A Century of Chess: Carlsbad 1923
Carlsbad 1923

A Century of Chess: Carlsbad 1923

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If there’s a single moment when hypermodern chess crossed over into the mainstream, Carlsbad 1923 is as good a candidate as any. Nimzowitsch appeared in his first major tournament in years displaying his revamped style, which one observer (Napier) called “witch chess, heathen and beautiful.” Réti, who had been experimenting with hypermodern ideas for a few years, switched decisively to 1.Nf3, the opening that now bears his name. The Indian defences, particularly the Queen’s Indian, were the topical lines. And, most crucially, opportunistic players like Alekhine and Bogoljubow, who may not have been particularly interested in Nimzowitsch’s theoretical discussions, were willing to experiment with hypermodern ideas and openings as part of their normal tournament praxis. By this time, there were very few holdouts. Teichmann, playing in his last major event, spoke disparagingly of the "stupid double hole variation," but Yates, Thomas, Sämisch, Grünfeld, Maróczy, and even Tarrasch (in one disastrous King’s Indian) experimented with hypermodern ideas at one point or another in the tournament. 

Skittles chess at Carlsbad

It must be said that, from our perspective, the hypermodern ideas at this stage look a little underwhelming. They seemed to consist of a few points: 1.a willingness to delay occupying the center with pawns for some time in the opening; 2.a willingness to play positionally on the wings from an earlier point in the game and to engage in some strategic cat-and-mouse before fully developing one’s pieces (the draw Nimzowitsch-Réti is a good example); 3.the adoption of several offbeat openings, some of which (the English and Réti) were really revivals of forgotten variations from the Staunton era while others — the Indian openings and Grünfeld — were new, with their theory in embryonic state, and tended to transpose back sooner or later to some variant of the QGD. But Carlsbad did have a different flavor from tournaments of the previous few years in which it had felt like there was a ‘hypermodern section’ consisting of Breyer, Réti, Tartakower and a handful of others. Now everybody was getting into the action and the two great principles of hypermodern play were, in faint outline, starting to emerge: 1.a style of encroachment in which an opponent’s space advantage could be used against him and his overstretched position gradually revealed to be lacking in elasticity (in this tournament Nimzowitsch-Wolf is the best example of that approach); 2.a hoarding of potential energy among the pieces within one’s tightly coiled position, a willingness to maneuver and rearrange until the right moment to strike (probably Bogoljubow-Alekhine best illustrates this approach). 

From a sporting point of view, though, the leading hypermoderns were also-rans in this tournament. Alekhine recovered from his crisis of 1922 (during which, according to Edmond Lancel, he attempted suicide just before the Vienna tournament) and put in a dominant performance, reasserting his claim to be Capablanca’s most likely challenger, while his chief rival Rubinstein, subject to a pair of horrendous blunders, sank all the way to 12th place. Alekhine’s nerves, however, were still stretched to the breaking point, and after a late round loss to Spielmann he destroyed every piece of furniture in his hotel room. 

That loss allowed both Bogoljubow and Maróczy to catch him with late bursts. Maróczy had looked listless in his return to chess in the period 1920-22, but here, playing in a vanishingly simple style, he returned to something of his old form. 

Nimzowitsch, Réti, Grünfeld, and the ever-forgotten Karel Treybal scored well, and the tournament was probably the career-best result of Fred Yates, who won a dazzling game against his ‘client’ Alekhine. 

The tournament was an unhappy milestone for Akiba Rubinstein — the true beginning of the end for his status as a world title challenger. Tartakower also showed signs of having passed his peak, and Spielmann played like a maniac, finishing deservedly in last place, although redeeming himself with the spoiler victory over Alekhine.