Akiba Rubinstein: Learn from the Uncrowned King

Akiba Rubinstein was a chessplayer who many of you may not have heard of.

Some may have a faint idea like “Ahh, he was a guy from the old days…there’s an Akiba Rubinstein variation, right?”  but vague words like these would be a huge injustice to a guy who was really a pioneer in our game and at one time in history at least, the strongest player in the world.

Akiba Rubinstein 2

Rubinstein (right) against his lifetime rival, World Champion Emmanuel Lasker.

When asked who they think was the strongest player never to become world champion, most knowledgable chessplayers mention either Viktor Korchnoi or Akiba Rubinstein.

I must say that I also share this opinion.

What’s amazing is that Rubinstein was already past his peak (and on the verge of retiring) the year Victor Korchnoi was born (Korchnoi was born in 1931, Rubinstein quit chess in 1933) but was already playing what we now consider super grandmaster-level chess as early as 1907! 😯

This was at a time prior to computers, prior to chess coaches and when good chess books were hard to come by.

Can you imagine a player beginning these days at age 16 and quickly becoming a world-class grandmaster without books, coaching or computers?

Very hard to imagine, right?

By June of 1913 Rubinstein was the strongest player in the world, but sadly struggled to raise the fees needed to challenge Lasker in a World Championship match.

In their individual encounters at tournaments, Akiba Rubinstein held his own and in fact sometimes dominated, as we can see in the game coming below.

This game also happened to be the first game between the two rivals, and I imagine must have come as a splash of cold water to Lasker.

Who is this guy who humiliated him??…and in such a beautifully played game too!

Its little wonder that Lasker later made things difficult for Rubinstein as he attempted to organise a challenge match for the title!

Akiba Rubinstein vs Emanuel Lasker

This game was played in 1909 and showed that Rubinstein had already by this time mastered tactical play, calculation of complicated positions and his specialty…endgame technique.

Here I present you the game with light notes by Lasker himself! 😉  

What do you think?

I can remember when I first studied that game (from the fantastic book “World’s Greatest Chess Games“, which I highly recommend! 😉 ), and when the final position arrived after 40.a3 I completely missed the point.

I mean…I had no idea why black had suddenly resigned! 

The point is that black now has no useful moves and is basically in zugzwang.

Any rook exchange will allow white to enter and win the kingside pawns with Kg6 and any king move by black will allow the same thing.

What’s that mean?

Black is just going to shuffle his rook along the 7th rank and white can already consider liquidation ideas such as Rd6-d7, followed by e6 with a winning King+Pawn ending.

Lasker had no taste for sitting and waiting to see how Rubinstein would choose to win and upon seeing Rubinstein’s move 40.a3 knew that his opponent was implying something to him along the lines of…

“Ok Emanuel, I pass…What’s your move? Its zugzwang, my friend… 😉 “

Now you’re starting to get the picture about how good this guy was…

But let’s look at his other contributions to chess.

Rubinstein on the Chess Openings

Rubinstein contributed enormously to modern opening theory and in fact, elite modern Grandmaster Boris Gelfand went as far as to say:

“Most of the modern openings are based on Rubinstein…”

GM Boris Gelfand

Very high praise from a guy who himself recently played a world championship match.

Let’s examine a few of his contributions in detail.

Tarrasch Defence, Rubinstein Variation

This variation vs the Tarrasch Defence (6.g3) was largely responsible for putting the Tarrasch Defence out of commission for years!

Here is the game where Rubinstein introduced this variation for the first time in San Sebastian 1912 against the inventor of the Tarrasch Defence, Siegbert Tarrasch himself!

Akiba Rubinstein vs Siegbert Tarrasch

In this game which was played in round 5 of the event, Rubinstein broke out his new weapon and on move 11 chose the positional try with 11.Na4 and 12.Be3, trying to exploit the c5 square.

Tarrasch defended well and although Rubinstein got an advantage (in the form of superior king safety), it wasn’t enough to win since black was quite active and there wasn’t a way to exploit the weakened black king position (too many minor pieces already exchanged).

