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Essay on Chess


Story eight:  WAR AND PEACE    

         The Royal Game was written when the flame of war blazed in the world. The contents of the novel were directed against the Nazi regime.     

         It is no coincidence that the main character of this novel, Mirko Czentovic, made a voyage to Buenos Aires. In 1939, there was held the 8th Chess Olympiad. 27 teams representing national chess associations competed in the capital of Argentina. Many grandmasters and masters gathered there. World War II broke out on the day the championship finals started. The British team had qualified, but immediately returned home. At the end of the tournament, South America gained some strong players when Najdorf of Poland, Eliskases of Germany, and some others, did not return to their native lands.
Then, Stefan Zweig met with many chess Olympians in Buenos Aires. The writer learned much that was new to him. He went deep into chess life and used this knowledge in his novel. The Lithuanian grandmaster, Vladas Mikenas, knew this event in detail and later narrated it to Vassily Smyslov.

As can be seen by the results, the United States teams were at the top of the heap in those days. The late Frank Marshall, the U.S. Champion from 1909 to 1936, led to success such masters as Reshevsky, Fine, Kashdan, Dake, Horowitz, Kupchik and Simonson.

         At the center of narration was the story of a man who, thanks to chess, was able to master the strength to stand up to the danger of death. His name was enigmatic - Dr.B.  

The Gestapo arrested him, thinking he would have confidential knowledge of certain political and financial affairs. Whilst waiting in the hall for interrogation, he succeeded at great risk in stealing a book from the pocket of a police official’s coat that was hanging there.

This little book, the object of his dreams, secured at the risk of his life, turned out to be a chess textbook with a collection of a hundred and fifty examples of games played by champions. His first impulse was to throw the book out of the window. He was not a chess player. But as he had nothing to do he began to study the games, learnt how to keep score and tried to recall now what he could from when he had tried the game when a schoolboy.

        Stefan Zweig used two chess games to illustrate the psychology of Nazism. Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion, traveled on a ship from New York to Buenos-Aires. Dr. B. was asked to play a game against Czentovic. At first he refused. But on learning who his partner was, he decided to play. Dr.B. beat the world champion and Czentovic knocked all pieces off the board…

When Nazi Germany began the war against the Soviet Union, almost all best Russian masters were in the city of Rostov-on-Don where they competed to reach the final of the USSR championship. Many participants immediately went off to march into the Army in the Field. Others stayed only one round, “from force of inertia.” It was the day after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union: the future challenger of the world championship, David Bronstein, played with the champion of Lithuania, Vladas Mikenas, who employed a sharp and risky opening that, according to Russian chess terminology, was called “Lettish Gambit.”


    Bronstein - Mikenas

    Rostov-on-Don, 1941


1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.d4 d6 5.Nc4 fxe4 6.Be2

 6.Nc3 Qg6 7.Bf4 Nf6 8.Ne3 Be7 9.Bc4 c6 10.d5!

6... Nc6 7.d5 Ne5 8.0-0 Nxc4 9.Bxc4 Qg6 10.Bb5+

         In both cases White is far ahead in development.  Black forces are disorganized, his King lost castling and the e4-pawn is weak.

10…Kd8 11.Bf4 h5 12.f3 Bf5 13.Kc3 exf3 14.Qxf3 Bxc2 15.Bg5+! Nf6 16.Rae1

White threats 17.Re8+.

16…c6 17.Bxf6+ Qxf6 18.Qe2 Qd4+ 19.Kh1 Bg6 (See diagram # 43)

20. Rxf8+ Kc7 20…Rxf8 21.Qe7+

21. Bxc6 bxc6 22.Nb5+ cxb5 23. Qxb5 Re8 24.Re7+! Rxe7 25.Qc6 Mate

         In the hard military summer of 1941, I met the future outstanding grandmaster, David Bronstein, quite by chance, in a Chechen village Assinovskaya, near Grozny, escaping from Hitler’s occupation. The whole day we discussed about chess today and in the future. In ten years Bronstein drew his World championship match with Mikhail Botvinnik (12:12).

