Tag Archives: Salo Flohr

History of the Great Game of Chess

As an avid reader and also chess player, I think it is fairly obvious that I am also a reader (and collector) of chess literature. Although a lot of the chess books I am reading are way too technical to review them here, I will make an exception today. The book I am reviewing is dealing with a certain aspect of the history of chess that might be interesting for a wider audience.

Nansen Arie, the author of История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), is a dilettante – and I mean this expression not in an offensive sense. Arie has so far no record as a chess historian, nor is he a strong player. The author is a cardiologist and a lover of the game of chess since his childhood. Another history of chess I hear a few readers sigh…but this book is different and the subtitle explains us why: the contribution of the Jews to chess (приносът на шахматисти евреи) is the author’s topic.

Since the beginning of modern tournament chess in 1851 and until today, a big percentage of the leading players – including the world champions Steinitz, Lasker, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Fischer (who developed mysteriously into an extreme anti-semite), Khalifman, Kasparov but also leading masters like Zukertort, Tarrasch, Charousek, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Nimzovich, Tartakower, Reti, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Szabo, Lilienthal, Najdorf, Boleslavski, Averbach, Geller, Taimanov, Stein, Korchnoi, Speelman, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Radjabov and many others were or are Jews or of Jewish origin.

Dr. Arie starts his work with an introduction that gives a short overview and that also mentions anti-semitism in chess: the influential chess writer Franz Gutmayer published a number of popular pamphlets in the early 20th century that denounced the playing style of Jewish players as decadent and “sick” – contrary to the “healthy” (Aryan) attacking style of Gutmayer’s disciples. And the world champion Alexander Alekhine published during WWII a series of articles called “„Jüdisches und arisches Schach” (Jewish and Aryan chess) in which he was attacking players like Lasker (whom he publicly admired on many occasions before) in a way that is not worthy of a chess genius. (After the war Alekhine disputed the authorship of these articles.)

In the first chapter, the author gives an overview regarding the main chess events before the establishment of a regular world championship, highlighting the successes of Jewish players and providing very brief biographical notes on them. The second part covers the World Championship matches, the third the Chess Olympiads. Part four covers chess in the USSR, part five the big international tournaments, part six the matches USSR vs. “Rest of the World”, part seven (somehow inconsistently) the “traditional” chess tournaments (like Hastings). A short chapter on Bulgaria would have been interesting and reasonable (the author is Bulgarian and writes primarily for a Bulgarian audience).

Dr. Arie has written a work with the love and industriousness of the amateur. Who wants to learn about the remarkable success of Jewish chess players has in this work all necessary information.

However, I have to admit that this work left me disappointed for various reasons.

The book contains no games at all. A book that wants to explore the successes of Jewish chess players should at least give some remarkable examples of their play and do some effort to explain, why there was such an explosion of Jewish players from 1850 until today, and what the social, historical or psychological reasons behind this development were. Dr. Arie is making no serious attempt to explain this rise of the Jewish element in chess.

A second big disappointment is the lack of a literature list. The author doesn’t mention any sources although it is obvious that he is heavily indebted to the literature on the history of chess. There is no mentioning of Moritz Steinschneider’s classical study “Schach bei den Juden” (1873), no mentioning of Emanuel Lasker’s writings on philosophy or the Jewish question, no mentioning of the Makkabi chess clubs in many countries. Edward Winter’s article “Chess and Jews” on chesshistory.org is also not mentioned, dito Felix Berkovich’s and Nathan Divinsky’s “Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps“, or Meir and Harold Ribalow’s “The Great Jewish Chess Champions“. There is even no mentioning of the sources of the photos in the book. I don’t know if this is the author’s or the publisher’s fault, but it is a lack of diligence and respect for the intellectual efforts of others when these sources are generally repressed and omitted.

