The Last Olympiad: Chess on the Eve of War

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As Russian aggression against Ukraine continues unabated, this week’s chronicle recalls earlier Soviet atrocities perpetrated against its own citizens and those of neighboring countries, including Latvia. This year’s Olympiad, or world tournament for national teams, was not only moved from Moscow, for obvious reasons, but attracted a record 187 federations, coming to the replacement city of Chennai, India. According to Nigel Short, vice president of the governing body, this is a monumental achievement for the All-India Chess Federation, which only stepped in as host at metaphorically five minutes to midnight.

The 8th Chess Olympiad, organized by the International Chess Federation (FIDÉ), took place from August 21 to September 19, 1939 at the Politeama Theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This coincided exactly with the outbreak of World War II. Not only was Buenos Aires the last Olympiad in over a decade, it was also the last such event for one of the competition’s heroes, the now widely, albeit mistakenly, Latvian grandmaster. forgot Vladimirs Petrovs.

After the conclusion of the 8th Olympiad, team chess tournaments were suspended indefinitely, partly due to worldwide hostilities and later economic concerns related to World War II; the next Chess Olympiad will not take place for eleven years until 1950.

In 1939 there was also a record number of entries for the time, with twenty-seven teams participating. This compares to the nineteen nations participating in the previous Olympiad; the substantial increase being mainly due to interest shown by other Central and South American countries, including Cuba. The rookie Cuban team was led by the great former world champion, José Raúl Capablanca, in the front row.

Due to the prevailing political conditions, namely the Anschluss of the previous year, prominent Austrian players Erich Eliskases and Albert Becker were now playing under the German flag. Official sources referred to the Czechoslovak team as ‘Bohemia and Moravia’, which will soon be under the ‘tutelage’ of notorious Nazi fanatic Reinhard Heydrich.

After the preliminaries, the teams advanced to either the Group A final or the Group B final, with the former contesting the Hamilton-Russell Cup and the latter playing for the “Copa Argentina”, a consolation prize awarded by the Argentine president . London clubs, such as the RAC and the Athenaeum, are still in contention for another Hamilton Russell Trophy.

The preliminaries were held from August 21 to 31, 1939. There were three groups of 7 teams and one group of 6. From a round robin format, the top four from each group then advanced to the A final, the remainder to the B final The group winners were Bohemia and Moravia (tied with Poland, Group 1), Latvia (Group 2), Argentina (Group 3) and Sweden (Group 4). Competitors in Group 2 will feature prominently as this column progresses.

The finals began on September 1, the very date of the outbreak of World War II. This led to great consternation among European teams, although most players wanted to continue. The England team, despite qualifying for the A final, were the only team to return home immediately and their berth was not filled. Three of the five English representatives – Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Stuart Milner-Barry and Harry Golombek – decided to return home and help win the war against Hitler. All three were soon recruited for secret work at Bletchley Park, the British decryption center during World War II. Alexander, as a character played by Matthew Goode, appears prominently in the film, The imitation game, about the life of genius Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. In fact, it was Milner Barry, not Turing, who approached Churchill for additional funding to break Nazi codes. Golombek, later to become OBE and Grandmaster Emeritus, was the only Jewish master of the trio, and he personally told me how motivated he was to return home and defeat the persecutors of his loved ones. He took the war against Hitler very personally.

Regarding the remaining delegations, a crisis meeting was convened to vote on the next step; this included team captains, hosts and organizers. The main roles were played by world champion Alekhine (France), Tartakower (Poland), Becker (Germany) and the president of the Argentine Chess Federation, Augusto de Muro. The final decision was to continue with the Olympiad.

After the team event, won by Germany ahead of Poland and Estonia, many participants decided to stay in Argentina or move elsewhere in Latin America, rather than face a dangerous future. returning to a Europe at war. Players affected included celebrities such as Miguel Najdorf, Gideon Ståhlberg, Erich Eliskases, Ludwig Engels, Albert Becker, Jiri Pelikan and Moshe Czerniak. Most of them were Jews and had come to Buenos Aires in August 1939 on the Belgian steamer Piriapolis. It was interesting to see the effect of this transmigration of powerful mind matadors. When world chess restarted in the 1950s, no fewer than three Argentine Grandmasters qualified for the World Championship Candidate Tournaments, namely Najdorf, Pilnik and Panno.

