Updated: Apr 26
As the current World Chess Championship plays out, it’s time to share some thoughts on the game I’ve been playing since the age of 6.
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The game of chess has been a lifelong love affair for me, as both a player and a spectator. Sadly, computers are doing to chess and its timeless appeal to mind and soul what moneyball has done to major league baseball– turning it into more of a science at the expense of its art. Now, I’ll all for making, say, passenger aviation and heart surgery more science than art, but I wish they’d leave our most beautiful games alone.
Computer scientists always knew that programming machines to beat the best human chess players would entail overcoming a fundamental reality– that there are way, way more possible games of chess than there are particles (i.e., electrons and protons) in the known universe. That means that there isn’t enough matter in existence with which to build a computer that could store the entire if-then algorithm for every possible game. It would be necessary, therefore, for a chess-playing computer to narrow its scope of the pathways it would consider… in other words, exercise the very human quality of discernment… in still other words, it would have to come pretty darn close to actually THINKING.
It took a while, but the inevitable happened. In 1977, former world champion GM Bobby Fischer utterly destroyed a computer program named Greenblatt, mating it in 21 moves. Just two decades later, however, an IBM supercomputer dubbed “Deep Blue” narrowly defeated reigning world champion GM Garry Kasparov in their 1997 6-game match. That milestone event changed chess forever– there could be no more adjourned games (as in the finale of the fabulous period piece THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT), because overnight computer analysis– rather than human vs. human competition– would likely dictate the outcome. Also, extra security would be necessary to prevent tournament competitors from smuggling communication devices into tournaments (see the “Toiletgate” sub-plot of the 2006 Championship Match and the more recent Carlsen-Niemann Controversy.) And furthermore, the basic chess openings would be played out ad infinitum and thereby eliminate all but the sharpest lines of play… which would turn top-level chess into even more a contest of sheer memory at the expense of over-the-board creative brilliance.
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I know, I know… I’m just a grumpy old man-splainer who can’t stand change, right? And yet no one denies that the 1800’s was the romantic era of chess, that the games of that period were especially beautiful and fun to follow. Much of the dashing play back then was wildly speculative and unsound by today’s standards, and yet the most entertaining games from that period live on with their well-earned nicknames– see the Evergreen Game, the Immortal Game, and the Night at the Opera Game.
And so, as GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi & Ding Liren punch it out for the 2023 World Chess Championship, here is a nice bit of fiction set in 1948 but based on yet another of the great treasures from the romantic era– Charousek vs. Wollner, 1893… a game that has retroactively become known as the “Last Round” Game–
LAST ROUND by Professor Kester Svendsen
The Old Master looked down at the board and chessmen again, although he had seen their stiff pattern times out of mind. While the tournament director was speaking he could wait. And as he waited, the old questions rose once more in his mind. Could this be it, the perfect game, the thing of beauty, the work of art? Could there come out of this tension of minds, this conflict of wits, anything more than victory and defeat? This unknowing search for secret beauty! What was the perfect game of chess? Was Capablanca right? Was it a draw, with the board exhausted of pieces? Was it a smashing victory? Was it a thing of small advantages multiplied into attrition?
The director's voice seeped into his reverie.
"Final round. Rolavsky the Russian champion leading with seven points. Draws against Henderson and Zettler. Then six straight wins."
The thought of a perfect game faded. Win? Could he even draw? Could he hold off the faultless Rolavsky, whose countrymen had for years pooled their incredibly patient testing of every defense to the Queen's Gambit and the Ruy Lopez?
"His opponent half a point behind. No one else close enough."
The Old Master looked up at the other playing areas roped off in the center of the ballroom. Epstein and Creech, poised, repeating a tableau older than memory. Batchelor, bushy-haired and nervous, glancing at tiny Zeitlin, prepared to play as if the title were balanced. The others farther away, still figures drawn sharply together over the subtlest challenge in their lives. The huge demonstration boards against the wall, runners and movers waiting to record the play in each game. The crowd, impatient for the director to finish and for this game to begin.
"Ten years since he'd won a tournament. his entry invited frankly as a sentimental gesture to the spirit of his long career, now his amazing comeback against eight of the world's best. World's championship vacated by the death of Alekhine. Assured of second place, he has already done better than the old Lasker at Moscow. Can this grand old man of chess snatch a full point from his ninth and last opponent, the unbeatable Russian? He needs a win, Rolavsky only a draw."
Could he win? He lingered a moment over what a win would mean. The cash prize. Exhibitions. Tours. New editions of a champion's works. Contracts for others. No more the poverty of a chessmaster's life, articles and annotations for short-lived journals, books that barely paid their way, lessons to sharkish amateurs who wanted only to beat each other. How many masters, having given their lives to the game, had died penniless, like Alekhine?
