Dr. Tartakower: No ordinary superstar


The great Tartakower was born on February 22 1887.
When I was a young and developing player in Montreal, I learned much by studying the books of Grandmaster Xavier Tartakower. The much beloved chess organizer, Artur Langlois, who was also the president of the remarkable Alekhine Chess Club, introduced me to 500 Master Games of Chess (co-written with du Mont) and Breviare des Echecs when I first visited his museum-like apartment on DeLormier street.

These two classics should need little introduction to any serious student of the game. They are truly great literary works on chess and I recommend them to you! I still count them as among my most prized chess possessions, and they have rightfully earned the honour of sharing a special shelf (along with my other all-time favourite chess books).


Partly because of the commercial success and wide recognition of the quality of Tartakower’s writing (translated into dozens of languages) -where he prefered to focus on the games of other masters -it has been easy for the chess community to overlook that Tartakower was a truly great player himself. To be fair, while he was eclipsed in over the board play by the flamboyant Alekhine and charismatic Capablanca, his scores against these two champions was by no means flimsy. And he beat virtually every other great master in the world. But I think the reality is that Tartakower preferred to stay slightly in the background (see photo of St. Petersburg) and remain a bit anonymous.


I stumbled upon ,almost by chance , his My best games of Chess 1905-1954 , only in 1987 when I was already a mature grandmaster, and it gave me another perspective (and a much deeper understanding) of Tartakower’s great contribution to the game. I believe that it was Tartakower (and not Alekhine) who created what was soon to become the model for presenting annotated games : lots of indepth variations and an effort to explain to the reader the working of the master’s mind during the game. Even to this day it is not uncommon for me to use this classic text as a reference for the evolution of modern opening systems. It is one of a handful of those books (among the thousands I have) that needs to be most often re-stacked in my library!
Tartakower’s own playing career was very long and impressive; he played a great deal, probably of his generation only Alekhine playing and traveling more. Tartakower bridges the times from the great romantic player Tchigorin to Lasker ,Capablanca, Alekhine and Reti to Botvinnik and the emergence of Soviet surpemacy in the chess world. Among the many tournaments that he played in are counted the first super tournament St.Petersburg 1909, the amazingly strong New York 1924 Tournament , San Remo 1930 as well as Groningen 1946. His last tournament was in 1954.

And Tartakower was very successful in his own play, winning many a strong tournament and finishing in the top half more often than not. Tartakower was able to embrace the changes that chess was going thru and at the same time make valuable contributions himself. He started off as a classical player with a flair for combinative play, developed an alround style as he became older and incorporated the spirit of the hypermodern school. Tartakower’s games are full of life and have a richness that any great master would be proud of.

The 1909 St.Petersburg International Chess Congress. One of Tartakower’s first great tournaments. He is the second to the right, top row, just 22 years old. He finished a respectable 12th place, with 8.5pts out of a possible 18. Nearly all the great players of the world participated. Lasker and Rubinstein can be seen in the middle, both sharing first prize.

Xavier Tartakower was born in 1887 in Rostov-on-Don of educated and well to do Austro-Polish parents. He learned chess at the age of 10 from his father and demonstrated talent early on. In 1899 he left Russia, and he graduated in law in Vienna in 1909 (but did not practice law to any visible extent). He never seemed to stay in any one place for very long, always on the move, but eventually he settled in Paris (1924), where he became a French citizen. At one point he also held Polish citizenship (even though he could not speak the language!).

His chess career had to stop during the First and Second World Wars , as did most other masters, but chose to volunteer to serve in the military, earning distinction and merit. (In the former war, he fought for Austria, and in the latter he fought for France) Not much is known of what exactly he did, but it is rumoured he served with the intelligence services, taking advantage of his great knowledge of languages and his ease of movement thru all levels of society in Europe .

The following game earned the young Tartakower high praise.
Tartakower S. – Schlechter C.
St. Petersburg 1909.
1. e4 e5 2. f4
Tartakower had a flair for combinative play

In his book, My Best Games of Chess, Tartakower went to great pains to explain the psychological reasoning behind his choice of opening against Schlechter (who was considered one of the 5 best in the world at the time)
2… Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. c3 Nf6

A well respected way to decline the kings’s gambit in those days
5. fxe5 dxe5 6. Nxe5 O-O 7. d4 Bd6

Black threatens to take the knight and gain the initiative
8. Nf3 Nxe4 9. Bd3 Re8 10. O-O h6 ?!
this causes problems later. better is …Nd7

Lasker, in the official tournament book, wrote that Black’s last move ‘was not necessary’ as White was not really threatening anything.

