What Is Life without Love's Luster? Gersz Rotlewi, 1889-1920

Magnus Carlsen was overwhelming at the Tata Steel tournament in the Dutch town Wijk aan Zee. With 10 out of 13 he finished 1½ points ahead of Aronian and two points ahead of Anand and Karjakin. Of these three it was said that they had a good tournament.

Carlsen's live rating rose to 2872, more than 60 points higher than his nearest rival on the list Vladimir Kramnik.

But at a short press conference in Wijk aan Zee he didn't hesitate to indicate the best game of the tournament: not one of his own, but Aronian-Anand, which he called "one for the ages." On the day it was played he had already called it mind-blowing.

Indeed it was a great game, and many people, Anand himself among them, saw the similarity to the classic Rotlewi-Rubinstein, Lodz 1907. The final combination of that game has appeared in hundreds of books and magazines and here it is once again.

22...Rxc3 23. gxh4 Rd2 24. Qxd2 Bxe4+ 25. Qg2 and now the sting in the tail 25...Rh3, after which White resigned.

Both this game and that of Anand can be viewed in the game window, but here I give already a diagram to point out the similarity.

Aronian-Anand after Black's 22nd move.

Two killer bishops, a mating attack with queen and knight; the similarity is obvious.

A Great Tournament, Rotlewi's Last

Gersz Rotlewi, a Polish Jew, shares the fate of Jean Dufresne and Lionel Kieseritzky, who, in spite of their fine accomplishments, are mainly known for their loss of an immortal game. From his famous game against Rubinstein, it may appear that Rotlewi, who handled the opening badly, was a weak player, but this is far from the truth.

We know little about Rotlewi. He was born and died in Lodz, but according to the historian Edward Winter, who knows a lot, the exact dates are unknown. Also nothing seems to be known about his life before he entered the chess scene of Lodz in 1905.

In 1910 he won a match against Salwe and shared first place with Rubinstein in a tournament in Warsaw in which he also won the beauty prize for his victory over Bogoljubow. But his greatest tournament was Carlsbad 1911. It would also be his last tournament, nine years before his early death.

In an article on chesscafe.com, in 2004, Mark Dvoretsky quoted a memoir by Grigory Levenfish, one of the participants at Carlsbad 1911. After the 17th round Rotlewi shared the lead with Schlechter, 1½ points ahead of their nearest rival Rubinstein. According to Levenfish, the organizer Victor Tietz was upset by the prospect that the tournament might be won by a player whose clothes bespoke his poverty, with pants obviously borrowed from a younger brother. Tietz gave Rotlewi an advance on his prize money to buy decent clothes and shoes.

Levenfish wrote: "But Tietz had done Rotlewi no favor. Having become a dandy, the latter now partook of the leisures of the spa life, and grew unfit for serious chess. In the latter part of the tournament, Rotlewi suffered several losses, ending up in fourth place.

"Soon after the tournament ended, Rotlewi fell prey to depression. Thus ended the chess career of a most talented master."

Rotlewi may have suffered a setback during the final phase of the tournament, but nevertheless, his fourth place in a field of 26 players was a fine achievement. He finished behind Teichmann, Schlechter and Rubinstein, but ahead of great players such as Marshall, Nimzowitsch, Vidmar, Alekhine and Tartakower.

What Is Life without Love?

An interesting and moving description of Rotlewi can be found in the book Subtile Jagden (Subtle Huntings) by the famous German writer Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), in the chapter "Rehburger Reminiszenzen."

The years of his birth and death show that the martial Jünger, veteran of the French Foreign Legion and of two world wars in which he fought for Germany, lived to a ripe old age. The Austrian chess historians Michael Ehn and Ernst Strouhal have written that Jünger, when he was 102 years old, was spotted at a market buying a walking stick. At last the dapper centenarian has succumbed to old age, they thought. But no, Jünger had the walking stick gift-packed and carried it with him.

Ernst Jünger’s father, a pharmacist, had retired to the countryside near Rehburg, because he thought that after the age of 45, a man should not be working anymore, but should devote himself to his personal interests. Ernst writes that he agreed with this principle, with the reservation that it would be even better never to start working at all.

The father often went to Hannover to play chess and the strongest players he met at the chess café were sometimes invited to stay with him in Rehburg. One of these was Rotlewi.

Ernst Jünger, still a child, found Rotlewi mentally and physically infirm. Apparently Rotlewi had never known anything but city life and was both a bit intimidated and fascinated by the countryside.

Though short of breath he liked the long walks with Ernst, who later was to become a good chessplayer himself, and told him about the precarious life of a chess professional. Sitting in the café, waiting for a customer to extract some money of him, and if no customer showed up, finding a way to avoid the doorman, who would expect a tip which he couldn't pay.

During one of these walks Ernst Jünger asked him: "Herr Rotlewi, I cannot bear it any longer. I don't understand why you are so sad." Rotlewi raised his hands to heaven "as a prophet who begs for rain after a long period of drought" and answered with a line that Jünger understood to come from a poem: "What is a life without the luster of love?"

Without notice, Rotlewi vanished from their lives and there was no mention of him in newspapers or chess magazines anymore. Jünger thought that he might have been killed during the turbulences of World War I, but that is not true.

Rubinstein or Anand?

Now which is the most beautiful game, Rubinstein's masterpiece against Rotlewi or Anand's recent game?

Anand's game is deeper and more difficult, but Rubinstein's combination, of clockwork precision, has the classical beauty of simplicity. Anand's victory owes much to his preparation for his world championship match against Gelfand, which is part and parcel of modern chess, but still less attractive than creativity at the board. All in all I would vote for Rubinstein, but it's a close call.

Rotlewi-Rubinstein, Lodz 1907

Aronian-Anand, Tata Steel 2013

Simply click on the game to play through it.