who both fought and celebrated shoulder to shoulder with his infantry comrades in Puerto Rico at that time was Vladimir Sournin, a 24 year old man who volunteered in the U.S. Army a year earlier. Just before the news about the war against Spain was made public at home, Sournin was a regular attendant of the Manhattan Chess Club's sessions in New York where he often passed as a "clever Russian chess expert".

Vladimir Sournin was born on August 1, 1875 at Mstislavl, Russia into the family of an Army officer. "When but a child," the Washington Post's chess columnist would later write, "Mr. Sournin watched the game of Caissa as fought by some of the greatest players of the world. At St. Petersburg he made acquaintance of Lasker, and in a way he might be called a student of that celebrity." Sournin studied in Paris where he met Emmanuel Schiffers "who took a great interest in him" and was tutored by the latter in the art of chess.1 click The same column mentioned that during his stay in Paris Sournin learned about the Spanish-American War preparations and decided to join the Volunteers and crossed the water to fight for the States. Perhaps Sournin's military background played a decisive part in such a decision. As to the exact time when the Russian crossed the Atlantic the facts are less clear. It is certain, however, that as early as 1897 Sournin was in New York, and - as with any chess aficionado regardless of nationality - the Manhattan Chess Club's rooms received him gladly.

In 1897 "the young Russian expert now resident of New York" was already engaged in the activities of the Club against local players or those of the Brooklyn Chess Club. By that time, Sournin seems to have acquired a certain prestige among the members of the Manhattan Chess Club since he was awarded with a place in the annual match against the Franklin Chess Club in 1897.

In the same year Sournin, undoubtedly full of enthusiasm, challenged the wunderkind William Napier to a match. As the latter had gone to Chicago, Hermann Helms proposed to Sournin to have arranged a match against Frank J. Marshall, according to the news delivered by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 29, 1897. Apparently, the young Sournin overestimated his own skills and argued that a match against an even younger Marshall would not be an exciting affair due to his alleged superiority. The result of the match, however, told a different story. It was dominated by Marshall who eventually won it with a score of 7-2 and 2 draws.2 click Yet, Sournin did score twice against his much stronger opponent, and in the rest of the games he occasionally showed some remarkably clever play and only his "unsteadiness" prevented him from putting up a better fight than the score indicated.

Herman Helms noted in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 29, 1897 that the match was "a one sided affair and showed that Sournin was a much overrated player, though it must be said he is stronger than the score would indicate. He is ingenious, full of ideas, but evidently not cut out for a match player. He has had many admirers since his advent in the metropolis, chiefly on account of his inclinations toward brilliancy, but that they estimated his ability too highly is shown by the fact that prior to the match one of them, anxious to bring about a meeting between him and Napier, pronounced the proposed match with Marshall as one devoid of interest, owing to Sournin's undoubted superiority. And yet Napier defeated the latter's conqueror by a score of 7 to 1, which leaves Sournin entirely out of the boy champion's class." As late as the conclusion of the sixth game, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 8 could tell its readers that "Sournin's poor showing is attributed entirely to his unsteadiness and his strength cannot be gauged accurately by the present score. As a matter of fact he has had a winning superiority in nearly every instance." In the game given below, the seventh of the match, it was reported that Sournin outplayed the junior-state champion from start to finish according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 12. Marshall refused to resign at the right moment, as many master class players would have done, due to the tense relations between him and Sournin as a result of an incident that took place in the third game of the match and on which referee's decision was still pending. 3 click

V. Sournin - F. J. Marshall [D53]
Brooklyn Chess Club, 11 July 1897 [Match]
Seventh Game
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. Nf3 Nbd7 6. e3 b6 7. Rc1 Bb7 8. cxd5 Bxd5 9. Bf4

9O-O 10. Bxc7 Qxc7 11. Nxd5 Qd8 12. Nc3 Bb4 13. Bd3 Qe7 14. e4 e5 15. O-O exd4 16. Nxd4 Bxc3 17. Rxc3 Nxe4 18. Nf5 Qe5 19. Bxe4 Qxe4 20. Qxd7 Rad8 21. Ne7+ Kh8 22. Qxa7 Rfe8 23. Re3 Qc4 24. Nf5 Rf8 25. Rg3 Rfe8 26. Ne3 Qe6 27. Qa3 f5 28. Qc3 Re7 29. Rg5 f4 30. Nf5 Rc8 31. Nxg7 Qd7 32. Qf6 Rf7 33. Qe5 Rc5 34. Qb8+ Rc8 35. Qe5 Rc5 36. Qb8+ Rc8 37. Qe5 Rc5 38. Qb8+ Rc8 39. Qxb6 Rxg7 40. Qf6 Rg8 41. Re1 f3 42. gxf3 Qa7 43. Qxg7+ Qxg7 44. Rxg7 Rxg7+ 45. Kf1 h5 46. Re5 Kh7 47. Rxh5+ Kg6 and Marshall finally resigned at move 73.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 15, 1897

