Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (9)

by ChessBase
7/3/2007 – Why did Reuben Fine withdraw from the 1948 world championship? Did Capablanca lose an 11-move game to Mary Bain? Was Staunton criticized by Morphy for playing ‘some devilish bad games’? Did Alekhine play Najdorf blindfold? Was Tartakower a parachutist? These and other mysteries from Chess Notes are discussed by Edward Winter. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (9)

By Edward Winter

Reuben Fine and the 1948 world championship

Reuben Fine

In C.N.s 1680 and 1915 Edward J. Tassinari (Scarsdale, NY, USA) quoted various, and varying, explanations by Reuben Fine of his absence from the 1948 world championship match-tournament:

On page 2 of the November 1948 Chess Review Fine wrote:

‘At the time of the tournament, I was not teaching, but working on my doctoral dissertation. I was not bound by any contract to the university. I withdrew from the tournament because I did not care to interrupt my research. Needless to say, nobody had consulted me on whether the dates set were convenient for me.’

From pages 151-152 of Lessons from My Games by Reuben Fine (New York, 1958):

‘The next year they [presumably the Russians] changed their minds again, and the tournament was held. By that time I was embarked on my new profession as a psychoanalyst and was unable to play.’

Pages 4-5 of Bobby Fischer’s Conquest of the World’s Chess Championship by ‘Reuben Fine, Ph.D., International Chess Champion’ (New York, 1973) claimed that a proposed 1947 tournament for the title was ...

‘… called off by the Russians as part of a kind of blackmail scheme to force the players to compete in Russia. My own refusal to play in 1948 was motivated in part by the uncertainty about whether the Russians would come to the playing hall at all, and if so, under what conditions.’

On page 11 of that book Fine related that by the time the 1948 match-tournament was arranged ...

‘... I was absorbed in another profession, psychology, and no longer cared to participate.’

In an interview with Bruce Pandolfini on page 25 of Chess Life, October 1984 (‘Reuben Fine: The Man Who Might Have Been King’) Fine stated that he decided not to compete in the 1948 championship because if he had gone to the Netherlands (the site of the first part of the event) the Russians might not have participated and he would have wasted ‘a whole year of his life in preparation. Moreover, it seemed foolish to play in such hostile circumstances.’

Next, an extract from a Fine letter on page 7 of the September 1989 Chess Life:

‘The tournament was finally arranged for 1948, to be played half in the Netherlands and half in the Soviet Union (where the safety of the foreign masters was questionable). I did not play because of the expense involved, most of which I was expected to pay myself; and because I considered the tournament as it was arranged to be illegal. TASS fabricated a story that I had had to desist because of career pressures. (In fact, I was not at that time employed; I was working on my doctorate.) The TASS story was a total fraud.’

Page 4 of the February 1948 Chess Review stated that the magazine had received a telegram from Fine: ‘Professional duties make it impossible for me to get away in time to play in the tournament.’

Any other explanations by Fine will be welcome.

Lasker and 1 e4

An unattributed quote on page 108 of The Bright Side of Chess by Irving Chernev (Philadelphia, 1948):

‘Lasker played 1 P-K4 with a view to the endgame.’

From page 62 of Modern Chess by Barnie F. Winkelman (Philadelphia, 1931):

‘But of Lasker it was said that he played P-K4 with a view to the endgame …’

Who first made this remark, and in what context?

Capablanca v Bain

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bb5 Bc5 5 O-O O-O 6 Nxe5 Re8 7 Nd3 Bd4 8 Ne2 Rxe4 9 Nxd4 Nxd4 10 Ba4 Ne2+ 11 Kh1 Nxc1 12 White resigns. That is the usual version of an apparent loss by Capablanca to Mary Bain in Hollywood in 1933, but discussion of the game in a number of C.N. items (see pages 191-192 of Chess Explorations) has not clarified exactly what happened.

As pointed out by Pablo Morán (Gijón, Spain), the game-score was published by J.A. Seitz on pages 183-184 of Caissa, October 1941, and the date of the game appeared there as 21 March 1933. That month, however, Capablanca was touring Panama, and it was on 21 May 1933 that he gave his only simultaneous exhibition in Hollywood (+21 –0 =2). A major discrepancy, though, is that when the American Chess Bulletin (May-June 1933, page 87) carried a brief report of that display it stated that Mrs Bain was one of two players to draw.

The game (‘simultaneous exhibition, Saturday, 27 May 1933’) was published by Bob Braine in his obituary of Mary Bain on page 37 of the January 1973 Chess Life & Review with the following comment after ‘12 Resigns’:

‘But Mary would not accept victory and conceded the game as a draw. Raul graciously accepted.’