This work is written in Bulgarian, but it makes an effort to re-translate many names or expressions into the latin script. Unfortunately the person who did this (very probably not the author) seems to have been not at all familiar with the history of chess. This results in very frequent and rather annoying mistakes like “The Rating of Chess Player” instead of “The Rating of Chessplayers” (title of Prof. Elo’s famous book), “Café de la Regens” instead of “Café de la Regence” , “Ignatz fon Kolish” instead of “Ignaz von Kolisch”, “Vilhelm Cohn” instead of “Wilhelm Cohn”, “Iohann Loewenthal” instead of “Johann Löwenthal”, “Rudolf Spielman” instead of “Rudolf Spielmann”, and so on and on. There is hardly any page in the book without such unnecessary mistakes.

Although I am very sympathetic towards the work of any dilettante (being one myself), I wish this book on an interesting topic would have been written and edited in a better and more diligent way.


Нансен Арие (Nansen Arie): История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), Сиела (Siela), Sofia 2014


Moritz Steinschneider: Schach bei den Juden, Julius Springer, Berlin 1873

Franz Gutmayer: Der Weg zur Meisterschaft, Veit, Leipzig 1913

Emanuel Lasker: Kampf, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin 2001 (reprint; originally published in 1906)

Emanuel Lasker: Jude – wohin?, in: Aufbau, New York 01. January 1939

Emanuel Lasker: The Community of the Future, M.J. Bernin, New York 1940

Alexander Aljechin: Jüdisches und arisches Schach, in: Pariser Zeitung, 18.-23. March 1941

Arpad Elo: The Rating of Chessplayers, Arco, New York 1978

Harold U. Ribalow / Meir Z. Ribalow: The Great Jewish Chess Champions, Hippocrene Books, New York 1987

Felix Berkovich / Nathan Divinsky: Jewish Chess masters on Stamps, McFarland & Co., Jefferson 2000

Edmund Bruns: Das Schachspiel als Phänomen der Kulturgeschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, LIT, Münster 2003

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Two marginal remarks after re-reading ‘1984’

Recently I re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ again. After a first reading when I was still at school, and a second one in my late 20s, I came across the book again after a long break. I am not going to details to describe what the book is about because most of the readers of this blog will know this famous dystopian novel.


There are just one or two marginal remarks I want to make here.

One is: it’s always interesting to see how a book changes over the years. The ‘1984’ I read as a teen is different from the one I read in my late twenties, and both differ considerably from the copy I read now. And yet it is exactly the same book. What has changed is not the book, it is the reader. Some aspects of the book which were very important to me in my younger years seem to have faded (like the love story between Winston and Julia), other aspects have grown more important with the passing of time. That might simply reflect the fact that the reader has become more mature (hopefully!) but also that certain aspects of Orwell’s novel have come much closer to their realization as it seemed to me 20, 30 years ago. The disappearing privacy of our times, the almost ever-present state control over all our movements, the execution of people because of “thought crimes”, not of real crimes they have actually committed, the deafening everyday propaganda that tries to make us believe things that are obviously not true, the euphemisms in the language we use or to which we are exposed permanently. “Newspeak”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” are concepts with which we are all more or less quite familiar today if we still have eyes to see, ears to hear and a brain to think and reflect about things. Having read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” in the meantime, I think a little bit less of Orwell’s literary originality than before, but it is in the description of the concept of “newspeak” and “doublethink” where he is really impressive.

A second very small remark which seems to be detached from the above (but wait and see): while re-arranging my library not only Orwell’s book went through my hands again but (amongst many others) also my chess book collection changed places. Yes, I admit it: collecting chess books (thousands of them) is one of the weirder features of my personality. Maybe later I will write a bit more about my collection, but this is a kind of private obsession that is not shared by very many people and therefore maybe interesting from a pathological point of view only. Be it as it may, I treasure those books in my collection that have not only an interesting content, but also those that tell me a story. For example books with book plates, exlibris or owner stamps of the previous owners, personal dedications, books with annotations by the previous owner, or books which are for a special reason interesting beyond the content. I have one of the very few surviving copies of a specific chess problem book – almost the whole edition sank on board of a ship that was sunk by a German U-Boot in 1917; a very rare copy of Marcel Duchamp’s and Vitaly Halberstadt’s “L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, tracked down after a long hunt in an antiquarian book store in Antwerpes, Belgium for a small fortune (and with all errata slips!); several books inscribed with dedications by former world champion Botvinnik; a bulletin of a tournament in Moscow 1991, signed by my chess idol Mikhail Tal after our personal game. One the most treasured books in my collection is a tournament book of the Moscow International Tournament 1935, won by Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik ex-aequo, with 66-year old chess legend Emanuel Lasker half a point behind (he was undefeated and demolished the “invincible” Capablanca). Now this is one of the great tournament books every collector would like to possess – but I remember that I got a faster heartbeat when I discovered the book in an antiquarian book store in Heidelberg for another reason: the book had what almost all copies of that edition were missing – the preface by Nikolay Krylenko.

