Salo Flohr and the Fickle Winds of Fate
Salo (short for Salomon) Flohr was born 1908 in Horodenka, which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alas, 1908 was a bit close to WWI (which started in 1914), and when his parents were butchered during the war, Salo and his brother, suddenly orphans, successfully made their way to Czechoslovakia in 1916. They were accepted as war refugees, and the kindness of the Czechoslovakians allowed them to build a new life. Not everyone would recover from trauma of that magnitude, and this might explain why he had trouble with school and problems finding a “normal” profession.
Fortunately his true calling found him, and when he discovered chess it became yet another example of the love affair between man and chess pieces. Eventually he moved to Prague, where many cafés were filled with chess players. These cafés turned into his chess schools and his job, since he quickly realized that he had an amazing talent for blitz chess. Years passed, he became the monster of the cafés, he made a living from blitz bets, and he learned more and more about the game as time ticked by.
This bohemian lifestyle might have gone on forever, if a Czech journalist hadn’t asked Flohr to come with him to a big international tournament (Kissingen) as an assistant. He accepted and found himself fascinated by the tournament atmosphere, but he did his job and pretty much stayed to himself. However, when the players would fill a local café to look at their games, he couldn’t resist pointing out new ideas or improvements. Coming across an unknown who had such a deep understanding of chess is almost unheard of, and a buzz was created in the chess community.
Here’s what the great Max Euwe had to say about Flohr’s “outing” after the Kissingen event:
“A few weeks later a big tournament was held at Berlin; again Flohr was present as an assistant journalist, but this time he was no longer unknown. In the Café Konig, where the tournament was held, there was another room in which chess players regularly assembled. Every day, after lunch, a busy chess life developed, which only petered out, after strenuous struggles with the waiters, at about 3 AM. Mainly skittles were played, for money stakes. Here was something just to Flohr’s taste! He came, he saw, he conquered; and within a few days everybody in the place, not excepting three or four of the competing masters, was in his debt. He was well known to all the masters by now, but another year elapsed before the international public got to know of him.”
Flohr’s first tournaments didn’t have the nuclear bang that a Hollywood movie would create, but his initial results were nothing to be ashamed of.
- Kautsky Memorial 1927/28 – clear third with 9 wins, 3 losses, and no draws.
- Prague 1928 – clear third again in a nine-man event.
- Prague Championship 1928 – this was a pretty strong tournament. Flohr came in 4th with 8 wins, 3 losses, and 4 draws.
- Maehrisch-Schoenberg 1928 – 2nd with 5 wins, 1 loss, and 1 draw.
Flohr was quickly getting used to tournament chess, and after taking a couple months off to figure out what he was doing right, and what was wrong, he finally achieved the desired results:
- 5th Kautsky Memorial 1928/29 – clear 1st with 10 wins, another win by way of forfeit (for a total of 11 wins), 1 loss, and 1 draw.
- Czechoslovakia 1929 – clear 1st with 4 wins, no losses, and 2 draws.
- Prague 1929 – tied 2nd through 4th with 6 wins, 2 losses, and 3 draws. This was a bit of a letdown!
Now he wasn’t just a player with talent but zero experience, he was a player with talent and SOME experience. And that small amount of experience, and the confidence he gained by winning those two events, came together when he was invited to play in a very strong tournament.
- Rogaska Slatina 1929 – clear 2nd behind the great Rubinstein, ahead of Maroczy, Pirc, Takacs, Prezepiorka, Canal, Gruenfeld, and others.
The rest of 1930 saw a mix of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places. In 1928 he was a nobody, but by the beginning of 1931 (after a bit more than two years in tournaments) he was in the top 10 in the world. His results kept improving as he ironed out his openings, fine-tuned his pure positional style, and honed his endgame ability to perfection. And, of course, he gained more and more experience:
- Hastings 1930-31 – clear 1st ahead of Rellstab, Koltanowski, Noteboom, and Alexander.
- 7th Kautsky Memorial – clear 1st ahead of players like Opocensky and Richter.
