We use “super-tournament” so much today that, as with “super-model,” “supercomputer” and the like, its meaning has become, well, less than super. But New York 1924 was a supertournament that was truly extraordinary.
This is not merely a question of strength. In today’s age of inflated ratings, there are events with a much higher category attached to their name. But they pass quickly out of our consciousness, and next year we’ll have a hard time remembering whether Bilbao 2008 was a strong as Dortmund 2008 or Sochi 2008 – or anything else about them.
New York 1924 was different. It had a narrative that is still striking today: Three world champions – undisputed world champions, mind you – fulfilling their destiny. Richard Réti unleashing his devastating “Opening of the Future,” 1 Nf3!. The invincible José Capablanca suffering his first loss in eight years. The remarkable comeback of 46-year-old Frank Marshall and even more stunning performance of 55-year-old Emanuel Lasker.
This was a particularly fertile time of innovation, in chess and elsewhere. A month before the first round, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered, also in New York. During the course of the tournament, the first successful round-theworld air flights began, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan debuted – and the first crossword puzzle book was published.
The chess of 1924 differs in many ways from that of today and the comparisons aren’t necessarily favorable to the present. Nowadays elite GMs compete with the help of computers, analytic entourages, managers, and lawyers. They are more leaders of a team than individuals. At New York 1924 the players didn’t even have seconds.
Nor did they have databases. They had to do their own research, with very few tools. Fifty years after the tournament Edward Lasker recalled how before each round he and Emanuel Lasker took a stroll through Central Park, a few blocks from the tournament site. The younger Lasker was stunned to learn that Emanuel had no knowledge of the Marshall Gambit in the Ruy Lopez. Marshall had sprung it on Capablanca six years before. But, Edward explained, that was “during the war, when of course no chess news crossed the Atlantic.”
Today we are struggling with the plague of “grandmaster draws.” Young GMs complain they have to make short draws because they can’t exert themselves every day in an exhausting twelve-round tournament. New York 1924 was twenty rounds and yet somehow these old-timers – their average age was 42 – managed to get by with few quick handshakes.
Today’s GMs also complain that faster time controls don’t leave them enough time to think. But they don’t have to think – at least not until move fifteen or twenty or later – because Fritz prepares them for their next opponent the night before. At New York 1924 the players were on their own. They didn’t even know what color they would have each day or who their opponent would be until a drawing was held fifteen minutes before their clocks were started. (This helps explain Réti’s collapse in the tournament’s second half. Due to luck of the drawing he had five Blacks in a row.)
Yet the tournament revolutionized opening theory, which had been more or less in stasis since World War I began ten years before. New York 1924 also rewrote endgame theory. When you see for the first time the 103-move battle between the two Laskers, when a king and knight survived against king, rook and pawn, it seems like magic. When you play over Capablanca vs. Tartakower, you quickly understand why it’s the most famous rook endgame ever played. It’s been reprinted so often that it seems like nothing new could be said about it. But in the 1990s the Russian magazine 64 began to look at it again and triggered a debate over when Black was lost. The debate is still going on.
The book that Alekhine produced was an instant hit and remained a hit. Even after it went out of print, only to resurface in the Dover paperback edition, it remained clearly the best tournament book in English for half a century, until challenged by the translation of David Bronstein’s masterpiece in the mid-1970s.
If you’ve seen the original edition of New York 1924, with its clumsy note format, you can appreciate how much this edition improves on it. But you may not appreciate how the quality of Alekhine’s notes stood out in the 1920s.
Some masters of that day annotated games with comments no more illuminating than “Also possible is 33 Be3.” Alekhine provides real analysis, and with words, not just moves. He imbues the book with personality in contrast with the antiseptic notes of most tournament books written by world-class players, even the great Keres-Botvinnik book on the 1948 world championship.
On the one hand, Alekhine is ruthlessly objective, even with his own mistakes. On the other, he exudes some of Siegbert Tarrasch’s poisonous sarcasm, such as when he shows how Réti, as white, finds himself on the defensive by the twelfth move of his game with Emanuel Lasker. “Rather a dubious outcome for the ‘opening of the future!’” Alekhine writes. That was just a warm-up to his excellent treatment of one the greatest games ever played.
New York 1924 was indeed a super-tournament. And this is a book that should never have gone out of print.