"Additional drama. Youth and age. The only player in the world with a plus score against Rolavsky. That famous fifteen-move surprise win of his at Bitzer Lake ten years ago." Bitzer Lake! The old master looked at the board again and wondered how he should open this time. Queen's Gambit?
"Like his countryman, Frank Marshall, he has never played to the score, but has always sought to make each game a work of art."
A Lopez? Had Rolavsky been saving a defense for the Lopez ever since that savage encounter at Bitzer Lake? Could he meet it cold, as Capablanca did Marshall's at New York and smash it? What to play? King pawn or queen pawn?
The voice stopped. The director was at his table, starting his clock. Two hours for thirty moves. The photographers near his table poised themselves as he moved his arm. He lifted his eyes to Rolavsky's face and saw etched in it the sharp memory of that defeat at Bitzer Lake.
Suddenly he felt tired, remembering the dilemma in which he had spent himself so many times in fifty years. Play for a win or play for perfection? There rose against him the ghosts of a hundred games and a dozen tournaments lost because he could never decide which he wanted. The clock at his elbow ticked insistently. King pawn or queen pawn? And, as ever, in the corner of his mind, the same old question. Could this be it, the work of art? He thought of Kieseritzky, remembered only as the loser of that ever-famous partie to Anderssen.
Rolavsky twisted a little, and somewhere out of the thousands of games and hundreds of players in the old man's memory there stirred a spark. The immortal Lasker playing his fourth move at Saint Petersburg. Bishop takes knight, most drawish of all the variations in the Lopez, and there was Lasker needing a win but playing bishop takes knight against Capablanca. Psychological chess. Capablanca sweating away at the thought of a new wrinkle. Lasker sitting like a stone. Rolavsky twitched again, and suddenly the old master wasn't tired any more. Conviction freshened him like wine. He felt again as at every game, before the first move. He smiled at Rolavsky, and moved his pawn to king four. Photographers' flashes sprang at him. The audience riffled forward as Rolavsky duplicated the move. With no hesitation, the Old Master moved his queen pawn beside his king pawn and listened for the buzz from the spectators.
“Center Game! Is he playing the Center Game? Mieses used to try it. But the queen moves too soon. Hasn't been played in a tournament since Tartakower tried it at Stockholm against Reshevsky. Is he crazy? Rolavsky will smash it to bits."
There was no way to decline the capture even if Rolavsky had wanted to, but the younger man seemed a little slow as he took the pawn. The old man caught his eye again, smiled again, pushed his queen's bishop's pawn forward a square, then leaned back and waited for the avalanche.
It came with a rush, as of collapse at a distance. Rolavsky half rose from his chair.
"Danish Gambit? DANISH GAMBIT! Two pawns. Who can give Rolavsky two pawns, development or no development? What does he think this is, a skittles game? Danish. Not in a tournament since Marshall drew one with Capa twenty years ago."
Rolavsky stared across the board, tight-lipped in contempt. Then he took the second pawn.
For a moment the old man's mind drifted back to other ballrooms and hotels, the Crystal Palace, chop houses and concessions, the thousand places where he had paused before a board and moved a pawn or knight. The simultaneous play where he walked forever within a horseshoe of tables: fifteen, fifty, a hundred sometimes, moving a piece or being waved by, ever returning and ever wondering with each move if somewhere, in some single play, even on a greasy board with clumsy pieces, he might pluck the secret. The thick smoke, the bad food, the hours of walking, the stale people behind the tables straining for a win or a draw against the master and playing on even though a queen or a couple of pieces down. He remembered, too, the glittering tournaments at Margate, Hastings, San Remo, Monte Carlo, with jeweled women and royalty looking over his shoulder. He lived again that moment at Breslau when Marshall plunged his queen into a nest of Lewitzky's pawns, and the spectators, caught up in the excitement of the most elegant move ever made, showered the table with gold pieces. Slowly he forced these memories from his mind and, as he looked out over the spectators, moved his bishop to bishop four.
The crowd stirred uneasily, waiting for Rolavsky to take the third pawn and then hang on through the attack. The Old Master wondered a little too. Rolavsky always took the pawn in the Queen's Gambit, probably because it wasn't a gambit at all. In the Danish he had to take the first and could take the second, according to the books. Schlechter had always taken the third too. But how lately had Rolavsky played against a Danish? He was taking too long, that young wizard. Now it came: Knight to King Bishop three. Development. Playing safe. The old man advanced his knight to king bishop three and tapped the clock, as after every move.