F. J. Marshall - V. Sournin [C65]
Brooklyn Chess Club, 22 July 1897 [Match]
Tenth Game
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7 5. Nxe5 c6

6. Nc4 d6 7. e5 dxe5 8. Ba4 b5 9. Nxe5 bxa4 10. O-O Qb6 11. c4 Be6 12. Re1 Ng6 13. Qxa4 Nxe5 14. Rxe5 Bc5 15. Re2 O-O 16. Qc2 Bf5 17. Rd2 Rad8 18. Rd1 Rfe8 19. h3 Bxd3 20. Rxd3 Rxd3 21. Qxd3 Re1+ 22. Kh2 Rxc1 23. Qd2 Qc7+ 24. g3 Rf1 25. Qd3 Rxf2+ 26. Kh1 Ne4 27. Qxe4 Qxg3 White resigned.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 23, 1897

A year after the end of his match with Marshall, Sournin was one of the United States soldiers fighting against the Spanish Colonial rule in Puerto Rico. Almost next to nothing is known regarding the exact length of time Sournin spent in Puerto Rico or his specific functions there, but it is certain that in 1899 he returned to the American East Coast. He had moved to Washington, and the war did not seem to deter him from his chess playing interests. Whilst a fought war made many tougher men, Sournin came out of the Spanish-American war as a much stronger player than his previous encounter with Marshall had shown. The time spent in the camps preceding the actual battles was wisely used by Sournin. "His comrades in arms tell how at odd moments, "a chronicler would later note, "he would draw lines on his tent floor and enjoy a little analysis with imaginary pieces and pawns. This novel form of solitaire, or the visit to the land of Capablanca, must have been given him a bit of master touch, for when he next appeared in Washington he was nigh unbeatable."

Accounts show Sournin remaining attached to the Department of War and also as a member of the Washington Chess Club. During one of Pillsbury's blindfold simultaneous exhibitions given at the Club in 1900, Sournin - "the club's chess champion" - won a pawn and the exchange but managed only to draw the American champion according to the notes given by the Washington Post of October 11, 1900. It was also noted that he intended to challenge Pillsbury to a match, a challenge that apparently passed with that particular occasion. But Sourning's strength did not pass unnoticed. He was awarded the top board for the Washington Chess Club in the match by telegraph against the Brooklyn Chess Club. Howell, Brooklyn's top player, could have considered himself lucky to break out with a draw in the game below, a master-class partie.

V. Sournin - C.S. Howell [A85]
Washington C.C. - Brooklyn C.C. Match by Telegraph
11 May 1902
1. d4 f5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e3 Be7 5. Bd3 b6 6. Nge2 Bb7 7. f3 O-O 8. O-O Qe8 9. e4 fxe4 10. fxe4 e5 11. Bg5 exd4 12. Bxf6 Bxf6 13. Nd5 Be5 14. Rxf8+ Qxf8 15. Qd2 Na6

16. Rf1 Qd6 17. Qg5 Bxd5 18. exd5 g6 19. h4 Nc5 20. Rf3 Nxd3 21. Rxd3 Rf8 22. g3 c5 23. Kg2 Qf6 24. Qxf6 Rxf6 25. Ng1 Rf5 26. Nf3 Bc7 27. b4 Rf8 28. bxc5 bxc5 29. Nd2 Rb8 30. Rb3 Rxb3 31. axb3 Be5 32. Ne4 d6 33. Kf3 Kf8 34. Nf2 Ke7 35. g4 Kd7 36. h5 gxh5 37. gxh5 Kc7 38. Kg4 Kb6 39. Kg5 a5 40. Kh6 a4 41. bxa4 Ka5 42. Nd3 Bf6 43. Kxh7 Kxa4 44. Kg6 Bh8 45. Kh7 Bf6 46. Kg6 Bh8 47. Kh7 Bf6 48. Kg6 Bh8 Drawn.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 18, 1902

In mid November 1903, Pillsbury again visited the Washington Chess Club. He gave a blindfold exhibition at chess and checkers against all comers. "Sitting at a table, with his head turned away from the other players, Pillsbury smoked big black cigars steadily for five hours". The local column described the master playing against 25 chess tables and 6 of checkers. The most nervous person in the large attendance that filled the rooms of the Club must have been Sournin, who did play in the simultaneous. The reason for this was that the organizers tried to persuade Pillsbury to remain one more day in Washington "in order to meet in single combat Vladimir Sournin, the champion of the District". The game below was found by Nick Pope - one of Pillsbury's biographers - in the chess column of the Illustrated London News but with no details. It appears to us it must be the "single combat" in question.