Significantly, and unlike the England team, all five members of the German team (Eliskases, Michel, Engels, Becker, Reinhardt) chose not to return to Nazi Germany. It was a wise decision, since the Nazis assiduously hunted down and liquidated the Jewish masters (Landau, Appel, Przepiorka…) who returned or remained in Europe, while Stalin counted many others, not limited to those of Jewish origin. Many such tragic cases are chronicled in two new books by Elk and Ruby, who specialize in documenting the failures of Russia and the USSR’s unsavory past.

The first is The Lubyanka Gambit by Sergei Grodzensky, which covers Stalin’s liquidation of no less than fourteen chess luminaries, including, ironically, Commissar Nikolai Krylenko, the political godfather of the Soviet chess Empire. Surprisingly, several games of this monstrous blade from the Stalinist regime have survived and appear in the book.

The companion volume is Heroes of the pre-war Olympiad: Grand Master Vladimir Petrovs, by Dmitry Kryakvin and Galina Petrova-Matisa, Petrovs’ wife, who survived the Stalinist purges. It was Petrovs who led the Latvian team to the Olympiad in Buenos Aires, where he won the bronze medal on board, unbeaten, scoring only slightly fewer victories than the former and reigning world champions, Capablanca and Alekhine.

A few curious facts have emerged from this book regarding these two chess titans. In fact, Alekhine had the best overall score and should have won the gold medal. However, the organizers, more sympathetic towards fellow Latin American Capablanca, decided to disregard the results of the preliminaries, and on the results of the final group alone, Capa took a lead of 77.3% against 78.125%. for Alekhine – if the preliminaries were also counted. To make matters worse, Capa avoided his scheduled matches against Keres and Alekhine himself, sending a reserve at bat instead, and thus avoided his most dangerous opponents. No wonder Alekhine was furious at the award ceremony.

This book tells the story of one of the most enigmatic and tragic figures in the history of chess – the Latvian grandmaster Vladimirs Petrovs (1908-1943). His name was erased from chess literature for decades. His games and his biography are largely unknown to the public – even though Petrovs beat Alekhine, Fine, Reshevsky, Boleslavsky and many other great players of the past, won prizes at supertournaments, including a joint first at the famous Kemeri tournament 1937, and played strongly for Latvia. at the Chess Olympiad. According to the Chessmetrics website, Petrovs was ranked No. 14 in the world in November 1938 and his performance at Kemeri 1937 was 2709. He had an even lifetime score (2.5-2.5) against Alekhine.

In the first part of this book, grandmaster and chess historian Dmitry Kyrakvin instructively analyzes Petrovs’ career through 52 games and fragments. In addition to the above players, opponents include Smyslov, Euwe, Bogoljubov, Keres, Stahlerg, Flohr, Spielmann and many other pre-war world chess stars. In part two, Petrovs’ widow Galina Petrova-Matisa recounts the tragic fate in the Soviet Gulag of her husband and other family members and her search for the truth about what happened to Petrovs. It further provides biographical details of their short and happy family life for four and a half years, including unforgettable encounters with the world’s best chess players and their families. The book contains a large number of rare family and tournament photos and overall is an incredible tribute to a grandmaster whose reputation would have been consigned to oblivion if Stalin and his cohorts of terrorists had been right.

This week’s matches: a victory for Petrovs after his undefeated bronze medal at the Buenos Aires Olympiad, plus three wins for England in the same event by the heroes of Station X at Bletchley.

Vladimir Petrov versus Savielly Tartakower (1939)

Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander vs. Juan Silvano Diaz Perez (1939)

Philip Stuart Milner-Barry vs. Jan Foltys (1939)

Harry Golombek versus Walter Oswaldo Cruz (1939)


Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, featuring some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available at by Blackwell.


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