“The one who wins is great!”

In a few days, I will publish a complete review of one of the most majestically beautiful Chess history books I have ever had the pleasure to read:


After having written several posts concerning the plethora of draws recently, especially short ones of less than ten moves, at the Charlotte Chess Center & Scholastic Academy, I wanted to include what follows in the review. To do so would have meant cutting some of the material, but each and every time I attempted to do so it just did not feel right. I therefore decided to publish pages 114 through 118, actually about four pages in total, in their entirety. I hope reading these few pages gives you an idea of how good is this book. This part is titled: A Skirmish With Flohr

In the second half of the 1930’s, the campaign against the “enemies of the people” gained momentum. On 31st March 1936, the Russian SFSR People’s Commissar of Justice Nikolai Krylenko


reported to Stalin

Joseph Stalin was a dictator who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and premier of the Soviet Union. Library of Congress/©HowStuffWorks.com

that the number of cases and convictions involving “counter-revolutionary crimes” had been steadily increasing since 1935. This was also the time of the first accusations of “sycophancy before the West” in the press. Soviet chess was also affected by the campaign.
In the February 1936 issue of Shakhmaty v SSSR, Peter Romanovsky published an article “Fighting For the Concrete Line, or the Chess Dogma”. It was a vicious attack against grandmaster Salo Flohr,


who, in Romanovsky’s words, “hoisted the banner of routine over the chess world, trying to prove the inevitability of him winning the world championship in the future.”
We should note that a change of power had taken place in the chess world by that point, which was also mentioned by Peter Arsenyevich: “Alekhine, the great advocate of development and deepening of the chess idea, loses an important contest to Max Euwe,


who has strictly dogmatized the strategic methods of his creativity.”
The Western dogmatists and conservatives were grabbing the highest places in the chess world! This was the main concern of Peter Romanovsky’s article. But not everything was so bad, the author contended. The Soviet country had the power to direct chess thought towards creativity:
“The chess community of the USSR counters Flohr’s routine with Botvinnik,


a subtle connoisseur of very diverse positions, which almost always allows him to transcend the limits of dogma when needed, while still basing his play on the said dogma, and to surprise his opponent with unexpected concrete possibilities that are often overlooked by the principal frameworks of chess creativity.” It looks like an advert for the future first Soviet world champion.
While attacking Flohr, the author sympathizes with the “renegade” Alexander Alekhine at the same time. But this “paradox” is really not surprising. During his first match against Euwe, Alekhine sent a telegram to the Soviet chess officials, which was published in Izvestia and 64: “Both as a long-time chess worker and as a person who understands the huge importance of everything that was achieved by the USSR in all areas of cultural life, I send sincere greetings to the USSR chess players in honor of the 18th anniversary of the October Revolution.” There’s a version that Alekhine was planting a seed to return to his homeland with this telegram, but the loss to Euwe disrupted those plans.
The harsh criticism of Flohr continued into 1937, spilling onto the pages of 64. Over three issues (Nos. 13, 15, and 19), Peter Arsenyevich published an article “Some Modern Creative Tendencies”, directly accusing the Western grandmaster of cowardice!
As the starting point for his criticism, Peter Romanovsky cites his game against Botvinnik from the 1935 Moscow International Tournament. Romanovsky sacrificed a pawn for the initiative in that game, but then made a mistake and had to resign:
“Grandmaster Flohr didn’t exactly mince his words about this sacrifice in one of his tournament reports.
‘I personally, he wrote concerning this game, ‘prefer to sacrifice my opponent’s pawns rather than my own.’
This small phrase, seemingly only describing a concrete chess event, actually hides a big and principle-based worldview, based on the concept of excessive caution in over-the-board chess struggle, especially against strong players.”
By sticking to this concept, Flohr acts as a mouthpiece for a lot of players.”
Then Peter Arsenyevich gives a rundown of the so-called “Flohr school and its followers”:
“1. Opening theory is thought as all-important.Playing without creating weaknesses in your own camp.

Avoiding both offering and accepting sacrifices if clear evaluation of the compensation is not possible. Ascribing especial importance to the technical side of the struggle and thus a persistent tendency for positions that are resolved in a technical way.”
After maintaining his silence for a time, Flohr finally answered Romanovsky with an article “More of Modern Creative Tendencies” ((64, No. 36):
“I am not going to counter-attack the distinguished master P. A. Romanovsky, whom I deeply respect, even though he structured his article, published by 64, on a faulty basis and outright insulted me in some places; I would just like to defend my creative views.
P. A. Romanovsky ridiculously simplifies my views of chess by alleging that the quote about preferring ‘to sacrifice my opponents’ pawns rather than my own’ is my credo…
Romanovsky’s article contains a serious accusation that is characteristic of the ideological representatives of the so-called pure combinational school. At every opportunity, they attack the masters, accusing them of ‘betraying’ the chess art…
A modern master should be a master of tactics first and foremost – he should see through his opponent’s plans, find the resulting combinations, use the slightest advantage, deeply understand the dynamics of the chess game. It’s not a purely professional technique. It’s much easier for me to calculate a forced 10-move combination than find one best move in a strategically simple position.”
Then, to reaffirm his words, Flohr shows a subtle endgame from the sixth game of his 1933 match against Mikhail Botvinnik,

