Features Oct 25, 2016 | 3:12 PMby chess24 staff

Paul Keres III: AVRO 1938 - Rightful challenger

Paul Keres came from nowhere to reach the top of the chess world in only a few years, with his greatest triumph perhaps coming at the age of 22, when he won one of the strongest tournaments ever held: AVRO 1938. Joosep Grents’ latest instalment of his series to mark the centenary of the birth of Keres includes the full tournament – an unofficial qualifier to play Alexander Alekhine for the World Championship title - with modern computer analysis. It brings the Keres story to the outbreak of World War II.

Paul Keres (right) travelling between venues during the AVRO tournament | photo: ESM F 203:466/B 1837, Eesti Spordi- ja Olümpiamuuseum SA (Estonian Sports Museum)

Once again, we've added the games discussed in this article (most, but not all, involving Keres) to a tournament in which each round represents an article - so you can play through them with modern computer analysis. Hover over the evaluation to see the final position, or click to go to the game:

Catching breath

“Keres is one of the few chess players who did not go through a long, lingering road to the top. He achieved the highest level in just three years and remained at the top for the next 40 years”
Dr. Max Euwe

It had taken Keres a mere three years to transform himself from an amateur tournament player into a potential contestant for the World Championship title. Becoming a future challenger was not merely the fantasy of numerous chess publications but a potential reality, since the AVRO tournament now dominated the horizon. However, who was to be challenged?

Caricature of Keres and some opponents he took on in a simultaneous exhibition in Tallinn in late 1937 | photo: ESM F 203:465/B 1836, Eesti Spordi- ja Olümpiamuuseum SA (Estonian Sports Museum)

Following Semmering-Baden, Keres immediately travelled to the Alekhine – Euwe rematch. The ageing Alekhine was not considered a favourite to win the encounter.

The English master Alexander had proven that Euwe was not only the reigning World Champion at the time, but also the best chess player according to the results between the two matches. Alekhine's level of play had been nothing but mediocre and his average results were worse than those of most future challengers.

However, his preparation for the match was methodical and proved he had only one goal.


He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink, he has shunned excitement of any kind. I studied his behaviour quite closely, and could not detect any jerky, nervous movements. He is quite calm, speaks fluently and slowly and altogether gives an impression similar to the one he gave after his victory over Capablanca. Well - nearly the same.

Alekhine went on to surprise the sceptics and won back the title with a dominant 15.5 – 9.5 score. In the aftermath of the match, Flohr presented himself as FIDE’s official challenger, but Alekhine cut that story short: he would not prioritise any FIDE-approved challenger. Flohr could enter into negotiations with Alekhine on his own behalf but, despite recognising Flohr's rights to negotiate a potential match, Alekhine was keen on first negotiating with Capablanca, and so headed to South America.

While FIDE had not recognised the upcoming AVRO tournament as an official method for choosing a World Championship challenger (in their mind they had already solved the problem by electing Flohr) they had no power to enforce their will on the reigning World Champion. Following Alekhine's mysterious failure to negotiate a match with Capablanca, he then negotiated and agreed to play with Flohr in Czechoslovakia in 1939. Politics intervened, though, since following the Munich Agreement of 1938 the West had “sold” Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Flohr was forced to observe the Czechoslovakian tragedy from abroad, as he spent the summer of 1938 in the Soviet Union and was invited by Keres to visit Estonia in October.

During those days, Paul Petrovich and I got the news unfolding in Czechoslovakia by radio; we spoke less of chess and more of what the future might hold for me and (my wife) Raissa. There were no clear scenarios for us, not a single one. Should we have followed in the footsteps of Spielmann? Insanity! I could only repeat what Alekhine said, “Both wars ruined me.” In addition to all this, I was Jewish, and you could not forget that for a second. I was ruined even more than Alexander Aleksandrovich, for I was utterly broke. All my belongings and property had remained in Prague and Hitler was already in power there, swastika flag fluttering on top of the Hradčany castle. I told Paul that Moscow was promising to grant me Soviet citizenship. He responded instantly, “Dear friend, it is unlikely you could find any good fortune even there”.

The Flohr who had the Alekhine match contract in his pocket had claimed:

I will play calmly in Amsterdam, for the result of this tournament and the match with Alekhine are not connected in any way.