11. Nbd2 Nf6 Tartakower felt that exchanging on d2 would not have helped Black much 12. Nc4 c5 13. Nfe5 cxd4 if instead …Be6 14.Nxd6 Qxd6 15.Bxh6! follows

The modern player would immediately sense an impending explosion here. All of White’s pieces are ready. But it would be a mistake to think that even an amateur 100 years ago would have thought any differently: as is said, some ideas are as natural as a baby’s smile.

14. Nxf7!
Of course! What chess player could resist? Tartakower wrote:

 ”Banal and standardised as this Knight sacrifice on the hallowed square, f7, may well appear, its correctness is none the less based on a series of sacrifices and subsequent subtleties, so much so that all this necessitated exact and profound calculation…that such a symphony of terrifying attack could be orchestrated without any cacophonous notes, is so exceptional a case that even a colossus of the dimension of a Carl Schlechter could not imagine it!”

14…Kxf7 15. Qh5 Kg8 There is little choice from Black’s perspective

16. Rxf6!
”Rounding off the first part of the initial attack”-Tartakower 16…Re1 !

There is nothing better. If instead 16… gxf6 then 17. Qg6 Kf8 18. Bxh6 Ke7 19. Re1 Kd7 20. Bf5 Kc7 21. Rxe8 Bxf5 22. Rxd8 Bxg6 23. Rxd6 or if 16… Qxf6 17. Qxe8 Bf8 18. Qxc8 dxc3 19. Be3

17. Rf1 Rxf1 18. Bxf1 Bf8

The reader may be forgiven if he thinks the worst is over

19. Bxh6! Brilliant! This is the real idea behind Tartakower’s attack.


There is, again, no real choice from Black’s perspective. If instead 19… gxh6 20. Qg6 Bg7 21. Re1 Bd7 22. Nd6 b5 23. Bd3 Qg5 24. Re8 Bxe8 25. Qxe8 Bf8 26. Qf7 Kh8 27. Qh7#

20. Bg5 Qf5 21. Nd6!
GrandMaster Carl Schlechter

This pretty move clears the way for the King bishop to enter the fray. There is no defence but to make forced moves.

21…Bxd6 22. Bc4 Be6 23. Rf1

To avoid immediate mate, Black must give his queen
23… Qxf1 24. Bxf1 Nd7 25. Bd3 Nf8 26. cxd4

Having both a material advantage and a vastly superior position, Black allows himself a few more moves before surrendering.
26… Bf7 27. Qf3 Ne6 28. Be3 Rb8 29. g4 g5 30. Qf6 Bf8 31. Bh7 Kxh7 32. Qxf7

One of the most brilliant games of the tournament–but it did not win a prize!! Tartakower wrote

 This game almost, but not quite, received a brilliancy prize; however, the squares f7,f6,and h6, on which the initial sacrifices took place, seemed to the judges too familiar and , as it were, lending themselves too easily to the feats accomplished by my troops.”

Tartakower, ofcourse, was being sarcastic! How can such a game NOT receive a prize?? This whole episode reminds me of an amusing scene from the film Amadeus (1984) where the young genius Mozart’s work is unfairly slighted by Salieri and Emperor JosephII as having ”too many notes”! Quite simply, Tartakower made too many flashy sacrifices for just one game and in the process made it look ridiculously easy to trounce one of the best players in the world… and the mediocre judges held it against him!
Tartakower’s reputation as a cultured and witty individual was quickly established. His writings are a constant blend of lively and profound insight, much of the time humourous. Sort of reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s literary contributions.
Some of his more well known witticisms:

    —”It is always better to sacrifice your opponent’s men”
    —”The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.”
    —”Some part of any mistake is always correct.”
    —”The winner of the game is the one who makes the next-to-last mistake.”
    —”The move is there, but you must see it.”

    —”No game was ever won by resigning.”

    —”’Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.”

    —”I can surely make the same brilliant combinations as Alekhine , the problem is that I can not get the positions that he gets.”

    —”I never defeated a healthy opponent.”

    It would be unfair to think that this talent was self-serving and merely to amuse us. Much of Tartakower’s close personal experiences lead him to see the humour in life. This is especially true of this last one about never having defeated a healthy opponent: in his book My Best Games of Chess ,Tartakower writes at the end of his game with the great Tchigorin (1907) Although I was warmly congratulated on this rapid and crushing victory, it must not, however, be forgotten that the Russian giant was already broken by illness and worn by cares, so that he displayed in this tournament (which, moreover, was to be his last appearance in the international arena) only mediocre form.