H. Pillsbury - V. Sournin [C64]
Exhibition Game, Washington 1903
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.d4 exd4 7.cxd4 Be7 8.d5 Nb8 9.Qd4 Nf6

10.d6 Bxd6 11.Re1+ Be7 12.Qe3 c6 13.Ba4 Nd5 14.Qe2 0-0 15.Nc3 Nxc3 16.bxc3 Bf6 17.Ba3 d5 18.Bxf8 Qxf8 19.Qd3 Na6 20.Bc2 g6 21.Rad1 Nc5 22.Qe3 Ne6 23.h3 b6 24.Ne5 Bb7 25.f4 Qc5 26.Qxc5 Nxc5 27.Re3 Kf8 28.f5 Re8 29.Rde1 Kg7 30.fxg6 hxg6 31.g4 Ne6 32.Nd7 Be7 33.Kh2 Rd8 34.Ne5 Bd6 35.Kg2 c5 36.Kf2 c4 37.Rf3 Ng5 38.Rfe3 Bc5 White resigned.

The Illustrated London News, January 2, 1904

The Washington Chess Club was "perhaps the most unpretentious chess club in United States" as a local columnist described a chess player's locum sanctum on one occasion. "The large, well-lighted rooms on Twelfth Street are as plainly furnished as the kitchen of a New England housewife - and just as clean". Luminaries such as Pillsbury, Albin, Lee, Gossip, Lasker, Showalter, and "other famed chessers fought some famous fights on the plain old boards of the Washington Chess Club". Yet any local player of decent strength entertained the secret hope of being part of a bigger tournament played in one of the most luxurious chess resorts of Europe shoulder to shoulder with some of the strongest players. Sournin was no exception. In the summer of 1906 he joined Marshall and Paul M. Johner in crossing the Atlantic on their way to Ostende in Belgium where an international tournament was staged. Sournin was placed in the fourth section of the tournament next to the likes of Snosko-Borowski, Schlechter, Swiderski, Taubenhaus, Reggio, Chigorin and Wolf. 4 click If the opposition was illustrious, it was also too strong for a player of Sournin's skills.

Returned to America, Sournin was more successful in winning points for "Interior A", a team of the United States Service engaged in an internal championship against various other departments. Emanuel Lasker, who published the following game in his Lasker's Chess Magazine, wrote that "it is no wonder that the War Department achieved success in the strife, but it is depressing to see the Navy outmaneuvered by the Government Printing Office."

V. Sournin (Interior A) - F. B. Walker (Interior B) [D08]
United States Service Tournament, April 1906
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 d4 4. Nd2 Nc6 5. Ngf3 Nge7 6. Nb3 Nf5 7. g3 Be6 8. c5 Qd5 9. Bg2 Bxc5 10. O-O O-O-O 11. Ng5 Qc4 12. Nxe6 fxe6 13. Bxc6 bxc6 14. Nxc5 Qxc5 15. Bg5 Rd5 16. Rc1 Qb5 17. Qc2 h6

18. e4 dxe3 19. Bxe3 Nxe3 20. fxe3 Kb7 21. e4 Rxe5 22. Rf3 Qb6+ 23. Kg2 Rb5 24. b3 Rd8 25. Rd3 Rf8 26. Rc3 c5 27. Rxc5 Rxc5 28. Qxc5 Qxc5 29. Rxc5 Kb6 30. b4 Rd8 31. a4 Rd4 32. Rb5+ Kc6 33. Kf3 a6 34. Rb8 a5 35. bxa5 Rxa4 36. Rg8 Rxa5 37. Rxg7 h5 38. g4 hxg4+ 39. Kxg4 Ra2 40. Kg3 Kd6 41. h4 Ra1 42. e5+ Kxe5 43. Rxc7 Rg1+ 44. Kf3 Rh1 45. h5 Kf6 46. Rc5 e5 47. h6 Kf5 48. Rc6 e4+ 49. Kg2 Rh4 50. Kg3 Rh1 51. Rc5+ Kg6 52. Kf4 Rh4+ 53. Ke3 Drawn.

Lasker's Chess Magazine, April 1906, pages 262-263

Sournin would win the local championship in Washington in 1908 and, two years later, he came in the front of chess news when he defeated the reigning world champion. Emanuel Lasker visited the Washington Chess Club for an exhibition in 1910 and Sournin was one of the players that lowered his colors with no mercy. Who could have predicted that four years after Lasker published Sournin's game in his magazine he would suffer at the hands of the Interior A's best chess player?

Em. Lasker - V. Sournin [C21]
Washington, Simultaneous Exhibition, 1910
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Bc5 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d3 d6 5.Be3 Bb6 6.Nge2 Nc6 7.Ng3 Be6 8.Nh5 Bxc4 9.Nxg7+ Kd7 10.dxc4 Bxe3 11.fxe3 Rg8 12.Nf5 Rxg2 13.Ng3 Nb4

14.Nce2 Ng4 15.Kd2 Qg5 16.Kc1 Qxe3+ 17.Kb1 Nf2 18.Qf1 Qd2 19.Qc1 Qxc1+ 20.Rxc1 Nxe4 21.Nxe4 Rxe2 22.Nf6+ Ke7 23.Nxh7 Rxh2 24.Ng5 Rg8 25.Nf3 Rf2 26.Ne1 Rg1 27.b3 Rxe1 White resigned.

