16 December 2019

Hidden stories of Jewish
Bratislava: 2, Richard Réti,
chess grandmaster, author

Richard Réti (1889-1929) was a chess grandmaster, chess author, and composer of endgame studies … an exhibition in the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During last month’s visit to Bratislava, two of us waited for over half an hour for a booked guide who never showed. Eventually, we made our own impromptu tour of Jewish Bratislava, visiting major sites associated with the stories of the Jewish community in the Slovak capital.

The sites we visited included the area that was once the mediaeval Jewish ghetto, the site of the earliest synagogue at the present Ursuline Church, the Chatam Sofer Memorial commemorating the city’s most famous rabbi, the site of the former Neolog Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial on Rybné Square, the city’s last surviving synagogue on Heydukova Street, and the Museum of Jewish Culture on Židovská Street.

As I pored over my photographs from Bratislava in recent days, I realised I had also come across many other stories of Bratislava’s Jewish communities, including a world chess grandmaster and author, a resistance hero who saved lives during the Holocaust, the lost portal of a mediaeval synagogue, an international wrestler, a visiting Russian pianist and composer, an antiquarian bookshop, and a man who stood up bravely to anti-Semitic gangs.

Rather than tell these hidden stories in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided – as with my recent tales of Viennese Jews – to post occasional blog postings over the next few weeks that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Richard Selig Réti (1889-1929) was an Austro-Hungarian, later Czechoslovak chess grandmaster, chess author, and composer of endgame studies.

He was one of the principal proponents of hypermodernism in chess. With the exception of Nimzowitsch’s book, My System, he is considered the movement’s foremost literary contributor.

Réti was born into a Jewish family in Bazin, now Pezinok, near Bratislava, on 28 May 1889. The town was then in Hungary and is now in Slovakia. His father, Dr Samuel Réti, worked there as a medical doctor in the Austrian army and was the head of the local, iron-rich, medical spa. The family later moved to Vienna, where his father set up a private practice.

The magic of chess enchanted Richard Réti from a young age, but his start in chess was so inauspicious that he came in last in tournament in Vienna in 1908. However, his talent was exceptional, by 1912 he was recognised as a brilliant player and he became a member of the famed Vienna Chess Club.

Richard also excelled in mathematics, and studied mathematics at Vienna University.

His colleague the chess grandmaster Savielly Tartakower wrote, ‘Réti studies mathematics, and yet is no dry mathematician; he represent Vienna, though he is no Viennese; he was born in Hungary and doesn’t speak Hungarian; he speaks uncommonly quickly, yet makes no premature decisions; one day he will be the best chess player but he won’t be world champion.’

It could be said Réti began his chess career because of his forgetfulness: he forgot his thesis in the café where he played and analysed games of chess, and did not want to rewrite it; and so he started making a living as a chess player.

He began his career as a combinative classical player, favouring openings such as the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4). He played in tournaments and simultaneous exhibitions, wrote articles and books about chess, and gave lectures about chess.

His playing style changed after the end of World War I, and he became one of the principal proponents of hypermodernism, along with Aron Nimzowitsch and others. With the exception of Aron Nimzowitsch’s book My System, he is considered to be the movement’s foremost literary contributor.

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Réti was one of the top players in the world, travelling throughout Europe and America. His most significant early successes were from 1918 to 1922, in tournaments in Košice or Kaschau (1918), Rotterdam (1919), Amsterdam (1920), Vienna (1920), Gothenburg (1921), and in 1922 in Teplice-Šanov, Czechoslovakia (1922), when he triumphed over an entire multitude of European masters.

The Réti Opening (1.Nf3 d5 2.c4) is named after him. Réti defeated World Champion José Raúl Capablanca in the New York 1924 chess tournament using this opening – Capablanca’s first defeat in eight years, his only loss to Réti, and his first since becoming world champion.

This tournament was also the only occasion in which Réti beat future world champion Alexander Alekhine, accomplishing this feat in the same number of moves, and with the same final move (31.Rd1–d5). He won the ‘brilliancy prize’ for the most brilliant game in the tournament that year.

In 1925, Réti set a world record for blindfold chess with 29 games played simultaneously: he won 21 games, drew 6, and lost 2.

Réti was an exception among grandmasters, being keenly interested in composing chess problems and studies, and he was a notable composer of endgame studies. His writings have become classics of chess literature, including Modern Ideas in Chess (1923) and Masters of the Chess Board (1933).

Réti died 90 years ago on 6 June 1929 in Prague of scarlet fever. He was buried in his father’s grave in the Jewish section of Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna.

His older brother Rudolph Reti (1885-1957) was a noted pianist, musical theorist and composer. Richard Réti’s son, Simon Reti, was murdered in Auschwitz; his grandson, Benjamin Reti, was killed as he tried to escape Hungary after the Soviet invasion in 1956; his great-grandson is the German painter Elias Maria Reti.

Richard Réti was an exception among grandmasters, being keenly interested in composing chess problems and studies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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