The Flowers Plucked Too Soon

The mystique surrounding those chess players who passed before their primes is best tipified in the mercurial Hungarian, Rudolf Charousek

Dominic Lawson

Music lovers are tantalised and even tormented by the tragedy of the early deaths of some of the greatest composers. Mozart, who died at 35, is the most cited example. There are others: Schubert gone at 31, Purcell at 36; and who can listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater without reflecting that the composer of this sublime depiction of a mother’s grief was himself dead at the age of 26?

We who also love chess are similarly affected by the premature deaths of some of the greatest artists of the 64 squares, even without the particular poignancy of works actually unfinished, such as Mozart’s Requiem K626, or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. Chess being a competitive sport, there is the different frisson that comes from wondering if the player in question might have gone on to become world champion.

That is what Hungarians sometimes say about Rudolf Charousek, who died in Budapest from tuberculosis at the age of 27. Charousek learnt the game at the remarkably late age of 14, which makes the fact that he was beating some of the leading masters of the day before his 20th birthday all the more astounding. He defeated the world champion Emanuel Lasker in the great Nuremberg tournament of 1896, and although the young Hungarian finished in 12th place, Lasker is said to have remarked: “I shall have to play a championship match with this man some day.” 

It was not to be; and there were two reasons why perhaps Charousek, who died in 1900, could never have become world champion, even had he lived longer. By all accounts he was not just physically frail, but also of a nervous disposition: anyone who wants to win a match for the world chess championship must be psychologically robust; the strain of such events is colossal.

Second, Charousek was not the breath of something new in chess but the final flowering of the Romantic style, in the tradition of an earlier generation — which is why it is not just because of his TB that he has aptly been called “the Keats of chess”. Charousek seemed to have completely ignored the teachings of Wilhelm Steinitz, who by the mid-1870s had pioneered a much more measured and strategic style of play, an approach which all subsequent world champions have needed to absorb. Still, the result is that Charousek has left a glittering legacy of fabulous — almost baroque — games suffused with the author’s love of beauty rather than desire for functional efficiency.

Gyula Breyer, who died of heart disease aged 28, was another Hungarian genius — and much more significant, even though less celebrated. Unlike Charousek, Breyer was an innovator, perhaps the most radical of the so-called hypermoderns who revolutionised chess strategy in the 1920s. Given that he died before Réti and Nimzovitch got round to publishing their treatises that turned chess theory upside down, Breyer can be seen as the most original of them all.

Here is just one example of his astonishing radicalism, with the Black pieces against the future world champion Max Euwe in 1921 (the year of Breyer’s death): 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.d4 e5 4.dxe5 Nxe5 5.f4 Nc6 6.e5 Ng8 7.Bc4 d6 8.Nf3 Bg4 9.0-0 Qd7 10.Qe1 0-0-0…Black seems to have broken almost every rule in the book, but in reality he stands well; 20 moves later, the bamboozled Euwe resigned. Breyer’s name is most often associated with a variation which is a testament to his theories of qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) development. In the Breyer defence to the once-deadly Spanish Opening, Black on move 9 retreats his Queen’s Knight to its starting position. At first sight it looks not just provocative, but perverse. Yet its true merits have been appreciated by much later generations. The Breyer variation was Boris Spassky’s main defensive weapon in his 1972 match against Bobby Fischer and is now a particular favourite of the world’s highest-ranked player, Magnus Carlsen. Breyer lives! 

Charousek and Breyer were victims of medical conditions which today need not be fatal. This was not the cause of Klaus Junge’s early death: born in the Chilean city of Concepción on January 1, 1924, he was killed at the age of 21 at Lüneburg Heath, April 17, 1945, three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. As a teenager Junge had come first equal with the world champion Alexander Alekhine in a 1942 tournament in Nazi-occupied Prague; there seems little doubt that had he survived the war he would have been a contender for the ultimate title. The games he played in Nazi-organised tournaments remain obscure and even tainted; but the future world champion Mikhail Botvinnik was certainly paying attention. What we now call “the Botvinnik variation” of the Queen’s Gambit was played no fewer than six times by Junge in those wartime events, before the Russian began using it to devastating effect in his own tournament games. 

A rare photograph of Junge in play, against the Swedish champion Gösta Stoltz in Munich in 1942, shows him in full military uniform, complete with swastika armband. To what extent the young man was a true Nazi, fighting to the bitter end out of political conviction, is not clear. It is however known that his father Otto — who emigrated to Germany with his family from Chile in 1928 — was an early and committed Nazi party member. All his three sons perished in the war that Hitler willed. Alongside this, consider also that had Charousek and Breyer lived to full maturity they would most likely, as Hungarian Jews, have been exterminated in the Nazis’ gas chambers.

Here is one of Junge’s remarkable games with his own variation, played in Rostock in 1942 against the German master Heinz Lehmann. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 dxc4 6.e4 b5! (This is Junge’s ultra-sharp line, made famous by Botvinnik and still widely used today) 7. e5 h6 8.Bh4  g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.Qf3 Bb7 12.Be2 Rg8 13.h4 Qb6 14.exf6 c5 15.d5 b4 16.Bxc4 bxc3 17.dxe6! cxb2! (Junge rightly does not accept the Queen sacrifice: after 17…Bxf3 18.exf7+ Kd8 19.fxg8(Q) cxb2 20.0-0 bxa1(Q) 21.Rxa1 White stands very well, despite his piece minus. The key in this hair-raising variation is to keep the initiative at all costs) 18.Rb1 Rxg5! (Again correctly declining to take Lehmann’s Queen) 19.exd7+ Kd8 20.Qc3 Rxg2 21.Rxb2 Qc7 22.Rh3?? (Perhaps not surprisingly, Lehmann cracks: 22.Bxf7 was essential) Rg1+ 23.Ke2 Bg2 24.Rg3 Bf1+ 25.Kd1 Qd6+! 26.Rd2 Qxg3!! (An astounding blow and a terrible shock for Lehmann: 27. Qxg3 Rxg3 28.Bxf1 Rg1 is a massacre of White’s army. But what if he just takes the Queen with the pawn?) 27.fxg3 Bd3 checkmate.

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