    And similarly, at the end of his game with Tarrasch (1928), he wrote This quite subtle victory, obtained after so stern a resistance by my adversary, was embittered by the fact that Dr. Tarrasch suddenly felt extremely ill thereafter. Putting into practice the threat that he uttered after his preceeding defeat (in the first round) against Rubinstein, he ‘abandoned’ the tournament, thereby allowing the two points so hardly won from him to be erased from the table.

    Ofcourse, such a sharp witt must have not always been appreciated by everyone. At the end of his amazingly complicated game with Capablanca ,London 1922, (where Tartakower seemed to be hanging on by the seat of his pants, but the result was a draw), he wrote of the curious exchange with the Cuban : ”You are lacking in solidity” Senor Capablanca said to me. I replied ”That is my saving grace.” He goes on and writes ”For the rest, the Cuban declared that the game ought to be won for him somewhere , or other, only he did not know where.”

    Not at all amused!
    The following curious game is considered by many to be Tartakower’s best known effort.

    Maroczy Geza – Tartakower S
    Teplits/Shoenau 1922
    1. d4 e6 2. c4 f5
    One of the remarkable things about Tartakower’s play was his ability to embrace every opening as though it was his birthright, and to play beautiful games with it. I have tried,in my own career, to emulate this style (with some little success) and one of my favourite openings is the same Dutch as Tartakower plays here in this game.

    3. Nc3 Nf6 4. a3 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Bd3 d5 7. Nf3 c6 8. O-O Ne4

    I have to admit that, in my own games, until I actually succeed in planting a knight on e4, I always have some nagging doubts at the back of my mind about my position…even today many consider the Dutch defense (e6-systems, especially the socalled Stonewall variation) to be anti-positional. I would not go that far, but I would say that it is certainly ugly looking! I remember when I played one of my first Dutch’s in an international chess tournament (against the likeable American IM William Martz,1976 Keres Memorial), some of the spectators laughed when I played f5, probably thinking that I was not being serious. Though I won a brilliant game, I think that my reputation might have suffered as a result!

    9. Qc2 Bd6 10. b3 Nd7 11. Bb2


    Grand Master Geza Maroczy. Certainly not laughing
    Here I quote Tartakower from his book My Best Games of Chess : ” Full of confidence in the scientific basis of his play, White treats the game from a purely positional point of view; whereas Black regards the given position as a vast problem: Mate in 25 moves!”
    11…Rf6 12. Rfe1 Rh6 13. g3 Qf6

    14. Bf1 g5 15. Rad1?! In hindsight, Bg2 is necessary 15…g4
    It is remarkable that, even today, if one takes a look at how the modern masters play the Dutch Defence, it is with the same energy and optimism that Tartakower had played almost 100 years ago! It is for this reason (and probably some other considerations) that whenever I consider playing a new opening, I always check to see if Tartakower had ever played it: his games are the best examples of modern opening theory!

    White is forced, more or less, to make the following exchange. Playing his knight to h4, here or on the next move, would be met by the exchange sacrifice, yielding Black enormous compensation and a free attack.

    16. Nxe4 fxe4 17. Nd2
    I suppose white had a poker face at this point

    Here Tartakower thought for some time. To ‘Prepare or pillage?’ he wrote. While it is virtually impossible to have seen all of the consequences of what follows (the sacrifice is almost entirely intuitive in its nature), certainly Tartakower deserves our appreciation for his ability to press his initiative relentlessly.

    18…Rxh2!! No comment necessary! 18. Kxh2 Qxf2 19. Kh1! The only move
    If instead 19. Bg2 Nf6! 20. Qc3 Qxg3 21. Kg1 Qh2 22. Kf1 Nh5 23. Nxe4 dxe4 24. d5 e5 25. dxc6 Ng3 26. Kf2 Be6 is game over
    Remarkably, it is not easy to see Black’s next move, since nothing seems forced. I have always been impressed by the simple moves that Tartakower plays in this game…even more impressed , I suppose, that they actually succeed in winning!
    19… Nf6!! (19… Qxg3 20. Nb1) 20. Re2 Qxg3 21. Nb1 White defends his 2nd rank

    21…Nh5! This knight is a magic piece! And it will win the game
    22. Qd2 Bd7! allowing the other rook to enter the game. Notice the similarity with the Schlechter game
    23. Rf2 (if instead 23. Qe1 Qf3 24. Rg2 Qh3 25. Kg1 Rf8 26. Nd2 Bg3 27. Rxg3 Qxg3 28. Qxg3 Nxg3 29. Bc3 Nf5 30. Re1 h5 etc) 23… Qh4 24. Kg1 Bg3!

