Sunday, November 25, 2012

Curt von Bardeleben and Chess in Palestine

Curt von Bardeleben. Credit: wikipedia

It turns out that chess in Palestine has a connection to (of all people) Curt von Bardeleben. Doar Hayom reports on Aug. 10, 1923 (p. 8):
After various issues which stopped the [Lasker] chess club [in Jerusalem] from operating were solved, we decided to hold a re-opening party on Aug. 14th. ... Mr. Mechlin [ph. spelling] will open in the name of the club, and after a short break we will hold a simultaneous display by Mr. S[haul] Gordon. (Mr. Gordon returned from abroad recently, and played there, by the way, a series of games with the local players with good results; he played a few games with the well known German chess master C. von Bardeleben.) 
The fee was 3 Egyptian piasters (0.03 Egyptian pounds, about $1.50 in today's money). Not a bad deal, for the chance to play someone who played von Bardeleben. It should be added that Bardeleben died on Jan. 31st, 1924. Gordon was, therefore, probably one of the last masters who played him in a serious game.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Chess on the Radio

Credit: Occam's Razor blog

A frequent contributor had returned from the evening in honor of Shimon Kagan, the first native-born winner of Israel's national championship (in 1967) among other achievements, had noted that those who arrived had reminiscences of the "good old days" -- and, in particular, noted the importance of radio in Israeli chess. They recalled how they used to listen to chess programs on the radio, and when Zadok Domnitz had drawn with world champion Tigran Petrosian in the 1964 Olympiad held in Israel, this item opened the radio's regular news program.

A few more details: there were already regular chess radio columns in the 1940s before the declaration of the state of Israel in Kol Yerushalayim ["Voice of Jerusalem"], the British-mandate run radio channel. After the founding of Israel and of the national Kol Israel ["Voice of Israel"] channel, Shaul Hon ran the chess column for a few years, followed by Moshe Czerniak. Czerniak's programs were quite advanced: in 1951 he ran an entire series of broadcasts about chess endings, including "Queen vs. Pawn" (14.2.1951) and "Bishop vs. Pawns" (11.4.1951), to name two.

Edited to add: a (different) frequent contributor notes that Aviad Yafe [link in Hebrew], an Israeli politician who was inter alia the head of the Israeli Chess Federation, had given an interview in the 1970s where he remembered how, in 1936 or 1937, as a 13-year-old, he served as an assistant to Czerniak in producing his radio column. This makes it likely that Hon took over when Czerniak, who left for the Argentine Olympiad in 1939 and only returned in the early 50s to Israel, was not in the country. Hon, apparently, gave the column "back" to Czerniak by the 1950s. The same reader also notes Davar mentions as recently as 1964 regular chess columns in the radio and provided us with the link (below).

Also, from Yochanan Afek
During  Haifa olympiad 1976 there was a special national radio studio there run by  professional presenters like Amos Goren and Khaiuta Dvir with a daily program broadcasted at 23.00. Moshe Czerniak was the chess expert summerizing the daily round and  interviewing  celebrities of whom I can remember the good old Edward Lasker. My own role in that studio was to announce every night the results of the day to the entire nation.

Sources (In Hebrew): "A Listener's Comments" [B. Ron], Davar, 21.1.1949; "A Radio Chess Department" [Shaul Hon], 29.10.1948; also the weekly "radio guide" published in Davar (Friday supplement) for details concerning Czerniak's programs. "The New Kol Israel Schedule", Davar, 27.3.1964 (chess is mentioned in the last line [link in Hebrew]); personal email from Afek and a contributor.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Quick One this Time -- Political Leaders and Chess

Shimon Peres (l.) vs. GM Alik Gershon (r.). Credit: The Happy Hermit

In 2010, Alik Gershon established a new simultaneous record (playing 523, drawing 58 and losing only 11). At about the same time, a reader's correction: the above photo is actually from 1996, before the elections, when Peres was not President, but Prime Minister. To judge by the board, Peres -- like Ben Gurion -- considers developing pieces optional. What is it with Israeli political leaders and bad play?

Politics and Chess - Again

Time cover of edition with Abdullah I's interview (copyright Time magazine)
Considering the situation right now in the middle east, it is only fitting to look at chess history to see what effect, if any, chess had on war and politics in the middle east. First, we have often commented on, for example, chess in the IDF, or on political leaders and chess (see blog's tags).

