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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Chess of Karl Marx

   Francis Wheen, the biographer of Karl Marx, wrote that while Marx was waiting for the proofs of Das Kapitol to be returned he spent an evening at a party hosted by the chess master Gustav Neumann. As a memo of that night there remains the record a game in which Marx defeated a fellow named Meyer.
     Karl Marx (1818-1883), the ideological father of the Soviet Union, was an avid chess player and it was said that at times he had an unhealthy obsession with the game. In the early 1850s, during the first years of his London exile he would spend entire nights playing one game after another against other German exiles. 
     One of Marx’s frequent opponents was Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826- 1900) a German socialist and one of the principal founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany who was a colleague of Marx. 
     Liebknecht was, at least by his own account, strong enough to have considered a career as a chess professional and he wrote a firsthand account of Marx’s passion for chess. He described Marx as a very enthusiastic player who “tried to make up what he lacked in science by zeal, impetuousness of attack and surprise.” In Liebknecht’s opinion Marx was an excellent checker player, but his chess “did not amount to much.” 
     Actually, the term “scientific” play didn’t come into use until Steinitz day in the mid-1870s. Marx played in the 1850s when the “Romantic” style was in vogue. Romanticism was characterized by speculative sacrifices in the hopes of creating an attack and hopefully the player with least material was the winner.
     Marx was more than a casual player; when he played he was deadly serious. Liebknecht related that when Marx was in trouble “he lost his temper and when he lost a game, he was furious.” When losing he was obnoxious, loud, disagreeable and emotionally volatile, but when winning he was happy and companionable. 
     Liebknecht described grueling all-day, all-night marathon sessions in which Marx, losing game after game, insisted on repeatedly testing and refining an opening innovation or a middlegame variation until he was finally able to win. Only after he had finally won would he allow his exhausted opponent to quit. 
     It’s odd that for such a reputedly passionate player, Marx’s works make no mention of chess nor did his wife or daughter mentioned chess in any of their writings about Marx. With the exception of Liebknecht neither did any of the personal memoirs of his contemporaries mention his chess. 
     In his memoir, Liebknecht recalled an incident that happened in the Marx home in the early 1850s. After a marathon session of chess between Liebknecht and Marx that lasted all day and well into the night, the two men finally broke off. Marx had been losing and was determined to resume play in the morning.
     When Liebknecht returned the next morning Marx’s wife and children were not present and it appeared Marx had been up all night analyzing and preparing openings. Play continued and Marx ordered his housekeeper to bring them lunch which they hardly ate. They played far into the night before Liebknecht began winning. After midnight the housekeeper appeared and apparently under the direction of Mrs. Marx told them they must stop playing. 
     The next morning, the housekeeper visited Liebknecht at his home with a curt message from Mrs. Marx stating that no more chess would be tolerated in the Marx home. 
     British master and chess author Gerald Abrahams conjectured that Marx was a very weak player, but that opinion was based on analysis of the known game played by Marx, the 28 move casual game played at a party against Meyer mentioned above. 
     Marx was not in the habit of keeping a score of his games, but another player who was watching the game recorded it. The game itself isn’t very noteworthy, but the opening, a Muzio Gambit, is interesting. Meyer accepted the offer because in those days it was considered declining unsporting to decline a sacrifice. How things have changed! 
     A few analyst tried to draw superficial conclusions between the scientific and materialist Marx and this game played in the Romantic style. The truth is, with only one sample game, it’s hard to draw any conclusions. Besides, the scientific style was unknown to chess until Steinitz introduced it in the mid-1870s. 
     The first thirteen or so moves of this game conformed to what was already known theory. The Muzio Gambit had been played for generations prior to this game and all the main variations had been worked out. What is clear is that both Marx and his opponent knew the then current opening theory. 
     Marx played with great energy and Meyer defended well, but stumbled on move 18 and Marx seized on the inaccuracy with a series sharp moves. Bearing in mind that this was a casual game played at a party, the question is, how good was Marx? 
     There were quite a few errors making it difficult to consider either player as being of master strength, but they clearly were not weak players either. Perhaps Class A (1800-1999), or Expert (2000-2199) if you’re feeling generous.

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