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19 Sep

Comet Charousek

The chess world has lost so many promising players over the years before they could reach their full potential, but arguably the greatest “What if?” belonged to that of the little-known 19th century Hungarian star Rudolf Charousek, who was born on this day in 1873, and just when he was being talked of as being a potential world title contender, died tragically all too young when he was nearing his peak.

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Charousek's chess talent was enormous. A quick learner, it took him just seven years from the time of learning how the pieces moved to actually defeating the World Champion of the day, Emanuel Lasker, at the Nuremberg 1896 international chess tournament! And the unknown 23-year-old then proceeded to beat every single strong master of his era and to finish first or second in every tournament he played after Nuremberg - and the following year, at the 1897 Berlin International, he took first place ahead of 19 masters with a dazzling Bobby Fischer-like second-half streak, by winning 9 games in-a-row!

Alas, like many before him - such as one of his contemporaries, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the American phenomenon who was just a year older and who himself would die much too young at 33 - Charousek's promising future was cut short, as he died in 1900 of tuberculosis at the age of just 27, only four years after starting his international career. This led to him being hailed as a “Chess Comet”, because he literally appeared out of nowhere, shone brightly for a tragically brief period of time, only to die young.

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Sadly today, Rudolf Charousek is all but largely forgotten in the annals, rarely mentioned except in some of the better books on chess history. I myself only came across “Comet Charousek” in my late teens when a small article appeared on him in the British Chess Magazine. A biography also appeared in 1997, Chess Comet Charousek by Victor A. Charuchin, but it has largely been dismissed by critics as being very poorly done - and certainly there’s a strong case for someone to do a fitting tribute to this forgotten swashbuckling master.

Geza Maroczy - Rudolf Charousek
Budapest, 1896
King’s Gambit Declined, Falkbeer Countergambit
1.e4 e5 2.f4 The swashbuckling King's Gambit was practically the de rigueur during the age of Charousek. 2...d5 3.exd5 e4 Even in modern praxis today, the Falkbeer Countergambit is seen as an effective way of playing against the King's Gambit. Black returns the pawn and instead seeks quick and sensible piece development - and this is a constant theme, denying White easy development with Nf3. 4.Qe2?! White should avoid this. Instead, modern theory refers 4.d3 Nf6 5.dxe4 Nxe4 6.Nf3 Bc5 7.Qe2 with equal play. 4...Nf6 5.Nc3 Bd6 6.Nxe4 0-0 7.Nxf6+ Qxf6 8.d3 Na6 9.Qf3 If 9.Nf3 Bg4 and the threat of ...Re8 means that the White queen will have to vacate the e-file anyway. 9...Re8+ We can now see that, despite being two pawns down, Charousek has won the opening battle: White has difficulty in completing his development, and Black's ...Re8+ sets in motion a spectacular assault on White's king, which quickly gets swarmed by Black pieces following an error. 10.Kd1 Bd7 11.Ne2 Re7 12.Nc3 Nc5 13.Ne4 Maroczy does what everyone should do when faced with an opponent who has active pieces: namely, try and exchange them off to ease the pressure. The alternative 13.Bd2 wasn't any better, as after 13...Rae8 14.g3 Na4 15.Nxa4 Bxa4 16.Rb1 Qd4! it's all becoming rather awkward for White. 13...Nxe4 Charousek could also have played 13...Qd4! 14.Nxd6 cxd6 15.Rb1 Na4 16.Be2 (16.c3? Nxc3+! 17.bxc3 Qxc3 and Black is crashing through for a win.) 16...Rc8 17.Rf1 Nc3+! 18.bxc3 Qxc3 19.Rb2 Ba4 and White is in deep trouble. 14.dxe4 Qd4+ 15.Bd3 If 15.Qd3 Rxe4 16.Qxd4 Rxd4+ 17.Bd3 Bg4+ 18.Ke1 Bc5 Black will regain his pawns and then some with a winning advantage, as White's king is still caught in the crossfire of Black's active pieces. 15...Rae8 16.c3? Under the huge strain of coping with the relentless onslaught coming from Charousek, Maroczy - unlike this annotator, who had the benefit of the nerves of silicon steel - misses a trick with 16.e5!? but perhaps he feared that Black would come crashing through anyway with 16...Bxe5 17.c3 (17.fxe5? Bg4!) 17...Ba4+ 18.b3 Qxc3 but after 19.fxe5  it is not so clear, as it forces Black into 19...Qxa1 (Not 19...Rxe5?? 20.Bxh7+! spectacularly turning the tables.) 20.Qe4! when it is far from certain now if Black is winning: 20...g6 (If 20...Rxe5 21.Qxh7+ Kf8 22.Qh8+ Ke7 23.Qh4+ Kf8 and a repetition, as Black daren't try to make an escape across the board with his king, as the bishop on a4 is prone to capture with a check. 16...Ba4+ 17.Kd2 Rxe4!! (See Diagram) Now a tsunami of Black pieces come crashing through for the win. 18.b3 Bb4! 19.Bb2 If, instead 19.cxb4 Re3!! (Not 19...Qxa1 20.Bxe4 and White is winning.) 20.Qf1 (20.bxa4?? Qxd3#) 20...Bb5 and Black is winning. 19...Re3 20.Qf1 Bb5 0-1

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