A Century of Chess: St Petersburg 1914 (Part 1)
St Petersburg participants

A Century of Chess: St Petersburg 1914 (Part 1)

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This probably is the greatest single tournament ever held. It’s really amazing how often it comes up - in virtually all of the classical intro to chess books I've read; and then in places as far-flung as Twin Peaks’s second season, where the Lasker-Capablanca game helps Pete Martell thwart a killer.

The tournament acquired even more importance in hindsight. Played three months before the outbreak of war, it’s like a freeze-frame of the classical era; and (maybe unfairly) an opportunity to assess the true strengths of various players. Lasker’s win is the most enduring image of him. By 1914, he had moved from his persona as indomitable champion to a new role as old lion or wily fox - able to outwit players who were younger and in some cases more obviously talented than him. His famous victory over Capablanca in the tournament’s second half is sort of the epitome of the adage about ‘age and treachery defeating youth and skill’ - Lasker cunningly able to lead Capablanca into a position that set him unexpected problems. And, amidst all of Capablanca’s many successes, one of the lasting images of him is his sitting at the board for long minutes, head in hands, after the catastrophic defeat to Lasker. The sense with him - and this was magnified in the 1927 defeat to Alekhine - was that he was slightly lacking in competitive toughness and that that deficiency could be taken advantage of by the strongest of his rivals. The tournament also served - a bit cruelly - as the verdict on Akiba Rubinstein. He was the odds-on favorite to win the tournament - even Capablanca predicted that Rubinstein would win. But he was clearly out-of-form, drawing too many of his early games and then losing to Lasker and Alekhine and failing to qualify for the final round. With the outbreak of the war, the planned world championship match with Lasker was indefinitely postponed - and, even though Rubinstein would remain an elite player for the next two decades, this failure at St Petersburg in some way served as his final legacy. 

St Petersburg large group

If the tournament seems even more significant in retrospect, it was nonetheless regarded at the time as momentous. “One has to rub his eyes more than once to make sure he is not dreaming,” wrote the editors of the American Chess Bulletin upon viewing the tournament list. The tournament coincided with an outbreak of chess fever in Russia, and, as a contemporary witness described the tournament in a BBC retrospective, “For one glorious month Europe seemed to forget it was on the precipice of war and was transfixed by battles on the chessboards of St Petersburg. Each move, every twist and turn in this grand tournament was transmitted back across the continent by an army of reporters.” The Novoe Vremya described the packed playing hall: "Spectators were packed in unceremoniously like sardines in a barrel. They craned their necks; they stood on tiptoes, even on chairs so they could see the play….and the room was so thick with tobacco smoke, it was like a mortuary where they're busy cutting up corpses." In the uneasy atmosphere of 1914, the tournament seemed to offer a reprieve from politics. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg "the noble game of chess" would "promote the idea of world peace". Lasker went even further. Writing in the journal Rech, he implied that the players in the depths of contemplating their moves would think up a whole "new set of values" for mankind. The composer Sergei Prokofiev, a chess addict, has a really wonderful set of diary entries on the tournament and described the atmosphere of the tournament as “an enchanted realm alive with the most unbelievable activity, a top-level affair, everyone in tailcoats, and the masters themselves each surrounded by a crowd of admirers.”

A certain sumptuousness was the order of the day. The tournament was organized by the Saburovs, a prominent diplomatic family, and with the tsar himself contributing to the prize fund. The masters were treated to concerts, lavish banquets, and were presented with Fabergé wine glasses. That sumptuousness may well have proved the difference, actually. Capablanca, described by Prokofiev as “an utterly irresistible person, lively, handsome, quick-witted,” made such an impression on the women of St Petersburg that the newspapers alluded fairly directly to Capablanca’s “other interests," and a Mme Strakhovich, among others, was widely held be the cause of the drop-off in Capablanca’s play in the tournament’s second half. 


The tournament was such an event that - for the first time - I’m splitting my writing on it in half and showing only the games from the preliminary round here. There were some design quirks in the tournament’s construction that, in the end, made it only more memorable. The St Petersburg Chess Club had the curious idea of inviting only living masters who had won an international tournament - which made the invite list include such fossils as Max Weiss and Szymon Winawer. In the end, Joseph Blackburne and Isidor Gunsberg, both long past their prime, participated and contributed to a certain unevenness in the quality of play. Invitations did go out to some of the younger chess stars, but Maróczy, Schlechter, Duras, Vidmar, Spielmann, Tartakower all declined, and Teichmann canceled at the last moment. Papers at the time described it as a ‘strike’ among chess players. Later reports claim that, given diplomatic tensions, the Austro-Hungarian and German players were reluctant to play in a tournament in Russia. But, even with the absentees and the mixed quality of the field, the tournament came across like an Interzonal, Candidates, and (very short) World Championship all in one - and with the results of the preliminary round proving the critical determinant in who really was considered the absolute elite. 

