Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Losing to the Smoking Idiot

Aaron Nimzowitsch. Credit: Wilfried Krebbers 

There are many tales about Aaron (or AronNimzowitsch. One is that he, a non-smoker, complained to an arbiter about his opponent taking out a cigar -- not because he was smoking, but because he was threatening to smoke, 'and the threat is stronger than the execution'. Another is that, after losing a game to Saemisch in a tournament in Berlin, which cost him the first prize, he angrily exclaimed, 'why must I lose to this idiot?'.

The first story, as Edward Winter and others had consistently pointed out, is almost certainly an invention. But the second story is probably true... and there is also both a smoking and an Israeli / Palestinian connection!

The story, first of all, was told to Hans Kmoch by the 'idiot' himself, as Kmoch retells in Grandmasters I have Known -- so we have an actual, indeed the best possible, witness to the event, and it is not one of the infamous 'once' tall tales, indeed often libels, that so disfigure chess history, about how player X 'once' did or said something outrageous.

But what was the occasion? Kmoch does not say. Wilfried Krebbers, the author (or creator) of the excellent site, points out that was a likely a Blitz tournament by the Berlin Chess Association, which took place on Aug. 9th, 1928, in the Koening Chess Cafe, as reported in the Schachwart, Sept. 1928, pp. 168-169.

The Schachwart report adds that the tournament was divided into a smokers' and non-smokers' section. Nimzowitsch, a non-smoker, won his section, and Saemisch, a heavy smoker, won his. Saemisch then went on to defeat Nimzowitsch in the play-off. While the report does not explicitly note any outburst from Nimzowitsch, the facts agree: the tournament did take place in Berlin, and losing to Saemisch did cost Nimzowitsch first place.

The Israeli/Palestinian connection? Israel Barav, the Israeli player and organizer, then Rabinovich ('Rabinowitsch' in the German spelling) and a student in Berlin, played in the same tournament!

He played in the smoking section -- coming in a very respectable 4th place, after three well-known players: Saemisch himself, Ahues, and Kagan (not, of course, to be confused with the Israeli player Shimon Kagan). We thank Ami Barav, his son, for bringing this tournament, as well as its connection to both Barav and the 'losing to the idiot' incident, to our attention. For more on Israel Barav's chess achievements, see his memorial web site.

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