Estonian Elegance

The career of the genius Paul Keres was tragically interrupted by war

Chess

Paul Keres on a 1991 USSR stamp: He was regarded with suspicion by the Soviet Chess Federation, but left a legacy of powerful, elegant play

This year will see Magnus Carlsen defend his world title for the second time — against a challenger yet to be decided. Yet the New Year, or more precisely, January 7, marks the centenary of perhaps the most unlucky of all those who have been near the pinnacle of world championship chess: Paul Keres. Estonia is holding a year-long international festival to mark the 100th anniversary of its native son’s birth: he is a national hero there, with monuments put up to him, streets named after him — and his image even appeared on the first banknotes issued by Estonia after it finally regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.   

Yet Keres never witnessed any of this: he died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1975. In his prime, Keres played chess of sheer wonder, his best games as close to aesthetic perfection as one can imagine. He sprang to the world’s attention when, at the age of 19, he played top board for Estonia in the 1935 Chess Olympiad, not so many years after having picked up the game from his elder brother, Harald — a physicist who later achieved an eminence of his own as “the father of Estonian relativistic gravitation theory”.

Coming from an academic family, it was hardly surprising that Paul should have interrupted his chess career to complete a degree in mathematics but thereafter his talent could not be denied its natural outlet: after he came first, on tie-breaks, in the great AVRO tournament of 1938 ahead of all the world’s strongest players (including Alekhine, Capablanca and Botvinnik) Keres was declared the official challenger for Alekhine’s world title.

Yet the outbreak of war had the incidental effect of burying that opportunity. Infinitely worse for Keres and his fellow-countrymen, Estonia (which had been independent between the two world wars) was between 1940 and 1944 successively occupied by the Soviets, the Nazis, and then the USSR again. In 1942 Keres played in several tournaments, including ones in Munich and Salzburg, organised by Ehrhardt Post of the Nazis’ Grossdeutscher Schachbund. When the Soviets reoccupied Estonia in 1944, Keres unsuccessfully attempted to flee to the West: thereafter he was regarded with intense suspicion by the commissars who ran the Soviet Chess Federation.

Indeed, it has been widely suggested that in the 1948 tournament, arranged to find a successor world champion to Alekhine (who had died in 1946), the Soviet authorities made Keres throw his games to the eventual winner, Mikhail Botvinnik. There is no concrete evidence for that, however: the truth is that Stalin’s favourite player — which Botvinnik had been, despite his Jewish origins — was simply a more formidable competitor. And although Keres had the almost unendurable experience of finishing second in no fewer than three subsequent world championship cycles to find a challenger to Botvinnik, this only confirmed that his psychological toughness was less than that of some opponents who lacked the Estonian’s creativity. Still, they never earned an artistic tribute from Capablanca. In 1939 that greatest of all chess geniuses declared about Keres: “His sense of fantasy is enormous, his imagination fiery.”

There is a different explanation for the ultimate failure of Keres’s career (despite the fact that in tournament play he chalked up victories against nine past, present and future world champions, an unequalled achievement). This explanation was expressed most poignantly by Boris Spassky in an interview after Keres’s death:

I loved Paul with a kind of special, filial feeling. Honesty, correctness, discipline, diligence, astonishing modesty — these were the characteristics that caught the eye of those who came into contact with Keres during his lifetime. But there was also something mysterious about him. I had an acute feeling that he was carrying some kind of heavy burden all through his life. Now I understand that this burden was the infinite love for the land of his ancestors, an attempt to endure all the ordeals, to have full responsibility for every step. I have never met a man with an equal sense of responsibility. Why did he not become the world champion? I know from personal experience that in order to reach the top, a person is thinking solely of the goal, he has to forget everything else in this world . . . or else you are doomed. How could Keres forget everything else?

It was especially hard for Keres, when he was unthinkingly presented — even by people in the West — as an example of “The Soviet School of Chess”. The late Harry Golombek recalled: “During the Amsterdam Chess Olympiad of 1954 [playing for the USSR] Keres won a game so brilliant against Sajtar of Czechoslovakia that the Soviet non-playing captain, Kotov, told me that it was ‘a true Soviet game’. I told this to Keres, who, with the nearest approach to acerbity I ever saw him show, said ‘No, it was a true Estonian game’.”

Here is that encounter: I think it would most accurately of all be described as “a true Keres game”. 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 Nbd7 7.Bc4 e6 8.0-0 Qc7? (Nowadays everyone knows Black shouldn’t allow the sacrifice which follows. But it was Keres who taught us this) 9.Bxe6!! fxe6 10.Nxe6 Qc4 11.Nd5 Kf7 12.Bxf6 Kxe6? (Black’s best was 12…Nxf6 and after 13.b3 play with three pieces against the Queen by 13…Qxf1+ 14.Qxf1 Bxe6 15.Nc7 Rc8 16.Nxe6 Kxe6) 13.Bc3 Nf6 14.Bxf6 gxf6 15.Nb6 Qc6 16.Nxa8 Be7 17.a4! b6 (Stopping Keres’s idea of playing a5 to give the stranded Knight an escape via b6. But this allows another tactic) 18.Qd5+! Kd7 (If 18…Qxd5 19.Nc7+ Kf7 20.Nxd5) 19.Ra3! (The real point of Keres’s brilliant 17th move) Bd8 20.Nxb6+! (This final sacrifice forces Sajtar’s resignation. If 20…Bxb6 21.Qf7+ Kd8 22.Qxf6+ cleans up and if 20…Qxb6 21.Qf5+ Kc7 22.Rc3+ is murder). Power and elegance: the eternal legacy of Paul Keres.