Capablanca and Lasker

Miquel Sanchez, Capablanca’s biographer, wrote that “It is difficult to find a collection of games of such serene harmony as those played by Capablanca in the preliminary round at St Petersburg.” He scored 8/10, “appeared to be playing quite effortlessly,” as Grigory Levenfish recalled. Capablanca later estimated that he “had reached the height of his powers as a chess master at this time,” while Alekhine commented, “Never before or afterwards have I seen - and I cannot even imagine as well - such a flabbergasting quickness of chess comprehension as that possessed by the Capablanca of that epoch.” Capablanca's wins in this round are a master class in efficient positional play and accurate calculation. 

Lasker, meanwhile, lost to Osip Bernstein and needed to win his final two games of the preliminary round - part of his streak of 8.5/10 to conclude the tournament - to be sure of being part of the group of five to qualify for the finals. Tarrasch started the joke - when it looked like both Lasker and Rubinstein wouldn’t qualify - that while everybody else was playing in the final the two of them could contest the world championship match off in some side room. 

Tarrasch was in some ways the unsung hero of this tournament. He was past his peak in 1914 and already the favorite punching bag of the hypermoderns, but he put in the best result of the second half of his career, qualifying for the finals without difficulty. His double bishop sacrifice against Nimzowitsch was the fan favorite game of the preliminary round, and Tarrasch created a (very) minor international incident in his rage that the game hadn't been awarded the brilliancy prize. “Burn [the judge of the brilliancy prize committee] is a sober Englishman lacking in artistic taste who measures a game by the weight of the sacrificed pieces,” Tarrasch wrote in a furious objection. 

Alekhine quietly qualified for the finals, evincing an ability to secure draws against top players. Levenfish wrote that his play was the “big surprise of the tournament….it had become obvious that he was moving confidently into the first rank of grandmasters.” 

Marshall had a slow start but found his footing just in time to qualify. Prokofiev, who turns out really to have been a fantastic writer, described him as “a typical Yankee, with a touch of Sherlock Holmes about him, ferociously passionate in play but ludicrously taciturn in private.” 

Early on, it looked like the tournament might be Osip Bernstein’s. He had a fast start and defeated Lasker and Janowski, but his rustiness got the better of him. 

Rubinstein’s failure to qualify was the great story of the preliminary round. Levenfish, assisting the tournament committee in finding accommodations for the players, knew that something was up when Rubinstein asked to be switched out of a luxury hotel because the sound of the elevator bothered him and then vacated the apartment he was moved into because he found the quiet oppressive. “It was clear to me that Akiba's nervous system had become weakened, and this did not bode well for the future,” wrote Levenfish. Rubinstein started the tournament carefully, drawing his first games but then lost to Lasker and Alekhine and couldn’t recover. "He is like a marksman whose hand suddenly trembles and whose bullet therefore does not hit home," wrote Lasker.

Nimzowitsch, who together with Alekhine had qualified through a tough all-Russian tournament, was a disappointment - coming nowhere near the final round. Prokofiev described him amusingly as “a combative vegetarian, a typical German student and trouble-maker.”

Prokofiev supplies the interesting piece of information that Janowski had been a deserter from the army in his youth and needed special dispensation to play in Russia. He was a non-entity in this tournament.

Blackburne and Gunsberg were, as Prokofiev writes, “destined to be the victims of all.” That was the case for Gunsberg, of whom the best that could be said was that he was a good sport through all his losses and “politely congratulated everyone who defeated him.” Blackburne, on the other hand, although 72 years old and easygoing about his health regimen, was a pivotal spoiler, ruining both Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch’s tournaments - holding Rubinstein to a draw in a game he had to win and earning a ‘special brilliancy prize’ for a game against Nimzowitsch.

The contrast in results between the teetotaling, non-smoking Gunsberg and the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Blackburne led to some bemused disquisitions on proper health care techniques. Nimzowitsch in particular was incensed that the rum toddy Blackburne kept by his side throughout their game kept disappearing - and believed that the fumes of the toddy kept he, Nimzowitsch, from properly concentrating. Finishing the game, Nimzowitsch fulminated, “Der alte ganif hat mich beschwindelt" (“the old scoundrel has swindled me”) and Blackburne had to do considerable linguistic work to learn what ganif meant and to decide if he needed to challenge Nimzowitsch. 

Sources: There are many sources available on St Petersburg. I haven't been able to access Tarrasch's tournament book. There's a separate tournament book here. Capablanca, Alekhine, Marshall all discuss the tournament in their chess memoirs. The tournament is written about extensively by Skjoldager and Nielsen in their biography of Nimzowitsch, by Sanchez in his biography of Capablanca, by Tim Harding in his biography of Blackburne, by Soltis in his biography of Lasker, by Donaldson and Minev in their biography of Rubinstein. Edward Winter discusses the Saburovs here. There's a Chessbase retrospective on the tournament here, a BBC retrospective here. Levenfish's memoirs of the tournament are excerpted here and Prokofiev's here