The Tallinn Navigator

Jan 19, 2011, 8:35 AM |

Mikhail Tal's article commemorating the 75th birthday of Paul Keres. Nedelya, 1991


On a winter evening in 1954 I, then a member of Riga chess team, went to the neighbouring Tallinn. In the train I couldn't get any sleep: two games against Keres himself awaited me! Not only the first grandmaster I'll have ever played, but also a real World Championship contender! Then, only two great contemporary players existed for us: Mikhail Botvinnik and Paul Keres.

We got off the train, onto a slippery Tallinn platform, and stop in awe: together with the match organizers, Keres himself came to meet us, mostly young boys then! He drove me and two of my friends to the hotel in his car, wished me to rest well before the game...

Paul Keres! Those who are older remember that it was a household name in the chess world for several decades. Candidate for a World Championship match against the great Alekhine (after the war), leader of Estonian team since the 1930s, at a mature age, already being a Soviet grandmaster, he won the USSR Championship three times, came third in the 1948 World Championship tournament and was "always second" in the subsequent candidates' tournaments.

I grew up, and Paul Petrovich never grew old; I had a luxury to be friends with him for more than twenty years. I keep special memories about my first non-official (outside World Championship qualification) international tournament in Zurich, where Keres and me represented our country. The charming Maria Avgustovna, Paul Petrovich's wife, accompanied us to Switzerland. It was my first visit abroad, so the Keres couple looked after me, it was very moving.

Our personal relationship was great, but over the board... Pavel Petrovich was ruthless there, and I barely managed to draw in Zurich; such things often happened later. Keres' accurate handwriting, his benevolent smile even after defeats, his politeness and correctness - all that is still an ideal for me.

For 30 years, Keres was a real World Championship contender. He began this struggle in Alexander Alekhine's days and finished it when Tigran Petrosian was champion. Being second for such a long time is as honourable and certainly much harder than being first for one time. Something fatal was in that someone was always a half-step ahead of Paul Petrovich: D. Bronstein, V. Smyslov, M. Tal, T. Petrosian.

Each grandmaster made a contribution to the art of chess. I ask myself, what was Paul Petrovich's contribution? And I answer: living pieces! They really got alive in his hands. He was a true artist. I still remember the night at 1972 Olympics, where Keres was our captain. After five hours, the match USSR - Bulgaria was stopped with the score 0.5:0.5 and three games adjourned. Paul Petrovich helped me with my game against I. Radulov. I had an extra pawn, but opposite-coloured bishops and insipid (or so I thought) position suggested a draw. So I started to analyze without much enthusiasm: this leads to draw, and this too... Keres heard me out and then, with a smile, started to explain me (the former world champion!) amazing hidden resources of my position! In the morning, I went to the play-off, and 32 moves later, the game was over - Radulov lost. I entered Keres' room and saw the same ending position on his board. The board stood there since 7 a.m. Keres foresaw the entire continuation of the game.

He loved chess, he was devoted to them, but still, there's no language on the Earth in which Keres didn't know at least a couple of phrases, there's no book he didn't read. Both "physicists" and "lyricists" could easily find a theme to discuss with him.

FIDE's motto, as we all know, is "We are all a family". But there are a lot of very difficult people in this family, with lot of frictions between them. But Keres was equally respected by V. Smyslov and D. Bronstein, T. Petrosian and B. Spassky, Dutchman M. Euwe and American S. Reshevsky, Swedish G. Stalberg and Argentinian M. Najdorf. Even the implacable V. Korchnoi said only good things about Keres. I'm sure: if he wasn't USSR citizen (people from superpowers can't be heads of UN, IOC and similar international organizations), he'd be the best candidate for the FIDE presidency.

And he also had a hobby: he collected tourist guides.

Many chess players asked for the Tallinn Navigator's help in foreign countries to choose the quickest and cheapest route. At the Munich Olympics the leader of our delegation, a well-known sports official, decided to check Keres' memory and asked, "Paul, what's the quickest route from Milan to Leningrad by steamship?"

"It's very easy", Keres replied. "First of all, you have to make Milan a port."

In 1975 Keres gave some simultaneous displays in Canada; he was also invited to play in a tournament (without the Sports Committee sanction). He played and won. There was an unpleasant prospect of explaining this "misdemeanour" in Moscow, so Paul Petrovich decided to come home without visiting our capital. He took a tiresome flight Montreal - Amsterdam - Helsinki, he only had to board a ship and go home! But he suffered from a heart attack. And several days later, there was a second heart attack...

There are two modest gravestones at the Tallinn graveyard - they belong to Paul Keres and Georg Ots. Two men who made the Estonian people famous. Such people will always exist. Everyone is proud of them - Estonians and Kazakhs, Russians and Tatarians... It's important to know their world, read their writings, hear their music and become better because of it. We have to follow their example, and the horrible, disgusting events that we recently saw will die off.

In the end of 1990 there was a Chess Olympiad in the Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad, and the Tallinn cinema group filmed a movie Our Keres there. I can't wait to see it.