A Century of Chess: Georg Marco (1900-1909)
Georg Marco. PD.

A Century of Chess: Georg Marco (1900-1909)

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The backbone of classical chess. 

Marco was born in Bukovina - at the outer extremity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a young man, he came to Vienna to study medicine and then was badly bitten by the chess bug - in a reminiscence of his life, he said that on his first day of arrival he went to the Cafe Central to play chess, played there until it closed, and then he and his opponent moved to another cafe and continued to play there for the rest of the evening. In other words, medicine didn't have a chance.

From Roger Paige

If players like Marshall and Schlechter could barely earn a living through tournament winnings combined with simultaneous exhibitions, Marco fell just short of that threshold. His results were always solid but he was rarely in the winners' circle, and by the mid-1900s he had moved almost entirely into an auxiliary role, as a prolific writer and administrator, secretary of the Viennese Chess Association and editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung, the preeminent chess publication of its day. In an article in 1898, Armin Friedmann described the whirlwind of energy required just to stay afloat: "His system of annihilating and crushing his opponents is feared by all. Unfortunately, his head is filled with administration details, in addition he edits match reports, publishes books and periodicals dedicated to Chess, sends telegrams and cable broadcasts, so that it requires his massive brain to produce his results." 

In a sense, Marco's most enduring legacy is his personality. He was literally larger-than-life and the center of every room he occupied - "the most good-natured giant, the most amiable ogre that can be imagined," wrote Friedmann. I have the sense that for some of the more introverted players his endless jokes and stories could be wearying. Lasker drily wrote, "Marco is a man of practical wisdom, a big and ponderous man with an equally big and ponderous humor, whose voices makes itself heard among masters and others," but there was also the sense that without Marco international chess would lose its flavor. In The Hypermodern Game of Chess, Tartakower, who kind of inherited Marco's role as resident wit and life of the party, wrote a truly touching tribute to his beloved 'Brother Bombasticus': "Even your thoroughness was pure of all mummification as was your erudition free of any penchant to lecture, all the while letting delightful samples of your worldly humor glow wherever one spread among the voracious minds the rich nourishment of your knowledge and experience; without envy you joyfully embrace all that is fine and beautiful in chess." 

Shown in Aron Nimzowitsch: Road to Chess Mastery. 1920.

Unfortunately I don't read German and I can't find Marco's crowning achievement Carlsbad 1907 translated online. To be honest, a lot of his jokes and sayings come across a bit on the clunkier side when translated into English, but the consensus among German readers seems to be that he was an extraordinary writer, very funny, very whimsical, with a particular Viennese lightness (Tartakower advocated for him as the 'Praeceptor Austriae' - a slightly nationalistic challenge to Siegbert Tarrasch), and probably the first full-time chess journalist who was capable also of grandmaster-level analysis. Here are a few of his pieces of chess wisdom and analysis - "black's position is perfectly balanced, weak on the kingside and equally so on the queenside"; "a draw like love requires two participants"; "wait until your opponent has used up his gunpowder, then you can drive him back with a common cane" - which I think gave a sense of his humor and persona. 

From Savielly Tartakower, Hypermodern Game of Chess

As a player, Marco's results never quite matched the level of his understanding of the game. I have the sense that in every generation there's a player like Marco - Braslav Rabar and John Nunn come to mind, for that matter the Pandolfini character as depicted in Searching for Bobby Fischer - players who have an encyclopedic knowledge of opening theory and of master play, who are chess professionals and dedicated heart-and-soul to the game, but lack some vital ingredient (sorry to say, the word is 'talent') to win consistently against the very best in the world. 

Marco's Style 

1. Thickets 

It's possible to play through a lot of Marco games without getting a very distinctive sense of his chess personality. He was a solid master, steeped in the 'modern school,' a tough defender, tactically precise, highly effective against the bottom half of the crosstable, but he was somewhat unimaginative and had a way (like Mieses and Wolf and N.N.) of being on the receiving end of brilliancies. The word that comes up for me with Marco is 'thickets' - especially as a theoretician, he was drawn to complexity. His more interesting games often have the aspect of weaving themselves into some complex puzzle, which, as often as not, a more famous opponent would successfully solve. But, always, the sense with Marco is that he was interested above all in chess truth and focused especially on refuting irrational attempts to attack. 

2. Luck 

'There is no luck in chess' is one of the first things you hear when you start to play. But Marco, annotating a game of his, made the novel claim that in chess "chance rules almost as often as in a game of roulette." He continued: "The probability that in a given critical position a chess master will select the best move (or, at least, a good move) may be put, even under the pressure of a time-limit, at 0.9. On the other hand, the probability that the correct moves, both for White and for Black, will be made 5, 10, 20, ... 50 times in succession will be the 10th, 20th, 40th, ... 100th successive power of 0.9. With the help of a table of logarithms, it is easy to show that the values of these powers diminish very rapidly, and the probability of always finding the correct move diminishes in a very alarming way. Now consider physical weakness; exhaustion after a protracted struggle; tendency to light-heartedness when the position is favourable; tendency to dejection when the position is critical, and it will be clear that absolute correctness is an ideal at which everybody aims, but which nobody attains, or ever will attain." 

This has been on my mind ever since I first read it and it’s an interesting point. There’s a great deal of luck about whether your opponent finds the best move or not. And, at a higher level, ability itself is a kind of luck. But Marco’s critique is very specific - the critique of the practical master. A really top player would say that they create their own luck, that they can get on a shooter’s roll, and all the breaks - which connect above all to the fragile nerves of their opponent - will swing their way, but Marco is saying something slightly different; that in the trenches of master chess, with two strong opponents facing one another, the difference in wins and losses is often by some subtle point deep in a variation that nobody can possibly foresee. This is the lament of a second-tier player after another brutal night at the chess club - but I feel that most serious players can more than relate, and it does actually connect to his approach to the game, the ever-present impulse towards complexity, towards the 'critical position,' with luck playing its role in the heat of the battle, and the truth of the position discovered maybe years later, after tireless analysis. 

Marco in the Opening

Marco was something of a one-man ECO in the classical era. Annotated games written by other players are full of references to his analysis, his improvements on such and such a line. Much of Marco's analysis was already on the old-fashioned side though. He excelled in the thematic tournaments that were briefly popular in the early 1900s and which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his deep analysis of variations in the King's Gambit (and particularly in such sidelines as the Muzio and Rice Gambits) - unfortunately, though, these lines were, outside of the thematic events, already falling out of tournament praxis. In terms of openings that have remained in use, Tartakower gives him credit for developing much of the theory of the Hanham Variation of Philidor's Defense, which became so important to Nimzowitsch's conception of play in the center. He was a specialist in the Centre Attack (6.d4 in the Closed Ruy Lopez), another old-fashioned-looking line that is maybe played less often than it deserves to be, and his greatest enduring contribution to opening theory may be the wild idea of 7.0-0!? in the Schliemann Defense, which still surfaces in contemporary play and is one of the few instances of a theoretically valid piece sacrifice before move 10 in a more or less mainstream opening.