A Century of Chess: Lasker-Maróczy 1906

A Century of Chess: Lasker-Maróczy 1906

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The match that wasn't. 

There were three great never-played matches of this era - Lasker-Pillsbury c.1900, Lasker-Rubinstein c.1912, and Lasker-Maróczy 1906. Of the unplayed world championship matches (a longer list that includes Fischer-Karpov 1975, Botvinnik-Keres c.1950, Carlsen-Aronian c.2012) the Lasker-Maróczy match is one of the least mourned.

Maróczy. Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1906.

Lasker ran up a +4-0=2 lifetime score against Maróczy and the assumption has been that he was simply of a higher class than Maróczy - as he proved to be with all of his contemporaries. And that may well be - except that Maróczy had just put together a string of tournament successes (first at Monte Carlo 1904, first at Ostend 1905, shared first at Barmen 1905, second at Ostend 1906) that marked him out as the premier competitor of his era; and there's a tremendous gap in the historical record - Maróczy's semi-retirement from 1907-1921, in what would have been his peak years - which means that we'll never know how strong he actually might have been. 

The chess world has always struggled to form a clear assessment of Maróczy - and that was clearly the case in the lead-up to the match. The pecking order in the chess world had been Lasker - Tarrasch - Pillsbury and then a cohort of masters behind them, Maróczy, Schlechter, Janowski, Marshall, with Marshall the most dynamic of them but all seen to be of roughly equal strength. But Maróczy's great gift was for self-improvement and by 1905-06 it was clear that he had moved a significant step forward of his rivals. Tarrasch called him a "Ulysses among chess players in his wealth of stratagem." Marshall, having just lost yet another intricate queen endgame to Maróczy, called him "the greatest living master of chess." Lasker's assessments of other chess players are always worth reading carefully - and Lasker conceded that Maróczy had "great talent bordering on genius, the definition of that gift being....the ability to take infinite pains." The understanding was that Maróczy had fully earned his right to challenge for the title - and even in the confusing climate of the time, with Tarrasch and Marshall undertaking their own negotiations for the world championship and Tarrasch and Maróczy discussing a private match of their own, there was the sense that Maróczy probably was the toughest challenger.

Maróczy and his wife. N.Y. Staats-Zeitung. By Julius Hess.

Instead of the match itself we're left with speculation - and the paltry evidence of the other games between the two players. What's particularly grating about this is that they actually didn't play in the entire period between 1900 and 1924. They played two very dull draws in the mid-1890s, in both of which Maróczy was clearly pleased to emerged unblooded from the world champion. Then Maróczy lost a pair of disastrous games in 1899 and 1900, from which we probably shouldn't conclude too much - Maróczy was clearly nervous and wasn't the player he would be five years later - but do indicate that Lasker may have been a psychologically difficult opponent for Maróczy to face.

Ignoring a Rice Gambit thematic game, they next played in 1924 (!) when Maróczy returned to chess and was clearly not quite the player he had been - although Lasker had lost nothing. The first game was another fiasco for Maróczy who felt somehow compelled to launch a premature kingside attack that was easily rebuffed.

But then, later in the same tournament, they played a truly great game, which gives a taste for what the 1906 match may have been like. The game affirms Tartakower’s truism that the winner in chess is the maker of the second-to-last mistake. It’s also an interesting illustration of the way in which each player, when hard-pressed, sheds material and immediately improves his position.

Here is how the match may have been broken down. Maróczy had superior opening knowledge and terrific staying power. Lasker had a tendency to choose offbeat opening lines through his career - somehow, he always got away with it - but Maróczy had the capability to punish him for it. Maróczy also played 'correct' chess where Lasker's chess was more irrational - which would have led to fascinating in-fighting (somewhat similar to the Lasker-Tarrasch match) with Maróczy attempting to bring the game into more comprehensible channels. Both players were essentially defenders and counter-attackers, which means that the match likely would have had a high percentage of draws with both players waiting for the other to attack first. In the end, Lasker had better nerves that Maróczy - this showed in their titanic 1924 game and was what Lasker really was counting on - and probably that would have made the difference.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 1906

