Masters of the Board: Rubinstein

Akiba Rubinstein (1880-1961) was a Polish Grandmaster, and a pioneer of his time when it came to opening play. He was one of the first strong Grandmasters to bear the endgame in mind when it came to selecting his openings. This is what I have read in various biographies around the internet, and it is certainly evident when playing through his games — which I advise anyone to do who wishes to learn how to play the opening. I find his placement of pieces very helpful, and the timing of certain crucial moves nothing less than exciting.

Unfortunately, Rubinstein’s later life was plagued by mental illness, he suffered ‘anthropophobia’ (fear of people) and schizophrenia amongst other things. He was known to hide between moves at tournaments. This condition, eventually (and I suppose inevitably), led to his withrdrawral from chess and public life.

Luckily for us, it was not before leaving behind many fine examples of chess play, and a few brilliances. The one below, labeled by some as his ‘evergreen’, is just one among them.

Right from the start, you will notice Rubinstein’s considered and constructive moves. He has a plan, he has wishes, and every move he plays is with that in mind. This, in contrast to his opponent, who does not really seem to have a firm plan of what he wishes to achieve. His position soon resembles a very disorganised camp of troops and comes undone. You will especially notice the mis-placement of his queen with 10.Qd2? and how this seems to be the beginning of his troubles.

Rubinstein’s 15…Ne5! marks a definate shift in his mentality as he switches to attack. Georg Rotlewi, a rising star of the time who had defeated Rubinstein on occasion, seems both unprepared and oblivious to the Black threats. Notice the complete harmony of the Black pieces, the bishops cutting across the board, the rooks firing along the open files, and the queen ideally placed on e7, ready to hop in any direction she wishes. 22.Rxc3!! highlights the precarious position that practically each White piece was in, and the game is over.

When playing through this game myself, I was prompted to remember some advice given to me by a rather aged chess player against whom I competed in local league events. After giving me a rather painful drubbing, he told me, “it only takes one bad piece to cause catastrophe”. I think that’s rather over-generalising things, but in this example, it can certainly said to be true. Mind you, Rotlewi gave himself more than one it has to be said.

If there is a lesson in this game, it is that each move a chess player makes must be utterly understood, (not only where a piece should go, but why, and what the consequences are), and in the opening it is perhaps even more crucial, because it will affect our whole game thereafter. Players who merely place a certain piece on a certain square may (should) find themselves in big trouble in the not too distant future. Furthermore, one doesn’t have to force things in chess in order to pay powerfully. Playing the right moves, and having an understanding of the position, deeper than that of one’s opponent, often results in opportunities presenting themselves naturally.

Enjoy this game, it is very instructive.

John Lee Shaw