Flohr, Salo vs Botvinnik, Mikhail
Event: Moscow/Leningrad m
Site: Leningrad Date:1933
Round: 6
ECO: E38 Nimzo-Indian, classical, 4…c5

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 c5 5.dxc5 Na6 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.Qxc3 Nxc5 8.f3 d6 9.e4 e5 10.Be3 Qc7 11.Ne2 Be6 12.Qc2 O-O 13.Nc3 Rfc8 14.Be2 a6 15.Rc1 Ncd7 16.Qd2 Qb8 17.Nd5 Bxd5 18.cxd5 Rxc1+ 19.Qxc1 Qd8 20.O-O Rc8 21.Qd2 Qc7 22.Rc1 Qxc1+ 23.Qxc1 Rxc1+ 24.Bxc1 Kf8 25.Kf2 Ke7 26.Be3 Kd8 27.Ke1 Kc7 28.Kd2 Nc5 29.b4 Ncd7 30.g3 Nb6 31.Kc2 Nbd7 32.a4 Nb6 33.a5 Nbd7 34.Bc1 Kd8 35.Bb2 Ne8 36.Kd2 Nc7 37.Ke3 Ke7 38.Bf1 Nb5 39.h4 Nc7 40.Bh3 Ne8 41.f4 f6 42.Bf5 g6 43.Bh3 h6 44.Bc1 Ng7 45.fxe5 dxe5 46.Kf3 h5 47.Be3 Kd6 48.Bh6 Ne8 49.g4 hxg4+ 50.Bxg4 Nc7 51.Be3 Nb5 52.Ke2 Nc7 53.Kd3 f5 54.exf5 gxf5 55.Bxf5 Nxd5 56.Bd2 N7f6 57.Kc4 Kc6 58.Bg6 b5+ 59.Kd3 Ne7 60.Be4+ Ned5 61.Bg5 Nh5 62.Bf3 Ng3 63.Bd2 Kd6 64.Bg4 Nf6 65.Bc8 Kc6 66.Be1 e4+ 67.Kd4 Ngh5 68.Bf5 Kd6 69.Bd2 1-0

with two bishops outplaying the Soviet champion’s two knights. Alexander Alekhine valued this positional masterpiece highly.

  1. “A young master frequently begins his career with fiery combinations. Then, influenced by his experience, he evolves towards the modern way of playing. This is an inevitable process. Other wise, the young ‘combination player’ won’t progress past the average level and will be pushed aside by better players.” (A)
    At the end of his article, Flohr speculated about the inevitability of chess mistakes: “The tactical player who always plays without mistakes, like a clockwork machine, has not yet been born. As soon as the players P. A. Romanovsky dreams of arrive, the art of chess will cease to exist.”
    It was naive to expect the opponents to change their points of view on chess. The grandmaster and the distinguished master held to their own opinions, criticizing each other at every opportunity.
    For instance, Salo Flohr, who moved to the USSR in 1939, played for Moscow in the traditional match against Leningrad. His opponent was Ilya Rabinovich.

Flohr wrote in an annotation to that game: “Master I. Rabinovich is a very obliging opponent.

To the joy of the distinguished master P. Romanovsky, he gives me an opportunity to finich the game in a ‘creative’ style. A combination follows – not too complicated, but the spectators liked it.”
Flohr wasn’t the only “victim of Peter Arsenyevich’s criticism. Romanovsky also targeted another potential world championship candidate – the american grandmaster Reuben Fine.

  1. He explained the American’s wins in the 1937 Leningrad and Moscow tournaments by the fact that the Soviet masters “helped him with his intentions to create familiar setups in the opening rather than trying to challenge him on unfamiliar grounds.”
    Peter Arsenyevich even coined the term “Fine-Flohr style”, heavily used in the Soviet chess press of the late 1930s.
    However, life ultimately reconciled Romanovsky and Flohr! After retiring from active competition, the opponents stopped being too categorical in questions of chess creativity. In his revised training books, published in the 1960s, Peter Arsenyevich rooted for…harmony of styles! Here’s what he wrote in the book Middlegame. Combination (Moscow 1963): “The chess circles still distinguish between positional and tactical playing styles, between positional and tactical players.
    Any of those ‘labels’ stuck on a player are insulting to the players themselves first and foremost, because they suggest that his chess skills and talents are limited and one-sided.
    You cannot execute and prepare a combination without understanding the laws of positional weakness and game planning. You also cannot execute creative plans if you haven’t mastered tactics, if you don’t have a sharp eye for combination motifs.”
    And what about his opponent? “Many years ago, when I lived in Prague, I developed a strategy,: Flohr recalled in 1957 in Shakhmaty v SSSR, No. 4. “At any tournament, I would try to defeat the weak players and draw with the stronger ones. My main motto was, Don’t lose! This brought some good results…
    Lately, I’ve been in the spectator hall a lot, listening to chess fans’ comments. Now I clearly realize that I was deservedly criticized by the spectators in my earlier days when I stopped playing on move 20.
    In 1937 and 1938, I was thinking that the chess world was applauding me: he’s so great, he rarely loses. Oh no, now I understand that I wasn’t great. The one who wins is great!
    I realized long ago that my strategy was limited, poor, defective from the creative point of view. A chess player who adopts such a style cannot be popular among chess fans, and such a player will never become a world champion.
    Now that I am close to retiring from competitive chess, I deeply regret the fact that I stopped dozens of my games prematurely for the sole purpose of avoiding losing a half-point. What do those several draws with Alekhine give me today? It would have been better to have lost a few more games to him, but, on the other hand, maybe I’d have managed to defeat him once?” (B)
    This is the key to the argument between Flohr and Romanovsky from the faraway 1930s! It was the perennial dispute between the creative and consumer approach to chess. We should remember Voltaire’s classic quote: “All genres are good except the boring kind, but boring isn’t a genre.”