- Bled 1931 (one of Alekhine’s greatest victories) – tied for 4th through 7th behind Alekhine, Bogoljubow, Nimzowitsch, but tied with or ahead of Kashdan, Stoltz, Vidmar, Tartakower, Kostic, Spielmann, Maroczy, Colle, Asztalos, and Pirc.
This was a very impressive result and showed he belonged among the world’s elite. He followed it with:
- Brno 1931 – clear 1st ahead of Steiner, Mikenas, Noteboom, etc.
- Goteborg 1931 – clear 1st ahead of Lundin, Stoltz, Stahlberg, etc.
- Prague 1931 – clear 3rd behind Stoltz and Pirc.
- He lost an 8-game match to Stoltz (1931) by 1 point.
- He avenged the loss to Stoltz in another 8-game match by a 3-point stomp.
- Hastings 1931/32 – clear 1st ahead of Kashdan, Euwe, Sultan Khan, Vera Menchik, and others.
All great players can attack, combine, play brilliant positional games, and smoke the opponent in the endgame. Though Flohr was known as a positional god, he could also mix it up, as the following game demonstrates!
Salo Flohr – Ludwig Rellstab
1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nc7 6.b3 e5 7.Bb2 Be7 8.Rc1 0-0 9.Na4 Nd7 10.Nf3 f6 11.Qc2 Ne6 12.Nh4!
The white knights make an odd impression – they create the illusion that White’s position has wings!
12...Nb6 13.Nf5 Nxa4 14.bxa4 Rb8 15.f4 exf4 16.gxf4 Re8
Here’s a puzzle:
And here we’ll create another puzzle:
The next game shows the perfect blend between tactics and positional mastery. Each one supports the other.
Salo Flohr - Frederick Yates
Hamburg Olympiad, 1930
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 Nbd7 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Qc2 c6 9.Nf3 Re8 10.0-0 Nf8 11.a3 Ne4 12.Bxe7 Qxe7 13.Bxe4 dxe4 14.Nd2 Bf5 15.f3 Qg5 16.f4 Qe7 17.Ne2 Nd7 18.Ng3 Qf6 19.Nc4 Nb6 20.Ne5 Nd5 21.Rae1 Qe6 22.h3 Rad8 23.Nh1! (Starting a deep plan to tie Black’s piece down to the defense of e4.)
23...f6 24.Nc4 Bg6 25.g4 Bf7 26.f5 Qe7 27.Nd2
White sees that Black’s pieces are passively posted when they have to babysit the e4-pawn. But if White takes that pawn too early, it would give Black some unearned activity.
We’ll illustrate this with a puzzle:
How should Black play if White gets greedy with 30.Ngxe4?
30...Re7 31.h4 Rde8 32.g5
Black’s e-pawn is a traitor that is killing the activity of his pieces. In the meantime, White builds a strong kingside attack.
32...Nd7 33.Rg1 Qc8 34.Ngxe4
White finally chops the e4-pawn, and Black’s game. But he only does so since the knight on e4 is a tower of strength and directly aids the kingside attack.
34...fxg5 35.hxg5 Qb8
We’ll finish with a puzzle:
And on and on it went, mixing mostly good results with a few sub-par moments. Highlights:
- Bad Sliac 1932 – tied for 1st with Vidmar ahead of Pirc, Canal, Maroczy, Spielmann, Bogoljubow, etc.
- Bern 1932 – tied for 2nd (with Euwe) behind Alekhine but ahead of Sultan Khan, Bernstein, Bogoljubow and many more.
- London 1932 – clear 2nd (behind Alekhine) ahead of Kashdan, Sultan Khan, Maroczy, Tartakower, etc.
- He tied a 4-game match with Euwe (1932).
- He tied another 4-game match with Euwe (1932).
- He beat Sultan Khan in a 6 game match (1932) by a point.
- Hastings 1932/33 – clear 1st ahead of Steiner, Pirc, Sultan Khan, etc.
- Scheveningen 1933 – clear 1st ahead of Maroczy, Bogoljubow, and others.
In 1933 Flohr won several matches against solid opposition, but the real test was a 12-game match against no less a player than Botvinnik! The score was tied 6-6.
