A Century of Chess: Berlin Masters 1918
Schlechter playing Réti, 1918

A Century of Chess: Berlin Masters 1918

| 3

Another somewhat ghoulish event from wartime Berlin. The tournament was one of several Bernhard Kagan-organized events. If the Lasker-Tarrasch match of 1916 had the aim of supporting a war charity, these 1918 events had the more limited and crucial goal of keeping chess masters alive and solvent.

Schlechter was in the last year of his life. He wasn’t yet suffering from malnourishment but was clearly off-form. He played a bit better than he had in his match with Rubinstein in January but clearly wasn’t fully himself. The tournament was one of the early indications of Akiba Rubinstein’s long slow decline - a sad spectacle for a chess fan to play through. At St Petersburg 1914 he struggled to put points on the board. Here, where he finished in dead-last place, two weaknesses became apparent: an unpleasant tendency to miss key tactical points (as in his last-round game with Vidmar and in his loss to Schlechter in their match earlier that spring) and a comparative lack of skill in dynamic positions, which was the main issue in this tournament. He also had the added humiliation of losing in his specialty, a rook endgame, in a game with his ever-problematic-opponent Jacques Mieses. 

Rubinstein’s struggles here were directly related to the dramatic introduction of the Budapest Gambit, which is one of the all-time best openings stories. The story is that Milan Vidmar, the tournament’s eventual winner, was preparing to play black against Rubinstein in round three and despaired of having a defense against ‘the high priest of 1.d4.’ At which point the Hungarian player Istvan Abonyi sidled up to him, showed him the idea of the Budapest, and Vidmar, with minutes to spare before the start of the round, chose to adopt it and then gave Rubinstein one of the worst losses of his career - a 24-move shellacking exploiting white’s laggard kingside development. With that, the word was out, and in their turn the other masters lined up to play the Budapest against Rubinstein, much in the way that the Soviet masters at the 1959 Candidates discovered that the Caro-Kann was a chink in Bobby Fischer’s armor. 

There’s unfortunately some reason to doubt aspects of the story. The Budapest had been developed by a trio of Hungarian masters (Breyer, Barasz, and Abonyi) in 1916 and it had a healthy theoretical life in the intervening years. Schlechter published analysis of it in the Deutsche Schachzeitung in 1917. It seems somewhat unlikely even with the war that neither Vidmar nor Rubinstein had heard anything about the opening - but let’s not even get into that. Maybe Vidmar had other things on his mind and just hadn’t read the article. In any case, it’s a good story and the essentials of it are more accurate than these stories usually tend to be.

Vidmar was in good form and won easily with his usual precise chess. 

Sources: This tournament largely exists in the realm of legend. Books on the Budapest - for instance, by Moskalenko and Martin - have versions of the opening's discovery. Even the most thorough accounts of this era, Donaldson and Minev's Rubinstein biography or introuble2's really terrific blog post on chess during World War I, have very little on this tournament. I haven't been able to find a picture, for instance.