The Forgotten Chess Masters: Ossip Bernstein
Ossip Bernstein in 1946. Photo by Netherlands National Archive.

The Forgotten Chess Masters: Ossip Bernstein

| 40 | Chess Players

The chess world is full of intriguing players and intriguing stories going all the way back to the enigmatic Paul Morphy—but even among this hallowed, august company, Ossip Bernstein manages to stand out.

Bernstein's career is noteworthy for many reasons—not only did he stand on the shoulders of giants; he was one of them.

When IM Jeremy Silman, in a recent article, lamented the lack of awareness today regarding not just the giants of music but also chess, I pulled up a chair right away. I'm no stranger to this trend and it's not that recent, unfortunately. I find this phenomenon to be as pervasive as it is consistent, and not just regarding chess and music.

It was with consternation and puzzlement that I began to notice that with the passage of time more people had no knowledge, and worse, no interest in the history that preceded them.

As we view and feel the weight of the years, that experience lends an authenticity not possible from any other perspective. In chess I believe that appreciation for and knowledge of the great players of the past, and the obvious progress in chess evolution, are essential to the modern player.

Bernstein lived and played chess during a unique time in chess history. His life and career straddles the romantic period, hyper-modern school and the emergence of the mighty Soviet school. Bernstein's' chess life is reflected most eloquently in his opponents. Who else can boast of a chess career that includes opponents from Michael Chigorin to Bent Larsen?

During his long life Bernstein attained and lost three different fortunes, and had the unique if dubious distinction of playing a game of chess where his life literally depended on the outcome.

Ossip Bernstein in 1961.
Ossip Bernstein in 1961. Photo by Jac. de Nijs.

Born in Ukraine in 1882 to a wealthy Jewish family, Bernstein didn't get serious with chess till he was 19. He quickly made a name for himself in a blindfold match with the legendary Harry Pillsbury. Bernstein lost the match but won his master title in Berlin a few years later in 1902.

Bernstein received his doctorate from the university of Heidelberg and after graduating from law school, he moved to Moscow where he met, fell in love and married his wife Wilma.

Ossip was successful at both chess and his law practice, parlaying the latter career as an adviser to bankers while evolving quickly at his chess game. He was a fiery combinative player with an extremely sharp style, who once destroyed the great Akiba Rubinstein in 25 moves on the black side of a Scotch game in the 1903 Russian championship.

He also hated draws like many attacking players. 

The following anecdote is from Bernstein himself:

In one tournament the veteran master Burn, who was a good friend of mine, offered me a draw on the 12th move. I refused, played for a win and ended up in a completely lost position. For the fun of it, I then offered Burn a draw myself. With his eyes flashing slyly at me through his glasses, he replied frowningly: 'Had you accepted my offer then, I would accept yours now,' upon which I resigned.

He took second place behind the great Mikhail Chigorin a year later at the Kiev all-Russian Masters Tournament, and a year after that tied for third with the attacking genius Rudolf Spielmann. He tied with the drawing master Carl Schlechter a few years later in 1906. Then a year after that he tied with Rubinstein at Ostend.

Bernstein topped off the first half of the decade by winning the Moscow city championship in 1911. Later that year he tied for eighth in the famous San Sebastian Tournament losing a memorable game to a young Jose Raul Capablanca. The game is remembered because Bernstein uncharitably complained that Capablanca was even allowed to play because of his age. Capablanca not only won the game but also the brilliancy prize.

A year after that Bernstein finished second behind Rubenstein at the all-Russian championship at Vilna. In 1914, he lost a mini-match to the emerging Capablanca 0-1 with one draw. He finished seventh at the star-studded St. Petersburg tournament that year in a field that featured world champion Emanuel Lasker, Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Siegbert Tarrasch, Aron Nimzovich, Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Isidor Gunsberg.

It was during the time leading up to and including the Russian revolution of 1917 that the most riveting and entertaining story about Bernstein—or perhaps any other chess player—happened.

The transition of Russia from czarist regime to a socialist state as a direct consequence of this revolution was a long, complicated and bloody affair leading to the death of millions of people.

The result was that the ruling aristocracy of the czarist regime was overthrown, and the czar and his family executed. Vladimir Lenin was the principal leader of the Bolsheviks, which was the name of this new socialist movement. It was largely through him that the previous order was overturned and an extensive series of reformations came about, during which most of the banks and factories were seized and turned over to this new state.