(A) After reading this I stopped to reflect on the transformation of the great purveyor of ‘slash & dash’ chess, World Champion Mikhail Tal. After being forced to work with Anatoly Karpov, Tal was transformed into a much more complete player. It has been written that the latter Tal was even stronger than the young Tal.

(B) The closing lamentation of Salo Flohr brought to mind the famous words of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

Yakov Vilner First Ukrainian Chess Champion and First USSR Chess Composition Champion: A Review

Having earlier reviewed Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/alekhines-odessa-secrets-chess-war-and-revolution-a-review/) I was pleased when a new book, published by Elk and Ruby (http://www.elkandruby.com/) and by the same author, Sergei Tkachenko,

appeared in the mailbox. Yakov Vilner: First Ukrainian Chess Champion and First USSR Chess Composition Champion,

is the follow up to the aforementioned book.

Tkrachenko writes in the introduction to the latter book, “I found clear evidence that the versions that Alekhine was saved by important Soviet functionaries were incorrect. Historical facts and memoirs pointed to the undoubted fact that his salvation was down to the modest Jewish lad Yakov Vilner, who at the time the grandmaster was arrested was working as a clerk in the Odessa revolutionary tribunal.

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about this figure. However, it transpired that there was little ready information about Vilner. Even his date of birth was unknown. Well, I then spent eight years researching him until the curtain of mysteriousness finally fell! I now saw a vivid and gifted personality who had the “luck” to live in such turbulent times.

Moreover, I collected so much material that on the advice of historians among my friends I decided to split it into two books, with the material on Alexander Alekhine’s three trips to Odessa compiled as a separate book (subsequently published later in 2016 in Russian and in 2018 in English, as Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution, which was short-listed for the 2018 English Chess Federation Book of the Year).

The book you are now reading was originally intended as a prelude to the book on Alekhine and is devoted to the first Ukrainian Chess Champion, first USSR Chess Composition Champion and first Odessa Master Yakov Semionovich Vilner, who in 1919 managed to save Alekhine from death and thereby cange the courst of chess history.”

Before reading the two books by Sergei Tkachenko what I knew about Ukraine could be summed up in the sentence, “Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR.” Because of the attempt of the Commander in Thief of the DisUnited States of America, Donald John (has any POTUS ever had a better fitting middle name?) Trumpster to gain another term as POTUS by strong arming the young President of Ukraine that country has been in the news often this year. In an attempt to learn more about Ukraine I recently watched two documentaries, Ukraine on Fire, and Revealing Ukraine. Oliver Stone

is the Executive Producer, which was all I needed to know to watch. My knowledge of Ukraine was increased exponentially by watching the films, which were viewed between reading the two aforementioned books.

From a historical perspective I enjoyed the book, yet wondered how many others would be interested in what was happening in Chess a century ago. The first book was about a former World Chess Champion with a backdrop of radical political change containing firing squads for those with a different political thought. Firing squads feature in the Vilner book but the drama is lacking. Yakov Vilner was obviously a fine Chess player, but unfortunately, his health was sometimes bad because he had asthma. Thus, his Chess results were rather erratic. The same can be said about the Chess games. For example, the second game, versus Boris Koyalovich, features 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 f6? I kid you not. This is the kind of move Chess teachers of children often encounter. The author writes, “One of the weakest ways to defend the Spanish. Koyalovich clearly chooses it to avoid the well-known variations.” I’ll say! This game was played during the Tournament of Kislovodsk in 1917.

When healthy Yakov Vilner was the best player in Odessa, and Ukraine. He was good enough to finish in a three way tie for sixth place in the eighteen player 3rd tournament Championship of the USSR in 1924 played in Moscow in August/September.

