Culture and Civilisations

Dr Siegbert Tarrasch and his search for meaning 

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 88%
  • Interesting points: 91%
  • Agree with arguments: 88%
59 ratings - view all
Dr Siegbert Tarrasch and his search for meaning 

Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch

Seated at a front window table last week in a restaurant in London’s St. Martin’s Lane, I found myself at the epicentre of a branch of an Extinction Rebellion demonstration. The manifestation consisted mainly, and surprisingly, of a group of ageing hippies, several glued to, and under, a white van, strategically placed to obstruct the highway. The demonstrators were surrounded by yellow jacketed police, while specialised units of the constabulary, dressed in more austere black, had clambered onto the roof of the van, where, with astonishing delicacy, they were trying to apply solvent and chain cutters to the various methods which the balding malcontents had used to bond themselves to their blockading vehicle. 

Dinner and a show, indeed! While watching this unexpected entertainment, several quasi-connected thoughts wandered into my mind, primarily concerned with the topic I raised in last week’s column, namely, diminishing rationality in western society. 

This syndrome is marked by a sometimes hysterical and frequently hypocritical drive to combat so-called climate change, characterised by some of the more extremely ultracrepidarian utterances of Greta Thunberg, or of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, when he boldly asserted, twelve years ago, that we had less than fifty days to save the planet

Further examples in this catalogue of unreason include: abandonment of lithium rich Afghanistan, when lithium is essential to power the devices, needed in their turn, to power the devoutly desired ‘greenhouse revolution’; assaults on western culture, memory and tradition, by the very citizens which that culture is designed to protect; eccentric decisions concerning gender by international sporting bodies and a preoccupation with gender identity and personal pronouns, when many hostile foreign regimes have nothing further from their minds. 

Is chaos come again, or has it always been thus, at least  since Nicolaus Copernicus  proved that, far from our solar system being geocentric, the earth revolves subserviently around the sun   and Charles Darwin crucified the anthropocentric thesis by demonstrating that humankind is descended from the apes  ?  And, if so, who has tried to combat chaos and restore or discover order? 

Near contemporaneously with Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche’s great metaphor to counter absence of meaning was the Eternal Recurrence (Ewige Wiederkehr). Nietzsche proposed a model of the universe that repeats itself identically in infinite iterations of recycling. What has happened now has happened an infinite number of times before and will continue to replicate itself infinitely into the future. Only the ‘superhuman’ can accept this bleak scenario, yet still function as if meaning exists. Nietzsche was famously parodied by that bewhiskered philosopher, the Muskrat, in Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, that educated rodent’s favourite book, of course, being The Uselessness of Everything. Then there was Rainer Maria Rilke, whose most celebrated poem “The Carousel”, far from being purely descriptive, or an evocative paean to childhood, with its colourfully painted roundabout animals, is actually a metaphor for Nietzsche’ s metaphor. Rilke ’s roundabout is going nowhere. It simply repeats its journey. The clue is in the phrase “ hat kein Ziel ”: it has no goal or purpose. Never before, or since, has absence of meaning been expressed with such poetic elegance.

In chess terms, Dr Siegbert Tarrasch was the thinker who did most to strive towards making sense of the chaotic cosmos of chess, where there are more possibilities than atoms in the observable universe. He postulated order, method and rules, through which to comprehend the bewildering multiplicity of potential inherent in the game. Thus there are said to be approximately 10 to the power of 81 atoms in the observable universe.  To put that into context, the number (called a  vigintisextillion) is the number 10 with 81 zeros behind it:  10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

This figure is only an estimation, based on a series of calculations and assumptions. It  is, however, seriously dwarfed by 10 to the power of 120, the number of possible positions in chess. It was Tarrasch who yearned to make sense of this bewildering ocean of quasi-infinity. 

It is relatively easy, at the same time, to admire, underestimate and to be unfair to that great German Grandmaster. Victor of numerous elite tournaments, respected writer and theoretician, challenger for the World Title and one of the five original Grandmasters, all anointed at St. Petersburg in 1914 by Czar Nicholas II, Tarrasch was, nevertheless, a prickly and dogmatic character, who made enemies almost without trying. The remaining four imperial laureates were: many times US Champion Frank Marshall, who was the original source of the grand masterly claim, and three then current and future World Champions Emanuel Lasker, José Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine.  

Tarrasch ’s achievements should have rendered him immune from criticism, but he possessed a unique knack for irritating his colleagues in ways which caused permanent ruptures. For example, after just ten moves of his first game against an initially admiring Nimzowitsch, Tarrasch leant back in his chair, folded his arms and loudly announced that never before in his life had he achieved so winning a position after so few moves. Nimzowitsch (mildly paranoid at the best of times) hung on for a draw and thereafter devoted the rest of his career to opposing, undermining and refuting Tarrasch’s theories and writings about chess. In my column of May 22nd, 2021 “ Freudian Feud: Tarrasch versus Nimzowitsch ” I focused on the two great chess players’ enmity, pointing out that the playing styles of the two were not perhaps so far apart, and that the conflagration had its roots in Tarrasch’s talent to insult. 

