War Games

It was a hundred years ago this month, May 1914, that St Petersburg hosted an event designed to establish mastery of the chess world — both in the sense of Russia’s own position, and also which individual should be seen as the pre-eminent practitioner of the oldest war game.

The diplomatic tensions which three months later erupted into a real world war also affected this apparently peaceful event. Although invitations had been sent out to all the leading players of the day, those from Austria-Hungary were obliged by their government to decline the Russian invitation. This meant the non-appearance of the Viennese grandmaster Carl Schlechter, who in 1910 had drawn a match against the German world champion Emanuel Lasker.

In his excellent BBC programme on this last efflorescence of St Petersburg before war and revolution laid waste to its cultural aspirations, Steve Rosenberg recorded how “there was a feeling that something very special was being forged from the intellectual tussles taking place here, something which transcended chess, something that would change the world for the better. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg ‘the noble game of chess’ would ‘promote the idea of world peace’.”

The hopelessness of that ambition was soon made clear. Lasker piously declared before the tournament that the players would think up a whole “new set of values” for mankind; but as Ray Keene reminded readers of Standpoint in a letter last month “a number of fiercely pro-war articles by Lasker appeared in the Vossiche Zeitung in autumn 1914″. The world chess champion told his readers: “The goal of occupation and administration of France by Germans is as sure as mate by rook and king against king.”

By then Lasker had demonstrated his own continued dominance of the chess battlefield. The St Petersburg tournament had been an arduous two-stage affair: an initial competition between all 11 invitees, followed by a double-round competition between the top five qualifying from the opening event. Those five were Lasker himself, the 25-year-old Cuban genius José Raul Capablanca, the 21-year-old Russian Alexander Alekhine, the American Frank Marshall, and — to some surprise — the 52-year-old Siegbert Tarrasch, whose didactic influence on chess caused him to be given the unofficial title of Praeceptor Germaniae.

These five carried forward to the play-offs their scores from the initial tournament — in which Capablanca had lived up to his nickname of the “chess machine” by accumulating a lead of one and a half points over all his rivals. It was thought impossible for any of them to catch up, let alone overhaul, the serenely confident and apparently error-free Cuban. Yet by the time they met over the board for the last time in the event, Lasker with a series of brilliant wins had matched Capablanca’s score. But he had played one game more, so, with a bye to come, absolutely had to win against the seemingly unbeatable Cuban. The situation was made still tenser by the fact that following acrimonious and unsuccessful negotiations for a world championship match, the two were on appallingly bad terms.

Let Lasker’s chosen biographer, Dr J. Hannak, take up the story of that epochal game: “Lasker confused Capablanca by treating the early middle-game on rather unorthodox lines. For the first time the young Cuban, usually so cool and imperturbable, showed signs of nervousness and when he eventually tried his counterattack his game was already going to pieces. It was Capablanca’s first defeat for many a year, and when he laid down his King and rose from his chair he was deadly pale. Since the two were not on speaking terms they did not shake hands, and Capablanca silently left the board; but now the pent-up excitement in the overcrowded hall relieved itself in a burst of cheering and applause that went on for minutes on end.”

So shattered was Capablanca that he lost in the very next round to Tarrasch, the latter’s solitary win in the tournament’s second stage. Lasker meanwhile crushed Marshall as a hammer might a peanut. It was clear that the 45-year-old world champion — who had played no tournament or match games since his 1910 contest against Schlechter — would win what can still claim to be the greatest of all chess tournaments.

Capablanca ultimately gained both the world championship match he sought — and revenge. In 1921, in his native Cuba, he implacably ground Lasker into the dust. After 14 games, with Capablanca leading by four wins to nil, Lasker abandoned the match, and the title of world champion he had held for no fewer than 27 years. It is a record unlikely ever to be broken.

Here, though, are the moves of that remarkable victory by Lasker over Capablanca in St Petersburg, May 1914.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6!? (This is widely said to have been a peculiar choice for Lasker in a game he had to win. But the Exchange Variation is less drawish than its reputation) dxc6 5.d4 exd4 6.Qxd4 Qxd4 7.Nxd4 Bd6 8.Nc3 Ne7 9.0-0 0-0 10.f4 Re8 11.Nb3 f6 12.f5!? (This remarkable move breaks three rules: it creates a backward pawn on an open file, grants Black an outpost on the crucial e5 square, and seems to cripple White’s kingside pawn majority.) b6 13.Bf4 Bb7? (Capablanca goes wrong. As he noted after the game: “Here it would doubtless seem better to play 13…Bxf4 14.Rxf4 c5”) 14.Bxd6! cxd6 15.Nd4 (Now Lasker’s idea is clear: the knight is heading for a mighty outpost on e6, supported by that pawn on f5.) Rad8 16.Ne6 Rd7 17.Rad1 Nc8 18.Rf2 b5 19.Rfd2 Rde7 20.b4! Kf7 21.a3 Ba8? (“I continued to play badly, without a fixed plan,” said Capablanca. A good plan would have been to remove the monster Knight on e6, even at the cost of some material, by 21…Rxe6 22.fxe6+ Rxe6) 22.Kf2 Ra7 23.g4! h6 24.Rd3 a5 25.h4 axb4 26.axb4 Rae7 27.Kf3! Rg8 28.Kf4 g6 29.Rg3! g5+ 30.Kf3! Nb6 31.hxg5 hxg5 32.Rh3! (After 32.Rxd6? Nc4 Black would have counterplay. Now he has none) Rd7 33.Kg3 Ke8 34.Rdh1 Bb7 35.e5!! (The decisive blow, opening up the square e4 as a launchpad for White’s pieces) dxe5 36.Ne4 Nd5 37.N6c5 Bc8 (If 37…Re7 38.Nxb7 Rxb7 39.Nd6+ wins) 38. Nxd7 Bxd7 39. Rh7 Rf8 40.Ra1! Kd8 41. Ra8+ Bc8 42.Nc5! At this point Capablanca made his silent resignation. After 42…Ne7 43.Ne6+ would be the thematic conclusion of Lasker’s strategic masterpiece.

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