The 1909 St. Petersburg tournament was one of the greatest chess events in the history of modern chess.
It will soon be almost EXACTLY 102 years ago (as I write these lines) that the St. Petersburg International Chess Congress will have taken place. The opening ceremony was on the 14th of February at 8pm, with the first round the following morning at 11am, and took place over a 3 week period. The World Champion Lasker and Akiba Rubinstein tied for first place, with the latter having the distinction of winning their individual encounter.
I have always been interested in chess history. Strongly influenced , undoubtedly, by my position that the best chess has already been played! Today (2009) we have so many ‘professional’ players who seem more interested in winning (or drawing, if the truth be known) with as little risk and over-the-board work as possible, that I feel the game has today lost a good part of its sporting/aesthetic value.
Besides, when a Kramnik (whom I really admire) plays (for example) an Anand (whom I also really admire), as they did last October for the World Championship, how excited can we spectators become (?): they had played 112 times previously!! One could rightly argue that a world record was more on the line than the World Title (!)….and I am sure that a good many chess fan agree whole heartedly with me.
No, I make no apologies for my interest in the great players of the past, of their remarkable achievements and especially for their contribution to present day chess. I am less interested in seeing how many times modern masters can use the same methods (ie. copy the great masters of the past) to defeat their present day opponents!
The world today has many more strong players than in the past, and a lot of geniuses, but it is difficult to compare apples and oranges: the strongest players today are not stronger and how does one measure genius?What is undeniable, however, is that in today’s game memory plays a much bigger role. And information, databases, pre-game preparaton and frizt have all become a vital part of every weekend warrior’s weaponry.
Just recently I read about a coach who advised his student to study Alekhine’s games. The student balked:”Why should I? I will never play him!”
A picture of St.Petersburg from around the time the tournament took place. I have been unable to find out exactly where the St.Petersburg tournament took place. Perhaps the reader can enlighten me?
The organizing committee of the St. Petersburg 1909 Congress. Left to right: P.P. Saburov, Y.O.Sosnitsky, P.A.Sabruov, B.E.Maliutin
Apparently it was the Saburov family that was the real force behind the Congress. Quite a famous family, apparently. (Not to say wealthy) A photo of (left to right): Maljutin, Sossnitsky, S. Snosko-Borowski, P.P.Saburov, E.Snosko-Borowski and finally Tschudowski . Most have mustaches. I suppose that it is easier to tell them apart by their hairlines!
Another picture of St.Petersburg cerca 1909
The most important encounter of the tournament. Lasker lost a great game to a great player. It has been published perhaps more times than any other game up to present, especially the rook and pawn ending, which any endgame book would be proud to include (and usually do!)
I have often wondered if this photo was just a pose for the photographer. Both players seem a bit tense, and Rubinstein (I am sure) would not doodle with a chess piece during an actual game! Rubinstein would often be so concerned about not disturbing his opponent that he would go and stand away from the board when it was his opponent’s move!
After this tournament the chess world began to talk of a Lasker vs Rubinstein match for the World Title. To my mind , atleast, Rubinstein was the strongest tournament player of that period, winning virtually everything he played in, and playing beautiful chess at the same time. However, to be fair to Lasker, his real skill was in match play. As we know, the match never took place. The chess world, while they are never lacking in opinions, is rarely willing to put their money where their mouth is! (Sound familiar?!) Lasker wanted to be fairly compensated for putting up his title (remember: this is before FIDE existed), and Rubinstein could not find the financial backing necessary to get negotiations past the cordial part. But I digress!
One of the remarkable things about St. Petersburg is the tournament book itself. It was written by Lasker, with every single game being analyzed. Alekhine considered it one of the most important chess works in his personal formation. I find myself constantly referring to it in my own chess study!
The introduction (by Lasker himself) starts: ”This is a book in which analysis is accurate. The games in this book show the working of the mind of the master, and the commentary has been intended to guide the thought of him who plays over these games so that he may perceive weakness and merit. Notes have been made solely for that purpose…”
Fair enough, but there are a few errors in the analysis, as chess history has found. But on the whole Lasker did an excellent job, and this book remains one of the few high quality tournament books of our noble game.
One of my peeves about annotated games (today) is the fetish of variations: so many ‘best game collections’ of champions seem more intended to mesmerize the reader than to instruct, as Lasker obviously wanted to do. I think that one of the Kasparov vs Karpov games from the 1984-1986 period was annotated by Kasparov himself for 23 pages!
I mean, really, who is fooling who here? We already knew that Kasparov is a genius ( a decade before, atleast), so why is it necessary to seek immortality by finding the meaning of life in a game? I am very certain that neither player saw more than 3 or 4 pages of this nonsense, and that 99.99% of the readers would not even be interested in playing over the remaining 19 or 20 pages. It is just too much to ask for! It can be compared with gazing dreamily at a beautiful girl’s cleavage: it is not going to improve your vision no matter how hard you try!
Skin deep superficiality
So what is all this focus on pages and pages of computer-like print-out of variations of your game? EGO! No, I believe that the Lasker style of commentary and analysis , where the reader is allowed to perceive the mind of the master (instead of the absolute truth of the position) is the correct way to present games. Just my opinion.
This is a rare photo of pre-1917 Alekhine. Right before the Congress began, a very young Alexander Alekhine had just won the All Russian Amateur Tournament in St. Petersburg. His prize (a large vase) was donated by the Czar himself! Today it would be worth 100,000 dollars, atleast, on e-bay. (Popcorn you say!? Yes you are correct! Alekhine’s family was so wealthy, that on one visit to Monaco, Alekhine’s father is reported to have lost 1 million dollars on just one swirl of the roulette wheel…and he paid up!)
Curiously, this vase was the only possession that Alekhine could take with him when he finally decided to leave Russia and the Russian Revolution behind him.
From : http://giftconcordance.pbwiki.com/S
”St. Petersburg Chess Club: It is unclear whether or not the St. Petersburg Chess Club was indeed founded in January of 1862 as indicated in The Gift. One thing that occurred was the disbanding of the club by Russian police in June1862. It wasn’t re-established until somewhere in the late 1890s, purportedly by Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), Russia’s first world chess champion (http://chess.about.com/od/history/p/aa05g30.htm). In The Gift, “remembering that Lessing had got to know Mendelssohn over a chessboard, he [N. Chernyshevski] founded the St. Petersburg Chess Club.” What is interesting is that the shutting down of the club is mentioned, but in the context of the club being a front for what was “simply a literary and political circle…”(G265) and in conjunction with the St. Petersburg May fires (the club was actually shut down after the fires). This preceded Chernyshevski’s and Pisarev’s arrest in July.
“St. Petersburg fires”: aka the May Fires of 1862 where a set of fires caused by unexpected warm and dry weather. The fires began May 15 and lasted until the end of the month and devastated much of the Ligovka district in St. Petersburg. The biggest fire occurred May 28th which burned down the city’s largest trade centre: Apraksin Dvor. The actually cause of the fires was unknown, but rumours of arson began to spread, implicating the radicals, students or Poles. As a result, a Commission on Arson was implemented to investigate the reasons behind the fires. Consequently, a number government mandated crackdowns occurred that targeted the democratic community even though no plotter was ever found: N. A. Serno-Solovyevich’s book store was closed down, the Chess Club was abolished, publishing of the journals Sovremennik and Russkoe Slovo was halted for eight months. This also coincided with the arrests of: D.I. Pisarev, N.G. Chernyshevsky, Serno-Solovyevich and a number of other suspect literary men and students (G265).”
The time control of the St. Petersburg Chess Congress (1909) was interesting. I quote from the tournament book:
”8. Time for playing is five times a week, from 11 o’clock a.m. until 9 o’clock p.m., with an interval from 4 to 6 o’clock p.m. Before the adjournament the player whose turn it is to move must give his move in a closed envelope to the director of the tournament. The sixth day is reserved for the termination of adjourned games. Adjurned games may also be played, the two opponents agreeeing , on any evening after the termination of other games which they have to play. One day a week is an off-day.
9. There is a time limit of two and one half hours for 37 moves, after that one and one half hours for 23 moves, and further on 50 moves an hour. A player transgressing on the time limit loses the game. At commencement of the game the clock is set in motion. In case a player does not come before the control of time his game is counted as a loss to him. If a participant fails to appear for the playing of three consecutive games he is removed from the tournament.”
To me, this time control seems excellent! The players start in the morning at 11 am , do not take time for lunch (do they snack in the hall?) and keep playing for 5 hours until a two hour recess. Then it is back to ‘work’ at 6 pm and 3 more hours of play! That is, the players have to be willing to play 8 hours of chess a round! Great stuff. Why can we not do that today? It seems to me that this 90 minutes for the whole game nonsense really reduces the quality of play. (One more reason I like to study the old masters, undoubtedly!)