Features Jan 10, 2014 | 1:22 AMby Colin McGourty

St Petersburg 1914: Chess on the brink of war

The BBC is marking the centenary of World War One with a series of radio essays looking back at the major European capitals on the eve of war. When it came to St. Petersburg chess took centre stage, with Steve Rosenberg visiting the flat that hosted 1914's famous chess tournament. The world’s best players talked of peace, but “it wasn't the masters of chess who would shape the future”. 

In 1917 the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg saw the climax of the Russian Revolution | photo (in 2012): Eteri Kublashvili

Let's first take a look at events from a purely chess perspective: 

Three World Champions

The tournament to mark the 10th anniversary of the St. Petersburg Chess Society was one of the strongest ever held. It began with a preliminary event won by the Cuban star Jose Raul Capablanca ahead of World Champion Emanuel Lasker, still rusty after a five-year break from the game:

#Player1234567891011Total
1 José Raúl Capablanca (Cuba)*½½1½1½11118
2 Emanuel Lasker (German Empire)½*½½½01½111
3 Siegbert Tarrasch (German Empire)½½*½½1½1101
4 Alexander Alekhine (Russian Empire)0½½*1½1½½½16
5 Frank James Marshall (United States)½½½0*1½½11½6
6 Ossip Bernstein (Russian Empire)010½0*½½½115
7 Akiba Rubinstein (Russian Empire)½0½0½½*½½115
8 Aron Nimzowitsch (Russian Empire)0½0½½½½*0½14
9 Joseph Henry Blackburne (United Kingdom)000½0½½1*01
10 Dawid Janowski (France)001½000½1*½
11 Isidor Gunsberg (United Kingdom)0000½0000½*1

The top five qualified for the main tournament starting on the 21st April, 1914. The scores were carried over, and Capablanca - the Magnus Carlsen of his era in terms of natural ability - looked set to cruise to victory until he lost to the World Champion in the penultimate round. 

In his book "Modern Chess Preparation", Vladimir Tukmakov uses that game to characterise Emanuel Lasker’s ability to unsettle his opponents:

His famous game against Capablanca in the 1914 St. Petersburg tournament is the best illustration of the new approach. The young Cuban, who was confidently leading the tournament, needed only not to lose with Black against the current World Champion in order to claim overall tournament victory. Everyone expected Lasker to play aggressively, but the opening variation he chose turned out to be a complete surprise to everyone, including his opponent. It seemed that for Capablanca, already back then considered a first-class master of play in simple positions, there would be no difficulty defending Black’s position. However, it all turned out to be much more complicated.

You can play through the game below:

1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 a6 4. ♗xc6 dxc6 5. d4 exd4 6. ♕xd4 ♕xd4 7. ♘xd4 ♗d6 8. ♘c3 ♘e7 9. 0-0 0-0 10. f4 ♖e8 11. ♘b3 f6 12. f5 b6 13. ♗f4 ♗b7 14. ♗xd6 cxd6 15. ♘d4 ♖ad8 16. ♘e6 ♖d7 17. ♖ad1 ♘c8 18. ♖f2 b5 19. ♖fd2 ♖de7 20. b4 ♔f7 21. a3 ♗a8 22. ♔f2 ♖a7 23. g4 h6 24. ♖d3 a5 25. h4 axb4 26. axb4 ♖ae7 27. ♔f3 ♖g8 28. ♔f4 g6 29. ♖g3 g5+ 30. ♔f3 ♘b6 31. hxg5 hxg5 32. ♖h3 ♖d7 33. ♔g3 ♔e8 34. ♖dh1 ♗b7 35. e5 dxe5 36. ♘e4 ♘d5 37. ♘6c5 ♗c8 38. ♘xd7 ♗xd7 39. ♖h7 ♖f8 40. ♖a1 ♔d8 41. ♖a8+ ♗c8 42. ♘c5

1-0

Shattered by that blow, Capablanca lost again in the final round to allow Lasker to clinch overall victory:

#PlayerPrel.12345Total
1 Emanuel Lasker (German Empire)**½1111113½
2 José Raúl Capablanca (Cuba)8½0**½1101113
3 Alexander Alekhine (Russian Empire)60½0**1110
4 Siegbert Tarrasch (German Empire)10**
5 Frank James Marshall (United States)600**8

Lasker would hold onto the title for another 7 years until Capablanca finally defeated him in a match in Havana, Cuba in 1921. The tournament in St. Petersburg also announced Russia's Alexander Alekhine on a world stage - he would later defeat Capablanca in 1927 to become the Fourth World Chess Champion.

