A Century of Chess: Monte Carlo 1903
American Chess Weekly 1903 via Cleveland Public Library.

A Century of Chess: Monte Carlo 1903

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It's a real gift to future bloggers that the top players of this era so considerately took turns winning tournaments – creating the opportunity to spend some time describing the playing style of each one. At Paris 1900, Lasker won. At Munich 1900, Pillsbury and Schlechter. At Monte Carlo 1901, it was Janowski’s turn, then Maróczy took Monte Carlo 1902, Janowski broke the pattern by winning Hanover 1902, and then Tarrasch, who had been largely absent from competitive chess since the 1890s, won at Monte Carlo 1903, while Chigorin and Marshall took the major tournaments the next year. 

Tarrasch’s play looked rusty in the opening rounds – losing three out of the first six games – and then he found his form to win the marathon tournament (a 26-round double-round-robin) by a full point.

American Chess Weekly 1903

There can be something joyless about Tarrasch’s play. He always plays for space and eventually squeezes the life out of his opponent’s position (for a good example, see his game with black against Taubenhaus). But, needing points in a fast field, Tarrasch switched to more dynamic play in the middle rounds. As black, he adopted the Schliemann Defense and From Gambit and won brilliantly with them. He won eight straight in the closing rounds of the tournament, before clinching with a peaceful draw in the last round. Tarrasch’s style reminds me very much of Mikhail Botvinnik’s: direct and accurate opening play, a focus on space and initiative but not at the expense of structure, impeccable technique, and a penchant for the exchange sacrifice, particularly as a tool for simplifying an advantageous position. To continue the comparison, the tournament book was also very impressed with Tarrasch's off-the-board play, noting that he spent all the recesses and dinner breaks analyzing. 

Tarrasch’s finish came at the expense of Géza Maróczy, who put in his usual quiet, sterling result and narrowly missed winning the tournament for the second year in a row.

Harry Pillsbury broke his streak of five second-place finishes – by coming in third. Pillsbury led for much of the way and then lost a wildly complicated game to Tarrasch, which kicked off Tarrasch’s winning streak.

It’s a bit of a chess myth that Pillsbury was in decline after Hastings 1895. There’s a case to be made that he actually had the world’s best tournament record in the decade after that, but Monte Carlo was one of his last really successful tournaments. The tournament book reported that he contracted “a severe cold and suffered sleepless nights” – which may well have been symptoms of his syphilis.  

Moving down the crosstable, both Schlechter and Teichmann had good tournaments (Teichmann leading for some time) but couldn’t keep up with the fast pace of the leaders.

Marshall and Mieses played the most crowd-friendly chess and, at the time, seemed completely interchangeable. Marshall was still his wild self, capable, as the saying goes, of beating anyone and losing to anyone – it’s hard to imagine, looking over his games from Monte Carlo 1903, that he would be a genuine world championship contender within a year.

Mieses played the Danish Gambit every chance he could and actually scored brilliantly with it in a kind of last-ditch revival of the Romantic spirit. He also played by far and away the prettiest single move of the tournament (in the game below). 

A feature of this era was the presence of real duffers in elite tournaments – usually included for nationalistic reasons – who put up unlikely-to-be-repeated, staggeringly awful scores. There was Vergani at Hastings 1895 (+2-17=2), Sterling and Didier at Paris 1900 (+1-15=0) – Sterling, by the way, is the only person that I know of to have been a head of state and to have played in an international chess tournament – Didier again at Monte Carlo 1901 (+0-11=1), and Mortimer at Monte Carlo 1902 (+1-15=0). But the world’s record for futility, unlikely ever to be challenged let alone equaled, was set by Colonel Moreau at Monte Carlo 1903 with the eye-popping score of +0-26=0. Moreau has gone on to become something of a folk hero to patzers everywhere – it’s not so easy to sit through loss after loss for an entire month. Moreau seems to have been a very impressive person, was a notable mathematician, served in Mexico, Africa, and in the Franco-Prussian War, and was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor, although apparently found war easier than chess.

This was a controversial tournament – the end of the chess world’s honeymoon with Prince Dadian. The enigmatic prince had become the premier chess patron of the day, sponsoring the Monte Carlo series. If he had eccentricities – like publishing his games against great masters, all of them wins, all suspiciously short and brilliant – they were easy to laugh off given the inestimable value of having a patron of his wealth. But, gradually, the prince’s imperious side became harder to overlook. After the 1901 tournament, Semyon Alapin was expelled for some offense to Dadian. After 1902, it was Janowski, who seems to have quarreled with the tournament director de Rivière. For the 1903 tournament, Chigorin was invited, traveled from Russia to Monte Carlo and was informed on his arrival that his invitation had been rescinded – for an article he published in the Russian press harshly analyzing some of Dadian’s games and insinuating that they were fakes.

The American Chess Weekly 1903

The players were upset also by the noisy playing conditions – with the hall placed too closely to one of the casinos. The general ill-feeling ended the series after one more event, which is unfortunate. It painted a nice picture to have a single annual super-tournament, featuring all the great masters, sponsored by a wealthy, eccentric, chess-mad prince, and hosted on the Cote d’Azur. Chess patronage became much more diffuse and chaotic in the next few years, once Dadian’s support dried up.