Bronstein and Taimanov posing as students in 1952
Taimanov and Bronstein facing each other in Zurich 1953 (photo from Zurich Chess Club web-site)

Bronstein and Taimanov posing as students in 1952

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Exactly 70 years ago, during the Easter holidays of 1952, David Bronstein and Mark Taimanov created quite a commotion by travelling all the way from the Soviet Union to United Kingdom to play in what was essentially an amateur students competition. I came across a contemporary article in the British Chess Magazine that recounted this curious incident and I simply could not resist sharing it.

But let me start by quoting the memoirs of Mark Taimanov, in which he explains why two renowned Soviet chess masters ended up competing in a week-end tournament with amateurs ("Remembering the best of the best", p. 43, in my translation from Russian): 1952 Stalin's interest in chess impacted me personally. The first world student championship has been planned in England and, of course, such an opportunity to bring glory to our achievements could not be missed. An order was given to secure a victory. The choice of the authorities fell on grandmaster Bronstein and international master Taimanov, who were already quite well-known. It must be said that David has never attended university and I have already graduated from the Conservatory, but we were of the right age. Before departing to Liverpool we were invited (nay, commanded!) for the pep talk by the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Nikolay Mikhailov. The speech was a short one: "I barely play chess, but I understand enough to know that you must win the tournament. Do you know who signed off your trip?" I must admit that my fantasy did not stretch beyond the chairman of the Committee for Physiculture and Sport, so when Mikhailov solemnly declared: "Joseph Vissarionovich!" I almost fell off the chair...

I hope that this introduction explains the bafflement and sarcasm of the English master who reported on this tournament in the British Chess Magazine (May 1952, pp. 136-138):


(A True Story)

By Gerald Abrahams

Probably it was the magical conjunction of Passover and Easter that made possible our local miracle. Certainly there is no convincing socio-physical explanation of the fact that on Thursday, April 10th, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon, there emerged, out of the everywhere, into the Students' Union, two real live Russian students; they arrived from Moscow in order to participate in the Student's Team Tournament that had been proceeding at Liverpool University. Pretty good students they were, too, I assure you. By name, David Bronstein and Mark Taimanov: the one a student of languages with quite a mastery of English, the other a student of music, in the sense that Solomon or Pouishnoff [AT: pianists who were famous in Great Britain at the time] is a student (actually a top-liner: what he can do to a keyboard requires to be heard!): and both of them can, I think, be classified as rather advanced "port graduate" students of chess.

Well! the Soviet Sports Committee had promised the I.U.S. [International Union of Students] a team to participate in the chess section of the I.U.S. Arts Festival: and here they were! Complete with a delightful interpreter (Stepanov), who could not speak a word of English, but for whose charm I can vouch; and our old friend Mr. Brusslov, of the Soviet Embassy, who had come to enjoy himself as a chess spectator – and, I think, did so.

The effect of their advent was quite remarkable. The chess-playing students (the gallant Mardle, three heroic Finns, one courageous Dane, and one deserving Indian – who knew as much about chess as Sultan Khan didn't!) prepared to do battle, and were destined to achieve glory, though not even half-a-point of victory.

The I.U.S. organizer, whose hair turned white within hours, spent so much money wiring to Prague [where the headquarters of I.U.S. was located] for instructions that he had barely sufficient left for tournament expenses. It was rather as if Mr. Molotov had casually walked into a committee meeting of the Wigan branch of the Miners' Union and announced that he was the fraternal delegate from Dnepropetrovsk. Nobody knew the appropriate procedure.

The surviving members of the lamentably etiolated Liverpool Chess Club (eheu fugaces!), who, to do them justice, had not been advised of the proceedings at all, evacuated en masse to local seaside resorts, where they spent an appropriate Good Friday, washing their hands of the matter. In defenыe of Liverpool I would like to add that, at that moment, the Lord Mayor and Corporation (who also knew nothing of the arrangements made by I.U.S.) were en route for Marseilles in order to inspea the docks as the University was closing down for Easter, and Liverpool generally was falling dead for the week-end, as it always does.

