Akiba Kiwelowicz Rubinstein (1 December 1880 – 14 March 1961) was a Polish
chess player. He is considered to have been one of the strongest players never
to have become World Chess Champion. Rubinstein was granted the title
International Grandmaster in 1950, at its inauguration.
In his youth, he defeated top players such as José Raúl Capablanca and Carl
Schlechter and was scheduled to play a match with Emanuel Lasker for the World
Chess Championship in 1914, but it was cancelled due to the outbreak of World
War I. He was unable to re-create the same form after the war, and his later
life was plagued by mental illness.
Akiba Kiwelowicz Rubinstein
Poland (Before 1926)
Belgium (After 1926)
December 1, 1880
March 14, 1961
Akiba Kiwelowicz Rubinstein was born on 1 December 1880 in Stawiski, Congress
Poland to a Jewish family. He was the oldest of 12 children, but only one sister
survived to adulthood. Rubinstein learned to play chess at the
relatively late age of 14, and his family had planned for him to become a
rabbi. He trained with and played against the strong master Gersz Salwe in Łódź
and in 1903, after finishing fifth in a tournament in Kiev, Rubinstein decided
to abandon his rabbinical studies and devote himself entirely to chess.
Between 1907 and 1912, Rubinstein established himself as one of the strongest
players in the world. In 1907, he won the Carlsbad tournament and shared first
at St. Petersburg. In 1912 he had a record string of wins, finishing first in
five consecutive major tournaments: San Sebastian, Pistyan, Breslau, Warsaw and
Vilnius, although none of these events included Lasker or Capablanca.. Some
sources believe that he was stronger than World Champion Emanuel Lasker at this
time. Ratings from Chessmetrics support this conclusion, placing him as world
No. 1 between mid-1912 and mid-1914.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the playing field for
competitive chess was relatively thin. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first universally
recognized world champion, died in 1900 after having been largely retired from
chess for several years, Russian master Mikhail Chigorin was nearing the end of
his life, while American master Frank Marshall lived on the other side of the
Atlantic far from the center of chess activity in Europe. Another promising
American master, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, had died in 1906 at just 33. In the
pre-FIDE era, the reigning world champion handpicked his challenger, and Emanuel
Lasker demanded a high sum of money that Rubinstein could not produce. In the
St. Petersburg tournament in 1909, he had tied with Lasker and won his
individual encounter with him. However, he had a poor showing at the 1914 St.
Petersburg tournament, not placing in the top five. A match with Lasker was
arranged for October 1914, but it did not take place because of the outbreak of
World War I.
Rubinstein's peak as a player is generally considered to have been between
1907 and 1914. During World War I, he was confined to Poland, although he played
in a few organized chess events there, and traveled to Berlin in early 1918 for
a tournament. His playing after the war never regained the same consistency as
it had pre-1914, although he remained quite strong through the 1920s. He and his
family moved to Sweden following the Armistice in November 1918, where they
stayed until 1922, and then moved to Germany. Rubinstein won at Vienna in 1922,
ahead of future World Champion Alexander Alekhine, and was the leader of the
Polish team that won the 1930 Chess Olympiad at Hamburg with a record of
thirteen wins and four draws. He also won an Olympic silver at the 1931 Chess
Olympiad, again leading the Polish team.
Rubinstein came in fourth place in the London 1922 tournament, after which
new world champion Jose Raul Capablanca offered to play him in a match if he
could raise the money, which once again he was unable to do. At Hastings 1922,
he came in second place, followed by a fifth-place finish at Teplitz-Schönau
late in the year, and then won in Vienna brilliantly. This triumph however was
soured when Austrian border guards impounded most of the prize money he had won.
Rubinstein closed out 1922 with another appearance at Hastings, which he won,
but his tournament record during 1923 was disappointing as he came in just
twelfth place at Carlsbad and tenth at Maehrisch-Ostrau.
His first tournament of 1924, at Meran, saw him come in third. He attempted
to participate in the New York tournament that spring, but was excluded from the
event due to a limited number of available slots, all of which were filled, and
in any case former world champion Lasker dominated the event by a large margin.
Rubinstein's 1925 tournament record was reasonably good, but his year-end
appearance in Moscow saw him come in 14th. His record in 1926 was fair but not
outstanding. That year, the Rubinstein family moved to Belgium permanently.
In 1927, Rubinstein visited his birthplace in Poland, where he won the Polish
Championship in Łódź. He embarked on an exhibition tour of the United States in
early 1928; although a match with reigning US chess champion Frank Marshall was
proposed along with an international tournament, it never materialized. He tied
third with Max Euwe at Bad Kissingen and then delivered a poor performance in
Berlin. Rubinstein had his best post-WWI showing during 1929, when he dominated
the Ramsgate tournament in Britain and had excellent showings at Carlsbad and
Budapest. He won Rogaška-Slatina.
As the 1930s started, Rubinstein contested the San Remo tournament, coming in
fourth. He played well in a few Belgian events that year, and then third place
at Scarborough. His performance at Liege was weak, possibly due to exhaustion.
He skipped Bled 1931 despite an invitation, played well at Antwerp, but came in
dead last at Rotterdam. This was the last major chess event he participated in.
After 1932 he withdrew from tournament play as his noted anthropophobia
showed traces of schizophrenia during a mental breakdown. In one period,
after making a chess move he would go and hide in the corner of the tournament
hall while awaiting his opponent's reply. Regardless, his former strength
was recognized by FIDE when he was one of 27 players awarded the inaugural
Grandmaster title in 1950. Unlike many other grandmasters, he left behind no
literary legacy, which may be attributed to his mental problems. He spent the
last 29 years of his life suffering from severe mental illness, living at
various times at home with his family and in a sanatorium. It is not clear how
the Jewish grandmaster survived World War II in German-occupied Belgium.
