A Century of Chess: Siegbert Tarrasch (from 1910-19)
Drawing of Tarrasch

A Century of Chess: Siegbert Tarrasch (from 1910-19)

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Siegbert Tarrasch started the 1910s with something very close to an idyllic, maximally secure existence. He had five children, a successful medical practice in Munich, and for a hobby was one of the three or four best chess players in the world.

If Tarrasch had convincingly lost a world championship match to Lasker in 1908, that was no great loss to him personally — he remained a formidable match and tournament player and was respected as the Praeceptor Germaniae (the 'Teacher of Germany') — with a dedicated following among the chess faithful. 

The confident young grandmaster

And then Tarrasch’s life collapsed around him. Sometime around 1911, his marriage broke up. His practice suffered a reverse. In 1912, his son Paul died by suicide. In 1915, his son Fritz was killed on the Western Front. In 1916, his son Hans was killed in a street car accident.

If there is something of a Thomas Mann novel in Tarrasch’s general misfortunes — the staid life suddenly becoming unstuck — the source material here is more obviously The Book of Job. Even in chess — which, as Tarrasch famously wrote, “has the power to make men happy” — the decade was unkind to him. When he should have been in the silver years of his career, he found himself instead a cause célèbre, if not an object of ridicule, with the hypermodern players (Nimzowitsch at their head) depicting him as the epitome of everything that had ossified within classical chess.

Tarrasch brought the criticism on himself. He was dogmatic, conceited, completely convinced of his own rightness — and had been unpopular for years with other masters for his pomposity. He decried Nimzowitsch as "having a preference for strange, bizarre, even hideous moves in the opening from which he has been lucky from this time" and shouldn't have been too surprised when Nimzowitsch, in turn, accused him of being "mediocre — a strong player, yes, but all his views, sympathies and antipathies, and inability to create new thoughts: all that obviously proved the mediocrity of his personality." Actually, as Nimzowitsch wrote in a stinging memoir, "the needed impetus towards my chess strategy revolution was Tarrasch himself" and he credited Tarrasch with providing him the needed "enmity" to drive his own improvement. 

But one can understand Tarrasch’s perspective on the hypermodern questions. He really had been among the best in the world for close to 30 years. His very simple, very logical approach to the game worked  — he established a solid position, bid for space, and eventually, when his opponent’s position was constricted enough, it would crack like a nut. Tarrasch won game after game and tournament after tournament with that approach — and there would have been absolutely no reason for him to think that a few second-tier masters, like Nimzowitsch, Breyer, Réti, would have magically discovered a ‘new way to play.’ What’s more, Tarrasch continued to have good successes against them: his devastating attack against a typically idiosyncratic setup by Nimzowitsch at St Petersburg 1914 may well have been the game of the tournament. 

But the sense, in playing over Tarrasch’s games from the decade, is of encountering someone who is no longer truly themselves. If in 1914, he qualified with ease out of the preliminaries, he was suddenly overmatched by the world’s elite in the finals. In a charity match played with Lasker, in 1916, he was badly outclassed. And in a quadrangular 1918 tournament, he finished dead last. What’s more, it’s possible, in his play, to detect hints of self-doubt. He had been absolutely convinced of the theoretical correctness of the Tarrasch Defense — and was forced to watch it suffer blow after blow from innovative white setups through the decade. And, by the end of the decade, he himself seemed to be drifting away from it and even from his own classical precepts — in a 1918 game with Rubinstein, for instance, he played an Old Benoni, exactly the sort of setup that he had criticized, in a game of Nimzowitsch’s, as the “most hideous way possible to play a chess game.”

For Tarrasch, life would never return to the tranquility that it had had before the war. He played in competitive chess through the ‘20s but his results were never very good — and he was apparently devastated by his non-invitation to New York 1924. Photos of him from this time depict someone very different — sadder and wiser — from the cocksure grandmaster of the early part of the century. If there was a mercy in his later years, it may well have been that he died in 1934, before the German-Jewish bourgeois existence, of which he was the personification, was utterly destroyed. 

The man of sorrows - in later life

Tarrasch's Style:

Bobby Fischer, an admirer of Tarrasch’s, wrote that his style was very different when he was younger: “In spite of devotion to his supposedly scientific method, his play was often witty and bright." But by the 1910s, he really had become a parody of himself. Every game seemed to be exactly the same, the slow build-up of a spatial advantage and then (unless a golden opportunity for an attack presented itself) the win of a pawn with a conversion in the endgame. It is easy to criticize the single-mindedness of this approach, but the truth is that Tarrasch did very well with it — and he proved that, as often as not, ultra-clever ‘constricted’ or ‘kinetic’ positions were in fact just passive and easily overrun. 

Tarrasch in the Opening:

Tarrasch was one of the greatest-ever exponents of the Ruy Lopez, which perfectly suited his style of steadily building up a spatial advantage with always-present hints of an attack. As black, he believed firmly in an early …c5 break and felt that the Tarrasch and Semi-Tarrasch Defenses must lead to equality in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. He may not have been wrong. Later generations of grandmasters — Spassky, for instance — shared his belief that the Tarrasch would lead to theoretical equality, but, in Tarrasch's era, Schlechter’s line with g3 and a series of innovations by Lasker seemed inevitably to saddle black with a vulnerable, isolated d-pawn. 

Sources: Edward Winter has a typically detailed write-up on Tarrasch here. Aron Nimzowitsch's 'How I Became A Grandmaster,' detailing the Tarrasch quarrel, is translated by Spektrowski here. It's annoyingly hard to find good information on Tarrasch's family online. André Schulz seems to have gotten ahold of some Tarrasch info that he cites in The Big Book of World Chess Championships.