A Century of Chess: Coburg 1904
Coburg 1904. From Edward Winter.

A Century of Chess: Coburg 1904


Rudolf Swiderski has been a minor obsession of mine. "Of all the chess masters I ever met Swiderski was the most weird," wrote Frank Marshall. His games are full of precarious king walks, piece shuffling, creaky maneuvers combined with a sharp tactical eye especially on defense. At the time he probably just seemed like an eccentric in terms of chess style; in retrospect, he may have been one of the leading precursors of hypermodernism. The German Congress at Coburg 1904 was his greatest achievement - first place shared with Schlechter and Van Bardeleben. Swiderski struggled with nerves throughout his career. He moved into clear first place in rounds ten and eleven and then (as often happened to him) collapsed, losing to the tailender John in the penultimate round and allowing both Schlechter and Bardeleben to catch him.

Rudolf Swiderski. From Edward Winter.

Schlechter would have been the heavy favorite in this tournament but lost badly to Swiderski in an early round.

Swiderski was all over the place, hanging a rook to Hugo Suechting and then losing the late-round game to Walter John, but he also played creative, aggressive chess.

Curt von Bardeleben already seemed like a relic from a different era. He had been one of Germany's strongest players in the 1880s and 1890s. By the 1900s his style seemed creaky and 'unscientific' but he was a fighter and put in a good result, tying the leaders with a last-round win.

As it happened, all three of the winners came to grisly ends - Swiderski committed suicide in 1909, Van Bardeleben committed suicide (or fell accidentally out of a window) in 1924, Schlechter died of malnutrition in 1918. There are no particular conclusions to draw from this, of course, except that it's a bit melancholy to think about German chess at its turn-of-the-century peak, as much the center of international chess life as Soviet chess would be half-a-century later, and the hard lives that its leading masters would undergo.

Coburg is one of the first top-of-the-leaderboard appearances for 21-year-old Ossip Bernstein. World War I and the Russian Revolution would interfere with Bernstein's career and he never challenged for the world title, as he very well might have.

Ossip Bernstein

He was one of the great talents of the era, a 'skirmishing' player, with a gift for an elegant tactic, as in this game with Swiderski, or his 'immortal' against Mieses.

The German congresses tended to be very important as incubators of new talent. The Hauptturnier (in other words, the B tournament) introduced a new cadre of masters who would become so important in the years to come: Duras, Spielmann, Vidmar, Nimzowitsch. The tournament was won, however, by another player, the very talented Viennese master Augustin Neumann, who would die the next year aged 26.