He was one of the earliest chess players to take the endgame into account
when choosing and playing the opening. He was exceptionally talented in the
endgame, particularly in rook endings, where he broke new ground in knowledge.
Jeremy Silman ranked him as one of the five best endgame players of all time,
and a master of rook endgames.
He originated the Rubinstein System against the Tarrasch Defense variation of
the Queen's Gambit Declined: 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 c5 3.c4 e6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.g3
Nf6 7.Bg2 (Rubinstein–Tarrasch, 1912). He is also credited with inventing the
Meran Variation, which stems from the Queen's Gambit Declined but reaches a
position of the Queen's Gambit Accepted with an extra move for Black.
Many opening variations are named for him. According to Grandmaster Boris
Gelfand, "Most of the modern openings are based on Rubinstein." The
"Rubinstein Attack" often refers to 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 0-0
6.Nf3 Nbd7 7.Qc2. The Rubinstein Variation of the French Defence arises after
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 (or 3.Nd2) dxe4 4.Nxe4. Apart from 4.Qc2, the Rubinstein
Variation of the Nimzo-Indian: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3. There are
also the Rubinstein Variation of the Four Knights Game, which arises after 1.e4
e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Nd4, and the Rubinstein Variation of the
Symmetrical English, 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nc7, a complex
system that is very popular at the grandmaster level.
The Rubinstein Trap, an opening trap in the Queen's Gambit Declined that
loses at least a pawn for Black, is named for him because he fell into it twice.
One version of it runs 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 0-0
7.Nf3 Nbd7 8.Bd3 c6 10.0-0 Re8 11.Rc1 h6 12. Bf4 Nh5? 13. Nxd5! Now 13...cxd5??
is met by 14.Bc7, winning the queen, while 13...Nxf4 14.Nxf4 leaves White a pawn
The Rubinstein Memorial tournament in his honor has been held annually since
1963 in Polanica Zdrój, with a glittering list of top-flight winners. Boris
Gelfand has named Rubinstein as his favourite player, and once said, "what I
like in chess ... comes from Akiba."
Notable Chess Games
- Hermanis Mattison vs. Akiba Rubinstein, Carlsbad 1929, (C68), 0–1 This
game contains a rook and pawn ending that seemed "hopelessly drawn" but was
won by Rubinstein. The editor of the tournament book said that if this game
had been played 300 years earlier, Rubinstein would have been burned at the
stake for dealing with evil spirits.
- George Rotlewi vs. Akiba Rubinstein, Lodz 1907, Tarrasch Defense:
Symmetrical Variation (D02), 0–1 This game contains an attacking combination
that was called "perhaps the most magnificent ... of all time" by Carl
- Akiba Rubinstein vs. Emanuel Lasker, St.Petersburg 1909, Queen's Gambit
Declined: Orthodox Variation (D30), 1–0 This game ends in a position where
Lasker has no good moves (zugzwang).
- Akiba Rubinstein vs. Karel Hromádka, Moravská Ostrava 1923, King's Gambit
Declined: Classical Variation (C30), 1–0 A game full of tactics and hanging
pieces in which Rubinstein beat former Czech champion Karel Hromádka.
- Akiba Rubinstein vs. Carl Schlechter, San Sebastian 1912, 1–0 Capablanca
called this game "a monument of magnificent precision".
In 1917, Rubinstein married Eugénie Lew. They had two sons, Jonas in 1918 and
Sammy in 1927. For a time, they lived above the restaurant that Eugénie
operated. After she died in 1954, Rubinstein lived in an old-people's home until
his death in 1961 at the age of 80. He reportedly still followed chess in his
final years; his sons recalled going over the games of the 1954
Botvinnik–Smyslov world championship match with him.
1. "Rubinstein-Alekhine, Karlsbad 1911". ChessBase.
2. Rubinstein's DOB Archived 2014-06-03 at the Wayback Machine, Ken Whyld
Foundation & Association for the Bibliography and History of Chess, 19 April
3. Edward Winter, Chess and Jews, 2003, retrieved April 26, 2007
4. Anderson, Lucas. "The Life and Chess of Akiba Rubinstein". Retrieved
November 24, 2020.
5. Hooper, David; Whyld, Kenneth (1996) [First pub. 1992]. The Oxford
Companion to Chess (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 346–47. ISBN
6. The World's Great Chess Games, Reuben Fine, (McKay, 1976), p.79–80 ISBN
7. Silman, Jeremy (2007). Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to
Master. Siles Press. p. 477. ISBN 1-890085-10-3.
8. Chessmetrics Summary for 1905–15, retrieved on 25-Apr-2007
9. B.F. Winkelman, "Biography of Akiba Rubinstein", in RUBINSTEIN'S Chess
Masterpieces: 100 Selected Games, Annotated by Hans Kmoch, Translated by Barnie
F. Winkelman (Dover 1960).
10. Silman 2007, p. 477
11. Barbara Wyllie, Vladimir Nabokov, Reaktion Books p.193n.64
12. How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov
13. Elo, Arpad (1978), The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, Arco, p.
66, ISBN 978-0-668-04721-0
14. Silman 2007, pp. 477–88
15. "Boris Gelfand: "Kasparov offered his help, but I said no" | Interview,
part 2 of 2". ChessVibes. 9 June 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
16.  Popularity of the non-classical line of the Nimzo–Indian from
17. "Gelfand at Crestbook Part I | Interview, part 2 of 2". Chess in
Translation. 6 May 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
18. Purdy, C.J.S. (2003). C.J.S. Purdy on the Endgame. Thinker's Press. pp.
223–26. ISBN 1-888710-03-9.
19. Akiba Rubinstein’s Later Years by Edward Winter