Guess what then happened?

Two rounds later, American attacking genius Frank Marshall seen the merit in Rubinstein’s idea and used it to DEMOLISH his opponent, introducing a novelty in the process!

Frank James Marshall vs Leo Fleischmann Forgacs

As mentioned, this game was played two rounds after the game in which Rubinstein introduced his idea and Marshall had done his homework.

Introducing the aggressive and stronger 11.e4! (thus improving upon Rubinstein’s more positional 11.Na4?!), Marshall played like Mike Tyson in his prime.

*Whack, Whack, Whack* and his opponent was on the canvas in 23 moves!

The Rubinstein variation then became so feared that it wasn’t until Gary Kasparov finally picked up the Tarrasch Defence in the 1980s that it was taken seriously again.

The free nature of black’s pieces suited Kasparov’s aggressive style and indeed he used the Tarrasch Defence to overpower guys like Larsen and Korchnoi while on his ride to the World Championship.

But then…

Kasparov’s  arch-nemesis (and like Rubinstein, a master of positional chess), Anatoly Karpov employed the Rubinstein Variation and was soon responsible for Kasparov himself putting the opening down!

So 73 years later (!), Rubinstein’s idea was still giving fans of this opening serious problems, even at the World Championship level!

Anatoly Karpov vs Garry Kasparov

As we know, Rubinstein’s idea was to play 6.g3 and place positional pressure upon the black d-pawn and thats exactly what Karpov does to Kasparov in this game.

Kasparov does his best to stay active, but as he was so adept at…Karpov snuffed out black’s activity and  went on to play a technical masterpiece.

White’s move 47.Ng2!! was an ingenious way to finish off a superb positional game.

Recently some computer analysis has tried to show that black can equalise in this line, but I have studied it for the black side and am not 100% convinced.

I have since switched to the Slav Defence as my black response to 1.d4, and more precisely…the Meran Variation, which happens to be ANOTHER of Rubinstein’s inventions!

In fact, Rubinstein also invented the following openings:

The “Rubinstein Attack” in the Queen’s Gambit often refers to 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Nf3 Nbd7 7.Qc2!?

rubinstein variation 1

Rubinstein Variation 1!

The Rubinstein Variation of the French Defence arises after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 (or 3.Nd2) dxe4!? 

rubinstein variation 2

Rubinstein Variation 2!

The Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian goes 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3!?

rubinstein variation 3

Rubinstein Variation 3!

There is also the Rubinstein Variation of the Four Knights Game, which arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Nd4.

rubinstein variation 4

Rubinstein Variation 4!

And the Rubinstein Variation of the Symmetrical English, 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nc7!? a complex system that is still very popular at the grandmaster level.

rubinstein variation 5

Rubinstein Variation 5!

Are you starting to see why I said that this guy doesn’t get enough credit? 😉

Well…that’s not all there is that Akiba Rubinstein contributed to chess for us to learn from.

There is also the not-so-small contribution that he made to chess endgame theory.

Rubinstein’s Endgame Play

Akiba Rubinstein was one of THE most gifted endgame specialists in history, it could even be said that he was on the same level as Capablanca.

In rook endings in particular, a lot of people consider him to be the greatest ever.

We already seen Rubinstein’s precise handling of rook endings above (in the game against Lasker) but let’s see another even more impressive example.

On this game the author of the tournament book stated:

“If this game had been played 300 years earlier, Rubinstein would have been burned at the stake for dealing with evil spirits.”

The ending reached in the game is so dead drawn that all of today’s GMs (except maybe Magnus) would would simply shake hands and leave the playing hall, but somehow Rubinstein squeezes the slightest, tiniest chance out of the position and achieves victory.

This endgame is REALLY worthy of study if you want to play endgames well!

Hermanis Karlovich Mattison vs Akiba Rubinstein

In the final position above, white’s king will be overloaded trying to simultaneously stop black’s h and c pawns.

What about the following masterpiece played against Schlechter, which Capablanca himself described as:

“A monument of magnificent precision”

When observing this game, we get the impression that the game was played by a very modern grandmaster such as Vladimir Kramnik, and might be astonished to learn that the game was played way back in 1912!

