<Akiva Rubinstein (1882-1961)> is without doubt one of the strongest players to have never been the World Champion.
Born on October 12th, in Stawisk, Poland, Rubinstein learned the game of chess allegedly at the age of 14. He was soon absorbed by the game, and gave up his rabbinical studies for it.
Despite the fact that Rubinstein probably was the world's number two, if not number one in his heyday, he never got the chance to play a world championship match against Emanuel Lasker. This was mostly due to Lasker only choosing to play those challengers who could raise enough money for the title fight prize.
To most chess enthusiasts, he is known for his great virtuosity in the endgame, particularly the Rook endings. He enriched the theory of this particular type of ending with some classic wins - in fact, people would make remarks like, "Rubinstein is a Rook-and-Pawn endgame played by the gods."
He also had a profound influence on opening theory (not just novelties, but entire systems). Actually, it would be fair to say that Rubinstein contributed more to opening theory than any world champion. His main opening theory contributions were...
4.e3 against the Nimzo-Indian Defense
4...Nd4 in the Four Knights Defense
4...Nd7 in the French Defense
4.g3 against the Queen's Indian Defense
6.g3 against the Tarrasch Defense
the Meran variation in the Queen’s Gambit Declined
the Rubinstein attack in the Queen’s Gambit Declined
the 2...Nf6 Sicilan Defense
His greatest tournament accomplishment would no doubt be his unparalleled run in 1912 - he won five consecutive major tournaments all in a one year time span: Warsaw, San Sebastian, Pistyan, Breslau, and Vilna. Another tournament record of his is from Teplitz-Schonau in 1922; here he won 6 games, 4 of which were awarded brilliancy prizes! His most notable tournament performances would be St Petersburg 1909 (+12 =5 -1 for 1st equal with Lasker, whom Rubinstein beat in their individual game), San Sebastian 1912 (+9 =9 -2 for 1st place ahead of Schlechter, Marshall, Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch) and Vienna 1922 (+9 =5 -0 for 1st place ahead of Alekhine, Tartakower, Maroczy, Tarrasch and Reti). Over his whole career, including his declining years, out of seventy-four tournaments he took thirty-two firsts. As late as 1930 he achieved one of his greatest triumphs when he led the Polish team to victory at the Hamburg Olympiad with the astonishing personal score of fifteen out of seventeen at top board.
Game Collection: St Petersburg 1909
Game Collection: San Sebastian 1912
Game Collection: Bad Pistyan 1912
Game Collection: Vienna 1922
His match record is excellent; he never lost a single match he played. His first match against Salwe was drawn as well as his match against Duras. He won every other match he played – Salwe (twice), Mieses (twice), Teichmann, Marshall, Flamberg, Lowcki, Schlechter, Bogoljubow and Landau.
Game Collection: Rubinstein - Marshall Match 1908
Game Collection: Rubinstein - Schlechter Match 1918
Game Collection: Rubinstein - Bogoljubow Match 1920
Rubinstein's record against the best players of his day is impressive. The only player to have proved to have had Rubinstein's full measure was that dark genius, Alexander Alekhine (+5 =2 -8). The only other notable player to have a plus score against him was Emanuel Lasker (+1 =4 –2). Rubinstein had good solid scores against Carl Schlechter (+6 =13 -2) and Siegbert Tarrasch (+8 =12 -0). Another impressive record was an equal lifetime score against the invincible Jose Raul Capablanca (+1 =7 -1).
His chess career seems to follow arcs and depressions; a great arc from 1907-1912, then a depression after his great failure at St Petersburg 1914 accentuated by WWI, and another great arc in the early 20's with many brilliancy prizes followed by a depression from the mid 20's on. These fluctuations were probably partly due to the fact that Rubinstein had a nervous disorder known as anthropophobia - fear of people and society. This led to a gradual decline in his chess, and ultimately led to a complete withdrawal of tournament play in 1932. He left behind no literary heritage like the other great grandmasters, although he lived for almost 30 years afterwards. He died on March 15, 1961 in Antwerp, Belgium.
Rubinstein's style of play can be described by a well-known quote attributed to him. When asked whom he was going to be playing against, Rubinstein replied, "Tonight I am playing against the Black pieces". Here Rubinstein is talking about how he strived for the objective reality of chess, the geometry and logic of the game itself, unobscured by all forms of psychology, chaos and deception. He was a strong intuitive player in balanced positions and could be a perfectionist at times.
"Rubinstein has the style that will certainly be dominant. The character of this style is impersonal. Rubinstein does not feel that he is playing against an individual, but rather says; in this position, A plays against B, and then asks: What is the right move? He does not merely ask, he finds. In this way he has enriched chess theory, extraordinarily, like no other." - Emanuel Lasker