Ossip Bernstein (September 20, 1882 – November 30, 1962): The Last Star of Chess’ Golden Age

by Eugene Manlapao
10/7/2022 – Ossip Bernstein had a turbulent life: Born in 1882 in Czarist Russia he was a successful lawyer in Moscow until he had to flee from the Bolsheviks. He emigrated to Paris where he rebuilt his successful law firm but then had to flee again when the Nazis occupied France. After the war, Bernstein returned to Paris. Apart from his career as a lawyer and businessman he was also a successful chess player and at his peak he was one of the world's best players. Eugene Manlapao takes a look at the life and career of this brilliant amateur player.

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In the great San Sebastian Tournament of 1911, Ossip Bernstein was said to object to the participation of Jose Raul Capablanca. The tournament for select winners and high-placers in previous international events had invited Capablanca solely for his 1909 match victory over Frank Marshall. Bernstein believed Capablanca was much too unknown for a tournament of such caliber, but he only lit the fire in the prodigy’s belly. Capablanca demolished him in the very first round and completed a rousing international debut, finishing clear first.

Bernstein hasn’t been objectively proven to have raised the objection, and the anecdote portrays the lot of players of his kind. The Bernsteins, whose exploits were far too few, have either been largely forgotten or have been made the beaten casts in the legends of the Capablancas.

Bernstein certainly deserves better, as he was a remarkable man in his own right. A pure amateur, he rose as one of the most formidable masters of the early 20th century. Caught in the two great social upheavals of his times – the Russian Revolution and World War II -- he seemingly lived a cycle of good fortune, tragedy and persecution. He was a true survivor who happened to be an exceptionally strong chess player.  

Bernstein was born to a wealthy Jewish family on September 20, 1882, in Zhytomir, a town in Ukraine, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. He first appeared in the international chess scene as a nineteen-year-old law student in Germany, finishing second in Hanover 1901. In 1902, he earned the master’s title, and then rose quickly. He placed second in the 3rd All-Russian Masters’ Tournament of 1903, beating the winner, Mikhail Chigorin, and Akiba Rubinstein. In Coburg 1904 and Barmen 1905, he was among the prize winners. He came joint first with Carl Schlechter in Stockholm 1906. In 1907, he scored the most significant victory of his career when he won the Ostend Tournament. a 30 player round robin event, jointly with Akiba Rubinstein. Among those he left behind him were Aron Nimzowitsch, Jacques Mieses, Richard Teichmann, Oldrich Duras, Savielly Tartakower, Rudolf Spielmann, and Joseph Henry Blackburne. 

Final standings after 29 rounds

Rk. Name Pts.
1 Akiba Rubinstein 19.5 / 28
2 Ossip Samuel Bernstein 19.5 / 28
3 Jacques Mieses 19.0 / 28
4 Aron Nimzowitsch 19.0 / 28
5 Leo Forgacs 18.5 / 28
6 Richard Teichmann 18.0 / 28
7 Oldrich Duras 17.5 / 28
8 Georg Salwe 17.0 / 28
9 Georg Marco 16.5 / 28
10 Saviely Tartakower 16.0 / 28
11 Walter John 16.0 / 28
12 Rudolf Spielmann 15.0 / 28
13 Erich Cohn 15.0 / 28
14 Eugene Znosko Borovsky 15.0 / 28
15 Joseph Henry Blackburne 14.5 / 28
16 Julius Perlis 13.5 / 28
17 Rudolf Swiderski 13.0 / 28
18 Georg Schories 12.5 / 28
19 Hugo Suechting 12.5 / 28
20 Maurice Billecard 12.0 / 28
21 Wilhelm Cohn 12.0 / 28
22 Paul Saladin Leonhardt 11.5 / 28
23 Theodor Von Scheve 11.0 / 28
24 Johannes Metger 11.0 / 28
25 Hector William Shoosmith 9.5 / 28
26 Francis Joseph Lee 9.5 / 28
27 Friedrich Jacob 8.5 / 28
28 Louis Van Vliet 8.5 / 28
29 James Mortimer 5.0 / 28

Only five years after gaining his master’s title, Bernstein had risen to the top of competitive chess. Between1906-1907, Chessmetrics gives him a historical rating of 2688, 9th in the world. His victory at Ostend 1907 is given a performance rating of 2716.

