When Poland Was a Chess Superpower
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Chess Superpower, Akiba Rubinstein playing against numerous opponents, a simultaneous chess game at the Bristol hotel in Warsaw, 1931, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (N, center, akiba_rubinstein_1931_nac.jpg
Throughout the Interwar period, Poland repeatedly finished on the podium of the world’s chess Olympiads, even winning gold at the 1930 tournament in Hamburg. Culture.pl looks back at this amazing era in Polish chess, telling the stories of the great masters that made up the gold-winning team.
A great victory at the height of chess fever
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The Polish team for the 1930 chess Olympiad in Hamburg, standing from the left are Paulin Frydman, Ksawery Tartakower, Stefan Rotmil, Akiba Rubinstein, Kazimierz Makarczyk, Dawid Przepiórka, Marian Wróbel, 1930, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
During the Interwar period, the game of chess was much more popular in Poland than it is today, not just because there were fewer of the electronic distractions we’re used to. Chess was even endorsed by many important political figures as a worthy pastime all Polish citizens should take up, including Marshal Józef Piłsudski – the famed freedom fighter who became prime minister in 1926. As well as holding chess in high regard (he was honorary chairman of the Polish Chess Association), Piłsudski is also known to have deeply appreciated Jewish culture – even today, Jewish communities around the world continue to have a predilection for chess.
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The first chess Olympiad or world tournament was held in 1927 in London and was won by Hungary. Poland didn’t take part, probably because the tournament’s regulations prohibited the entry of professional players and all of Poland’s best did it for a living. But the 1930 Hamburg Olympiad was the first where pros could play. It was held in July and attended by 18 national teams, mostly European ones.
The Polish Chess Association sent the following players to Hamburg: Akiba Rubinstein, Ksawery Tartakower, Dawid Przepiórka, Kazimierz Makarczyk, and Paulin Frydman as reserve. Apart from Makarczyk, all of them had Jewish roots.
Poland’s biggest rivals in Hamburg were Hungary and Germany. The Poles managed to beat the Hungarian defending champions and drew with Germany, but they also experienced some suspenseful ups and downs. For example, whilst in first position they were defeated by the Netherlands and lost the lead, only to get back into first place after winning against Finland in the nerve-racking final round. Eventually the Polish team finished 1.5 points ahead of the Hungarians (at a chess tournament a win counts as one point, a draw as half a point, and a loss as zero). The memorable Hamburg victory remains Poland’s only Olympic chess triumph.
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The periodical Świat Szachowy (Chess World) in its 1930 June-August issue described the Polish win in the following words:
The main winners are Rubinstein and Tartakower, who played like great champions, Rubinstein finished the tournament without a loss, Tartakower lost in only one game. […] It’s apparent that our players didn’t let us down, they did everything they could in the given circumstances.
Let’s take a closer look at the legendary players who secured Poland’s vital win in Hamburg.
Akiba Rubinstein: a black rook
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Akiba Rubinstein (to the left) & Ksawery Tartakower playing chess at a tournament in Łódź, 1927, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The team’s MVP was without a doubt Akiba Rubinstein, the highest-scoring player at the tournament (13 wins, 0 losses, 4 draws).
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Rubinstein was born in 1880 in the town of Stawiski. His Rabbi father passed away while his mother was pregnant with him. His family sent him to the city of Białystok where he studied at the local Talmudic school. There, as a teenager, he encountered the game of chess and fell in love with it. He eventually quit higher education in 1901 to move to Łódź to develop his chess skills. At the time, Łódź was an important hub for the world of chess.
The scope of his talent is said to have been amazing. In 1905, he won ex-aequo a tournament in Barmen in Germany and became the vice-champion of Russia. He turned professional, each day spending between six and eight hours meditating on chess strategies. He carried a miniature chess set with him everywhere he went.
In 1912, he won every chess tournament he entered and became a strong challenger for world champion. However, health problems of a psychological nature (an overstressed nervous system due to anthropophobia, or a fear of people) eventually caused his form to deteriorate and Rubinstein lost his chance to play for the highest position in chess.