That sounds strange, and one way of resolving the puzzle may be to trace the score-sheet. Such a document is known to exist, having been mentioned in an article entitled ‘Chess: A Bibliophile’s View’ by Stephen Weissman on page 65 of the Gazette of the Grolier Club, June/December 1975:

Even if genuine, the Bain game is not Capablanca’s shortest defeat. The following miniature from a simultaneous exhibition was given in C.N. 2720:

José Raúl Capablanca – A. Kramer
Yurev, 1 January 1914 (19 December 1913 old style)
Vienna Game

1 e4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 d3 d6 5 f4 Ng4 6 fxe5 Nf2 7 Qf3 O-O 8 Qg3 Nxh1 9 Qf3 Qh4+ 10 White resigns.

Source: Nordlivländische Zeitung, 14 March 1914 (new style).

What happened to A. Gibaud?

The story of the discredited Gibaud v Lazard game (1 d4 Nf6 2 Nd2 e5 3 dxe5 Ng4 4 h3 Ne3 5 White resigns) was related on pages 350-351 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves and, as subsequently mentioned in C.N. 3077, we should like to know when Amédée Gibaud died. It is a point on which the reference books are silent.

Gibaud (who was born in 1885) won the French championship several times. Page 338 of the November 1946 issue of Le monde des échecs (which gave his forename as Aimé) stated that he had retired from the French postal service and was living in Nice.

A. Alekhine and A. Gibaud

Staunton’s ‘devilish bad games’

Did Paul Morphy really write in one of Staunton’s books that the latter had played ‘some devilish bad games’ and, if so, where is that book today? The affair was discussed in C.N. 2885.

Morphy’s alleged remark has been seized upon by anti-Staunton writers. Here, for example, is a paragraph from page 3 of Al Horowitz’s The World Chess Championship A History (New York, 1973):

‘About Staunton as a player it is perhaps impossible to be strictly objective: it is just too incredible that anyone seemingly so weak as he could have achieved such success and exerted such influence for so long. When the book of the tournament at London in 1851 came into the hands of the then 15-year-old Morphy, the lad felt moved to scribble on the title page, under the legend declaring it to be “By H. Staunton, Esq., author of the ‘Handbook of Chess’, ‘Chess-player’s Companion’, etc.” the irreverent parenthesis “(and some devilish bad games)”. Devilish bad they certainly are, and share with their author’s prose style a turgidity that is truly exasperating. The real secret of Staunton’s success was that he picked his opponents carefully – how carefully will soon become apparent. Only once in his life did he fail to be careful enough.’

Howard Staunton (illustration by Sam Loyd,
Scientific American Supplement, 6 October 1877, page 1470)

On page 5 of Morphy’s Games of Chess (London, 1916) P.W. Sergeant quoted C.A. Buck as the source of the ‘devilish bad games’ story. This is what appeared on pages 7-9 of Buck’s book, Paul Morphy His Later Life (Newport, 1902):

‘As a matter of fact, Morphy did not at any time have the benefit of chess books in the sense of keeping a number of them at hand for study and reference. What few books he made use of he went through quickly [sic] as possible, and after having mastered the contents he gave them away. James McConnel [sic], the elder, of New Orleans, has a book of the tournrment [sic] of 1851 which Morphy gave him when 15 years old. The book had been issued but a short time when Morphy secured this copy. He soon played over all the games and then gave it to his friend. The volume is especially interesting on account of numerous marginal notes in Moprhy’s [sic] own handwriting by which he expressed his opinion of the games and certain moves. As is well known, this book was edited by Staunton, and young Morphy, like a child of genius, made a captious comment on Staunton’s chess play by writing on the title page to make the authorship read like this: “By H. Staunton, Esq., author of the Hand-book of Chess, Chess-Player’s Companion, etc. (and some devilish bad games)”.’

The Buck booklet (30 small pages) was brought out by Will H. Lyons, who wrote in the ‘Publishers Prface’ [sic]:

‘C.A. Buck of Toronto, Kansas is the author of this interesting and comprehensive biography of Paul Morphy.

Mr Buck has gathered from authentic sources facts and data in the later life of Morphy that have never been published. Several years were devoted to securing information; a month was then spent in New Orleans verifying and adding to his store of facts; Morphy’s relatives and friends giving him great assistance. The matter first appeared in a prominent Western newspaper. With Mr Buck’s consent, I now offer it in its present form …’

Pages 213-215 of Paul Morphy The Pride and Sorrow of Chess by David Lawson (New York, 1976) gave further particulars of the genesis of Buck’s work and commented that it ‘appears to be responsible for a number of erroneous statements that have been widely accepted’. Lawson listed many examples, but had not mentioned Buck earlier (i.e. on page 42) when (unquestioningly) relating the ‘devilish bad games’ matter.