Door into history

Firuza Seidova: "Back then all sorts came through my kitchen. The Emperor Nicholas was here, Sergei Prokofiev, too, and some of the most famous names in the history of chess." | photo: BBC


A century later Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow Correspondent, tracked down the tournament venue and was invited into the flat of Firuza Seidova. He gives a fascinating account of both the city and the chess scene in that last spring before the carnage of World War One (note Alekhine is transcribed as "Alyokhin" below):

One hundred years ago, Firuza Seidova's flat was the headquarters of the St Petersburg Chess Society. The kitchen door is all that's left of the original rooms - the last surviving link to an intriguing story.

It was spring 1914. And to mark its 10th anniversary, the St Petersburg Chess Society organised a tournament for some of the greatest players on the planet. Not everyone could make it. Chess stars from Austria-Hungary had to decline their invitations, because of pre-war tension with Russia.

Nevertheless, the list of competitors was impressive.

The favourite was from Germany: the world champion for the last 20 years, Emanuel Lasker - such an elegant, inspirational player that the St Petersburg press dubbed him "the poet of the chess table". His main rival was the man soon to be hailed as "the human chess machine", the flamboyant Cuban diplomat Jose Raul Capablanca.

From England came the heavy-drinking Mancunian Joseph Blackburne (nickname "The Black Death"). From America, top tactician Frank Marshall. Representing Russia, the attacking Alexander Alyokhin. And there they all were, fighting it out in Firuza's flat.

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 venue wasn't nearly big enough for the crowds that came. One journalist complained that "the stuffiness and the heat were almost tropical".

And this is how newspaper Novoe Vremya described the atmosphere:

"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."

And yet, in this stifling, smoky hell of a chess club, there was a feeling that something very special was being forged from the intellectual tussles taking place here, something which transcended chess, something great that would change the world for the better. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg "the noble game of chess" would "promote the idea of world peace".

In the journal Rech, Emanuel Lasker went even further. He seemed to imply that the competitors would be thinking so hard about their chess moves that, somewhere along the way, they would think up a whole "new set of values" for mankind. A very lofty, rather ambitious thought.

But even "chess poets" and "human chess machines" need some down time. So one day the competitors were treated to a tour of St Petersburg. And what they would have seen that day would have made them feel very much at home. For St Petersburg was Russia's most cosmopolitan city, a capital created with one purpose - to make Russia look like Europe.


Dragonflies and impending doom

Rosenberg goes on to describe the reality of a “violent city”, reaching the following climax before switching back to chess:

There were strikes at factories, arrests of suspected revolutionaries. More than anything, there was a sense of impending doom. On 19 May, St Petersburg was invaded by dragonflies, a bizarre infestation of biblical proportions - the skies, the streets and the River Neva were teeming with insects. Many people in the city saw it as a terrifying omen.

This was a very different St Petersburg from the city experienced by the stars of the 1914 chess tournament - they were treated to concerts, lavish banquets and presented with gilded wine glasses specially made by Faberge. Locked in their intellectual bubble, the players could think grand thoughts about changing the world. But outside, the world was changing anyway, and it wasn't the masters of chess who would shape the future.

One week before the dragonflies descended, Lasker was declared chess champion of St Petersburg. That summer, there was another international chess competition, in Mannheim, Germany. It featured 11 players from the Russian empire.

By this time, though, few people believed in the power of chess to change the world. After round 11 of the Mannheim tournament, Germany declared war on Russia. All the Russian players were arrested and imprisoned, including the future world champion, Alyokhin. Later he'd be put in solitary confinement for smiling at a guard.

Alekhine was nearly executed amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution, but survived, emigrated to France and joined Lasker and Capablanca in dominating the interwar years. The latter two died within a year of each other in New York during World War II, while Alekhine was still the reigning World Champion when he was found dead in a hotel room in Portugal in 1946.

His memory has lived on, however. 2013 saw the inaugural Alekhine Memorial, a supertournament split between the Louvre Museum, Paris and the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

The stage in St. Petersburg, with images of Alekhine behind and above the players. World no. 2 Levon Aronian emerged victorious | photo: Alekhine Memorial

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