Rudolf Spielmann, the Lethal Gentleman!

Rudolf Spielmann, the Lethal Gentleman!

| 26 | Chess Players

Rudolf Spielmann was born in Vienna on May 5, 1883, and he learned how to play chess at a very young age. Reti, in his classic book Masters of the Chessboard, said this:

“He learned to play while still a boy and was exhibited in public as a prodigy, but in spite of that he later became a great master.”

Though he earned a degree in law, he never practiced it — he was addicted, body and soul, to chess, and he very much wanted to devote his life to the game. However, it wasn’t just chess that attracted him, but rather attacking chess! His life-blood was gambits, vicious assaults against the enemy king, and shocking combinations that left the audience (and the defeated opponent) gasping in awe. 

The first tournament Spielmann played in was the Berlin City Championship 1903/04. He did quite well (tied for 2nd and 3rd with Bernstein; Horatio Caro was first), and after that he played often. The fact that Spielmann learned how to play early in life explains why he was quite strong in his very first events.

Here’s a puzzle from that initial tournament:


Here’s a full game from the Berlin City Championship, though we’ll end it with a puzzle:

Rudolf Spielmann – M. Eljaschoff
Berlin City Championship, 1903

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.h4 g4 5.Ng5 h6 6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.Bc4+ d5 8.Bxd5+ Kg7 9.d4 Qf6 10.e5 Qg6 11.h5 Qf5 12.Nc3 Bb4 13.0-0 f3 14.Ne4 Qxh5 15.Ng3 Qh4

Though he did well in many tournaments, he also bombed in others. Reti put it this way: “With his nervous, impressionable temperament, he obtains unequal results.”

Unequal results indeed! In one event he would come in first or second and play like a world-beater, in the next he would end up in the middle of the field or even worse. Yet, though nobody could guess how he’d end up in any given tournament, they would be sure about one thing: his games would thrill the masses and stir the imagination. Let’s see what Gideon Stahlberg in his book, Chess and Chessmasters, had to say about Spielmann:

“Ever a knight ‘sans peur et sans reproche’, he seemed to love fighting and danger for their own sakes. Spielmann has made an impression that will go down in the annals as unique and of outstanding importance. It was no coincidence that, despite his extremely uneven results, he was one of the most popular of all masters. His intrepid and imaginative play contributed yet another attraction to great tournaments by making these events full of games of fighting interest and colorful content.”

Reti (in his book, Masters of the Chessboard) while discussing the “new romantic style” had this to say:

“This appellation is misleading, because, even though it was no longer possible to win success in tournament play by mere technique, after the Steinitz principles were popularized and became common knowledge, the most modern players proceeded to develop the theory more widely and deeply where Steinitz left off. Spielmann, on the other hand, really merits the epithet of a new romantic. For he seeks the salvation of chess in a return to the style of the old masters, of course with the unavoidable retention of the Steinitz principles, which have become a necessary part of technique. His models are Anderssen and Tschigorin. Spielmann is the last bard of the Gambit game, and what he wanted to revive especially was the King’s Gambit.”

Here are a few puzzles from his early years:





As pointed out earlier, his results always varied enormously. I’m giving a list of his tournaments from 1912 through 1914 so you can get a better picture of this up and down madness:

  • Abbazia 1912 (a gambit tournament) – 1st place, ahead of Duras, Cohn, Reti, etc.
  • Breslau 1912 – 7th place behind Duras, Rubinstein, Teichmann, Schlechter, Tarrasch, and Marshall.
  • Pistyan 1912 – 2nd place behind Rubinstein but ahead of Marshall, Duras, Schlechter, Teichmann, etc.
  • Stockholm 1912 – 5th place behind Alekhine, Cohn, Marco, and Olland.
  • San Sebastian 1912 – shared second and third with Nimzowitsch, behind Rubinstein but ahead of Tarrasch, Perlis, Marshall, Duras, Schlechter, Teichmann, Leonhardt, and Fleischmann.
  • Budapest 1913 – 1st place ahead of Tartakower, Fleischmann, Balla, Marco, Vidmar, Reti, etc.
  • Vienna 1913 – 1st ahead of Tartakower, Reti, Schlechter, Perlis, etc.
  • A match loss against Tartakower in 1913 (Spielmann won 2, lost 5, and drew 5).
  • Baden 1914 (a gambit tournament) – 1st ahead of Tartakower, Schlechter, Breyer, Johner, Reti, etc.
  • Berlin 1914 – tied for 1st with Cohn, ahead of Teichmann and Mieses.
  • Mannheim 1914 – 3rd place behind Alekhine and Vidmar, ahead of Breyer, Marshall, Reti, Janowski, Bogoljubow, Tarrasch, Duras, John, Tartakower, etc.
  • Vienna 1914 – tied for 3rd and 4th behind Schlechter and Kaufmann, ahead of Albin, and two other lesser players.
  • Lost a match to Teichmann in 1914 (Spielmann won 1 and lost 5).