On page 54 of The Human Side of Chess (London, 1953) Fred Reinfeld asserted that Buck was ‘a subsequent owner of Morphy’s copy’ of the Staunton tournament book, but we recall no other claim that the volume owned by James McConnell (1829-1914) passed into Buck’s possession. Nor do we know what happened to McConnell’s books when he died (in New Orleans on 21 November 1914).

Who was Angeligi Leoni?

In the early 1990s David Pritchard (Godalming, England) sent us a page from one of his scrapbooks which had an item published in the Daily Sketch in 1936 (exact date not recorded):

The caption reads ‘Miss Angeligi Leoni, of Cyprus, won twenty-seven and drew three of thirty simultaneous games of blindfold chess’. What more can be discovered about her?

Alekhine v Najdorf

What is known about over-the-board meetings between Alekhine and Najdorf?

In C.N. 3367 Mig Greengard (New York) referred to page 48 of Liliana Najdorf’s book Najdorf x Najdorf (Buenos Aires, 1999), which features M. Najdorf’s account of a conversation with Alekhine in Buenos Aires in 1939. Over whisky they discussed how many games they had played against each other, and after a claim by Najdorf of three games (2-1 in his favour) Alekhine stated that there had been only two, both drawn. To this Najdorf retorted that in Poland in 1929 Alekhine had given a simultaneous display on 30 boards plus two blindfold games and that Najdorf had been his opponent in one of the games played sans voir. Alekhine then replied: ‘Thirty games plus two blindfold … You sacrificed a rook on R7? It’s you. You’re right.’ Our correspondent noted that Alexander Alekhine’s Chess Games, 1902-1946 by L. Skinner and R. Verhoeven (Jefferson, 1998) contains only one game involving the two masters (a draw in Warsaw in 1935, with Najdorf one of three consultants facing the then world champion).

We first raised this topic in C.N. 1660, following the publication of an interview given by Najdorf to Eduardo Scala on pages 22-28 of the June 1988 Revista Internacional de Ajedrez. In essence, Najdorf’s story was the same, except that in the Spanish magazine he gave the occasion of the blindfold game as Warsaw, 1927 rather than 1929 and stated that there were 40, not 30, simultaneous games, in addition to two played blindfold. Moreover, Najdorf said, Alekhine mentioned the two draws as having occurred in Warsaw and Prague.

Discussing a simultaneous exhibition by Alekhine in Warsaw on 2 December 1928, L. Skinner and R. Verhoeven wrote on page 342 of their above-mentioned book:

‘In this display Alekhine played on 29 boards, two of which he played blindfold. He won 19 games including both the blindfold ones, drew six and lost four. In the bulletins of the 1956 Alekhine Memorial Tournament many prominent grandmasters who were present in Moscow were asked to contribute their reminiscences about Alekhine. Miguel Najdorf in Turnir Pamyati Alekhina 1956, n5, page 5 claimed that he had first played against Alekhine as one of the blindfold players in this display. He dated the exhibition as 1929, a year for which no record exists for Alekhine being in Poland. Furthermore, he claimed that he won his game. Clearly this is not in accord with the above record, which was taken from Świat Szachowy 1928, n11/12, page 13.’

We are aware of no record of chess being played by Alekhine in either Warsaw or Prague in 1927 (the year given in the 1988 interview). Another consideration is that neither the 1988 interview nor the passage in Liliana Najdorf’s book refers explicitly to the 1935 consultation game, which leaves it unclear whether Alekhine and Najdorf were including that encounter in their respective tallies.

In C.N. 3369 Yasser Seirawan (Amsterdam) reported that Najdorf had told him a similar story about playing Alekhine, but with some different details:

‘The Polish club, he claimed, deliberately annoyed Alekhine by announcing that only 20 players had paid for the privilege to participate, and Alekhine insisted on being paid the agreed fee despite having only half the field. Reluctantly, the club directors agreed and proposed that Alekhine play ten games by sight and ten blindfold. Alekhine agreed. The club then snuck all the best players into the blindfold room and put ten patzers on the games that Alekhine could view. Just as the club directors had contrived, Alekhine had a terrible time. He wiped out the players he could see and sat racking his brains on the blindfold games, where the masters were in ambush.

