by Mikhail Botvinnik
I met Keres for the first time in 1938 while playing in the AVRO tournament in Holland. Paul was tall and slender, with quite simply angelic facial features. He ate little, was a man of few words, did not smile and was extremely correctly dressed. One evening Master Landau invited a number of participants in the tournament to his home, together with the arbiter Hans Kmoch and his wife. Mrs Kmoch immediately dubbed Paul “the guest made of stone.”
Paul Keres appeared on the international chess scene at the Olympiad in Warsaw 1935. The 19-year old Paul played on top board for the Estonian team. At this time he was the first chess master from Estonia. Both Riga and Vilnius had already been long known for their chess traditions but Tallinn had up to then not developed any great talents.
But the Olympics is just the Olympics and Keres was not invited to the famous international tournament in Nottingham 1936. Besides the world champion Euwe and three former world champions – Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine – four young grandmasters were also competing: Flohr, Reshevsky, Fine and Botvinnik. At that time the young Keres was was not very well established. Two years later a strong tournament took place in Semmering where Capablanca, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Petrov, Eliskases and Ragozin took part. This time Paul was invited. And he played brilliantly, easily winning first prize. The chess world was amazed. People started talking about Keres as a future world champion. But of course there were those who had their doubts, as there always will be after an initial major success.
However, the doubts disappeared at the end of 1938. The Dutch radio company AVRO organized a tournament with an incredibly strong lineup: world champion Alekhine, former world champions Capablanca and Euwe, five young grandmasters – Flohr, Reshevsky, Botvinnik, Fine and Keres (not even Lasker was invited). The first and second places were shared by Keres and Fine. Paul’s right to challenge Alekhine for a match thereby became obvious (at that time there were no official regulations governing this). Capablanca, whose dream was that someone would defeat his great rival Alexander Alekhine, took Keres aside after the tournament and advised him not to play the match in South America where Alekhine had many friends.
It goes without saying that Paul was not too fortunate in his chess career. At another period of time he would probably have become world champion. But in the 40s and 50s of the 20th century he could only have become the best player in the world by dethroning the author of these lines from the Olympus. We must be fair and remember that Bronstein, Smyslov and Tal also found themselves in roughly the same situation... Who can say what is best: to play a match for the world championship once or yo come second in four candidates tournaments? Keres had the distinction of achieving the latter.
I must be thankful to Paul. If he had not arrived on the scene I would not have managed to make such progress in chess over the years 1938-1948. In 1938 (at the AVRO tournament) and in 1940 (the Soviet Championship) Paul finished ahead of me. As a result of extensive preparatory work I was able to overtake Keres in the 1941 USSR Absolute Championship. As a result of even harder work during the years 1947-48 I also prevailed at the World Championship tournament.
Yes, to finish ahead of Keres you really had your work cut out – he was an outstanding chess player. Extremely accurate and quick when calculating variations, with fine positional feeling, combinative vision, an ability to conduct magnificent attacks and an overall deep understanding of the game – all these things characterized him as a chess player. But also as a person he deserved great respect.
Keres’ life was devoted to chess. He played tournaments, gave simultaneous displays, knew everything about chess, analyzed and wrote a great deal and was even fond of studies. He authored a number of books, thereby remaining true to the tradition of many great players from the past. So what was missing that he never reached the very top? Well, I believe that at critical moments Paul lacked self confidence. When he felt under extremely strong pressure he simply played below his capabilities. Moreover he clearly had one weak spot when it came to chess: he loved open games, and knew everything about them. Of course he was also familiar with the closed openings played in those days, but he did not love them. And this was something of which his opponents took advantage.
At times our rivalry bore an extremely sharp character, as in 1948 and 1952. But what could be done – that was just the way it was. Later, by silent agreement, we never talked about our earlier unpleasant internal clashes and eventually became friends.
By the time Paul had “got used to me” he showed his strength several times and taught me some painful lessons. In fact he “spoiled” two tournaments for me: the Soviet Championship 1955 and the Alekhine Memorial in 1956. When winning the latter game he could not hide his joy and said “the gap is closing”.
As a tournament competitor, but not a match player, Keres was effectively second to none in the chess world. He became Soviet Champion three times (1947, 1950 and 1951), was second at four Candidates tournaments (Zurich 1953, Amsterdam 1956, Bled, Zagreb and Belgrade 1959 and Curacao 1962), while a far from complete list of international tournaments that he won reads like this: Szczawno-Zdroj 1950, Budapest 1952, Hastings 1955, Mar del Plata and Santiago 1957, Stockholm 1960, Zürich 1961, Los Angeles 1963, Hastings and Marianske Lazne 1965, Bamberg 1968, Budapest 1970, Tallinn 1971. Who else can claim a record like this?
Paul also played tennis to an excellent standard, and he even once took part in the Soviet Tennis Championship. He drove his car in majestic style and was always up to date with the latest happenings in politics as well as sport. He had worked out all the different flight routes around the world: when someone from our delegation was heading abroad, it was Keres who chose the best way to travel as he was aware of all kinds of little details when it came to making decisions. Naturally, in Estonia he was idolised; but he was also loved by chess players in the Soviet Union as well as chess fans throughout the whole world. Paul played a great deal, travelled a lot and his books were translated into several languages. When Keres got older he became more social, witty and noticeably more cordial.
We played in a tournament together for the last time in Wijk aan Zee (Holland). I caught a cold, but did not withdraw from the tournament. I was laying in bed, analyzing an adjourned position against Portisch with a travel chess set. A difficult endgame... Suddenly there was a knock on the door and in came Paul: “So, how is it going? Can you save the position?”
I explained that after long analysis I had discovered a study-like drawing position, but could not work out how to achieve it. Keres took the chess set from me, thought for a while and then handed it back, saying: “But what if you play like this?” We looked at each other and suddenly burst out laughing. Paul had found the quickest way to reach the desired position. Upon resumption of the adjourned game Portisch was shocked – it was a draw! As a result he missed out on first prize.
Paul was not fond of going to councils and meetings, but when it became a necessity he did not shy away from supporting public interests. At the start of 1971 a group of grandmasters were to be received at the highest level. I also invited Paul, who accepted immediately and at the meeting energetically defended the rights of chess players.
Keres continued playing tournaments until the end of his life, but perhaps not as often as when he was younger. But chess fans still remember that the ‘Match of the Century’ in Belgrade 1970 ended in our favor only thanks to Keres’ splendid play.
In early 1975 Keres won an international tournament in Tallinn, and then in May another in Vancouver, Canada. Playing was not easy for him, his health had got worse and worse. He never complained, replying to pressing questions with just a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, until he finally admitted: “My legs are hurting me.” But he never mentioned that he had problems with his heart, he was not one to whine. On the surface he always seemed ready for a fight!
But on the 1st of June, while returning home from Canada, Keres felt really ill and after stopping off in Helsinki he had to be admitted to hospital. Four days later the great chess player passed away. Following the death of Alexander Alekhine in 1946 this was the greatest loss suffered by the chess world. (A. Rubinstein died later than Alekhine, but a terrible disease had ended Rubinstein’s career much earlier.)
In the same way as Paul had entered the chess world – straightforward, modest, good-natured and with a great devotion to our beloved game – he also left. Although looking a little more worn on the outside, he had become richer in experience on the inside.
We are now left with his games and commentaries but also fond memories of a fearless fighter.
Following are a series of excellent articles from Chess24 about Paul Keres.