Rubinstein was an absolute genius when it came to rook endings. Throughout history it’s hard to find a player as effective as him in that phase of the game. Tartakower claimed that Rubinstein, in some ways, reminded him of a black rook.
From the 2016 book ‘Arcymistrzowie’ by Stefan Gawlikowski, trans. MK
In 1917, Rubinstein married Eugenia Lew with whom he had two sons. After living for many years in Warsaw (where he had relocated from Łódź), he moved to Brussels in Belgium. He kept visiting Poland though, and in 1927 he became the champion of his homeland at a tournament organised in Łódź. After Hamburg, he also represented Poland at the 1931 chess Olympiad in Prague where Poland won the silver medal.
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In the mid-1930s, his mental health began to worsen and he could no longer play professional chess. Rubinstein was suffering from depression and was being taken care of by his wife, who had opened a restaurant in Brussels. He and his family managed to survive the Holocaust, but after his wife passed away in 1954, Rubinstein stopped shaving, bathing and even speaking. He passed away in 1961 in Atwerp after spending his final years at a nursing home.
Ksawery Tartakower: a worldly European
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Ksawery Tartakower playing chess against Kolski at the Polish chess championship in Warsaw, 1935, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Ksawery Tartakower was the second main driving force of Poland’s 1930 Olympic team, gaining 12 points in 16 games. He was born on 8th February 1887 in the city of Rostov-on-Don into a family of Polish-Austrian Jews. As a youngster he was taught by his father how to play chess, and also experimented with writing poetry. Sadly, his parents are believed to have died in a pogrom in 1911.
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From Rostov-on-Don, Tartakower moved to Vienna. He studied law there, but also became fascinated with chess. After achieving good results at various tournaments in the years 1909-1913, he decided that he would rather be a professional chess player than a law practitioner. During World War I, he served in the Austrian army as a scout, and relocated to Paris after the conflict ended.
After the war, Tartakower successfully participated in numerous tournaments and wrote on chess theory and history for the French and German press (aside from French and German, he also knew Polish, although not very well). Despite being highly active on a professional level, he often experienced shortages of money as he was an avid gambler – he would lose large sums at casinos.
In the 1920s, Tartakower was considered to be among the top ten or so players in the world. When the Polish Chess Association was created in 1926, Tartakower joined it and became a chess representative of Poland. His sentiment for Poland manifested itself through other things too. For example, when he suffered his only defeat at the Hamburg Olympiad (to Latvia’s Vladimirs Petrovs) he reacted by saying ‘Poland is not yet lost’, a quote from Poland’s national anthem.
[…] Tartakower (Paris) is first and foremost a lovely person, a worldly European, a writer, journalist, jokester, droll and a marvellous, brilliant chess player. As a player he’s always dangerous, psychologically resourceful, and lively.
From a 1927 article written by Jan Kleczyński for the daily Kurier Warszawski, trans. MK
In the 1930s Tartakower represented Poland at six chess Olympiads, winning – aside from the gold medal in Hamburg – two silver and two bronze medals. Tartakower won one of the silvers in 1939 in Buenos Aires. He was still in the Argentinian city during the outbreak of World War II, but rather than stay away from Europe, he came back to fight.
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Unable to enlist with the Polish Army in France due to his advanced age, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Tartakower survived the war and later, distrustful of Poland now that it was under a communist regime, became a French national. He played for France at the 1950 chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik. He died in Paris on 5th February 1956.
Dawid Przepiórka: a chess composer
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A simultaneous chess game with Dawid Przepiórka at the Józef Dominik Society of Chess Lovers in Kraków, 1927, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Dawid Przepiórka was Poland’s third strongest player at the Hamburg Olympiad, after Rubinstein and Tartakower – he managed to win 9 points in 13 games. Przepiórka was born in 1880 in Warsaw as the son of a wealthy real estate owner. At a young age, he discovered the chess section of the Kurier Warszawski newspaper and fell in love with the game. When he was just 14, the paper published a chess puzzle submitted by him.