The American Chess Bulletin, 1910, page 140

But following these couple of years where he did compete in various local competitions, information about Sournin's chess activities in the years preceding the Great War is very scarce. Most probably he played little chess since the nature of his job pressed on his shoulders. There is a thread of evidence that places Sournin in Wilna as a player in the Russian Championship for 1912, and it appears he spent a period of time in Russia prior to the war.

Sournin worked in the Chief of Engineers Office of the War Department. It is very likely that the Russian's ability in drafting maps was seen as extremely useful by the American military forums. Sournin specialized in topographic and hydrographic map-making and at the bridge between centuries he had already received a Presidential award for mapping the Panama Canal zone while working for the Institute of Geographic Survey. Such experience and skill fit the needs of the country once America entered the war. Sournin's visits at the Washington Chess Club were set aside as he worked for the Federal Government in the Department of War. He must have performed very well since in 1918, at the end of the Great War, he was appointed as an Army Captain. 5 click

However, once the war was over, Sournin returned to more chessic things. His return in the rooms of the Washington Chess Club was announced by the Washington Post of March 13, 1918: "The return to Washington of Vladimir Sournin, as announced in this column two weeks ago, has suddenly revived interest in the individual chess championship of District and has given a strong impetus for an annual tourney to decide the title (). That Sournin is an important factor in any speculation on this subject goes without saying to those who know his past record here and elsewhere." F. B. Walker, the capable local player and employee of United States Service, was Sournin's main antagonist in his attempts to retake the title of chess champion of the District of Columbia.

V. Sournin - F. B. Walker [B01]
D.C. Championship, June 1919
1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Nf6 3. d4 Nxd5 4. c4 Nb6 5. Nc3 e5 6. d5 c6 7. Nf3 Bb4 8. Be3 Bg4 9. Qb3 Bxc3+ 10. Qxc3 f6 11. d6 N8d7 12. Bd3 O-O 13. Qc2 f5 14. h3 Bxf3 15. gxf3 Qf6 16. O-O-O Kh8 17. Rhg1 f4 18. Bd2 g6 19. Bc3 Rae8 20. b4 c5 21. b5 Re6 22. Rg4 Rxd6 23. Rdg1 Rg8 24. h4 Nf8 25. Rg5 Nbd7 26. Qe2 Re6 27. Qe4 b6 28. R5g4 Rg7 29. Qa8 Qe7 30. Bf5 Rd6 31. Bxd7 Rxd7 32. Re1 Rd8 33. Qe4 Nd7 34. Rxf4 Re8 35. Qb7 Kg8 36. Rfe4 Rf7 37. Qd5 Nf6 38. Qxe5 Qxe5 39. Rxe5 Rxe5 40. Rxe5 Nd7 41. Re3 Kf8 42. Rd3 Ke8 43. Re3+ Kd8 44. Bd2 Kc7 45. Ra3 Kb7 46. f4 Nf6 47. Re3 Ng4 48. Re2 Nh6 49. Re1 Nf5 50. Rh1 Nd6 51. Kc2 Nxc4 52. Bc1 Nd6 53. a4 Nf5 54. h5 gxh5 55. Rxh5 Nd4+ 56. Kd3 Kc7 57. Be3 Nf5 58. Ke4 Nd6+ 59. Ke5 Kd7 60. f5 Nc4+ 61. Kd5 Nd6 62. f6 Rxf6 63. Rxh7+ Nf7 64. Rg7

Here White claimed the game on the account of Black has exceeded time. 6 click

The Washington Post, June 29, 1919

Sournin won the District Champion title again in 1920, ahead of I.S. Turover, and met the year of 1921 with plenty of opportunities for chess practice. Such an occasion was offered by the Eighth American Congress planned to take place in Atlantic City. Prior to his departure to Atlantic City, Sournin played the following training games on the Black side of the Max Lange attack.

F. M. Stacy - V. Sournin [C55]
Washington, May 1921
Training Game
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. O-O Bc5 6. e5 d5 7. exf6 dxc4 8. Re1+ Be6 9. Ng5 g6 10. Nxe6 fxe6 11. Rxe6+ Kf7 12. Qe2 Qd5 13. Re4 Rae8 14. Rxe8 Rxe8 15. Qf1 Nb4 16. Na3 d3 17. c3 Nc2 18. Nxc2 dxc2 19. Bh6 g5 20. h4 gxh4 21. Rc1 Qd3 22. b4 Bb6 23. Re1

23h3 24. Bf4 Rxe1 25. Qxe1 Qd1 26. Qf1 h2+ White resigned.

