A review of The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein by John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev

Reviewed by Paul Kane

John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev
The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 1: Uncrowned King
by John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev
Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged
Russell Enterprises
May 2007, ISBN-13: 978-1888690293, 402 pages

The title pretty much says it all. This book is an account of the first part of the life and chess career of Akiva (sometimes the name is spelt Akiba) Rubinstein (he was born in 1882, incidentally), one of the strongest players never to have become World Champion. It traces Akiva’s chess career from its early beginnings, through to participation in his first major tournament (Kiev 1903), and beyond. It takes in the two great St Petersburg tournaments of 1909 and 1914, and pays particular attention to 1912, Rubinstein’s annus mirabilis. In that year he won four strong tournaments – San Sebastian, Pistyan, Breslau and Vilna – and established his position as the most deserving challenger for the World Chess Championship. A match with Emanuel Lasker was eventually set for October 1914, but the First World War scuppered this, as it altered everything. The volume ends with the Gothenburg tournament of 1920, where Rubinstein took an undivided second place. Richard Reti, the great hypermodern, won the tournament, but lost his individual game against Rubinstein – a superb ending – in the seventh round.

It was Reti who gave us perhaps the best description of Rubinstein’s play. In Modern Ideas in Chess (1943; translation by John Hart) he has this to say:

… he is the greatest artist amongst chess players. Whilst in all of Schlechter’s beautiful games there is to be found playful delight comparable to the joyful dance, and whilst with Lasker a dramatic struggle captivates the onlooker, with Rubinstein all is refined tranquillity; for with him in building up his game the position given to every piece is the necessary one. It is not a matter of a fight for him [the contrast here is clearly with Lasker], but the working out of a victory, and so his games create the impression of a great structure from which no stone dare be lifted. (p.95)

The vast majority of the 492 games presented in the book are annotated, and the best of them do indeed have an unobtrusively exquisite logic; power, logic and beauty are barely indistinguishable. The annotators include Rubinstein’s rivals and contemporaries, such as the aforementioned Lasker and Schlechter, and later writers like Kmoch and Razuvaev; as well as the authors themselves, naturally. Many games have notes by more than one commentator. Some prominence is given to Rubinstein’s Immortal Game versus Rotlewi, played at Lodz on 26 December 1907, but combinations appear most often in these games as the solution to a technical problem (e.g. whether to liquidate into a pawn ending or not) and, from a practical standpoint, Rubinstein can show you how to play equal or near-equal positions, and how to win with a purely positional advantage.

While this volume is essentially a games collection and a chronological narrative of Rubinstein’s chess career (and is focussed on the events, the tournaments and matches, he played in), there are also fascinating glimpses of what chess life was like in Poland (and especially Lodz) during this period. So we are given pen portraits of Dawid Przepiorka (1880-1940) and Leon Szwarcman (1887-1942), two of Akiva’s contemporaries. Both were men of “culture and knowledge” and both were victims of the Nazis, as the year of their death might indicate. Szwarcman left Lodz to live in Paris, but was deported from there and died in Auschwitz. On a lighter note, we are told the story of Rubinstein’s meeting with Samuel Reshevsky, then a 5-year-old prodigy. It is clear from the depth and detail of the historical material throughout that Donaldson and Minev have done an immense amount of substantial research. They are able to debunk some stories and have discovered others. One surprise was to discover that simultaneous tours were such a large part of a professional chess player’s life during the early years of the twentieth century.

What else to say? There are photos, plenty of diagrams, accurate tournament crosstables and a full tournament and match record for 1903-1920. Six indexes (!), including an index of openings by name and ECO code. I would have preferred a seventh, an Index of Themes along the lines of Richard Forster’s in his superlative Amos Burn: A Chess Biography, but no matter. There are a few typos: so we are told at one point that a particular move has the effect of “wining a rook”, a pleasant experience, perhaps. And there are a couple of incorrect page numbers given in the “Additional Notes” section, with regard to the games versus Swiderski and Bernstein.

But overall, this is a wonderful tribute to a sophisticated, subtle chess player. A splendid volume of record, deserving of full praise and recommendation.

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com