Some of the games are interesting and the annotations are excellent. For example, consider this game from the 4th USSR Championship played in Leningrad 1925:

Yakov S Vilner

vs Boris Verlinsky

URS-ch04 Leningrad 1925

E00 Queen’s pawn game

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 b6 4.e4 Bb4 5.Bd3 Bb7 6.Qc2 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6 8.Ne2 c5 9.O-O Nbd7 10.Ng3 Qc7 11.f4 cxd4 12.cxd4 Rc8 13.e5 Nd5 14.Qb3 Ne7 15.Ba3 d5 16.Rac1 Qd8 17.f5 O-O 18.f6 gxf6 19.exf6 Ng6 20.Bxg6 hxg6 21.Be7 Qe8 22.Qe3 Kh7 23.Nf5 1-0

The author writes, “A game of fireworks! Interestingly, almost all of white’s moves were consistent with Rybka’s first line. In our days that might have led to allegations of cheating!” This is a sad indictment of modern Chess. Spurious allegations by Chess.com, for example, have forced former online players to go elsewhere. An example can be found at GM Kevin’s Spraggett’s wonderful blog with the post, Blogger’s Reputation Intentionally Smeared? (https://www.spraggettonchess.com/chesscom-caught-cheating/) Reading the article caused me to do some checking around and one of the things learned was that one local youngster was given the boot from chess.com for allegedly “boosting.” The youngster was accused of creating false accounts to play in order to beat them and “boost” his rating. The youngster did no such thing, yet had no recourse other than to leave chess.com and play at one of the other, more reputable, websites. How many players have been falsely accused by chess.com ?

Another game from the same tournament attests to the strength of Vilner.

Efim Bogoljubow

vs Yakov S Vilner

URS-ch04 Leningrad 1925

D49 Queen’s Gambit Declined semi-Slav, Meran, Sozin variation

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.e3 e6 5.Nc3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 a6 9.e4 c5 10.e5 cxd4 11.Nxb5 Nxe5 12.Nxe5 axb5 13.O-O Qd5 14.Qf3 Ba6 15.Bg5 Be7 16.Rfc1 O-O 17.Qh3 h6 18.Bf4 Bb7 19.Re1 Bb4 20.Re2 Rxa2 21.Rf1 Rfa8 22.f3 Bf8 23.Ng4 Nxg4 24.Qxg4 Qb3 25.Bb1 Rxb2 26.Ree1 d3 27.Rc1 Ra1 28.Bc2 Rxc1 0-1

The annotations to both games were provided by Yakov Vilner. The author writes, “Naturally, I wanted to find out more about this figure. However, it transpired that there was little ready information about Vilner. Even his date of birth was unknown. Well, I then spent eight years researching him until the curtain of mysteriousness finally fell! I now saw a vivid and gifted personality who had the “luck” to live in such turbulent times.”

Vilner was very ill for a time and the title of one chapter is, How To Combine Treatment With Playing. Then came the Odessa Championship tournament of 1927.

“At first, everything went to plan. On 12 April the 12 best players of Odessa began their battle for the city championship. After round 4 Vilner headed the field with a perfect score. But then his illness returned. The tournament committee managed to postpone several of Vilner’s games so that he could complete the tournament. His short rest brought dividends. After round 8 Yakov Semionovich was still a point ahead of Sergei Ballodit and 1.5 ahead of Dmitry Russo. Vilner then had to play each of them in the final rounds. Such intrigue would have been hard to make up! A reporter hiding behind the initials AMO shared his observations in the newspaper Odessa Izvestia. The column was entitled Before the end and stated:

“Final games. Vilner-Ballodit. Two stubborn “wolf-dogs”. They will battle to the end, to the final pawn. They both possess deep theoretical preparation and have mastered the complex meandering of combinational play. Who will come out on top? So they begin. We see agile bishops slipping out. Knights crawling over the heads of pawns. Carefully feeling out the paths, the queen emerges.
A schematic position has already appeared. Vilner “presses”. With an apparently strong front, Vilner strides towards a difficult but possible victory. Vilner analyzes dozens of variations. He thinks ahrd. But the clock isn’t sleeping. Maestro, time is running out. The maestro makes his move. Then another and another. Time is running out. He needs to catch up.
Well, his opponent is “time-rich”, and coldly calculating. time-trouble disrupts the accuracy of the plan. “Enemy” pieces ahve already broken through. One blunder and it’s death. A crush is close… The game cannot be saved. Destruction…”

This reminded me of the battles between IM Boris Kogan and LM Klaus Pohl, the German Shepard, ‘back in the day’. Boris usually took the measure of Klaus, but occasionally the Krazy Kraut would do the measuring. Ballodit played second fiddle to Vilner, but took over first position in this particular tournament.

Also found is this:

“In order to popularize chess, two rounds were played at factories in the city: at the jute factory and the leather goods factory. “Chess to the masses”, as the slogan went! But of course sharp games are the best adverts for chess.” (The USSR was as full of slogans as it was full of excrement)

Vilner finished near the bottom of the Fifth championship of the USSR in 1927, but did inflict a defeat upon future World champion Botvinnik in the tournament.

Yakov S Vilner vs Mikhail Botvinnik

Moscow 1927
A45 Queen’s pawn game

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Qd3 g6 4.h3 Nc6 5.Bf4 Bf5 6.Qd2 Bg7 7.e3 O-O 8.g4 Bc8 9.Bg2 Re8 10.Nf3 Ne4 11.Nxe4 dxe4 12.Ne5 Be6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Bxe4 Bd5 15.Qd3 e5 16.dxe5 Bxe5 17.Bxd5 cxd5 18.Bxe5 Rxe5 19.O-O-O c6 20.h4 Qd7 21.Qc3 Rae8 22.Rd4 Qd6 23.h5 c5 24.Rdd1 Re4 25.hxg6 Qxg6 26.Rxd5 Rxg4 27.Qxc5 Rg2 28.Rd2 Qg4 29.Rhd1 h5 30.Rd8 Rxd8 31.Rxd8+ Kh7 32.Rd4 Rg1+ 33.Kd2 Rd1+ 34.Kc3 Rxd4 35.Qxd4 Qg5 36.Qd7 h4 37.Kd2 Kg6 38.Qh3 Qd5+ 39.Ke2 Qe4 40.Kf1 Kh6 41.f3 Qxe3 42.Qxh4+ 1-0