The Washington Post, May 29, 1921

F. M. Stacy - V. Sournin [C55]
Washington, May 1921
Training Game
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. e5 d5 6. exf6 dxc4 7. Qe2+ Be6 8. Ng5 Qxf6 9. O-O O-O-O 10. Ne4 Qg6 11. Bg5 Be7 12. Bxe7 Nxe7 13. Nbd2 Nf5 14. Nxc4 Rhe8 15. Ne5 Qh6 16. Qb5 Bd5 17. Nxf7 Qg6 18. Nxd8 Bxe4 19. f3 Nh4 20. Rf2 Nxf3+ 21. Kh1 Re5 22. Qc4

22Ne1!! 23. Qf1 Nxg2 24. Rxg2 Rg5 White resigned.

The Washington Post, October 30, 1921

Stacy and Sournin were on the same side of the board in a consultation game against Norman T. Whitaker. The local column announced that "the following game was played recently at the Capital City Chess club. Messrs Sournin and Stacy, playing White, consulted against Messrs. Whitaker and Banks, playing the Black pieces. Mr. Stacey, however, retired after fourteen moves had been made. The game was spiritedly contested, and the White forces won by sacrificing a piece for three pawns which gave them a strong position for the ending, the strength of which does not appear to have been realized by the Black allies."

V. Sournin & Stacy - N. T. Whitaker & Banks [D00]
Capital CCC Consultation Game, 1921
Notes by Vladimir Sournin
1.d4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.Bd3 Nc6 4.f4 Bg4
(4Nb4, sugested by Chigorin, I think is better) 5.Nf3 e6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Nbd2 Ne7 8.Qa4+ c6 9.Ne5 Bf5 10.Bxf5 Nxf5 11.Ndf3 Ne4 12.0-0 (A risky move because our kingside was attacked by Black pieces. My plan was to play Bd2, and then Ke2. Mr. Stacy insisted on 12.0-0)

12g5 (This unexpected strong move gave Black the advantage) 13.g4 Nh6 14.h3 (Our best reply, although Mr. Stacy strongly opposed it, and retired from the game after the move was made) 14Rg8 (This move was anticipated, and my next move was to close the open file for the rook) 15.f5 exf5 16.c4 f6 (To drive away the knight, and then attack the weak pawn on g4) 17.cxd5 (Giving up knight for three pawns, which practically equalized the position) 17fxe5 18.dxc6 b5 19.Qxb5 Rb8 20.Qd5 Nf6 21.Qe6+ Qe7 22.Qxe7+ Bxe7 23.Nxe5 fxg4 24.hxg4 Nhxg4 25.Nxg4 Nxg4 26.b3 Rg6 27.d5 Bc5 28.Kg2 Rb4 29.Bd2 Re4 30.Kf3 Nf6 (30...Re5 31.Kxg4 Rxd5 32.c7 Rc6 33.Ba5 Bb6 34.Rac1 Rdc5 35.Rxc5 Rxc5 36.Bxb6 axb6 with advantage to White.-DAB) 31.c7! (This is where the fun comes in. Black evidently did not realize that the passed pawn would bring them so much trouble. In fact they must sacrifice two pieces, and shortly thereafter the game) 31...Kd7 32.Rac1! Nxd5 (Black should play 32...Kxc7 33.Rxc5+ Kd6 34.Ra5 g4+ 35.Kg3 Nxd5 36.Rf7 with advantage to White.-DAB) 33.c8Q+ Kxc8 34.Rxc5+ Black resigned.

The Washington Post, June 26, 1921

The same column noted that Whitaker and Sournin were accepted for the Eighth American Congress held in Atlantic City. Such appetite for brilliancy as displayed above was hardly permitted by Sournin's opponents during the national chess congress that opened in Atlantic City. Janowski, Jaffe, Marshall, Whitaker and Sharp were some of the most preeminent names of those who participated. But brilliancy did happen on some occasions as it did against Samuel Factor and Norman Tweed Whitaker.

V. Sournin - S. Factor [A85]
Eighth American Chess Congress
Atlantic City, 1921
Notes from The Washington Post
1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.g3 Bb4 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne4 7.f3 Nf6
(If Black captured the c-pawn, he would lose the knight) 8.Nh3 b6 9.Bg2 Bb7 10.0-0 0-0 11.Qc2 Qe7 12.a4 Nc6 13.e4 fxe4 14.Ba3 d6 15.fxe4 e5 16.c5 Ba6 (The situation is extremely complicated, and requires most careful study. 16exd4 looks inviting, but Black could not afford to win a pawn) 17.cxd6 cxd6 18.Rfd1 Rad8 19.Ng5 (Premature. It would keep.) 19Ng4! 20.Bc1 Bc4 21.Nf3 h6 22.h3 Nf6 23.Nh4 Qf7 24.Qf2 d5 25.Ba3 Rfe8 26.Nf5 Qe6 27.Re1 dxe4 28.Rad1 Bd3 29.Rxd3 exd3 30.Bxc6 Qxc6 31.Ne7+ Rxe7 32.Bxe7 Ne4 (Loses a piece outright. 32Rc8 was better) 33.Rxe4 Re8 34.Qa2+! Kh7 35.d5! Qxc3 36.Bb4 Qc1+ 37.Be1 Qg5

38.Qg2!! Kg8 39.Bd2 Qg6 40.Re1 Rc8 41.Rxe5 Rc2 42.Re3 Ra2 43.d6! Qxd6 44.Qa8+ Kh7 45.Qe4+ Qg6 46.Qxg6+ Kxg6 47.Rxd3 Rxa4 48.Rd7 Ra3 49.Kf2 and after a few moves Black resigned.

