Harry Nelson Pillsbury

Harry Nelson Pillsbury

(1872–1906)
United States – Inducted 1986

Born outside of Boston, Harry Pillsbury moved to New York and then to Philadelphia as a young man. He knew no chess at all until he was 16, but a photographic memory and a voracious appetite for chess literature helped him burst unexpectedly onto the international chess scene with a victory at Hastings in 1895. An unknown American, he won one of the strongest tournaments held to that time. Later that year at St. Petersburg, illness hampered a strong start, and Pillsbury finished third of four competitors. Though ailing, he managed to defeat Jackson Showalter in 1897 to become U.S. Champion, a title he would hold until his death in 1906.

From 1898 to 1904, he operated the chess “robot” Ajeeb, which played at Coney Island and the Eden Musée in New York. Pillsbury’s feats of memory and blindfold play are legendary, performing 22 blindfold games simultaneously at Moscow 1902 and 21 games at the Hannover Hauptturnier the same year. His dynamic style popularized the Queen’s Gambit. Pillsbury’s chapter in chess history is brief but brilliant, and many fans of the game have speculated on his potential to become World Champion if not for his untimely death.