Second, we have found something interesting. As is well known, in the war of independence the Jordanian king, Abdullah I, seemed rather reluctant to invade Israel (although Jordan did indeed participate in the war and even captured some territory, notably the old city in Jerusalem). In an interview in Time, titled "Chess Player and Friend", a few months before that (Feb. 16th, 1948), Abdullah is described as follows:

Last week, fingering a set of exquisitely carved chess pieces in his winter palace at Shouneh, a few miles east of the River Jordan, he told a TIME correspondent: "Politics is like chess: you cannot rush your pawns across enemy territory, but must seek favorable openings".
Of course, we are not suggesting Abdullah didn't invaded with full force in 1948 because he though this would not fit with chess strategy. But it is interesting that he uses chess metaphors to describe his famous caution. What's more his metaphor shows a greater understanding of chess than the usual ones political leaders use. 

It's amusing to compare his chess with the way David Ben Gurion played -- very much "rushing his pawns across enemy territory" without any concern for a favorite opening. Perhaps there is a deeper lesson here? Perhaps it is not so much lack of chess skill, but the aggressive vs. cautious character which both leaders were famous for that determined, partially, their chess-playing way? 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Gamesmanship, Legitimate Play, or a Tall Tale? Or, why it is Harder to Write History than one Might Think.

I am writing a relatively long post to show the way chess historians must be careful not to buy anything they are told -- but also not to dismiss everything they are told, either. While many laymen believe everything people recall about the past due to exaggerated respect to eyewitness testimony, amateur historians tend to fall into the opposite extreme: to dismiss all accounts that have minor variations in them as "inventions", and rely only on "published documents", forgetting that psychological factors make recall fuzzy as time goes on, which hardly means the eyewitness is lying, and that documents can be just as wrong as eyewitness statements.

The worst cases of this are seen in holocaust denial, where amateur historians (David Irving most famously) ignore the context and the times, relying only on published documents, and thus take at face value the Nazi's talk of "evacuations" and "fighting partisans", and claim minor discrepancies in eyewitness testimony as "proof" they are all lying. The reality, as historian Michael Shermer notes, this is getting it backwards: the Nazis deliberately used obfuscations in their official documents, while it would be extremely surprising if all eyewitnesses, each with their own point of view, would have told exactly the same story.

Something similar, if on a much more benign level, happened to me, when trying to establish the truth about an historical incident. I was told yesterday by a veteran Israeli player, IM A, that another Israeli player, IM B, had used the following trick:

In a lost position, with both players in desperate time pressure, IM B had deliberately hanged his queen! He slammed down his undefended queen on d4, forking the opponent's queen on a7 and the king on g7. His opponent, famous American GM C, was shocked, and started thinking furiously. He might indeed have lost on time, as IM B intended, if it weren't for IM B's unfortunate mistake: he slammed the clock so strongly his own flag fell! After the game, GM C and his colleagues told me, angrily: "this is just not done!"

The problem? I checked the database and no game between IM B and IM C which fits the description took place. What's more, IM B apparently never reached such a position in any formal game. Incidentally, the position itself occurred quite rarely, even with the queen defended: only about 200 times in nearly 3 million games in my database.

It is easy to now dismiss the story as an invention, a tall tale. But this would be hasty. There was indeed a game between IM B and GM C in the said time and place which IM A had noted. What's more, the game ends, two moves before the time control, in the following position:

In this position, after Black's move (... h5) the database says Black won (0-1). Indeed he is about to mate White. But, if here White played Qd4!? in an effort to make Black think a few seconds and lose on time, it would fit well with IM A's story. It is not surprising that if this is so, this last "tactical shot" was not noted in the database.

But this is not the end of the story. Does this mean IM B actually tried to "pull a fast one"? Possibly: objectively, Qh1, Qe2 or even Qxg4 are better (although they still lead to a dead-lost position) but would not have such a psychological effect on the opponent. So an attempt at a "swindle" seems possible. On the other hand, he might have been so short on time he might have blundered in earnest: after all, even great players sometimes commit oversights.

If I knew how hard it would be to get to the truth in chess history, I might never have taken up this hobby...