Most chess players know something about the World Chess Champions, two of whom—Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov—achieved fame extending far outside of the chess community. However, there are several players who fell just short of winning the World Championship and thus do not receive the attention and credit that they deserve. This series of articles about “Uncrowned Champions” will showcase the achievements of several chess players who did not claim the ultimate crown but who deserve to be remembered. IM John Donaldson and IM Nikolay Minev wrote a 1994 book titled Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King and since the title and theme of that book provided some of the inspiration for this project it is only fitting to begin by looking at Rubinstein’s brilliant and tragic career.
Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961) first learned to play chess when he was a 16 year old student at a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) in an area of his native Poland that was then governed by Czarist Russia. Rubinstein acquired the only Hebrew chess book he could find—a volume by Talmudic scholar/polymath Joseph Sossnitz titled Chess, Checkmate—and devoured it from cover to cover.
Three years later, Rubinstein traveled to the nearby city of Lodz and met George Salwe, who was a Grandmaster strength player, though that title did not yet exist. Rubinstein discovered that he still had much to learn about the royal game but he proved to be a determined and relentless student. In 1903, Rubinstein challenged Salwe to a match and battled his much more experienced opponent to a tie (Hans Kmoch’s 1941 book Rubinstein’s Chess Masterpieces says that the match was knotted at 5-5, while Rubinstein’s page at Chessgames.com lists a 7-7 score). Rubinstein won the rematch (Kmoch gives a final tally of 6-3, while Chessgames.com reports a 5.5-4.5 outcome). Rubinstein began his tournament career by scoring 11.5/18 in the 1903 Russian Championship at Kiev, placing fifth. In his next seven tournaments he finished first five times, including a victory in the 1907 Russian Championship at Lodz.
According to Jeff Sonas, whose rating calculations can be found at his Chessmetrics site, Rubinstein was the strongest chess player in the world at various times between 1908-1914. From January 1908-May 1914, Sonas ranks Rubinstein either #1 or #2 on every monthly rating list. Sonas says that the best tournament performance of Rubinstein’s career came at St. Petersburg 1909 when he scored 14.5/18 and shared first place with World Champion Emanuel Lasker, 3.5 points ahead of a strong field that included Rudolf Spielman, Ossip Bernstein, Carl Schlechter, Jacque Mieses and Savielly Tartakower. Rubinstein showcased his tremendous endgame technique in his encounter with Lasker:
Rubinstein,Akiba - Lasker,Emanuel [D32]
St. Petersburg 1909 (3), 1909
1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Bg5 c5 [4...Be7 or
4...Nbd7 are preferred by modern GMs.] 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Nc3 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Nc6 ["The cause for subsequent embarrassment. 7...Be7 was preferable" (Lasker).] 8.e3 Be7 9.Bb5 ["Showing up the weakness of Black's seventh move" (Lasker).] 9...Bd7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.Nxd5 Bxd4 12.exd4 Qg5 13.Bxc6 [13.Nc7+ Kd8 14.Bxc6 Bxc6 15.d5 (15.Nxa8?? Re8+-+) 15...Kxc7 16.dxc6 Rhe8+ 17.Kf1 bxc6=+] 13...Bxc6 14.Ne3 0-0-0 ["A careless move. There was no reason for Black to desist from his intention of capturing the g-pawn simply because White has omitted Qe2+. As a matter of fact, after 14...Bxg2 15.Rg1 Qa5+ 16.Qd2 Qxd2+ 17.Kxd2 Be4 Black would be quite comfortable" (Lasker).] 15.0-0 Rhe8 16.Rc1! ["A very subtle move. What with the threat of Rc5 and d5, White retains his advantage, and he can certainly cope with Black's threat of ...Rxe3" (Lasker).] 16...Rxe3 [16...Kb8 17.Rc5 Qf4 18.d5 Rxe3 19.Qc1 Re4 20.dxc6 bxc6 21.Qc3± (Lasker).] 17.Rxc6+ bxc6 18.Qc1!! Rxd4 [18...Re5 19.Qxc6+ Kb8 20.dxe5 Qxe5 21.Rc1 and Black cannot defend his exposed K against White's powerful Q and R.] 19.fxe3 Rd7 20.Qxc6+ Kd8 21.Rf4!! ["A splendid idea, threatening to decide the game at once by Qa8+, followed by a Rook check on e4 or c4; hence, Black is forced to swap Queens and to face a lost ending" (Lasker). Note how Rubinstein keenly combined attack and defense, placing his R on an aggressive post that also shields the weak e-pawn from Black's Q.] 21...f5 [Guarding the e4 square is the best practical choice in a lost position, as demonstrated by these lines provided by Lasker: [21...Qa5 22.Qa8+ Ke7 23.Re4+ Kf6 24.Qc6+ Kg5 25.h4++-; 21...Rd1+ 22.Kf2 Rd2+ 23.Ke1 Qxg2 24.Rd4+! Ke7 25.Qd6++-] 22.Qc5 Qe7 [After 22...Rd1+ 23 Kf2 Rd2+ 24 Ke1 Qxg2 White would win the Rook by 23 Qa5+ (Lasker).] 