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By Dan Schifrin
Near Champions, Part One: Siegbert Tarrasch
First in a series about great players who never became world champion

In chess, as in most sports, not every first-class player earns a world championship. Sometimes the difference between the champion and the also-ran is a difference in raw abilities. Often, however, the difference between two challengers has to do with preparation, age, energy, and emotion. And on occasion credible challengers to the world championship don’t make it to the table because of politics, war, accidents, the need to raise purse money, or professional obligations in another field.

Dr Siegbert Tarrasch
Perhaps the first of the great chess players never to earn a world championship was Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934), the man everybody loves to hate. Tarrasch, a German-speaker like most of the elite players of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Wilhelm Steinitz, Adolph Anderssen, Louis Paulsen, Emanuel Lasker and Carl Schlecter – was considered arrogant and pompous on and off the board. His one world championship match in 1908 with Lasker, who wore the chess crown from 1894 to 1921, was fraught with tension. Apparently the two men had only one conversation during the entire match, which consisted of Tarrasch telling Lasker he would beat him soundly. History records another outcome, with Lasker winning with a score of 10.5 to 5.5. Like a number of other great players who never became world champion, Tarrasch was at an age disadvantage, since he was 46 and Lasker was 40.

Born in Breslau, Germany, Tarrasch spent most of his life in Nuremberg, where he was a practicing physician. He earned the German master title in 1883, and in 1888 in Nuremberg he won the first in a row of several very strong tournaments, including Breslau (1889), Manchester (1890), Dresden (1892) and Leipzig (1894). By now he was playing as well as, or better than, the world champion Steinitz, but his duties as a doctor kept him from preparing for a world championship match.

Tarrasch’s successes continued, and by October of 1903 he challenged Lasker for the world championship. The match was planned for the fall of 1904, but arrangements fell through after Tarrasch’s request for a postponement because of a skating accident was rejected. A few years of inconsistent play followed, and in 1908 Lasker finally consented to a world championship match with Tarrasch, which Lasker decisively won.

Tarrasch was a technical virtuoso, whose approach was to accurately deploy theoretical ideas about center control and piece mobility. He once described his method as “stalemating” style – referring to a smothering strategy in which one’s opponent has literally nowhere to go.

Like Steinitz, the first world champion as well as the first systematic student of the game, Tarrasch believed strongly in classical theory. In practice, that meant controlling the center squares with pawns, with the assumption that a strong, secure center would make it easier to move the action from one side of the board to the other, as well as keep one’s opponent from doing the same. In his capacity as Germany’s chief chess pedagogue, Tarrasch wrote many books and articles extolling this approach, and his ideas were dominant in the chess world from 1900 until World War I. Many of his books are classics, including “The Game of Chess,” an international bestseller for many years.

Tarrasch’s dogmatic insistence on his ideas, as well as the hubris with which he discussed them, led Aaron Nimzowitsch, Richard Reti, Saviely Tartakower and a few others chess grandmasters to question basic assumptions about the center. These players developed the Hypermodern approach, which flourished in the 1920s, and which has profoundly influenced chess style. In contrast to Tarrasch, the hypermoderns believed that an established, fixed center could be a liability, providing a target for attack, and they proved that one could effectively control the center from a distance, using pieces (mostly knights and bishops) rather than pawns. A number of famous hypermodern “opening systems” emerged during this time, including the Nimzo-Indian Defense, the Queen’s Indian Defense and the Grunfeld Defense.

Tarrasch was arguably the best player in the world at the turn of the century, and would likely have beaten Steinitz if he had the opportunity – and perhaps Lasker as well – if Tarrasch had been in his prime. The problem with a dominant player not winning the world championship is that he becomes known for other things – in the case of Tarrasch his dogmatic style, his unintentionally spawning of the hypermoderns and his educational books on the game.

One of Tarrasch’s best-known games, against Nimzowitsch in St. Petersburg in 1914, is available in the chess viewer – click on Tarrasch-Nimzowitsch on the right panel. The key to Tarrasch’s win in this game is his offer to sacrifice two bishops.

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)
  • Game Links
    Nimzovitsch-Tarrasch 1914
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