A Century of Chess: Hamburg 1910
Nimzowitsch and Leonhardt

A Century of Chess: Hamburg 1910

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There’s a mini-tradition in chess that the loser of a world championship match tends to rebound with strong tournament results immediately after. That was the case for Tal at Bled 1961, for Petrosian and Spassky in the Soviet championships, respectively, of 1969 and 1973. And such was the case for Schlechter at Hamburg 1910. He had played at a remarkably high level in the Lasker match - decades in advance of chess theory, in the estimation of some later writers - and his form held for the very strong German chess congress later that year. He won with a score of +7 - a half point ahead of Duras, who had become his main tournament rival. Duras won their individual game, a marathon 109 move affair.

After that game, Schlechter, in Louma‘s account, wandered around the tournament hall complaining that he needed first place prize money to support himself while Duras was from a rich family and not reliant on chess earnings. It’s an interesting moment, giving a perspective on Schlechter that’s not the usual image of the unworldly genius. In this tournament, though, he needn’t have worried. Schlechter employed an innovative exchange sacrifice to beat Nimzowitsch and Duras lost a late-round game to the tail-ender Speijer to give Schlechter a narrow first place victory.

And - to enjoy - a couple of games of Duras' against younger rivals who, at this moment, weren't quite at his level:

What is really notable about this tournament is that the players who would dominate 1920s chess were, for the first time, in clear sight. Capablanca was invited - his first international invitation - but had to drop out due to poor health. Alekhine had his first notable result in a top-level tournament. He was a last-minute replacement and was so anxious to play that he flagrantly disregarded a doctor's order - he had had an accident to a foot and was supposed to recuperate in bed - but got himself a wheelchair and played using that.

Yates made his international debut with an inauspicious last-place finish (Tarrasch, who was swiftly becoming the Grumpy Bear of chess, objected strenuously to Yates’ inclusion and Yates had the satisfaction of scoring one of his only two victories against Tarrasch).

Nimzowitsch had a very strong tournament, finishing in third, and, with the crystallization of his style it’s possible, for the first time really, to see a clear contrast between hypermodern and classical chess. His creative win over Leonhardt, for instance, is a nice indication of how a deeply weird-looking opening structure can actually be strategically sound.

Also prominent was Nimzowitsch’s irascible personality - a constant feature of high-level chess for the next decades. John had made some demeaning comments about Nimzowitsch in the Barmen 1905 tournament book (he accused of Nimzowitsch of 'personal inconsistency' and of being 'anything other than a positional player'). These were fighting words, and Nimzowitsch retaliated by, during his game with John, barely looking at the board and intensely appreciating the art on the walls of the tournament hall. Nimzowitsch won handily - in a game that serves as an illustration of dynamic play against a blockade.

John was so incensed by Nimzowitsch’s disregard for him (which he took to be a distraction and the reason for his loss) that the next day he sent a second to challenge Nimzowitsch to a duel with pistols. Nimzowitsch then pointed to his bicep and said that he preferred to resolve the matter with his fists, after which the whole issue was dropped. The story was related by Edward Lasker. Later researchers have found several holes in the story, but Lasker was present at the tournament - playing in a lower section - and that leads one to think that the story is likely mostly accurate. In any case, I really love this story. To me, it captures the era of German chess much as the Kholmov-in-the-Havana-bar story captures Soviet chess. It has the vital characteristics of the era: the brittle masculinity, the prickliness, and the underlying insistence on seeing chess as a matter of honor and character.

Tarrasch and Leonhardt

Tarrasch slumped to 50%. It wasn’t the first time he had had a weak tournament but in retrospect his Hamburg result may have been the first indication that his skills had started to decline.


There's a thorough account of Hamburg 1910 in Skoljdager and Nielsen's biography of Aron Nimzowitsch - which, unfortunately, raises some justifiable questions about Edward Lasker's account of the Nimzowitsch-John duel episode, while making clear that Nimzowitsch was a really odd duck. Michael Negele dug up the very evocative photos from the event. As ever, the page is invaluable.