August is always an exciting month for chess aficionados. For more than a week, the Polish town of Polanica Zdrój is dominated by the Akiba Rubinstein festival. This chess tournament is named after the Polish grandmaster and has been organised in his honour since 1963.

A century ago, Akiba Kiwelowicz Rubinstein was one of the best chess players in the world. In 1950 he was even awarded the title of grandmaster. Tragically, Rubinstein had not played or won any games for years by that time. He suffered from a pathological anxiety disorder: a social phobia that made him afraid to continue to play in public.

Master instead of rabbi

Akiba Rubinstein in 1908

The Jewish Akiba was born in 1880 in the Polish city of Stawiski. He was the youngest member of the large Rubinstein family, with as many as twelve children. Father Rubinstein died just before Akiba was born, and the family lived in extreme poverty. As many as ten of the twelve children died of tuberculosis. Akiba was raised by his grandparents and had never played chess during his childhood. However, when he came into contact with the game as a teenager, it was love at first sight. In 1901, Rubinstein moved to Lodz, where he received chess training from master Gersz Salwe. He turned out to be a gifted player. He was studying to be a rabbi at the time, but after finishing high in a tournament in 1903, he hung up his scrolls.

From that moment on, the young man dedicated himself fully to chess, which soon paid off. In 1905, he participated in his first international tournament as a professional chess player in Barmen, and straightaway managed to take a joint first place. This would be the first in a long series of wins for the new master. In 1907, Rubinstein became champion of Russia and in 1912, he even won five major tournaments. That year went down in history as the year of Rubinstein.

Under pressure

At the time, Rubinstein was one of the best chess players in the world, but he was unable to deal with the pressure. On top of that, he was an extreme perfectionist who thrived when everything went according to plan, but who was not flexible enough to adjust his strategy when necessary. When Rubinstein challenged reigning world champion Emanuel Lasker in 1914, things went wrong for the first time.

Before playing for the world title, both masters took part in the St. Petersburg tournament. Expectations were high because Rubinstein had won from Lasker in 1909. He was unable to qualify for the finals during this tournament, though. It wouldn’t be the last time Rubinstein performed poorly under pressure. It upset him very much and he wanted a rematch. He lost his chance, however, with the outbreak of the First World War later that year: the official championship match against Lasker was cancelled.

No money, no champion

During the war, Rubinstein could only play in Poland, with the exception of a tournament in Berlin. As a result, life as a professional chess player was not easy. Fortunately, his love life fared better. In 1917, Rubinstein married Eugénie Lew and the following year they welcomed their son Jonas into the family. When peace broke out, the young family moved to Sweden, and Rubinstein resumed his professional chess career. However, he needed money to do so.

Before the FIDE -the International Chess Federation- was founded in 1924, a chess player could challenge the reigning world champion, but only in return for a sum of money paid out to the world champion. Therefore, without money, the world championship could neither take place nor be won. Emanuel Lasker demanded such a high amount of money that the impoverished Rubinstein could no longer play against him for the world championship. Fortunately, he did win other major tournaments: in 1922, for example, he managed to win the Vienna tournament. Unfortunately, his hard-earned prize money did not make it across the border: the Austrian border guards confiscated it when Rubinstein was on his way home.

Wooden chess set from Poland. J.M. Glotzbach Collection, nr 42

Rubinstein´s results in the major tournaments varied, but in 1930 he led the Polish team to victory during the Chess Olympiad in Hamburg. The Polish players won convincingly, with thirteen victories and four draws. The following year, Rubinstein himself won a silver Olympic medal. But all those victories did not help him overcome his great shyness. In fact, after a mental breakdown in 1932, he would sit alone in a remote corner during a tournament while waiting for his next move.

Rubinstein never got back to his old level again and his anxiety disorder was getting in the way of his game more and more. Not long after his breakdown, the grandmaster had to call it quits, and retired. Looking back, Rubinstein played his last important international tournament in January 1932, in Rotterdam. In memory of this famous Polish chess player you can admire a number of Polish chess sets in the Chessmen Museum in Rotterdam. In this way, things have come full circle.

By Marjolein Overmeer