A Century of Chess: Chess in the 1900s
St. Petersburg 1909

A Century of Chess: Chess in the 1900s

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“The style of the period showed little initiative, the idea being merely to wait for an opponent to blunder into an incorrect position because of his ignorance of the Steinitz theories,” wrote Richard Réti of the chess era around 1900. “The individual style of the best masters was obscured by the nearly complete uniformity that prevailed.”

That was sort of the sentiment with which I started playing through games of the period of 1900-1909. And there is something to Réti’s critique. The century started with a cozy group of top players (Lasker, Tarrasch, Pillsbury, Maróczy, Schlechter, Janowski) taking turns with victories at each of the chess world’s few elite tournaments – above all at the annual Monte Carlo event. If there’s a storyline to the slightly barren period between 1900 and 1905, it’s the coming of Frank Marshall, a tempestuous talent but “consistently inconsistent,” as Lasker put it – alternating world-class performances as at Paris 1900 and especially in his ‘year of years’ 1904-1905 with maddeningly middle-of-the-pack results. The real storyline to this era was, in a sense, off-the-field commitments – Emanuel Lasker’s attempts to secure an academic post as a mathematics, which kept him largely out of competitive play even as he’d cemented his position as the world’s best; and Siegbert Tarrasch’s medical practice, which kept him from strenuously pursuing a challenge to Lasker. At the same time, though, it was the acme of classicism – and in a sense the chess I was raised on, what I think of as the ‘purest’ chess, dates to this period, with positional play seen to be the be-all-and-end-all and with emphasis placed on strategical correctness (the gorgeous game Schlechter-John, 1905, is the quintessence of this whole approach to chess).

And then, abruptly in 1905, there was a a shift. Organization in the chess world improved. Instead of the baroque-yet-dodgy tournaments funded by the unlikely Prince Dadian of Mingrelia, and centered on casinos, a new set of promoters put together sprucely-organized tournaments at Ostend, Carlsbad, St. Petersburg, and, of all places, Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. And, on cue, a new generation of masters emerged with a fresh approach to chess. A talented group of players that seemed to spring up together around the year 1900 (Atkins, Napier, Wolf, Swiderski, Olland) ultimately left little mark on chess – the majority of them simply drifted away over time from the tournament scene. That was very different from the generation that surfaced around 1905 – what simaginfan, on this site, has called the ‘Barmen Generation’: Bernstein, Rubinstein, Duras, Vidmar, Spielmann, Tartakower, Nimzowitsch, Perlis, Forgács. Even twenty or twenty-five years later, elite chess would be dominated by this cohort – a similar longevity to the Soviet post-war generation who continued to be the players-to-beat in international chess well into the 1970s and even the 1980s.

Paris 1900

This was the ‘sturm und drang’ generation. They took Steinitzian positional principles for granted and generally stayed within the confines of the more sedate, 'modern' openings, but they proved adept at tactical knife-fighting and in creating complications surprisingly early in the middlegame.

The first hints of hypermodern play appeared in this decade - in experiments particularly by Tartakower and Nimzowitsch (although also in the games of the now-forgotten Rudolf Swiderski and in a surprisingly versatile approach to the opening by Pillsbury), but these tendencies wouldn’t be formalized as a ‘school’ for some time. From the perspective of chess evolution, the main currents seemed to point in two directions: combinatorial play, with stolid opening structures leading to middlegames of starting complexity (as in the play of Duras, Forgács, and the teenage Alekhine) and a kind of attenuated classicism (as in the play of Rubinstein and the rising star Capablanca) in which piece harmony was pursued as if for its own sake and an architecturally-sound position proved resilient against almost any attack as well as transitioning smoothly to a favorable endgame.

Meanwhile, Lasker’s attempts to become a universal genius, as a mathematician and philosopher, foundered - stymied above all by a rigid academic system. He tried to stay in the chess world by editing a chess journal - the superb Lasker’s Chess Magazine - but that proved inadequate to satisfy the chess-playing itch. After a long hiatus he returned to competitive play in 1907 and played a series of matches with virtually all of his chief rivals. I actually don’t think there’s been any achievement by a sitting world champion that compares with Lasker’s sweep of all of his chief rivals in the period 1907-1910, posting a combined score of +34-7=18.
I have done many dorky things in my life, but this is almost certainly the dorkiest: an imaginary tournament for the decade 1900-1909. More accurately, the 'tournament' is an indexed tabulation of real results. I had all sixteen contenders ‘play’ two games with each other, one with each color. Then I looked up their actual results in games against each other for the period 1900-1909. If one had a positive score against the other, he got the full point for that color. If they were tied or never played, the game was counted as a draw. This isn’t meant to be authoritative or, for instance, to replace Jeff Sonas’ metrics, but I do think it has some value in assessing players of this era: it’s like imagining some Category XIV event in which the games are played across a span of ten years rather than at a single moment in time - but still subject to all the flukes of tournament play.

The usual way of thinking about chess at this period - how it seemed to contemporaries - is that Lasker was #1 and Tarrasch #2 with the debate between them settled finally by their 1908 championship match; that Rubinstein took Pillsbury’s as a kind of wild card challenger to the title; and that Maróczy, Schlechter, Marshall, and Janowski - the most active and most successful tournament players across the length of the decade - were tightly grouped and basically in a race for Best Supporting Actor.

