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Estonian Elegance
January/February 2016

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.”

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