Here’s a very instructive position from the Flohr – Botvinnik match. It’s always been a personal favorite of mine:
The position seems to be good for White since Black’s knight is dead and Black’s c-pawn is under pressure while his queenside pawn majority seems frozen. If Black ever plays ...c6-c5 then, after White replies with b5, the d5-square will be a magnificent home for the bishop. What can Black do?
Flohr was at the top of his game at this point, and he was clearly in the top 5. Then something huge occurred:
- Hastings 1933-34 – clear first ahead of Alekhine (!!) and others. This was the first time Alekhine failed to come in first since he won the World Championship title.
He followed this with:
- Zurich 1934 – equal second (with Euwe) behind Alekhine, ahead of Bogoljubow, Emanuel Lasker, Bernstein, Nimzowitsch, and others.
- Hastings 1934/35 – equal first with Sir George Thomas and Euwe, ahead of Capablanca and Botvinnik!
- Moscow 1935 – tied for first with Botvinnik, ahead of Emanuel Lasker, Capablanca (again!), Spielmann, and many other legends.
- Margate 1936 – 1st ahead of Capablanca, Stahlberg, etc.
- Podebrady 1936 – clear first ahead of Alekhine, Foltys, Pirc, Stahlberg, and many more.
Salo Flohr | Image Wikipedia, taken from the match book Botvinnik - Flohr, Moscow 1933
And now we will come to a sharp STOP!
Why didn’t this man get to play a match for the World Championship? What happened to deprive him of his place in history as an all-time great? He was loved in Czechoslovakia, he was dominating the world chess scene, he was young, talented, and he was clearly very, very strong.
When one considers that Flohr had drawn matches with two of Alekhine’s main rivals (Euwe and Botvinnik), and come ahead of both Alekhine and Capablanca in tournaments, the mystery appears to be even stranger.
The answer certainly couldn’t be found in his personal life – things were going very well for Flohr. He had just gotten married, and he was a rock star in Czechoslovakia! His name was on everyone’s lips and, like businesses today, if a name is big, a wise company MUST use it to advertise their product(s)! And so Salo Flohr perfumes and scents, Salo Flohr cigarettes (he didn’t smoke!), Salo Flohr collars, and even Salo Flohr slippers were hot products in Czechoslovakia.
So, what could possibly cause Flohr, the golden boy, to fail? The answer comes in two parts:
Remember me saying that after Flohr’s parents were murdered in WWI, “not everyone would recover from a trauma of that magnitude.” Now imagine this man, a refugee during WWI, seeing Nazi-Germany rumbling about taking territory from the nation that took him in during WWI (Czechoslovakia) – this picked up steam in 1935 and 1936. Flohr, a Jew, had to be freaking out as a new war was brewing (Fascist Italy invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1935/36 and German and Italy signed a treaty of cooperation on October 25, 1936).
It was no surprise when FIDE (which was founded in 1924), in 1937, nominated Flohr as the official candidate to play Alekhine in a match for the World Championship. Unfortunately, Flohr wasn’t the only person who saw war clouds on the horizon. It turned out that investors were impossible to find, and so all thoughts of the match were tossed away.
From this point on, his results became less and less consistant:
- Nottingham 1936 – equal 7th with Lasker behind Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Reshevsky, and Alekhine.
- Oslo 1936 – 2nd behind Fine, ahead of inferior players.
- Kemeri-Riga 1937 – equal first with Petrovs and Reshevsky, ahead of Alekhine, Keres, Steiner, Tartakower, Fine, etc. (He drew the first 10 players behind him, and beat the weakest 7 players)
- Parnu 1937 – tied for second behind Schmidt, tied with Stahlberg and Keres, and ahead of Tartakower, Opocensky, etc.
- Semmering-Baden 1937 – 5th place behind Keres, Fine, Capablanca, and Reshevsky.
- Hastings 1937/38 – 4th and 5th (with Fine) behind Reshevsky, Alexander, and Keres.
