From AVRO 1938 to Norway Chess and back

From AVRO 1938 to Norway Chess and back

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Last week I went to Norway, to see the strongest chess tournament since AVRO 1938.

The legendary AVRO tournament, held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, has captured my imagination ever since my granddad, who taught me the rules of chess, told me about it. This legendary chess event is widely considered to have been the only tournament in chess history simply featuring the eight strongest players in the world, including three world champions and a future one.

A young man at the time, my grandfather (who was born in 1909) had visited the tournament hall in Amsterdam (where he was, at the time, working as a teacher). There, on the stage, he saw the greatest chess players of his time: Alexander Alekhine, Raoul Jose Capablanca, Mikhail Botvinnik - and of course the Dutchman and former world champion, Max Euwe.

Surprisingly, it had been Paul Keres who'd come out on top at the end of the tough double round robin, just ahead of the equally surprising Reuben Fine. His shock victory earned Keres the moral right to challenge reigning World Champion Alekhine to a match for the World Championship.

My grandfather owned a book on the tournament with analysis by Euwe. In fact, I inherited Analysen - AVRO's Wereld-Schaak-Tournooi from him after he passed away (twenty-five years ago), together with some other chess books and a beautiful wooden Staunton chess set. The last time I browsed through it was when I compared some analysis of Euwe with Garry Kasparov's notes in My Great Predecessors Part II. null

And so when it was announced, in February, that the Altibox Norway Chess tournament would host the entire current top 10 in in Stavanger, I became immediately inspired - and decided to book a ticket. I figured this was going to be a pretty unique opportunity to see two former world chess champions (Vladimir Kramnik and Vishy Anand), the current one (Magnus Carlsen), as well as a potential future one, compete in the same event. It was all just like in the tournament my granddad had visited. The parallels seemed to good to ignore.

Actually, there are other, more disturbing parallels that could be drawn between the AVRO 1938 tournament and this year's Norway Chess event. In 1938, the world was about to enter one of its darkest periods in history - one which had major consequences for the history of chess as well. Keres, having proven himself worthy of challenging Alekhine, would never play for the highest crown due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Tragically, this earned him the nickname 'strongest chess player never to have become world champion'.

In this day and age, too, many observers fear that the world is heading to some yet-unknown but definite disaster. 

Stavanger is a nice sea-faring town wedged in between fjords. The city was once boasting a sizable herring fleet and is now famously rich for its oil business. The area around Stavanger is well known for its stunning natural surroundings, with major hiking sites such as the Preikestolen (or Preacher's Pulpit) rock, and the iconic 'Kjeragbolten'. 

I arrived on Thursday (1.5 weeks ago) in the Clarion Energy hotel in Stavanger, well before the start of the tourney's third round. Peter Doggers  was there again as well, as were a number of other chess journalist friends, such as Lennart Ootes and Tarjei Svensen.

After the round we had dinner with a group of people, and I met some of the Norwegian chess volunteers. One of them was the young and talented graphical artist Eliza Green, about whom more later. It was a warm welcome to a tournament that was just warming up...  The 1938 AVRO tournament has given the chess world many great chess moments. Everybody knows this combination:

My favourite game has always been Keres-Capablanca, played in round six. This game, which features a knight sacrifice on e6, albeit not a standard one, laid the foundation of Keres' tournament victory. Although Capablanca initially defended well, he wasn't able to withstand the pressure and resigned on move 38.

What I like about this game particularly is that both White's knight sacrifices on e6 and f7 are in itself, of course, very typical - but in the given positions they are not. I've always been charmed by standard sacrifices which are, in fact, not standards at all. As always, I could only hope to be able to witness something similar in the Norway Chess tournament.  

After the rest day in Stavanger (which, bizarrely, saw the participants perform challenging farmer's activities such as cow milking and tree trimming) I decided to do the 1,5 hour hike to Preikestolen together with Peter and Maria Emelianova (who both work for, before the start of the next round. En route to the 620m high located top, with a stunning view over the Lysefjord, the weather was fantastic. We were in excellent spirits when we returned, just too late for the start of the round. Little did we know we were about to witness something even more beautiful.


That day, Levon Aronian completely outplayed World Champion Magnus Carlsen with an exchange sacrifice on a3, followed by a spectacular bishop sacrifice on h7. Although Carlsen initially defended well, he wasn't able to withstand the pressure and resigned on move 35. 

Even after the game, as Aronian gave several interviews and explained his victory to chess commentators Nigel Short and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, one could still feel the electricity in the playing hall and in the press room, the excitement of being an eye-witness to something truly extraordinary, something which happens only once every few decades.


In my opinion, Aronian is a candidate in his own right for the title 'strongest chess player never to have become world champion' - at least of his own generation. (He has beaten Carlsen in matches twice, but never managed to qualify for a world championship match - yet).

I realize that my grandfather can't have been a live spectator to the Keres-Capablanca game in person, as it was played in the city of Haarlem, and not in Amsterdam. But he must have known it, either from next day's newspaper or, later, from Euwe's analysis. He must have enjoyed it: he passed his love for piece sacrifices on to me. He always encouraged me to look out for them in my own games - and I have.

So, of course, when the position before Aronian's 17th move appeared on the board, I saw that the bishop sacrifice om h7 was possible. I didn't, however, see a clear follow up and I told chess photographer Lennart, who was sitting next to me, that I thought Aronian was going to play something else. Most people watching the game probably thought the same.

I went into the playing hall to see for myself. Then Aronian played Bxh7 anyway - and I saw smiles everywhere around me. It was a wonderful. As if Aronian's masterpiece had inspired not only me, but the entire city, everything around me seemed to center around art that evening. First, I talked with Erle Marki Hansen (who was blogging about the Norway Chess tournament on We talked about literature and the importance of reading a lot before being able to find your own voice as an author.

On my last day in Stavanger, I talked about art and drawing with Eliza Green, the young artist I mentioned above. I told her my reasons for visiting the Norway Chess tournament, and the history of AVRO 1938, my grandfather, Paul Keres and my admiration for Aronian and his amazing game against Carlsen. She immediately grabbed her pencil and paper and started a sketch just there and then, based on what I told her. Here it is: 


What she made reminded me strongly of the work of the Dutchman M.C. Escher, a contemporary of my grandfather's. With a shock, I realized they also reminded me of the paintings he used to make himself.

You see, when he wasn't playing chess, he was making drawings.