Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (40)

6/1/2010 – It is over five years since Kasparov’s dramatic announcement that he was giving up serious chess play. Such declarations, or intentions, are by no means rare, and the Editor of Chess Notes recalls a number of decisions, often surprising and mostly fleeting, by greats of the past: Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Harrwitz, Lasker, Marshall, Pillsbury and Steinitz. Retirement.

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Chess Explorations (40)

By Edward Winter

The previous Chess Explorations article discussed the financial plight of some chessplayers of yesteryear, and in response John Tomas (Chicago, IL, USA) sent us an extensive list of prominent players from the United States who, quite recently, ‘left the game at or near their peak strength’. The present article draws attention to some decisions to retire which were taken, however temporarily, by some of the greatest players, including many world champions (quite apart from the familiar cases of Morphy and Fischer).


Mikhail Botvinnik

‘I decided to give up chess.’

Thus wrote Botvinnik on page 108 of his autobiography Achieving the Aim (Oxford, 1981). The period in question was 1946 (and not 1941 as stated in C.N. 48), and Botvinnik’s decision was prompted by the Soviets’ repudiation of a gentleman’s agreement concerning arrangements for the planned world championship match-tournament.


Mikhail Botvinnik


José Raúl Capablanca

In a statement dated 13 March 1924 which was published on page 161 of the September-October American Chess Bulletin of that year, Capablanca declared:

‘I wish to announce that it is extremely doubtful if ever again I participate in an international tournament. Only the fact that [New York, 1924] was the first big tournament in the United States for the last 20 years made me come to play, as for the last year, since my father’s death, I had decided to practically retire from hard chess competition. I expect in the future to play only occasionally in public exhibitions.

As for my title of world’s champion, I would gladly relinquish it, but, feeling that the young players have a right to fight for it, I shall patiently wait a few years at least until one of them comes up to expectations and beats me in a match for the title. If by chance it should happen that I manage to retain my title for some time yet, I shall then see what steps can be taken for me to retire without giving the other players any just cause of complaint.’

In a further declaration, dated 31 July 1924 and published in the September-October 1924 American Chess Bulletin (page 162), Capablanca announced:

‘Dr Lasker’s victory [at New York, 1924] forces me to change my intentions for the time being at least. Were I to retire, the championship would revert to Dr Lasker and the old situation would again obtain, which, to my mind, is not desirable. I must, therefore, remain in the saddle.’


José Raúl Capablanca


Max Euwe

On page 231 of the October-November 1981 CHESS Euwe stated, in an interview:

‘In 1933, though an accepted grandmaster, I was thinking of giving up chess.’


Reuben Fine

Reuben Fine’s withdrawal from serious chess in the late 1940s is well known, and C.N. 6090 gave an exact source for a familiar quip on the subject:

‘When Fine switched his major interest from chess to psychoanalysis, the result was a loss for chess – and a draw, at best, for psychoanalysis.’

Those words were written by Gilbert Cant in an article ‘Why They Play: The Psychology of Chess’ on pages 44-45 of Time, 4 September 1972.

Concerning retirement plans, an earlier instance in Fine’s career was referred to in C.N. 5021 by Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina):

‘Page 282 of Chess Review, December 1938, quotes an interview given by Reuben Fine to Savielly Tartakower that had appeared in De Telegraaf. One passage reads:

“Earlier this year he [Fine] had decided to give up chess as a profession and complete his studies in mathematics. Last May he had asked the AVRO committee to release him, but was forced to live up to his contractual agreement to play.”


Daniel Harrwitz

In a letter sent from London on 23 July 1854 (i.e. four years before his match with Morphy) Harrwitz wrote:

‘Chess, if it has not been otherwise profitable, has procured me many a dear friend, but now my career is closed – I have ascended the ladder, and will not condescend to redescend it – so I give up chess altogether, go home and settle down into obscurity, which, if less conducive to renown and glory, is a great deal more so to health. When ambition is satisfied we look for something more solid and enduring. After years of indisposition and labour, I have at last discovered that I am “paying too much for my whistle”.’

Source: BCM, May 1884, page 182.


Daniel Harrwitz


Emanuel Lasker

This text appeared on page 23 of the February 1931 American Chess Bulletin:


Frank James Marshall

C.N. 48 mentioned an unexpected report on page 12 of the Daily Sketch (London) of 23 December 1909 that Frank Marshall was retiring from chess. The full text was given in C.N. 6168, and the relevant parts are quoted below:

‘After a career extending over 21 years, Frank J. Marshall, the famous American chessplayer, has retired from the game. He retires with the title of champion chessplayer of America, which distinction he won recently from J.W. Showalter in Louisville.

... Marshall’s retirement is due to two reasons – his wife and his business. The former seems to be the greater cause, for she claims that her husband should devote his time to her and to their little son, Frank Rice Marshall.

When asked for his reasons for retirement Marshall said: “The game is too absorbing. To play it one must devote to it all of his time. No game in the world calls for such deep study and devotion as chess, and while I love it there are other things which must occupy my attention. I have private business responsibilities which suffer from the game, so I decided to quit playing for good.”’

C.N. 6168 asked for more details and cited a brief announcement which had appeared in the New York Times of 28 November 1909 (sporting news section, page S1):

‘Lexington, Ky., Nov. 27. – Frank J. Marshall of New York City, who yesterday won the chess championship of the United States over J.W. Showalter of Georgetown, Ky, authorizes the statement that he has quit the chess game for good and that he will give his attention to his business interests. He made this statement here today, upon coming from Georgetown, where his series with Mr Showalter ended last night ...’


Harry Nelson Pillsbury

A quote from the November 1901 BCM, page 448 was given in C.N. 1134:

‘Mr Pillsbury writes that he intends to sail about 4 January for Europe, and will probably be away 18 months. During that time he will participate in all international tournaments (including, of course, Monte Carlo), and give exhibitions of blindfold chess, and very likely arrange a match with Dr Lasker. At the end of that time he will give up chess as a profession, and take to that of law. The Stratégie doubts whether he will be able permanently to leave his first love, and so do we. Dr Lasker is remarkably reticent with regard to any match between himself and Pillsbury, but, we believe, has made an informal acknowledgment of the challenge.’

This illustration (with an incorrect forename), given in C.N. 5761, appeared in The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, July 1900.


Wilhelm Steinitz

As quoted in C.N. 1215, on page 359 of the December 1891 International Chess Magazine Steinitz wrote:

‘... I beg to state that I shall most probably adhere to my intention of retiring from active play altogether, but I do not wish to stand pledged either way.’

C.N. 4160 added a passage from page ix of The Games of the St Petersburg Tournament 1895-96 by J. Mason and W.H.K. Pollock (Leeds, 1896):

‘Steinitz himself, in the Figaro, so far back as 1878 – when he was contemplating retiring from chess – claims that his record was then better than Morphy’s, but left the question of genius an open one.’

Further details about these matters are still being sought.



Garry Kasparov

Of course, there has been no more prominent announcement of retirement than Kasparov’s in March 2005. At the time, C.N. 3648 offered some reflections on a number of aspects of his chess career.


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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter


Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then, about 6,600 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.


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