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By Dan Schifrin
Near Champions, Part Two: Akiba Rubinstein
Second in a series about great players who never became world champion

Akiba Rubinstein
Sometimes a war gets in the way, sometimes it’s money, and sometimes it’s another challenger. For Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961), one of the best players to fall short of winning a world championship, his lack of fundraising skills, the outbreak of World War I and the sudden emergence of future world champion Alexander Alekhine created, at different points in his life, insurmountable obstacles on the road to the highest peak of chess achievement.

Akiba Rubinstein was born in 1882 in a small town on the border of Poland and Russia, the youngest of 12 children. He came from a poor, religious Jewish family, and it was expected that he would become a rabbi, the only intellectual profession open to someone with Rubinstein’s background. But while he was studying in the local yeshiva he came across a chess book in Hebrew, and at the relatively late age of 16 became hooked. Rubinstein began to make a name for himself soon after with a well-known win against Georg Salwe (some say it may have been the less daunting G. Bartoszkiewicz) in Lodz in 1901, and in 1905 earned his master ranking with a shared first prize in the Barmen Hauptturnier. His successes increased from year to year, and in 1912 he shocked the world by winning four major events: San Sebastian, Piestany, Breslau, and Vilnius.

Brimming with confidence, Rubinstein challenged world champion Emanuel Lasker to a match, and the date was set for the autumn of 1914, assuming Rubinstein could raise his share of the purse, which amounted to a steep $2,500. But Rubinstein stumbled badly during an intervening tournament in St. Petersburg, perhaps a result of his well-documented nervousness, and the loss only made the money harder to come by. Whatever chances Rubinstein still had of raising the funds vanished in August of 1914 when World War I was declared, and international chess was indefinitely put on hold.

Rubinstein, 1909
The early 1920s were kind to Rubinstein, and the 40-year-old player had important wins against the two strongest younger players, Alekhine and Efim Bogoljubow, who played each other for the world championship in 1929 and 1934. But when he challenged Jose Capablanca, who had beaten Lasker for the world championship in 1921, he once again could not raise the proper funds, and the opportunity vanished.

As the 1920s wore on Rubinstein achieved less consistent results, and the presence of the now dominant Alekhine, who beat Capablanca in a world championships match in 1927 and kept his crown until his death in 1946, was to be the final obstacle.

Rubinstein retired from chess in 1932, having earned little money over the course of his lifetime. He died in Belgium in 1961.

Rubinstein, 1925
Stories abound of Rubinstein’s shy and nervous character: that at tournaments he often left the table so his presence wouldn’t disturb his opponent; that the buzzing of a fly could force him to make poor moves; that he never ate in public or shook hands for fear of germs; that he tried to strangle the grandmaster Richard Reti in the middle of the night, believing him to be making strange noises to deprive him of sleep.

If not for these neurotic fixations, Rubinstein might very well have had the presence of mind to become the world champion. But despite them, Rubinstein is still considered one of the best players ever, a true artist of the game. His style was extremely pleasing aesthetically, he introduced many opening game innovations into master play, and he was perhaps the best endgame player ever, certainly unsurpassed when using rooks.

Rubinstein has probably left more model games behind than any other player. His game against Gersz Rotlewi in Lodz, Poland in 1907 is considered one of the best games of the century. And at the Teplitz-Schonau tournament in 1922 he won brilliancy prizes for four games, an extremely unusual occurence. It was also typical of Rubinstein’s genius that the first time he played world champions Lasker and Capablanca he beat them.

See related articles:

  • Fischer vs. Spassky: World Chess Championship, 1972 (5/20/2000)
  • The Game is Adjourned… (4/28/2000)
  • A Brief History of the World Chess Championship: Middle Game (5/20/2000)
  • Near Champions, Part One: Siegbert Tarrasch (6/2/2000)
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