But the Flohr whose match was doomed after losing its venue and finances to Hitler, looked at AVRO in a somewhat different light:

Everyone can finish first at AVRO and not a single player has any guarantee against finishing last.

Indeed, while making such a comment Flohr may have anticipated his own fate, for the circumstances he found himself in certainly didn't help his chances. 

Following the debacles of negotiating a match with Capablanca and Flohr, Alekhine was eventually forced to warm towards the idea of AVRO as a Candidates Tournament of sorts, though not to the degree that the potential winner would instantaneously guarantee himself a World Championship match. In fact, Alekhine retained his right to negotiate with a suitable challenger himself and merely hinted at granting the AVRO winner the privileges of negotiating with him – nothing more.

Let’s return to Keres. What was his preparation for the AVRO tournament?

1938 started in Hastings – with Reshevsky, Keres, Flohr and Fine – and could have been an interesting competition. However, the aforementioned players all drew with each other and tournament victory depended on their ability to rack up points against the lesser players. Reshevsky was the only one to beat all five of them, and won with 7/9, while Keres and Alexander shared second with 6.5/9. Alekhine – now again in a position to be critical of anyone – commented:

The tournament in Hastings shows us that none of the younger generation is ready for a World Championship match. Flohr's game was not good enough for a potential challenger, for he only defended against the stronger players while trusting his technique to beat the lesser ones. Fine seems to have lost most of his freshness which had seemed so inspiring upon his arrival in Europe. Even Keres gave reason for disappointment, for we did not find the dazzle he usually exhibits in his games. Reshevsky, to be fair, played well, but his style is still not mature enough. His methods remain too primitive for a World Championship match. Therefore we have to turn back to the experienced grandmasters Euwe and Capablanca.

Spring 1938. A match with the Swedish master Stahlberg. A draw. Eesti Male wrote, “It seems like our grandmaster is suffering from bad form”.

June 1938. Noordwijk. 6.5/9. The score was insufficient to give Keres first place, although he won brilliant games against Euwe – his first win over the former World Champion – and Spielmann. While Eliskases won, Keres finished second ahead of Pirc, Euwe, Bogoljubov and his domestic nemesis Schmidt.

In addition to tournament play, Keres started writing his first book (“Malekool I” or “Chess School”) in 1938 and, just prior to the AVRO tournament, he matriculated at the University of Tartu to study mathematics. Such preparation was hardly ideal. Keres:

To be honest, I have not made any special preparations for this tournament and do not intend to do so, but will instead be heading there as an eternal optimist. We will see whether this will lead to a disappointment or...

AVRO 1938

“I first met Keres in 1938 during the AVRO tournament. Paul was tall, slender, and almost with angel-like facial features. He ate little, was reticent, did not smile, was dressed extremely formally. Master S. Landau invited the participants for a visit, including the tournament organizer H. Kmoch with his wife. Mrs. Kmoch quickly christened Keres the Stone Guest”
Mikhail Botvinnik

Alekhine, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Flohr, Keres and Reshevsky. These were the eight players who found themselves listening to the opening speech of Mr De Clerq – the President of the AVRO Company – at the Amstel Hotel reception hall in early November. A truly heavyweight field in terms of playing strength made AVRO 1938 the strongest chess tournament of its time.

The AVRO 1938 line-up. From the left: Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Fine, Landau (filling in for Capablanca), Euwe, Alekhine, Flohr, Keres | photo: Picture Post, 26 November 1938, composition of photographs from pages 58-59, #7356

The format of the tournament was unfavourable to the older generation, to put it mildly. The double-round robin was played across the Netherlands, with almost every round played in a different city. This meant that the players were constantly traveling to and from the playing venues, as all of them stayed at the Krasnapolsky Hotel in Amsterdam throughout the tournament. The games that were adjourned were also completed at the hotel. Such an arrangement inevitably favoured the youngsters. Capablanca:

It’s not purely playing chess anymore… a physical factor has been added. It will be a handicap tournament. The younger players will be best able to stand it. What does it matter whether you sleep badly and every time get strange food when you are twenty or thirty years old? For Alekhine, especially, it must be a hindrance, and for me, the oldest, entirely.

He clearly suffered during the tournament, and given such health issues it’s perhaps not that unsettling that Lasker – despite being mildly upset at not receiving an invitation – was not invited. 

A Fine streak

With all the formalities and complaints from journalists out of the way, play commenced on 6th November, 1938.

