On Akiba Rubinstein

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Nov 12, 2007, 2:23 AM |
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There was a short piece Viva Akiba about Akiba Rubinstein on this site.  The truth of the matter is that his life was truly tragic: he abandoned the way of life of his ancestors in order to pursue chess. And lost... Here is an article by Carl Jacobs from this site:

When Akiba Rubinstein was born at Stawiski, a squalid ghetto in the Polish province of Lomza in 1882, family tradition had already set out the course of his life. For generations his ancestors had been rabbis and scholars of the Hebrew classics, devoted to intensive cultivation of the mind inspite of unrelenting povery and physical privation.

There was no question that the boy, growing up in the house of his grandparents, would become a Hebrew scholar and teacher of the Talmud, even as his father who had died just before his birth and his grandfather were before him.

At 16, however, young Rubinstein’s life took a sudden and, as it turned out, tragic turn once he had tasted the artistic excitement of chess. He first saw the game being played by two students of the “Yeshiva”, a higher academy of religious instruction at Lomza. As destiny would have it, he became instantly fascinated with the creative dynamics of chess which, to the dismay and anguish of his family, became the ruling passion of his life.

Study of the Torah, love of the Talmud, faded into an evanescent dream as he now spent most of his waking hours over a chessboard, exploring the intricacies of this ancient sport. His grandparents noted and mourned. They cursed the inexplicable alchemy in whose toils the boy had become enmeshed. His mother prayed daily for the Lord to bring her erring son back to the well trodden paths.

But Rubinstein was lost to the family tradition; he had succumbed to the charms of a mistress from whose embrace his life could never more be sundered.

From the petty glory of the Polish ghetto and a routine humdrum existence, he had chosen a path which was to lead to world-wide renown and a soul-racking ambition which, tragically, was never to be fulfilled.

After an uncertain start, the 19-year-old ex-student scored his first notable victory against chess master Salwe living in the nearby town of Lodz. A year later, he was sent to the Russian National Tourney at Kiev where he won the fifth prize. In 1905, he entered the international arena and at Barmen won his spurs in the German Chess Association, tying with Duras for third prize in one of the major tournaments.

From here Rubinstein proceeded to scale the pinnacle of chess in competition among the great, leaving such giants as Bernstein, Teichmann, Marshall, Janowski and the whole array of Russian talent trailing behind. At Ostend he shared first prize with Bernstein and, with this victory, he broke the supremacy of the so-called Lasker Pleiades, that is the generation of grandmasters who were contemporaries of Lasker and who had set the standard in world chess since 1890.

At St Petersberg in 1909 the Polish master demonstrated his full equality with world champion Lasker whom he defeated in their individual encounter. In fact, it was not until the last round that Lasker’s score matched his own, so that both shared the first prize.

His great year of triumph, however, came in 1912. In a period of 12 months Rubinstein won no less than five consecutive first prizes in international competition, at San Sebastian, Pistyan, Breslau, Warsaw and Vilna, a record that was then unprecedented. It had now become clear to the whole world that Rubinstein was to be the next champion. A match for the title was scheduled to be held in the spring of 1914 between Lasker and Rubinstein. The chess world waited expectantly.

But the great hope of the Polish grandmaster to wear the mantle of world champion was shattered by the outbreak of war in Europe. Together with millions, Rubinstein did not emerge from the Great War unscathed. When the conflict was over, he was no longer the triumphant hero anxious to contest for the world title. The soul of the sensitive chess master was sorely tried by the ravages and hardships of the war years. Gone was the confidence and inner harmony so essential for the supreme effort of a chess artist.

Ever modest and retiring, his shyness had become an obsession to the point of a mental aberration. He suffered from an inferiority complex, deeming himself superfluous, no longer a necessary adjunct to every great tournament.

Commenting on his decline, one contemporary writes: “Rubinstein’s character is too noble for the rough and tumble of life. His colleagues know best the splendour of his personality, his consideration for others. So solicitous is he that his opponent is not disturbed in his reflection, that as a matter of principle, he leaves the board after each move, and only returns after his adversary has completed his play. Naturally much time is lost thereby, and his own thinking suffers, and many a surprising loss of Rubinstein can no doubt be attributed to this factor.”

Nevertheless, Rubinstein’s games throb with the zeal of the artist, revealing the throes and pains of the creator, all of which are held in check by a judicial appraisal, a calm logic. According to B.F. Winkelman, writing an appraisal in 1941, only the games of Capablanca reach a higher standard of perfection. “This is the great feature of his play - its great strategic strength. He is never superficial, never cheap or tawdry. He is never seeking merely to win, but always to create “a work of art”. He never plays to the score or to the weakness of his opponent, but ever to the board and to give us his best.”

There can be little doubt, says Winkelman, that Rubinstein has added more to the present status of chess theory and technique than any other master since Steinitz. More innovations in the openings and more of the lines that are today recognized as the ultimate in correctness and strength can be traced to his genius and originality than can be ascribed to any other master.

Winkelman, at the time of his writing, also rated Rubinstein as “the greatest end-game player of all time, if not indeed, the most finished master we have known.”

This comment from Reuben Fine seems a fitting epitaph for the ill-starred grandmaster: “We are filled with a sense of the tragic when we review Rubinstein’s career. Here is a man who might have been champion but was never given the chance. More important, in so many of his games we are carried away by their classic perfection and feel impelled to say, better chess cannot be played by mortal man.”