A Century of Chess: The Hague 1921
The Hague, 1921

A Century of Chess: The Hague 1921

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A thrilling race between Alekhine and Rubinstein with the atmosphere of a semi-final — a struggle to determine the most likely challenger to Capablanca. Rubinstein had been Lasker’s heir presumptive since 1908 or 1909. He’d been surpassed by Capablanca but at the time war broke out Rubinstein was in negotiations for a world championship match. The 1921 Capablanca-Lasker match finally cleared up the question of the world title after the long delay, with Lasker shifting into semi-retirement and Rubinstein and Alekhine becoming the obvious challengers. Rubinstein had seniority, and Capablanca had made a verbal promise to Rubinstein that he would play him in a match if he could raise the money. Alekhine had made his move just before World War I — taking third place at St Petersburg 1914 where Rubinstein failed to qualify for the final round. He had also just won the strong Budapest tournament.

Rubinstein lost in the first round to Tartakower and responded by changing his style completely: clearly, he was mindful of his competitive difficulty (as at St Petersburg 1914) in recovering from a tournament deficit, and, needing to gain lost ground in a short tournament, he switched to the King’s Gambit as white and went in for early complications as black. It’s a rare sight to have this stolid player suddenly playing madcap chess — a bit like Kramnik’s unexpectedly wild play at the 2018 Candidates — and a demonstration of just how strong and versatile Rubinstein really was. He won six games in a row, which was barely enough to catch Alekhine’s similarly torrid pace. In addition to the unexpected King’s Gambits and piece sacrifices, it’s worth playing over Rubinstein’s long endgames from the late rounds (a win over Yates and a draw with Maróczy) in which he displayed a Fischer-like determination to win no matter how few resources were left on the board. 

Alekhine meanwhile was showing himself to be in a class really of his own, outplaying his opponents in every phase of the game — most impressive was his patient defensive effort against Marco and his endgame against Yates, which altered conventional thinking about the value of a queenside majority. 

Before the last round, Alekhine had 7 points, while Rubinstein and Tartakower — who was at a high point in his career — were tied with 6.5. Alekhine and Rubinstein were paired, meaning that the most Tartakower could hope for was shared first place if he won and the others drew. Tartakower drew colorlessly against Maróczy. Rubinstein played a bit eccentrically on the black side of a Queen’s Gambit Declined, evidently hoping for complications. Alekhine solved the opening problem neatly, delaying his development and obtaining an overwhelming position by move 13. Rubinstein found some defensive resources by sacrificing the exchange but Alekhine reached a won endgame and had the satisfaction of delivering checkmate. 

The result — one of the more dramatic last-round encounters of the era — seemed to put an end to Rubinstein’s world championship aspirations. He was gradually on the decline from that point forward and never really in the world championship conversation again (he was unable to raise the funds for his match challenge), while Alekhine moved from success to success, steadily closing the gap between himself and Capablanca.

In terms of openings, the masters took a break from hypermodern innovation to explore semi-open games. The theoretical line of this tournament was the Nimzowitsch Sicilian, along with the Dutch, which was Tartakower’s principal weapon. Rubinstein’s switch to the King’s Gambit must have been heartening for Romantic players.

Savielly Tartakower's enduring reputation as the chess world's leading wit has, curiously enough, led to a certain overshadowing of his playing ability, but he was particularly dangerous in tournaments around this time: between 1920 and 1922, he finished in the winners' circle at five major international tournaments. 

The bottom of the crossable was crowded with Yates’ nightmare of a tournament rivaling Euwe’s. Euwe was clearly a rising talent by 1921 but he was frequently made to look silly by the top masters. 

Yates had an unimaginably awful result, losing his first eight games and being saved from total humiliation only by a last-round victory over the local player Davidson. Maróczy’s shared fourth place was something of a disappointment — it was clear, in his return to chess, that he wasn’t the player he had been before his retirement in 1908. He lacked his old ability to grind out narrow advantages and he seemed to be a strong but second-tier master, skilled in the endgame and unexpectedly eager to take up hypermodern experiments.