A Century of Chess: Carl Schlechter (1900-1909)
Schlechter and Lasker, 1910

A Century of Chess: Carl Schlechter (1900-1909)

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Schlechter joined the elite in 1895, went through a period as the 'Viennese drawing master,' and then very gradually, almost in spite of himself, became one of the preeminent competitors in the world, within a move or two of becoming world champion. There’s something really irresistible about him. Sheenagh Pugh wrote a poem about him opening "I want to stroll with Karl Schlechter in nineteen hundred down a street of stone." Tomas Glavinic wrote a novel about his Lasker match. The feeling is that he encapsulates both the Viennese soul, which is gentle and a little infantile, and the soul of chess - at least as envisioned by people who don’t actually play all that much - which is seen to be quiet, chivalrous, deeply good-natured. The Schlechter stories all run towards this idea - Tarrasch complaining of a stomachache during a pivotal 1907 game between them and Schlechter immediately letting him off with a draw; Schlechter refusing to take advantage if an opponent was late to the playing hall and discreetly letting his own time run down until the two of them were even again; Schlechter declining, in a tournament he won, to submit his games for the brilliancy prize, although he certainly could have used the money (“I have won enough,” he said); or most famously - and apocryphally - Schlechter having a drawn position and title-in-hand in the 1910 match with Lasker and then inexplicably, gallantly, playing for a win.

And so a certain vision of the chess master as perfect gentleman seems to derive directly from Schlechter. I came across it, for instance, in the novel, The Flanders Panel, in which a chess master reaches annihilating positions in all of his games and then, out of modesty, always contrives to lose. It’s not so uncommon to come across cases of Schlechterism - i.e. people who enjoy every aspect of the game except for winning - at the chess club or even in the park.

I don’t dispute the basic outlines of the Schlechter image - he really seems to have been very timid and self-effacing ("one of the nicest chessmen," wrote Mieses) at the same time that he was a phenomenally talented player, but there was a bit more complexity to him than that version would make him out to be. For one thing, he played a competitive sport for a living, and his concern with fairness notwithstanding, his games evince a terrific will to win - it’s possible, in playing over his games from the early 1900s, to trace the progression in which Schlechter overcame some congenital shyness and by the middle part of the decade started to play with striking aggression and with a professional's awareness of how to game a crosstable. And Schlechter wasn’t quite as indifferent to money and status as the usual legend would make him out to be - during the 1910 Hamburg tournament, for instance, Schlechter complained widely that his rival Oldrich Duras was horning in on his rightful prize money (the issue being that Duras was independently wealthy and playing basically as a hobby while Schlechter badly needed the cash).

More than any other player, Schlechter’s career resembles that of Tigran Petrosian - who also was a drawmeister and defensive wizard but who was anything but a sweet, shy gentleman. I’m not saying that Schlechter was secretly as cantankerous as Petrosian, but, as chessplayers, they faced a similar set of issues - they both dedicated a stage of their career to enjoying their new-found status in the chess elite, taking their share of the prize money without too much difficulty, and then at a certain point (c.1904 for Schlechter, c.1956 for Petrosian) they realized that they could get in touch with their ambition and could actively compete for first prizes in tournaments. For Schlechter, that turn led to an impressive tournament run - first place at the massive 1906 Ostend tournament, shared first place (both times with Duras) at the Vienna and Prague Jubilee tournaments of 1908. And then somewhere along the way there seems to have been another ratcheting-up of ambition (parallel to Petrosian in 1961-3) in which Schlechter realized that he might actually be the very best player in the world - and the match with Lasker in 1910 (accompanied by the Hamburg victory later that year) showed his play risen to a new level, with a heightened understanding of dynamics and a fresh precision.

Like most of the chess world, Lasker thought of Schlechter affectionately but not particularly seriously, like as some kind of country cousin. In a 1906 article on his rivals, he deliberately excluded Schlechter (much as the Soviet journalist Vasily Panov refused to consider Petrosian a viable contender at the 1959 Candidates), writing "Schlechter has only the ability - nothing more. He has too little of the devil about him to consider taking something coveted by somebody else.” I suspect that Schlechter’s play in the match - particularly in the blistering 7th game - came as a surprise to Lasker; and his play raised a possibility that nobody had really thought about, of self-effacing Carl Schlechter as world champion and representing a kind of synthesis of pure classical chess with the new spirit of dynamics.

