A Century of Chess: Carl Schlechter (from 1910-1918)
Schlechter v. Lasker, 1910

A Century of Chess: Carl Schlechter (from 1910-1918)

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Carl Schlechter started the 1910s as a beloved member of the chess community. In the 1890s, he had been the ‘Viennese drawing master,’ famous for his aversion to winning. By the 1900s, he had shed that persona enough to finish at the top of the crosstable of international events, but he remained conspicuous for his gentle nature, his obvious pain at making an opponent suffer. In a review of his potential challengers in 1906, Lasker deliberately excluded Schlechter, writing, “He has only the ability — nothing more. He has too little of the devil about him to consider taking something coveted by somebody else.” 

Painting of Schlechter

Schlechter’s world championship match with Lasker in 1910 was something of an afterthought. Lasker had already taken the measure of his more famous rivals, Marshall, Tarrasch, and Janowski. Akiba Rubinstein had in 1909 emerged as the most credible threat to Lasker — and there was significant talk about a match with him. The Schlechter match was a bit perfunctory. Schlechter had earned it with a pair of tournament victories in 1908 and through his long tournament record. But, flu-ridden, he had underperformed at St Petersburg 1909, and that pretty much killed whatever funding there was for the match. The planned 30-game match across three cities was reduced to ten games — so short that there has been considerable speculation since that the match may not have been for the world championship at all but may have been an exhibition match. 

Illustration of Lasker-Schlechter match

The match at first seemed underwhelming. The players drew the first four games — careful, high-level affairs. Lasker outplayed Schlechter in Game 5 but then erred in the technical phase and lost the whole point. But this game seemed to unlock something in the two players, and it was as if the rest of the match were played about 50 or 70 years in the future, with the players exhibiting startling material-independence and consistently finding the most challenging, most dynamic solutions. In particular, the drawn Game 7 is a beauty, but all of the later games from the match look like they could be from games by Spassky or Kasparov. 

There is tremendous mystery attached to Game 10. The legend is that Schlechter, needing only a draw, was so inherently chivalrous that he played for a win and thereby gave Lasker the opportunity to win the game and, under the rules governing tiebreak, to win the match. Then there’s the counter-legend that a secret clause for the match held that Schlehcter had to win by two points. My own belief is that the simplest explanation holds. Schlechter needed a draw to win the match, but the game became so quickly unbalanced, that he was never able to find a clear drawing line. The main (and pretty unequivocal) evidence for my contention is that Lasker, in an article in The New York Evening Post, wrote, “The match with Schlechter is nearing its end and it appears that for the first time in my life I shall be the loser. If that happens a good man will have won the world championship." 

It’s really very difficult to imagine Schlechter as world champion — he didn’t have the personality for it — but it’s also true that around 1910 he seemed to go through a quantum leap in his play, so that not only was he fully Lasker’s equal but he seemed to have transcended the whole classical style. That new look of Schlehcter’s held at the Hamburg tournament later that year, which he won convincingly. He also was an impressive shared second at the massive Karlsbad tournament. But then he seemed to remember that he was the drawing master, drawing a match with Tarrasch, drawing 11 games out of 14 at San Sebastián 1911 and 14 out of 20 at San Sebastián 1912. He missed out on St Petersburg 1914 and that was pretty much the end of his chess career. He played in some minor tournaments during the war, had a dispiriting match with Rubinstein in 1918, and did badly in a tournament in Berlin in late 1918 where he was visibly malnourished. He died in December that year, probably not of starvation, as the legend has it, but of pneumonia and the general collapse in living conditions in Austria-Hungary. 

There is something about him that deeply entered into the imagination of the chess world — he is one of very few masters to have both a novel and a poem written about him. He seemed to represent a vision of chess as something other than a bloodsport — which is, basically, what it is for most people who play. He seemed determined to work with his opponent in creating a work of art and seemed genuinely disappointed that a chess game necessitated somebody’s having to suffer defeat. 

Schlechter (R) with friends 1911

Schlechter's Style 


There are many ways to talk about Schlecther’s legato style — which seemed to be the equivalent in chess of Chopin or Debussy’s music and captured something essential about Viennese culture of this period. I would emphasize a focus on balance in Schlechter’s play. He had a heightened sense of the inherent balance within positions and of how mistakes could tilt the evaluation of the position in somebody’s favor. He actually was more of an attacking player than his reputation would suggest but was careful not to attack until he had ‘earned it’ by acquiring a positional superiority elsewhere on the board. In the Lasker match, he seemed to be playing in another dimension in terms of material — with an acute sense of how sound positional play could continue, and balance maintained, even with material disparities on the board. This was not a commonly-discussed art in classical chess, and there is something very beautiful about how Schlechter seems on his own to figure it out.