The aristocracy of this former regime did not go quietly but rather resisted vigorously. Lenin and several of his comrades found themselves targets of assassinations by various czarist representatives. In response, a secret police called "the Cheka" was formed, and it came after its opponents with a vengeance. Thus began the era of the "Red Terror," which in turn resulted in the formation of a provisional government and eventually the establishment of the Soviet Federation Republic.

Before World War I, Bernstein had successfully combined his love of chess and law, and played heavily on the professional circuit. Through his success in both endeavors, he had become quite a wealthy man. Much of that wealth however came about because of his role as a financial adviser to these banks. Needless to say Bernstein was thus perceived as the epitome of the problem the new socialist state was trying to eradicate—a microcosm of a former evil that found its most realized expression under the former czarist regime

In 1918, Bernstein found himself a target of these secret police because he was an adviser to bankers associated with the previous czarist regime. People like Bernstein were being arrested every day. Bernstein was brought before the tribunal, found guilty of "crimes against the state," and ordered to be shot. But Bernstein had more lives than a cat.

The story goes as follows: As the firing squad lined up, one of the officers high up the chain of command asked to see the list of prisoners' names and immediately recognized Bernstein from the St. Petersburg tournament a few years prior. He realized it was the same player he had been reading about and following for years. Just to be safe, he ordered Bernstein to play him in chess under the condition that if Bernstein lost or even drew he was to be shot!

Bernstein quickly dispatched the officer and was immediately released. Scratch off one of Bernstein's nine lives!

Bernstein fled with his family to Paris, where they went through the kind of times only the impoverished and dispossessed can fully comprehend...but Bernstein rebuilt his life quickly and again became a wealthy man.

He lost a mini-match to Alekhine in 1922 and was otherwise not that active in chess during this decade. However he entered the 1930s with a vengeance, tying with Efim Bogoljubov at Bern in 1933. It was during this time that he became friends with the legendary Alekhine. A year later he played a training match with the future world champion, scoring one to one with two draws.

A year after that he tied for sixth place at Zurich with Nimzovich.

aron Nimzovich
Aron Nimzovich. Photo: Wikipedia.

However Bernstein and his family had only begun to put down roots and rebuild their lives when World War II happened, and once again they found themselves running for their lives. Earlier in their marriage they had narrowly avoided disaster when upon hearing that Bernstein wanted to move from Paris to Berlin, his wife adamantly said no in 1931.

France surrendered to Germany in 1940 and once again Bernstein and his family found themselves running for their lives and reduced to hiding in caves along the French-Spanish border. It was during this stressful time that Bernstein suffered a heart attack just after getting into Spain. To make matters even worse they were then discovered and arrested by the Spanish police who proceeded to separate Bernstein from the rest of his family. Fortunately, due to the intervention of powerful, wealthy friends, they were all released and allowed to stay in Spain till the end of the war. They returned to Paris in 1945.

Bernstein played the London tournament of 1946, finishing second to Herman Steiner. In 1946 he tied for 15th at Groningen. Later that year he won a game against Lajos Steiner during a Australia-vs-France match, then a few years later in a cable match he drew with the great Reuben Fine. In 1954 he played David Bronstein in a match, losing two games.

Bernstein saved the best for last. It was later this same year he tied for 2nd-3rd place with Miguel Najdorf just behind Rene Letelier at age 72. Najdorf had convinced the tournament organizers to double the first prize money at the expense of the payouts at the bottom by convincing the organizers that it was unfair to have such an aged opponent with whom to split the money.

This blew up in Najdorf's face as Bernstein not only beat Najdorf in their individual game but won the brilliancy prize on the black side of an Old Indian defense, beating Najdorf definitively in under 40 moves.

At the tail end of 1954, Bernstein played first board for France at the 11th Chess Olympiad, scoring +5-5=5. He was also a member of the French team two years later at the 12th Olympiad in Moscow but didn't play because of ill health,

Bernstein was awarded the title of grandmaster before his death.

During his illustrious career Bernstein had good records against legendary players: Lasker +2-2=1, Rubenstein +1-1= 7, Nimzovich +1-2 =4, Chigorin +2-1=0, Flohr +0-=3.

Only against chess icons Capablanca and Alekhine did he have poor results +0-3 =1 and +1-8 = 5, respectively.

According to chess metrics, Ossip reached his highest level in 1907 with a rating of 2716.

Bernstein lived the last years of his life in Barcelona passing into history in a hospital in the Pyrenees in 1962 at age 80. This is a man who played and held his own with the dominant players of chess from the romantic age through the emergence of the Soviet school and contributed much to the rich treasury of knowledge and history.

Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants—and these were broad shoulders indeed!

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