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After the death of his father, Przepiórka inherited his parent’s tenement houses, becoming a wealthy man himself. In 1905, Przepiórka moved to Germany to study maths, first in Göttingen, later in Munich. But he didn’t complete his studies because he was drawn more and more into the world of chess, especially composing puzzles for others. In 1910, he married Melania Silberast with whom he lived in Munich. The couple had a son and a daughter and after World War I (which they spent in Switzerland), they moved to Warsaw.
In 1924, Przepiórka came second at a tournament in Gyor in Hungary and two years later he won a tournament in Munich. The year 1926 also saw Poland’s first chess championship, organised in Warsaw, and Przepiórka was crowned winner. From 1928 to 1933 he was involved with the chess periodical Świat Szachowy as an editor and publisher. As well as representing Poland in Hamburg, he was also on the team at the Prague Olympiad in 1931. The latter tournament was less fortunate for Przepiórka since it was his loss to USA’s Israel Horowitz in a game that could’ve ended in a draw that was believed to have cost Poland the gold medal (the Poles finished with silver).
Later on, Przepiórka played an important role in the organisation of the 1935 chess Olympiad in Warsaw as the head of the technical committee. For his work on that event, he was awarded in 1937 the Golden Cross of Merit, an important Polish state decoration.
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During World War II, Przepiórka stayed in occupied Warsaw and frequented Kwieciński’s coffee shop in Marszałkowska Street, a spot haunted by chess players itching to play (the Nazi Germans shut down official chess clubs in the capital). In January 1940, the Nazis raided the venue and imprisoned all of the clients, including Przepiórka. Some were eventually set free but Przepiórka, as a Jew, was shot to death the same month in Palmiry near Warsaw. Tragically, also during the war, his wife and daughter died, and his son went missing.
Kazimierz Makarczyk: a precise player
Poland’s fourth player on the 1930 gold-winning team in Hamburg was Kazimierz Makarczyk, winning 7.5 points from his 13 games. Makarczyk was born on 1st January 1901 in Warsaw and attended the Michał Kreczmar Middle School alongside such noted Poles as the poet Antoni Słonimski and writer Leopold Tyrmand. In 1915, he and his family relocated to St. Petersburg but they returned to Warsaw in 1918. In the Russian city, the young Makarczyk learned how to play chess, a game which he grew to hold very dear.
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Back in Warsaw, he began to study law but financial difficulties caused him to put his education on hold in 1922. Makarczyk found employment at a bank and began to edit chess sections in the press (he returned to studying in 1929, but in the field of philosophy). In 1926, he became assistant editor at Świat Szachowy and later also worked at the Ministry of Public Works.
Until the mid-1920s, his participation in chess tournaments didn’t bring much success, but in 1927 he won the bronze medal at the Polish chess championship in Łódź. That same year, he won second prize ex-aequo at the championship in Warsaw. This streak granted him a place on the Polish team for the 1928 chess Olympiad in the Hague where Poland won bronze. Makarczyk’s talents were appreciated and he ended up representing Poland at five chess Olympiads during the Interwar period, winning one gold, one silver and two bronze medals.
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Makarczyk valued precision, he had a solid, positional style of play. His favourite saying was: ‘Concentrate the most, when you gain a winning position.’
From ‘Arcymistrzowie’ by Stefan Gawlikowski, trans. MK
During World War II, Makarczyk was involved with the Polish resistance and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. As a result he was imprisoned at a German camp near Dresden which was liberated in 1945. He returned to Poland, settling down in Łódź where he became an adjunct at the Logic Department of the local university. In 1948, he became Poland’s new chess champion at a tournament organised in Kraków and the following year he won the title in Łódź. In the 1950s, he began to withdraw from public chess life. He died on 27th May 1972 in Łódź.
