Chess One Century Ago

In light of the particularly unique and – interesting – year that we’ve just lived through – 2020 – it might be a good time to stop and take a look at what the chess world was like 100 years ago – in 1920.

In 1920 Capablanca was in his prime, the highest rated chess player in the world – ELO 2830 – nearly a hundred points higher than the runner up, Emanuel Lasker. In about a decade he had risen to the very top, with Lasker narrowly giving up his decades-long lead after years of the two alternating as #1 and #2 (Lasker would later on go on to usurp the throne again, one last time). The chess world held them in unanimous regard, as undisputed bests. The very next year, Henri Weenink opined, “And the rigidity of the material with which we have to compose, is a more formidable opponent than Lasker or Capablanca. Because these lifeless opponents do not have any moments of human weakness!”

Alekhine was arguably just behind the pair, in peak form. Rubinstein had also made it to this elite club, after a steadily rising career, and in this list can also be included Marshall and Bogoljubov. Tarrasch, Maroczy, Grunfeld, were just entering this top tier.

All eminently recognisable names and faces, of course!

Here is an example of a classic 1920 game – Maroczy v Tartakower. Tartakower had just invented his eponymous Gambit the year before, in a game with R. Reti, no less. On another board that year, we saw the birth of the Bogo-Indian, in a game between Rubinstein and Bogoljubov (1920).

with this move, White gives up both his rooks, but ends up checkmating Black just a few moves later.

In this wonderfully humorous American game, between Ziegler Adams and Torre Repetto (New Orleans, 1920), White tries repeatedly to offer up his Queen (next moves by White – Qc7,…,…,Qb7), but Black knows better.

This is one of those games that seem to at once straddle the very heights of chess fame as well as apocryphy – many believe that the game never actually occurred, that it was a later fabrication. Nevertheless, it contains an incredibly beautiful ending sequence where White keeps throwing his Queen at the opponent – not quite for free – while at the same time cornering and trapping the opponent’s Queen:

“If you want everyone to believe that you really did play a fantastic combination, be sure to play it in a tournament game,” Graham Burgess says about the game.

And then we have the very satisfying Greco’s mate/corridoor mate’, in the game between Euwe and Wiersma (Amsterdam, 1920):

In a game between Euwe and van Hartinsvelt (Amsterdam, 1920), the former wastes no time, ousting the Black king from his own kingdom (~ move 10) and all the way to f2 ten moves later –

Tartakower gets his Queen out early and schools Reti on how to use it (Tartakower v Reti, Vienna, 1920) –

Or Maroczy v Tartakower (Vienna, 1920), once again, the latter schooling his opponent on Queen play – this time he brings her out right at the end, bringing the game to a swift and decisive end –

This was the year Capablanca came out with My Chess Career, containing only won games, stating, “I have not given any drawn or lost games, because I thought them inadequate to the purpose of the book.”

And just a year later, in 1921, in Chess Fundamentals, we have some excellent pearls of wisdom from him –

“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else. For whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and opening must be studied in relation to the end game.”

Before wrapping up this time-capsule, I should also point out that 1920 was the year Isaac Asimov was born, the venerable (in the hearts of many) father of Robotics!

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