Round 1. Playing in the Netherlands against Euwe, Keres played the Dutch Defence. This gave Euwe an advantage, but in a good position he proceeded carelessly and, as the commentators noted, a small miracle occurred. Keres found his way out of a very difficult position, with Euwe's 35.h4 allowing a saving breakthrough:

35...f4! 36.exf4 e3! 37.Bxd5 e2! 38.Re1 Qxd5 39.Qxd5 Rxd5 40.f3 Rd1 Draw

The second and third rounds saw Keres paired against Botvinnik and Flohr respectively, with both games ending in uneventful draws. The second round was, however, noteworthy for another reason: the duel between Capablanca and Alekhine. Prior to this they had only played one game over the previous 11 years. The game was adjourned in a favourable position for Capablanca. 

The final position of Capablanca-Alekhine after Alekhine's 48...Bxf2

However, once play continued it all petered out in a mere 30 minutes. In fact, the players were together at the table only for a couple of minutes in total, for after each move one of them would stand up and leave. The scars of the past cut deep. So deep, in fact, that after Capablanca had made his last move and left the table, Alekhine called the arbiter and whispered something in his ear. The arbiter then walked behind the stage, returned after a while and whispered back to Alekhine, who nodded in agreement. A draw was thus agreed upon. Neither a word nor a handshake. 

Words were only tossed around after the game, as Alekhine criticized Capablanca, claiming that he would never have accepted a draw in such a position and would have continued playing on for hours. Flohr, meanwhile, commented on the number of draws, saying that Keres is too young and Capablanca too old to win.

In the fourth round, Keres responded to Flohr's joke and scored his first win. Reshevsky had played a faulty theoretical line and Keres was able to force matters after winning a knight out of the opening

The knight finally had to be given up on f7, since if it moved again 18.e7!! is devastating, with 18...Bxe7 met by 19.Nd5!

Fine “bounced back” from his draw with Capablanca (he’d won his first two games) and won another game against Euwe to climb to 3.5/4.

In the next round Keres found himself in trouble as he attempted to keep Alekhine's attack at bay. Alekhine then missed a forced win and Keres was able to draw the game. Fine, meanwhile, beat Flohr and continued his streak, beating the over-pressing Alekhine in their 6th round game. Fine was already on 5.5/6. Keres was not content with falling behind, but faced the Cuban Genius in the sixth round.

Keres was known for his modesty and objectivity when analysing his games. His brief analysis:

Capablanca played the opening inaccurately and ended up in a bad position. White was able to increase the pressure in the centre and the bishop on b2 was instrumental towards this end, as it dominated the dark-squared diagonal and was a threat to the kingside. The attack was especially interesting since White offered a knight sacrifice twice. As a result of this combination White was able to win a pawn... and after several attempts to save the game, Black resigned on move 38.

22.Ne6! was the first knight sacrifice.

Such an objective analysis contrasts sharply with the reports of an unforgettable game” or “the hero of the round” or “the amazingly swift knight manoeuvres of Keres beat Capablanca” from the tournament commentators.

In the next round Keres played Fine and was finally able to stop the juggernaut. Fine had so far surprised his opponents in the opening and attempted to do the same against Keres in the Closed Spanish by playing 6.Qe2. A strategic mistake, for the youngster had been preparing himself for offbeat lines in the opening ever since his very first serious games of chess.


Fear and sympathy took hold of the crowd as they saw how Fine had fallen victim to an inconceivable and inevitable fate. I have been present at numerous tournaments, but I have very rarely been able to witness the creation of such a strangely magical work of art. After a second successive brilliant win, Keres has suddenly found himself in the spotlight.

Even Fine appreciated such a game and praised Keres: “You've played this brilliantly.”

Keres commented on the game in his usual fashion:

I was able to trap him with a combination and never allowed him to escape anymore… diminishing the great lead he had achieved over all the others in the tournament. All the excitement would have evaporated if one player had remained so far ahead of the rest of the field.

Drawing to victory

Knowing what we know now it's impossible to see how Keres travelled during the tournament and not think of the war that was to come | photo: ESM F 203:467/B 1838, Eesti Spordi- ja Olümpiamuuseum SA (Estonian Sports Museum)

With half of the tournament behind them, Fine remained in the lead on 5.5/7, followed by Keres on 5/7 and Botvinnik on 4/7. Znosko-Borovski cautiously reminded his readers of the Semmering tournament, and claimed that nothing is certain, as Keres' youth and instability could still undermine his results in the second half of the tournament. 

