05 Jun

Keresene on the Flames

Forty years ago today, one of the biggest stars of chess, Paul Keres (1916-75), died of a sudden heart attack while on his way home from Vancouver in Canada after yet another tournament triumph. He was regarded as one of the best players in history never to play in a world championship match - and many argue that he was strong enough to have been world champion, had fate not played a cruel intervening hand.


Keres was among the world’s top players from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, where along the way he beat nine undisputed world champions - more than anyone in history - and was a seven-time candidate for the World title.  He won both AVRO 1938 (on tiebreak, ahead of American Reuben Fine) and the 1963 Piatigorsky Cup, two of the strongest tournaments ever held at the time. He also played on the gold medal-winning teams of the Soviet Union in the 1952-1964 Chess Olympiads.

He reached his peak during the late 1930s, but the chaos of WWII saw him denied a title challenge, and there then followed controversy. In winning AVRO 1938, he was set to be Alexander Alekhine’s official world title challenger - but after the war, in 1946, Alekhine died. The ensuing World Championship Tournament of 1948 organised between all the main title challengers to fill the vacancy saw Mikhail Botvinnik outdistancing him; and Keres then went on to narrowly miss qualifying from the candidates’ on several later occasions.

Did the Kremlin order Keres to lose to Botvinnik, who was Stalin’s favourite? That’s the widely held belief of the conspiracy theorists in the chess world. Keres got stranded in German-occupied territory when war broke out in 1939; and went on to play in tournaments throughout the war in Nazi Europe. In the post-war Stalinist climate, that was more than enough to get him shot. Many speculate that the USSR’s chess commissars leaned on him instead to lose some games to Botvinnik.

The debate still wrangles even today, though there’s an absence of clinching evidence in either direction. But many historians believe that the most telling point is that Keres and Botvinnik remained lifelong friends and wrote with affection about each other. This goes a long-way to dispel the rumours that, because of the KGB threat, Keres had a hatred of Botvinnik.

Despite the controversy, Keres was hailed as a hero in his homeland. And on his death 40 years ago, he received a state funeral in the capital Tallinn, where thousands lined the streets in tribute. He also became the first (and only) chess player to appear on a bank note, by being immortalised on the back of an Estonian five krooni note. In addition, Keres’ multi-volume series of his best games ranks among the greatest best games collections ever written.

Vlastimil Hort - Paul Keres
Oberhausen 1961
Ruy Lopez, Steinitz Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 It's a strange thing about chess - against 3...d6 d4! is the strongest reply, yet against 4...d6 it is quite harmless. 5.d4 b5 6.Bb3 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 exd4 8.Bd5 Of course not 8.Qxd4?? as 8...c5 9.Qd5 Be6 10.Qc6+ Bd7 11.Qd5 c4! wins the bishop. 8...Rb8 9.Bc6+ Bd7 10.Bxd7+ Qxd7 11.Qxd4 Nf6 12.0-0 Be7 13.Nc3 0-0 14.a4 Rfe8 15.Qd3 The plan is to lure the black pawns forward and to paralyse Black's Q-side. However, it turns out to be too complicated. 15...b4 16.Nd5 a5 17.b3 Nxd5 18.exd5 Bf6 19.Rb1 c5! Only now does Hort begin to see how difficult the game was turning, as after 20. dxc6 Qxc6 and the White c2 pawn is much weaker than Black's d6 pawn. But now the die is cast, and Hort has to live with it. 20.Bf4 Be5 21.Be3 Too passive would have been 21.Bxe5 Rxe5 22.Rfe1 Rbe8, but it wasn't at all hopeless. 21...Rbc8! Threatening .. .c4! winning, as White can't take the pawn as Qxa4 will see Black's a-pawn storming down the board. 22.Qc4 Qf5 23.Qb5? White really should have tried to consolidate here with 23.Rbd1 and Rd3. 23...Qxc2 24.Qxa5 f5! Threatening f4. 25.f3 Bb2!? This somewhat over-complicates matters - but then again, without it, we wouldn't be entertained with what follows! Much simpler was 25...Qd3! 26.Qa6! To his credit, from here in Hort defends ingeniously - and he almost pulls off a draw. 26...Qxb3 27.Bf2 c4 28.Qb7! Again, resourceful. If 28.Qxd6? c3 wins. But after the text, if 28..c3 29. Bd4! sees Black snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as he can't defend g7. 28...Rb8 29.Qa7 Ra8? Arguably the only bad move from Keres in the game. What he'd missed was that 29...Qc2! 30.Rxb2 Qxb2 31.Bd4 Rb7!! 32.Qxb7 Qxd4+ is winning. 30.Qb7 Reb8 31.Qd7 Qc2 32.Qxd6 b3 33.Qe6+ Kh8 34.d6 Bf6 A wonderful retreat, as it does many things: It defends the long diagonal, it offers extra support on d8 (should White try to push the d-pawn), and it clears the path for Black's advanced b-pawn. You couldn't ask for more in a retreating move! 35.Rfc1 (See Diagram)  35...Qxc1+!! Keres throws some kerosene onto the flames, with his stunning queen sacrifice gaining a vital tempi to advance the pawns. And this move came as a complete shock to Hort - so much of a shock in fact, that he fell off his chair when Keres played it! 36.Rxc1 b2 37.Rb1 c3 38.Qe2 Rxa4 39.d7 h6 40.Qe8+ Kh7 41.d8Q? After surviving the time trouble, Hort ruins all his resourceful defence by sealing a bad move (it has to be remembered that this game was played before digital clocks and time increments!). Instead, after 41.Qxb8! c2 42.Qxb2 Bxb2 43.Rf1 Ra8 44.Bb6 would have been nothing more than a draw - and this would have been a fitting result for the spirit in which both players approached this game. Now, though, Keres easily finds the winning plan. 41...Rxd8! 42.Qxa4 Rd2! One of those exceptional positions in chess that makes the game so fascinating and hard to comprehend - Black is winning, although he is a whole queen down! 43.Rxb2 cxb2 44.Qb3 Rd8! Threatening 45...Ra8 followed by Ra1 winning. 45.Qc2 Rb8 46.Qb1 If 46.Qxf5+ Kh8 47.Qb1 Ra8 wins. 46...g6 47.g4 Ra8 48.Kg2 Ra1 49.Qc2 b1Q 50.Qc7+ Bg7 51.Bd4 Qf1+ 52.Kg3 f4+! The final sting in the tail from Keres. 53.Kxf4 Qc1+ 0-1

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