What a year for the Polish chess grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein! I herein undertake a brief study to determine if he deserves the title of “Honorary World Chess Champion of 1912.” Take this in context: Setting aside tournaments, Rubinstein played seven matches in his life, each of them against recognized chess masters. His first match was a draw. All six of the remaining matches he won. What other grandmaster of chess has that distinction? (Not one match lost in a lifetime.)
In 1912, only two grandmasters could be considered equal or superior to Akiba Rubinstein: Jose Capablanca and Emanuel Lasker. What about Alexander Alekhine? He played in the Seventh Russian Championship tournament in 1912, alongside Rubinstein, but A.A. lost more games than he won, while A.R. won the tournament. In that year, Alexander was not yet in his prime; he was not, at that time, equal to Akiba.
Other grandmasters could be mentioned, but most of them played in at least one of the five tournaments that A.R. won in 1912, and his worst performance that year was a tie for first with Oldrich Duras. What about Duras? Rubinstein played in at least two other tournaments with him, that year, and in neither one did Duras come close to first place.
Neither Capablanca nor Lasker played in a tournament in 1912, in opposition to the five that Rubinstein played in. So how do we judge performance potential in 1912, for those two? Let’s begin with Capablanca.
That Cuban super-master played in five major tournaments around 1912, two in 1911 and three in 1913. (This was before his famous loss-less streak from 1916 to 1924, and he did not become world champion until 1921.) In two of those 1911/1913 competitions, the American Frank Marshall placed ahead of his Cuban friend. The point? In at least three of the European tournaments in 1912, Marshall and Rubinstein both participated, and the American did not come close to A.R. in any of the final scores of those three events. That suggests Rubinstein was a slightly better chess player than Capablanca in 1912.
Could Marshall have just been in worse form in Europe, in those tournaments? One of the first chess books I owned, during my early teens, was Marshall’s Best Games of Chess. He was a pure master of the 19th century Romantic style, which often gave him poor results against the best grandmasters who were well-versed in the style of Steiniz: Modern style or Hypermodern, in particular in match play against Lasker and Capablanca. Marshall almost never won a game against those two in regular match play.
Could it be that he did not feel his best in Europe, during at least some of those overseas tournaments. Must his less-impressive performances in Europe have been only from one of the following?
- Poor health
- Difficult hotel accommodations
- Change in time zone
If Marshall did less well in only one or two tournaments in Europe, we could consider the above; but it was in three tournaments that he came nowhere near Rubinstein in final tallies, in 1912. Comparisons are still difficult, for most masters who played in Europe did not cross the Atlantic to play in the Americans, and few Western masters played in Europe, with Marshall a notable exception. I suggest two explanations for Marshall’s more impressive victories in the Western hemisphere during these years, compared with what happened in Europe:
- European masters were better prepared to handle Marshall’s Romantic style
- European masters were generally a bit stronger the best Western players
I suggest both of the above played a part.
The Challenge of Lasker
With the World Champion Emanuel Lasker, it’s a difficult matter. He played well in tournaments and matches for decades, almost always placing very well. In tournaments from 1889 to 1925, in fact, he never placed worse than third place, winning first place 16 times out of 21: What a performance! These did not include any competitions between 1909 and 1914, however, and the question is this: Who was the best chess player in the world in 1912?
One key relates to the consistency of Lasker’s tournament performances. From 1906 to 1924, he played in six of them, winning first place in every one. In the St. Petersburg 1911 tournament, Rubinstein and Lasker tied for first place, yet how greatly they led the other masters: 3.5 points ahead of Spielmann and Duras! This competition included many other notable names, many of the best European players: Bernstein, Teichmann, Perlis, Cohn, Schlechter, and many others. The point is this: Lasker almost always got exceptional results in tournament play during those years, yet what could lead anyone to think he was a better chess player in 1912 than in any other year? Rubinstein, however, has given us evidence that he did play better in that year than in other years: five tournaments in Europe, winning clear first-place in four, with a tie for first in the other. When has any other chess grandmaster accomplished such a record in one year?
Of general interest, Lasker tied with Carl Schlechter in their 1910 title championship match, and Rubinstein defeated Schlechter by a narrow margin in their 1918 match. In at least two of the 1912 tournaments, Schlechter was far behind Rubinstein in the final points.
A World Championship match with Lasker was scheduled in 1914, but the outbreak of World War I shot down that possibility. I suggest the best compensation we can now give to Akiba Rubinstein: the title of 1912 Honorary World Chess Champion.