But Keres had clearly learned from his Semmering experience:

After the important win over Fine I decided to play the rest of the tournament in a cautious fashion.

Keres followed through and went on to draw a cascade of games against Euwe, Botvinnik and Flohr. As the tournament continued, Fine's play calmed down while Botvinnik and Reshevsky suddenly found themselves in top form. Capablanca, who had only lost 26 tournament games over 29 years (!) collapsed in the second half of the tournament, suffering three losses (adding to his first half loss to Keres). The conditions in which the tournament was played were claimed to have taken their toll on the ageing genius. Indeed, his second loss of the tournament came against Alekhine on his 50th birthday, and in Round 10 he managed to miss a win in an endgame against Fine. But criticism of missing such a win can only be directed at a player of his stature, for the winning combination was not spotted until 1951!

Round 10. Capablanca 1/2–1/2 Fine Capablanca played 40. Rxg5 and a draw followed. However 40. h5! would have won him the game, since after 40... Rb1 41. Kg2! Black is forced to sacrifice his rook to stop the pawn from queening. Some of his losses, however, were less down to his health and more down to the brilliance of his opponents:

Round 11. Botvinnik 1–0 Capablanca

30.Ba3!! Qxa3 31.Nh5+!!

Such immortal games verified Alekhine's earlier assessment that Botvinnik and Keres were the stars of the younger generation.

Keres, meanwhile, found himself in a tough spot against Reshevsky, but managed to salvage a draw in cold-blooded fashion. All of the draws in the second half of the tournament had propelled Keres to first place, while Botvinnik had been able to leapfrog into contention for first place as well. With three rounds to go, the top half of leaderboard was as follows: 1. Keres 7/11, 2-3. Botvinnik & Fine 6.5/11, 4. Alekhine 6/11.

Round 12. Botvinnik desperately tried to push for a win against Euwe, but Euwe was able to punish him and Botvinnik's hopes of winning the tournament went up in smoke. Alekhine was still a full point behind Keres, but played him in the 12th round. Alekhine played Black and achieved an equal position, but...


Alekhine was not content with equality and attempted to break into White's back rank. Keres blocked this attempt with his queen – an exchange of queens offered a favourable endgame for White. The Champion rejected the exchange and backed off. An invitation to a repetition, to a draw? Was the Champion not supposed to avoid the draw? Analogies are worth little, but at the table sat not a young Alekhine nor a mature Flohr, but Keres, the one and only Keres. He had given a promise to play carefully, but here he rejected the repetition and thus allowed Alekhine to execute his initial plan. Was it a refined bluff (Alekhine was in time trouble)? Or had Keres been infected by the nervousness of his opponent? Or was this again an example of his adventure-seeking nature? Such questions will never be answered.

The decision led to the game being adjourned in a winning position for White. Alekhine's fans were in complete disbelief, but the World Champion’s nature did not allow him to come to terms with such an assessment. Even when there were already clear mating threats against his king, he gazed at the other side of the board, desperately looking for an attack that wasn't there. Flohr:

Even if Black manages to escape from the mating threats, it will have no bearing on the overall result of the game.

Keres was thus on the verge of ensuring overall victory. When Alekhine appeared to finish the adjourned game the next morning, his eyes were red, since he’d spent an agonising night analysing a position that was deemed lost. But Keres?


I asked him about his game at the AVRO tournament with Alekhine. Keres answered that on the night when he was supposed to analyse the adjourned position, a group of friends had arrived from Estonia who wished to spend some time with him. He analysed the position superficially, made a mistake in the endgame and the game ended in a draw.

Once again, the youthfulness of Keres had gotten the better of him. Or, as Heuer put it:

Even such a surprising appearance of carelessness was not down to his character or attitude. It was down to inexperience. The developing Keres was still rather ‘green’ at the AVRO tournament.

This was the position in which the game was adjourned:

42.Nxa7! was winning, but after Keres' 42.Kf2?! the task became much harder.

That missed win against Alekhine meant that the winner was still to be decided in the last round, as Fine had joined Keres in the lead after beating Alekhine for the second time in the tournament, while Keres had drawn Capablanca in the penultimate round. The two leaders met in the last round. Keres held a superior tiebreak (a better Sonneborn-Berger score), so a draw would see him become the winner.

