Saturday, December 26, 2009

Noah's Ark and Czerniak's Dilemma

The 1939 Palestine Olympiad team. Left to right: Porat, Czerniak, Rauch, Reischer (Women's world championship representative), Winz, Kleinstein. Photo: 64 Mishbatzot, No. 3 (April 1956), p. 51.

The ship Piriapolis, on which the chess masters sailed from Antwerp to Buenos Aires for the 1939 chess olympiad, was known as 'Noah's ark' since, by making the trip, many Jewish players (such as Miguel Najdorf) escaped from Nazi Germany. Moshe Czerniak, who organized the Palestinian team, adds in his reminiscences (in 64 Mishbatzot [You guessed it -- 64 Squares], No. 3 (April 1956), p. 51):
We were contacted by several well-known Jewish players, who escaped from their homelands due to Hitler, to be added to the Palestine team and reach Argentina this way. These included the late old master Rudolf Spielmann and the Viennese player [Ernst] Klein, now in England.
Czerniak's use of the word 'escaped' (nimletu) implies that, while wishing to go to Argentina, the players he refused were not in fact trapped in Nazi Germany: indeed, Spielmann escaped to Stockholm, and Klein to England. But, Hebrew lacking a past perfect tense, it is only certain that they had escaped by the time of the writing (1956). It is probable, from the context, that they escaped even before Czerniak had to turn them down -- but not certain. Even if so, it was not at all clear in 1939 that Germany might not soon conquer Stockholm or London as well. One can well imagine the dilemma Czerniak faced with such applications!

(Spelling of names follows, as usual, Jeremy Gaige's Chess Personalia.)

Wishful Thinking

Tall Tale #1 -- from the original publisher, ca. 1860 (Photo: A.P.)

Tall Tale #2 -- from the reprint edition, 1973. (Photo credit: A. P.)

The above two cuttings are from a book by the Sadna Le'Tikshoret Yisumit [Workshop for Practical Communications] in Israel. It had published, in 1973, a reprint, under the title Shok ha'Shach, two 19th century Hebrew chess pamphlets: Shok ha'Shach [The Game of Chess] by Yosef Yehuda Leib Zosnitz (ca. 1860) and Limudei ha'Iyuni ve'ha'Maasi be'Darchei ha'Schok ha'Nikra Schachspiel [Theoretical and Practical Lessons in Chess] by Zvi Uri Rubinstein (1809).

Let me emphasize that both Zosnitz and Rubinstein are blameless. Both their works are, simply, chess primers -- and make no claim of being anything else. They tell no tall tales and make no incredible promises.


First, the publisher (not Zosnitz himself) in the 1860s took upon himself to add, opposite the title page of Zosnitz's work (see 1st photo), a 'note from the publisher' in which he adds 'some notes about Napoleon and the Turk', where the old story, probably false, about Napoleon playing (and losing) to the chess automaton is once more retold -- in the interest of increasing sales.

Second, the editors of the 1973 edition not only kept the 1860s publisher's PR page, but add, on the first page of their collection (second photo):
This [book] is like a joyous trip in a magical time machine, into the thicket of times immemorial. Chess fans will find in this book cool waters which were dredged up directly and without processing from the ancient wells from which Bobby Fischer also dredged his amazing knowledge, that led him to the heights of the world throne of the chess kingdom.
As an example of the kind of 'ancient knowledge' which helped Fischer reach 'the heights of the world throne of the chess kindgom', below is a translation of a typical page from Rubinstein's work, care of Victor Keats' Chess in Jewish History and Hebrew Literature (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1995):

Photo Credit: A. P.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jews and more Jews: Botvinnik's First Mention in the Hebrew Press.

Mikhail Botvinnik in 1933. Image credit: wikimedia.

Found here is the first (to the best of my knowledge) mention of Botvinnik in the Jewish press, Davar, 3.12.1931:
A 20-Years-Old Young Jew -- USSR Chess Champion.

In the large tournament in Moscow that ended in November, the young Jew Mikhail Botvinnik (Jewish) (sic). 80 of the best players in the USSR took part. Botvinnik, which won 13.5 out of 17 points, was crowned 'USSR Chess Champion' and won a large cash prize. Second was Riumin and third Verlinsky (Jewish).
As can be seen by the (over) emphasis on the players' Judaism -- the word 'Jew' or 'Jewish' is mentioned four times, once redundantly, in a three-sentence article -- the Jewish press in Palestine at the time was rather overly patriotic...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why Najdorf Broke the World Blind Simul Record

From an interview given to the Israeli press, January 1961 (the same source as the 'third interview' in the previous post on this blog):

In 1939, the war broke out. I could not go home. All connection with my family was lost. So I decided to do something that would make me world-famous, so they will read about me in the paper... It took 24 hours. Afterwards I was so stressed, I couldn't sleep for three nights.