  For example…

  In the first round of the tournament at Hastings 1895, pitted against the Anglo–Irish maestro James Mason (pictured below), Tarrasch had to make one last move to reach the time control, but with his time fast running out, he made no attempt whatsoever to carry out that last crucial move. Mason chivalrously warned Tarrasch that he was in danger of losing by time forfeit. Tarrasch, regally unperturbed, responded that he had completed the necessary 30 moves and he refused to budge. Predictably his clock flag fell and Tarrasch was declared to have lost on time. While Tarrasch (or as I jocularly refer to him: ‘Dr T’) was remonstrating against this verdict, someone in the audience pointed out that Tarrasch had, in fact, written his name in the space for move one on his score-sheet, thus he had legitimately lost on time. Transmanche fair play 1: German dogmatism 0. 
At the Hamburg Tournament of 1910, “A-Team member” Dr T protested against the inclusion of the English master Frederick Yates, on the grounds that Yates was too weak for such an illustrious field. In fact, Yates was permitted to compete and did finish in last place, while, however, brilliantly demolishing Tarrasch on the way. 

James Mason, 1849 – 1905. Famous Irish chess player and writer.

Destiny called on Tarrasch several times, but he regularly hung up, avoiding matches for the World Title against both Steinitz and Lasker, until Tarrasch finally committed himself to a challenge in 1908. At the pre-match meeting with the reigning champion, Tarrasch is alleged to have uttered, with his customary diplomatic aplomb, the withering sentence: “to you Herr Lasker, I have just three words to say: check and mate.“

As for dogmatism, Tarrasch went so far as to condemn with “ ? ” denoting “weak move” such mainline variations as: 1.d4 d5  2.c4 e6  3.Nc3 Nf6 ?  (Tarrasch insisted that Black’s third move (3. … c5) was the only correct move here). This latter opening variation is an aggressive bid for central space and is called The Tarrasch Defence, a variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. His annotation with the “ ? ” also was attached to 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5  3.Nd2 ? , a line which paradoxically now bears Tarrasch’s own name: The French Defence, Tarrasch Variation.

For all his idiosyncrasies, Tarrasch patently loved chess and devoted his creative life to every aspect of the game. This love was encapsulated in his statement: “Chess like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.” Tarrasch was writing in a male dominated, Prussian, militaristic, pre-inclusive, pre-First World War society. Nowadays he would, I hope, have replaced ‘happy men’ with ‘happy people’.

While serendipitously on the topic of happiness and chess, I must mention one of the happiest chess books I have ever had the pleasure to see land on my desk:  Chess Crusader  by Carl Portman, the English Chess Federation’s Manager of Chess in Prisons and noted collector of venomous arachnids and scorpions. Published by Conrad Press, this substantial volume positively exudes a generous spirit about chess. Here is a typical extract:

“It is true that through chess events and motivational talks… I have raised a few pounds for the NHS… However, I was stunned to be presented with an award by the British Heart Foundation in 2019 at a splendid gala in London. I have to say with sincere conviction that it was the other award winners who inspired me. There was a heart surgeon who gave up his free time to fly abroad and save children’s lives. There were children who saved all their pocket money or sold their toys to raise money for another kid with heart problems. I mean come on – it is fantastic. I was truly humbled. Why can’t we have more of this in the news instead of the diet of negative miserable crap that the mainstream media tosses us daily? The best tonic for my health has never been found on a prescription sheet, in a bottle, a pill or a blood transfusion. It has always been found on the sixty-four squares of a chessboard. I cannot live without it. If I cannot play over the board, I will play online. If that is not possible I can play by snail mail, or standard post, as it used to be called.”

Returning to the great Praeceptor Germaniae (The Lawgiver of Germany), as Tarrasch is reverently known, amongst the various challengers for the World Title who failed to become World Champion, a special niche of honour is occupied by Dr. Tarrasch. Born in Breslau in 1862, Tarrasch was almost certainly the world‘s strongest player in the early 1890s. Unfortunately, he omitted to issue a challenge to the ageing Steinitz, and when Emanuel Lasker seized the chess throne in 1894, Tarrasch’s dream of world domination evaporated.

Nevertheless, by his extensive writings and logical play, Tarrasch influenced all subsequent generations of German masters. Players such as Wolfgang Unzicker and Robert Hübner are clearly to be numbered in the classical Tarrasch mould. 

Tarrasch was declared “World Tournament Champion” following his triumph at Ostend in 1907, but when he challenged Lasker the following year he was trounced. He won three games in this match and drew five. However, Lasker demonstrated his complete dominance of world chess at that time by scoring eight wins himself.