After 47...Kf6 48.Kd4 Ke6 49.Kc5 Kd7 50.Kb6 Rb8+ we reach a puzzle position.
Should White take on a6 via 51.Kxa6, go deeper with 51.Ka7, or retreat and reset with 51.Kc6?
In the game Black played 52...Kc6. How would White deal with 52...Kc7?
Would Flohr have beaten Alekhine (who was no longer near his peak)? Probably not, due to something most people aren’t aware of. Here’s what Euwe wrote in his book, Meet the Masters:
“…we must also recall that he has never scored great successes against his fellow grandmasters. His specialty is beating masters who are not quite in the very top rank, and in this he is supreme. Even when scoring his greatest successes his record has been, almost monotonously, a series of wins against lower players but draws against fellow grandmasters.”
Is that true? Let’s take a look:
- Podebrady 1936 – clear first ahead of Alekhine, Foltys, Pirc, Stahlberg, and many more. He drew Alekhine and Foltys, beat Pirc, lost to Eliskases, and beat the vast majority of the tail-enders.
- Kemeri-Riga 1937 – equal first with Petrovs and Reshevsky, ahead of Alekhine, Keres, Steiner, Tartakower, Fine, etc. He drew the first 10 players behind him, and beat the weakest 7 players.
Then came the famous AVRO Tournament, one of the strongest events of all time. In this tournament there were no weak players, and when you add in the fact that Europe was on the verge of war (meaning Flohr was in full tilt!), his beyond bad result was understandable:
- AVRO 1938 (one of the strongest tournaments of all time) – last place (!!!) behind Keres, Fine, Botvinnik, Euwe, Reshevsky, Alekhine, and Capablanca.
Euwe’s view seems vindicated. Of course, Flohr did win quite a few games against the world’s best, just not as many as one would expect from a World Championship candidate.
Fearing that he was going to die at the hands of the Nazis, he and his family eventually made their way to the safety of Moscow (with help from Botvinnik!). Now he was a refugee again, and his style became more cautious than ever. And, unfortunately, he gave up all aspirations for the World Championship. However, his play improved and he had some good results:
- Margate 1939 – tied (with Capablana) for 2nd (behind Keres) ahead of Najdorf, Golombek, etc.
- Moscow-Leningrad 1939 – clear first ahead of Reshevsky, Levenfish, Lilienthal, Keres, Smyslov, Tolush, Bondarevsky, and a host of young Russian masters.
- Baku 1943 – clear first ahead of Makogonov, Bronstein, Abramian, and Ebralidze.
- Kiev 1944 – tied for 1st (with Sokolsky) ahead of Boleslavsky, Tolush, Bronstein, Makogonov, etc.
Not bad at all, but returning to Euwe’s idea that Flohr drew the good players and beat the bad ones, we can see more support of it here:
- Baku 1943 – clear first ahead of Makogonov, Bronstein, Abramian, and Ebralidze Two games vs. everyone. Flohr lost and drew against Makogonov, drew both games against Bronstein, beat Abramian both games, and won and drew vs. Ebralidze.
- Kiev 1944 – tied for 1st (with Sokolsky) ahead of Boleslavsky, Tolush, Bronstein, Makogonov, etc. He drew all these guys, and beat all the other guys at the bottom.
Flohr’s “beat the weak players and draw the strong ones” mentality wouldn’t bode well in a match against a dynamo like Alekhine. To make a prime Flohr’s chances against Alekhine even dimmer is the fact that he was never able to win a game off of Alekhine (5 wins for Alekhine, none for Flohr, and 7 draws). True, Alekhine had never won a game off of Capablanca when he took the title from the Cuban genius. But I don’t see Flohr doing the same thing to Alekhine –different personalities, different styles. Nevertheless, Flohr deserved a chance to try, and it was taken from him by the fickle winds of fate.
Unlike the unfortunate Zukertort and Spielmann, whose lives ended badly, Flohr continued to play (less and less frequently... as the years went by, chess journalism took precedence over chess combat) into the late 1960s. He died peacefully in Moscow in 1983.
I'll end this article with two more puzzles for those that love brutal mates: