A Century of Chess: Barmen 1905
Barmen 1905. From Georg Marco's tournament book.

A Century of Chess: Barmen 1905

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There’s a case to be made that Barmen was the apogee of the whole classical period. It was part of a busy chess year, a third international tournament after Ostend and Scheveningen. The idea had been that it was a minor, random event – organized by the city of Barmen rather than the usual organizing entities – and then it turned out to be a kind of chess Woodstock, exceeding everybody’s expectations, involving around a hundred players distributed across a number of sections. “It was supposed to be a weak tournament,” wrote Marshall, who was in the midst of his usual European barnstorming. “What was my surprise to see, among others, Janowski, Chigorin, and Maróczy.”

The top section (Meisterturnier A) was dominated by familiar faces: the quartet of Maróczy, Janowski, Marshall, and Schlechter. The four of them jockeyed for first place down the stretch, producing a photo finish in what Irving Chernev called “an ordeal of six endgames.” Janowski had been hot throughout the tournament and led most of the way.

In the penultimate round, he lost a grueling endgame to Johann Berger – a very staid, conservative player, who had his career-best result at Barmen. That gave Maróczy the chance to catch him after winning an equally grueling endgame against Jacques Mieses. In the last round Janowski played energetically to beat Schlechter, who was also in the hunt for first place.

And Maróczy, as put it, tried “every maneuver under the sun” before finally beating von Gottschall, who was hellbent on a draw.

So no great surprises in the final results, which confirmed Maróczy as a worthy world championship contender and Janowski as a terrifying tournament player, but, as Emanuel Lasker noticed: “The hind end of the chess procession is waking up and as a consequence the gulf between the first and it does not yawn so palpably.” What was really happening, as Lasker partially guessed, was that a whole new generation was emerging and having its baptism right at Barmen. The ringleader was 23-year-old Ossip Bernstein, who had already proven himself capable of making a dent at the highest level. He led the A section for the first half of the tournament before fading and finishing in shared fourth. Bernstein would soon be overhauled by rising players but at the moment he looked like the future. “In Bernstein we are quite likely to have the next champion of the world,” declared The British Chess Magazine right after the tournament. "Robust and imaginative, Bernstein inaugurated a whole generation," wrote Tartakower in his memoir.

Majestic as the Barmen A tournament was, the more important events, in a way, were its undercards – Meisterturnier B, for established but not world-class masters, and the Hauptturnier, split into two sections, for players competing for the master title. Between them, these tournaments featured the international débuts (or near-débuts) of Duras, Nimzowitsch, Rubinstein, Spielmann, Tartakower, Vidmar, Forgács, and Perlis, in other words virtually the entire sturm und drang generation that became the cream of the chess world by about 1910 and remained its elite for the next two decades. (Simaginfan, who was written abundantly on this tournament, calls them ‘the Barmen generation.’) Among this group the man of the moment was Leo Fleischmann Forgács, who dazzled in the Meisterturnier B tournament.

In retrospect, the most consequential event was actually the fairly lowly master tournament, which served as the unveiling of Akiba Rubinstein.

Rubinstein. From Marco's tournament book.

Appropriately enough, Rubinstein shared first place with his rival-to-be Oldrich Duras.

Duras. From Marco's tournament book.

The two of them – with their deeply contrasting styles – would go on to be the most captivating tournament players of the next several years of chess history.

Trust me, it’s not worth it for you to try to keep straight all the meisterturniers and hauptturniers. The point is that this was an astonishing event, just an abundance of great chess - there are a handful of games from this tournament, frequently anthologized since then, that are models of subtlety and positional control and masterpieces of the classical style.

“Such a carnival of chess has rarely been arranged,” commented the American Chess Bulletin. And it seemed to turn a corner in how chess was seen by the wider world. “At last chess has the chance of becoming a popular game,” wrote Lasker maybe a shade optimistically – but it was hard not to be startled by the chess mania that seemed to grip Barmen, a similar phenomenon to what would happen in the Soviet Union in the ‘20s and in Yugoslavia in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “The fact that the town of Barmen is presenting the first prize is a strong indication of the hold chess has taken upon the average German community,” wrote the American Chess Bulletin.

Part of the mania was a betting bureau placed right in the lobby of the playing hall, which ran a “brisk business betting on the tournament,” as a correspondent of Lasker’s Chess Magazine noted, with players permitted to bet on themselves and with odds posted right on a blackboard as if it were a horserace. Now that I’m becoming more aware of how intertwined chess and gambling were at this time, I’m surprised that there aren’t more stories from the classical period of match-fixing and dirty business. There’s a hint of something that I don’t entirely follow in Savielly Tartakower’s account of this event.

Tartakower. From Marco's tournament book.

He had tied for first place in his section with Georg Shories and, at the start of their playoff match Shories offered to ‘cede’ Tartakower the title of master. Tartakower declined and went on to lose the match. I assume that means a bribe – which makes me wonder how many other little payoffs were offered and accepted around this time and which seem to have been lost in the mists of chess history.

Crosstable from Lasker's Chess Magazine - Meisterturnier A

There's truly an embarrassment of riches on this tournament - and I'm way over my personal quota of games to share. Lasker's Chess Magazine is fascinating to read for everything on this period. Simaginfan, who frequently comments on this blog, has posted several outstanding pieces on Barmen and made many of the photos used here available online.