The following puzzle gives you the chance to recreate a masterpiece:

His constant tournament activities stopped during World War I (he served in the Austrian army), but once it ended Spielmann was back at the board (rusty but excited), doing what he loved most. And, as would be expected, the highs and lows continued:

  • Berlin 1919 – last place behind Bogolublow, Selezniev, and Reti.
  • Gothenburg 1919 – tied for 1st with Olson ahead of a fairly weak field.
  • Stockholm 1919 – 1st ahead of Rubinstein, Bogoljubow, and Reti.
  • Stockholm 1919 – 2nd, behind Bogoljubow and ahead of Reti.
  • Berlin 1920 – clear last behind Breyer, Bogoljubow, Tartakower, Reti, Maroczy, and other strong players.
  • Gothenburg 1920 – 11th place behind Reti, Rubinstein, Bogoljubow and other very strong player, but oddly ahead of Nimzowitsch who bombed even worse than Spielmann did!
  • Triberg 1921 – tied for 3rd and 4th place (with Saemisch) among 5 players. He was behind Rubinstein and Bogljubow and ahead of Selezniev.
  • He played matches (in 1921) against Dyckhoff (won by 2-0), Maier (split 1-1), Tartakower (Spielmann won with 3 wins, 2 losses, and a draw), Reti (he wiped the legend out by 3 wins and 3 draws).
  • Innsbruck 1922 - tied for first (with Gruenfeld), ahead of Carls, Mueller, Kieninger, and Wolf.

The next tournament raised quite a few eyebrows:

  • Pistyan 1922 – second and third with Alekhine, behind Bogoljubow, ahead of Gruenfeld, Reti, Saemisch, Wolf, Tartakower, Tarrasch, Euwe, and many more.

At this point the world thought that Spielmann would follow his usual pattern and do badly in his next event, all the more so since he was almost 40 years of age! Old dogs don’t learn new tricks, do they? Yet, the chess world was in for a surprise:

  • Teplitz-Schoenau 1922 – first and second with Reti, ahead of Gruenfeld, Tartakower, Rubinstein, Kostic, Teichmann, Maroczy, Treybal, Wolf, Mieses, Saemisch, Tarrasch, and Johner.  

Had Spielmann somehow improved? Was he now in the top 5? Sadly, our human yo-yo ended such speculation with his next event:

  • Vienna 1922 – tied for 10th and 11th (with Vukovic) behind Rubinstein, Tartakower, Wolf, Alekhine, Maroczy, Tarrasch, Gruenfeld, Reti, and Bogoljubow.

Spielmann followed this with a few bad results, but the worst was yet to come:

  • Karlsbad 1923 – tied for last (with Chajes) behind Alekhine, Bogoljubow, Maroczy, Gruenfeld, Reti, Nimzowitsch, Treybal, Yates, Teichmann, Tartakower, Tarrasch, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Wolf, Saemisch, and Thomas. 
  • Maehrisch Ostrau 1923 – 9th place behind Emanuel Lasker, Reti, Gruenfeld, Selezniev, Euwe, Tartakower, Bogoljubow, and Tarrasch.

Spielmann was now 40 years old, and it seems that the yo-yo was, perhaps, on his way down. But a trip to the fountain of youth (which evidently was filled with his favorite beverage, beer) showed that he wasn’t done yet:

  • Scheveningen 1923 – equal first (with Johner) ahead of Marocy, Reti, Colle, Yates, Mieses, etc.
  • Vienna 1923 – 3rd place behind Tartakower and Reti, and ahead of Gruenfeld, Steiner, Becker, Opocensky, Takacs, etc.
  • Merano 1924 – 2nd place (behind Gruenfeld) ahead of Rubinstein, Przepiorka, Selezniev, Takacs, Colle, Opocensky, Tarrasch, etc.

By now you know the drill. After all these good results, it’s time for a bad one!

  • Baden-Baden 1925 – tied for 11th through 13th (with Reti and Treybal) behind Alekhine, and the usual cast of characters.