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.Rxf5 Rd1+ 25.Kf2 Rd2+ 26.Kf3 Rxb2 27.Ra5 Rb7 28.Ra6 [Rubinstein's technique is most instructive: his last two moves have limited the mobility of both of Black's pieces. This allows Rubinstein to methodically build up a deadly K-side pawn storm.] 28...Kf8 29.e4 Rc7 30.h4 Kf7 31.g4 Kf8 32.Kf4 Ke7 33.h5 h6 [As is usually the case, advancing a P on the side where the opponent is attacking creates a weakness--the g6 square in this instance--but Black did not have a good alternative: 33...Kf7 34.Kf5 Ke7 35.g5 Kf7 36.e5 Ke7 37.g6 h6 38.Re6+ Kd7 (38...Kf8 39.Rd6 Ke7 40.Ra6 Rb7 41.Rc6 Rd7 42.Rc8 and White's R will capture the g-pawn.) 39.Rf6!! Ke8 (39...gxf6 40.g7 Rc8 41.exf6+-) 40.Rf7 Rxf7+ 41.gxf7+ Kxf7 42.e6+ Ke8 43.Ke5 Ke7 44.Kd5 Ke8 45.Kd6 Kd8 46.e7+ Ke8 47.Ke6 a5 48.a4 g5 49.hxg6 h5 50.g7 h4 51.g8Q# (Analysis by GM Mihail Marin).] 34.Kf5 Kf7 35.e5 Rb7 36.Rd6 Ke7 37.Ra6 Kf7 38.Rd6 Kf8 39.Rc6 Kf7 40.a3 1-0
Rubinstein won first place in five consecutive top level events from 1911-1912, a remarkable run highlighted by his clear first with a 12.5/19 score at the 1912 San Sebastian tournament, a result that Sonas ranks as the best performance by any chess player from 1912-1913. In Learn from the Legends—Chess Champions at Their Best, GM Mihail Marin offers the highest praise for Rubinstein’s winning streak: “Akiba’s performance should be put on the same level as Kasparov’s domination in the tournaments played around the turn of the millennium.”
Sonas asserts that Rubinstein was the best chess player in the world from August 1912-April 1914. Sonas calculates Rubinstein’s “five year peak rating” (2779 from Jan. 1910-Dec. 1914) to be the 18th best of all-time; Sonas’ top five players in this category are Garry Kasparov (2875 from Jan. 1989-Dec. 1993), Emanuel Lasker (2854 from Jan. 1894-Dec. 1898), Jose Capablanca (2843 from Jan. 1919-Dec. 1923), Mikhail Botvinnik (2843 from Jan. 1945-Dec. 1949) and Bobby Fischer (2841 from Jan. 1969-Dec. 1973).
Rubinstein clearly deserved an opportunity to challenge Lasker for the World Championship but during that era the World Champion had the right to set the financial terms that a prospective opponent would have to meet in order to arrange a match; basically, the World Champion could handpick his challenger. Understandably, Lasker was not eager to face Rubinstein but eventually a match between the two best players in the world was scheduled to begin in October 1914. Unfortunately, the onset of World War I canceled this showdown.
When the war ended Rubinstein was clearly not the same as a person or a chess player. Although by Sonas’ reckoning he remained one of the world’s top ten players until late in 1932, Rubinstein never quite regained the playing strength that he demonstrated from 1910-1914. Rubinstein was still capable of beating the top players in the world but his results lacked consistency and away from the board he increasingly began to demonstrate signs of a worsening mental illness, a problem that eventually forced Rubinstein to stop playing competitive chess after 1932. Just prior to that, Rubinstein enjoyed his last great triumph, leading Poland to the gold medal in the third Chess Olympiad (Hamburg 1930).
Even though Rubinstein’s career was interrupted by war and curtailed by mental illness, he still left perhaps the most impressive legacy of any chess player who did not win the World Championship. Rubinstein excelled in all phases of the game. He was an endgame virtuoso who is widely regarded as the greatest rook endgame player ever but he also made substantial contributions to opening theory. As GM Marin explains, “Rubinstein’s name is closely linked with the main lines of such openings as the Nimzo-Indian, the Queen’s Indian and the Tarrasch Defense. He invented several set-ups for Black that are still topical in the French Defense and the Ruy Lopez. He also played the modern Meran variation of the Semi-Slav for the first time.”
Rubinstein was also a daring and inventive attacking player who devised some of the most dazzling combinations ever, so this tribute to his brilliance will conclude by displaying three of his sparkling tactical gems:
Rotlewi - Rubinstein
1...Rxc3 2.gxh4 Rd2 3.Qxd2 Bxe4+ 4.Qg2 Rh3 5.Bd4 Bxd4 6.Rf2 Bxf2 0-1
Rubinstein - Hromadka
Mahrisch-Ostrau, 1923 (Brilliancy Prize)
1.Qb6 Rd7 [1...axb6 2.axb6+ Ba7 3.Rxa7+ Kb8 4.Bd4 exd4 5.Rfxb7+ Kc8 6.Ba6 Qc7 7.Rxc7+ Kb8 8.Rcb7+ Kc8 9.Ra8#] 2.Bc5 Rxf7 3.Bxd6 Rf2+ 4.Qxf2 Nxf2 5.Bc5 1-0
Michel - Rubinstein
Semmering, 1926 (Brilliancy Prize)
33...Qa1 34.gxh4 Qf1+ 35.Kg3 Qe1+ 36.Rf2 Qg1+ 37.Kf3 Qh1+ 38.Rg2 Qd1+ 39.Kg3 Qg4+ 40.Kf2 Qe2+ 0-1