There are a number of contenders for the most controversial game in chess history. However, I would argue that there is only one winner — and it decided the outcome of a world championship match, held 100 years ago next month. This match did not just decide who was to hold the title of world champion: it might also have been partly responsible for the loser's death at the tragically early age of 42.
The game freighted with such portent was the tenth and final encounter of the 1910 world championship match between the champion, Dr Emanuel Lasker, and his Viennese challenger, Carl Schlechter. It had been thought a relatively easy assignment for Lasker, who three years earlier had brushed aside his most threatening challenger, Siegbert Tarrasch. Indeed, the formidable Lasker, whose vast fighting spirit and psychological toughness were ideally suited to the lengthy rigours of match play, had disposed of all his most acclaimed rivals with almost embarrassing ease.
Schlechter, however, was not a player who had captured the public's imagination. He was an intensely withdrawn personality and modest to a fault. Leading players down the ages tended to be very demanding characters, but as one of Schlechter's tournament rivals marvelled at the end of a particularly fraught event: "Schlechter was the one competitor who accepted all things and all arrangements with equanimity amounting to indifference. Everything was right with him and nothing amiss; and this man, who apparently paid such little regard to his own interests, was the winner of the first prize."
Despite Schlechter's many tournament victories, this aspect of his character made Lasker dismiss the Austrian's chances of ever taking the world championship from him. In 1906, he wrote: "Schlechter has the ability that would enable him to compete...but he has only the ability — and nothing more. He has so little of the devil about him that he could not be wooed to take anything coveted by someone else."
Schlechter's pacific character was exemplified by the very large proportion of his drawn games. The good side of this, from a competitive view, is that he was extraordinarily hard to beat, so flawless was his technique. His sobriquet became "The Drawing Master" — one he accepted with characteristic equanimity. This is what made the final game of his match against Lasker so remarkable. Schlechter needed only to draw to win the crown. Of the first nine games, all were tremendous battles, but just one ended decisively — the fifth. Lasker had implacably built up a near-winning position, so Schlechter sacrificed a couple of pawns in a desperate bid for counterplay. Unusually, Lasker failed to sense the danger, walking into a sudden mate. Thus if he failed to win the tenth and final game, he would lose the title he had held for more than 13 years.