We humans like to speculate about “what if?” As in, “What if Klaus Junge

had not died in World War Two?” (http://tartajubow.blogspot.com/2011/01/klaus-junge.html) How many players have died needlessly on a battlefield somewhere in yet another war without end? Hopefully, one day peace will break out… Reading this book brought another to light.

Alexander Moiseevich Evenson (1892-1919)

“He became recognized as a top chess player in 1913 after winning the All-Russian amateurs tournament with a score of 6.5 out of 7! He edited the chess column of the newspaper Kievan Thought (Kievskaya Mysl) (1914). Graduated from the Law Faculty of the Stl Vladimir Kiev University. Fought in WWI. Served in the cavalry and was injured. A Knight of the Order of St. George. Died in the Civil War. According to one version, he served in Kiev as an investigator of the military-revolutionary tribunal and was shot by a Denikin forces’ firing squad after the latter captured the city. Another version has that Evenson actually signed up as a volunteer for Denikin’s white army and was killed in unclear circumstances. Alekhine and Capablanca considered Evenson to be one of the most talented chess players of his time.

The 6th Championship of the USSR was held in Odessa from September, 2-20, 1929. Because of the large number of participants it came to be thought of as “Odessa roulette”. There were so many players because the Communists in charge wanted to welcome “the masses.”

“A record number of players took part – 36! Of these, 14 were masters and 22 were first category players. How were such a large number of players to be paired off? Oddly enough, the tournament had no clear regulations. It was all decided on an ad hoc basis. At the opening, the organizing committee proposed two options for holding the tournament to the players: either six groups each with six players and one game per day, or four groups each with nine players and three games every two days. The majority voted for the second option, which was later subject to harsh criticism… by the very same players. That’s democracy for you!”

The infamous communist apparatchik, Nikolai Krylenko,

who in the 1930s headed the Soviet chess and checkers associations. (https://www.chess.com/blog/Spektrowski/nikolai-krylenko-the-main-goals-of-the-chess-checkers-movement-1931) (https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSkrylenko.htm), wrote in Chess List:

“The outcome of the USSR championship has given rise to a number of critical articles in our periodical publications, most of which lack sufficient objectivity.”

Objectivity being whatever Lenin or Stalin said…

“Many secrets of the championship remained backstage. The biggest one was Izmailov’s withdrawal from the final. The master’s son recalled:

This championship could well have become Izmailov’s hour in the sun. He was only 23,
he was gaining ground and his game was blossoming, but alas, my father didn’t play in the final. Why? I attempted to establish this but failed to do so. In Chess List Duz-Khotimirsky wrote about “the need to take university exams”. Kan in 64 writes that Izmailov withdrew from the tournament at his own volition. Pravada and Izvestiia referred to illness, while Komsomolskaya Pravda cited exhaustion. Half a century later, recalling this episode, my mother told me that in the mid 1930’s she and my father held a conversation on this subject (they didn’t yet know each other in 1929), and he confirmed that he was healthy and ready to continue the battle, but he was forced to leave…

So who forced Izmailov to leave Odessa? Whom was this talented chess player impeding? Is fecit cui prodest (“it was done by the person for whom it was advantageous”). Seven years after the Odessa tournament ended, Piotr Izmailov was arrested by the NKVD and accused of “Trotskyist-Fascist activity”. He was eventually sentenced to the firing squad on 21 April 1937 and executed the next day.”

As for the protagonist, “At the end of October 1930, Vilner moved to live in Leningrad. Is it not surprising that a person suffering from serious asthma suddenly abandons the warm Odessa climate with its curative sea air in favor of the rainy climate of Northern Palmyra? I consulted with doctors specializing in heart and respiratory illnesses what such a change of environment could bring. They told me that it would mean serious stress on the body and was quite a suicidal step! So why did Vilner, despite his illness, prefer Leningrad? Had he planned this change of residence in advance?”

“At the end of the 1920s the political climate in Odessa worsened, as it did throughout the country. The ideological war against Trotsky and his supporters


reached an apex by the beginning of 1929. At the end of January, the former Minister for War and Naval Matters was secretly transported along with his family from exile in Almaty to Odessa. It was here that the ferry with the symbolic name Illych awaited him. On the night before 11 February the ferry set course for Constantinople accompanied by an icebreaker and government officials, and the next day Trotsky reached Turkey. With Trotsky’s expulsion, the USSR intensified its purges of his supporters and mentors. Christian Rakovsky, the protector of Alexander Alekhine and one of the leaders of Soviet power in Ukraine, was cruelly punished. He had been expelled from the party back in 1927 and then sent to internal exile in Barnaul in 1929. His party membership card was returned to him in 1935 and he was even entrusted to head the All-Union Red Cross society, but not for long. He was arrested in 1937, sentenced to 20 years in jail, and then shot at the start of the war. Vilner also suffered during the battle against Trotskyism.”

