Tragedy of a Modest Master

A world championship match, held 100 years ago next month, may have been partly responsible for the loser’s death

Chess

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 He was an intensely withdrawn personality and modest to a fault.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.

What happened next astounded the spectators. Schlechter tried a completely new and very sharp opening system, and later appeared to spurn opportunities to draw, attempting to checkmate Lasker instead. 

A number of chess historians have written that there was a hidden reason for Schlechter’s abandoning his solid style just at the moment when it would seem to have been most justified. They argue that there was a “secret clause” in the match rules, which meant that Schlechter had to win by two clear points to take the title from Lasker. No less a figure than Garry Kasparov declares this to have been the case: “One of the points [in the match regulations] stated that to win the title the challenger had to gain an advantage of two points, and that if Schlechter were to win by one point the match would be declared drawn.” Kasparov fails to offer the slightest scrap of documentary or contemporary evidence for his claim. On the other hand, we know that two days before the fateful tenth game, Lasker wrote in the New York Evening Post: “The match with Schlechter is nearing its end and it appears probable that for the first time in my life I shall be the loser. If that should happen, a good man will have won the world championship.”  

Judge for yourselves: here is that extraordinary game, with Lasker playing White. 

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 g6 5.Nc3 Bg7 6.Bd3 0-0 7.Qc2 Na6 8.a3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 b5 10.Bd3 b4 11.Na4 bxa3 12.bxa3 Bb7 13.Rb1 Qc7 14.Ne5 Nh5 15.g4!? (I think this demonstrates that Lasker had to win at all costs. Otherwise he would surely have castled.) Bxe5 16.gxh5 Bg7 17.hxg6 hxg6 18.Qc4 Bc8 19.Rg1 Qa5+ 20.Bd2 Qd5 21.Rc1 Bb7 22.Qc2 Qh5 23.Bxg6 Qxh2 24.Rf1 fxg6 25.Qb3+ Rf7 26.Qxb7 Raf8 27.Qb3 Kh8 28.f4 g5 29.Qd3 gxf4 30.exf4 Qh4+ 31.Ke2 Qh2+ 32.Rf2 Qh5+ 33.Rf3 Nc7 34.Rxc6 Nb5 35.Rc4 Rxf4? (Schlechter later wrote, with typical self-restraint: “This combination is unsound. I reckoned on 36.Bxf4 Rxf4 37.Rc8+ Bf8 38.Kf2! Qh4+ 39.Kg2! Qg4+ and saw too late the refutation 40.Rg3! Qxc8 41.Qg6! Instead 35…Rd8 would have won, as if 36.Be3 then 36…e5!” One can only imagine the outwardly imperturbable Schlechter’s inner consternation as he realised his error.) 36.Bxf4 Rxf4 37.Rc8+ Bf8 38.Kf2 Qh2+ 39.Ke1 Qh1+ 40.Rf1 Qh4+ 41.Kd2 Rxf1 42.Qxf1 Qxd4+ 43.Qd3 Qf2+ 44.Kd1 Nd6 45.Rc5 Bh6 46.Rd5 Kg8 47.Nc5 Qg1+ 48.Kc2 Qf2+ 49.Kb3 Bg7 50.Ne6 Qb2+ 51.Ka4 Kf7 52.Nxg7 Qxg7 53.Qb3 Ke8 54.Qb8+ Kf7 55.Qxa7 Qg4+ 56.Qd4 Qd7+ 57.Kb3 Qb7+ 58.Ka2 Qc6 59.Qd3 Ke6 60.Rg5 Kd7 61.Re5 Qg2+ 62.Re2 Qg4 65.Rd2 Qa4 64.Qf5+ Kc7? The last error from a presumably exhausted Schlechter, allowing Lasker to force the exchange of Queens. 65.Qc2+ Qxc2 66.Rxc2+ Kb7 67.Re2 Nc8 68.Kb3 Kc6 69.Rc2+ Kb7 70.Kb4 Na7 71.Kc5 and Schlechter finally resigned, conceding the title to Lasker. 

Now for the real tragedy: on December 27 1918, Schlechter, in the words of his contemporary, the Czech grandmaster Richard Reti, “died a victim of the food shortage in Central Europe during and after the World War”. Had he avoided defeat in that game, and thus become world champion, it is impossible to believe that Carl Schlechter would have starved to death.