A Century of Chess: New York 1924
New York 1924

A Century of Chess: New York 1924

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This is the quintessential tournament of the decade — much as St Petersburg 1914 is for the 1910s and AVRO for the 1930s. It included all the leading players of the era, with the exception of Rubinstein, and was a thrilling, fast-paced race between Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine. Alekhine's book of the tournament is one of the greatest tournament books ever written; like its counterparts Zurich 1953 or Second Piatigorsky Cup 1966, it represents the state of the art for chess of the period. 

Skittles at New York 1924

From a narrative point of view, though, the tournament was slightly disappointing. Capablanca was supposed to be invincible, with Alekhine his most likely challenger (the genesis of the tournament had actually been an abortive attempt at a world title match between them), and the representatives of hypermodernism (Bogoljubow, Réti, Tartakower) nipping at his heels. Instead, Lasker, who had been decisively defeated in the 1921 match, came out of near-retirement and won the tournament by a point-and-a-half. Lasker was supposed to be yesterday's man and was to the side of the gripping theoretical disputes over hypermodernism. As Max Euwe put it, "There is nothing to be learned from Lasker — one can only stand and wonder." Which is a backhanded compliment, an idea (fundamentally incorrect) that Lasker stands outside of the evolution of chess thought and which reveals the difficulty that contemporaries had in fitting Lasker into their preconceived narratives (somewhat similar to the consternation around the chess world when Karpov in the late '80s or Anand in the mid-2010s beat out younger, more exciting players to continue fighting for the world title). 

More than anything, the tournament is best remembered for Richard Réti’s victory with 1.Nf3 over Capablanca. It was Capablanca’s first loss in eight years — a record in terms of longevity for an undefeated streak, although not in number of games — and probably the true coming of age of hypermodernism and of the Réti Opening in particular. The game itself is a bit underwhelming — Soltis calls it one of the most overrated games ever — a skirmishing middlegame that ends with a queen trap, but the symbolic value of it was immense. Capablanca represented the last hope for the classical ‘old guard.’ For a hypermodern variation to score an easy, decisive victory over him meant, beyond all doubt, that there was something to the new approach. 

The loss to Réti and the second place finish notwithstanding, Capablanca actually had one of the best tournaments of his career. He started the tournament sick, scored only two points from the first five rounds, then scored 12.5 out of 15 for the rest of the tournament, won an individual game over Lasker with a deep piece sacrifice, and was kept from first place only because Lasker was even more dominant. 

Compared to some of his other tournaments, Alekhine was a bit of a quiet presence at New York 1924. He kept pace with the leaders and finished in clear third. In a sense, the critical event for him was to finally begin to sense Capablanca’s weakness, which was a sloppiness in calculating precise variations in the transition from the middlegame to the endgame — exactly what Capablanca was most famous for. 

Marshall, the tournament’s host, was in the middle of the pack for most of the tournament and came in fourth with a fast finish — to the delight of the hometown crowd. 

Réti had his symbolic victories with the win over Capablanca and the success of his opening variation (pronounced ‘the opening of the future' after he went on a tear of six straight wins with it) but the great liability in his game became apparent — his wretched results when playing black. 

Maróczy played a dour, joyless chess but posted one of the better results of his latter career. 

Bogoljubow was a bit luckless and finished further down the crosstable than he should have. The weak seventh place finish made it all the more surprising when he won in Moscow the next year, ahead of many of the same adversaries. New York, though, was the occasion of his famous quote. When asked about a recently-completed game, he said that he won it because he was white. When asked how he managed to triumph when he was black, he answered, "Because I am Bogoljubow." 

Tartakower led early and he produced the most charming innovation of the tournament — the Orangutan opening, 1.b4, named because he thought of it while watching the orangutans at the Bronx Zoo during an off-day visit. His play, however, was weak throughout the tournament and his loyalty to offbeat openings — the King’s Gambit in particular — seemed to work against him. New York 1924 was a turning-point in his career, when he went from being a world championship contender to simply a very strong grandmaster, a colorful participant in any tournament, which is how he’s remembered now. 

Alekhine and Marshall in New York

Yates played poorly but was an effective spoiler towards the end.

Edward Lasker finished in tenth place, but somehow it was a very impressive showing. He stayed in the fight with his more famous rivals and produced the strangest game of the tournament, his fighting draw with Janowski. 

Janowski was absolutely wretched, securing advantageous positions in the middlegame and spoiling them again and again. “He has done the impossible in this respect,” Lasker said drily after the tournament. 

Sources: New York 1924 is an extremely famous tournament and there are many accounts of it. Alekhine wrote the tournament book. Soltis discusses it at length in his book on Lasker. Edward Winter has a post on it. Chessbase has a round-by-round series