Remembering Rudolf Spielmann (5. May 1883 - 20. August 1942)

by Johannes Fischer
8/20/2017 – The Austrian Rudolf Spielmann was a brilliant attacking player and a predecessor of Mihail Tal. His book "Richtig Opfern!" (The Art of Sacrifice in Chess) is considered to be a classic of attacking chess. Spielmann died under tragic circumstances on 20. August 1942, 75 years ago.

The following article first appeared in 2005, in ChessBase Magazine 106. We republish it here in a slighly modified version.

A mirror to the history of his times

Small and fat, a lifelong bachelor who came from Vienna and who liked his beer, he was one of the best chess players in the world for several decades. He was known neither for escapades nor for mad behaviour; he played in far more than a hundred tournaments and more than fifty matches, but never for the World Championship. Rudolf Spielmann was a totally normal top player. He was born on the 5th of May. All the more reason to take a look at  Michael Ehn's Rudolf Spielmann: Porträt eines Schachmeisters in Texten und Partien (Koblenz: H.-W. Fink, 1996). The volume contains essays and games by Spielmann, as well as a comprehensive biographical section with reminiscences of the Austrian grandmaster. They show how the life of the chess player Spielmann reflected the history of his time.

The family

Born in Vienna in 1883,  Rudolf Spielmann was the second of the six children of Moriz Spielmann and Cäcilie Neustädtl. Moriz Spielmann was from Nikolsburg, known today as Mikulov, and had arrived in Vienna in the 1870s.

According to Ehn, "the constitutional law of 1867 (creating the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary) and the interconfessional settlement of 1868 brought to Jews full equality, at least de jure. Now, from all corners of the far-flung monarchy, in which they had previously been and still were discriminated against ... Jews streamed towards the centre of the empire, hoping for a better future and in order to escape misery and poverty" (Ehn, p. 79).

If Moriz Spielmann had high-flying dreams of a life in the capital, they would not be fulfilled. As a literary critic, journalist and editor he earned just enough to feed his family. However, Moriz and Cäcilie encouraged the artistic talents of their children to the best of their ability. The eldest, Leopold Spielmann, was a musical prodigy and once even appeared before the imperial family while he was a child. Rudolf's sisters, Melanie, Jenny and Irma, became actresses. But the fate of Rudolf's younger brother, Edgar Spielmann, was a tragic one; he was much affected by the early death of his mother and took his own life in 1917. Melanie too died young, in 1927, at the age of 42, as the result of a serious illness.

Chess career

Rudolf learned chess from his father at the age of four or five. After school, he decided against studying mathematics and in favour of a life as a chess player. He established himself at the peak of his profession at the tournament in St. Petersburg 1909, when he shared third place with Duras behind Lasker and Rubinstein. In 1912 in Abbazio he won a thematic tournament, of which the King's Gambit Accepted was the subject. This opening suited Spielmann, who often felt particularly at ease in open, tactical, complicated positions, and victory in the said tournament earned him the nickname "the last knight of the King's Gambit".

Analysis or blitz?

During the First World War, Spielmann served in the Austro-Hungarian army and after the war he once more took up his life as a professional chess player. However, he changed his style and tried to improve his positional play, because although he could beat anyone with his risky attacking play, his love of risk led time and again to bad tournament results. This work soon paid off and between 1925 and 1930 Spielmann would celebrate his greatest successes: at the Semmering Tournament of 1926 he came in first ahead of Alekhine, Vidmar and Nimzovich, in Berlin 1928 third behind Capablanca and Nimzovich and in Carlsbad 1929 equal second with Capablanca, behind Nimzovich, but ahead of Rubinstein, Euwe, Vidmar and Bogoljubov.

In the thirties it became clear that the high point of his career lay behind Spielmann. His results got worse and he lost various sensational games to the up and coming younger generation. Particularly disastrous was a defeat in twelve moves against Botvinnik in the 1935 Moscow Tournament: Spielmann followed an erroneous theoretical recommendation, went pawn grabbing early on with his queen and was obliged to resign. The brevity of the game and the fact that Black was guilty of two elementary opening errors, namely pawn grabbing with his queen and blindly following a theoretical recommendation, have accounted for the numerous textbooks and anthologies which have reproduced this game again and again. For many chess players, this was perhaps the first time they had come across Spielmann.

In 1935, however, Spielmann's book Richtig Opfern! (The Art of Sacrifice in Chess) also appeared. It was the first systematic treatment of the various ways to sacrifice in chess and at the same Spielmann's exposition of his credo as an attacking player.

Famous masters (can you name them?)

