A Century of Chess: Vienna 1922
Rubinstein v. Tartakower, 1922

A Century of Chess: Vienna 1922

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At his competitive peak in the early 1910s, Akiba Rubinstein was, famously, a pure positional player, the master craftsman of the architecturally-sound position, the high priest of 1.d4, the connoisseur of rook endgames — playing out, in a celebrated description, the rook endgame of a game started by God against himself a thousand years earlier. Rubinstein’s approach brought him his best competitive results — notably, his record of four tournament wins in 1912 — and nearly took him to the world championship, but to a spectator’s eyes there’s something anemic and foreshortened about his play: he seems to have one specialty, the even, apparently quiet endgame, and to be able to outplay all of his opponents who had apparently neglected that part of their chess education. World War I stole Rubinstein’s best chance to challenge for the world championship. His few results around the time of the war showed marks of decline: a weak performance at St Petersburg 1914 (apparently still fatigued from his exertions in 1912), a sloppy match with Schlechter in 1918, a disastrous tournament at Berlin in 1918, then a few tepid outings in the post-war years, second at Gothenburg 1920, third at The Hague 1921, fourth at London 1922. "Formerly, Rubinstein never played so anxiously," wrote Géza Maróczy after London.  He was still the presumptive world championship challenger, with a challenge delivered to Capablanca but very little chance of raising the needed funds and falling behind his rival Alekhine.

In 1922 a new Rubinstein emerged, playing the King’s Gambit with white and sharp tactical chess. This new Rubinstein cut an odd figure — a bit like the hyper-aggressive Kramnik of 2018 — and he may well have been livening up his play for the purposes of the world championship purse, but his results were intriguing, taking four of seven brilliancy prizes at Teplitz-Schönau. Then, at Vienna 1922, Rubinstein put together, from a playing standpoint, the supreme result of his career, defeating a strong playing field by a point and a half and creating games that perfectly balanced a positional and tactical sensibility. For a student learning chess there may be no better place to start than Rubinstein’s games at Vienna 1922, a crystallization of everything that classical chess was about. 

Meanwhile, with Rubinstein at his apogee, his rival, Alekhine, hit one of the great crises of his career. I haven’t been able to find a clear report on what happened, but he evidently had some kind of psychological episode. After his loss to Grünfeld — a failed effort to refute his opponent’s namesake opening — he hurled his king across the tournament hall. He made an elementary blunder to lose a pawn against his arch-rival Rubinstein. He was on the receiving end of Richard Réti's "Immortal Draw." Edmond Lancel, a Belgian chess player, claimed that, shortly before the tournament, Alekhine attempted to kill himself. "Around three o'clock in the morning, without any warning whatsoever, in the grand hall of the hotel, which was deserted except for my partner and myself, Alekhine suddenly tried to commit suicide in a moment of despair by stabbing himself in the stomach and fell unconscious at my feet." This report isn’t corroborated anywhere else, but there is no real reason to doubt it — as Jeremy Silman notes, Lancel really was a friend of Alekhine's and a "credible" figure — and, if nothing else, his play and behavior at Vienna show him to have been in a disturbed state. 

Tartakower who was at the peak of his career challenged for first place. He had become a specialist in fast starts, starting the tournament with 6.5 out of 7. 

The long-forgotten Heinrich Wolf, a strong player of the 1900s, had the result of his career, finishing in third place in a starry field. 

Hypermodern ideas continued to infiltrate the chess mainstream. The Grünfeld Defense had a good showing (while further unsettling Alekhine's addled mind). Alekhine's Defense and every one of the "Indian" formations (King's, Queen's, Old, and Bogo) made an appearance at the tournament.

Sources: Larry Evans wrote a book on Vienna 1922. Edward Winter covers the story of Alekhine's suicide attempt here. Tartakower writes amusingly on the tournament in The Hypermodern Game of Chess