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)

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 16

The Unjust Steward (Luke 16: 1-13) … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Pery Square, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Advent this year, I am joining many people in reading a chapter from Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning. In all, there are 24 chapters in Saint Luke’s Gospel, so this means being able to read through the full Gospel, reaching the last chapter on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?

Luke 16 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15 So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.

18 ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – 28 for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”.’

A prayer for today:

A prayer today from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Lord, help us to help others understand your love and its importance to their lives, so that we can all enjoy the state of oneness with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tomorrow: Luke 17.

Yesterday: Luke 15.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31) … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Pery Square, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org