Persecution by the Nazis

Spielmann was not to be granted a peaceful evening to his life as a chess author and player. The seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 turned him into a refugee. After first seeking safety in Holland, he travelled from there to Czechoslovakia, to where his family had also fled.  He lived as a stateless person without a valid passport "in a shabby ... guesthouse (a sort of shelter for the homeless)" (Ehn, p. 84) in Prague. Without any means and foreseeing the threatened arrival of the National Socialists, he sent on 10th December 1938 a despairing appeal to Ludwig Collijn, a Swedish chess fan and patron:

Dear Mr Collijn,

I have not heard from you for some time, but I hope you enjoy the best of health and circumstances. - I also hope that you have retained enough interest in me to receive this short report about my situation. The latter is more than sad, because not only was I driven forever out of Austria, my beloved homeland, but over and above that my freedom to travel has been taken away from me. Almost all the chess playing countries in the world have sealed their borders hermetically against emigrants and refugees, so nobody will let me in with my now worthless Austrian passport.... All that keeps me going is the hope that I shall once again find an invitation to play chess and asylum. Would it be possible for you to look after me as you did in 1919 and perhaps find me some sort of invitation to play chess in Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden? ... I would like to use Sweden simply as a temporary home, in order to get on my feet again as a man and as a chess player. ... I would then perhaps be able to emigrate to England or America. I beg you, do not abandon me and help me to have an existence with some human dignity. I would agree to the most modest conditions imaginable, if I could only find some employment. ... The main thing is to escape finally from this hell in Central Europe. Anti-semitism is already spreading in Prague too and is depriving me of every opportunity to earn my living. Once again, I implore you in the name of our acquaintance of 30 years' standing to look after me and to answer me as quickly as possible, so that I may know if there is still any hope for me. ...

Best wishes from your ever thankful and faithful
Rudolf Spielmann

(Ehn, pp. 71-72)

Collijn turned out to be a generous benefactor and helped Spielmann to travel to Sweden. Spielmann's brother and his sisters were less fortunate. Leopold had been offered a position in the Toronto conservatory, but in order to transit through England he needed someone who would vouch for him with the sum of one hundred pounds. But nobody was willing to do this. After his wife Gertrud had kept him hidden for a year in their flat, Leopold was arrested by the SS in 1939 and taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died in 1941. Only the two daughters of Leopold and Gertrud Spielmann, Lily and Ilse, managed with the help of a family of Quakers to flee from Czechoslovakia in adventurous circumstances. Till the end of the war they lived in England with a "guardian", who had been willing to take in the two parentless children.

But Rudolf's sisters Jenny and Irma became victims of the National Socialists. In 1934 they had fled to Holland but were arrested after the German invasion and sent to the concentration camp. Irma was murdered there, whereas Jenny survived the camp, but suffered from severe depression after being freed and committed suicide in 1964.

A lost manuscript

Rudolf Spielmann had succeeded in fleeing to Sweden at the beginning of 1939, but he was not welcome there. At the time, Sweden was preparing for an invasion by the Germans and many Swedes were seeking to fulfil the possible wishes of the Germans even before they came. Spielmann's difficult situation became even worse, when his patron Ludvig Collijn died shortly after Spielmann's arrival. So the latter did all he could to raise money for his planned journey to England or America. He was particularly hopeful about the publication of his biography, the manuscript of which has however disappeared. Numerous suspicions and conjectures surround the said manuscript. Ehn writes as follows:

There now followed that dark chapter, which was reported differently from the point of view of his [Spielmann's] nearest relatives Gertrud and Helmuth, who immediately after the war came to Stockholm to find out what had happened and to live there, and in the accounts given by his Swedish hosts. The autobiography was said to be a commissioned work. Rudolf Spielmann was promised that for his manuscripts and his life's work he would receive the means he needed to be able to emigrate to America. ... Spielmann wrote tirelessly, gave all his notes and the manuscript to those who had given him the commission and who to this day remain unknown and was fobbed off by them and finally heard no more from them. Till this day, it has remained a riddle what happened to his unpublished work, to whom and where it was sold, although many of the tracks appear to lead to the USA. (p. 86)

One indication that the manuscript went to the USA comes from the website On it on the 15th June 2002, Gerald Braunberger asked:

"According to the well-known book by Fink/Ehn, Rudolf Spielmann wrote his memoirs during his final stay in Sweden (1939-1942). The manuscript was not published then, but it seems that the manuscript found its way to the US during or after the Second World War. My questions are: What happened to the manuscript, who owns it nowadays, and are there any plans for a publication?"

Three days later on the 18th of June, 2002, he received from Werner Berger the following reply:

"My foremost present project is to publish a chess diary of Rudolf Spielmann's from his early years, translated into English, with 69 of his games from the period 1900-1905 with the brief introductions he had written for them. The final manuscript for this book is now being typed, and I hope that within a year it will be available as the third volume in my Caissa Limited Editions series."

Source: Dale A. Brandreth: "Some Reminiscences of a Chess Book Collection" in: BONUS SOCIUS. Jubileumuitgave voor Meindert Niemeijer ter gelegenheid van zijn 75ste verjaardag. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, ´s-Gravenhage 1977, pp. 47-53.