Rolavsky studied the board a long time. Again the spectators shifted about. A few moves more, thought the Old Master, and he would know whether to hope for a draw or a win. With an edge of sudden fear he remembered that Tchigorin had once lost a game in eight moves, Alapin in five. He jerked his mind about and worried the chessmen as they waited for his turn. But Rolavsky was plainly hesitating now, as if trying to recall the best line. Surely the pawn was not poisoned. Yet, one piece out to White's two. Even before Rolavsky's fingers touched the bishop, the Old Master moved it mentally to bishop four. There it rested and a surge of power flowed into his mind. His reply was obvious, but he lingered over it a while, probing with his imagination the mind of his antagonist, that mind crammed with encyclopedic knowledge of standard openings, hundreds of variations in the Queen's Pawn. Was it shaken a little now, that fine machine? The crowd seemed to think so. A half-caught whisper: "Why didn't he take the pawn? Why not?"
Why not? Was Rolavsky thinking of Bitzer Lake and the thrust of rage with which he had swept the pieces to the floor at the fifteenth move? Now the Old Master lifted his knight and removed the Black pawn at bishop three. Rolavsky moved pawn to queen three; and as the old man castled, it was obvious that White had compensation for the pawn sacrificed. Again the muttering. "Seven moves and Rolavsky on the defensive. Unheard of. A Danish Gambit?"
After long thought the Russian castled, and now the Old Master felt himself moving into that strange trance of chess intuition. Attack. Tempt a weakness. A combination, with the pieces piling up at one spot, cleansing the board of each other's presence. Lines of play ran through his head. The pieces on the board swirled into patterns, blended, and stiffened into place eight or ten moves on. Tempt a weakness. But would Rolavsky move his pawn? His whole queen side undeveloped? The Old Master put his hand to the king's knight and a small sigh went up from the spectators. "One move. A single tempo, and Rolavsky's even. Why didn't he pin the knight?" A moment's hesitation, and then he placed the knight at knight five. There. Now would Rolavsky move the pawn? The precisionist wouldn't. The arrogant refuter of gambits would. Did there linger still a trace of something from the third move? Would this Russian weaken? Rook and pawn, did he think, for bishop and knight?
Rolavsky studied the position almost interminably. Then he pushed his pawn to king rook three, then dropped his hand as if burnt, as if too late he had seen beneath the surface of the board a steady fire. And now the crowd was quiet, waiting, and there began to break into the Old Master's brain a long shaft of light. A combination, the moves tumbling over one another with sweet promise. A game of equilibrium, a perfect tension of pieces, everything held in suspense by a perpetual check from Black, a fantasy of eternal motion caught in the flowing lines of a knight's pendulum move. The perfect game of chess! He could force Rolavsky to play for a draw. Eagerly the Old Master took the bishop's pawn with his knight and waited for Rolavsky to retake with the rook. The combination was irresistible. But would Rolavsky see the knight check he himself would have to give, five moves later, to hold the draw? Would he take the draw that would give him the championship of the world?
Rolavsky retook with the rook, and the old man moved the king pawn down. The crowd, sensing something in the quick replies after so long a series of waits, rippled with comment. "Why didn't he retake with the bishop? If pawn takes pawn, the queen is lost. What's the old man after? No, the rook is pinned. It won't run away." At last Rolavsky switched the threatened knight to knight five. The Old Master moved the pawn to king six and found himself praying that Rolavsky would not take it with the bishop. The continuation darkened his mind: He takes with his bishop, I'll take with mine; he threatens mate, queen to rook five; I take the rook and check; he takes the bishop with the king; I check at bishop three with the queen; he goes to the knight square, then pawn to king rook three and he's lost. But lost in a brutal way after a blunt struggle. No charm there, no beauty, only a win. For a moment the Old Master cursed this insane undesire to win that had cost him so many a tournament; and he hoped that Rolavsky would take with the bishop. The pull of the title spun the chessboard before him as he thought of the fifty years he had divided his heart between fortune and perfection. He searched Rolavsky's face as the clock ticked off minutes. Two hours for thirty moves. Only a third of them made, and Rolavsky still looking at the board. Too long.
Position after 11. e6 (or P-K6)
But now Rolavsky was moving his queen, and the old man saw it glide to rook five. The dreaded and then hoped for continuation vanished from his mind and in its place came a sense of lightness and power. The pattern was forming. The tensions, threat and counterthreat, were moving toward that poetry of perpetual motion he had anticipated. He took the rook with his pawn. The Black king moved under it. He played his bishop to bishop four, covering the mate at rook two. The clock ticked as he listened for the beating of Rolavsky's heart and in a minute or two they seemed to focus, rising in tempo until at thunder pitch the Russian pulled away the bishop's pawn and dropped his knight on the square. The old man moved his queen to king two. The perfect game! He ran through the moves. Black knight to knight five, check. White king to the rook square. Black checking again with the knight. How tense the pieces looked! What a balance between White's accumulated force and the gyrations of the Black knight!
Rolavsky was sweating now, and the crowd was quiet. Twice the Russian's hand strayed to the board and twice he withdrew it. The old man went through the moves again. Then he looked up again from his dream to see in Rolavsky's eyes something that wrenched him. Bitzer Lake! The eagerness for revenge across the board shook him. Something in the game crumpled, and with it something in the old man's mind.
