A Century of Chess: Ostend 1906

A Century of Chess: Ostend 1906

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A real extravaganza. Isidor Gunsberg, the tournament director, came up with a wild hyper-rational tournament structure, somewhat akin to the soccer World Cup, with 36 contestants winnowed down, over five stages of play, to eventually reach a nine player round-robin.

The organizational method was clearly a labor of love for Gunsberg, an absolutely ingenious attempt, something he'd tinkered with throughout his playing career, to have a big tent tournament welcoming fresh talent combined with the rigor of a round-robin - and it was met with unremitting scorn and derision from tournaments' participants. "Verily, it was a chess fair, not a tournament," wrote Lasker, who was reporting from New York on the tournament. Frank Marshall was clearly disgusted with the whole thing and called it wacky: "There ought to be a law against experiments such as these."

Gunsberg. From Edward Winter

One critique was that the tournament was just too long: "The older masters suffered most from the ordeal," wrote Lasker, "the longer they held out the more pitiable was their breakdown." But to be fair these mammoth tournaments weren't uncommon in that era. A more reasonable complaint was that nobody could figure out where they were in the standings - and, depending on their placement within the group, players with higher scores were frequently eliminated in the earlier rounds in favor of players with lower scores - but, again, that's not uncommon in sporting events with a bracket system. 

In his defense, Gunsberg - testily but with validity - pointed out that the only player who never complained about the organization, who just put his head down and concentrated on chess was Carl Schlechter, who also went on to win the tournament. The tournament was Schlechter's first truly great competitive achievement - putting him on the path to his world championship match in 1910. I think of him as having a very similar career arc to Tigran Petrosian: for a long time, both players were happy simply to be part of the elite and in the prize money and then at a certain point (1906 for Schlechter, 1959 for Petrosian) they sharpened their play and began to win top-level events.


"As Schlechter is very popular all over the chess world, the chess world is glad with him," Lasker wrote. Gunsberg's notes after the tournament read like a love letter to Schlechter: "Schlechter also showed us the generous side of his nature by declining to compete for any of the brilliancy prizes, for which he undoubtedly would have had the best chance. 'I have won enough,' he said. 'Let others get something too.'" Which is very noble - although, for somebody who lived in poverty his whole life, it's hard not to feel that the man should have entered himself into the brilliancy prize competitions.

Schlechter's viciory was at Géza Maróczy's expense. It looked like Maróczy's tournament much of the way through. Maróczy was at the peak of his career and had a reputation as a clutch player.

He was in the lead entering the final round but then had a string of draws and broke down right at the end, working up a terrific attack against Ossip Bernstein and then failing to find the winning move.

Maróczy (R) in 1906

I have the feeling that this is one of these crossroads games: if Maróczy had found 26...Re8!! he would have won Ostend (1905), Barmen (1905), and Ostend (1906) - three super tournaments in a row - which would have been one of the greatest competitive achievements ever and might have been just enough momentum for Maróczy to push through his planned match with Lasker and to stick with chess. (Instead, the match dwindled away and Maróczy evidently started to feel that chess wasn't a great career option and then stopped playing in tournaments altogether).

The real event of the tournament, though, was the emergence of Akiba Rubinstein as an elite player. Rubinstein - 26-years-old - made it all the way to the final group and finished in third place, playing his pellucid chess. "He has good style, sound judgement of position, remarkably retentive memory, and a stock of book lore dating back to Morphy’s time," wrote Leopold Hoffer. Of the commentators, Lasker was the most perceptive in recognizing Rubinstein's genius: "The fact of Rubinstein redeems the tournament," he wrote. "If Rubinstein keeps what his courage, prudence, and imagination promise the tournament at Ostend will long be remembered as his début on the international stage."

Lasker's chief complaint about Ostend was that the older players couldn't withstand the challenges of the playing schedule, but one who did was 58-year-old Amos Burn. Burn seemed like a fossil from another era - his chief successes were in the 1880s and he had a creaky, pre-classical style that connected all the way back to the chess school of Howard Staunton.

Burn. Liverpool Museum.

Burn made it all the way to the finals and finished in shared fourth - the greatest triumph of his long career, which prompted an outpouring of somewhat undue praise. "Burn shows himself here - and we know few of his games where the same remark may not be made - as an artist of fine sensibilities," Lasker wrote grandiloquently in his comments to one of Burn's games.

In the spirit of the 'chess fair,' I'll give a few fairly random games - a win by Marshall, who made it to the final round, and then two by Oldrich Duras, who was eliminated early on but played jaw-dropping chess. 

And the winners of the top brilliancy prizes: 

And a couple of miniatures:

And the crosstable for the final round:
British Chess Magazine 1906