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The Great Saint Petersburg Tournament of 1914, Part One: Everyone Expects the Spanish Inquisition

  • NM GargleBlaster
  • | Jul 23, 2014

One hundred years ago the chess world witnessed one of the greatest chess tournaments of all time, Saint Petersburg 1914. Its storylines were numerous and compelling: Capablanca's early domination, Alekhine's first major international success, Rubinstein's first major international failure, the last huzzahs of the 72 year old Blackburne, Tarrasch's famous two-bishop sacrifice against Nimzowitch, and, most memorably of all, Lasker's incredible comeback and victory over the seemingly invincible Cuban Wunderkind.  

None of this, however, is what I wish to write an article about. Instead, I shall examine this event from a theoretical perspective. Wait, no, seriously, don't run away, this is actually interesting. Saint Petersburg was a veritable supernova of new opening ideas: entirely new branches of of the Ruy Lopez were created and refined, the first modern treatment of Nimzo-Indian (first by Alekhine and only then by Nimzowitch in the following round) occurs, seeds of the McClutcheon French and Modern Scandinavian are planted (again by Alekhine), Nimzowitch concocts the Caro-Kann Bronstein-Larsen Variation, and even a proto-Benko's Gambit makes an appearance (courtesy of Capablanca).

Part one of this three-part series will examine the most important opening at Saint Petersburg by an overwhelming margin, the Ruy Lopez.  By 1914 there was clearly a sea-change taking place in how to defend against the “Spanish Torture”, with the stodgy Steinitz variation in decline and both the "Open" and "Closed" defenses emerging from their infancy.  In the first round, however, a completely new approach serendipitously materialized when Capablanca forgot some theory, shed a pawn, and then improvised his way to victory in “classic” Benko Gambit style in spite of Pal Benko not being born for another fourteen years…

Capablanca's innovation here should really count as double, for not only did he score a win in this game but he might have inspired Nimzowitch to almost defeat Lasker in the very next round with a vaguely similar strategy.  Anyhow, not to be outdone with the Black pieces was Janowski's classically Tarrasch-ian squeeze of, well, Tarrasch:

Also contributing to the early wackiness was Alekhine coming within an ace of losing against Blackburne's Bird's Defense:

It should be noted here that St. Petersburg had a slightly unusual format: first, a preliminary round-robin involving eleven players and then a final round-robin between the five preliminary qualifiers.  This format led to the oft-repeated (and likely apocryphal) story that the Czar conferred the world's first "Grandmaster" titles upon all five finalists.  Anyhow, back to the Ruy Lopez, where Black's early successes came to a crashing halt in round four, first with Lasker shutting down Rubinstein's Open Variation and then Tarrasch slow-cooking Blackburne's Bird:

Moving along to round six, we have Capablanca winning with an "Alekhine's gun" formation of rooks... against Alekhine(!):

Round eight proved a shocker when Lasker blundered against Bernstein and Capa was for once unable to win a pawn-up endgame (albeit with opposite colored bishops):

Round nine was, OK, wait a sec - this is probably enough for one article - I mean, who do I think I am, Jeremy Silman?  Anyhow, I'll give those still reading this a break and continue with the rest of the Ruys in my next installment.  

Until then,

- GargleBlaster, who is considering changing his handle after recently realizing how many people have yet to read any Douglas Adams novels


  • 6 weeks ago


    You could always change your handle to Zaphod Beeblebrox.  oh wait, still Douglas Adams, dang.  Anyway, your style makes the study of really old chess games kinda fun.  Keep up the good (and free for me), work.  

  • 7 weeks ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    Yes, Tarrasch wrote a book on it, but it's almost certainly out of print now.

  • 7 weeks ago


    Is there any book written on this tournament?

  • 8 weeks ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    Thanks, all.  And, yeah, 3.Nc3 was probably the losing move vs. Capa. :)

  • 8 weeks ago


    What a TERRIFIC article! Thank you very much

  • 8 weeks ago


    I love how in the first game Nimzowitsch's Knight sits on c3 from move 3 until the final move of the game

  • 8 weeks ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    I can think of no greater praise than that of mowque's. It, in fact, inspires me to possibly finish this article in spite of the zero (or even possibly negative) amount of money, prestige, female groupies, or even food stamps I'll receive for my efforts to embiggen the chess world one shoddily annotated game at a time. :)

  • 8 weeks ago


    cromulence?  By Crom!

  • 8 weeks ago


    magic-yak: It is a quote of what a gargleblaster feels like. I thought the author might enjoy it. 

  • 8 weeks ago


    Mowque: ...I'm big on metaphors, similes, and what have you, but ...What?!?

  • 8 weeks ago


    Reading this was like being hit over the head with a gold brick wrapped in  lemon. 

  • 8 weeks ago


    A pleasant imparting news of chess history. Great illustrative games.

  • 8 weeks ago


    "Tarrasch's steady handling of this endgame is worthy of at least a little bit of study and praise. I mean, let's be honest, it's not THAT great, I wouldn't go overboard with it or anything, but it's nice."

    Possibly one of the best comments on this game I've seen in a long time.

  • 8 weeks ago


    Nice...loved the light hearted approach and reference to Mr Silman :D

  • 8 weeks ago


    now, it is hard for me to decide to which was better: your annotations or the games ? Smile

  • 8 weeks ago


    I'll have to make time to find an annotation of Lasker-Rubinstein. I remember Nimzowitsch-Capablanca being in Watson's strategy book. I remember the gist of the argument, which you mentioned, which is that white's retreat with the queen loses time and that he should have instead left the queen in the black position where it can exert pressure and prevent natural development. That part of Watson's book was very interesting to read, but since I don't play stuff like the Grunfeld or the Najdorf Bg5 lines where black goes on a pawn hunt with the queen, it ended up being rather academic and in the "nice to know" category of chess knowledge.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing!  I hadn't known what a great tournament St Petersburg 1914 was for developments in the Ruy Lopez.

  • 8 weeks ago


    Brilliant !!

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