    The black threats are mounting, but white is still a rook up!
    25. Bc3 There is really little better. For example, if instead 25. Rg2 then …Rf8 26. Qe2 Rf3 27. Bc3 Bd6 28. Be1 g3 29. Nd2 Qg4etc or if 25. Rh2 then … Bxh2 26. Qxh2 Qg5 27. Bc1 g3 28. Qh1 Kh8 29. Be2 Nf6 30. Rf1 Rg8 31. Rf4 e5 32. dxe5 Qxe5 33. Qh4 Rg6 34. Bd2 d4 35. exd4 Qxd4etc

    25… Bxf2 26. Qxf2 g3 27. Qg2 Rf8 28. Be1

    While no longer an entire rook up, White is never the less a whole piece up. And everything seems to be holding for Maroczy. Surely Black has run out of steam…!?

    28…Rxf1! Wow!! No sooner is the reserve called into action that it must give its life for the enslaught. 29. Kxf1 e5!

    This is my kind of move! So Hypermodern in appearance (a delayed center advance), yet so crude. Black threatens to win the white Queen in one move. Again, Maroczy has not time to dally. It is with this bishop coming to the aid of the attack that the hopelessness of White’s situation becomes apparent

    30. Kg1 Again, there is nothing better. If 30. Bxg3 then …Nxg3 31. Kf2 Bg4! 32. Re1 Ne2 33. Kf1 Kh8! etc Or if 30. Ke2 Bg4 31. Kd2 Qh2! 32. Qxh2 gxh2 etc. This last variation I find amusing since event he black pawn is shown to be deadly! What a nightmare for the White side.

    30… Bg4 31. Bxg3 Necessary, more or less. If instead 31. Rd2 exd4 32. exd4 Bf3 33. Bxg3 Nxg3 34. Qh2 Qxh2 35. Rxh2 Ne2 36. Kf2 Nxd4 would follow
    31… Nxg3 32. Re1 Nf5! Tartakower is merciless

    33. Qf2 Qg5 34. dxe5 (34. Kf1 Qh5 35. Qg1 Qh4 36. Nc3 Ng3 37. Kg2 Nh1 38. Kf1 Qf6 is all over) 34… Bf3 35. Kf1 Ng3 check!
    Maroczy resigns. An amazing attack, all the more since it was very much in the spirit of the real meaning of sacrifice. Played very much in the style of Misha Tal

    Now surely the reader must be thinking ” Tartakower must have won the brilliancy prize for this magnificent game?” I quote from his own notes on the game: ”The judges awarded this game the third brilliancy prize, although a majority of them declared in peremptory fashion that such sacrifices are incalculable in advance in all their ramifications and that, in consequence, they deserve no encouragement”(!!)

    There is no way to please everyone! Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In one game , there are too many sacrifices (all easy enough to calculate given some time), and in the other there are just as many, but since they are impossible to calculate…they get faulted anyway! The irony and humour of this double standard was certainly not lost on Tartakower.
    The two games that I have presented here are special games. Tartakower actually was more of an all round player, and not just good on attack. I am more impressed with his positional efforts than these two games, if the truth be told. He could play endings with great skill, nurse the smallest of advantages and demonstrate remarkable patience and self-discipline.

    Xavier Tartakower had all of the necessary skills and talents to become World Champion. Many have made the same observation. Why then, did he not become World Champion? Why at least did he never even play a match for the World Title? I quote Harry Golombek:

    ”The trouble with Tartakower (from this point of view) was an embarrassment of riches–he was too fond of chess ever to become World Champion. Given the choice between the simple, safe line and the complicated rich one he almost invariably chose the latter, and all students of the game will realize that this tendency does not make for practical and certain success. The plain fact is that to be World Champion you have got to be successful all the time.”

    Tartakower was given honorary Polish citizenship

    From his match with Sultan Khan’s slave (he lost narrowly) He blamed ”excessive optimism”

    Playing the great Akiba Rubinstein

    Here is Tartakower playing the spanish prodigy Arturo Pomar

    Tartakower (left) playing Thomas. How many superstars do you recognize?
    I recommend to you to get a copy of Tartakower’s My Best Games of Chess. You will not regret it!
    Tartakower wrote: ”Together with the quest for truth, every chess writer must continually bear in mind another duty: that of not being dull! It can only be left to the reader to judge if I have succeeded in this.”–from the introduction of his Best Games collection
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