Saturday, May 19, 2012

When a Real War Interrupted the Chess Wars

War is basically chess……. conducted with real people.
Fortunately, most of the time, the two never arrive at the same place. We are coming up on the 100 year anniversary of when they did collide.

Mannheim (Germany), 1914 attracted many of the greatest names in chess history all to one tournament. Richard Reti, Yefim Bogolyubov, Carl Carls, Hans Fahrni, Alex Flamberg, David Janowski, Walter John, Jacques Mieses, Erhardt Post, Rudolf Spielmann, Savielly Tartakower, Milan Vidmar were in attendance.

The new title of “Grandmaster” had just been established and the first three given that title; Alexander Alekhine, Frank Marshall, and Siebert Tarrasch were also present. Eighteen players total.

Everyone was there to compete for the 2000 marks in prize money, put up by Carl Benz. But all were also apprehensive about being there as just three weeks before, Archduke Francis Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo, and Europe seemed heading for a world war.

No one wanted to contemplate that however and with this threat hanging over their heads, the tournament began.

By the eighth round, Austria had declared war on Serbia, and Vienna had called for mobilization of forces. As the 10th round began, Germany declared war on France and Russia, and the first World War was underway. Who’s troops would arrive first in Mannheim? Can you imagine the tension and fear?

Shots rang out in the distance, which caused American Frank Marshall to run to a cellar to hide. Only after glasses and glasses of brandy and assurances that it was only target practice, did he emerge.

It was too late to save the tournament. After 10 rounds, they paid the players with Alekhine getting 1st place.

With no place to go, the players waited for their fate. As the German army arrived in earnest, the Russian players were taken into custody. Bogolyubov and Flamberg spent the rest of the war playing tournaments while under house arrest.

Alekhine somehow slipped away, while Spielmann and Tartakower found themselves in Austrian army uniforms.

Frank Marshall made it to Dutch border and arrived in Amsterdam after many “adventures”. His baggage was lost, but miraculously turned up in New York five years later!

At least chess had a ‘happy’ ending as all that participated in that fateful tournament, survived the war and lived to see history repeat itself at the 1939 Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires.

Hat tip to Andy Soltis and Chess Life, August 1989.

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