A Century of Chess: Semmering 1926
Semmering 1926

A Century of Chess: Semmering 1926

| 6

Probably no other chess player has been as consistently amusing to his grandmaster cohort as Rudolf Spielmann. Spielmann was, by all accounts, a very simple person — the last person, really, whom one would expect to be a high-achieving mental athlete. To Reuben Fine, Spielmann's "main concern in life, apart from chess, was to accumulate enough money to buy limitless quantities of beer." To William Napier, Spielmann played "like an educated cave man who fell asleep several thousand years ago and woke up quite recently in the Black Forest." 


Part of what was puzzling about Spielmann was the wide variety of his results. He finished fourth from last at Gothenburg, last at Berlin, shared second at Bad Pistyan, shared first at Teplitz-Schonau, fifth from last at Vienna, shared last at Karlsbad, ninth at Maerisch-Ostrau, eleventh at Baden-Baden, seventh at Marienbad, seventh at Moscow, and apparently was a late addition to the invite list at Semmering where, out of nowhere, he took clear first in the result of his career. 

Spielmann with Gilg

The tournament was a real horse race with Tartakower leading most of the way and then overpressing in the tournament's last games. Spielmann, scoring 3.5 out of the last 4, overtook the other leaders. For Richard Réti, there was something fundamentally flawed in Spielmann's play — "he obtained his best results against weaker players who lost their heads in weakened positions" — but with Spielmann it wasn't all miniatures and gambits. He was able to obtain an initiative in any type of position and had an ability to stay a psychological step ahead of his opponents. 

Alekhine finished in second but it was clear that he was moving into a new stage of his career in which his play had a tightly-coiled ferocity and he was able to pack in more aggression in his games than anyone else. His victory over Rubinstein, in particular, is terrifying. 

Later in his career, Alekhine would remark that to win a game from him you had to beat him three times — in the opening, middlegame, and ending. That was certainly true for his losses in this tournament — with the Austrian master Karl Gilg playing the game of his life against him; and with Aron Nimzowitsch playing out of his mind in their game. 

Milan Vidmar had been a missing piece of 1920s chess. He had been busy with his academic career and had played in only one major tournament in the early 1920s, but he picked up right where he left off, with his witty, precise play, utterly unaffected by the hypermodern revolution. He was also one of the great chess writers ever and his reappearance on the tournament scene helps to give us an eyewitness commentary on '20s chess. 

Cartoon of Vidmar

Sources: Games of this tournament are analyzed in Alekhine's My Best Games of Chess and Réti's Masters of the Chessboard. simaginfan translates Vidmar's notes here.  Edward Winter has photos from the tournament here