Concerning his own game, Najdorf told me he was on the black side of a Sicilian in which the players had castled on opposite wings. Alekhine was breaking through when Najdorf uncorked the standard …Rc8xc3 exchange sacrifice. Alekhine had seen that shot and did not bother to recapture the rook, pursuing his own attack instead. The move he had missed was the follow-up …Rc3xa3, and Najdorf’s attack was first and decisive.

Najdorf added that many years later he had hosted Alekhine in a drinking bout in Buenos Aires. They both got thoroughly drunk. In a toast Najdorf declared Alekhine the greatest chess player ever but added, “Just remember: our score is one draw and one win in my favor”. Alekhine maintained that even if drunk he knew that their score was one draw. Najdorf then reminded Alekhine of the Polish display, and Alekhine said, “Are you the one who gave me …Rxa3?” Najdorf was astounded at Alekhine’s memory, even when he was intoxicated.’

Can anything more be discovered about this matter, either from local reports of the time or from other articles or interviews by Najdorf?

Claims about Tartakower

Savielly Tartakower

In the  interview on pages 22-28 of the June 1988 Revista Internacional de Ajedrez which was mentioned in the previous item Najdorf asserted that Savielly Tartakower was an ‘intimate friend’ of Charles de Gaulle and was offered a political post by the General.

Page 100 of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by D. Bronstein and T. Fürstenberg (London, 1995) stated that during the Second World War Tartakower (born in 1887) was several times ‘dropped by parachute behind enemy lines on secret missions’.

Does any evidence exist for these claims?

Submit information or suggestions on chess mysteries

Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then around 5,000 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center.

Articles by Edward Winter

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (1)
    14.02.2007 – Since Chess Notes began, over 25 years ago, hundreds of mysteries and puzzles have been discussed, with many of them being settled satisfactorily, often thanks to readers. Some matters, though, have remained stubbornly unsolvable – at least so far – and a selection of these is presented here. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (2)
    12.03.2007 – We bring you a further selection of intriguing chess mysteries from Chess Notes, including the origins of the Marshall Gambit, a game ascribed to both Steinitz and Pillsbury and the bizarre affair of an alleged blunder by Capablanca in Chess Fundamentals. Once again our readers are invited to join the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (3)
    27.03.2007 – Recently-discovered photographs from one of Alekhine’s last tournaments, in Spain in 1945, are proving baffling. Do they show that a 15-move brilliancy commonly attributed to Alekhine is spurious? And do they disprove claims that another of his opponents was an 11-year-old boy? Chess Notes investigates, and once again our readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (4)
    10.04.2007 – What would have happened if the score of the 1927 Capablanca v Alekhine match had reached 5-5? Would the contest have been declared drawn? The affair has been examined in depth in Chess Notes. Here chess historian Edward Winter sifts and summarizes the key evidence. There is also the strange case of a fake photograph of the two masters. Join the investigation.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (5)
    30.04.2007 – We bring you a further selection of mysteries from Edward Winter’s Chess Notes, including an alleged game by Stalin, some unexplained words attributed to Morphy, a chess magazine of which no copy can be found, a US champion whose complete name is uncertain, and another champion who has vanished without trace. Our readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (6)
    19.05.2007 – A further miscellany of mysteries from Chess Notes is presented by the chess historian Edward Winter. They include an alleged tournament game in which Black was mated at move three, the unclear circumstances of a master’s suicide, a chess figure who was apparently unaware of his year of birth, the book allegedly found beside Alekhine’s body in 1946, and the chess notes of the poet Rupert Brooke. Join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (7)
    02.06.2007 – The chess historian Edward Winter presents another selection of mysteries from Chess Notes. They include an alleged game by Albert Einstein, the origin of the Trompowsky Opening, the termination of the 1984-85 world championship match, and the Marshall brilliancy which supposedly prompted a shower of gold coins. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (8)
    In this further selection from Chess Notes historian Edward Winter examines some unauthenticated quotes, the Breyer Defence to the Ruy López, the origins of the Dragon Variation, the contradictory evidence about a nineteenth century brilliancy, and the alleged 1,000-board exhibition by an unknown player. Can our readers help to solve these new chess mysteries?

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (9)
    Why did Reuben Fine withdraw from the 1948 world championship? Did Capablanca lose an 11-move game to Mary Bain? Was Staunton criticized by Morphy for playing ‘some devilish bad games’? Did Alekhine play Najdorf blindfold? Was Tartakower a parachutist? These and other mysteries from Chess Notes are discussed by Edward Winter. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

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