Book Review – Arthur Kaufmann. A Chess Biography

Arthur Kaufmann. A Chess Biography, 1872-1938. Olimpiu G. Urcan and Peter Michael Braunwarth. McFarland & Company. Softback. 266 Pages. 23 Photographs. 217 Diagrams.

Born on 4th April 1872 in Iaşi, Moldavia, Romania of Jewish parents, Arthur Kaufmann is a relatively obscure chess player, despite having been of grandmaster strength. He spent most of his life living in or around Vienna, having moved there during the mid 1880s after his father’s death. This relocation was a probable consequence of increasing anti-Semitism in his homeland. Kaufmann studied Law, receiving his degree in 1896, and it was around this time that an interest in chess developed.

Part I of this book – over 130 pages – comprises biographical information heavily reliant upon the diaries of Kaufmann’s close friend, Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, and correspondence between them. Part II – over 70 pages – features all of the chess material concerning Kaufmann that the authors have been able to unearth and comprises 71 annotated games plus game fragments arranged in chronological order. Part III – 50 pages – is made up of Appendices, Sources and Indexes.

There were significant periods during his life when Kaufmann either played no chess or about which no chess related evidence has been traced. (1900 – 1911 and post 1917.) Consequently, large portions of the text concentrate on other aspects of his life, including an interest in philosophy. It is clear that he struggled with mental illness over many years as well as an inability to organise his ideas and document them coherently. Nevertheless he did not lack conviction and at one point wrote of his belief that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity amounted to a fundamental error!

Kaufmann’s chess ability may be judged by his results in contests with contemporaries who played in and around Vienna. Although an amateur, he enjoyed a plus record in games with Georg Marco, Richard Reti and Savielly Tartakower and recorded wins against Rudolf Spielmann, Carl Schlechter, Adolf Albin and Milan Vidmar. In the forward, Mihail Marin compares his style to that of Adolf Anderssen and Florin Gheorghiu. A dynamic player, he learned from losses against strong opponents to avoid premature displays of tactics, entering complications only when these flowed from the position on the board.

One surprising feature of this biography is the lack of a definite photograph of Kaufmann. Two group photographs show an unidentified individual in the background but there is no evidence to confirm identity. This omission is not due to neglect, having regard to the efforts of the authors to discover as much as possible about their subject. It would seem that the evidence is simply not available. Neither is there an image of Kaufmann’s grave. The Viennese authorities notified the authors that it was destroyed by bombing during World War II.

The absence of chess related material during extended periods of Kaufmann’s life is somewhat frustrating. However, there is an abundance of information covering social and economic life in Central Europe prior to after the fall of the Habsburg Empire. The frightening rise of Nazism and its implications for the Jewish community in Austria are graphically explained. In fact, circumstantial evidence suggests suicide to have been the most likely cause of Kaufmann’s death.

I hope that more information will be discovered about a man whose interests ranged over a wide variety of subjects and lived at a time of great turbulence in Central Europe. Kaufmann’s chess was all played in and around Vienna, so it is conceivable that records of many of his games have been lost or destroyed. Having known little more than his name prior to reading this book, I am now acquainted with a flawed character of considerable intellect who experienced monumental difficulty coming to terms with events around him. This biography, comprising chess history, social and economic history and political history is a fitting tribute to his life.

Review by David Mills

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