Keres sits at the table with lips closely sealed and arms crossed, not giving us a single sign of anxiety. He makes a move and crosses his arms at the table again, or moves off the stage to speak with his secretary. His opponent, a burly young man, cannot hide his nervousness, often wiping sweat off his forehead. He deliberates every move carefully, avoids the attacks of the Estonian, which to be fair are not strong, while neither of the players seems willing to take any risk.

Despite all the hype, Fine already settled for a quick draw on move 19, as 29th November 1938 would enter the history books for Keres winning the fragile right to negotiate a World Championship match.

Click on any result in this table to replay the game with modern computer analysis

Triumphs abroad meant that every time Keres returned home, he received a hero's welcome | photo: H. Soosaar, Estonian National Archives

World Championship Challenger

When phoned by Uus Eesti journalists Keres seemed optimistic:

Alekhine is willing to play. It also appears that AVRO is ready to sponsor the match. Negotiations will be held tomorrow with regard to where, when and how...

With Keres unaware of Alekhine's actual plans, the negotiations were almost as good as dead before they even started. The next day Alekhine was demonstratively late to the table. Looking for excuses to avoid definite agreements was not difficult. Heuer:

He refused to sign a contract, demanded higher fees and refused to play in several different cities. Then he let them know that he will present his final conditions later. End of story.

One of the reasons for Alekhine's behavior was Botvinnik. On the final day of the AVRO tournament, Botvinnik had approached Alekhine and asked for a confidential meeting with the champion. Alekhine, quickly grasping the nature of the request, scheduled the meeting on the same day he was supposed to negotiate with Keres and thus first entered into negotiations with Botvinnik. However, Botvinnik could not negotiate for himself alone, for he needed higher approval to play a match against such a politically uncomfortable opponent for the Soviets. 

Keres at a reception with Estonian President Konstantin Päts | photo: A. Kalm, Estonian National Archives

Keres travelled home the same day and soon after the AVRO company decided to refuse to meet Alekhine's conditions and backed off from financial sponsorship, leaving a potential Alekhine – Keres match clouded in uncertainty.

Negotiations with Keres dragged on, but remained in the background, for Keres was unable to solve the financial issues related to the match. He was willing to wait, however, and did not rush to overcome the obstacles that were stopping him from playing the match with Alekhine. The match thus remained a dream, although with the right to challenge Alekhine in his pocket, Keres was perhaps closer to the title than he would ever be again. 

Interlude: Leningrad-Moscow

Keres remained in Estonia for the New Year and then quickly headed for his first encounter with the Soviet school: the large Leningrad-Moscow training tournament. In retrospect, he considered this a mistake.

Instead of taking a rest after such a tiring tournament, I repeated my mistake from 1936 after Nauheim and travelled to Russia. However, I lacked the energy necessary for such a double push… I should not in any way have undertaken this in the sort of form I found myself after the AVRO Tournament. I should have copied the example of Botvinnik, who quite rightly refrained from taking part in this training tournament.

Not knowing any proper Russian at the time, Keres had wanted his friend Jüri Rebane to join him and help him with potential language issues, but Rebane could not obtain a visa in time and stayed in Estonia. Keres was thus accompanied by his friend Flohr:

Paul travelled to the Leningrad-Moscow tournament (January 1939) with foreboding. It seemed as if he feared something, and his fears were not unfounded! His first experience of the Soviet Union turned out not to be an exceptionally happy one, to put it mildly. Already on the border, he was under suspicion, leaving him completely baffled.

While Flohr went on to dominate the “training tournament”, Keres failed to learn from his mistakes and achieved only +3 -4 =10, landing him in shared 12th place with 18-year old Smyslov.

After providing such controversial food for thought for journalists, a few months passed before Keres attempted to rehabilitate himself, in Margate. It was mission accomplished, with first place on 7.5/9, ahead of Capablanca, Flohr and Najdorf.


It is clear that this tournament was too meaningless to properly evaluate the current strength of Keres. His result can only confirm that Keres is still the same Keres as he was before and that the result in Soviet Russia was caused by incidental circumstances.

