Ascharin and Other Things

Ascharin and Other Things

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    In 1843 Andrei Alexandrovich Ascharin was born in the Estonian coastal town of Pärnu.  His parents were of mixed origins:  Alexander, of Russian extraction and Louise, of German extraction.  This was common among the Baltic people at the time.  His family moved from Pärnu to Dorpat 80 miles due east.  He went to the Dorpat High School and attended the Universität Dorpat, now the University of Tartu,  where he studied law, until 1874.  After graduation he moved to St. Petersburg as a journalist for the German language newspaper Sankt Petersburger Herold and then for it's competitor Sankt Petersburger Zeitung.

     Ascharin learned to play chess while attending high school in Dorpat. There, his chief rival was his classmate Hermann Clemenz who would himself become a strong player.  His other chess friends included Friedrich Eisenschmidt, G. Vogt and Friedrich Amelung.

     Here's a couple youthful games between Ascharin-Vogt and Ascharin-Clemenz.  The mistakes (even blunders) show how far they needed to go but the ideas evidenced their potentials. It also demonstrates that Ascharin wasn't yet standing out from his classmates. Vogt was a talented blindfold player. Herr Stud of Dorpat had written in a letter published in the Neue Berliner Schachzeitung  in 1866 which said "The talent of my friend Vogt in blind-playing has often given us the opportunity to watch such a production with six, seven and eight simultaneous opponents. Calmness, clarity of combinations and a lively presentation are very much in his mind."


     As can be seen in the above 1892 photograph of Ascharin with Mikhail Tschigorin, our subject was a man of small stature.  He also spend most of his life in somewhat poor health which eventually led to his premature death at age 53.  
     In 1878 he married Alwine Runge.  Together they had three children: a son, Fredja, born in early 1887 but who died from the dreaded scarlet fever on March 24, 1892,  a son, Andreas, born Sept. 13, 1889 and a daughter, Lydia, born Dec. 30, 1891.  

     While in St. Petersburg, Ascharin was exposed to some of the great Russian players of the day such as Emanuel Schiffers,  Ilya Shumoff and Mikhail Tschigorin.  In fact in November of  1876  --Tschigorin had already started editing his chess paper, the Shakhmatnyy listok --   Ascharin, Tschigorin, Schiffers and Shumoff held a small tournament in the Café Dominic.  This knock-out tournament was won by Ascharin (two days after the completion of that small tournament, an even smaller one was held between Tschigorin, Schiffers and Shumoff). 

   A game from that event:

     Between October and December of the next year another tournament was held, this time with more contestants and the venue was a restaurant/café operated by a Mr. Prader. The competitors were: Ascharin, Schiffers, Tshigorin, Clementz (who had only arrived in St. Petersburg 4 weeks earlier) and Semyon Alapin.  Tschigorin won this event (and the 15 rubles prize), followed by Schiffers, Ascharin, Clementz and Alapin.

   Below is a game between Ascharin and Alapin from 1877, also at the Café Prader, but several months prior to the tournament played there:

   The Baltische Schachblätter of 1891 published an 1878 letter from Friedrich Amelung which gives a sense of the chess situation in Russia at the time, : the course of the last year 1877 three new strong Russian chess players became known, namely: Mr. Solowzow [Alexander Vladimirovich Solovtsov] in Moscow, who successfully played against Messrs. Urussov [Prince Sergey Urusov], Drosdow [Alexander Dmitrievich Drozdov (1838-1904)],  and Schmidt [Dr. Eugen von Schmidt, an Estonia who moved to Moscow], also Mr. Alapin in Petersburg and Mr. Hellwig in Dorpat [A. Hellwig eventually moved to Moscow for at least a time]. In my chess report No. 1, 1877, I named strongest chess players of Russia: Mr. Winawer in Warsaw, Messrs Schiffers, Shumoff, Tschigorin, Asharin in Petersburg, Messrs. Drosdow, Urussow and Schmidt in Moscow, finally the provincial players Messrs. Clemenz, Chardin [Andrey Nikolaevich Chardin, a lawyer who moved to Samara in 1878. He lost a tightly contested match to Schiffers in 1874. A young Vladmir Lenin worked as his legal assistant in 1893. They were known to have played many games together] and V. Knorre [Viktor Knorre, the Russian astronomer, was originally from Dorpat, then moved to Berlin], i.e. a total of 11 chess players of the first rank along with several players of the second rank, to which we now add the three named players, and we are thus getting a handsome majority of strong chess players in Russia, like no other European or non-European country may be, except in Germany and England alone.

