Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Alekhine, Mohilever, Vilner, Czerniak, and Kotov

We have already mentioned Alexander Alekhine in this blog a few times. In Shachmat: Betaon ha'Igud ha'Israeli le'Shamat [Chess: the Magazine of the Israeli Chess Association], vol. 33, no. 2 (April 1994), p. 2, we read about 'Alekhine as a person' in a letter from A. L. Mohilever. Discussing Alekhine's antisemitism during WWII, he notes (my translation):

'He [Alekhine] forgot, apparently, that he owed his very survival to Jews. During the Russian civil war Alekhine was connected with the intelligence service of the White Army... In 1919 he was captured by the Red Army and sentenced to death by shooting. He was saved -- incredibly -- by the head of the Red Army himself, Lev Trotsky. The deferment of the sentence's execution was the work of the well-known Odessa chess master Shimon [sic - Yakov was meant] Vilner, according to the research of the historian and chess player Dr. S. Dodkov.

'Moshe Czerniak, who knew Alekhine well from his travels abroad, told me that the soviet grandmaster Alexander Kotov, who wrote a large and detailed book about Alekhine, asked Czerniak for unknown episodes from Alekhine's life. Czerniak replied: "What for? You won't be able to publish most of my recollections anyway, as they will not be liked by the chess rulers in Moscow."'

There is quite a lot here. In order:

1). It is unclear from Mohilever's account whether it was Trotsky or Vilner who were allegedly responsible for saving Alekhine's life. Both versions appear on the internet (see here for the Trotsky version, and here for the Vilner one.)

2). The fact that the author of the web page quoting the Trotsky version notes the story first appeared in English in the 1950s, and is 'almost certainly apocryhal'; that the Vilner version is quoted - without any source - by the notoriously unreliable Bill Wall; and that Edward Winter's Chess Notes make (according to its online index) no mention of either claim make me strongly suspect both claims are mere invention.

3). That said, it would be interesting to know what new material Dr. S. Dodkov came up with. If "S. Dodkov" means Saul Dodkov, a quick internet search shows that he is, in fact, an historian, and a strong (FIDE rating 2235) chess player. Many apocryphal stories about chess are false... but some are, after all, true. I hope to contact Dr. Dodkov soon to see if, after all, there might be some substance to the tale.

4). If Czerniak's claim to Kotov is correct, then it is quite possible that his quick notes about Alekhine, in one of his Hebrew-language books - mentioned previously in this blog - are not to be found anywhere else, since he refused Kotov's request for anecdotes, and was probably never asked by any other author to supply them.

5). Finally, the letter is remarkable for another reason. The letter was published - in 1994 - by the same A. L. Mohilever whose first published chess writing (two mate in 2 problems) were published in 1921. This makes Mohilever's chess publication career one that is 73 years long -- a record unlikely to be ever equaled.

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