It seems Vilner chose the wrong side…

“Vilner didn’t quite live to the age of Christ – he was granted less than 32 years on this earth. Yakov Rokhlin published an obituary on the Odessite in the June edition of Chess List (1931): “Soviet chess players have endured a heavy loss. Master Yakov Semionovich Vilner died on 29 June at &pm in Leningrad after a lengthy illness…”

The book is replete with many interesting Chess games and annotations. In addition, it contains ninety five problems and studies, and if you are into that kind of thing this book is simply de rigeur.

After an email discussion with Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam,

editor of New In Chess magazine, I have decided to forgo the usual star system and grade the way teachers still grade papers, even if they are written in digits now, with A+ being the top of the line and “F” as in “failure” as the bottom. This book deserves the grade “A”.

Charles Krauthammer: Leaving Life, and Chess, with No Regrets

Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and intellectual provocateur, dies at 68

by Adam Bernstein June 21

Charles Krauthammer,

a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and intellectual provocateur who championed the muscular foreign policy of neoconservatism that helped lay the ideological groundwork for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died June 21 at 68.

The cause was cancer of the small intestine, said his son, Daniel Krauthammer. He declined to provide further information.

“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking,” Dr. Krauthammer wrote in a June 8 farewell note. “I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny. I leave this life with no regrets.”

Charles was a conservative thinker who loved Chess. Decades ago, after learning of his love for the Royal game I began to read his column on a regular basis, something mentioned at a small gathering of Chess players, some of whom were Republicans, one of whom asked why I read Krauthammer. “Because he plays Chess,” was the reply. He seemed unable to grasp the fact that I read a conservative columnist until one legendary Georgia player spoke up, saying, “On some issues Bacon is to the left of Jane Fonda, but on others he is to the right of Attila the Hun!” Uproarious laughter ensued…I mentioned reading George Will because he had written several books on Baseball. “Sometimes I agree with him, and sometimes I don’t,” I said, “But I take what he has to say in consideration, just as with Krauthammer.”

Chess: It’s like alcohol. It’s a drug. I have to control it, or it could overwhelm me. I have a regular Monday night game at my home, and I do play a little online.
Charles Krauthammer (http://www.azquotes.com/quote/163123)

The Pariah Chess Club

By Charles Krauthammer December 27, 2002

I once met a physicist who as a child had been something of a chess prodigy. He loved the game and loved the role. He took particular delight in the mortification older players felt upon losing to a kid in short pants.

“Still play?” I asked.


“What happened?”

“Quit when I was 21.”


“Lost to a kid in short pants.”

The Pariah Chess Club, where I play every Monday night, admits no one in short pants. Even our youngest member, in his twenties, wears trousers. The rest of us are more grizzled veterans numbering about a dozen, mostly journalists and writers, with three lawyers, an academic and a diplomat for ballast. We’ve been meeting at my house for almost a decade for our weekly fix.

Oh, yes, the club’s name. Of the four founding members, two were social scientists who, at the time we started playing, had just written books that had made their college lecture tours rather physically hazardous. I too sported a respectable enemies list (it was the heady Clinton years). And we figured that the fourth member, a music critic and perfectly well-liked, could be grandfathered in as a pariah because of his association with the three of us.

Pariah status has not been required of subsequent members, though it is encouraged. Being a chess player already makes you suspect enough in polite society, and not without reason. Any endeavor that has given the world Paul Morphy, the first American champion, who spent the last 17-odd years of his life wandering the streets of New Orleans, and Bobby Fischer, the last American champion, now descended John Nash-like into raving paranoia, cannot be expected to be a boon to one’s social status.

Our friends think us odd. They can understand poker night or bridge night. They’re not sure about chess. When I tell friends that three of us once drove from Washington to New York to see Garry Kasparov play a game, it elicits a look as uncomprehending as if we had driven 200 miles for an egg-eating contest.

True, we chess players can claim Benjamin Franklin as one of our own. He spent much of his time as ambassador to France playing chess at the Cafe de la Regence, where he fended off complaints that he was not being seen enough at the opera by explaining, “I call this my opera.” But for every Franklin, there is an Alexander Alekhine, who in 1935 was stopped trying to cross the Polish-German frontier without any papers. He offered this declaration instead: “I am Alekhine, chess champion of the world. This is my cat. Her name is Chess. I need no passport.” He was arrested.

Or Aron Nimzovich, author of perhaps the greatest book on chess theory ever written, who, upon being defeated in a game, threw the pieces to the floor and jumped on the table screaming, “Why must I lose to this idiot?”

I know the feeling, but at our club, when you lose with a blunder that instantly illuminates the virtues of assisted suicide, we have a cure. Rack ’em up again. Like pool. A new game, right away. We play fast, very fast, so that memories can be erased and defeats immediately avenged.

I try to explain to friends that we do not sit in overstuffed chairs smoking pipes in five-hour games. We play like the vagrants in the park — at high speed with clocks ticking so that thinking more than 10 or 20 seconds can be a fatal extravagance. In speed (“blitz”) chess, you’ve got five or 10 minutes to play your entire game. Some Mondays we get in a dozen games each. No time to recriminate, let alone ruminate.