One wonders how serious Najdorf was with this statement.

Najdorf in Israel, II -- Quips, Opinions, and Jews

Miguel Najdorf was well known for his stories -- not all of them necessarily strictly true. Here are some stories he told Davar, in an interview published on 30.12.1960:

The secret of my success? You need a Jewish head. Most of the great chess players are Jews, I too am a Jew.

I wrote three chess books, but if you ask me what I've read about chess -- very little, practically nothing.

How do I play so many blindfold games? .... I have excellent visual memory. In 1946 I played in an international tournament in Prague. I met a Jewish girl and she invited me to her apartment. We took the subway, then a bus, then continued on foot in some suburb for over half and hour, and then reach a building that looked just like all the rest in the area. I didn't know her name or the street's name. Seven years later, I was there again, and decided to visit her. I took a subway in the direction I remembered, got off at the same stop, took the bus, reached an apartment -- and an old woman opened the door. 'Didn't a Jewish girl live here?', I asked. 'Yes, she moved to New York, here is her address.'

When the 1939 Olympiad began, war broke out. My situation was very difficult. I didn't want to return to Poland -- I knew that would be suicidal. A friend offered me to be a 'mnemotechnician' -- to appear in a show as a man with a prodigious memory. People wrote ten, twenty, and more numbers on a piece of paper. I would look at the paper for a few minutes and write the numbers down from memory. I made a lot of money in these shows, but it was a crippling effort.

One cannot make a living from chess. I worked in insurance, and now have my own important / export company. Once the game saved my life -- when I was in the Olympiad in Argentina instead of Poland. But apart from that, the only thing I gained from the game is to see the world. For me chess is just a hobby and even a very expensive hobby, for it takes much time. If I had more time for it, I would surely have been a better player, and could play in all the international tournaments. But what can you do? One must make a living.

In another interview (from the same collection of press clippings from Late 1960-early 1961 in the Israeli press as the previous post -- see "Najdorf in Israel I" below, no exact date or paper given), he told the reporter that in one of his blindfold displays, he was politely asked by one of the contestants: 'Excuse me, Herr Grossmeister: would you mind if I use a pocket set?'

In a third interview (same collection as clippings, no exact date or paper), Najdorf, in a less serious mood, quips about his 'last visit to Paris' and several other matters:

[I] went into a coffee house of professional players [in Paris], who play for money with amateurs. Someone told me, 'If sir knows know how to play, I am willing to give him a bishop's odds, 1000 franks a game.' 'OK', I said, 'but let's play even.' After I won six games -- and 6000 franks -- he spoke up. 'Where are you from?'. 'Argentina', I said. 'Argentina? You play almost like Najdorf...'

Chess is a Jewish art. In every international tournament, the "official" language is Yiddish. Most of the Soviet team, for example, speaks Yiddish. Even Euwe, a Dutch gentile, once told me, 'Najdorf, redet mama loshen' (Najdorf, speak Yiddish.)

I am bald because in every time I play a game of chess, I lose one hair.

His view of Israelis in chess, from La'Merchav, 16.1.1961:

Mr. Najdorf said that when he started his exhibitions in Israel, it seemed to him he would easily win all the games due to his opponents' lack of theoretical knowledge. But as the games went on, he found that sometimes he cannot find the way to win, and even loses. He believes that if the Israeli players had more theoretical knowledge, they would do better in the Olympiads.

Najdorf in Israel - I

Photos credit: Menchem "Mendel" Marmorosh's children, Ruth Doral and Mordechai Marom.

In late December 1960, Miguel Najdorf, the famous Polish-Jewish-Argentinian chess player, visited Israel, leaving on 15.1.1961. He played the following exhibitions and tournaments, in (rough) chronological order:

