Who was Rudolf Charousek?

by André Schulz
4/18/2018 – Today in 1900, Rudolf Charousek, the Czech-Hungarian master, died at the age of 26. Charousek learnt to play chess when he was 16 but in the course of his short career managed to beat a number of strong players — among them World Champion Emanuel Lasker. The writer Gustav Meyrink immortalised Charousek in his novel "The Golem", one of the classics of fantastic literature.

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From Lasker to literature

Rudolf ("Rezso" in Hungarian) Charousek was born September 19, 1873, in what is today Lomeček, near Prague. When he was five years old his family moved to Debrecen, Hungary. Later Charousek's family moved to Miscolc where he learnt to play chess at the age of 16.

After the "Abitur" (high school exams) Charousek started to study law in Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia) in 1893. But he dedicated most of his time and energies to chess and finally abandoned his studies to become a chess professional. However, according to some sources, as a chess player, he earned hardly enough to keep him alive. Charousek is said to have lived in poverty, and allegedly did not even have enough money to eat regularly. Neither could he afford chess books. Instead, he copied dozens of games, variations and analyses by hand from books like the Bilguer.

In 1893, Charousek drew attention to himself by winning the correspondence tournament of the "Pesti Hirlap" newspaper. He shared first prize with Geza Maroczy, whom he befriended afterwards. After some successes in Budapest, where he lived by now, Charousek was invited to the International Nürnberg Tournament 1896. Geza Maroczy had recommended Charousek as a replacement for Amos Burn who had cancelled on short notice. With 8½ / 18 Charousek finished twelfth of 19 participants but created a stir by beating the tournament winner, World Champion Emanuel Lasker, in the last round.


A photo of the participants shows some of the best players of that time:

Players in 1896

Standing, from left to right: Lasker, Charousek, Schlechter, two organisers, Janowsky, Maróczy, Marco, Showalter, three organisers. 
Seated, from left to right: Albin, Porges, Tschigorin, Tarrasch, Winawer, Steinitz, Blackburne, Schallopp, Schiffers, Pillsbury, Walbrodt, Teichmann

In October 1896, Charousek shared first prize with Chigorin at a tournament in Budapest which took place to celebrate Hungary's thousandth birthday. In 1897, Charousek won a strong tournament with which the Berlin Chess Club celebrated its 70th birthday, finishing ahead of a number of renowned masters and winning the first prize of 2000 German marks.

In the Masters Tournament of the 11th Congress of the German Chess Federation in Cologne, Charousek shared second to fourth place behind tournament winner Amos Burn. The tournament organiser Max Lange wanted to write a tournament book about the Congress but unfortunately lost the scoresheets, and the book remained unwritten. Of the 120 games played in this tournament 48 could be reconstructed but only the results of the remaining 72 games are known.

After the tournament, on Augst 21st, 1898, Charousek played two casual games, one against Emil Schallopp, one against Carl Schlechter but these are the last known chess traces of the master. According to the historical ratings of chess statistician Jeff Sonas Charousek, at that time was number six in the world. But the short life of Rudolf Charousek ended on April 18, 1900 when he died from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 26. 

A particularly fine attacking game by Charousek is his win against Wollner, Kaschau 1893.


The game inspired Kester Svendsen to the short story Last Round. But Charousek plays an even more prominent role in world literature.

The Golem

Gustav Meyrink immortalised the Czech-Hungarian master in his "The Golem".

Meyrink (who was born under the name of Meyer in 1868 in Vienna, and died 1932 in Starnberg) was co-owner of a bank in Prague but took to writing when the bank went belly up. As a writer Meyrink had a penchant for occult topics and "The Golem" is considered as a classic of fantastic literature. It first appeared in serial form from 1913 to 1914 in the periodical Die weißen Blätter ("The White Leaves") and in 1915 was published as a book.

The first-person narrator has a dream in which he takes up the identity of the conservator Athanasius Pernath, who lived in the ghetto of Prague from 1890 to 1891. As Pernath, the narrator witnesses conspiracies and falls victim to hallucinations and delusions. When he wakes up he does not know which of his memories he dreamt and which were reality.

The title of the book refers to the mystic figure of the golem, whom Rabbi Löw is said to have created in 1580 at the banks of the river Moldova from clay, following old instructions of the Kabbalah to have a helper to protect the jews. But in Meyrink's work the golem saga only provides the background of the story but is not the main topic of the novel.

In Meyrink's novel Charousek is a poor student of medicine. In one dialogue he draws comparisons to chess to describe a planned conspiracy:

Charousek grabbed my arm and shook it violently. "Mr. Pernath, I'm so poor it's beyond belief. I have to go about half-naked, like a tramp — look — and yet I'm a medical student, I'm an educated man!"

At that he tore open his coat, and to my horror I could see that he was wearing neither jacket nor shirt; he had nothing but his bare skin under his coat.

"And I was already as poor as this when I caused the downfall of that monster, the eminent, all-powerful Dr. Wassory, and even today no one knows it was me behind it. In the city people think it was a doctor called Savioli who brought his shady practices to light and drove him to suicide. Savioli was merely my instrument, I tell you! I alone it was who thought up the plan, gathered the material, supplied the evidence; I alone it was who loosened the edifice Dr. Wassory had erected, quietly, imperceptibly, stone by stone, until it only needed the slightest nudge to send it tumbling down—and no money on earth, none of your Ghetto tricks could avert the disaster.

You know, like ... like playing chess. Yes, just like playing chess.

And no one knows it was me!

I think there must be nights when Aaron Wassertrum can't sleep because he is haunted by the thought that there must be someone else — someone he does not know about, someone who is always close by but whom he can't catch, someone besides Dr. Savioli — who had a hand in the matter. Wassertrum is one of those men with eyes that can see through walls, but he still cannot conceive that there are minds which are capable of working out how to insert long, invisible, poison-tipped needles through such walls, between the masonry, past gold and precious stones, to pierce the hidden vital artery."

Charousek slapped his hand against his forehead and gave a wild laugh. "Aaron Wassertrum will soon find out! On the day he thinks he has Savioli at his mercy! On that very day! That's another chess game I've worked out, right down to the last move. This time it'll be the king's bishop's gambit. There's no move I can't counter with a crushing reply, right to the bitter end. Anyone who accepts my king's bishop's gambit will end up dangling in the air, I tell you, helpless as a puppet on a string, and I'll be pulling the strings, do you hear, I'll be pulling them and then it'll be goodbye to free will for him!"

Charousek was talking feverishly. I looked at him in horror.

Source: Altruistic World Online Library

The most famous screen adaptation of the golem myth is an expressionist silent movie by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese from 1920, although this film is not an adaptation of Meyrink's novel. But in 1979, the Polish director Piotr Szulkin turned Meyrink's book into a film — the English version appeared in 1980.

"Golem" of 1979 by Piotr Szulkin at Youtube (Polish version)

"Golem" at the IMDB...

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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