Buenos Aires 1939 and the outbreak of the inevitable

Another year, another Olympiad. On this occasion the burden of organising the Olympiad was taken on by the Argentinians, while Hungary and USA refrained from participation. Keres:

For some reason, foreign teams have a very good opinion of our team and are predicting a place amongst the top three, while even our optimistic supporters aren't hoping to finish higher than fifth place.

The format was also unconventional: teams played a group stage and the top four in each group played in a final, while the rest played in a lower-section final. Estonia (Keres, Raud, Schmidt, Friedemann, Türn) finished second in their group after Sweden, despite having beaten Sweden 3-1, and awaited the final which was about to start on 1st September 1939...

Estonian national team at the Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1939. From left: Schmidt, Friedemann, Keres, Raud and Türn. ESM F 354:16/B5093, Eesti Spordi- ja Olümpiamuuseum SA (Estonian Sports Museum)

The outbreak of the Second World War on September 1st did not pass unnoticed, although play continued. Only the English left immediately, leaving 15 countries in the final. Alekhine and Tartakower successfully proposed that Germany-Poland and Germany-France be declared 2-2 draws in this situation. The Germans extended this proposal to Bohemia and Moravia. With the USA and Hungary missing, the favourites were Germany, Poland, Sweden, Argentina and Estonia. With Alekhine present, Keres also had yet another chance to negotiate a match, but refrained from doing so. Flohr:

I asked him why did he not contact Alekhine during his stay in Argentina. He replied briefly: “Capa got here before the other masters”.

Keres' play was shaky at times, but he felt he had to score as many points as possible for Estonia and to that end he played in every single one of Estonia’s matches. Sometimes it worked out well for him, as in Keres-Mikenas:

Exchanging queens or 27...Qd8 were Mikenas' options for continuing the battle, while after 27...Qf5?? 28.Ka1! he could have resigned on the spot. Instead he played 28...Be5, but Keres simply accepted the sacrifice and went on to score an easy win.

Sometimes, however, things didn't go according to plan. Alekhine:

The most important and embarrassing result of the ninth round was Keres' loss to Palestine’s Foerder. It was painful to witness how a master loses due to off-the-board reasons. It is obviously very difficult to beat Keres. This was easily proven by the AVRO tournament. But now, attempting to improve the position of his team, he believed that it is his duty to end up playing a dead lost position.

In the end Keres achieved the highest winning percentage after Alekhine, but as the Argentinians counted only matches played in the final, Capablanca was declared the winner on the first board. This is despite the fact that he played only against weaker players, avoiding playing against both Alekhine and Keres.

Estonia finished third, which was the Estonian delegation’s highest ever finish. Keres was as objective as ever:

First place was also up for grabs, if only Schmidt would not have been in bad form. (5/13 on third board).

Apart from Keres, it was Friedemann who performed exceptionally well, winning individual gold on board four with 12.5/17. 

The question then arose of how to get the heroes back home. The outbreak of war in Europe meant that it was not only the Estonians who faced difficulties and delays, but other strong players as well. This enabled the organisation of a fairly strong individual tournament in Buenos Aires, one that Keres and Najdorf went on to win (8.5/11). That included a win over Marcos Luckis, who was perhaps unaware that the style of Keres dictated that he was something of an expert against 4.Ng5. Things didn't end well for the Lithuanian:

17...e3! ripped White's position apart.

Keres had initially planned to tour the United States and then travel back home via Japan-USSR, thus avoiding the dangerous trip across the Atlantic. However, after receiving a telegram from Euwe, who proposed they play a match in the Netherlands, he abandoned all such ideas and opted for the risky trip instead.

The journey home took a whole month and Keres was seen in Estonia in December. His decision to immediately head to the Netherlands again proved that he lacked proper preparation for his match with Euwe. However, as had been the case even before AVRO, his exceptional desire to play outweighed all the ‘puny’ training considerations.

Keres giving a simultaneous exhibition in Tallinn, 1940 | photo: ESM F 834:1/D1089, Eesti Spordi- ja Olümpiamuuseum SA (Estonian Sports Museum)

Euwe vs Keres match

Traveling to the Netherlands was no easy feat considering the backdrop of war. Keres had initially planned to travel to Amsterdam by train from Tallinn, but faced insurmountable visa difficulties. He then opted for a ferry trip via Stockholm, but the ferry he intended to take was overbooked. He was about to telegraph Euwe that the match be cancelled when he overheard that a group of people from Riga had a private charter flight from Stockholm to Amsterdam. He was able to bargain himself a seat on that plane and eventually arrived for a match that, as Levenbach put it “...had an exciting course and enriched chess literature with many games of theoretical interest and great beauty.”

