by Ian Rogers
Last week saw the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Paul Keres, the greatest player never to challenge for the world title.
Keres was and is a national hero in his native Estonia, his face appearing on a new 2 Euro coin (Cover and top left), having already featured on a bank note and a stamp.
Above: Keres on the bank note and stamp and a photo of his bust in Tallinn.
My first introduction to Keres came from his best games book, one of only two challenging chess books stocked by my local Heidelberg Library in Melbourne in the early 1970s. (The other was Bronstein’s 200 Open Games.) Keres’ annotations made me believe that I could attack from any position or any opening, though my games never seemed quite as smooth as Keres’.
By 1985 I found myself playing in the Keres Memorial tournament in Tallinn. A month-long tournament gave plenty of free time learn from other players, from Tal downwards, of Keres’ significance to chess and Estonia.
On one of the seven rest days, the players were taken to pay homage at Keres’ grave site, while Tal laid a wreath to his old friend. (To my astonishment, pleasure and honour, Tal called me up to lay the wreath along with him – I am still not sure why, although as aliens from the distant so-called ‘fifth continent’ in the Soviet Union, Cathy and I were often treated with special consideration.)
By the end of the tournament, Cathy and I tried to donate our excessive travel expenses – 2,000+ non-transferable roubles – to the Keres Chess House but were told that this would be impossible because nobody donated money in the USSR and the authorities might assume that the money was stolen!
Over the month in 1985 I began to understand that there was much more to Keres than the games which I had admired as a pre-teen at my local library and his life was considered as a microcosm of the travails of his home country; Estonia, I was always told, not the USSR.
Known as the perfect gentleman – who, legend had it, could pick a chicken leg clean using only knife and fork – Keres’ chess career was disrupted and arguably ruined by the turbulent politics of his era.
After Estonia was occupied by the Germans in 1941 – a period some Estonians viewed as liberation after two years of Soviet rule – Keres chose to compete in strong tournaments in Munich, Salzburg and Prague, all cities controlled by the Nazis.
As WWII concluded, with Estonia returning to Soviet control, Keres, his family and other prominent Estonians were caught trying to emigrate to Sweden.
Many among the group were sent to Siberia but Keres and his family were spared, though what concessions Keres had to make to save his skin may never be known.
Keres was punished at first – stripped of his Soviet Grandmaster title and banned from tournaments. However then, according to Genna Sosonko in his essay on Keres in Russian Silhouettes, an appeal to Vyacheslav Molotov – the man who signed the 1939 deal with Hitler which gifted Estonia to the USSR – appears to have saved Keres’ career.
It has long been speculated in Estonia that Keres was required to throw his games to eventual winner Mikhail Botvinnik in the 1948 World Championship tournament, though no documentary evidence to support this has ever been produced and neither player ever ‘confessed’.
There is no doubt that Keres was never completely trusted by the Soviet authorities, as shown by the cancellation of his Australian tour in the late 1960s.
The day before Keres was to board his plane to Sydney, he was told that permission to travel had been cancelled, apparently for fear of establishing links with Australia’s largely anti-communist Estonian community. (Relations between Australia and the USSR had already foundered earlier in the decade after Australia refused to extradite an Estonian immigrant, Ervin Viks, for war crimes during WWII. A 1987 Australian inquiry, after Viks had died, found that Viks was responsible for the death of at least 18,000 people.)
Five times Keres was close to a world title challenge. He finished second in four consecutive Candidates tournaments, from 1953 to 1962, events where the winners all became World Champions.
However Keres was closest in 1938 when he won the AVRO tournament in the Netherlands, expecting a chance to challenge Alexander Alekhine for the world title. Then came war, Alekhine’s death and Keres’s life as a Soviet citizen – one who could barely speak Russian – began.
Three decades later, still competing and regarded as the epitome of a gentleman Grandmaster, Keres died on his way home from the 1975 Vancouver Open.