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The War Years
by Joosep Grents
As war raged in Central Europe, the neutral Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were annexed by the Soviet Union and, on his return from the match with Euwe, Keres soon became a Soviet citizen. Jüri Rebane, a close friend, recalls:
It so happened that during the July coup of 1940, Keres was in Tallinn: he had arrived the night before and was staying at my place. In the morning he accompanied me on my way to work. We were walking up the Patkuli stairs together, looked toward Ilmarine and noticed some kind of a people's gathering, with lots of flags. We knew that something was going on, but what exactly, we didn’t know. Paul drove back home the same day. (…)
In the evening I visited my friend at Paldiski Street. Can you imagine - a red flag was flying on top of the Pikk Hermann tower! The next morning it was blue, black and white again - and so it remained until the official decision was taken.
Regular people at the time had little information about what exactly was happening, as illustrated by the example above: information that one could trust was very scarce. The annexation of the Baltic territories meant that the Lithuanian Mikenas, the Latvian Petrovs as well as the Estonian Keres were eligible to participate in the 1940 Soviet Championship, while Botvinnik, Smyslov, Lilienthal, Ragozin, Bondarevsky and many others ensured that the tournament was hotly contested. First and foremost, however, it was expected to play out as a duel between Botvinnik and Keres, both of whom still had the right to challenge Alekhine in the back of their minds. Botvinnik:
The main point of interest is to see who will represent the Soviet Union in the World Championship match.
Curiously, despite playing for the Soviet Union, the Keres of 1940 could hardly speak any Russian and used a translator for his post-match commentary, which he did in German. He did not hurry to study Russian, probably since the outcome of the war was still far from clear, but the Soviet crowd was pleased to see him play for the USSR. His aristocratic behaviour provided a strong contrast to the usual Soviet chess scene. Sosonko:
The appearance of Keres – a dark grey striped suit, a chain for his watch on his belt, handkerchief in the pocket of his suit, a sharply defined parting, and his manners – all of that was in sharp contrast to the uniformity that dominated Soviet Russia. His style of play was similarly remarkable: sharp and tactical. His affinity for the King's Gambit was almost an affront, especially against the backdrop of Botvinnik's deeply positional style.
At the welcoming reception for the 1940 USSR Championship he received the warmest and longest round of applause from the crowd. Botvinnik, the Soviet chess number one, found the somewhat unusual crowd appreciation for Keres quite disturbing. In particular, after Keres' first round victory, the crowd, led by Sergei Prokofiev, clapped a little too loudly for Botvinnik's taste, which led him to lodge a protest. His complaints forced the organizers to prohibit clapping in the playing hall. Maria Keres remembers that Paul was stunned by the privileged standing of Botvinnik. He was not merely the number one on paper, but clearly acted that way as well, fully expecting to be treated as such.
In his later years, Botvinnik claimed that the excellent acoustics of the playing hall and the ill-disciplined crowd took a toll on his game, as neither Botvinnik nor Keres was able to prove dominance over the field. They had to settle for 6th and 4th places respectively after drawing their individual encounter. Instead, it was the star of Smyslov which suddenly started to burn brightly, and despite finishing half a point behind the winners Lilienthal and Bondarevsky, everyone was convinced this was only the beginning of Smyslov's road towards asserting a claim for the World Championship title. Meanwhile the Keres-Botvinnik conundrum had received no adequate answer in this tournament.
To solve the matter of who was to challenge Alekhine, 1941 featured a Soviet Absolute Championship between six top Soviet players: Botvinnik, Keres, Boleslavsky, Smyslov, Lilienthal and Bondarevsky. They played a quadruple round-robin over 20 rounds.
Keres wrote home during the tournament:
The conditions are appropriate for Mishake, but not for the other contestants.
Mishake is the diminutive version of Misha in Estonian and a name Keres used when speaking about Botvinnik with those close to him, more often than not pronouncing the name with an ironic smile on his face.
Keres and Botvinnik got off to a 2/2 start, and then faced each other in Keres 0-1 Botvinnik, 1941. Heuer:
Keres repeated the same variation which Mikenas had used a year ago to defeat Botvinnik in the Soviet Championship. Keres decided to repeat it without asking himself why Botvinnik was so eager to go along with it. Keres thus walked straight into the lion's den.
Keres had fallen victim to Botvinnik's preparation, since it was clear Botvinnik had gone to great lengths to analyse the line after his loss to Mikenas. Botvinnik:
I employed 7...c5 against Mikenas. He replied 8.0-0-0, came out of the opening with the better game and, after mistakes on both sides, gained victory. Keres was evidently impressed by my game against Mikenas and, without much hesitation, castled queenside.
This apparently strong move leads to defeat. In reality, with an undeveloped kingside, exposing the king to the possibility of a direct attack by Black's pieces from the front (the c-file) as well as from the flank (the diagonal b1-h7) is, to say the least, risky!
Against Mikenas I continued 8...0-0 without any worthwhile result.
In November-December, 1940, I discovered the best course for Black. Great was my chagrin when in one of the January issues of 64 (1941) I saw the Belavenets-Simagin game, in which Simagin made the first two moves of the correct plan! Keres did not notice this game or he would of course have seen the light! So I was able to employ the prepared variation after all.
Keres resigned on move 22, but the game had long been hopeless: