Akiba Rubinstein - The Endgame Maestro

Akiba Rubinstein
Akiba Rubinstein
Akiba Rubinstein (12 December, 1880 - 15 March, 1961) was a famous Polish Grandmaster in the early 20th century. His 1914 World Championship decider with Emanuel Lasker never happened because of World War I. He would be remembered as perhaps the greatest player never to become World Champion.

More importantly than that, many of the most important opening systems contain a Rubinstein Variation. You can say that Rubinstein influenced opening theory and chess itself more than any other player. If Siegbert Tarrasch had made a science out of positional strategy, Rubinstein had made it an art.

His positional play was revolutionary in his era. His intuitive understanding of how to create harmony between his pieces and how to sow discord between his opponent's pieces literally broke new ground in chess strategy. He was perhaps the first player to play with the endgame in mind from the first move.

Young Akiba

Akiba Rubinstein studied to be a rabbi in his youth
Akiba Rubinstein studied to be a rabbi in his youth
Young Akiba was born into poverty, the youngest of 12 children, to a family of rabbis in Stawiski, Poland in 1880. Only he and one of his sisters survived into adulthood. His father died weeks before he was born. He was raised by his grandparents.

His family planned for him to become a rabbi and he began his studies. He fell under the spell of Caissa when he was 16. Before long he cared for nothing other than the Game of Kings.

He moved to Bialystok, Poland. There he began his chess career. Before long he was too strong for the local master, GG Bartoszkiewicz.

Rabbi or Chess Pro?

Akiba Rubinstein abandoned his rabbinical studies to become a chess pro
Akiba Rubinstein abandoned his rabbinical studies to become a chess pro
Rubinstein then moved to Lodz, Poland. There he met and trained with the highly respected master Georg Salwe. The two played a short qualifier match for the 3rd All-Russian Championship in Kiev. When they drew, both were invited to participate.

When he finished 5th Rubinstein knew he had a decision to make. He knew what the decision would be. Chess had captured his heart.

He would have to tell his family he was on a different path to the one they planned. He abandoned his rabbinical studies and decided to become a chess professional instead.

Early Career

Akiba Rubinstein improved dramatically between 1903 and 1912
Akiba Rubinstein improved dramatically between 1903 and 1912
From there Rubinstein's talent began to blossom. He shared 3rd at St Petersburg in 1905 with Znosko-Borovsky. They were half a point behind Blumenfeld in 2nd and 1.5 points behind his mentor, Salwe who won the tournament.

This fed his growing confidence and spurred him on to even better things. He competed in his first international tournament in Barmen 1905. He drew the playoff at the end to share 1st prize with Oldrich Duras.

From this moment he was recognized as a master. He beat the seasoned master, Jacques Mieses 3-0 later that year.

Magical Year of the Winning Streak

Akiba Rubinstein won 4 major tournaments in 1912 to become arguably the best player in the world
Akiba Rubinstein won 4 major tournaments in 1912 to become arguably the best player in the world
Rubinstein finished ahead of Mikhail Chigorin to capture 1st prize at Lodz 1906. He finished 3rd in Ostend, a point behind Maroczy in 2nd and 2 points behind Schlechter in 1st.

1907 saw him decisively beat Salwe and his ascent to the top really gathered steam. He played maybe his most famous game this year against Rotlewi, Rubinstein's Immortal. He followed up with a big win in Carlsbad 1907.

Rubinstein improved relentlessly over the next 5 years. 1912 would be his greatest year. He won 4 major tournaments on the trot to announce himself as the heir apparent to Emanuel Lasker. He took 1st place at the German Chess Congress, Breslau (1912), San Sebastian (1912), Bad Pistyan (1912) and the All-Russian Masters, Vilnius (1912). From here he had the World Championship in his sights.

Challenging Lasker

Akiba Rubinstein tried for many years to organize a World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker
Akiba Rubinstein tried for many years to organize a World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker
Although no ranking system was in use at this time, rankings from previous eras can be calculated by compiling recorded results from international tournaments of the time. Tournaments by Rubinstein's day were recorded comprehensively. Chessmetrics has him as the #1 player in the world from 1912-14.

Negotiations were underway to organize a World Championship match against the champion Lasker. Terms were agreed and the match was scheduled for October 1914.

Rubinstein did not play well at the St Petersburg 1914 Tournament, failing to make the five player final round. This poor showing would not effect the World Championship match at the end of the year. Something else would. World War I broke out and the match along with all chess competition was cancelled until further notice.

Top Three with Lasker and Capablanca

From 1912 - 1922 Akiba Rubinstein was close to even with Lasker and Capablanca
From 1912-22 Akiba Rubinstein was close to even with Lasker and Capablanca
Rubinstein was still a very strong player after the war. He still showed the old brilliance even if not as consistently. He enjoyed a 2-1 match win over Carl Schlechter in 1918. He again pursued Lasker for a World Championship match. Lasker agreed but the stake he asked from Rubinstein was very high.

The Human Chess Machine, José Raúl Capablanca had in the meantime overtaken both Rubinstein and Lasker although the differences may have been marginal. Capablanca was able to raise the money to challenge Lasker. He also recognized the great strength of Rubinstein. He said he would give Rubinstein the chance to challenge him should he defeat Lasker.

Capablanca did beat Lasker in Havana in 1921 to become champion. He was true to his word and negotiated a World Championship match with Rubinstein. But the Pole had the same difficulty as with Lasker. The stakes were very high and Rubinstein could not raise them. The World Championship was a cash cow for the champion which meant that no one would risk the title for anything other than a massive amount of money.

It had taken Capablanca 10 years and US$20,000 (equivalent to US$250,000 in 2020) from his Cuban backers to secure a World Championship match against Lasker. Rubinstein did not have sponsors willing to put up a purse like that. Sadly this truly great player would never get the chance to play for the World Championship and it all came down to money.

Rubinstein's 20s

Akiba Rubinstein struggled to maintain the consistency of his younger days after the war
Akiba Rubinstein struggled to maintain the consistency of his younger days after the war
Rubinstein was still a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1920s. He finished 3rd behind Alexander Alekhine and Tartakower at the Hague 1921. Alekhine challenged Capablanca after this tournament but the Cuban said Rubinstein was the rightful challenger. He had a great victory when capturing Vienna 1922 but his joy was soured when his winnings were confiscated by Austrian border guards.

Rubinstein came 4th in London 1922 behind Vidmar, Alekhine and the winner Capablanca. Here Capablanca wrote the London Rules stipulating conditions for all future World Championship contests. All of the top masters agreed to the rules. He gave Rubinstein a deadline of 31 December, 1923 to meet the stake of $10,000 as specified in Rule #8. Of course Rubinstein could not meet it.

He was 2nd at Baden-Baden 1925 and shared 1st at Marienbad 1925. He won the 1927 Polish Championship in Lodz. 1929 would be his greatest year since the war. He topped the table at Rogaska Slatina 1929. He won the Scheveningen-style Ramsgate Tournament. He then placed 4th at Carlsbad 1929 and 2nd at Budapest.

Retirement of the Uncrowned King

Akiba Rubinstein retired as an Uncrowned King
Akiba Rubinstein retired as an Uncrowned King
The 1930s saw the curtain come down on Rubinstein's professional chess career. His mental state was never so robust and began to deteriorate around this time.

He was still doing okay in tournaments at the turn of the decade, finishing 3rd in San Remo. He posted another couple of similar results.

He was developing anthropophobia (a fear of social settings) and schizophrenia. He would hide in the playing hall while waiting for his opponent to move. He finished last in Rotterdam in 1931 as his results were beginning to suffer. He officially retired in 1932.

Later Years

Akiba Rubinstein retired from professional chess in 1932
Akiba Rubinstein retired from professional chess in 1932
Rubinstein, his wife Eugenie and his sons Jonas and Sammy had lived in several European countries over the years. The family had moved to Belgium in 1926 where they would remain permanently. Rubinstein withdrew from life and apart from a select few guests, would only talk to family. Other players couldn't drag him out of retirement.

Hans Kmoch wrote: Nor was this writer more successful five years later when he made the trip from Amsterdam to Brussels in order to invite Rubinstein to a tournament in Holland. This last meeting with the grandmaster (as it proved to be) was but brief. For Mrs Rubinstein warned beforehand: if a visitor doesn’t leave soon, Rubinstein himself might leave, possibly through the window.

The family who were Jewish survived the war because when the Nazis visited they concluded that he was quite mad. According to Chesshistory.com: Another World War broke out, and Rubinstein, although now living at the other end of Europe, came again under German occupation, this time a much more dangerous one. But, miraculously, he survived, even without any extra effort. When they came to fetch him and asked whether he was willing to work for Germany, he simply said yes, and that seems to have frightened them. At any rate, they withdrew and left him alone for the rest of the War. It happened in Belgium, after all, where the Germans, as in Denmark, showed some restraint in return for the King’s capitulation.

He had a couple of brief spells in sanitoriums but lived out much of the remainder of his life quietly at home. He passed away in 1961.

Legacy of Rubinstein

Akiba Rubinstein influenced chess perhaps more than any other player
Akiba Rubinstein influenced chess perhaps more than any other player
Akiba Rubinstein's fingerprints are all over every phase of chess. His important work on openings include the Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3), the Rubinstein Variation of the French Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4).

Also the Rubinstein Variation of the Symmetrical English (1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nc7) and the Rubinstein Variation in the Four Knights Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Nd4 with 6.g3) which torpedoed the Tarrasch Defence in the Queen's Gambit Declined for more than 60 years. Not to mention the Meran Variation in the Semi-Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5).

He introduced some important ideas and motifs in middlegame play, just one example of a case study is his game against Georg Salwe in 1908 where he demonstrated an expert treatment of play against Black's isolated c and d-pawns. He was out on his own when it came to Rook and Pawn endgames. Some of the cornerstone laws of how to play these endgames first appeared in his games.

Moving On

Aaron Nimzowitsch
Aaron Nimzowitsch
It's true that Rubinstein never won the World Championship but this can be put down solely to the fact that the incumbent champion could basically dictate terms in his day.

It's pretty clear that if the rules from 1948 onwards were in place when he was in his heyday, then Rubinstein would undoubtedly have lifted the World Championship. He was far stronger than several players who actually became champion.

Nevertheless, the indelible mark he left on the game which is still felt today, is perhaps an even greater achievement. Few players can be said to have been as influential as he. One player who might have a shout is another who fell short in terms of the World Championship. But another who is a giant in terms of continuing influence on the game. That man was Aron Nimzowitsch.