It's still really not clear what happened to the match. The short answer is that Maróczy flaked. The contestants met in New York in early 1906, agreed to a three-part traveling circus of a match to be held later in the year between Vienna, New York, and Havana. Then Maróczy simply disappeared and stopped responding to Lasker's letters. Lasker, who seems to have been intent on playing the match, sent a telegram with pre-paid reply to Vienna asking for an answer, to which Georg Marco, as Maróczy's stand-in, replied that the match was off without any real explanation - "Maróczy cannot play on account of politics," he wrote. Maróczy then published a letter in a Hungarian newspaper that really clarified nothing - and wrote a private letter to Lasker advancing a completely different set of reasons for why the match wouldn't work. Lasker, clearly very annoyed, wrote "It is charity to Maróczy not to look too deeply into his explanation." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 1906.

That's sort of where the chess world left it. Maróczy was a very private person and - from everything I've read - never offered a fuller explanation in later years. Lasker immediately turned around and reached an agreement with Frank Marshall, who was raring to play - and the chess world moved on from what Taylor Kingston in his book on Lasker calls "the Maróczy Disaster." 

I've spent more time than I really meant to reading through all the correspondence about the match - and my feeling is that it's actually a more interesting, involved story than has ever been understood. Maróczy's rationalize that he could not play "on account of politics" was not taken very seriously by the chess world. The American press immediately assumed that Maróczy had lost his financial backing - and the article he wrote in the Neue Pester Journal was an attempt to insist that his backers with the Vienna Chess Club (Trebitsch and Baron Rothschild!) were not lacking in money, thank you very much. In the article, Maróczy clarified that the allusion to politics had to do with unrest in Cuba and that the real issue was that Vienna Chess Club preferred to host the entire match. But none of those complaints stands up. There was unrest in Cuba at the time, but that leg had always been the last certain and Lasker was already searching for a new venue; and Lasker had by letter quibbled with some of the stipulations of the Vienna portion but indicated his willingness to make it work no matter what. 

Maróczy's letters give the idea that he was under extreme stress. He writes at one point, pretty non-sensically, "I am very busy and have no time to do anything by letter; I must do everything later in person....I play yet too 'simultaneously.'" I sort of took that to mean that Maróczy was undergoing some type of mini-nervous breakdown, which may have been related to having an infant son and to work pressures - basically, to finding that he no longer had time for childish games (which may well be the explanation for why he withdrew from competitive play altogether over the next years). 

But then there's still the reference to 'politics.' Marco's note has a ring of truth to it - and Maróczy's explanation about the Cuban unrest just doesn't add up. It makes more sense that the 'politics' had to do with this. Hungary was in the thick of a constitutional crisis in 1906, which nearly led to armed intervention by the Empire. This is an almost completely forgotten event. Academics writing about it point out that it was a very similar set of ingredients to the unrest in Bosnia that triggered World War I, but that even in Hungary there is very little scholarship on it. It's always been a bit of a surprise that Maróczy surfaced as a national figure in the short-lived Communist government of 1919 and it makes one wonder if he hadn't started to be involved in left-wing politics (or in the the sort of quixotic parlor politics depicted in The Man Without Qualities) much earlier. 

I don't have the evidence to support this claim, but, to me, that's the best way to connect the dots. Beneath his dour, scientific demeanor, Maróczy actually seems to have been a very passionate person - it comes through in his letters and in a few stray references about him. He was very politically engaged at different points in his life and it seems hard to imagine that the reference to 'politics' would be related to anything other than the Constitutional Crisis. If so, it all starts to sound like a beautiful story - brilliant chess player passes up chance to play for the world championship out of dedication to his country.  

That's as far as I can take it for the moment. But I am convinced there's more to this story than has ever been reported. It wasn't just about money and logistics. It connected to some very deep personal crisis within Maróczy. 


- The outline of the story is nicely covered in Taylor Kingston's Emanuel Lasker: A Readerwhich reprints Lasker's writing on the episode in Lasker's Chess Magazine. 

Atypus' website has a great list of primary sources, particularly The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was closely covering the match.