Remembering the unforgettable Savielly Tartakower (21 February, 1887 – 4 February, 1956)

by Eugene Manlapao
2/24/2022 – Savielly Tartakower was an elite master throughout his career of nearly half a century. Although he never quite reached the chess summit, he is remembered fondly as a colorful figure who enriched the game immensely. On the occasion of the 135th anniversary of his birth on 21 February, it is fitting to look back at his life and legacy. | Photo: Wikipedia

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Savielly Tartakower was born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on February 21, 1887, to Austro-Hungarian parents. A few years after his birth, the family returned to Vienna.

Tartakower spent his youth mainly in Vienna, which was then one of Europe’s outstanding cultural capitals. Chess also happened to thrive there as it was home to some of Europe’s strongest masters, namely Carl Schlechter, Geza Maroczy, Richard Reti, and Milan Vidmar. While studying law, Tartakower came to love chess and soon split time between his studies and competitions. He scored his first significant achievement when he won Nuremberg 1906, becoming, at nineteen, an acknowledged master.

The victory earned him invitations to prestigious competitions, and a professional chess career must have already been in the offing. World War I, however, derailed him. When it ended in 1918, he found the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, and himself an emigrant in France. Then stateless, he chose Polish citizenship. In France, he decided to turn professional.

Thus began his long and illustrious career. In his heyday, he would find himself in the thick of tournament play against the veritable who’s who of the first half of 20th century chess. He won some and finished in the top half of the majority of them. His most significant successes include winning Vienna 1923, Hastings 1926-1927 and 1927-1928, and Liege 1930. He was also a fixture of the "super tournaments” of the day, performing creditably in St. Petersburg 1909, New York 1924, San Remo 1930, and Groningen 1946.

Drawing of Tartakower (Archive G. Jacoby)

Twice the national champion of Poland (1935 and 1937), he teamed up with Akiba Rubinstein to win the Olympiad gold in Hamburg 1930. He later acquired French citizenship, and also became France’s national champion in 1953.

His prime years happened to be dominated by the legendary trio of Emanuel Lasker, Jose Raul Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine. Tartakower was somewhat often pushed off the limelight, but there was never any doubt about his caliber and quality as a player. He scored victories against Lasker and Alekhine and every other great contemporary. Only Capablanca proved too formidable for him, and he lost five games to the Cuban without winning one. Their matches, however, were all hard struggles. In New York 1924, for instance, Capablanca had to labor mightily to eke out an endgame victory. Such perfect play was forced out of Capablanca that the game has become a staple of rook and pawn endgame books.

Yet, there must be something more to a man of such lofty estimation than just his trail of practical successes. What really made Tartakower great? What was the significance of his time in chess from 1905 to 1954? Well, quite simply, fifty years was long enough for him to prove his many facets, and he established convincingly that he was equally great as a thinker, theoretician, writer and analyst. Each of these qualities deserve a closer look.

Tartakower as a Thinker and Theoretician

Tartakower was a natural child of the Classical Age, as when he started competing seriously in 1905, Wilhelm Steinitz’s positional principles were already well understood and assimilated. When Aaron Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti blazed new trials with their Hypermodern play in the 1920s, Tartakower was among the first to take notice. He tested their new ideas and demonstrated that space and the center could be surrendered in the opening provided counter play came vigorously. This discovery was very timely, as just when some leading masters thought that chess had all been played out, it was really richer and more complex than it was. Nimzowitsch, Reti, and Tartakower opened a new frontier for exploration and study, with the result that chess reached unprecedented dynamism by the time the Soviets dominated the scene in the 1940s.

Savielly Tartakower vs Eduard Lasker, New York 1924 | Photo: Wikipedia

Tartakower’s love for ideas extended to specific lines in the opening, the most significant of which is the Tartakower Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. In this variation, Black accepts structural defects for dynamic compensation, leading to a rich game that Tartakower so relished. It has been a mainstay of top level chess, with the chances of both sides having been contested thoroughly by no less than Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in their 1985 and 1987 World Championship matches.

Perhaps not very many know that it was also Tartakower who introduced the Catalan Opening. In Barcelona 1929, organizers asked Tartakower to develop an opening in honor of the host city, and true to his chess ethos, his creation combined the classical (1. d4) with the hypermodern (g3). It is one of the best openings to play if you wish to gain an advantage against 1...d5 by subtler means, and has been a recent weapon of Magnus Carlsen.

Other openings he introduced, although to lesser fanfare, are the Tartakower Variation of the Caro-Kann and the Dutch Defense. Last on this list is the Orangutan Opening with 1. b4, but this one is too extreme to really gain mainstream acceptance.

Tartakower was a man fascinated by ideas. His search for their underlying truths, coupled with his practical successes, helped propel chess to a new era.

Tartakower as a Writer and Analyst

While battling over the board, Tartakower also worked as a journalist. He would send tournament reports to newspapers and magazines, and writing became much his craft that, in time, he produced his magnum opera, My Best Games of Chess 1905-1954 and The Hypermodern Game of Chess.

These books, while a bit flowery, are models of annotation. Tartakower’s ability to combine variations at a manageable depth and discuss strategy tersely makes them two of the finest instructional materials.

Tartakower, along with Alekhine, set the standards for quality annotation, and his two books are still relevant today as they illustrate the level of accuracy, tactical proficiency, and depth of strategic understanding required to play the game at a fairly high level.

These books also don’t lack for entertainment. For one, they present the evolution of Tartakower’s playing style as he incorporated Hypermodernism, and his games as a mature competitor exemplify the delectably rich and complex Tartakower games we know. For another, they contain what really made Tartakower inimitable – his aphorisms.

Better known as Tartakowerisms, Tartakower’s aphorisms capture humorously some truths and experiences of chess life. They reveal Tartakower as an intelligent, perceptive, and highly educated fellow who happened to play chess. Here are some of the popular ones.

"The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake."

"I never defeated a healthy opponent."

"Tactics is what you do when there is something to do; strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do."

"A match demonstrates less than a tournament. But a tournament demonstrates nothing at all."

Tartakower’s games, ideas, writings, and contributions to the development of chess are his lasting legacies that we all should appreciate.

Tartakower's Immortal

This game should be familiar to dedicated players, but on this occasion what better to present than Tartakower’s absolute gem? It is to Tartakower what Adolf Anderssen’s The Immortal and The Evergreen Games are, and games like these never stale.

This game ought to have won the tournament’s brilliancy prize but, oddly, the judges deemed Tartakower’s attack to be too deep and incalculable to deserve it. Aren’t real sacrifices speculative?



More about Tartakower...

Eugene holds a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing, which he obtained from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Chess and writing are his passions, and one often completely absorbs him that he totally neglects the other. His other interests include classic literature, biographies, powerful memoirs, sports, and the visual arts. He spends his spare time doting on his two lovely daughters.


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