Tel Aviv. Blitz tournament, 1st place, 10.5/11 (drew against Guti), before Guti and Smiltiner, 8.5/11.
Givat Haviva. Simultaneous exhibition, 29 (2 blindfold). +1 =1 (vs. Graf) in the blindfold games, 25 -1 (vs. Merstein (? - source unclear)), =1 (vs. Kamber) in the regular games.
Jerusalem. Simultaneous exhibition, 30 (3 blindfold). +20 -5 =5.
Ramat Gan. Simultaneous exhibition with clocks, 10. +7 -0 =3 (Oppenheim, Rupin, and Van Amerongen.)
Tel Aviv. Simultaneous exhibition, 29 (2 blindfold). +1 =1 blindfold games, +18 -4 =5 in the regular games.
Ramat Ha'Shofet. Simultaneous exhibition. Score missing.
Amir. Simultaneous exhibition. Score missing.
Afikim. Simultaneous exhibition. Score missing.
Tel Aviv. Simultaneous exhibition, 30 (2 blindfold: Shalom Ligom and Aurbach). +1 (Ligom) =1 in the blindfold games, +19 -4 =4 (lost to Segen Shahar, Margalit, Levinstein, and Can'ani) in the regular games. Presumably one game was not finished. Arranged by Marmorosh, took place in the "Bustan" club in Arlozorov House [Beit Arlozorov].

The photographs above are from Marmorosh's collection. Numbering left to right, top to bottom, some observations. Based on the clothes, time on the clock in the 3rd photo., etc., the first four photos are from the blitz tournament. Photo number 1 shows Marmorosh, van Amerongen (partially hidden behind Marmorosh), Najdorf, and Pe'er. Photo no. 4 shows Guti thinking while Najdorf is looking over his shoulder. Photos 5-9 show Marmorosh accompanying Najdorf to one of the simultaneous exhibitions. (Photo no. 10 is unrelated to Najdorf.)

Sources: this entry was culled together from press clippings collected by Marmorosh's son and daughter in their personal albums. Not all the press clippings have exact dates, or even the paper's title, hence the "roughness" in the dates of the simultaneous exhibitions, etc. The identified sources include:

Ha'Tzophe, 30.12.1960
Ha'Tzophe, 20.1.1961
Davar, 30.12.1960
Davar, 20.1.1961
Israel Nachrichten, 6.1.61
Ha'Boker, 30.12.1960
La'Merchav, 16.1.1961

Spelling: Except for van Amerongen, Smiltiner, and (of course) Najdorf, whose spellings are following Gaige's Chess Personalia, all names are spelled phonetically.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lasker Chess Lecture

Credit: Davar, March 30th, 1933.

The headline above, printed in Davar's chess column (March 30th, 1933), says, "Lasker on Chess Among the Jews". It is a transcript of a lecture given in the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin by Emanuel Lasker.


1). Jews consider 'individual expression' and originality the most important thing in chess, due to their habit of pilpul (sharp analysis, hair-splitting) over the Talmud.

2). For the Jew, it isn't how much one wins, but how one wins.

3). The Jew is naturally not a warrior, so he has little interest in 'beating the opponent' for its own sake, but rather is interested in neutralizing the opponent or making him no longer an opponent (lit. 'making the hater no longer a hater' in the Hebrew-language column) by way of logic and analysis.

4). The Jew which won the game is happy, not for defeating the opponent, but due to successful execution of his plan, which was forced on the opponent by logical, necessary steps.

5). The Jew is a master of defense 'to a degree that non-Jewish players can rarely reach'. The reason is his long experience of having to defend himself from antisemitic hatred, for his very survival.

6). This experience allows the Jewish player to create saving defensive combinations 'based not on calculation, but on intuition' in the most dangerous moments.

The #1 Question

Image credit: Canales 7.

In a new book about Victor Winz -- chess player, scion of a prominent zionist family, gambler, wanderer -- the main question of all those addicted to the game is stated by the author, Jodi Bonells:
El narrador, profesor universitario de literaturas hispánicas y novelista, apasionado del ajedrez y, de un tiempo a esta parte, a correr maratones, intenta reconstruir la incierta historia de este judío alemán, también ajedrecista, al que conoció en Niza en los años setenta, estableciendo con él, sobre todo a partir de su muerte, una extraña relación maestro-discípulo. El ajedrez se convierte así en el hilo conductor de sus propias trayectorias, marcadas por una única, insistente y paradójica pregunta: ¿cómo aprender a no jugar al ajedrez?
English translation (google translate's and my very broken Spanish -- might have some mistakes, but not on the main point...):
The narrator, a university professor of Hispanic literature and novelist, lover of chess and, for a time now, running marathons, uncertainly attempts to reconstruct the history of this German Jew, also a chess player, whom he met in Nice in the seventies, establishing with him, especially after his death, a strange master-disciple relationship. Chess thus becomes the common thread of their own paths, marked by a single, insistent and paradoxical question: how to learn not to play chess?
Good question!