      A game between Tschigorin and Viktor Knorre in 1874:

   In 1877, after his little victory (1876) in St. Petersburg, Ascharin lost a close 9 game match to his chess mentor, Friedrich Amelung, 5-4.   By 1879, Tschigorin had risen tremendously, winning the St. Petersburg tournament (after a play-off with Alapin) while Ascharin languished in 6th place out of the 9 contestants.
   When he secured a position teaching German literature and language at the Alexander High School for Men and the Lomonosov High School for Women in 1879, Ascharin and his wife, who also hailed from Pärnu, moved back to the Balkins but this time to the Latvian city of Riga where they would live out their lives. 

    Riga provided a whole new chess frontier for Ascharin.

   In 1880 there were no first class players in Riga other than Ascharin himself.  His arrival seemed to spark interest in the game.  Ascharin joined the  Schachclub des Gewerbevereins, the trade association chess club which met at the Hotel Deutsches Haus and where he could give their best players knight odds.  Bored with that poorly attended venue, he seldom frequented it himself, preferring the coffeehouses where chess was commonly played. The chief among these was the Café Kröpsch which had the reputation as being Riga's Café de la Régence.   He also played visiting masters. The three columns below indicate "win, lose draw."

Below is one of the games between Emil Schallopp and Ascharin in 1890:

     The above game was played in 1890. This was a hallmark year for Riga chess for this was when Ascharin organized the Riga Chess Club, which in turn elevated Riga into a first rate chess locale.

     Before delving into that, three Riga chess enthusiasts are worth mentioning: the Behting brothers, Johann, Carl and Robert.  All three were problemists, Though Carl and Johann were the most successful in that area. Robert, on the other hand won the 1st Baltic Championship (the Baltic Chess Union Congress) in April, 1899. Carl and Robert were also strong correspondence players.

          The first discussions concerning the establishment of the Rigaer Schachverein (the Riga Chess Club) took place in March 1890 at a meeting which included Mr. Ascharin, Dr. Alex Helling, and Pastor N. Hugenberger (ironically, the latter two mentioned both died the following year).  With C.arl von Reisner and Paul Kerkovius added to the commission, the Grand Opening took place on Dec. 4, 1890, 
     A letter written by Ascharin dated Oct. 17, 1890 gives some insight:

Dear friend! - Our chess club is blooming mightily!  We are already 50 members. We have rented a nice big restaurant consisting of two, large nicely furnished halls and a room for the deliberations of the bard . The cost [for the venue] for two game nights a week is 200 rubles annually. However, we receive 100 rubles a year from the Rigaer Tageblatt, a local newspaper, for the chess number [the chess column] that appears every two weeks. It is edited by three members of the chess club, P. Kerkovius, Ellinson and Carl Behting, the problem artist, under my supervision and, as can be seen from the magazines, receives many good reviews.       
   The board consists of 5 members and 2 substitutes. President: Asharin, Vice President: Dr. med. Helling, Secretary: C. v. Reisner, treasurer: Kerkovius, archivist: Pastor Hugenberger. “
. . . The annual membership fee is 5 rubles and 1 ruble registration fee.
. . . As a result of donations, our library already consists of around 40 chess books. We hold the German weekly chess, published by Schallopp, Heyde and Hülsen, and the Petersburg Schachmaty. It goes without saying that we bought the two issues of your latest chess opus.

