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A Century of Chess: Géza Maróczy (1900-1909)

A Century of Chess: Géza Maróczy (1900-1909)

kahns
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Maróczy entered the elite in 1895. He won the Amateur Tournament at Hastings and then the next year finished second at Nuremberg and, from there to the end of the decade, made steady inroads towards the first-tier of masters. In 1900, he finished shared first at Munich but still seemed to be a shade behind the very top.

He continued, however, to make steady progress, won Monte Carlo outright in 1902 and 1904 and then won major tournaments at Ostend and Barmen in 1905.

A heartbreaking loss from a won position in round 31 (!) of the Ostend 1906 tournament deprived him of a crowning achievement, but, by 1906, he had fully proven himself deserving of a world championship match. And then, for reasons that have never fully been explained, Maróczy withdrew from match negotiations and, in short order, withdrew altogether from competitive chess for the next 15 years.

Maróczy’s disappearance from top-flight chess, just when he was at the peak of his career, means that we’ll never know how great he truly was. Chess connoisseurs had been slow to recognize his ability - he seemed not to have some sort of otherworldly talent for chess and his improvement had for a time been so gradual as to be almost imperceptible - and it took everybody a bit by surprise in 1905 and 1906 to realize that he was unequivocally the premier tournament player in the world. The encomiums were late in coming but they were effusive. Tarrasch called him "an original, steady, and far-seeing player - a Ulysses among chess players in his wealth of stratagem." Marshall completely lost his composure after once again losing to Maróczy in his signature queen endgame and declared -  forgetting all about Lasker - that Maróczy was "the greatest living master of chess." Lasker wrote that he had a species of genius, which was "the ability to take infinite pains."

Lasker, in particular, clearly took Maróczy very seriously and as preparation for the match wrote a perceptive scouting report in which he made it clear that he considered Maróczy to be his main rival, more so than Tarrasch, Schlechter, or Marshall, and that he viewed Maróczy as having cracked through to some genuinely deep level of the game: "He prefers the complicated positions in which the issues are very obscure and hidden and his brain is as full of original ideas as a live wire is full of energy," Lasker wrote. "One cannot well speak of his 'strength' for it is a variable quantity dependent on his moods, and his average achievement, already very great, is still constantly rising."

The chess world has lost little sleep speculating about the never-held 1906 match. Maróczy was on the quieter side and never particularly had a popular mystique at least outside of Hungary. The prognostication had been that Lasker was the heavy favorite - and that seemed to hold up given Lasker’s thrashing of all other world championship opponents in the 1900s and Maróczy’s tepid play when he finally did reemerge in International chess in the 1920s. But, like the Schlechter match in 1910, Lasker-Maróczy may well have been closer than anyone anticipated. Lasker knew that Maróczy was a dangerous opponent, and Maróczy really was one of the all-time great students of the game - along with players like Botvinnik, Portisch, Caruana - making up for a relative deficit of natural talent by working extremely hard and summoning up almost inhuman powers of concentration over the board. That devotion to the game makes his withdrawal from the match all the more inexplicable. As Lasker drily noted of the surface reasons for his withdrawal - political difficulties at a proposed playing site in Havana, financial difficulties with the Vienna Chess Club - “it is charity to Maróczy not to look too deeply into his explanation.” I have speculated in this post that Maróczy’s withdrawal may have had something to do with his involvement in political turbulence in Hungary in 1906. That’s sort of the best fit explanation given the available evidence, but the more prosaic possibility is that he had a new family, had undertaken additional responsibilities at his job, and was simply stressed out by having to raise funds for and organize the match.

Drawing of Maroczy with his wife

In any case, Maroczy’s withdrawal puts him in a very enigmatic place in chess history. He hovers around tournament photos of the era as a gaunt, spectral figure. He materializes in the '20s as the coach of Vera Menchik - as well as the mentor of Max Euwe. And he has an unexpected encore performance in his exhibition game against Viktor Korchnoi - played 40 years after his death. I can forgive Korchnoi any rude comment he made throughout his playing career for the sake of his choice of Maróczy, of all people, as his antagonist (although, to be fair, Capablanca was the first choice but turned out to be having too good of a time in the afterlife). The match medium seemed to find Maróczy just as inscrutable as everybody else did - the odd answer that his decision to play had something to do with the ‘glory of Hungary’ may have mirrored whatever opaque reason compelled him to withdraw from the 1906 world championship match. And in some sense the whole debate over life after death comes to hinge on Maróczy’s relative lack of natural talent. White did not play particularly well - not up to the standards of Maróczy of 1905-06. If one wishes to believe that consciousness continues beyond the grave, it becomes important to point out that Maróczy needed constant practice to play at top level - and, rusty from having not played for some indeterminate chunk of eternity, he simply wasn’t capable right away of playing at his full strength, as Morphy or Capablanca likely would have been.