Krylenko was one of the early Bolsheviks that with great energy and extreme ruthlessness helped to establish the dictatorship of Lenin and later Stalin. He was a very efficient henchman of the system, who – since he was an expert in “revolutionary law” – always asked indiscriminately for the death penalty of those who came under his fingers. One of his most infamous remarks: ”We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” As People’s Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic he had plenty of opportunity to get “enemies of the people” (real and invented one’s) executed for the good of the Soviet Union.

But this bastard had also another side that made him (almost) human. When he was not busy getting people tortured in the ‘konveyer’ (the equivalent to room 101 in Orwell’s novel, or of Guantanamo in the 21th century) and executed after a “fair trial” that lasted rarely longer than five minutes, he was an avid mountaineer and participated in several of the early German-Russian Pamir expeditions. And he was an excellent chess player of master strength that did more for the popularization of the game than probably any other person in history. Chess, the favorite pastime of men like Lenin and Trotsky (both excellent players) was a game played by a very small number of people in Russia before the October Revolution. With a powerful man like Krylenko who was pushing the right buttons for the administration to provide comparatively big resources for the establishment of what was later to be known as the “Russian Chess School” and that dominated the chess world until the rise of Bobby Fischer, it was just a matter of time until the new talents with Botvinnik as the chosen No. 1 would develop to a strength that was not to be surpassed for several decades by any player outside the Soviet Union. Krylenko was also the first to organize international tournaments in the Soviet Union with the strongest masters from abroad. It was these tournaments where the Russian masters could finally test their growing strength.

Like most of the early Bolsheviks, Krylenko met his fate when he seemed at the top of his career. During the great purge he was arrested under the same absurd accusations like most people that became a victim of the great witch hunt. His was tortured for several weeks, convicted in a 20-minute trial and immediately shot. His interrogator was to fall victim to the great purge himself just a few months later.

As most of you will recall, Winston Smith is working in the Ministry of Truth. His task it is to permanently change the past. Newspapers and other past texts have to be changed all the time. People who have disappeared or were “vaporized” (nowadays this is done with the technical support of drones) have to disappear also from the record. After the respective changes, the old papers are deposed of. No trace of the real past will remain in the records, just as no trace will remain of the disappeared and vaporized. Big Brother is always right. The same fate waited for Krylenko. After he was executed, his name was removed from all records of the Soviet Chess Federation and all other records. The preface of the Moscow Tournament Book 1935 which was written by him was removed from almost all copies diligently with a razor blade. Only a very small number of advance copies were already distributed. And one of them is now in my possession. It’s one of these small ironic coincidences that I laid my hands on it again just by chance after I had finished my re-reading of ‘1984’.

George Orwell: 1984, Penguin Classics
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We, Penguin Classics
Robert Braune: Apôtre de la Symétrie, L’Esprit 1913
Vitaly Halberstadt / Marcel Duchamp: L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, Paris-Bruxelles 1932
Anon.: Bulletin Moscow International Chess Tournament 1991, Moscow 1991
Vtoroj mezdunarodniy shakhmatniy turnir Moskva 1935, Moscow/Leningrad, 1936
Arkady Vaksberg: The Prosecutor and the Prey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1990

The blog of Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett contains very interesting details about “the bastard who re-shaped the chess world” which I partly used for my article:



© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.