         Many well-known Russian masters were at the front and, displaying heroism, lost their lives. Among them was Sergei Belavenets (1910-1942). Before the war, he was the Russian champion and three times took first place in the Moscow championships. In spite of the fact that in the fall of 1941 German troops already approached the environs of the Russian capital, a Demonstrative chess tournament was organized in Moscow, as a symbol of Muscovites’ confidence in their victory over the invaders.



  Zagoriansky – Belavenets

   Moscow, 1941

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 c5 8.Nf3 Nc6 9.0-0 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Qc7!

Belavenets was a recognized specialist of the opening theory. Black’s plan is connected with the movement of the e-pawn. Black managed to intercept the initiative.

11.Qe2 e5 12.d5 Na5 13.e4 Nxc4 14.Qxc4 b5! 15. Qxb5 Nxe4 16.Qe2 Nf6 17.c4 e4 18.Nd2 Qe5 19.Rb1 Ng4 20.f4 Qd4+ 21.Kh1 e3! 22. Nb3 Qe4 23.Ra1 Rb8 24.Na5 Nf2+ 25.Kg1

White did not predict Black’s next move. Otherwise, he would take the knight at once. However, after 25.Rxf2 exf2 26.Qxf2 Re8 Black’s position is overwhelming.

25…Bh3! (See diagram # 44)

26. Rxf2 exf2+ 27.Qxf2 Bxg2 28.Nc6 Rbe8 29.Bb2

If 29.Qxg2, then 29… Qe1+ 30.Qf1 Qc3

29…Bf3 30.Ne5 Bh5 31.Nd7 Qf5 32.Nxf8 Re2 33.Qh4 Rxb2 34.Nd7 f6 35.Nxc5 Bf3 36.Kf1 Qc2 37.Qg3 Qxc4+ 0-1

         It was the last game in his life. The tournament did not finish because leading Russian masters were bursting to go into action on the front that was quite near Moscow. Within several weeks, Belavenets, a lieutenant of Soviet army, was killed.

The literary man, Evgeny Zagoriansky, could not serve in the Army for reasons of health but he was in the war playing at the military tournaments and writing a book Novel on Morphy

         Words and chess pieces also fought against the enemy!

  In 1943, the world’s oldest chess edition, the famous British Chess Magazine, had published an interesting studio which was created by the known American composer, Walter Korn (See diagram # 45).

The artist’s intention contained two variations: the fight against Hitler was on two fronts!

  A.1.Qa3+ Kd2 2.Qc5 d3 3.Kf4 Re2 4.Qd4 Re8 5.Qb2+ Kd1 6.Qb5 Rd8 7.Ke3 Kc2 8.Qc5+ Kd1 9.Qb6! The queen’s blow went home: 10. Qb1 Mate or 10.Qxd8

B.1.Qc5 Re2 2.Qa3+ Kd2 3.Kf4 Kc2 4.Qa2+ Kd3 5.Qb3+ Kd2 6.Qc4 d3 7.Qb3 Re1 8.Qb2+ Kd1 9.Kf3 Re2 10.Qc3 Rd2 11.Qc4. Dark forces are helpless.

        In a figurative sense, this composition meant that soon the war would end in victory!

        On the eve of the war, a new hope of German chess cropped up: Klaus Junge. Although he was born in Chile (in 1924), Junge’s parents were Germans. In 1930, they moved to Hamburg, believing that their three sons would be better educated in Germany. Junge competed successfully in several tournaments during the early years of the Second World War. At the age of 17, he shared first place with the master P. Schmidt in the German championship of 1941, but lost the play-off. In 1942, in Prague, Klaus came first (+7+3 -1), equal with the world champion, Alexander Alekhine.  Later, Klaus even beat him, as a sensation of the tournament in Salzburg, the last one in his short life. Soon, Junge was mobilized in the German army. Klaus was the last of the three brothers to die in the war. The new hope of German chess, he was killed in action on 17th April of 1945, just three weeks before the war in Europe ended.

