A Century of Chess: Munich 1900
Das Interessante Blatt 1898 - Schlechter playing blindfold in foreground

A Century of Chess: Munich 1900

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Carl Schlechter emerged as a top-flight, fully-formed player with his strong showing at Hastings 1895. He was 21 years old, posted a positive score against the world’s best, won his individual game against Pillsbury, and was a clear exemplar of what was coming to be thought of as the ‘Viennese style’ - pellucid, classical, elegant. And then he - marinated. At Hastings, he drew 12 out of 21 games, at Vienna it was 11 out of 22, at Nuremberg his draw rate went up to 11 out of 18 games, at Berlin it was 11 out of 18, and then dropped slightly to 17 draws out of 36 games at Vienna. With a certain Romantic chauvinism still in the air, this drawing tendency was considered a bit of a disgrace - proof that something was wrong with the ‘scientific style’ - and it was particularly egregious that Schlechter, who had come to be called ’the Viennese drawing master’ had a tendency to agree to draws in positions where was clearly better.

The turning point was Munich 1900, when Schlechter took shared first place with Pillsbury and Maróczy and then tied his playoff match with Pillsbury. It’s almost possible, playing over the games, to see the moment when Schlechter - a bit like Petrosian around 1959 - made up his mind to be not just very good but a great player. In the first two rounds, he agreed to draws in favorable positions. He got on a winning streak, winning three straight games against weak players. And then in his game against Wolf - here’s the moment that I’m thinking of - he reached a level position, with bishops of opposite colors, and instead of steering towards a draw suddenly played more aggressively, winning an elegant endgame. This was the key to the next phase of Schlechter’s development - not necessarily taking more risks but playing with more tenacity, looking for a very slight advantage and then steadily, inexorably squeezing more out of the position.

Goldman: Carl Schlechter!

As for Pillsbury, chess history tends to remember the triumph at Hastings 1895, the disappointment at St Petersburg the next year, and then his early death, and to forget the long period from about 1896 to 1904 when he was, along with Lasker, the world’s dominant tournament player - although, for one reason or another, he never managed after Hastings to take clear first prize in an international tournament. Munich was his best chance. He led the tournament most of the way, played his usual dynamic, attractive chess, but slowed down in the last two rounds. In a bit of brinksmanship, Maróczy showed Pillsbury’s opponent Halprin a key opening line in one of Pillsbury’s pet variations, which resulted in a short draw. And in the last round Pillsbury was unable to break down the resistance of the stolid Austrian master Johann Berger.

The Illustrated American 1895

Géza Maróczy had one of his best results to date, taking a share of first place (and scoring an assist in the Halprin-Pillsbury game). In general, his play here is a bit unconvincing - he seemed to have a disproportionate share of luck in the tournament and his real breakthrough would be a couple of years later - but his win over Janowski was one of the more beautiful games of the era.

Maróczy in 1904

Maróczy seemed to hit his ceiling in a three-way playoff match with the other winners. He blundered horrifically in his game against Pillsbury and withdrew from the match. Schlechter demonstrated that he really had arrived, exchanging wins with Pillsbury and drawing the other two games.

In a sense, the most lasting legacy of the tournament was a side event - the first real attempt to create an international organizing body. This was at the initiative of Amos Burn (and is mentioned in Richard Forster's biography of him), was convened on the last day of the tournament, and was called the International Chess Masters' Association. It led to nothing but may be considered the first precursor of FIDE.