The crosstable tells a very different story. Lasker wins, as expected - with a positive or equal score against every competitor other than Rubinstein - but the perennially underrated Maróczy is only a half-point behind him (which underscores what a wasted opportunity it was that he didn't play in his planned match with Lasker in 1906). The great surprise is the third place finish of Osip Bernstein.
I don’t think this should be taken too seriously - the format of the imaginary tournament favors him; he simply didn’t play that much, took one pass through the chess world circa 1905 and scored well in that time - but nevertheless it shows him to be a greater player than I realized and a viable candidate for the world championship (which was the view of the sturm und drang generation that, in Tartakower's phrase, he 'inaugurated'). As for the rest of the results, Teichmann, Chigorin, and Marco perform unexpectedly well while Tarrasch disappoints. The real shock, though, is the collapse of Marshall and Janowski. What this seems to show is that they were at their best in tournaments with mixed-quality fields where their tendencies to play for a win at all costs stood them well - and that same tendency left them exposed against the world’s very best.

Openings of 1900-1909

The first impression of present-day players looking back at this period is the narrowness of the opening repertoire. The King’s Gambit and Evans Gambit – the mainstays of the Romantic tradition – had suffered some unpleasant reverses in previous decades. Despite avid organizer interest in reviving the old Romantic gambits and opposing what was perceived to be the stultifying influence of the ‘modern’ style, the elite players were largely unmoved. Pillsbury had said in the 1890s that the Queen’s Gambit and Ruy Lopez were the only correct openings and that was the attitude that prevailed for the bulk of the next decade – much to the misfortune of players with the black pieces who found themselves hemmed in straight out of the opening and theoretically 'forbidden' from creating imbalances too quickly.

1.Queen’s Gambit Declined. White’s primary weapon in this era. I’m a bit startled at how feeble black’s defenses often proved to be. In the early part of the decade, Harry Pillsbury made a living by posting a knight on e5 and then attacking smoothly on the kingside while black lightly hinted at some c-file counterplay.

Frank Marshall had similarly uncomplicated success pushing an early h4 and sacrificing somewhere around black’s king. Another orthodoxy beset black with Siegbert Tarrasch’s insistence that his namesake opening of 3…c5 gave black immediate equality. That this approach worked better in theory than practice was demonstrated above all with Carl Schlechter’s plan of fianchettoing the bishop to g2 and then gradually rolling up black’s queenside.

Black finally found some defensive weapons by accepting a few ugly asymmetries. Albin’s Counter-Gambit had the peak of its popularity early in the 1900s and was attempted even by such avowedly positional players as Schlechter, Maróczy, and Tarrasch. The Cambridge Springs Variation forced white to be resourceful from his first moves. And Lasker’s idea of 5….Ne4 in the Queen's Gambit Declined gave him almost instant equality in his match games against Marshall.

2.Ruy Lopez. Much of the theory that’s almost second-nature to club players now was worked out in this decade. Chigorin introduced his idea of 9…Na5 in 1906, and 6…b5 gradually started to crowd out black’s earlier allegiance to the cramped positions he took on from the Steinitz Defense.

 3.Four Knights. Tarrasch called this 'the third milk cow' of tournament practice – along with the Queen’s Gambit and Ruy Lopez. It’s surprising to see the Four Knights in this group – it peaked at this time and would later come to be seen as basically a duffer’s opening. But in the 1900s, it was viewed as creating a complex maneuvering struggles with possibilities of a kingside attack.

 4.Sicilian. Theoretical play in the Sicilian of this era is associated almost entirely with Géza Maróczy, who took it seriously as a counter-attacking weapon for black. Although, as in the Lasker-Napier game, the Sicilian was understood as having the capacity to create lively tactical play.

 5.French. There’s something naïve about this era’s treatment of both the French and the Sicilian – both were viewed as irregular openings (along with Oldrich Duras’ pet Caro-Kann). But the French had a real workout in the Tarrasch-Marshall match in 1905 in which Tarrasch, with white, kept castling into harm’s way on the queenside and managed to repulse all of Marshall’s attacking ideas. And players like Rudolf Swiderski started to see the possibilities of creating new kinds of dynamics from within the highly asymmetric French middlegame.


Best Games of 1900-1909

1.Lasker-Napier 1904






I guess a closing note from having (mentally) spent the last year in this time period. It's really been an unexpected source of pleasure to work through the history of chess in this deliberate, plodding way - I find myself catching evolutionary trends in chess thought and noticing small details in players' trajectories that would be be hard to do from a more scattershot approach. There's also been something soothing about this era in particular - a very optimistic period, at least in the chess centers in Europe and America, before the horrors of the 20th century manifested themselves.

I'm not done with this decade yet. Next is to profile its top players - the top sixteen of my crosstable. To restate what I'm doing here - my idea is to move through the century tournament by tournament and player by player (with no promises as to how far I get) thinking of chess always as a form of art and each of its masters contributing to the unique combination of beauty and truth that characterizes excellence in chess. 


I haven’t done anything very special for sources - just kept to what I could find online (Google Books and Scribd as well as web searches). is the absolutely necessary pre-condition for a survey like this. Vital books are: Andrew Soltis, Frank Marshall, United States Champion and Why Lasker Matters, Frank Marshall, Marshall's Best Games of Chess, Taylor Kingston, Emanuel Lasker: A Reader, Donaldson and Minev, Akiba Rubinstein: The Uncrowned King,The British Chess Magazine, Lasker’s Chess Magazine, Edward Winter, simaginfan’s essays covering much of the same ground, Savielly Tartakower, My Best Games of Chess, Richard Reti’s Masters of the Chessboard. Unfortunately, I don't read German - which really was the primary language of chess in this period. 

Thank you to everybody who's been reading and commenting on these!