         Many well-known chess players were front-line soldiers and fought for peace.

During the difficult war years, the future Yugoslavian grandmaster, Svetozar Gligoric, joined the partisans who struggled against the fascists. As a leader of a division of heavy armament, he participated in real battles whilst his chess pieces were left home. When the cannons fell quiet, Svetozar returned to his small wooden figures. After the war, the Yugoslavian president Tito (he was an amateur in chess) presented Gligoric a medal for bravery.

         When the war was approaching to the end, the Hungarian grandmaster Laszlo Szabo was mobilized to a division that fought together with Hitler’s troops against the Soviet Army. Coming to the Eastern Front, he at the first opportunity surrendered to the Russians and at once sent a letter to Mikhail Botvinnik about his fate.

         “A prisoner of war is a man without a weapon,” Botvinnik appealed to the Soviet military authorities. “Szabo is a good fighter only in chess.”  Szabo’s conditions in the prisoner of war camp were improved. Soon the peace was coming in, and both grandmasters, Botvinnik and Szabo, played together at the 1946 International tournament in Groningen, Netherlands.

         During the war, grandmaster Efim Geller served in the air forces, and grandmaster Ratmir Holmov worked as a sailor on the freight ship which brought loads from America to Russia.

         In summer of 1943, I arrived to the Russian health resort, Sochi, as a wounded lieutenant and was placed in the hospital where only generals underwent a cure. Playing chess was as an additional treatment. Despite different military ranks, we all, wounded front-line pals, were equal here, but in the chess battles which my partners considered as a military training, I had a big advantage. Josef Vatnikov’s military photo when he was given hospital treatment after being wounded at the front in 1943.

  After my wounding, I was sent to the city of Krasnodar to be a teacher of military training of the call-up age’s young men. Soon after the end of World War II, I put a question to myself: what would I do in peace-time? It was 1946 and, as I had no profession but was already a strong chess player, my friends encouraged me to teach chess to teenagers at vocational training schools. That was my first peace-time job. 

         Talking about chess achievements of the young Mirko Czentovic, Stefan Zweig drew a parallel between the military leaders: “The most audacious champions, each one vastly superior to him in intellectual ability, imagination and daring, were nevertheless beaten by his tough, cold logic, as Napoleon was by the ponderous Kutusov…”

         Napoleon’s panic retreat from Moscow to Paris during the 1812 war was illustrated in chess by the first Russian master Aleksander Petrov (1794-1867)

At the starting position Napoleon is in Moscow (corner a1), but the Russian cavalry begins the offensive. (See diagram #46) 1.Nd2++ Ka2 2.Nc3+ Ka3 3.Ndb1+ Kb4 4.Na2+ Kb5 5.Nbc3+ Ka6 6.Nb4+

         There was a hint that the Russians missed the possibility to capture Napoleon at the river crossing (the diagonal a1-h8 means the river Berezina). Petrov commented the last move: “The queen could stop Napoleon’s way by 6.Qa8 Mate. Then he would not come to Paris.”

          6…Ka7 7.Nb5+ Kb8 8.Na6+ Kc8 9.Na7+ Kd7 10.Nb8+ Ke7 11.Nc8+ Kf8 12.Nd7+ Kg8 13.Ne7+ Kh8. Napoleon reached Paris! 14. Kg2 Mate! (See diagram #47).

Petrov had composed a beautiful pattern of military plot that showed symbolically the chase of Napoleon by the Russian cavalry.

  Napoleon Bonaparte loved chess and was famous for his aggressive, impatient, and usually ineffective style at the chessboard. Contrary to general opinion, he was a poor chess fighter. He played boldly, seeking unusual situations and becoming very excited. When failing, he often lost his temper, pushing away the board and scattering the pieces. It made him angry to find that he could not master the game. This is probably why he said: “It is too difficult for a game and not serious enough to be a science or an art.”

