The World Chess Championship by Paul Keres

Edward Winter


The article below was published on pages 51-53 of the March 1941 Chess Review.

‘The question of the world chess championship succession has become especially absorbing in recent years, due to the rise of a number of talented masters. This was one of the most vital issues of chess life in the past, yet up to the present it has not been satisfactorily resolved.

Let us take the present situation. Active in the chess world are a number of leading masters, such as Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Flohr and Reshevsky, all considered worthy candidates for a championship contest. The author of these lines is also included in the list of claimants. Yet, who should have priority in the next match against Alekhine? The question is an exceptionally difficult one, both for the present title-holder and for the candidates themselves.

Why in general has the opinion been formed so unanimously that Alekhine, although holding the world title, is not at the same time incontestably the very best among the best? This is easy to explain. During the years of his brilliant successes, for several years before and after the match against Capablanca, Alekhine had shown such phenomenal achievements and so convincingly demonstrated his superiority over all his rivals that his position in the chess world did not evoke the least doubt. Greater successes could hardly be thought of. Alekhine then had two courses left: either to remain at his unattainable height or to begin to descend. It was the latter that happened. The encounters with the leading masters in Nottingham, 1936 and in the AVRO tournament in 1938 had proved that Alekhine’s “superclass” no longer existed, and that he would have to fight as hard for his place as any of the candidates. This sufficed for the public at large to begin talking about “the end of Alekhine”, and looking for his successor. This view was little affected by Alekhine’s brilliant triumph in the return match with Euwe; some said that Euwe had simply not been in proper form, and others went even farther to declare that Euwe was altogether the weakest of all the rivals of Alekhine.

Such explanations may seem convincing to the chess public, but not to experts. Does Alekhine’s failure to win one of the first places in two tournaments imply that he played weaker than the other leading entrants? It would be just as wrong a claim as to declare, after Alekhine’s triumph over Euwe, that he played stronger than any other candidate. Every tournament player knows that the ultimate result depends not only on chess prowess but on numerous other factors whose influence is very great at times. Hence, it would be wrong to judge the strength of a chess master by isolated tournament results. One must also take into account the personal experience of previous meetings with the same players, and only by taking all factors in conjunction can a more or less accurate picture be obtained.

It might be argued that Alekhine’s playing strength has declined somewhat as compared with the period of his greatest ascendancy, while that of his rivals has risen, resulting in the disappearance of the “superclass”. However, Alekhine is not weaker than any one of the seven claimants. Possibly the decline of his strength is to be explained by approaching old age, fatigue, or analogous reasons; yet his original ideas, fighting temperament, colossal resourcefulness, ingenious combinations – all these have remained almost at the same level.

I had occasion after the Team Tournament at Buenos Aires to do some analyzing with Alekhine, and it was only then that I really understood what he represents. I can freely declare that none of his seven rivals possesses his resourcefulness, his most subtle grasp of positions, and his experience. The weapons with which he may be conquered consist of fundamental theoretical knowledge, accurate play and, above all, greater endurance and stronger nerves. Which of these qualities should be appraised as the highest in match play is hard to tell. One thing is clear: a match between Alekhine and any one of the seven candidates will constitute a chess event of exceptional interest, the outcome of which cannot be determined in advance.

And now the most difficult question arises. Who of the candidates is the strongest? This cannot be answered without organizing a special chess contest. The moral right to priority for the next match belongs to the two ex-champions and, of them, first to Capablanca as the senior.

However, as for a return match between Alekhine and Capablanca, there has been grave doubt ever since 1927 that it will ever take place. On the whole it seems to me almost impossible to arrange a match between two masters so distrustful of each other. In conversations at Buenos Aires each of them accused the other for the failure of repeated negotiations, and of course I cannot judge as to who is right. At the present time there are again rumors afloat about Alekhine traveling to Cuba to meet Capablanca, but I do not attach much credence to this possibility.

The other candidate with “moral rights” – Euwe – after losing the title has made several futile attempts to secure a return match. His fervent admirers, the Dutch chessplayers, did a great deal to assure the formal right for a new challenge. Partly to this end they organized both the famous AVRO tournament and the Euwe-Keres match of 1939-40, but in neither event did Euwe justify the hopes placed in him. Euwe has even given up his educational activity in order to be able to devote himself more fully to chess. This, of course, gives him greater chances than in 1937, yet the possibility of arranging the match seems to me more than doubtful; for Alekhine is going to America if he can, whilst Holland is in the zone of warfare and there can be no immediate thought of carrying out a chess match there.

There remain five masters, who, owing to their youth, would be favorably situated in the event of a match against the world champion. What are the chances of these claimants? True, in the AVRO tournament, Fine won both his games against Alekhine. This was manifestly due, however, to reckless play on the part of the champion, who resolved to win at all costs, so that no decisive significance can be attached to that result. Bearing in mind the above-described qualities of Alekhine, Fine is inferior to him both as regards resourcefulness and in grasping the hidden depths of a position; nevertheless, he surpasses him in point of endurance, strong nerves, and possibly in erudition in openings. There would probably be a very strenuous contest between them. This match is also hardly possible at present, Fine being “only” the second chess master in the USA, and financing of the match would first be offered to the country’s leading master.

