11 Sep

Uncrowned King

In his absorbing 2007 novel Zugzwang, award-winning novelist Ronan Bennett brings together his main interests of psychoanalysis, chess, and pre-revolutionary Russia.  Set in tsarist St. Petersburg in 1914, it’s a fictional story of political treachery, murder, intrigue and passion - and all set against the backdrop of the great St. Petersburg chess tournament of just over a century ago.


Chess fans will immediately recognise one of the main characters from the book, Avrom Rozental, with that of one of the real contestants at St. Petersburg 1914 with the same initials and tragic backstory: chess legend Akiva "Akiba" Rubinstein (1882-1961), one of the greatest players of the early 20th century, and one of the greatest players never to even have a shot at the world championship.

This ‘uncrowned king’ was a true artist and a powerful force in the game who, during a golden period between 1907 and 1912, was regarded as the natural challenger to World Champion Emanuel Lasker - and many believe if it wasn’t for the intervention of World War I, the two would have fought what might have been regarded as a title match for the ages.

But war wasn’t just the only thing that prevented Rubinstein playing for the title because, just as in Bennett’s novel, Rubinstein also had serious mental health issues. He was often delusional, and suffered from the nervous disorder of anthropophobia (fear of people and society) that worsened after the war and forever plighted his chances of challenging for the world title.

Rubinstein’s condition forced him to retire from active play in 1932; and living in penury, he went on to spend long periods of his life in a sanitarium before he died in 1961. For chess aficionados looking for the complete oeuvre of this tragic hero, there is the two-volume set by authors IMs John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev, Uncrowned King and The Later Years - a true treasure trove of Rubinstein facts and figures with beautifully annotated games that anyone can learn from.

And Rubinstein’s memory also lives on through an annual memorial held in his Polish hometown of Polancia Sdroj. The main section of the 51st edition was won - albeit luckily, though nevertheless deserving - recently by IM Tomasz Warakomski, who battled his way back from a bad start to capture the title with his score of 6/9; with the victory assured by a wonderful positional squeeze in the final round that even Rubinstein would have been proud of!

IM Tomasz Warakomski - FM Pierre Luigi Basso
51st Rubinstein Memorial, (9)
Scotch Four Knights
1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 e5 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d5 8.exd5 cxd5 9.Qe2+ Qe7 10.Qxe7+ Kxe7 This is a line of the Scotch Four Knights that is long-known to be drawish, though White has a little edge in the position due to the better pawn structure and with his rooks more able to exploit the d- and e-files. 11.0-0 c6 12.Na4 Maintaining the integrity of his pawn structure. Also, threatening ideas such as Be3 and occupying the c5-square with a piece. 12...Be6 13.Be3 Nd7 14.f4 f5 15.Rac1! Threatening c4 to open the game. Black's task of mobilising his forces is also hindered by the weak pawn on a7. 15...Nb6 16.Nc5 Bxc5 17.Bxc5+ Kf7 18.Bd4 Nc4 19.Rce1 Nd2 20.Bxg7! (See Diagram) The only practical way to play for a win, as after 20.Rf2, then 20...Ne4 and the solid outpost for the knight will make it near impossible for Black to be losing this. 20...Kxg7 21.Rxe6 Nxf1 22.Kxf1 Rhc8?! A very difficult position but, on reflection, we will see the better and more natural reply of 22...Rac8 to attempt to swap off a set of rooks with ...Rhe8 would have offered better chances to salvage a draw. 23.Bxf5 Rc7 24.Kf2 Rf8 25.g4 Rf6 26.Re8 Rf8 27.Re6 Rf6 28.Re8 Rf8 29.Re5! White is not interested in the draw - and quite rightly, as he has a superb position with excellent winning chances here with no dangers of ever losing. However, the repeating of the position a couple of times is a good tip from the pros, who use it to gain a little time on the clock and get nearer to the time control. 29...Rff7 30.Kf3 White has excellent prospects of converting this to a win. Just look at how bad Black's rooks are - he would dearly love to exchange a set off to make life easier. Not only that, but Black also has weak pawns to protect and in addition White has the ace of his kingside pawns now rapidly advancing up the board. 30...Rb7 31.b3 Rfe7 32.Be6! Rightly keeping the pressure on Black by not exchanging rooks. 32...Rb4 33.c4 dxc4 34.Rg5+ Kf6 35.Bxc4 Now look at how weak Black's pawns are, isolated on a7, c6 and h7. 35...Rbb7 36.Rc5 Rbc7 37.h4 Re1 38.g5+ Kg6 39.Bd3+ Kg7 40.f5 h5 41.f6+ Kf7 42.Be2! The target is not the h5-pawn; the idea is to play Re5 followed by Bc4+. 42...Kg6 43.Re5 Rh1 44.Bd3+ Kf7 45.Bc4+ Kg6 46.Re8 There's no way to stop the decisive threat of Rg8+ and f7 winning. So Black has one final spite check before resigning. 46...Rh3+ 1-0

1 Comments September 11, 2015

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  • Wendi

    Thanks for the info on the book, it sounds interesting!