Nearly Great, Nearly Forgotten
The names of some chess players burn so brightly in the chess heavens that their glare blinds us. On the night-time stage of the first half of the last century names like Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe and Botvinnik formed an awe-inspiring constellation. Almost as brilliant was that formed by names like Nimzowitch, Reti, Spielmann, Marshall and so many others - all names readily recognizable by any serious player today.
"In the 1930's all trembled before Flohr" - Mikhail Botvinnik
But one name, one that was possibly the most celebrated in his heyday, one for whom the sky seemed to have been created, is one that has been largely pushed aside and forgotten today.
Salo Flohr, the great Czechslovakian-turned-Russian player was born in 1908 in Gorodenka, a village in the eastern part of the Austrian province of Galatia, which between the two great wars became part of Poland and is now part of Ukraine. Shortly after his birth, his entire family, except for himself and his older brother Moses, was slaughtered in the pogrom.
He and his brother ended up in Czechslovakia where he would spend his childhood, such as it was. He was partly raised in an orphanage in Lipnik until he and Moses were adopted by a family in Litomerice. Moses taught Salo chess when he was 13. When he was 16 he moved to Prague. He also dropped out of school and went to work. After attending and observing a simul given by Jaques Mieses, Salo became captivated with simuls (it's said that in his life he played over 30,000 simul games) and soon participated in several against such players as Alekhine, Réti and Spielmann. He started frequenting chess cafés, joined the Prokes Chess Club and took part in tournaments. He started covering chess tournaments for Czech newspapers, and, though only modestly educated, started down the road to a lifetime involvement with chess journalism. As a journalist, Flohr was able to observe a close hand such notable players as Réti, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Nimzowitch, Marshall, Tartakower, Spielmann and Lasker. And he played chess, more chess and even more chess. He played for stakes in the cafés of Prague and Berlin, beating almost everyone with his natural, untaught, aggressive style. Flohr started winning national tournaments in 1928. He played his first Olympiad in Hamburg in 1930 scoring 14½ out of 17. Hastings 1931 put Flohr's name on the map when he won the tournament against a strong field winning 8 out of 9 possible points. The following year, 1932, he drew a match with soon-to-be world champion Max Euwe. That same year he won at Hastings again - he would win at Hastings two more times. Flohr's career in the 1930's was, in fact, a litany of successes. He participated in 35 tournaments of which he won 19 and finished either 2nd or 3rd in 9 of the remaining events. He drew a match against Botvinnik in 1935, +2-2=8. Botvinnik was then the Russian champion. David Bronstein, in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, claimed that Flohr threw 2 of the games as a way of repaying Botvinnik for a fur coat. But Bronstein was a bitter enemy of Botvinnik which could color his prose. Flohr's style matured from that of a supreme attacker to that of a supreme defender. It became general knowledge that in tournaments Flohr sought to "win from the weak and draw with the strong." Flohr, however, seldom lost.
In 1937 the incredible happened. Salomon Flohr was selected by FIDE to be the next world champion contender. There was a lot of controversy about this. Several players, such as Keres and Fine, felt they were equally qualified and Capablanca felt he was the default contender. Meanwhile the Dutch were organizing a tournament (AVRO) from which they hoped the winner would be the contender. But Max Euwe, the current champion agreed that if he won his rematch with Alekhine, that he would play Flohr in 1940 - more or less settling the matter. When Alekhine regained the title he signed an agreement to play a match with Flohr in the Fall of 1939 in various Czech towns. Meanwhile Flohr was the Czech national hero. Cigarettes bore his name as well as many other products. There was a Flohr suit, a Flohr hat. Jan Antonín Bata, owner of the world's largest shoe manufacturing company, Bata Shoes, put up the required $10,000 and plastered Flohr's likeness all in his shoe advertisements.
Then Hitler invaded Poland.
All hopes of a match were shattered. The AVRO tournament was a disaster for Flohr who came in last not winning a single game. Blame it on the war; blame it on the growing denunciation of all things Jewish; or blame it on the fall of Czechoslovakia from which Flohr was essentially barred. Flohr commented that "Hitler followed hard on my heels. When I was in England, the bombing of London began. I returned to the continent, and Holland capitulated within two weeks."
Salomon Mikhailovich Flohr moved to Russia.
Flohr reminisced how he was talking with Bogoljubow the day that Prague fell to the Nazis and how Bogoljubow, a great fan of Hitler, was ecstatic and how three days later he won his game from Bogoljubow silently saying, "That's in return for Prague."
Flohr's experiences in Russia had been extraordinary. He loved everything about the country, especially the high esteem in which they seemed to hold chess players. In his every visit, he was treated as royalty and when he moved there, it was no different, even though the war followed him. Things changed in 1942 when Flohr applied for and received Soviet citizenship. The priviledges he had as a tourist came to an end and the wonderland of Soviet Russia showed him it's repressive reality. Flohr seems to have lost the fire that had been burning inside him for his entire life. His career in competitive chess slowed to a halt until journalism and analysis became his prime duties. The war, age, the Soviet system all conspired to suck the life out of him. Though he lived until 1983, the excitment of what it meant to be Salo Flohr, the hero of Czechoslovakia, had passed over half a lifetime ago. In his later years, life was more mellow - a wisp of a memory half-forgotten.
A few of Salo Flohr's games -
for more information:
Essig Fleisch by Gennady Sosonko, New in Chess, 2003