One Night in Bangkok, one day in Meran

by ChessBase
11/2/2020 – All chess players know the "Meran Variation", even if they do not play it. But how did this line of the Semi-Slav Defence got its name? Roger Lorenz did some research and found the games that gave the line its name. He also knows where they were played - in the South Tyrol spa town of Meran. As the photograph taken at the Meran spa gardens proves, our writer did his research on site!

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How the Meran Variation got its name

By Roger Lorenz

For the past few years, my wife and I have regularly spent our holidays in Italy. We have come to love the good food, delicious wine and old city centres with their rich history. Our standard travel route leads us past Innsbruck up the Brenner Pass and to the Italian border. Right after crossing the border, we seize the first opportunity to enjoy a cup of real espresso. Aside from that, we always used to drive all the way to Lake Garda without any further interruptions up until now.

This year, we had resolved to visit South Tyrol, which is located right behind the border, so we drove off the motorway near Sterzing, and after a short tour of the town, we continued our voyage over the Jaufen Pass until we reached the village of Tirol, a mere four kilometres away from Meran (Merano in Italian). During a holiday in South Tyrol, a visit to Meran is, of course, mandatory.

If this were a travel blog, I would now proceed by presenting an overwhelmingly positive account of South Tyrolean food and wine, e-bike tours, the impressive landscape and historic town centres. However, as this is a chess website, I will limit myself to chess-related aspects.

Not that I had any plans to play in a tournament there this year, considering the pandemic and all that comes with it. But Meran does indeed have a colourful history when it comes to chess. Our older readers will recall the 1981 World Championship Match in Meran, where Anatoly Karpov won 6:2 against Viktor Kortschnoi. The preceding candidates final between Viktor Kortschnoi and Robert Hübner was held there as well.

These two events have undoubtably been responsible for Meran(o) being featured in the musical "Chess". The most famous song of the musical is "One Night in Bangkok". However, the prelude piece is "Merano", which narrates the preparations for the next chess world championship set to take place in Meran. In it, locals sing the praises of their town, among other things by lamenting "O sad the soul who passes by Merano". This I must wholeheartedly second. If you find yourself in South Tyrol, you should definitely visit Merano.

Another 60 years earlier, Meran was host of two chess tournaments, one played in 1924 and one in 1926. Sadly, there are no available tournament books for the two events. However, in 2014, the South Tyrolese chess master Luca D'Ambrosio published a book on these two tournaments in a limited edition under the German title "Die Internationalen Schachturniere zu Meran 1924 und 1926" (The International Chess Tournaments in Meran 1924 and 1926), reviewed in SCHACH 10/2014 and KARL 3/2014.

Of the two tournaments in question, the one that took place in 1924 did undoubtably feature the more prominent participants. Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Grünfeld, Spielmann and Colle were present, among others. On Wikipedia's ranking of the most important chess tournaments of 1924, Meran occupies second place after the famous New York tournament won by Emanuel Lasker.

The Meran tournament of 1924 was won by Ernst Grünfeld while Rudolf Spielmann came second – it was an Austrian double victory. Akiba Rubinstein finished third. My research for the playing hall did not yield any results. The opening event and welcoming ceremony for the players, on the other hand, took place at the Meran Kurhaus, which is still an impressive building.

The Meran Kurhaus

However, it was Rubinstein who made the name Meran famous in the world of chess because he played the following game against Ernst Grünfeld in round three of the tournament.


This game is definitely not Rubinstein's finest. He produced way too many other masterpieces for that. One need only think of his wins against Georg Rotlewi (Lodz 1907) and J. R. Capablanca (San Sebastian 1911). However, this game marked the birth of the Meran Variation.

Two rounds later, Ernst Grünfeld had an opportunity to copy Rubinstein's idea. And Black won again.


In the next round, Ernst Grünfeld's opponent attempted a Meran but Grünfeld avoided it with 3.e3 and 4.Nd2.


In the final round, the Meran Variation was played one more time. Grünfeld was already certain to win the tournament and used the variation for a quick draw.


The Meran Variation was played in three games of the 1924 tournament, and Black scored 2½/3, a remarkable success that helped to establish a variation that is still popular today.

Translation by Hugo B. Janz

Tactic Toolbox Meran Variation

In interactive format IM Robert Ris offers you a lot of exercises, including hints and advice that help you to know key tactical patterns of this variation to play it with success.

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