Breyer and the Last Throes

Edward Winter

The Hungarian master Gyula Breyer (1893-1921) is regularly quoted as saying/writing that after 1 e4 White’s game is in the last throes, and C.N. 9 asked if this was apocryphal.


Gyula Breyer (C.N. 7812)

C.N. 654 quoted from a review of Modern Ideas in Chess by Richard Réti in the BCM, September 1923, page 338, written by P.W. Sergeant:

‘On page 141 Breyer is quoted as saying that after 1 P-K4 “White’s game is in its last throes”. But this is scarcely hyper-modern, for H.E. Atkins made a similar joking remark to the present reviewer if his memory is not at fault, 25 years ago.’

We returned to the subject in C.N. 1549, citing D.J. Morgan on page 200 of the June 1954 BCM:

‘M.V. Anderson. We have looked further into the Breyer dictum. Réti, in his Modern Ideas in Chess (English translation, London, 1923), makes a long quotation from, he says, a booklet by Dr Tartakower: “and above all (as Breyer preaches in one of his published treatises), ‘After the first move 1 P-K4 White’s game is in the last throes’ ...” We wrote to Dr Tartakower and asked for particulars of the “published treatise”. In a typically courteous reply he says: “I am astonished that Réti quotes me in speaking of Breyer, for it is precisely from Réti himself that I learnt all about his friend Breyer ... I do not know whether Breyer did publish a book ... Breyer’s (or perhaps Réti’s own) dictum was ‘the initial position is a very difficult one to judge’.”

Any conclusions from this we leave to you.’

As also pointed out in C.N. 1549, it is curious that when M.V. Anderson referred to this enquiry on page 8 of CHESS of 24 October 1959, he twice mistakenly wrote ‘Bogolyubov’ instead of Tartakower, concluding:

‘The truth may be traceable from another remark in Réti’s book; on page 122, there is a diagram of a chess board with the pieces in position for the commencement of a game, entitled, “A complicated position”.

Réti says there that Breyer “in an article some years ago” (In the original German editions of 1922 he has “vor einigen Jahren in ungarischer Sprache”) i.e., some years prior to 1922 Breyer wrote an article in a Hungarian magazine “to prove 1 P-Q4 better than 1 P-K4”.

But there were plenty of players as far back as Staunton’s time that had the same view.

It can be concluded that Réti probably invented a dramatic statement from a mythical “treatise” just to dub it absurd, and it now goes round the world as the solemn belief of a man who probably never heard of it. Breyer died in 1921 before the first edition of Réti’s book.’

In the 7 November 1959 CHESS (page 42) A. Eccles pointed out that Réti had referred to Tartakower and not Bogoljubow, and said that Réti’s concluding quotation ‘Credo quia absurdum’ does not mean ‘which is absurd’ but ‘I believe this because it is impossible’.


Modern Ideas in Chess by R. Réti (London, 1923)


Die neuen Ideen im Schachspiel by R. Réti (Vienna, 1922)

Strangely, nobody seems to have turned to Tartakower’s ‘booklet’, Am Baum der Schacherkenntnis (Berlin, 1921), to check what he wrote. Page 16 has the passage quoted by Réti (and quoted with a few small changes). The Latin phrase is there; A. Eccles was clearly misled by the English edition’s faulty use of quotation marks into thinking that it was Réti rather than Tartakower who had picked the expression.


Am Baum der Schacherkenntnis by S. Tartakower (Berlin, 1921), page 16

Below is an English translation of Tartakower‘s final paragraph:

‘The apparently unmasked idols of the old school are overturned; the favourite openings appear to be refuted: the Four Knights’ Game, childish; the Ruy López, ineffectual; the Queen’s Gambit, compromising; and in any case (thus preaches the Grand Cophta Breyer in a treatise published by him) White would be in the last throes already after the first move! Credo, quia absurdum!

In his reference to Breyer, Tartakower used the word Abhandlung, which may mean ‘treatise’ either in the sense of article or book.

Our only other find was reported in C.N. 2497. Page 433 of the December 1911 La Stratégie quoted a remark by ‘S. Barasz’ (i.e. Z. Barász) from Magyar Sakkujság:

‘As far as I remember, it was Mieses who made the piquant remark that 1 e4 is a mistake which leads to the loss of the game.’