Contrary to this announcement by Dale Brandreth, the "chess diary" was however never published and the puzzle about the manuscript of the Spielmann autobiography remained unsolved. In fact, Spielmann appears to have been cheated of the fruits of his labours, which, according to Ehn, "must have very much hastened his end. With the anticipated invasion by the Germans looming and robbed of all he possessed and thus all his chances of fleeing, the Viennese grandmaster, according to his nearest relatives, is said, faced with this hopeless situation, to have shut himself up in his room and some time later to have quite literally starved to death" (p. 86). But in a footnote Ehn adds: "According to the Swedish version Rudolf Spielmann suffered from a sort of Parkinson's disease, which became much worse towards the end. ... The official cause of death refers to 'hypertonia and cardio-sclerosis'" (p. 91).

Tal's forgotten predecessor

Posterity soon forgot Spielmann. The up and coming masters such as, e.g., Botvinnik or Keres published their victories against Spielmann in their game collections and his love of attacking play was soon considered old fashioned compared to the boldly presented theses of the innovators such as Nimzovich, Réti and Tartakower, and it was smiled at. For example, Réti writes in Die Meister des Schachbretts [Masters of the chessboard]:

"[Spielmann] seeks salvation for the game of chess in a return to the style of the old masters…. Spielmann is the last bard of gambit play and was particularly keen on bringing new life to the King's Gambit. Nowadays we can look at Spielmann's wishes and efforts from the point of view of history. He has all the gifts necessary to succeed in his undertaking: not only had he great combinational talent and fantasy, but he was also very knowledgeable about and very much at home in complicated positions .... So he was of course able to achieve great success. But he failed in what he actually wanted to do. He achieved his best results against weaker opponents, who lost their head in complicated positions. The games he won in that old style are very interesting, but not convincing and for that reason he was not able to set a trend. (Richard Réti, Die Meister des Schachbretts, Zürich: Edition Olms 1983, Reprint of the edition of 1930, 1931, pp. 236-237)."
A condescending judgement, and, like so much of what Réti writes about his contemporaries, a wrong one. This is shown by the figures. During his career, Spielmann achieved perfectly respectable results against the best players of the day: against Capablanca e.g. +2,=8,-2, against Alekhine, +2,=10,-4, against Rubinstein +12,=8,-15, against Lasker +0,=3,-1 and against his critic Réti after all +12,=14,-14. It was only against Nimzovich that Spielmann was rarely successful; in this case the score is  +4,=12,-12.

And as far as Spielmann's "old style victories" are concerned, his tradition of bold, intuitive sacrifices, which were not always analytically sound, but which faced the opponent with practical problems, would soon be continued. And by none other than Mikhail Tal and later by Alexei Shirov. Unfortunately in this case the title of Spielmann's book Richtig Opfern (which one could translate as "Sacrificing the right way" or "Sacrificing correctly") is a little misleading. Did not Tal show, that the most beautiful sacrifices were not correct ("richtig"), but intuitive and escaped clear-cut evaluation? That, as he put it, in chess 2+2 can also sometimes equal 5? But it was just these intuitive sacrifices, which were so dear to Spielmann, and which he called "real sacrifices". And when he writes "in the deepest sense, one may also describe as correct many sacrifices, which cannot stand up to later investigation" (Rudolf Spielmann, Richtig Opfern!, p. 26.), you would think you were listening to Tal.

But Spielmann did not only preach, he also practised. And had the following games not been played before Tal was actually born, they might perhaps be described as typical Tal games. They all prove Spielmann's brilliant feeling for the attack.




Michael Ehn: Rudolf Spielmann: Porträt eines Schachmeisters in Texten und Partien (Koblenz: H.-W. Fink, 1996)

Photos: Solo Scacchi


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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KOTLD KOTLD 8/20/2017 07:51
Great article. Thanks.
Aighearach Aighearach 8/20/2017 08:38
Thanks, I enjoyed the history.

Isn't it so often true in chess that some style or line gets declared refuted, and then a decade later it is popular again because the refutation was refuted?

I remember it was only 10-15 years ago that there was a period of a few years where anybody at any chess club could tell you that the Dutch Defense was refuted. I was really hopeful people would stop playing it, but they didn't.
Tartakower777 Tartakower777 8/20/2017 10:49
Good article but I remember that Tartakower was a kind of nemesis for Spielmann, whereas he was so successfull in crushing stronger opponents, with dr. Tartakower that did not work so well...
karavamudan karavamudan 8/21/2017 06:27
Sad to see the trials and tribulations of the genius because of the cursed Nazis.
vnamb vnamb 8/21/2017 08:24
Very interesting article.
Spielmann is a very famous classical player - did not know that he had such a tragic end.
Joe Bloggs Joe Bloggs 8/28/2017 08:11
Interesting article. One point, though, the National Socialists didn't seize power, they won it democratically - no need to rewrite history.