Phtos: Archive Matocha/Hort
The first time I met Flohr was on a Saturday in 1951. That day Flohr was to play a 50 board simul in my hometown Kladno and the chess enthusiasts were keen to see the grandmaster in person. I was 7 years old at that time and the butcher of our village, Josef Saidel, sat down beside me to make sure that I would play my moves correctly and at the the right time. Saidel lost his own game rather quickly and then had time to support me. And my kibitz was sure that my position could be defended. Eventually Flohr indeed offered a draw and after the game he wrote "Bravo" on the scoresheet.
On Sunday, the day after the simul, I took a close look at the final position. The whole day I searched for ways to find a win - but in vain, stalemate is stalemate. I was dreaming how nice it would be if I could play like Flohr. However, when we met later, Flohr did not remember this first encounter. He must have played countless simuls like this.
Salomon Flohr was born on 21. November 1908 in the west of Ukraine. His parents were jewish, had eight children and were very poor. Thus, Salomon and his older brother Moses were soon seeking greener pastures elsewhere. They finally ended up in Prague where they sold pickled cabbage, was stored in heavy barrels. Whereas the burly Moses rolled these heavy barrels with ease, the small and delicate Salo Flohr found this task more challenging.
Salo was clever enough to change his métier. Around 1923 he found a job that was much easier: he delivered newspapers to all cafés and restaurants in Prague that he knew. On his rounds he was particularly fascinated by the sight of people who were arguing or triumphing or quietly brooding while sitting opposite each other while having a board with pieces between them. Salo Flohr's interest in chess was awakened.
Flohr's incredible talent for the game quickly became apparent. It did not take long and he beat all the coffeehouse players. The contact to Czech chessplayers also helped him to learn Czech and thanks to the support of the chessplayers he soon no longer had to deliver newspapers.
His chess career also took off. He became a member of the Czech Olympic team, immediately playing on first board. His results were impressive. Hamburg 1930: +14 =1 -2 (fantastic!), Prague 1931: +8 =6 -4, Folkestone 1932: +6 =6 -2, Warsaw 1935: +9 =7 -0, Stockholm 1937: +9 =7 -0.
Alexander Alekine, Max Euwe, Salo Flohr
How did I love to play through the games of the International Tournament Podebrady, 1936! Flohr lost only one game - against Eliskases - and won the tournament half a point ahead of Alekhine. In the thirties Flohr met Vera Meisner - his great but unhappy love - her parents did not want to have a stepson of jewish origin. But was it a platonic relationship, Salo? At any rate, he did not marry Vera, he married Raissa.
Salo Flohr and Vera Meisner
Parallel to the Chess Olympiad in 1937 in Stockholm the Fide met to establish who would have the right to challenge World Champion Alexander Alekhine. At that time the Fide delegates decided the challenger by vote. Flohr won with 8-5 votes over Capablanca, and Alekhine both agreed to the proposed financial conditions of a possible match and to Flohr as challenger.
The match should go over 30 games and was scheduled to be played in various cities in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were euphoric. Till then Flohr had won no less than 24 international tournaments and a number of individual matches.
But when the guns speak, the muses keep silent. Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. Salo and his wife fled to Russia, as did Andor Lilienthal, Flohr's best and only real friend.
After the war Flohr did not have another chance to play for the World Championship. In an interview with N. Borisov which was published in the famous Soviet chess magazine 64 (21/1970) Flohr harshly criticized his own approach to chess after the war.:
"The war severely affected my health and my nervous system. My way to think about chess needed a change. I have never had a particularly good knowledge of theory because in my youth other factors were more important. After the war young Soviet masters sprang up like mushrooms. They pushed not only me aside but also the other Western grandmasters. But the main reason for my failures after the war has to be sought elsewhere. Fighting for the chess throne requires a boundless will to work. Which I no longer had. No sweet without sweat! I was spoilt by my great successes before the war. My character was not strong enough. I stopped fighting, I basically did not care. A pity! As Steinitz used to say: chess is not for the faint-hearted but demands your all.“
In this interview Flohr poured out his heart. But it is also a message to the following generation of chessplayers:
„I should have fought. Every chessplayer has his own style, that is his potential. But he should never be passive. Man has the duty to fight, it is natural. If I could start again I would try to become a fighter. Like Lasker or Kortschnoi. Then I did not need to regret that I gave the world a wealth of draws.“
The short jovial man with a Soviet passport enjoyed all the pleasures and privileges of the higher communist nomenklatura but still liked to hear news from the chess scene in Czechoslovakia. In November, the month of Soviet-Czechoslovakian friendship, he was often invited to give simuls or lectures. His old buddies Karel Opočenský, Vita Houstka and Alois Hruska with his famous spouse Nina Hruskova-Belskaja helped him whenever and as much as they could. Afterwards, the night train Prague-Warsaw-Moscow had a heavy burden to bear: luxury goods which were not available in the Sovietunion and which Flohr carried with him.
I visited the Flohrs twice and was royally welcomed and treated in their nomenklatura home in their nomenklatura residential estate. When our conversation threatened to become political both went immediately quiet. In the same residential estate, a few blocks away, the Lilienthal family lived. The families shared a car - a Wolga which came with a driver, the icing on the cake!
Andor Lilienthal was lucky because he later received a lucrative offer from Janos Kadar, the General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party and a great supporter of chess: „Come back, benefits from the state and the Hungarian citizenship are waiting for you!" Lilienthal did not need to be told twice and moved to Budapest where he without doubt spent his last years comfortably and well-off.
I wonder if the great chess magician Salo Flohr would have answered truthfully if I could have asked them the following questions?
„Would you have crossed seven hills and seven valleys on your knees to come to Prague if one the Czech presidents had offered you something similar?" Soviet occupation of Prague on 21. August 1968. "How did this 'brotherly help' affect your marriage?“
Later in the west I met Flohr on countless occasions. Sometimes we played cards. Sometimes I entertained him with jokes - they were always unpolitical. When we met we often drank Russian tea (I had no other choice) because Flohr did not drink alcohol. At that time Flohr had stopped playing tournament chess but still gave simuls. At some of them I was present and could admire as I did in Kladno a long time ago.
If he did not happen to play chess one could often see how Flohr was busy running quickly from shop to shop, a long list with wishes by the Soviet nomenklatura in his hand. By now he had become "purveyor of the court".
He was very happy to hear that I later visited his brother Moses who survived the German occupation by hiding in the small village of Pchery. Without doubt Flohr contributed to the creation of a Czech School of Chess. Even though Flohr emigrated to Russia where he also spent the last years of his life the Czechs still consider him as their master. Flohr died on 18. July 1983 in Moscow.
In the history of soccer the famous pass of the Czech soccer player Josef Masopust is known as „Czech lane". Flohr's move 4.Qd1-c2 in the Nimzo-Indian will always have admirers and followers - far beyond the Czech borders.
Translation from German: Johannes Fischer