It is certainly surprising to see Mieses’ name mentioned. Moreover, can it be a coincidence that Barász’s remark appeared in annotations to a game from a tournament (Budapest, 1911) in which both Barász and Breyer were participants?

For further information on these matters see pages 118-119 and 144-151 of Gyula Breyer Sein Leben, Werk und Schaffen für die Erneuerung des Schachs by Iván Bottlik (Unterhaching, 1999).


From page 124 of Relax with Chess by Fred Reinfeld (New York, 1948):

‘It was left for the brilliant young Breyer to pronounce that the first move was a disadvantage, presumably on the ground that White has to commit himself.’


A quote from page 26 of Evans on Chess by Larry Evans (New York, 1974):

‘... Richard Reti, who in 1919 startled the chessworld by announcing that “White’s game is in its last throes” after 1 P-K4.’


From page 88 of Chess Beginner to Expert by Larry Evans (Wellesley Hills, 1967):

‘Breyer once began annotating a game by: “1 P-K4?” His terse comment, “White’s game is in its last throes!”’

From page 13 of New Ideas in Chess by Larry Evans (New York, 1958):

‘Breyer once began annotating a game by giving 1 P-K4 a question mark, accompanied by the comment that “White’s game is in its last throes!”’

See too page 26 of the 2011 edition of New Ideas in Chess, where Breyer’s supposed comment was called ‘infuriating’.

‘... the Hungarian Breyer claimed that in the opening position (with all the pieces and pawns still unmoved) White’s game was in the last throes.’

Source: Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles by I.A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld (New York, 1954), pages 74-75.


From page 379 of Chess by H. Golombek and H. Phillips (London, 1959):

‘The Réti standpoint has been well caricatured in the comment attributed to his friend Breyer:

“1 P-K4. White’s position is now hopelessly compromised.”’

On page 121 of The Adventure of Chess (New York, 1950) Edward Lasker wrote:

‘Some enthusiastic young supporters of Nimzowitsch’s theory questioned the wisdom of starting the game with the customary double step of the king’s pawn even when playing White. One of them, the highly gifted Hungarian Julius Breyer, coined a chess epigram when he said that with the immediate advance of his king’s pawn White took the first step toward digging his own grave.’

Wanted: information about the origins of the Breyer Defence in the Ruy López, as featured in the Fischer v Spassky matches. When did Breyer play it or write about the line? Also, when was his name first attached to it?


Iván Bottlik (Budapest) draws attention to his account of this matter on page 221 of volume three of Magyar Sakktörténet (Budapest, 1989):

‘Here is the situation regarding the puzzle of the Breyer Defence in the Ruy López. This term has been adopted by chess literature throughout the world, although no-one has so far managed to discover a game played by Breyer with 9...Nb8. There is no trace of it even in his writings. The term has become so well established that Vienna chess players told Gideon Barcza in 1955 that this move had been recommended by Breyer. (Breyer visited Vienna regularly and also played in tournaments there in 1920 and 1921.)

A 1955 text by a Viennese contemporary of Breyer, the International Master and renowned theoretician Hans Müller, contains decisive information and confirms that this variation did indeed originate with Breyer. In Schach Echo, 1955, page 247, he writes as follows in explaining a game with the move 9...Nb8: “This strange, though well thought out, retreat was first recommended by the Hungarian master G. Breyer in one of his essays as an improvement on the classical Chigorin Defence.”

In this explanation, Müller quotes from memory several of Breyer’s observations. There is therefore no doubt that at some point he saw the essay. Unfortunately, so far neither we nor any foreign researchers into Breyer’s life and work have been able to find any further trace.

Nevertheless, the term “Breyer Defence” can be justified by Müller’s text.’

Mr Bottlik’s letter to us adds:

‘It is several years since I wrote the above, but neither I nor others have been able to make any progress whatsoever. Concerning the “essay” mentioned by Müller, it should be noted that either it existed in manuscript form and was lost (like the manuscript of Breyer’s book on the ending rook and bishop versus rook) or else it was published somewhere and remains to be discovered.’


The superficial treatment of the ‘last throes’ topic in Gyula Breyer. The Chess Revolutionary by Jimmy Adams (Alkmaar, 2017) was discussed in C.N. 10563.

Latest update: 8 September 2017.

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