After the ceremonial speeches, the players found themselves playing games in Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Hague, Rotterdam and Hilversum over the course of almost a month. In terms of the early progress of the match, it was to a degree reminiscent of Keres’ early match with Schmidt. The first two games were drawn, followed by two defeats which both saw Keres on the losing end of the Open Spanish. Game 5 saw Euwe switch to 1.d4 to no avail, for Keres went on to win with accurate endgame technique. Game 6 saw Euwe worse out of the opening and the game was adjourned in a favourable position for Keres. Game 7 saw Keres play very well and build a good position, but he then blundered a piece with 29...Qa5??:

30.Bc4+! forced immediate resignation, since 31.Rxe4 is coming next. Keres to Hannak:

It was simply puzzling for me, as if my brain was running on empty. The time pressure was not severe so I don't have any excuses. The fight was only about to begin – and such an abrupt end! I will attempt to avoid repeating play like this.

Just as in his match against Schmidt, Keres seemed dead-and-buried, for the score stood at 2:4. But what had he said during his match with Schmidt? “(Coming back) is not difficult! In fact it’s easy!” While the opposition was clearly of a completely different calibre, Keres would rarely crack under pressure in match play. Hannak:

And it is this moment that Keres chose, as they say, to make mincemeat out of his opponent and completely destroy his fighting spirit.

Keres went on to convert an endgame in the resumed game 6. This was followed by game 8, where Euwe's Slav Defence led to a sharp position in which Euwe then sacrificed his knight for two central pawns with Keres' king still in the centre. However, Euwe soon found his own king in a mating net and was forced to resign.

Game 9 saw Keres give up his queen in a brilliant fashion:

22...d3!! 23.Rxd3 Qxd3!! 24.Qxd3 Bd4+! 25.Rf2 Rxe6 and Euwe never stood a chance.


The Netherlands was mourning and applauding at the same time, for they now had two favourites, their own champion and that Estonian boy, the son of the Gods.

Keres went on to beat Euwe in game 10 as well and the 2:4 deficit had suddenly transformed into a 6:4 lead. Game 11 was played on Keres' birthday and Keres kept up the tradition of losing on your birthday. No credit should be taken away from Euwe, though, since his attack was exemplary. However it was too little too late, as Keres went on to win game 12 in a mere 23 moves, and with that secure overall victory. Final score 7.5:6.5. 

Euwe, gracious in defeat, did not hold back on praise:

His play is imposing and versatile. It does not matter which kind of position is in front of him, whether it is the opening, the middlegame or the endgame – his treatment of the position is always masterly. Game 6 was an excellent example of positional play: greater mobility was quickly and mercilessly converted into a win. The queen sacrifice in game 9 confirms the insurmountable combinational superiority of Keres, and his endgame technique in game 5 had no antidote. Does Keres have no blind spots? However, his positional evaluation is occasionally too optimistic, he does not prepare properly for the opening and fails to place emphasis on deep analysis of adjourned positions. However, these are all the kind of shortcomings which should disappear over time, so that after five or ten years Keres can become absolutely unbeatable.

By beating the former World Champion, Keres thus asserted his right to play Alekhine even further, but the match with Alekhine was dependent on financial issues beyond Keres' control, now compromised further by the realities of war. Alekhine:

(Keres) played a couple of good games against Euwe and I would be glad to sit at the board and play with him. Maybe this will materialise one day. But for now, in the current situation, can I have any kind of plans? I cannot plan anything certain even a week in advance. By the way, in case I’m not called up, I’ll spend the summer in the countryside and after the tournament in Portugal in autumn I’ll head to America... but this is not all down to me.

The war was taking its toll on the ageing Alekhine. But Keres? The Euwe of 1940 believed that in five or ten years Keres could become absolutely unbeatable, but the Euwe of the 1970s admitted you could not have foreseen the handicap at which Keres would find himself during the war, for the war was yet to take its toll on the young Estonian.

Joosep Grents

Joosep is an Estonian chess enthusiast who learned chess at the age of five and began attending the Paul Keres Chess Club two years later. He recently graduated with a degree in History from Charles University in Prague, with his BA thesis set to be published by the university press later this year.

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