Paul Keres was a top-class grandmaster, the strongest player never to have played for the world championship title. In fact after his first place in the 1938 AVRO tournament in Holland he was regarded as the natural successor to the reigning world champion Alexander Alekhine.
At the AVRO tournament Paul Keres was the only undefeated player and finished in first place, ahead of four world champions (we count Botvinnik as a future world champion). Keres beat nine world champions during his career, including Tal, Smyslov, Petrosian, Spassky and Fischer, some of them several times. He was the most consistently successful player and won more international tournaments than any of his contemporaries. He won the USSR championship three times and played in ten Olympiads, achieving an amazing overall score of 80%.
Fischer vs Keres in round 7 of the Candidates Tournament 1962 in Curacao. The position is after move 22 of a game Fischer won. Keres won a black game in round 21, the other two encounters in Curacao were drawn. Fischer had a lifetime +1 score against Paul Keres.
The reason that Keres never played for the crown is shrouded in mystery. He participated in eight candidates events and came second in four of them. The turmoil of World War II and the annexation of his small country Estonia by the Soviet Union certainly played a role in keeping him from reaching the very top. Keres had participated in German tournaments during the war, and when the Red Army liberated the country, Soviet authorities planned initially to execute him. Botvinnik interceded by talking to Stalin and Keres was spared.
The Estonian capital of Tallinn today
Many experts assume that after the war the KGB applied pressure on Keres, since the Soviet government urgently required a pure-bred Russian to keep the prestigious title. When asked why he never became world champion, he replied: "I was unlucky, like my country."
A view of the streets of Tallinn
Keres' house in Tallinn
The commemorative plaque next to the entrance
In 1975 Keres scored two great tournament victories, one in his home town of Tallinn, Estonia (ahead of Spassky), the other in Vancouver, Canada (ahead of US champion Walter Browne). The latter was held from the 15th to the 25th of May 1975. Only eleven days after the final game, a win against Browne, during a stopover in Helsinki, he died of a heart attack, stunning the chess world.
In Estonia he received a state funeral, with over 100,000 people in attendance. His image was put on a postage stamp, and the National Bank of Estonia issued a five krooni bank note with a portrait of Paul Keres. This has not been done for any other chess player in the history of the game, as far as we know.
The Estonian five krooni bank note with Paul Keres on its front
Paul Keres is also the only player to receive two annual memorial events. One takes place in his home town and Estonian capital of Tallinn, the other in the Pacific Coast city in British Columbia, Vancouver, where the Keres Memorial has been staged since 1997. It is 4741 miles from Tallinn to Vancouver – and only then if you fly over Scandinavia, Greenland, wave hello to Santa Claus at the North Pole, then come in over Canada's Northwest Territories.
This year's Keres Memorial in Vancouver had something never seen there before – a perfect score! IM Georgi Orlov massacred the field with 7 wins in 7 games, pocketing his fifth Keres Memorial victory. Orlov also won the event in 1996 (clear first), 1999 (shared first with IM Teplitsky and IM Yoos), 2001 (clear first) and 2002 (with IM Yoos, NM Beqo and NM Meng). This ties him for most Keres Memorial wins with the American IM John Donaldson.