He followed this with a 7th place finish (Mariendbad 1925), a 13th place finish (Moscow 1925 – a super tournament, as shown by the fact that first, second, and third were Bogoljubow, Lasker, and Capablanca!), and other typical scores (lots of events with very few successes).





The following game is a true Spielmann creation. He sacrifices his queen for insane complications and the initiative.

Rudolf Spielmann – Jorgen Moller
Gothenburg, 1920

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Qf3 Nc6 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 d5 6.e5 Ne4 7.Bb5 Qh4+ 8.Kf1 g5 9.Nd2 Bg4 10.Nxe4 Bxf3 11.Nxf3 Qh6 12.Nf6+ Kd8 13.h4

Computers think this queen sacrifice is trash, and that may be right if you’re playing a computer. But if you’re playing a human (even a strong human), the sacrifice is fun and offers real chances to overwhelm your opponent.

Spielmann had this to say about the position after 13.h4:

“In such positions, analysis is impractical because of the ramification of possibilities: examination leads into too many byways. This enhances the attacker’s prospects in over-the-board play, as he can always reckon with the probability that his adversary will not consistently hit on the strongest move.”

13...Be7 14.Nxg5 Qg6 15.Nxd5 Bxg5 16.hxg5 Qc2?

16...Qxg5 was better, though White retains interesting compensation after 17.Nxf4 (Spielmann thinks White is for choice after 17.Nxf4).

17.Be2 Ne7 18.Nxf4 c5

And now we get a puzzle:

Our next puzzle shows us how Spielmann also used his tactical skills in the endgame.


In our next puzzle it looks like White is in trouble, but Spielmann finds a way to stir the pot and create a Spielmann position!


This puzzle offers a “simple” Spielmann calculation:


The chess intelligentsia thought that (rightfully so!) he would yo-yo between good and bad results, and as age took its toll, his results would continue to get worse and worse. That was surely an easy bet to make, but Spielmann (who was aware of his flaws and wanted to enjoy at least a few more years of glory) made some changes. Gideon Stahlberg had this to say:

“Spielmann was not the most perfect attacking player that ever existed; but he was, to my way of thinking, the greatest type of combinational master. Combinations were for him the Alpha and Omega of the game and its very soul; indeed, for a long time he neglected the claims of positional play, as so many attacking players are easily inclined to do.

“Eventually, however, even such a great talent as Spielmann’s was unable to bestow fresh life on variations that had been analyzed out ad nauseam, and it was all the more to his credit that he himself realized this in time. His fine victory at Semmering 1926, above Alekhine and Nimzowitsch, and his great success in the Carlsbad Tournament three years later, were due to a change in his style and opening repertoire.”

I’ll add that Semmering 1926 was a powerhouse event. Spielmann won it ahead of Alekhine, Vidmar, Nimzowitsch, Tartakower, Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Reti, Gruenfeld, Janowski and others.

Rejuvenated, Spielmann followed the fantastic victory at Semmering with another in Vienna:

  • * Vienna 1926 – clear first ahead of Gruenfeld and several other lesser foes.

He took a break from chess for a while, then returned to score yet another massive win in Magdeburg 1927 – clear first ahead of Bogoljubow, Holzhausen, and various others.



Suddenly the fun-to-watch tactical genius that was always a bit behind the real greats was being viewed as a World Championship candidate. The New York 1927 event was his big opportunity to make a statement and, if he did, perhaps get to play a match with Capablanca. Alas, he came in second to last, behind Capablanca, Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, and Vidmar. After this his results were increasingly poor, and 1928 clearly showed that his star was fading.

However, a yo-yo man will always have some ups along with a string of downs, and in 1929 (46 years of age) he had a very fine result in Karlsbad, tying for 2nd with Capablanca (and beating Capa in their individual game!). This was Nimzowitsch’s greatest moment (he came in first), but Spielmann was ahead of Rubinstein, Becker, Euwe, Vidmar, Bogoljubow, Gruenfeld and many other big names.

Very few players did well against Capablanca, but Spielmann’s life score against the Cuban genius was +2-2 =8. Here are both of his wins:

To Spielmann, life and chess were inseparable, and this highly liked grandmaster kept at it, and kept having his signature ups and downs (in 1932, at the age of 49, he beat Bogolubow in a 10 game match – 4 wins, 3 losses, 3 draws). He continued to win matches and tournaments into his 50s, and scored a very honorable 5th place at Moscow 1935 behind Botvinnik, Flohr, Lasker, and Capablanca, but ahead of a whose who of Russian legends: Kan, Levenfish, Lilienthal, Ragonzin, Romanovsky, Alatortsev, Rabinovich, Stahlberg, and many others. The fact that he was able to more than hold his own against a crop of young, modern players speaks volumes about this man’s enormous chess strength.

