SANDS: Chess is a war game devastated by war

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Chess is a war game that doesn’t do well in wartime.

Many great careers have been disrupted or derailed when nations take up arms. Tournaments are canceled. Matches scrapped. Borders closed. America’s first great player, Paul Morphy, saw his meteoric rise to fame cut short by the Civil War, and by the privations that he faced in postwar New Orleans. After a triumphant European tour in the early 1860s, he was never able to get his chess career back on track.

The legacy of the great world champion Alexander Alekhine will forever be clouded by his record of playing and writing in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, while the great Russian problemist Alexey Troitzky died of starvation in the 1942 siege of Leningrad, one of many Russian stars who perished in the war. It was only a Cold War, but the tensions between East and West after the war curtailed the careers and playing opportunities of players on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The greatest disruption of all may have come 100 years ago this year with the outbreak of the monumental stupidity known as World War I. With the storied St. Petersburg tournament of that year, chess appeared to be entering a golden age, with an old guard led by longtime champion Emanuel Lasker trying to hold off a rising generation of greats that included Alekhine, Capablanca, Bogolyubov and Nimzovich, a golden age cut cruelly short by the war.

Perhaps the biggest chess casualty of the war was the star-crossed Polish champion Akiba Rubinstein, widely acknowledged as Lasker’s greatest rival. The war killed plans for a title match, and Rubinstein, then in his prime, was to play only a few weak events over the next four years while waiting for the hostilities to end.

Two years before the war, Rubinstein reeled off one of the most astonishing win streaks in the history of the game, taking first place in five straight international events, starting with a victory in the powerful San Sebastian tournament in March over a field that included Nimzovich, Rudolf Spielmann, Siegbert Tarrasch and American star Frank Marshall. A brilliant example of Rubinstein’s harmonious style came against Austrian Carl Schlechter, who narrowly lost his own title match with Lasker in 1910. (Schlechter was another of the war’s victims, dying in the privation and squalor of postwar Budapest a month after the war ended.)

The Polish master’s positional genius can be seen in this Semi-Tarrasch as early at 9. Bd2 Qa5?! (allowing White to force a string of favorable exchanges; better was 9…Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 0-0 11. Bc4 Nc6 12. 0-0 b6 13. Rfd1 Na5 14. Bd3 Bb7, and Black’s queenside pawn majority balances out White’s better pawn center) 10. Rb1! (forcing the issue) Bxd2+ (Nc6? 11. Rxb4! Nxb4 12. Qb3 wins material) 11. Qxd2 Qxd2+ 12. Kxd2 0-0?! (a second misjudgment — the Black king should stay in the center) 13. Bb5! a6 (Nd7 14. Rhc1 [Bxd7!? Bxd7 15. Rxb7 Bc6 is less convincing] Nf6 15. Bd3 Rd8 16. h3, with a positional edge) 14. Bd3 Rd8 15. Rhc1 b5 16. Rc7, and the invading rook completely disrupts Black’s game.

With 19. g4! h6 (Be8 20. g5 Nh5 [Nd7 21. Nc6 Rdc8 22. Ne7+ and wins] 21. Rbc1) 20. f4 Be8 21. g5 hxg5 22. fxg5, White dislodges Black’s best defender and the next dozen moves show Rubinstein patiently tightening the coils. White’s deadly accuracy renders Schlechter helpless against the final onslaught: 32. Ng4 f5 33. Ra7+! (driving the king back as 33…Kg6 34. h5+ Kg5 35. Rg7+ Kh4 [Kxh5 36. Nf6+ Kh6 37. Rxh7+ Kg6 38 e5 wins a piece] 36. exf5 exf5 37. Nh6 wins for White) 34. Ne5 fxe4 35. Bxb5! Nf6 (Bxb5 36. Nf7+) 36. Bxe8 Rxe8 37. Kf4 Kg8 38. Kg5 Rf8 39. Kg6!, and Black resigns facing 39…Ne8 (e3 falls to 40. Rg7+ Kh8 41. Nf7+ Rxf7 42. Rxf7 e2 43. Rxf6 Kg8 44. Rxe6 Kf8 45. Rxe2 Kg8 46. Re8 mate) 40. Nf7 e3 41. Nh6+ Kh8 42. Rh7 mate.

During the war, Rubinstein found few opportunities to play, and even fewer to compete against his peers. (The vast database Chessgames.com lists only seven competitive games between 1915 and 1917.) He won a nice — though controversial — miniature from fellow Polish master Zdzislaw Belsitzmann in a Warsaw city championship in 1917, using his own 4…Nd4 line that helped put the Four Knights Opening in the shade for the next century.

The central piece play can be quite complex in this old opening, but it is White who tempts fate after 7. Nd3!? (Nf3 is the usual move here) d5! 8. Nxd5 Qxe4+ 9. Ne3 (equally sharp is 9. Kf1!? Nxd5 10. Nxc5 Qxc2 11. Qxc2 Nxc2 12. Rb1 c6) Bd6 10. 0-0?!?, castling right into a fierce Black attack after 10…b5! (winning a tempo while preparing the fianchetto) 11. Bb3 Bb7 12. Ne1 Qh4 13. g3 Qh3 14. c3 h5!? — a piece offer long given an exclamation point.

To humans, Black’s bishop pair and the opening of the h-file look overwhelming, but the computers doggedly opt for White after 15. cxd4 h4 (see diagram) 16. Nf3!, and Belsitzmann’s king escapes in lines such as 16…hxg3 (Black can just castle long here and hope for a slower knockout) 17. fxg3 Bxf3 18. Rxf3 Qxh2+ 19. Kf1 Ne4 20. Qc2!! Qh1+ 21. Ke2 Rh2+ 22. Kd3 Qxf3 23. Qc6+ Ke7 24. Qxe4+ Qxe4+ 25. Kxe4. What Black had planned for 16. Nf3 is moot, as White obligingly walked into a cute queen sacrifice with 16. Qe2?? Qxh2+ 17. Kxh2 hxg3+ 18. Kg1 Rh1 mate.

Rubinstein rebuilt his career after the war with some nice results — winning a match in 1920 over Bogolyubov, leading Poland to a gold medal at the 1930 Olympiad — but he was never the world beater he had been before the war. He suffered from mental illness in his later years and died in 1961 in Antwerp.

With three wins and a draw to open the tournament, young New York GM Alex Lendermann is the surprise early leader at the U.S. Championship tournament now underway in St. Louis, a half-point ahead of GM Timur Gareev and a full point ahead of defending champion and top seed GM Gata Kamsky. On the women’s side, longtime rivals GM Irina Krush and IM Anna Zatonskih are tied a 21/2-1/2 through Sunday’s play.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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