Zurich 1953: Possible Conspiracies and Controversies.

Oct 4, 2009, 6:19 PM |
In my previous post on Paul Keres, I made a reference to some controversy about game fixing at the Zurich 1953. A couple of readers posted comments and links to articles that seemed to substantiate more behind the scenes activities around this. I felt remiss in not elaborating early. This was in part by my attempt to keeping the perspective to just the games and the brief biographies of the players. This didn’t provide the correct vantage point. It is like peering through a key hole to watch a parade. I thought I’d use this post to climb up on top of the rook and attempt to provide some perspective on the topic of Soviet domination in chess, the Cold War, and the KGB, from still a limited perspective.

Background: the rise of Soviet Dominance in Chess ( 1920’s through late 1940’s)

First, I’d like to point to an article that appeared recently in the Slate: . Christopher Beam’s article, titled, Red Squares, Why are the Russians so good at chess? Postulates that since the Bolshevik revolution, it became a national pastime that was subsidized. Vladimir Lenin’s supreme commander of the Soviet Army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state sponsored chess. This opened the doors to chess schools and state run tournaments. It was promoted as a vehicle for international dominance. Alekhine was the first Russian to win a world championship.

At this time, FIDE used a complicated “London Rule” to determine the Champion ( per request of Capablanca). That being: the first player to win 6 games would win the match and the former champion would have a year to defend his title. In addition to this, the challenger had to raise $10,000 for prize money. The Soviet union refused to join FIDE mainly because of the financial requirements for the world championship matches. Had it not been for an Argentina businessman backing Alekhine, the match would never havee occurred. But in 1927, Alexander did manage to defend Jose Capablanca for the title and changes were being put in place on the conditions for future challengers.

Without getting into too much further mud with the FIDE’s changing landscape over the debate of determining challengers either by commission or the Dutch proposal, I’d rather focus on what the soviets were proposing. The Dutch solution, the AVRO 1938 tournament, brought together the best players in the world. Paul Keres won this on a tie break against the American, Reubin Fine. Mikhail Botvinik came in third. Botvinik challenged Alekhine for the World championship immediately following the 1938 tournament. Keres also challenged the world champion and both had the $10,000 prize fund. The problem was World War II broke out. Estonia was in a tug of war with German-Nazi occupation for a period and then back the USSR by the end of the war. Negotiations with Botvinik were sustained but Keres was prevented by the Soviets on the grounds that he had collaborated with the Germans during their occupation of Estonia. ( he played in a tournament while under German occupation). Ultimately, Capablanca’s challenge to the title was accepted and the rival’s  were to play in Buenos- Aires in 1940. They never got a chance to play the match due to travel restrictions during WWII. 

As for Keres, keep in mind the severity of the Stalinism and ideologies of the Cold War. In WWII, Red Army soldiers, if captured by the Germans and later freed, would often be shot by their own army on grounds of ideological contamination. Now, Keres was neither a soldier or a defector. Playing in Nazi-organized tournaments while Estonia was under German occupation and later suspected him of assisting anti-Soviet Estonian Patriots definitely clouded Paul’s ability to challenge the World title. By virtue of AVRO 1938, he had the right to challenge Alekhine for the World title. With Estonia now back under USSR control, Keres had to stand aside while his country man, Botvinnik, challenged the World Champion ( despite placing third in AVRO).

FIDE’s decision to allow the match (though they never played) with Capablanca did not bode well with a country who’s national pastime was sense of pride. Following the War and shortly after, Alekhine’s death, a interregnum made the normal procedure of challenger versus contender impossible. Problems with money and travel checkered FIDE’s decisions on how to proceed. The Soviet Union realized it could not afford to be left out of the discussions about the vacant world championship, and in 1947 sent a telegram apologizing for the absence of Soviet representatives and requesting that the USSR be represented in future FIDE Committees.

The people’s hero: Mikhail Botvinnik:

As the USSR joined the discussion, Mikhail Botvinik put a proposal based on the 1938 AVRO tournament with the omissions of the late Alekhine and Capablanca dignitaries. The proposal ended up defining the three year cycle which the challengers to the World Champion would be selected. The 1948 world championship match ended up being a five player quintuple round robin event with the following players: Max Euwe (from Holland); Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres and Salo Flohr (from the Soviet Union); and Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky (from the United States). But FIDE soon accepted a Soviet request to substitute Vasily Smyslov for Flohr, and Fine dropped out in order to continue his degree studies in psychiatry. Botvinik won the title in 1948, and kicked off an era of Soviet domination.

