Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (1)

by Edward Winter
5/6/2008 – Moving on from mysteries, the chess historian Edward Winter now turns to myths. Euwe's 'sportsmanship' in playing a rematch against Alekhine in 1937, allegations that Frederick Yates gassed himself, and the Lasker v Janowsky match wrongly called a world title contest. These cases are explored by the Editor of Chess Notes, who sets out the facts here.

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Chess Explorations (1)

By Edward Winter

‘History is the prelude to myth. When what actually happened, in all its unsimplified and usually unsensational truth, is forgotten, we create legends for ourselves. Frequently this is because the facts are not exciting enough, or not properly understood, or because they are uncomfortable to live with.’

C.N. 5533 quoted those wise words from page 1 of Nuremberg. Evil on Trial by James Owen (London, 2006 and 2007). They are particularly apposite to chess history, which is often corroded by unhistorical writers of the ‘it-makes-a-good-story’ breed who are unencumbered by concern for truth or by access to primary sources. Myths are tenacious (some people, even today, imagine that games exist that were played by Napoleon Bonaparte) and are still in production in the modern era. For example, numerous myths have been fabricated in connection with the Termination of the first Karpov v Kasparov world title match, a subject so obscure that no respectable writer would claim to know what really happened in Moscow in February 1985. At least, though, an attempt can be made to eradicate the myths.

The Euwe v Alekhine re-match (1937)

The historian has to be constantly on guard against the lure of a Nice Story. For example, because Alekhine has so frequently been criticized for denying Capablanca a rematch (the rights and wrongs of the affair could, however, be the subject of a book in themselves), it is tempting to contrast Alekhine’s behaviour with that of his successor, Max Euwe. And so, innumerable authors refer to the Dutchman’s chivalry in granting Alekhine a return match for the world title in 1937.

For example, Richard Eales wrote on page 167 of Chess The History of a Game (London, 1985): ‘But it was only Euwe’s sportsmanship which gave Alekhine the chance to play the match at all.’ As reported in C.N. 2473 (see page 357 of A Chess Omnibus) Adri Plomp (Hilversum, the Netherlands) sent us a copy of the contract signed on 28 May 1935 between Alekhine, Euwe and the organizing committee for the 1935 match. It showed that Alekhine had a contractual right to request a return match if he lost his title in 1935. Below is Article 14:

Here is an English translation of Article 14:

‘If Dr Euwe wins the match in accordance with Article 4, he is first of all obliged to play a return match against Dr Alekhine if the latter makes such a request within six months of the last game being played. Within a further six months thereafter Dr Alekhine must deposit 2,000 guilders with a bank ... The essential conditions for that match shall be the same as for the match regulated by this agreement, except that the names of Alekhine and Euwe shall be interchanged. It shall be played in Europe at a time acceptable to Dr Euwe, in view of his profession.’

A photograph of the signing ceremony was given as the frontispiece to a contemporary book, Tachtig dagen schaak by Carel J. Brensa:

F.D. Yates’ death

‘It made me very sad to learn, sometime during the last war, that Yates had committed suicide, apparently for financial reasons. He had probably been too modest to ask British chessplayers for help.’

That comes from page 338 of Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters by Edward Lasker (New York, 1951), a book which has helped spread a number of myths. Even at first glance, the passage above fails to impress, with its ‘apparently’ and ‘probably’ and, above all, its curious reference to ‘during the last war’ (given that Yates died in 1932).

As reported in C.N. 780 (see pages 118-119 of Chess Explorations) when ‘Assiac’ (Heinrich Fraenkel) repeated the suggestion that Yates had killed himself page 24 of the January 1963 BCM had an implacable rebuttal by that exceptional writer D.J. Morgan:

Another author who wrote forcefully on the subject was William Winter, in his posthumous memoirs on page 148 of CHESS, 23 February 1963:

‘An exhaustive enquiry was held by one of the most experienced coroners in London, and it was conclusively proved that death was due to a faulty gas fitting. Wynne-Williams, Yates’ pupil whom he had been teaching on the very night of his death, gave evidence of his cheerful demeanour, and the coroner went out of his way to state categorically that this was a case of a tragic accidental death. In spite of all this some of the vile calumniators I have mentioned before, who are always seeking for slime to throw at their betters, sank so low as to suggest that Yates committed suicide. I have even heard the report quite recently. No fouler lie could possibly be invented to smirch the memory of a courageous and noble man.’