How would a match between Alekhine and Reshevsky proceed? The latter’s style is quite different from that of Fine. Reshevsky is hardly inferior to Alekhine as to wealth of original ideas, he plays superbly under time-pressure, he conducts the endgame with at times amazing peculiarity, and he is much younger than the champion into the bargain, so that it would be a hard struggle for the latter. Americans naturally place high hopes in Reshevsky; nevertheless, he also has some vulnerable points that Alekhine might take advantage of. Accustomed from childhood, when he was a Wunderkind of chess, to a sense of superiority over his opponent, Reshevsky has apparently retained this feeling, hidden in his subconscious, to the present day. It seems as though he always endeavors to confront his opponent with the solution of some problem, and to direct the course of events as he deems fit. However, the position does not always warrant such tactics, especially when one’s own game becomes gradually worse. This factor constitutes a great danger to Reshevsky, for the opening is perhaps the weakest part of his play. With an opponent like Alekhine, this circumstance might acquire a decisive importance. No doubt, in the course of preparation for such a match, Reshevsky will considerably enlarge his knowledge of the openings, but he will not overtake Alekhine in so short a period. The encounter between these two masters, which appears to be most likely in the near future, will certainly yield a number of fighting games that should immensely delight all followers of chess. In a clash between two equally attacking styles, developments of exceptional interest are to be expected.

There remain the masters who are in Europe: Botvinnik, Flohr and Keres. A few years ago I named Botvinnik and Reshevsky as the most serious contenders for the world title. At present, however, preference is given to Botvinnik. In Reshevsky’s play there occur flashes of ingenious ideas, but he lacks the exceptional sureness and calm of Botvinnik. With him as the opponent, one can never tell by his behavior whether he likes his position or not. Botvinnik is a serious danger to Alekhine; he has an excellent knowledge of theory, he utilizes with extraordinary precision the least positional advantage, and he retains the fullest sang froid when defending himself, even in difficult positions. Should Alekhine fail to achieve anything in the first games of a match with Botvinnik, his nerves might give out, which would mean disaster. Personally, I believe that, of the seven claimants, Botvinnik would have the best prospects against the champion.

It is interesting to note the opinion of Capablanca. To the question of whom he considers (of course, after himself) the best qualified candidate for the world championship, he named Keres and Botvinnik.

Of the play of Flohr, who now lives in Moscow, it can be said that it is not inferior to Botvinnik’s as regards stability. Suffice it to recall his results during several years up to 1936, when out of a hundred tournament games he lost only one or two. I have met Flohr over the chessboard many times, and also analyzed with him, and what I like in him most is his lucid appraisal of positions, and his outstanding general mastery in positional play. None of the other claimants can vie with him in this respect. In the opening, as in the endgame, he is equally at his best, but it strikes me that his “Achillean heel” consists in his invariable tendency to solve exclusively in a positional way all the problems that arise, though not all situations lend themselves to such treatment. It is true that this defect may be eliminated, for Flohr has more than once shown his skill also in combination; nevertheless, at the present time he prefers the defense to the attack, and this may become dangerous for him.

It remains to speak about myself. Capablanca holds a higher opinion than I do myself of my chances. I believe I should be classified with chessplayers of the combinational style, yet in case of necessity I possess sufficient positional knowledge. I happen to have original ideas, but my endgame play still requires deeper study. I like intricate, acute games, and it seems to me I have a common defect with Alekhine: we both dislike the strategy of waiting, and in tedious defensive positions we feel rather bored, and often play them badly. In recent tourneys I did my utmost to rid myself of this weakness, and am hoping to achieve success in this respect. As for a possible match with Alekhine, the games with him have always especially interested me, and I felt well in them, for Alekhine too is fond of complications. Of the outcome of such a match, hardly anything can be said beforehand but, at any rate, I am firmly convinced that it would not be a “cat and mouse” play.

Of course, it is possible that besides the seven contenders who have been in the forefront now for several years, new ones may soon appear. A step forward in this direction was marked by the last championship of the USSR. Bondarevsky, Lilienthal and Smyslov have shown themselves as masters seriously to be reckoned with. But it would be premature immediately after a first success to place any master in the group of championship candidates. He must be given time to perfect his style, the opportunity to enrich his tournament and match experience. This I can assert from my own example, for back in 1937, after winning the Semmering-Baden tourney, I was proclaimed as a candidate for a championship match, and a challenge to Alekhine was sent by the tournament committee. Luckily, nothing came of it, for at that time I should certainly have lost the match. Young pretenders to the title need the experience of playing with grandmasters, and the development of their style, before entering upon such a responsible match.

A good deal has been said here about existing contenders, yet the outstanding question still remains unsolved: how should priority for the match he determined? To answer this, it would be necessary to have recourse to one or several tournaments in which all the claimants could participate. Such tourneys should also be open to new stars who are in need of training with the world’s strongest masters.

Another plan might be suggested: to carry out at first preliminary tourneys – a European and an American – with, say, six participants in each, and then the finals with two from each tourney playing a quadruple round. The winner of the finals would be the first challenger. These are mere suggestions that could be varied after serious discussion.

In conversations with Alekhine I gained the impression that he would agree in principle to such a plan. Chessplayers throughout the world would doubtless hail with satisfaction the announcement that the question of the world championship match had at last been regulated.’

The article was also published in CHESS, August 1941, pages 165-166, and September 1941, page 177.

Latest update: 24 July 2022.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.