In his classic work Masters of the Chessboard , Richard Reti  eloquently opined:  

“Steinitz had rivals like Anderssen and later Blackburne and Zukertort, all of whom probably surpassed him in natural ability for chess. His general theory was so profound, however, that he defeated all of them in their matches with him. Lasker has emphasised the fact that the theory of Steinitz bears upon something much bigger than chess, namely upon life itself in all its complexities, the battles of which are reflected in chess as in a mirror. It follows, therefore, that the theory of Steinitz could be further developed in two directions. On the one hand, it could be elaborated philosophically, as a general theory of the fight, for which chess offers a clear and a definite example. On the other hand, it could be developed purely from the viewpoint of practical chess, with the idea of finding that form for the theory which would be most suitable for the practical execution of a chess game. Lasker followed the first lead, which took him somewhat too far off the beaten path to win any immediate following, while Tarrasch chose the other way, thereby giving the theory of chess the beginning of a scientific form and making him the teacher of the generation of chess masters after Steinitz.” 

Without doubt, Tarrasch was one of the most successful tournament players of all time. He became famous when in a period of seven years he won the five most important tournaments (Nuremberg 1888, Breslau 1889, Manchester 1890, Dresden 1892, Leipzig 1894). The most spectacular success of his career came with his first prize in the Emperor Franz Josef Jubilee Tournament of Vienna 1898, a colossal double-round event of 20 masters, in which he tied with the American superstar Harry Nelson Pillsbury, in the tournament proper, but then beat him in the play-off. Thereafter, Dr T scored only two more significant tournament successes: at Monte Carlo 1903 and in the Champions’ Tournament at Ostend 1907. Organised in order to establish a “Tournament World Champion”, this was to be his swan song, insofar as world dominance was concerned, for the following year Tarrasch met his nemesis in the form of his unsuccessful World Title challenge against Emanuel Lasker. 

It seems clear that Tarrasch had been previously reluctant to risk the laurels he had gathered, in the one throw of a match against the champion. At the height of his early triumphs, he was offered a World Title match with Steinitz in Havana, but declined, and Dr T. also backed out from a virtually agreed Title Match against Lasker in 1904. When he did finally agree to meet the latter, he was in his 47th year and past his formidable best.

Tarrasch ’s enduring fame, however, rests on his writing, rather than sporting achievements. With his books  Dreihundert Schachpartien (Three Hundred Games of Chess) published in 1895 and  Die   Moderne Schachpartie (The Modern Game of Chess) published in 1912, as well as his innumerable chess columns and articles, he became, as noted above, the celebrated Praeceptor Germaniae, and with it, of the world. 

Developing and popularising Steinitz’s theory of the accumulation of small advantages, he yet differed in his interpretation of what constitutes such small advantages. He valued the concept of mobility above all and, as the result of this approach, he became the great advocate of constriction strategy, mainly for White; and for Black, ‘freeing’ moves, especially in the opening such as The Tarrasch Defence to the Queen’s Gambit has since been adopted at the highest level by world champions such as Emanuel Lasker, José Capablanca, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky, the last named deploying it as a principal weapon to gain the world title against Petrosian in 1969. 

Ultimately, the Tarrasch project failed to achieve its ambitious aims, since chess (as we saw with the  Bongcloud Attack  , even claiming as a victim Grandmaster Wesley So (who last week won the elite Grand Chess Tour in St. Louis) cannot be reduced to simple formulae. Nevertheless, the effort was in its own way heroic and Tarrasch’s achievements still live on in the face of the largely unfathomable universe of chess possibilities, of which AlphaZero has granted us a tantalising glimpse. 

Here are links to three famous Tarrasch victories and also one loss: 

The first win is against a titan of the day, and it is fascinating to see how Dr T steamrolls his victim in such systematic fashion. The game: Tarrasch vs Harry Nelson Pillsbury in Vienna 1898.

The second: Tarrasch vs. Emanuel Lasker from Dr T’s defeat in the World Championship match in 1908. Although Tarrasch won only three games out of 16 in his match against Lasker, it should be recalled that in fifty match games against such leading masters of the day such as Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Carl Schlechter, between 1907 and 1910, Lasker lost a mere four games! 

The following game was awarded the third brilliancy prize, whereupon Tarrasch, with his accustomed tact, took it upon himself to lambast in print the members of the judging panel. Aron Nimzowitsch vs Tarrasch, St Petersburg 1914 { }.

And, to conclude, the disaster for Dr T at Hastings in 1895 against James Mason.

(Note by the Editor: I urge chess-lovers to play over the game given by Ray Keene above between Tarrasch and Pillsbury, Vienna 1898. It’s strikingly modern, fresh and original, belying Tarrasch’s reputation as an old-fashioned classical player. The system beginning with Bd3 against the Berlin Defence to the Ruy Lopez was his invention, I believe, but it breaks most of his rules. All the games Tarrasch played against Pillsbury, beginning with the latter’s famous victory at Hastings 1895, are superb. They were evenly matched (5 wins each and two draws) and apparently trusted one another sufficiently for Pillsbury to consult Tarrasch as a doctor about the syphilis that eventually killed him. Sadly, medical science was not advanced enough to save the great American grandmaster from an early and terrible death. Tarrasch was an eminent doctor, much in demand in Munich, and hence never a professional grandmaster. Given that his medical practice limited the time he could devote to chess, his achievements as a player and writer are all the more impressive.)

  Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwells .


A Message from TheArticle

We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please, make a donation.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 88%
  • Interesting points: 91%
  • Agree with arguments: 88%
59 ratings - view all

You may also like