Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Alekhine, Mohilever, Vilner, Czerniak, and Kotov

We have already mentioned Alexander Alekhine in this blog a few times. In Shachmat: Betaon ha'Igud ha'Israeli le'Shamat [Chess: the Magazine of the Israeli Chess Association], vol. 33, no. 2 (April 1994), p. 2, we read about 'Alekhine as a person' in a letter from A. L. Mohilever. Discussing Alekhine's antisemitism during WWII, he notes (my translation):

'He [Alekhine] forgot, apparently, that he owed his very survival to Jews. During the Russian civil war Alekhine was connected with the intelligence service of the White Army... In 1919 he was captured by the Red Army and sentenced to death by shooting. He was saved -- incredibly -- by the head of the Red Army himself, Lev Trotsky. The deferment of the sentence's execution was the work of the well-known Odessa chess master Shimon [sic - Yakov was meant] Vilner, according to the research of the historian and chess player Dr. S. Dodkov.

'Moshe Czerniak, who knew Alekhine well from his travels abroad, told me that the soviet grandmaster Alexander Kotov, who wrote a large and detailed book about Alekhine, asked Czerniak for unknown episodes from Alekhine's life. Czerniak replied: "What for? You won't be able to publish most of my recollections anyway, as they will not be liked by the chess rulers in Moscow."'

There is quite a lot here. In order:

1). It is unclear from Mohilever's account whether it was Trotsky or Vilner who were allegedly responsible for saving Alekhine's life. Both versions appear on the internet (see here for the Trotsky version, and here for the Vilner one.)

2). The fact that the author of the web page quoting the Trotsky version notes the story first appeared in English in the 1950s, and is 'almost certainly apocryhal'; that the Vilner version is quoted - without any source - by the notoriously unreliable Bill Wall; and that Edward Winter's Chess Notes make (according to its online index) no mention of either claim make me strongly suspect both claims are mere invention.

3). That said, it would be interesting to know what new material Dr. S. Dodkov came up with. If "S. Dodkov" means Saul Dodkov, a quick internet search shows that he is, in fact, an historian, and a strong (FIDE rating 2235) chess player. Many apocryphal stories about chess are false... but some are, after all, true. I hope to contact Dr. Dodkov soon to see if, after all, there might be some substance to the tale.

4). If Czerniak's claim to Kotov is correct, then it is quite possible that his quick notes about Alekhine, in one of his Hebrew-language books - mentioned previously in this blog - are not to be found anywhere else, since he refused Kotov's request for anecdotes, and was probably never asked by any other author to supply them.

5). Finally, the letter is remarkable for another reason. The letter was published - in 1994 - by the same A. L. Mohilever whose first published chess writing (two mate in 2 problems) were published in 1921. This makes Mohilever's chess publication career one that is 73 years long -- a record unlikely to be ever equaled.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Botvinnik as a Prophet

To the best of my knowledge, there had never been a comprehensive study made of how accurate the predictions of strong players about the future of chess turned out to be. Surely Michael Botvinnik's prediction - made to Shachmat be'Israel ["Chess in Israel"] magazine in 1990 (Vol. no. 4, Dec. 1990, my translation from the Hebrew) - is one of the most accurate:

Q: Who of the young players in the top of world chess -- Gelfand, Gurevich, Short, Spielmann, etc. -- have a chance of risking Kasparov's crown?

A: It's hard to name a specific name. Of the young I must mention Ivanchuk, who is 21 today [1990], and Gelfand (who is 22). Gurevich is too old -- he has no chance of becoming world champion. Of the youngsters who are still not known well enough, I must mention Vladimir Kramnik, now 15. He recently won the European championship qualification tournament, when all his opponents were older than him... we can also mention Shirov, who is now 18... In the west, Short is a great talent, but his character isn't sporting enough... I must also mention the Indian plater Anand, who has a unique playing style. His main problem -- he plays too fast.... if he gets better in this respect, he has a great future.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Quantum Leap

We have already seen the rather low quality of chess problems by Israeli (or Palestinian) composers from the 1920s until the 1940s. By the 1950s, however, things have changed. Perhaps it was precisely the lack of "regular" chess activity in that time of war and scarcity in Palestine and Israel that made chess problems so popular: one can compose on one's own, and there is no need to travel to tournaments (let alone organize them).

In any case, by the mid-1950s Israeli problemists were among the best in the world. Above are two problems, which, in Eliyahu Fasher's words:

"...demonstrate the high level of the Israeli problemists. The old-timer Itzhak Neuman was already known in Hungary, but reached his peak only in Israel. His two-mover won the first prize in a tourney arranged by the British Chess Association, one of the strongest in the world, in which the greatest problemists compete.

"The British judge Matthews [my transliteration from the Hebrew -- presumably R. C. Matthews who was an IM of chess compositions, see Jeremy Gaige's Chess Personalia: a Biobibliography, Jefferson: McFarland, 1987] added: 'The Rukhlis theme is performed here in a most original way. The economy of white pieces is maximal. The key move passes over four critical squares, over which each of whom the thematic try can occur.'

"The second problem won the first prize in our own chess association's yearly composition tourney. The author [Uri Gruenblatt - A. P.] is a member of Ma'abrot kibbutz [agricultural commune] and an 'alumnus' of Al ha'Mishmar's chess column [which dealt at the time mostly with problems - A. P.]. It is a pity he had temporarily deserted chess composition for his work as a teacher in the kibbutz. We are sure his four children will, in the near future, allow him to return to the field."

Source: Eliyahu Fasher's Ha'Problemai ha'Israeli: Yesodot ha'Kompositziya ha'Sachmetait [The Israeli Problemist: the Fundamentals of Chess Composition] (Tel Aviv: Mofet, 1964), p. 58.

(Highlight below):

1. Bg7!

1. Qb1!
1... e3 2. Sf5!
1... f5 2. Se3!