     Below is a game between Ascharin and fellow club founder, Pastor N. Hugenburger.  Hugenberger taught Religion at Lomonosov High School.  One can see the apparent skill disparity.  Another founder, Dr. Alexander Helling had received his degree from Dorpat University in 1884.  He set up practice in Riga in 1885 where he also operated a boarding school. He was known in the Riga music circles as a cellist. He died from pneumonia on May 14th 1892 at age 36. Paul Kerkovius (1868-1940) was the publisher of Riga's main newspaper, the Rigaer Stadtblätter.
     Between 1896 and 1916 Kerkovius was one of those involved in a famous series of correspondence games played between Riga and various foreign chess clubs such as Orel, Moscow, Stockholm and Berlin during an extended period of time.  At the conclusion, although delayed by the war, a book was published by Helms and Cassel (both of whom owned and edited the extraordinary American Chess Bulletin).  Due to the Riga's reputation for analyzing and compiling data, these matches, as well as the analyses, were considered very important at the time. The "Riga Defense," also referred to as the "Bohl Variation" was elevated from relative obscurity into prominence thanks to this series of games.

Above you can see Paul Kerkovius, Carl and Robert Behting in 1916.

    Here is a game demonstrating Carl Behting's skill as a correspondence player:

      And here are the two games from the 1896 Riga vs. Orel correspondence match:

     The Riga Chess Club was already developing a reputation in 1892. That along with Ascharin's connections convinced a handful of world-class masters to visit the club.  The club rented rooms in Riga's impressive Grossen Gilde or Great Guild, one of the oldest building in the Baltics.

     Mikhail Tschigorin visited in September 1882.  He conducted a 30 board simul (against 40 opponents since 10 played in consultation) that lasted almost 6 hours, non-stop. Tschigorin won 28, lost 2.  He also played Ascharin in a 3 game match, winning all three.  Ascharin compared their duel to that between Hektor and Achilles, with Ascharin as the doomed Hektor and Tschigoin as the invincble Achilles. 

     In March 1893, Emil Schallopp who had been to Riga on two previous occasions, gave a 21 board simul, winning 20 and losing one to Carl Behting. The simul lasted from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.  Ascharin played Schallopp in a three-game match, winning all three games.

    Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch visited the club in November 1893.  He also held a 30 board simul that lasted 6 hours.  Of these he won 25, drew 4 and lost one to Carl Behting.  On the second evening he gave a 6 board blind-simul, winning all the games. On the third evening Tarrasch was scheduled to play a mini-match with Ascharin but Ascharin was ill and had to forego that which he had probably been keenly anticipating. Instead, a hasty simul was arranged with mostly different players. Initially set up to be a 15 board event to lighten Tarrasch's load,, there were so many complaints that it was expanded to 30. The exhausted Tarrasch rushed through this second simul in 4 hours winning 22, losing 5 and drawing 3.  Those beating Tarrasch were Messrs. H. Ehlert, R. Behting, Kandaurow, and the lawyers Wittram and Henrichson.

     September of 1894 saw Emanuel Schiffers arriving in Riga where he played a 23 board simul against selected opponents. He won 14, lost 4 and drew 5.  It was observed that Schiffers didn't take the battles as seriously and other masters.  the simul lasted 5.5 hrs. 

     William Steinitz came to Riga in February 1896. the first evening, Feb. 10, he played a two game match at the Café Kröpsch against Carl Behting, giving him Knight-odds, each winning a game.  On Feb. 11 he gave a 30 board simul. Steinitz won 29 and drew one after 6 hours.  A match  between Steinitz and Ascharin had been scheduled for Feb. 15 but Ascharin was too ill to play.  Instead, a consultation game between the team of  P. Bohl, M. Ellinson and K. Kupfler (playing white) and Steinitz was hastily arranged. Steinitz won.  A banquet following the game.

     Tschigorin paid the Riga Chess Club a second visit in September 1897.  Yet another 30 board simul was held. Tschigorin won 22, lost 4 and drew 4.  It was noted that all 30 of the boards were in consultation. During the banquet in his honor, Tschigorin raised a toast to the departed Andreas Ascharin (who had died in December 1896)..

     Having played against various masters, comparisons of their styles and conduct was inevitable.

(below are, in some cases, somewhat liberal translations using Google )

Tschigorin: Tschigorin is of medium height, slim, black, the bronze-colored face that reddened under the exertion of the brain, narrow, not too thin, the look friendly, harmless, but also penetratingly sharp. The whole appearance gives the impression of restlessness. . . . If Tschigorin does not finish a combination quickly enough, he gnaws on his thumbnail, or nervously runs his forefinger through his mustache or small full beard, or taps with the same index finger in quick succession, (calculating the variations). Of course, he doesn't have the unpleasant habit of speaking during the game. With the exception of a few brief replies, the five hours were almost silent.