Taylor Kingston is a historian who has several articles with Chess Café. His article: The Keres-Botvinnik Case Revisted: A further Survey of the Evidence points to the +4 -1 score against Keres, his best opponent and previous winner at AVRO, to be suspect of falling prey to the oppressive Stalin regime. Botvinnik was becoming an acceptable icon of Soviet Culture.

Though he agrees that no real smoking gun came from the KGB files follwoign the fall of the USSR, looking at the games really was inconclusive due to mixed results from several strong players ( Hans Ree, Jan Timman, Larry Evans, John Watson and John Nunn). Taylor points more in the direction of the politics in the day. To allow Keres to win the 1948 championship is “comparable to a Mormon becoming Pope” and may hold the key to the evidence of coercion. He cites that the Soviets may have motive and opportunity, ultimately lack of proof makes this argument more speculative.

The article references a few other historians. One by Valter Heuer, who was a friend of Keres examines Keres’ WWII postwar situation through 1948. Though Keres had to sustain many hardships and distractions, they were not construed as deliberate Soviet Policy to help Botvinnik. Another was Ken Whyld who know Keres basically claims that he was not ordered to lose the games but the emphasis was on that if Botvinnik failed, it was not Keres’ fault.

In an interview with Botvinnik, he comes out and says that the orders for Smyslov and Keres to lose came directly from Stalin himself during the second half of the match. Botvinnik then went on to state that he found the proposal insulting and refused.

To recap thus far: FIDE’s World Championship title was up in the air following the death of Alekhine in 1946. Having boycotted FIDE under principles of the London Rules not a true invitation for true challengers unless they were backed by beneficiaries, decides to chime in on how the championship should be won and has their architect win it!

Bronstein and Boleslavsky duke it out in the next cycle to challenge Botvinik. Bronstein draws the match against Botvinnik. Because drawn matches go to the defender, Botvinnik retains the title.

What really went down in Zurich 1953?

With 5 years into the Soviet architected FIDE championship cycle matches, we arrive at Zurich. This was also the same year that Stalin had died and the arrest and execution of Lavrenti Beria and others connected to the KGB. Bronstein’s second was not allowed to travel to Switzerland because he was an officer in the secret police. So the atmosphere was politically charged.

With the Cold War also in full swing, 9 soviets were represented in the Candidates match out of a field of 15 to insure the World Championship title be held by the USSR. By round 11, Reshevsky, the American, was leading the tournament. In the book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bronstein claims he was under pressure by heads of the USSR delegation and ordered him to win. Reshevsky was not to be allowed to advance . In my next post I will comment on this 13th round game that became a positional masterpiece.

The second half of the tournament Smyslov was leading by one point over Bronstein and Reshevsky. Keres was catching up. The Soviet’s delegates ordered physicals for Keres, Bronstein and Smyslov at this point and concluded that Smyslov was weakened and wouldn’t make it to round 30. In short, a lot of draws were seen in the middle rounds so that by round 22 Reshevsky and Smyslov were tied with 13 ½ points followed by Bronstein with 12 ½ and Keres with 12.

Reshevsky lost to Kotov in Round 23. This was gave the Soviets a slight break since Smyslov had a bye that day. It allowed Bronstein and Keres to move up to 13 points. Round 24, Keres had white against Smyslov. In the Tournament book, Bronstein only makes the comment that Keres was motivated by “psychological circumstances” in taking a risky Kingside attack.

Later, Bronstein in a 64 article, describes the struggle the Keres was under. Before the round, the KGB tried to convince him to make a draw with White against Smyslov so that he could use his strength against reshevsky in round 25. Keres lost ( game will be highlighted in a later post on Smyslov).

In round 24 Bronstein was also approached by the delegates and was told that Geller was asked to throw his game against Bronstein to insure his standings. Bronstein tried to protest but decided to play for a draw instead. Bronstein ended up losing to Geller.
The KGB thought it was Geller’s strong will to defy them and suggested to Bronstein to make a quick draw with Smyslov even having a conversation with him prior to the game.

A lot of this is one person’s word over most probable speculations. With out definitive proof, it's hard to reveal this without a shadow of doubt. It definitely adds to the color of the games played in Zurich 1953.