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”.

Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution: A Review

The book

is meticulously written, but difficult to follow. This could have been remedied with a much-needed index. Because of my lack of knowledge concerning events after the first World War when the Soviets took power and became the Soviet Union I spent as almost as much time doing ancillary research to become familiar with the subjects as time reading the book. My limited knowledge of the period consisted of watching the movies Doctor Zhivago, and Reds, and reading the book, The Guns of August,

by Barbara W. Tuchman and Robert K. Massie, a book US President John F. Kennedy

purchased in quantity, asking those in his administration to read it, and what I have gleaned from reading about the game of Chess during that time period. Reading this book increased my knowledge exponentially because it is exceptionally well researched.
The book is replete with pictures and documents from the period. The book revises some things that have become accepted as fact. For example, “There was a long-held view that the first head of chess in the USSR was Nikolai Vasilevich Krylenko

-the Chairman of the Supreme Tribunal, a key figure in Stalin’s

repressions, and who later became their victim. But that isn’t the case!”

Vasily Russo was a checkers expert and the main organizer of the first USSR checkers championships. He also published the first book on checkers in the Soviet Union in 1924. It was Russo who was the driving force behind clubs being named “chess and checkers” and not just “chess.”

“There was a need to invite an authoritative figure to head the new organization. Thus, after a vote Krylenko was appointed Chairman of the Chess and Checkers Club of the Supreme Council of Physical Education.” Krylenko was convicted of treason(31-Jan-1938), and shot by firing squad in Moscow (29-Jul-1938).

Because of the book I have a much better understanding of some of the events of Alekhine’s life and the decisions he made. While hounded from all sides in life he nevertheless became Chess Champion of the World. It is possible Alekhine

was only hours away from death more than once in his life, yet he somehow managed to escape the grim reaper until it came for him while in Portugal. The story is truly amazing.

For example, “Ironically, all of those involved in case No. 228, apart from Alekhine, were accused of anti-Soviet activity and shot. Matrin Latis was arrested at the end of November 1937 and shot on 29 March 1938. Vilis Steingardt was imprisoned in the middle of January 1938 and shot the same day at (sic) Latis. Max Deich was arrested in summer 11937 and executed at the end of October. The prison doors closed behind Terenty Deribas on 12 August 1937, and he was executed at the end of the following July. Vladimir Yakolev was also shot in 1938. Finally, Stanislav Redens was arrested on 21 October 1938. He was “lucky” to live longer (Stalin’s brother-in-law, after all!) – he was shot n 12 February 1940.”

Alekhine ran, but he could not hide forever…

At the end of a wonderful story about Alekhine entering Robinat’s cafe (the Café de la Régence of Odessa) in Odessa and not being recognized until the entrance of Boris Verlinsky we read:

“And more on the topic of Alekhine and chess composition – the world champion devised an impassioned explanation of his love for this intimate side of chess: “The very idea of chess composition is close to my heart. I would be happy to create works quite alone…But this opponent, this colleague forced on you…he brings so much disappointment to the true chess artist who desires not only to win but above all to create a work of enduring value!”

“Alekhine of course refused to accept such a handicap but right away asked all preset to solve a problem that he clearly recalled once the question of a handicapped game arose.”

“The conditions are the following,” Alekhine said. “White starts without both rooks. In return black plays without his f7 pawn and white plays the first eight moves, but can only move pieces within his half of the board. You need to set the white pieces up so that white can mate in four moves or less no matter what move black plays.”

“After this puzzle, Alekhine challenged us to another one. From the normal starting position, white’s first four moves have to be as follows: 1 f3 – 2 Kf2 – 3 Kg3 – 4 Kh4. Black replies to each of white’s moves, but he is not allowed to interrupt the imaginative march of the white king. Black has to checkmate white as soon as the latter’s king reaches h4. What are black’s moves?”

Concerning the marriage of Alekhine and Anneliese Ruegg it is written: “Alekhine’s marriage to Anneliese Ruegg fell apart almost immediately after his escape to Europe. They had totally different interests. Once in Germany, Alekhine immersed himself in chess, playing match after match and traveling from tournament to tournament. His Swiss wife, on the other hand, burned with the desire to turn the entire world communist.
Alexander Alekhine’s son, also called Alexander, was born on 2 November 1921. Nevertheless, the appearance of an heir failed to glue this fictive marriage. together. His son later said: “I really missed my father as a child. I saw him very rarely. Then my mother died [Anneliese died on 2 May 1934]. I was brought to Zurich, where my father was playing at the time. He already had a new wife, but my step-mother didn’t accept me, as she had her own children while my father was totally obsessed with his chess. They put me in boarding school. Naturally, I took offense. It was only when I grew up that I came to realize that chess for my father was much more than his family. It was his life.”

The book culminates with: ALEKHINE’S MYSTERIOUS DEATH AND LENGTHY BURIAL. Who killed Alekhine?

“It was also printed somewhere that a waiter from a restaurant in Estoril that Alekhine sometimes frequented had died. Before his death, this waiter admitted that he poured a light-colored powder into Alekhine’s food at the end of March 1946 for a large sum of money. Two foreigners provided him with the poison and the money.”

“Naturally, there was a suspicion that the death scene on the photo was a hasty fake. One could assume that the already dead Alekhine was hoisted into the chair (which seems to be confirmed by the resulting folds of his coat), then the meat was shoved down his throat, his lips were smeared with froth and various objects were set out in front of him for maximum effect: the chess board, dishes, and a book.”
“And what about the book? The inquest report refers to a novel entitled Vers l’Exile by the English Catholic writer Margaret Sothern (1502-1568). It was open at a page with the line, “This is the destiny of those who live in exile.” A hint at Alekhine’s demise?”

“It would have been possible to reopen the investigation, but nobody wanted to. That is why the main question – whose country’s secret service got rid of Alekhine? – remains unresolved. Actually, there aren’t too many alternatives.”

“Alekhine’s son, Alexander junior, considered this version, liquidation by the NKVD, as the most likely. And it does indeed appear to be the most convincing.”

“Nevertheless, this is all just speculation. Documents of the NKVD’s Fourth Department, or more precisely, Sudoplatov’s “Portuguese Diaries”, could provide answers to many of these questions. However, these archives are inaccessible to mere mortals. They are subject to a decree by President Boris Yeltsin dated 24 January 1998 “On the list of Information Classified as State Secrets.” Maybe one day the Russian leadership will change its mind?”

In a recent email GM Kevin Spraggett,

who lives in Portugal and has written extensively on the subject, wrote, “ps I just recently met someone in Portugal who might be able to add more facts to the case.” See: http://www.spraggettonchess.com/part-1-alekhines-death/

If you would like to wade into the deep, murky waters of a grand sweeping story as a backdrop to the Royal Game, this book is for you. If you would prefer a book with more of Alekhine’s Chess you will be disappointed. You may think this pedantic book would only be of interest to someone attempting to become a PhD in Russian studies before embarking on a life in the CIA, but you would be mistaken.
I give it a wholehearted recommendation.