On the 100th anniversary of the death of Curt von Bardeleben

by Dagobert Kohlmeyer
1/31/2024 – Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Curt von Bardeleben. A wealthy privateer, he was one of the best German chess players in the 1880s and 1890s. He lost his fortune during the First World War and fell seriously ill. On 31 January 1924 he fell to his death from a window.

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100 years ago: Curt von Bardeleben's tragic death

A now almost forgotten chess master fell out of a window in Berlin on 31 January 1924: Curt von Bardeleben. The fact that the Berliner has remained in the collective chess memory is mainly due to a spectacular game in Hastings in 1895 against Wilhelm Steinitz, which we would also like to remember.

Curt von Bardeleben

The exact circumstances of his death are unclear. According to most reports, Curt von Bardeleben died by suicide. He is said to have thrown himself from the window of his second-floor apartment in Berlin. This event inspired the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, who was living in Berlin at the time, to the conclusion of his novel Lushin's Defence (1930). However, Jacques Mieses and Bernhard Kagan contradicted the suicide version in their obituaries. Kagan's "Neueste Schachnachrichten", special issue no. 2/1924, states:

"Most probably he, who suffered from severe arteriosclerosis, had a slight attack of dizziness or a rush of blood to the head and, in order to get some fresh air, went to the open window with its low sill, lost his balance and fell down".

Curt von Bardeleben was buried anonymously in a mass grave in Berlin's institutional cemetery on 7 February 1924. Who was this chess master?

Curt Carl Alfred von Bardeleben was born in Berlin on 4 March 1861. He came from an old Magdeburg aristocratic family. His father was a senior civil servant in the Royal Prussian State Ministry. Von Bardeleben's parents moved from Berlin to Weimar, where the boy completed his schooling. He had learnt to play chess at the age of ten and was considered the best player in Weimar while still at school. In 1880 he began studying law in Leipzig, which he continued in Berlin in 1884, but then abandoned in favour of journalism. Curt von Bardeleben inherited a large fortune from which he could live comfortably. So he devoted himself entirely to chess. Success came quickly. In 1881, at the age of 20, von Bardeleben won the "Hauptturnier" of the German Chess Federation in Berlin and and became a Master. In 1883 he won the reserve tournament of the Great International Master's Tournament in London. From then until the end of the 1890s he was one of the best players in Germany. Apart from the joint first prize in Leipzig in 1888, his greatest successes were the joint victories in the German Chess Federation championship tournaments in Kiel in 1893 and Coburg in 1904. In 1889, von Bardeleben was narrowly defeated by future world champion Emanuel Lasker in a 1.5-2.5 match. Also noteworthy was his draw with Joseph Henry Blackburne in 1895 (+3 =3 -3) and his 6-4 victory over Richard Teichmann in 1895.

At the Hastings tournament in 1895, Curt von Bardeleben became the "co-author" of one of the most beautiful combinations in chess history. Before the game he was leading the field with 7.5/9. Then came this extraordinary game in which the "old lion" Wilhelm Steinitz showed his still sharp claws.

An immortal game. The sacrificial game with the floating rook naturally won the brilliancy prize. "Here a last great dream of youth, beauty, fame and happiness came true when Steinitz won the most beautiful game at the end of the hot 17th of August 1895," wrote his biographer Jacques Hannak.

After 25.Rxh7+ the shocked Curt von Bardeleben silently fled the room and never returned. Later he handed in his resignation in writing by messenger. According to Dr Tarrasch, the peculiar nature of the resignation outraged the other tournament participants. Wilhelm Steinitz, however, showed the surrounding masters the finale of his brilliant combination - a mate in ten moves. I think the chess world should also thank the loser for his contribution to this great work of art. On a good day the Berliner could beat any opponent.


Before the First World War, von Bardeleben retired from competitive sport.

A picture of the old Von Bardeleben

As a theoretician he wrote a "Manual of Chess" as well as books on the Queen's Gambit, the Spanish and the Vienna opening and a work on pawn endings. If chess historians are to be believed, he was not easy go get along with. The maestro was married three times and was known to be an eccentric. His marriages always ended in divorce after a short time. After losing his fortune to inflation, Curt von Bardeleben's life ended tragically on 31 January 1924, as described above. The memory of the unconventional master remains as a historical figure in chess history.


The Battles of Hastings: Remembering the Hastings Tournament of 1895

Dagobert Kohlmeyer is one of the best known German chess journalists. For more than 25 years Kohlmeyer, who lives in Berlin, has been travelling all over the world to report about and to capture impressions of Chess Olympiads, World Championships, and top tournaments.