A Century of Chess: Monte Carlo 1904
Monte Carlo in 1903.

A Century of Chess: Monte Carlo 1904

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The diminished end to the Monte Carlo series – the super-tournament of its time. The 1901 Monte Carlo was a strong master tournament. 1902 was a world-class event. The epic 26-round 1903 event featured all the strongest masters of the era, with the sole exception of Emanuel Lasker. But the tournament’s rise also spotlighted the character deficiencies of its sponsor, the mercurial Prince Dadian, who was constantly engaged in more and more public spats with various of the masters. After the 1901 tournament, Semyon Alapin was excluded. After 1902, it was Janowski and Gunsberg. Just prior to the 1903 tournament, Chigorin was expelled for articles he’d written in the Russian press insinuating that certain of Dadian’s published games (staggering 20-move crushes against first-rate masters) weren’t entirely legitimate. By 1904 – after an ugly airing-out of the Chigorin affair in the chess press and an article by the winner Tarrasch complaining about playing conditions – Dadian seemed largely to have lost interest in his event. After the 1904 tournament, Dadian cancelled the series and The Stratégie noted, “The sharp criticisms raised by the manner in which these tourneys were conducted must have led to this result.”
The 1904 tournament was split into two sections. There was a masters’ tournament, a six-player double-round-robin, and then there was the Rice Gambit event, sponsored by the American patron Isaac Rice. Several of the participants played in both tournaments.

Isaac Rice

The usual story is that, in 1895, Rice, playing a casual game, inadvertently left his knight en prise on move eight of a King’s Gambit and then afterwards won the game. He concluded that he had discovered a new variation – the Rice Gambit. Since computers hadn’t been invented yet (had they been, he could have plugged in his variation and discovered an evaluation of -2.00 in black’s favor) he did the obvious next best thing: he paid for several international events of world-class masters to test out his idea – each game staring on move 8, with the knight hanging.

Rice again

The Rice Gambit event is remembered as one of the darker moments in the long, difficult history of chess patronage. “This whole Rice Gambit thing is one of the most bizarre chapters in chess history. So many great minds spent analyzing what is just a silly footnote in a non-critical variation,” writes a user on Hooper and Whyld calls it “a grotesque monument to a rich man’s vanity.” But, to be fair to Professor Rice and his gambit, at the time it seemed like great fun, and at the tournament the white side actually had a plus score of +14-12 – although, ominously for the gambit, black ran the table in the tournament’s last round, when the players had had the chance to deeply analyze it. Frank Marshall, who enjoyed playing in the tournament, said the main issue with it was the enormous amount of memory involved to keep up with the latest innovations – “like an examination on French verbs!”

Edward Winter has done his customary deep digging and found that Rice has been unfairly maligned. For one thing, he probably didn’t hang the knight – he discovered the opening move 8.0-0!? while in the process of seriously investigating the Kieseritzky Gambit. And Rice had bigger fish to fry than inflating his ego. He was determined to beat back ‘dry, scientific play,’ and saw his gambit as a kind of Pickett’s Charge of Romanticism in chess. “If the Rice Gambit shows that the sacrifice of a knight can save the Kieseritzky Gambit, it will give the so-called modern school a fatal blow,” he wrote. (By the way, Rice was a very impressive person, a key innovator in the development of electric vehicles and the submarine; his company became a major contractor to the U.S. and British navies before and during World War I.)

In any case, the tournament was another success for Marshall, who was in his element in the Rice Gambit’s wild tactical play and warming up for his staggering win at Cambridge Springs later in the year. The eccentric Rudolf Swiderski had his single greatest result, tying for first place.

The ‘regular’ tournament was a three-way race between Marshall, Geza Maróczy, and Carl Schlechter. Marshall took the early lead – his miraculous swindle against Georg Marco was one of the best games of his career – and then tapered off.

Maróczy and Schlechter put in cool professional performances, and before the last round Maroczy and Marshall were in shared first, with 6.5 points out of 9, and playing each other. Schlechter was a half-point behind. Schlechter efficiently won his game against Marco. Marshall, with the white pieces, got the better of the early middlegame. Maróczy held the line defensively and Marshall, with typical impetuosity, passed up a perpetual check to continue the attack. He overlooked a simple riposte, and two moves later Maróczy had won a piece and the game.

Marshall blamed his decision on both “incredibly youthful confidence” and on the pervasive gambling spirit that came with playing in an actual casino – “during the day my mind would constantly revert to red and black, eagle bird and double,” he wrote.

Europe Échecs.

Maróczy’s success was his second straight win at Monte Carlo and very close to his career peak.

By the way, if you are interested in playing the Rice Gambit, here's a quick primer on the main lines:

A new face emerges on the chess scene with the début of Leó (Fleischmann) Forgács. Fleischmann finished last in the Rice Gambit tournament but exhibited the tactical sparkle that would make him one of the world's leading players by the end of the decade.