Schallopp: The dark-eyed, brunette, hot-blooded Russian (Tschigorin), as he showed himself in the same lower rooms of our great guild in his 30 simultaneous games, plays violently, as a falcon quickly strikes and captures its prey; the bright-eyed, blond, cold-blooded German (Schallopp) follows his game calmly, evenly, indifferently removing the small obstacles, carefully clearing them out of the way before he makes the surprising ingenious advance; that is to say: he does not scorn a seemingly insignificant pawn who covers his dominion with his body, but quietly captures it in before he dares the main attack. Yet Mr. Schallopp still smiles mildly and kindly, like a man of gentle temper- while Mr. Tschigorin did not smile in the course of his nearly five-hour game. And while the latter face gradually reddened and his forehead shone in the sweat of effort, Mr. Schallopp remained chastely white and only at the last his cheeks shimmered in redness.

Tarrasch: Tschigorin plays like a hawk, sharp, hot and bold; Schallopp - like an armored dove, gentle, smiling, but greedy for food; Tarrasch - like a raven, looking wise, very deliberate, prey promptly before he attacks. 

Schiffers: ...Schiffers is not attached to the game with body and soul, and still pursues physical interests: Tschigorin and Dr. Tarrasch did not smoke at all, Schallopp smoked coldly on a cigar, Schiffers smoked almost 25 cigarettes during the 5½ hour game and drank a glass of beer, which his predecessors also carefully avoided. From all of the chess masters who have been seen here can be observed: they all boast enviable, thick hair, which, like Mr. Schiffers, has a mane-like appearance and gives his head a somewhat artistic appearance. How can one explain this phenomenon? Apparently, excessive thinking does not cause baldness, as some people want to believe.

Steinitz: Steinitz observes a deliberate, never rushing, downright relentless style of playing....
The big man is as small as possible in figure, round, stocky, the large, moderately hairy head with the reddish full head seated deep between his shoulders, his little nose is set apart only by his bulging nostrils, the forehead high and square, the small eyes as if protected from an overhanging hawk skin, the gently reddened, full face usually shines with a jovial smile. Beautifully soft; the hands with the pointed fingers are small and delicate, which old master Steinitz sometimes drums lightly on the table during play or makes an innocent fist, depending on the case. Otherwise he will not reveal any trace of nervousness.

     Due to failing health, Ascharin resigned his position as president of the Riga Chess Club in 1895.  Ottomar von Haken (Otomārs fon Hākens 1854-1929) was elected in his place. and served until 1899 Paul Kerkovius took over.

     In 1894 Ascharin published a little collection of his anecdotes, originally released in supplements (feuilleton) in the Riga Tageblatt, in a book entitled Schach-Humoresken.  

     During his life Ascharin had over a dozen other books published, mostly involving translations of  Russian poetry into German.  However, he also published a book of his own poetry in 1878, Gedichte von Andreas Ascharin.  Below is an example of his writing (with English translation assistance kindly provided to my own interpretation by member @white_castle27)

An Unsterblichkeit zu glauben,
Bringt unzweifelhaft Gewinn,
Keinem will den Trost ich rauben.
Da ich selbst unsterblich bin.

Deine Augen geben Kunde
Von der Liebe Himmelreich,
Und ein Kuß von deinem Munde
Machet mich den Göttern gleich.

Believing in immortality
Undoubtedly yields profit
I don't want to rob anyone of solace.
Since I am immortal myself.

Your eyes give honor
From the love of heaven,
And a kiss from your mouth
Makes me like the gods.

Upon his death on Christmas Day 1896, the Baltische Schachblätter was filled with memorials celebrating his life, his legacy but even more so his gentleness, kindness and generosity.


[While Wikipedia and several other places online list his death as Dec. 24,    
Jeremy Gage, as well as most contemporary reports tell us it was Dec. 25]   

     and we finish up with a strange, but fun, little odds game:

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