The Washington Post, July 24, 1921

N. T. Whitaker - V. Sournin [C29]
Eighth American Chess Congress
Atlantic City, 10 July 1921
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 d5 4.fxe5 Nxe4 5.Nf3 Bb4 6.Be2 Nc6 7.0-0 Bg4 8.Qe1 0-0 9.d3 d4 10.dxe4 dxc3 11.bxc3 Bc5+ 12.Kh1 Bxf3 13.gxf3 Nxe5 14.f4 Nd7 15.f5 Qe7 16.Bd3 Rad8 17.f6 Qe6 18.Bg5 Rfe8 19.fxg7 Be7 20.Bf4 Nc5 21.Qe3 Qc6 22.Be5 Qe6 23.Bxc7 Rc8 24.Qf4

24Rxc7 25.Qxc7 Bd6 26.Qa5 Qe5 27.Rf2 Nxd3 28.Qxe5 Nxf2+ 29.Kg2 Rxe5 30.Kxf2 Rxe4 White resigned.

The Washington Post, July 17, 1921

Sournin won again the District Championship for 1922 with an impressive score of 9 - 1 that shed quite some light on the level of his opponents. That stiff battles were fought is proven by the game given below, played against the main contender for the title who raced behind Sournin. It was the decisive encounter that decided the championship title:

V. Sournin - E. B. Adams [D00]
District Championship, Washington
May 1922, Ninth Round
1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 c5 3. e3 Nc6 4. c3 Nf6 5. Nd2 Bf5 6. Ngf3 e6 7. Ne5 Qb6 8. Qb3 Be7 9. Bb5 Rc8 10. h3 O-O 11. g4 c4 12. Qa4 Nxe5 13. dxe5 Ne4 14. gxf5 Nc5 15. Nxc4 Nd3+ 16. Kf1 dxc4

17. f6 gxf6 18. Bh6 Kh8 19. Bxf8 Bxf8 20. b4 Nxe5 21. Rd1 a6 22. Be8 Qc7 23. f4 b5 24. Qxa6 Rxe8 25. fxe5 Qxe5 26. Ke2 Bh6 27. Qb6 Qxc3 28. Qd4 Qxb4 29. Rhg1 e5 30. Qd7 Rf8 31. Qd6 Qxd6 32. Rxd6 Ra8 33. Kf3 Bg7 34. Rgd1 h6 35. Rd8+ Rxd8 36. Rxd8+ Kh7 37. Rb8 f5 38. Rxb5 Kg6 39. a4 Kg5 40. a5 Black resigned.

The Washington Post, May 7, 1922

Few of Sournin's opponents could have been more satisfied than Walker when Sournin lost his game in a match by telephone in the summer of 1923 due to time trouble. A neat punishment for his less than gentlemanly attitude regarding the use of the chess clock in his youth, Sournin was late 42 minutes for the game below and he had to make the necessary twenty moves in the remaining 18 minutes. The result was the following effort in which he was obliged to resign through an elegant finish:

V. Sournin - E. S. Jackson [D40]
Washington C.C. - Philadelphia C.C. Telephone Match, June 1923
1. d4 e6 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nf3 c5 4. Nc3 d5 5. Bg5 cxd4 6. Nxd4 Be7 7. e3 O-O 8. Qc2 e5 9. Nf3 d4 10. O-O-O Nc6 11. exd4 exd4 12. Bxf6 Bxf6 13. a3 Be6 14. Bd3 h6 15. Ne4 Rc8 16. Kb1 Na5 17. Nxf6+ Qxf6 18. Qa4 Nxc4 19. Rhe1 Rfd8 20. Bxc4 Rxc4 21. Qxa7 Qf5+ 22. Ka1 Qc2 23. Qb6 Rdc8 24. Rb1 Ra4 25. Rxe6 fxe6 26. Qxe6+ Kh8 27. Ne5 Ra6 28. Nf7+ Kh7 29. Qh3

29Rc3 30.Ng5+ Kg8 31.Re1 Qa4 White resigned.

The Washington Post, June 10, 1923

It seems that Sournin possessed a wide variety of skills and for at least at one of them being late meant disappointing lots of people. According to an ad published in the Washington Post of April 4, 1924, in the Masonic Auditorium a show was organized by the Military Legion Service and the Chamber of Commerce. The performance of Vladimir Sournin, "the Russian baritone", was one of the main attractions of the evening.