The following game is a great example of Spielmann’s chess philosophy.

E. Gereben – Rudolf Spielmann
Sopron, 1934

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.e3 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd2 c6 7.Qb3 b6 8.cxd5 cxd5 9.Rc1 Bb7 10.Ne5 Nfd7 11.Nxd7 Nxd7! (Sacrificing a pawn, which White refuses.) 12.f4

12.Nxd5 e5 ripping open the center and giving Black a huge lead in development. Wise men always tried their best to NOT give Spielmann a huge lead in development!


Spielmann insists that the game will be a wild slugfest. A lesser (perhaps saner?) man would go for equality with 12...Nf6.

13.fxe5 Nxe5! 14.dxe5 d4!

In this position Spielmann explained his view on how chess should be played:

“The opening up of lines must be carried out ruthlessly. In annotating this game for a chess periodical, I wrote the following comment at this stage: ‘The sacrifice of the Knight cannot be vindicated by analysis, and it would possibly have been refuted in a correspondence game. But in a contest over the board and with a time limit of eighteen moves an hour, it would nearly always win through.’

“That is the practical standpoint frequently upheld in this book [Spielmann’s The Art of Sacrifice in Chess]. If each and every sacrifice had to be of that cast-iron soundness which can be verified by analysis, it would be necessary to banish from the game of chess that proud and indispensable prerogative of the fighter: enterprise. All real sacrifices would have to disappear; only the sham sacrifices, which are in effect not sacrifices at all, would be allowed to remain.”

The game continued:

15.Nd1 Bxe5 16.e4 Bxe4 17.Nf2 Bd5 18.Qh3 Qe7 19.Be2 d3 20.Nxd3 Rfe8 21.Kf1 Bxb2 22.Re1 Qf6+ 23.Nf2 Bd4 24.Qg3 Re4?? (a serious mistake. Both 24…Re5, intending …Rf5, and 24…Rxe2! 25.Kxe2 [25.Rxe2 Bc4] 25…Bxf2 26.Qxf2 Bc4+ 27.Kd1 Qxf2 would have been winners.) 25.h4? Rae8 26.Bb5 and now we’ll enjoy a puzzle: 


Yet another puzzle:


1938 (55 years old!) was a good year. He won a tournament and then came in second (undefeated!) behind Alekhine! In 1939, though he had some very bad results, he tied for first with Flohr in Goteborg with an undefeated score! He also won a small event that same year with a crushing 5.5 out of 6 score. He won his final two tournaments (both in Sweden) in 1940 with a clean sweep 7-0, and in 1941 with a 4-0 score. His last event was a match vs. Karlin (also in 1941), which Spielmann won 2.5-1.5.



Sadly, the lives of the chess greats don’t always end well, and Spielmann’s end was a very sad one. Fleeing the Nazis, he moved to Sweden where he lived for the last three years of his life. It was during these years that he had to watch as his loved ones suffered hell on earth: one sister died in a concentration camp, another sister was so traumatized by the war that she became mentally ill (she committed suicide in 1964), and his brother was picked up by the SS and also died in a concentration camp.

This kind and brilliant man’s final moments were spent in abject poverty and, in 1942, he was found starved to death in his small, locked room. Reti:

“The past is dead, but, in the history of chess, Spielmann will have a place of honor as the last of the romantic tradition.”

I highly recommended Spielmann’s masterpiece, The Art of Sacrifice in Chess. He uses his own games to demonstrate and teach key sacrificial elements like:

  • Positional sacrifices
  • Real sacrifices
  • Preventive sacrifices
  • Line-clearance sacrifices
  • Vacating sacrifices
  • Deflecting or decoy sacrifices
  • King’s field sacrifice
  • King-Hunt sacrifices
  • The Exchange sacrifice
  • The queen sacrifice

We’ll let Gideon Stahlberg end this article in a dignified manner:

“In contrast to the businesslike type of disciplined professional that has developed in recent years, Spielmann appears almost an adventurer, but in a better sense than one is generally accustomed to give to this word. The evanescent image of beauty rather than mere gain was his objective and in the course of this pursuit his games were one long series of cheerful adventures. It is true that his life was that of a solitary, a chess fanatic; but it was a noble life, well worth living.”


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