12/03/2008 20:27       


CARL SCHLECHTER (1874 – 1916)

Of all the crown princes of chess who never sat on the monarch’s throne Carl Schlechter came the closest. In 1910, in a match against the reigning champion – Emmanuel Lasker – he only needed to draw the tenth and final game of a match to take the honours, but failed to do so. Instead, he played to win the game but lost and allowed Lasker to draw the match. There have always been some doubts that the title was at stake in this match, but the match referee declared at the finale that Lasker had retained his title. One argument to discount the match as being for the world championship lies in the fact that Schlechter’s original challenge had been for a match of thirty games, but due to the lack of funds, it had been reduced to ten games. It has been suggested that Lasker would hardly put his title at stake in such a short match but he did in fact play short matches against other contenders.

Schlechter, who’s full name was Carl Adalbert Hermann Schlechter, was born in Vienna on 2nd March 1874. He was an only child although his father had a clandestine liaison that produced a half-sister. In his younger days, it was his mother who became his chief mentor and teacher. At the age of thirteen, Schlechter first became acquainted with the game of chess and his fascination blossomed by making use of all the available books on the subject. His interest was cultivated by his friendship with other close families and, as was usual in those days in Vienna, he was able to visit the many chess coffee houses and it was in one of these that Englisch, one of Austria’s premier players, spotted him and he was induced to join the Vienna Chess Society. Here he rapidly developed into a player of master strength.

After attending an elementary school, he went on to a commercial school in preparation for a business career. However, this was not to his liking and soon he devoted all his time to chess playing and journalism. At the age of nineteen, he played a ten game match against the Rumanian born Marco, the finest player in Austria at the time, well known for his supreme annotations. The match finished with all ten games drawn! This was enough to bring Schlechter to the attention of the chess community at large. He made his international debut in an 18-player field in Leipzig, coming eleventh. The quality of his play was recognised by an invitation to the great Hastings tournament of 1895 in which he managed to beat the winner, Harry Pillsbury in their individual game. In this tournament, each contestant was required to play twenty-one games and Schlechter finished just outside the prize list in ninth place having won five games, lost four and drawing twelve!

International tournaments followed thick and fast and from 1904, Schlechter enjoyed a purple patch leading to his match with Lasker in 1910. The match started with four drawn games and in the fifth Lasker got himself into trouble and Schlechter was sharp enough to take advantage of a couple of loose moves in the endgame when he was two pawns down. The first five games were played in Vienna and then the match was moved to Berlin. Here again, the first four games were drawn and then came the fatal tenth and final game for Schlechter. It seemed quite inexplicable that Schlechter played to win this game but many of his supporters opined that he was too much of a sportsman and gentleman to allow the match to be decided by a draw.

Schlechter acquired the title of the "drawing master" and this seems to be born out by his overall record detailed in the fine book by Warren Goldman "CARL SCHLECHTER! Life and Times of the Austrian Chess Wizard" which claims that he played 1059 tournament and match games of which he won 396, drew 525 and lost 138 i.e. almost 50% of games he played were drawn. This record has been ascribed to the fact that he played according to the Steinitzian principle of first achieving parity in a game before moving on to the offensive. As a comparison, one of my databases has 2373 games played by Gary Kasparov, of which he drew 888, i.e. approx. 27% drawn. Undoubtedly Schlechter could be accused of being a "drawing master" on the evidence of his results alone.

As a person, Schlechter has been reported as courteous and unquarrelsome, attributes that would not necessarily assist his chess results. There is a story that at the Ostend Tournament of 1907, He obtained a winning advantage against Tarrasch, who then suddenly "felt Ill". Schlechter agreed to a draw and eventually finished in second place to Tarrasch who won by half a point! Courtesy indeed!

Isador Gunsberg made the following comment on Schlechter, which seems to be indicative of the nature of the man, 

"Schlechter was the one competitor who accepted all things and all arrangements with equanimity amounting almost to indifference. Everything was right for him and nothing amiss, and this man, who apparently paid such little regard to his interests, was the winner of the first prize. Schlechter also showed us the generous side of his nature by declining to compete for any of the brilliancy prizes, for which he undoubtedly would have had the best chance. "I have won enough", he said. "Let others get something too."

At the start of the First World War, conditions in Austria became desperate. As a result of the Allied blockade, there was a severe shortage of food and medicines, and this had a deleterious effect on Schlechter’s frail constitution. His health began to fail until, on a visit to Budapest in 1918, he collapsed and died when returning to Vienna shortly after Christmas.