In the summer of 1923 Sournin participated in the Ninth American Chess Congress held at the Hotel Alamac in Lake Hopatcong. The masters' tournament was limited to 15 entries and Sournin's name was among the names of those eligible to compete. Here we quote only those with a bigger resonance: Marshall, Janowski, Ed. Lasker, Hodges, Finn, Showalter, Schapiro, Howell, Napier, Bernstein and a series of players of slightly lower class. Sournin was supposed to meet Janowski in the very first round, but Bernstein withdrew due to illness. Helms, the Tournament Director, paired Sournin with Oscar Tenner of New York. A brief report in the New York Times of August 7, 1923 stated that Sournin claimed the game on the time limit, which was disallowed by the referees after some debate. The second round had Sournin facing Edward Lasker and it was "the sensation of the round" as the Russian "playing in great form throughout won handsomely in sixty-one moves". The New York Times of August 8 also noted that in the same evening as his victory over Lasker, Sournin, "who has a high baritone voice", gave a baritone recital in the Hotel Almanac's Reception Room singing Elegie by Massenet. Eventually Sournin finished the tournament with 5.5 - 7.5 winning from Edward Lasker and Albert B. Hodges. We failed to find the score of Sournin's win over Lasker in a contemporary source, but here is an attempt against a no less impressive opponent, David Janowski.

V. Sournin - D. Janowski [A45]
Lake Hopatcong, August 1923
Ninth American Chess Congress
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 d6 3.h3 Bf5 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.e3 e6 6.Bd3 Bg6 7.c3 Be7 8.Qc2 c5 9.Nbd2 Qc7 10.Bxg6 hxg6 11.Bh2 O-O-O 12.Qa4 Kb8 13.Ke2 Ka8 14.c4 cxd4 15.exd4 e5 16.Rhe1 exd4 17.Kf1 Nc5 18.Qa3 Ne6 19.b4 g5

20.Rxe6 fxe6 21.Nxd4 Qc8 22.Nb5 a6 23.Re1 Kb8 24.Nd4 e5 25.N4b3 g4 26.b5 gxh3 27.g3 Ng4 28.Kg1 Rhf8 29.Re2 Qc7 30.bxa6 Qc6 31.f4 Qb6+ 32.c5 dxc5 33.Qa5 Qxa6 34.Qxa6 bxa6 35.Na5 Kc7 36.Nac4 g5 37.Kh1 gxf4 and White resigned after a few more moves.

The New York Times, August 12, 1923 7 click

Sournin continued to play competitive chess into the late 1920s. He enlisted in the Western Open in 1929, but his most conclusive results were still confined to the local scene of Washington. He would again be crowned as the district champion in 1932 and 1933, with a comeback in 1938 when aged 63. Evidently, in his later years, Sournin's play was far from the insightfulness of his youth, as the extant games below prove.

V. Sournin - N. T. Whitaker [A80]
St. Louis, 28 August 1929
Western Open, Third Round
1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 b6 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.0-0 e6 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.e3 g6 9.c4 d6 10.Nc3 Bg7 11.Nb5 Kd8 12.Rc1

(12.Ne5! was winning almost instantly - O.U.) 12a6 13.Nc3 Nd7 14.b4 Ke7 15.Re1 Rhd8 16.e4 Kf8 17.d5 e5 18.exf5 gxf5 19.Nh4 a5 20.a3 axb4 21.axb4 e4? 22.Ne2 (Sournin missed 22.Bh3! in order to claim a big advantage - O.U.) 22Ne5 23.Nf4 Bc8 24.Qb3 Re8 25.c5 Qf7 26.cxd6 cxd6 27.Qe3 Rb8 28.Re2 Bf6 29.Rxc8! Rbxc8 30.Nxf5 Bg5 31.Bxe4 Ng4 32.Qxb6 Bxf4 33.gxf4 Qh5? (33Rxe4 was the only move. The text move offered White a chance for scoring - O.U.) 34.Qxd6+ Kg8 35.h3 Rxe4 36.Rxe4 Qxf5 37.Qe6+ Qxe6 38.Rxe6 Rc4 39.hxg4 Rxf4 40.f3 Rxf3 41.Kg2 Rf4 42.Kg3 Rd4 43.d6 Kg7 44.b5 Rb4 45.b6? (Naturally, best was the simple 45.Re8! and Black must have resigned - O.U.) 45Rxb6 46.d7 Rb3+ 47.Kf4 Rd3 48.Re7+ Kf6 49.Rh7 Kg6 50.Ke4 Rd1 51.Re7 Kf6 Draw.