Paulin Frydman: the best strategist
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The Polish team for the 1935 chess Olympiad in Warsaw, standing from the left are Paulin Frydman, Henryk Friedman, Ksawery Tartakower, Mieczysław Najdorf, Kazimierz Makarczyk, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Paulin Frydman was the reserve player on Poland’s team for the Hamburg Olympiad. He played in 9 games winning 5 points. Frydman was born into a wealthy Polish Jewish family in Warsaw in 1905. His uncle Szymon Winawer was a noted chess player, and it was him who introduced the young Paulin to the game. Frydman took a liking for chess and when he was only sixteen the periodical Czyn published a chess puzzle by him.
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In 1922, he became a member of the Warsaw Society of Chess Supporters and at 19 he took second place at a championship organised by them. He also came in second at the first championship of Poland in 1926. His results secured him a spot on the Poland’s 1928 Olympiad team at the Hague. Frydman would go on to represent Poland at all of the eight Interwar Olympiads his country took part in, winning 3 bronzes, 3 silvers and 1 gold. In this regard, his chess career mirrors the incredible strength of Polish chess in the years before World War II.
The 1930s are said to have been Frydman’s golden years. As well as the Olympiads, he won the Warsaw championships five times, triumphed at a tournament in Sopot, and took second place at the 1935 national championships.
He was considered to be the best strategist among the Polish masters. It was believed that there was nothing random in the way he played. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that at the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad he won 13 points in 17 games, which strongly contributed to the team winning the silver medal.
From ‘Arcymistrzowie’ by Stefan Gawlikowski, trans. MK
After the tournament in Buenos Aires, Frydman decided to stay there rather than return to Europe where war had just broken out. He participated in Argentinian competitions until the 1940s when he withdrew from chess playing. From 1941, he ran a chess salon at a Buenos Aires coffee house called Rex, which gave him steady income. Little else is known about Frydman’s life in Argentina other than that he befriended the celebrated Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz there, who lived in that country during and after the war. Frydman died in Buenos Aires in 1982.
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A vibrant wider community
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Miguel Najdorf - Henri Grob in Jelmoli, 1948, photo by RDB / Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
All the chess Olympiads Poland participated in before World War II ended with Poland being on the podium, except for the 1933 tournament in Folkestone where the Polish team came in fourth. It’s fair to say that Poland was a chess superpower in the Interwar period. Of course, the chess landscape of pre-war Poland was co-created by other players other than those mentioned above.
Mieczysław Najdorf was a very important competitor in the second half of the 1930s. He was a leading figure in Poland’s Olympic teams in those years and in 1939 the periodical Szachista (Chess Player) deemed him the best player in the country. This Polish Jewish chess lover survived the war and later gained the status of one of the top players in the world. He also chose to stay in Argentina after the 1939 Olympiad, before making headlines creating new world records in blind chess in an attempt to let his relatives and friends back in Poland know he was safe and well. His record of playing 45 opponents simultaneously while blinded remained in place until 2011.
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Teodor Regedziński represented Poland at five Interwar Olympiads, winning four medals. He had German roots and collaborated with the Nazis during the war, probably to provide security for his wife and son. Because of that, he was imprisoned by the Polish authorities after the conflict ended.
Antoni Wojciechowski, considered one of the best Polish players of the Interwar era, represented Poland at the 1936 Olympiad in Munich. His style was described as risky and highly entertaining for onlookers.
There were plenty of other great competitors in Poland before World War II, too many to mention. All of them created a vibrant community that gave rise to Poland’s 1930 gold-winning team. Many of Poland’s chess players were also part of its Jewish population, so after WWII and the Holocaust nearly annihilated them or caused them to flee, Poland’s chess prowess has never been the same since.
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But even though Poland’s Interwar chess successes may seem like distant history, they still serve as a source of inspiration today for both professional and amateur players alike, both in Poland and around the world.
Author: Marek Kępa, Apr 20
1930 chess olympiad in Hamburg
polish chess championship
Based on the 2016 book ‘Arcymistrzowie’ by Stefan Gawlikowski, published by The Facto.