PAUL KERES

12/03/2008 20:27

Had Estonia not become one of the Soviet Republics, Paul Keres - born in Narva on January 7th, 1916 - would have held more chances of attaining the World Championship than eventually happened.  After winning the great AVRO tournament of 1938, he was able to issue a direct challenge to Alekhine.  However, following the AVRO, his form deserted him and it wasn't until he won a match against Dr. Max Euwe late in 1939 that the chess world recognized his merits as a World Champion contender.  Unfortunately, the Second World War followed this match and this diminished the possibility of any World Championship matches.  When the war finished Estonia emerged as part of the Soviet Republic and the USSR threw all their chess resources into making Botvinnik the World Champion after Alekhine's death in 1946.

Paul Keres honed his unique chess talent by playing many correspondence games in addition to playing in Tallin tournaments from 1929 at the age of 16!  As the champion of Estonia in 1935 he played in the prestigious Team Tournament held in Warsaw in 1935, and it was here that the world realised what a formidable force he had become.  Here, against the best in the world, he won 11 games, drew 3 and lost 5.  His performance won him places at the Heslingfors and Nauheim, the latter which he won, guaranteed his participation in all world class tournaments thereafter.  Starting in 1936 he had a string of major tournament success, rarely being outside the first two places,  This period culminated in the AVRO tournament of 1938 and his unsuccessful bid to play Alekhine for the World Championship.  

During the war Keres played in many tournaments in Germany and this did not find him many more friends.  

His next chance to win the World Championship came in 1948 when he participated in the match tournament following Alekhine's death in 1946.  By then the USSR chess hegemony had decided that Botvinnik should be Alekhine's successor, and so it was.  KGB files that have recently become available show that the Soviets forced him to lose games to further the cause of the more politically acceptable Soviet players.  In the 1948 tournament there are some inexplicable losses by Keres, mainly to Botvinnik.  His record against Botvinnik is very poor, and the KGB may well have influenced these results.

In other tournaments Keres continued to shine.  He won the Soviet Championship three times and finished as runner-up in Candidates Tournaments four times.

He was highly respected by other grandmasters and this is what Boris Spassky had to say about him:

"I loved Paul Petrovitch with a kind of special, filial feeling. Honesty, correctness, discipline, diligence, astonishing modesty these were the characteristics that caught the eye of the people who came into contact with Keres during his lifetime. But there was also something mysterious about him. I had an acute feeling that Keres was carrying some kind of a heavy burden all through his life. Now I understand that this burden was the infinite love for the land of his ancestors, an attempt to endure all the ordeals, to have full responsibility for his every step. I have never met a person with an equal sense of responsibility. This man with internally free and independent character was at the same time a very well disciplined person. Back then I did not realise that it is discipline that largely determines internal freedom. For me, Paul Keres was the last Mohican, the carrier of the best traditions of classical chess and if I could put it this way the Pope of chess. Why did he not become the champion? I know it from personal experience that in order to reach the top, a person is thinking solely of the goal, he has to forget everything else in this world, toss aside everything unnecessary or else you are doomed. How could Keres forget everything else?" I loved Paul Petrovitch with a kind of special, filial feeling. Honesty, correctness, discipline, diligence, astonishing modesty these were the characteristics that caught the eye of the people who came into contact with Keres during his lifetime. But there was also something mysterious about him. I had an acute feeling that Keres was carrying some kind of a heavy burden all through his life. Now I understand that this burden was the infinite love for the land of his ancestors, an attempt to endure all the ordeals, to have full responsibility for his every step. I have never met a person with an equal sense of responsibility. This man with internally free and independent character was at the same time a very well disciplined person. Back then I did not realise that it is discipline that largely determines internal freedom. For me, Paul Keres was the last Mohican, the carrier of the best traditions of classical chess and if I could put it this way the Pope of chess. Why did he not become the champion? I know it from personal experience that in order to reach the top, a person is thinking solely of the goal, he has to forget everything else in this world, toss aside everything unnecessary or else you are doomed. How could Keres forget everything else?"  

As well as his prodigious output of tournament games, Keres was a well respected author. Among his works are "The Art of the Middle Game" co-authored with Alexander Kotov and "Practical Chess Endings."  "The Art of the Middle Game," was first published in Sweden in 1961 and then translated into English by Harry Golombek and published by Penquin in 1964.  It has recently been re-issued in algebraic form and is well worth an investment of a few pounds.

Keres' sparkling style of play make his games exciting and instructive. He retained the same fresh approach all his life. 

He died at the early age of 59 while en route from Canada, where he had been playing in a tournament, to Finland.  Today a Memorial Tournament is held Vancouver every year.

His high esteem in Estonia was demonstrated by the fact that over 100,00 attended his funeral in Tallin.

The first four games that follow have been annotate by Keres and are included in the excellent books authored by him and Harry Golombek - "The Early Years of Paul Keres" and "The Middle Years of Paul Keres" published by Herbert Jenkins.