Yates died at the age of 48. On page 525 of the December 1932 BCM P.W. Sergeant presented the facts in a way that seemed to preclude any possibility of suicide:

‘The circumstances of his end were tragic. On the night of Tuesday, 8 November he gave a very successful exhibition at Wood Green, only dropping one half-point in 16 games. On the following night, he was in the company of a chess friend until fairly late, and then went back to his room in Coram Street, Bloomsbury. He was never seen alive again. It was not until Friday morning that anxiety was felt at Coram Street as to what he might be doing; for he was in the habit of secluding himself for many hours at a stretch when busy with work. On Friday, however, when no answer could be got to knocks on the door of his room, which was locked, and a smell of gas was noticed, the door was at last broken open, and he was found dead in bed.

It came out at the inquest before the St Pancras coroner on 15 November that, though the gas-taps in the room were securely turned off, there had been an escape from what a gas company’s official described as an obsolete type of fitting attached to the meter in the room. The meter, it appears, was on the floor, and the fitting must have been accidentally dislodged. A verdict was recorded of Accidental Death; and the coroner directed that the gas-pipes from the room should remain in the custody of the court. The body was conveyed to Leeds for burial on the morning of 16 November.’

Yates’ financial circumstances had unquestionably been piteous, and a dispute about the lack of support for British chessplayers broke out in the Chess World (1 January 1933, pages 185-186; 8 March 1933, pages 275-276; 8 April 1933, pages 313-315; May-June 1933, pages 363-364). For instance, his friend W.H. Watts, the chess writer and publisher, noted that the death was ‘purely accidental’ but wrote on page 185:

‘... we were so infatuated by our own pettifogging antics over the chess board that we failed to see our Champion was starving. We could not see that poor timid Yates was literally dying in our midst, too proud to tell us so himself. The very name Yates will be forever a shameful memory in the annals of British Chess.’


Frederick Dewhurst Yates

Lasker v Janowsky, Paris, 1909

A myth often disseminated even today is that the match in Paris between Lasker and Janowsky in autumn 1909 (won by Lasker +7 –1 =2) was for the world championship. Below, first of all, is an extract from a letter that we contributed on pages 305-306 of the July 1985 BCM:

‘A check of all major chess periodicals for 1909 at the Royal Library at the Hague reveals that:

a) In many magazines, the idea of the match being for the world championship is simply not mentioned (e.g. BCM pages 483 and 543).

b) Others are specific that the title was not at stake (e.g. Deutsches Wochenschach und Berliner Schachzeitung page 382, Tijdschrift van den Nederlandschen Schaakbond page 253). The match was played in Paris, so it is no surprise that French-language magazines are especially precise in refuting any world championship connection (e.g. La Stratégie pages 352 and 407, and Revue d’échecs page 214).

c) Not a single contemporary magazine has been found that suggests the match was for the world crown.’

Further details appeared in C.N. 2471 (see page 174 of A Chess Omnibus), as shown below.

On 15 September 1909 Lasker and Schlechter issued a joint announcement (from Berlin and Vienna) of their intention to play a world championship match during the coming winter. The text was published in the Wiener Schachzeitung, September 1909 (page 315) and the Deutsche Schachblätter, 3 October 1909 (page 85). Not surprisingly, therefore, contemporary magazines did not suggest that the ten-game Lasker-Janowsky encounter played from 19 October to 9 November 1909 was for the world title, and some (especially the French ones) specifically stipulated that it was not. Page 214 of the 1909 Revue d’échecs said that it was merely ‘un second duel courtois’. Page 352 of the October 1909 La Stratégie observed that because of the Lasker-Schlechter agreement Janowsky would have to wait for a title match until afterwards. In its November 1909 issue (page 407) La Stratégie reported that Janowsky was not discouraged by his heavy loss to Lasker in Paris and added: ‘we understand that fresh discussions are already underway between the same players for another, more important, match, one which will count for the world championship, subject, naturally, to the Champion’s victory in his forthcoming match against Schlechter.’

On pages 60-61 of the February 1910 La Stratégie [reproduced below], it was reiterated that Lasker and Janowsky had not played for the title in Paris, and the magazine published the full text of an agreement signed by the two masters in the French capital on 12 November 1909. This was for a match that would begin in October or November 1910, and clause 15 stated: ‘The match shall be for the championship of the world. If Dr E. Lasker loses his title in his forthcoming match with Schlechter, the entire present arrangement shall, naturally, be void.’

Lasker survived against Schlechter, and in Berlin on 8 November 1910, there duly began the one and only world championship match between Lasker and Janowsky. A photograph from that match is given below, from page 19 of Die Schachspieler und ihre Welt by A. Bauer (Berlin, 1911):


Mr. 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". 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.


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