And we have amenities. It’s a wood-paneled library, chess books only. The bulletin board has the latest news from around the world, this month a London newspaper article with a picture of a doe-eyed brunette languishing over a board, under the headline “Kournikova of Chess Makes Her Move.” The mini-jukebox plays k.d. lang and Mahler. (We like lush. We had Roy Orbison one night, till our lone Iowan begged for mercy.) “Monday Night Football” in the background, no sound. Barbecue chips. Sourdough pretzels. Sushi when we’re feeling extravagant. And in a unique concession to good health, Nantucket Nectar. I’m partial to orange mango.

No alcohol, though. Not even a beer. It’s not a prohibition. You can have a swig if you want, but no one ever does. The reason is not ascetic but aesthetic. Chess is a beautiful game, and though amateurs playing fast can occasionally make it sing, we know there are riffs — magical symphonic combinations — that we either entirely miss or muck up halfway through. Fruit juice keeps the ugliness to a minimum.

Charles Krauthammer playing chess with Natan Sharansky at Krauthammer’s office in an undated photo. (FAMILY PHOTO)

Charles was as comfortable with Presidents as he was with Chess players.

Charles Krauthammer with President Ronald Reagan in an undated photo.

Charles Krauthammer with President Jimmy Carter in an undated photo. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE KRAUTHAMMER FAMILY)

Charles Krauthammer with President George W. Bush in 2008. (COURTESY OF THE KRAUTHAMMER FAMILY)

When Chess Becomes Class Warfare

By Charles Krauthammer March 1, 1985

Capitalism’s vice is that it turns everything — even, say, a woman’s first historic run for the White House — into cash. Communism’s vice is that it turns everything — even, say, chess — into politics.

Chess? You may have trouble seeing chess as politics. Americans think chess is a game. The “Great Soviet Encyclopedia,” in one of its few correct entries, defines chess as “an art appearing in the form of a game.” And like all art under socialism, it is to be turned into an instrument of the state.

You think I exaggerate. If I quoted you Nikolai Krylenko, commissar of justice, in 1932 — “We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. . . . We must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five Year Plan for chess” — you’d say I was dredging the history books for Stalinist lunacies. So I bring you fresh evidence of communism’s penchant for politicizing everything, for controlling everything it politicizes, and for letting nothing — shame least of all — jeopardize that control. I bring you L’affaire Karpov, a tempest for a teapot.

The story is this. On Sept. 10, 1984, the world chess championship begins in Moscow. Both players are Soviet citizens: champion Anatoly Karpov and challenger Gary Kasparov. To win, one must win six games. Draws don’t count. After nine games Karpov is ahead 4-0. An astonishing lead.

Kasparov then launches the most relentless war of attrition in the history of championship chess. He deliberately forces draw after draw, at one point 17 in a row, to one purpose: to exhaust the older and frailer champion.

On Nov. 24, Karpov does win a fifth game, but he will not win again. On Dec. 12, Kasparov wins his first. The score is 5-1. Then 14 more draws.

Then something extraordinary happens. Karpov, known for his metronomic logic and unshakable composure, loses game 47, playing “as though in a daze,” writes chess master Robert Byrne. Game 48: Karpov loses again. The score is 5-3.

By now, says another expert, Karpov “looks like Chernenko.” Chernenko looks bad, but Karpov is 33. He has lost 22 pounds and did not have very many to start with. He is close to collapse. He is about to fall — as Nabokov’s fictional champion, Luzhin, fell — into what Nabokov called “the abysmal depths of chess.” Kasparov is on the brink of the greatest chess comeback ever.

And on the brink both will stay. Six days later, on Feb. 15, the president of the International Chess Federation, under enormous pressure from Soviet authorities, shows up in Moscow and declares the match a draw — and over. Karpov is saved by the bell, except that here the referee rang it in the middle of a round and at an eight count.

Why? One can understand the Party wanting Karpov to win in 1978 and 1981, when the challenger was Victor Korchnoi — defector, Jew, all around troublemaker, Trotsky at the chessboard. But Kasparov is not Korchnoi. He is a good Soviet citizen, a party member, and not known for any politics. He is, however, half Armenian, half Jewish. Until age 12, his name was Gary Weinstein. He is no dissident, but he is young (21) and independent. Above all, he is not reliable.

Karpov, a man who needed to be named only once, is. Conqueror of Korchnoi (twice), receiver of the Order of Lenin, ethnically pure (Russian) and politically pliant (a leader of the Soviet Peace Committee), he is the new Soviet man. And he receives the attention fitting so rare a political commodity: he says he was told of the match’s cancellation over the phone in his car. Cellular service is not widely available in the Soviet Union.

Now, this is the third time that Soviet authorities have tried to undermine Kasparov’s shot at the championsh. In 1983 they stopped him from traveling to his quarterfinal match in Pasadena, Calif. The official reason (later pressed into service for the Olympics) was “lack of security.” Only a sportsmanlike opponent and accommodating chess officials (they rescheduled the match without penalty) saved Kasparov from defaulting in the candidates’ round and losing his chance to challenge Karpov.