The Gambit, September 1929, page 280

V. Sournin - K. Willnich [D02]
District Championship, March 1936
1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 c5 3.e3 Nc6 4.Nbd2 e6 5.Ne5 Nxe5 6.dxe5 Bd7 7.b3 Be7 8.Bd3 Bc6 9.O-O Qc7 10.f4 O-O-O 11.a4 f5 12.Qe2 a5 13.c3 Nh6 14.Nf3 Nf7 15.Bd2 Qb6 16.b4 c4 17.Bc2 h6 18.bxa5 Qxa5 19.Nd4 Bd7 20.Rfb1?!
(20.Qh5! was recommended and if 20Rdf8 then 21.Bxf5 etc - O.U.) 20Bc5 21.Nb5 b6 22.Be1 g5 23.Bf2 Rdg8 24.Rb2 Bxb5 25.Rxb5 Qxc3 26.Rab1 gxf4 27.exf4 d4 28.Kh1 (Sournin should have tried 28.a5!? here - O.U.) 28Kc7 29.Bd1 Ra8 30.Qh5 Rhf8 31.h3 Qd2 32.Qf3 c3?? (This allowed Sournin an elegant finish. 32Rfb8 was needed - O.U.)

33.Rxc5+! bxc5 34.Qb7+ Kd8 35.Qxa8+ Kd7 36.Rb7+ and White won.

The Washington Post, March 15, 1936

In 1940, relatively soon following the outbreak of World War II, Sournin moved to Baltimore. When he passed away on August 21, 1942 the chess community of Washington remembered him as "for nearly 40 years one of Washington's strongest and most active chess players". William Mutchler, the old chess chronicler of the Washington Post, signed an obituary in the issue of September 27, 1942. It was also published in the American Chess Bulletin of September-October 1942 and it reviewed not only Sournin's chess achievements but also his work away from the chessboard. There is hardly a better ending to this essay than the way Mutchler concluded his tribute to a player whom he saw as victor for decades: "Many monuments commemorating the activities of past heroes of the battlefields are also of his design and stand on the sanctified fields of combat. But his own favorite field of combat was the chess board, and thereon, more often than not, the tactics and strategies mapped by Captain Sournin reigned supreme."


1 The Washington Post's chess column of September 15, 1901 provided these details. One might find very curious the fact that it was written "Schiffers was at that time noted for the great number of draws he made in international games". Such a comment was usually applied when dealing with Karl Schlechter. By the mid of the 1890s Emmanuel Schiffers was still the strongest Russian master after Chigorin. He was considered a most competent chess teacher and one of the strongest players in the world. Back to text

2 The details of this match have been very well covered by John S. Hilbert in his Young Marshall: The Early Chess Career of Frank James Marshall with Collected Games 1893-1900 (Moravian Chess, Olomouc, 2002). Back to text

3 According to Hilbert's study on Marshall (and confirmed by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's chess column of the time). In the sixth game of the match in a delicate position Marshall claimed that Sournin touched his Rook without saying "J'adoube". The Russian claimed that he did say the needed words and the matter was taken to R.S. Rocamorra, the acting referee. A decision was made only days later, in Marshall's favor and thus Sournin would have been compelled to move the Rook which would have led to the loss of a Knight instantaneously. Until then the relations between the players were tense but, once the decision was made, Marshall made a gentlemanly gesture by offering a draw to his opponent in that disputed game. Back to text

4 See A. J. Gillam, Ostende 1906: International Chess Tournament (Caissa Editions, 2006) for the most complete account of this important tournament. Back to text

5 Sournin's obituary in the American Chess Bulletin of September - October 1942 listed some of his best known works. In this period Sournin made a new general map of the United States, on a scale of 1 to 2,500,000 showing all navigable waterways. He also crafted a map of the Tennessee River drainage system, in connection with a power navigation survey, the Yazoo Basin in Mississippi and the Mississippi River Valley with its tributaries. A map - on which he worked with General Pershing - depicting the role played by the American Indians in the Great War seems to have been Sournin's favourite masterpiece. Back to text

6 Walker lost by time and the local chess chronicler of the Washington Post sympathized with him when - on July 6, 1919 - he published an account of such incidents between Sournin and Walker over time: "() The players were Sournin and Walker, old rivals. Walker failed to start his opponent's clock, but left his own running, and after taking about 25 or 30 minutes, Walker's time meanwhile having been exhausted, Sournin claimed the game according to the rules governing the tourney. In a game played for the District Championship between the same parties played recently in getting ready to seal his move before adjournment Walker took plenty of time, unconscious of his clock, and having exceeded the time limit by two minutes Sournin claimed the game. He was within his rights in both cases. Walker recalls that in 1902 in the eleventh game of their District Championship, when the score stood Walker 4, Sournin 3, drawn 3, and he needed one game to win the match, Sournin with two or three moves to make in about one and a half minutes failed to adjust the clocks and all Walker had to do was to study the position until his opponent's time was exhausted and then claim the game. He called his opponent's attention to the clock, and subsequently lost the game and the match." Back to text

7 The moves of this game have been reconstructed at the best of our abilities, however there might be some slight differences in the order of moves in the early stage. The score given by the New York Times is heavily distorted by errors in typing the game. If the readers can provide an alternative source for this game, we'll be much obliged. Back to text

© 2006 Olimpiu G. Urcan. All Rights Reserved.

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