Akiba Rubinstein vs Carl Schlechter

Observe in this game the complete control which Rubinstein exercises over the position, the massaging of multiple weakness and the active use of his king (which is a hallmark of strong endgame players).

If I were you I’d study this game over and over (as I did once upon a time 😉 ) until not even the most subtle point is missed!

There are absolutely tons of impressive examples of Rubinstein’s endgame mastery (I’ll throw a few more in the PDF for ya 😉 ), but now we’ll move on and look at the last section of this post.

Rubinstein as a Tactician

Usually when a player has a reputation as a “positional player” and an “endgame specialist” they tend to miss the boat when it comes to lists featuring the most beautiful tactical games in history.

As a positional player, even Gary Kasparov spoke of Rubinstein saying:

“Rubinstein was one of the greatest positional players ever, who influenced many future generations of great players, including such great scientists and champions as Mikhail Botvinnik”

Vladamir Kramnik said:

We should not forget Rubinstein, an incredibly talented and fantastic chess player. It is a pity that with his extensive knowledge of chess, he was not a World Champion. Sometimes he created true masterpieces and was way ahead of his time. To understand this, you should just go through the collection of his best games. Why didn’t he become a World Champion? That’s a mystery to me.”

and Boris Gelfand said:

“What I like in chess … comes from Akiba”

So much praise from such incredibly strong players for a guy you may not have heard of before this article…I’m happy you’re reading it and I hope you are too. 🙂

I’m gonna finish off with two of Rubinstein’s tactical masterpieces.

One against Rotlewi and the other against Hromadka and both are beautiful in different ways.

Here they are.

Georg Rotlewi vs Akiba Rubinstein

This immortal game features a sacrifice of first an exchange, then a queen, then a rook and because of perfect harmony of Rubinstein’s pieces…everything just works!

This has been one of my favourite games since I was a kid.

Akiba Rubinstein vs Karel Hromadka

Rubinstein was known to be a principled man who played predictable openings and remained objective most of the time.

Once at a tournament when asked who he was scheduled to play for that day’s round he responded:

“Today… I play against the black pieces”

Which sums up his “play the board, not the man” philosophy in a way which Bobby Fischer would have approved of.

Anyway…

There is a story about Rubinstein that follows that he so often played 1.d4 on the first move, and with such crushing results that one day he arrived to the board to find his d-pawn nailed to the board!

Obviously a practical joke from some rival, and pretty funny too.

In the following game, he refrains from his favourite opening move (perhaps his d-pawn was nailed down!) and instead plays a King’s Gambit (!) dispatching a quite decent opponent in a beautiful game.

Check it out.

Akiba Rubinstein Quits Chess

After 1932 Rubinstein quit chess and had started to show signs of mental illness, specifically anthrophobia (fear of people) and schizophrenia.

At some tournaments after making a move he would retreat to the corner of the playing hall and hide until his opponent had moved.

He’d then return to the board, make his move and retreat back to the corner.

I don’t know exactly what brought on his mental decline, whether it was the frustration over not getting a match with Lasker (he tried for years and Lasker kept dodging him and then finally when a match was scheduled and he was all set to play, WWI started and the match was cancelled! 😐 ), living through the war, chess obsession or a combination of several things.

Perhaps it was random, who knows?

What I do know is that this genius lost his sanity and spent the last 29 years of his life in and out of mental institutions before finally passing away in 1961, aged 80.

What a tragedy. 🙁 

Why do so many chess geniuses go insane anyway?

Thats a talk for another time…

Its time for you to do your study!

Action Steps

  1. Share this post (Yes, do it first. Thank you guys, it helps a lot! 😉 )
  2. Download the PDF of the Rubinstein Games.
  3. Print them out.
  4. Study them carefully and milk the easy ELO gain possible from studying such a guy.
  5. Come back to chessncognac.com and join me for another lesson!  🙂
  • Arun

    Beautiful 🙂 Thanks for the great work. Any book you would recommend to understand his Life and Games?