But challenge he did. The finals were held in the prestigious Hall of Columns in the House of Unions. That is, until Kasparov’s rally in the 47th game. Soviet authorities then suddenly moved the match to the Hotel Sport outside the city center. “Like moving from Carnegie Hall to a gin mill in Poughkeepsie,” says Larry Parr, editor of Chess Life magazine.

I interpreted the move to mean that Chernenko was about to die, since the Hall of Columns is where Soviet leaders (like Dmitri Ustinov) lie in state. Silly me. I was insufficiently cynical about Soviet behavior. The reason for the move was not to bury Chernenko (he continues to be propped up like a Potemkin villain), but to save Karpov. The move took eight days — eight otherwise illegal days of rest for Karpov.

It didn’t help. Karpov was too far gone. Kasparov destroyed him the very next day in the 48th game. Soviet officials then made sure it was the last.

Now do you believe me?

A month ago I would not have believed it myself. (Kasparov still does not believe it.) Fix the biggest chess match in the world? Steal the championship from one Soviet citizen for a marginal propaganda gain? In broad daylight?

Still, we must be careful. Unfortunate episodes like these tend to fuel native American paranoia about how far the Soviets will go in relentless pursuit of even the most speculative political advantage. We must resist such facile reactions. Next thing you know someone will claim that the KGB got the Bulgarians to hire a Turk to shoot the pope to pacify Poland.


By Charles Krauthammer October 16, 1998

Not all chess players are crazy. I’m willing to venture that. But not much more. Eccentricity does reign in our precincts. In my 20s, I used to hang out at the Boston Chess Club. The front of the club was a bookstore in which you’d mill around, choose a partner, put your money down with the manager and go to the back room — 20 or so boards set up in utter barrenness — for some action. (At five bucks an hour it was cheaper than a bordello, but the principle seemed disturbingly similar to me.)

I remember one back room encounter quite vividly. The stranger and I sat down to the board together. I held out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Charles.” He pushed his white king’s pawn and said, “I’m white,” fixing me with a glare that said, “Don’t you dare intrude into my space with names.” It was dead silence from then on.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine came by to fetch me a few hours later. He surveyed the clientele — intense, disheveled, autistic — and declared, “I could run a group in here.”

Don’t get me wrong. Most chess players are sane. In fact, a group of the saner ones, mostly journalists and writers, meets at my house every Monday night for speed chess. (You make all your moves in under nine minutes total, or you lose.) But all sane chess players know its dangers. Chess is an addiction. Like alcohol, it must be taken in moderation. Overindulgence can lead to a rapid downward spiral.

Vladimir Nabokov (a gifted creator of chess problems and a fine player, by the way) wrote a novel based on the premise of the psychic peril of too close an encounter with “the full horror and abysmal depths” of chess, as he called its closed, looking-glass world. (Nabokov’s chess champion hero, naturally, goes bonkers.)

Chess players, says former U.S. champion Larry Christiansen, inhabit a “subterranean, surreal world. It is not the real world, not even close.” So what happens when a creature of that nether world seizes political power?

Impossible, you say: Sure, there have been dictators — Lenin, for example — who played serious chess, but there has never been a real chess player who became a dictator.

And no wonder, considering the alarming number of great players who were so certifiably nuts they’d have trouble tying their shoelaces, let alone running a country. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first world champion, claimed to have played against God, given Him an extra pawn, and won. Bobby Fischer had the fillings in his teeth removed to stop the radio transmissions.

Well, in some Godforsaken corner of the Russian empire, Kalmykia on the Caspian, where the sheep outnumber people 2 to 1, the impossible has happened. A chess fanatic has seized power. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former boy chess champion, current president of the International Chess Federation, was elected president of Kalmykia two years ago on the promise of a cell phone for every sheepherder and $100 for every voter in his destitute republic.

Naturally, nothing came of these promises. But once elected, he seized all the instruments of power including the police, the schools and the media.

Result? Ilyumzhinov calls it the world’s first “chess state.” God help us. Compulsory chess classes in all schools. Prime-time chess on TV. And in the midst of crushing poverty, a just erected “Chess City,” a surreal Potemkin village topped by a five-story glass-pavilioned chess palace where Ilyumzhinov has just staged an international chess tournament.

This scene (drolly described by Andrew Higgins in the Wall Street Journal) would be Groucho running Fredonia if it weren’t for the little matter of the opposition journalist recently murdered after being lured to a meeting where she was promised evidence of Ilyumzhinov’s corruption. (Ilyumzhinov denies involvement. Perhaps it depends on how you define the word “involve.”) Kalmykia is beginning to look less like Woody Allen’s “Bananas” than Nurse Ratched’s “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Ilyumzhinov rides around in his Rolls-Royces, presiding over a state that specializes in corruption and tax evasion. The Washington Post reports that he paved the road from the airport to the capital and painted every building along the way, but only the side that faces the road. So now the world knows what chess players have known all along: A passion for chess, like a drug addiction or a criminal record, should be automatic disqualification for any serious public activity. Column writing excepted, of course.


Charles Krauthammer: Chess is not an Olympic sport. But it should be