Rolavsky was bending over the board, demanding a win of his pieces. He didn't want a draw. The crowd jabbered, unmindful of frowns from the director, piecing out the perpetual check.
"Sure it's a perpetual. Knight just moves back and forth. Old man must be crazy. Giving the championship away. Why doesn't Rolavsky move?"
At last Rolavsky did, knight to knight five, discovering check. The Old Master pushed his king aside, and with it the illusion of fifty years. Rolavsky could check once more, demonstrate the perpetual to the referee, and then sweep the pieces into confusion as he rose. The Old Master waited.
Position after 15. Kh1 (or K-KR1)
But Rolavsky did not check. Slowly the old man's eyes moved from Rolavsky's face to the silent chessmen. They blurred; then the Russian moved: Bishop to queen two.
As he stared at the move, the Old Master recognized a new defeat. There was no perpetual check. There never had been. Blindness! As if seeing the position for the first time, he painfully picked over the moves, resisting each pull into the combination that deluded him. Had Rolavsky checked with the knight, Black would have lost. Knight checks, rook takes knight, and if Black retakes, White mates at king eight. The Black bishop had to move to queen two to protect the mating square. The old man looked up again; and as he stretched his hand to the board, he sensed rather than saw something else at the edge of Rolavsky's eyes. He stopped his hand, and the gesture released the breath of the crowd in a quiet sigh.
Once more he searched the position, wondering why he continued, deaf to the reawakened swell of flurry beyond the ropes. Suddenly he saw it, and everything else faded except the patterns of force formed by the pieces as they moved into their predestined places. Again the testing of each move, racked by the error of the first delusion, soothed by what he saw unfolding on the board. Finally he pulled his queen rook to king square. Rolavsky hurried his other knight to queen bishop three. And now it was as if some inevitable force suddenly set in motion were lifting the game away from both players. Or perhaps the old man had realized that Rolavsky was but a chess piece too, to be moved and used. Whatever the reason, only the moves remained. The Old Master traced the final position in his mind. The rooks, side by side, one checking, the other covering an escape square. The rook on white and the bishop on black, checking together, one from afar, the other only a diamond from the Black king.
Here. Here, this was it. There could be no mistake now. Out of defeat, victory. Out of death, life. Out of the tangled emotions of this fleeting game, a beauty to endure forever. Those fifty tortured years of his had not been in vain after all. This was perfection, a work of art, an abstraction of force into an eternal tension utterly withdrawn from its creators, from the moment, form the unmoved chessboard itself. A superb sequence of power begun by the most daring stroke of all chessdom, the sacrifice of the most powerful piece, the queen. No. No, not one queen but two! One queen, combiner of rook and bishop in its motion, to die; from its sacrifice to come a new queen, itself to die stillborn, then the mate to be delivered by its divided functions, by bishop and rook. surely, the old man told himself, there was no greater beauty than this. The victory was his. He had but to take it. With trembling fingers he lifted his queen, moved it steadily down the file to king eight.
Someone in the crowd gabbled in astonishment. "His queen? He's crazy. That square's twice covered. I can't see. No, Rolavsky's time is almost gone. It's a trick. Bitzer Lake. Remember Bitzer Lake!"
Rolavsky, with a wild look at the clock, swept the queen from the board with his rook. The old man took the rook, queening the pawn with the check. Rolavsky's hand faltered, moved again, and the bishop captured the second queen. Then with a loving movement, a long caressing gesture, itself somehow a part of the final position, the Old Master drew his bishop up to the queen pawn, removed it, left the bishop, and whispered, smiling gently above the file of the unmasked rook, a single word–
Final position after 19. Bxd6 (or BxP) double-check and mate.
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Professor Kester Olaf Svendsen (1912-1968) was a respected English professor and chess administrator. I cannot find much information about this wonderful story of his, such as the original date of publication. If you can, please share.
To follow transcribed chess games, one must be able to understand chess notation. Professor Svendsen described the moves in old-school notation, e.g., “pawn to king 4.” Algebraic notation became the accepted style in the mid-1970’s, by which P-K4 was replaced by “e4.” To understand both styles of notation, click HERE.
Tried-and-true chess opening sequences often sport colorful names– the Ruy Lopez, the Sicilian Defense, the French Defense, the Spanish, Russian, Italian, or Scotch Game; the Danish, King’s, or Queen’s Gambit, etc. etc. Furthermore, popular variations are also indicated, leading to such monikers as “the Najdorf Sicilian, Poisoned Pawn Variation.”
And finally, the character in the photo at the top is the evil Russian genius Kronsteen, Head of Planning for SPECTRE in the Bond film FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE. The game used in the movie and shown on the demonstration board is a masterpiece of a real game– Spassky vs. Bronstein, 1960.