         It is known that the battle of Borodino was a decisive one between the French army and Russian forces commanded by one-eyed marshal Kutusov. For the second time, the legendary village of Borodino near Moscow became a battlefield in the alarming fall of 1941 when Germans went on the offensive against Russian troops that held the line near Moscow. Russian soldiers dug in the center of the field. At night, the Army commander, Dmitry Lelyushenko, checked the situation and looked in at the dug-out of the divisional commander. “Early in the morning the decisive action is coming but you play chess,” the general said strictly. The divisional commander, Victor Polosukhin, did not lose his head: “There isn’t a better way of calming yourself before the action. It is like a military science, a real knowledge of how to conquer the enemy.”

          Soon the divisional commander proved in reality that his chess training was not in vain. In the real battle, as in a chess one, he acted boldly, resolutely and prudently. The general Lelyushenko told me about that and added: “When I hear the word ‘chess’, I remember Suvorov’s art of war. This great Russian military leader liked chess.”

         More than a few military leaders have carried chess sets to war- often playing in the midst of their campaigns. Peter the Great, King Charles XII of Sweden, Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery of England, generals Robert E. Lee and John “Black Jack” Pershing of the United States were among them. Chess has been a favorite pastime of some Soviet marshals such as Georgi Jukov and Rodion Malinovsky.

          The author of the outstanding literary work War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), was a passionate chess player. During the Crimean war in the middle of the XIX century, he always found places where he could meet a friend at the chessboard. In the last years of his life he played almost every day. He liked the game to be keen, played with imagination; he went in for complex combinations and often defeated his opponent with an ingenious mate.

         Yet Tolstoy had a very modest opinion of his abilities. He considered himself a weak player, was irritated by his own mistakes and really grieved when he lost. He greatly appreciated the beauty of the game and held chess masters in high esteem.

          “I like chess because it is a good way of relaxing: true, it makes you use your brain, but in a specific and original way,” Tolstoy said. “One’s main concern should not be to win at all costs but to go in for interesting combinations. Chess is a fine entertainment: when during playing you feel fatigue falling away from you and you forget your troubles. At the  chessboard, one should remember that the essence of the game is not in making sharp, unexpected and risky moves, but in calculating so as to make the whole set of chessman move forward harmoniously.”

  The terminology of a military battle – sacrifice, foot soldiers, construct lines of defense, destroy the enemies, command centers and others - was represented in the works of the American artist, Samuel Bak. He was guided by working out on his own memories of World War II. His paintings of battlefields of chess pieces and chessboards seem to describe our world today.

          Samuel was born in 1933 in Vilnius, Lithuania, which then belonged to Poland.  When the war began, Bak’s four grandparents were killed, as were a great many members of his extended Jewish family. His father was arrested and later shot by the Nazis. Both Samuel and his mother survived as refugees in a monastery or in the Vilnius’ ghetto. In 1942, the first exhibition of his drawings was held in the ghetto despite the fact that his native city was occupied by Germans. The young painter was only 9 years old. One might believe that this was a dream or even the story of a “golden child.”

Samuel Bak expressed the basic idea of his creation as “Painting is like a game of chess.” He has placed all chess pieces in a surreal setting. The dominant metaphor of his work convincingly illustrates his conception about the game as “the eternal music of the universe.”  That was extremely significant at the exhibition “Chess in the art of Samuel Bak” in the Pucker Gallery (Boston) in 2003. Peopled by pawns and knights, rooks and bishops, kings and queens, Bak’s vision of conflict from the ancient to the modern era deflates romantic notions of heroic combat. Experts have compared chess paintings of Samuel Back with The Royal Game of Stefan Zweig.

         Long before, chess came into existence as a reflection of war, the most tragic appearance in men’s life. For centuries, the game changed to an embodiment of peace aspirations of people. True words can be repeated endlessly: “Let’s people to fight only on the chessboard!”

Josef Vatnikov (in army uniform) was a winner of the military chess tournament in Krasnodar, 1944