The primary experience of the Korchnoi-Maróczy experience - which was one of the few times that The Weekly World News has actively followed chess - is to serve as one more, unlikely piece of testimony of what a great sport Maróczy was.
Not only did he play but he submitted to a series of questions from the medium and was chivalrous and self-deprecating in defeat. All of that is very much in keeping with how he came across in life. He was, wrote Hans Kmoch, "the unchallenged champion of chivalry in chess." Kmoch described Maróczy's chivalry in social terms - "sportsmanship with a medieval touch, a basic and noble belief that a man should prefer to die rather than do wrong" - but it appears too in Maróczy's approach to the game, which is all about honor and integrity. Utterly characteristic is an episode from the late 1920s in which, "annoyed" by the braggadocio of the young Hungarian masters, he challenged the reigning national champion and defeated him +5-0=3 and did so with the verdict, "They [the young masters] believe they know a great deal but they are nothing special. They do not know the real game, the game the great masters play." 

Maróczy's Style

1.Queen Endgames 

As Rubinstein is to rook endgames and Barcza to knight endgames, so is Maróczy to queen endgames. It’s a little unclear how so many of his games culminated in a queen endgame - I don’t have the sense that he especially sought them out; it may be more that his opponents, from a perversity that will be familiar to most chess players, attempted to challenge Maróczy in his greatest strength - but his skill in them was really astonishing. I remember being very startled by the queen endgame section in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual and getting the sense of just how inhumanly complicated queen endgames are and how they seem to generate their own gravitational field. Something about Maróczy’s peculiar brain aligned with this peculiar ending - a willingness to calculate very deeply and exactly, an interest in subtlety, a belief that a chess game should be decided through patience rather than tricks. 

2. Defense

Richard Réti, in Masters of the Chessboard, wrote of Maróczy that "It is in defense that his strength chiefly lies." That tendency towards patient defense and the counterattack is likely what elevated Maróczy to Korchnoi’s short list of opponents. But, playing over Maróczy’s games, I’m not especially struck by some preternatural skill in defense, as in Lasker or Petrosian. It’s more that his opponents tended to play the middlegame somewhat more vigorously and Maróczy found himself adopting various compromises - among them, being a willingness to play cramped positions and to defend patiently. He had a very good sense of chess justice - an understanding that even if an opponent had a temporary initiative or was somewhat better that that didn't mean he lacked critical resources within his own position. And many of Maróczy’s games, if not characterized exactly by virtuoso defense, speak to the virtues of patience - making a string of good-enough moves, hanging on, and then gradually pushing back an overaggressive opponent.

3. Gradualism

The really key quality of Maroczy’s is a deep seriousness about chess. That’s accompanied by a respect for the complexities of the position, a belief that a game against a high-level opponent shouldn’t be won by some tactical flurry but should require tremendous subtlety and patience - and the secret to Maroczy’s success really was the capacity for infinite pains, the sense that he was calculating a little more deeply and maneuvering a little more subtly than everyone he encountered.

Maróczy in the Opening

Maróczy really was the leading opening innovator of the classical period. As a specialist in the black side of the French and Sicilian Defense, he more or less single-handedly kept those openings alive, demonstrating that black could make certain spatial concessions in the opening without losing control over the position. The Maróczy Bind - what Fischer/Evans called ‘Maróczy’s curious legacy’ - isn’t particularly important for him as a favorite opening structure, but it is emblematic of his style, a belief that deep strategic concepts could have far-lasting impacts and that structure was more important than temporary dynamics.

Sources

For such a truly great player, there's really not a lot on Maróczy in English - I haven't seen any full-length books. I suspect there's more in Hungarian but my Hungarian is a bit rusty. For this, I've been using the usual suspects, Taylor Kingston's Emanuel Lasker: A Reader, Richard Réti's Masters of the Chessboard, as well as contemporary publications on Google Books (The British Chess Magazine, etc). 

Plugs 

I don't think anybody has taken the bait so far, but, as usual, I'll invite everyone to visit my non-chess-related Substack Castalia, which features writing on a wide variety of subject matter - politics, art, etc. The headliner this week is a profile of an ex-soldier and cop returning home in a last-ditch effort to get sober.