It happened only by accident that the local dormant force, your humble servant to wit, happened to be awake thereabouts, heaved himself from a reluctant armchair, redeemed his Russian dictionary, taxied to the scene of operations, converted the proceedings into a small tournament, unanimously elected himself Director, and sat down to enjoy some beautiful chess without incurring the risk of losing! I would add that, in my capacity as Director, of Umpire, or whatever I was, I found that several students, including Lipton of Liverpool University, Malcolm, a Liverpool-Cambridge man, Denis Mardle, and one or two representatives of I.U.S, and N.U.S. whose names I never learned, rapidly grasped the technique of running a tournament and did the work superlatively in the outwardly uninspiring conditions. Would that better conditions and publicity might have been arranged to do the event justice!

Many more things require to be said about the compressed and unadvertised tournament that thus took place in a back-room of a Liverpool commercial hotel (so different from the Hall of Columns!): but you have not space for me to say it.

Suffice it then to mention as follows: first, everyone was tremendously impressed by the modesty, courtesy, and consideration with which these two magnificent chess-players treated their relatively inexperienced opponents (I have known great players who were not so courteous). They accepted all arrangements as they found them, and expected no privileges, and no influence in the organization of the play. They lived in the same hotel, ate, conversed, and mixed freely with their chess colleagues: and paid them the supreme compliment of playing as hard chess against them as they play in the strongest tournaments. Reciprocally, the students played heroically. The British player, Mardle, showed great enterprise against both the Russians – although he had to meet two of them in the same day, and that after a week of the abortive Team Tournament as well as much work of organizing. The Finns and the Dane showed remarkable promise – Nyren, of Finland, was extremely unlucky not to draw with Bronstein in the last round. Had he done so, Taimanov (who had swindled Bronstein neatly in the penultimate round) would have won the tournament.

In the event the results were as follows: (1-2) Bronstein and Taimanov (U.S.S.R.) 6½ ; (3) Pastuhoff (Finland) 3½; (4–6) Mardle (G.B.), Nyren, and Rutanen (Finland) (7) Dinsen (Denmark) 2; (8) Katragadda (India) ½ (well, he knows a lot of learning and languages that Sultan Khan didn't know!).

These results, with the immense gap in the middle, cannot, of course, do justice to non-Russian students, unless one adds that, against the winners, they played nearly as well as it was possible to play without actually scoring – I would say that they have good chess futures.

The Russian players were exceedingly interesting to watch. Bronstein, whose powers are so difficult to assess, is a man of the most impressive will-power and capacity for work. He starts a game absent-mindedly (using 5 minutes for a first move, and another twenty for the next three – as, if he had never played those openings before). Thereafter he doesn't force the pace, nor move quickly. But before the game is over (and usually while he's under time-pressure) he manages to create some little advantage. Then he settles down to real work! And all the time he "appears" (I don't think he really is) completely imperturbable. In post-mortem analysis, he is very frank; always ready to point out where he went wrong or where his opponent missed the chance: and most instructive in explaining plans of campaign.

Taimanov, even more genial, but obviously nervous, is much more evidently of the artistic temperament – in the good sense. And his play is faster, both on the clock (which he does not use over much) and in the tempo of the game. As a player much less patient than Bronstein, but full of bright ideas. Only against Bronstein did he seem to lack fire: but when in great trouble he found a drawing resource – like Bronstein, an instructive and stimulating analyst.

Both were humorous (as are the majority of Russians that I have met) and interested in England. I regretted, however, Bronstein’s tendency to study closely the News of the World when he could have read Observer (Brusslov had Peg’s Paper). In this connection, the following dialogue –

Bronstein (inventing a headline): “A man has won £75,000! What does he want with £75,000? It won't make him happy."

G.A. (quoting Guedalla): “Yes, money isn’t happiness, but it does enable you to be miserable in comfort.”

(Interval for translation into Russian and laughter)

Brusslov to Mr. Abrahams: "Mr. Bronstein asked you a practical question and you gave him a philosophic answer.”

G.A.: “To me any question about £75,000 is a philosophic question.”

Here are some positions –