Schlechter in Wiener Schachzeitung 1907

Is it possible to imagine Schlechter as world champion? It’s not so easy, but of course he almost got there and would have been as worthy a world champion as, say, Petrosian. One expects that Schlechter would have graciously agreed to a new match very shortly afterwards and would have soon lost the title - whether to Lasker, Rubinstein, or Capablanca - but the world champion title came with status and money, and for Schlechter a win might well have been the difference between a semi-stable financial future and starving to death in the aftermath of World War I. 

Schlechter’s Style

Elegance: Richard Réti claimed that Schlechter was so effective as a competitor simply because the level of play around him was very low and Botvinnik accused him of ‘faceless chess,’ but, for his admirers, Schlechter’s play was unmatched in grace and economy of means - and, in the vast majority of his games, he really played with exquisite gentleness. He played the opening quietly and correctly and dedicated the middlegame to maneuvers. As with Smyslov, his evident belief was that if an opponent could execute the strategic portion of the game as well as he then the opponent was entitled to a draw. But if some crack appeared in the opponent’s position, Schlechter had the technique to exploit it - and his games seemed always to end with a witty, tactical point.

À l’Attaque: “It is greatly to Petrosian’s advantage that his opponents never know when he is suddenly going to play like Tal,” wrote Boris Spassky. And the same could be said of Schlechter. His attacks were hard-to-predict and came in different forms: as part of an apparently self-conscious effort to liven up his play as in the game with Lasker below; as a positionally-sound means of punishing an opponent’s irrational strategy; and as something altogether different - a moment towards the latter half of the decade when he seemed to realize that chess mastery was not all about positional acumen and that elements like bluff (as in the game with Alapin) or sheer irrationality (as in the pivotal later games of the Lasker match) could be integrated into chess at its highest level.

The g-pawn: As Botvinnik is to the f-pawn, Barcza to the knight, Tarrasch to the light-squared bishop, so Schlechter is to the g-pawn. It’s really startling to me, in playing over his games, how often it’s a g-pawn push that’s the decisive factor. Of course, in pushing pawns in front of a castled king, timing and calculation are critically important, and Schlechter seemed to consider a g-pawn push only after obtaining a favorable position in the center. Through maneuvering, he would obtain some quiet, steady advantage - and then the g-pawn would be the lever to crack open the opponent's position. 

Schlechter in the Opening

There are very few ‘Schlechter Variations,’ but, like Smyslov, Schlechter left his imprint on the opening in clusters of profound ideas. His analysis of the 5…d5 line in the Danish effectively put the Danish out of business as a high-level weapon for white. His advocacy of fianchettoed formations in various openings - in the Ruy Lopez and Slav, for instance - paved the way for a more sophisticated approach to the openings than was typical for the classical era. The idea was - as some later theorist might put it - to store potential energy in the position so that when the game opened up Schlechter’s long range pieces, the bishops especially, were available for dynamic counterattack.

This approach was nowhere so effective as In Schlechter’s dismantling of the Tarrasch Defense through an early fianchetto. It’s amazing, in a sense, that nobody else had previously thought to do this - black’s isolated d-pawn is inherently his weakness in the Tarrasch - but in 1908 Schlechter proved the point with a string of theoretically-sound victories, which made it clear that black’s difficulties in the opening couldn’t be solved so simply as by 3…c5 in the Queen’s Gambit and that a strategic plan laid out in the opening (e.g. play against the isolated d-pawn) could determine the course of the rest of the game.

Sources: Unfortunately, I don't have access to Warren Goldman's Carl Schlechter!: Life and Times of the Austrian Chess Wizard, which is the book on Schlechter. I've been primarily using my usual sources for this post: Emanuel Lasker: A Reader, Frank Marshall's My Fifty Years of Chess, Richard Réti's Masters of the Chessboard, a few Edward Winter posts, The British Chess Magazine, etc. 

By the way, a completely non-chess-related note. I'm going to start writing a weekly Substack with a variety of materials - fiction, essays on politics and literature, etc - and, at least for a little while, will be in the habit of plugging it here. Thanks for indulging!