In the same year, 1907, Bernstein obtained his doctoral degree at the University of Heidelberg. He returned to Russia, married, and began his career as a lawyer. While his tournament appearances became occasional, thereafter, he managed to combine chess with his profession. He placed 5th in the Chigorin Memorial of 1909, 1st in the Moscow City Championship of 1911, joint 8th in San Sebastian 1911, and 2nd in Vilna 1912. In the star-studded St. Petersburg of 1914, he finished in the middle of the pack and failed to qualify for the finals, but he inflicted the reigning World Champion Emanuel Lasker’s only loss of the tournament.

 

Bernstein places second in the All-Russian Masters Tournament of 1912 (Vilna 1912), an impressive result for an amateur.

After St. Petersburg 1914, Bernstein left chess altogether. Now based in Moscow, he had built a lucrative practice as an international lawyer, with banks and big industrialists as his clients. Misfortune struck, however, when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917.

Up until the revolution, Russia had been a czarist state where the capitalist economy bred social discontent. Finally, in November 1917, the working class, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, seized power. Instituting sweeping social, political, and economic reforms, the Bolsheviks transformed Russia into a communist state.

In the early stages of the revolution, the aristocracy and loyalists of the czar resisted fiercely. The Bolsheviks, determined to crush all reprisals, unleashed the “Cheka,” the secret police that was to hunt down their enemies.

With banks regarded as “evil institutions” that had tended to capitalism, Bernstein was marked as an enemy of the revolution. He, his wife and two small children had to flee Moscow, but the Cheka captured him in Odessa. What followed next must be one of the most harrowing experiences of a chess player. Edward Lasker, in a tribute to Bernstein in the April 1963 edition of Chess Review, relates:

“In Odessa, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tcheka, in those days practically tantamount to being condemned to death. This arrest took place during the "red terror," when the mere fact that a man was a member of the well-to-do bourgeoisie stamped him as a criminal. Bernstein's crime was his role as legal adviser to hankers, industrialists and trusts. There was, of course, no court trial. One of those sadistic minor officials, who always show up in the wake of revolutions when executions are the order of the day, had a firing squad line up Bernstein and a number of other prisoners against a wall to be shot. Then, fortunately, a superior officer appeared who asked to see the list of the prisoner's names. Discovering on it the name, Ossip Bernstein, he asked him whether he was the famous chess master. Not satisfied with Bernstein's affirmative reply, he made him play a game with him; and, when Bernstein won in short order, he had him and the others in the group led back to prison and later released.”

As if the new lease on life was not a miracle enough, Bernstein and his family were fortunate to board a ship sent by the British government to Odessa in 1919 to rescue Russians in distress. By way of long detours, they reached Paris in 1920. With nothing more than a few possessions and what was left of the fees that Bernstein collected from a client in Serbia in the journey to Paris, the family began their lives anew.  

In Paris, Bernstein once again built up his lucrative law practice and financial consultancy to restore the wealth that he had lost. In 1932, he received an invitation to participate in Bern, the strongest tournament of that year. He had been away from chess for eighteen years, but the lure of the board was too strong to resist. He placed joint 4th with Bogoljubov. His results motivated him that the following year he played a short match with the reigning World Champion, Alexander Alekhine. The match was drawn at 2-2, but only after Alekhine forced a difficult draw in the last game. Bernstein also played in Zurich 1934 where he tied Nimzowitsch at 6th.

Fate, however, would keep Bernstein restless. In 1940, World War II had broken out and France surrendered to Germany. With Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rounding up Jews for their concentration camps in Poland, Bernstein and his family were forced to flee once more. They could only go to Spain, where Bernstein had friends, and on foot if they were to elude the patrolling Germans. Crossing the Pyrenees and hiding in caves, they reached Spain all spent, sick, but undaunted.

After the war, the Bernsteins returned to Paris. Chess came calling once more and Bernstein finished 2nd to Herman Steiner in London 1946. In Groningen that same year, however, he could only finish 15th in a very strong field that included former World Champion Max Euwe, and future World Champions Mikhail Botvinnik and Vassily Smyslov. Apparently, he had run out of steam at 64, wasting wins and draws into losses.

Chess veteran Ossip Bernstein | Photo: Wikipedia

Bernstein, however, seemingly saved his best for last, and he participated in Montevideo 1954 at the ripe age of 72. There, against the flamboyant Miguel Najdorf, who was said to complain that Bernstein was too old for the event, he played what is arguably his most brilliant game.

Brilliant: Ossip Bernstein | Photo: Wikipedia

It is sharp and sacrificial, very typical of Bernstein, and a marvelous mix of intuition and calculation. He gave a fitting finale to his career, finishing 2nd and winning the tournament’s brilliancy prize. 

Bernstein passed away on November 30, 1962. His life of eighty years had encompassed chess’ Romantic, Classical, Hyper-Modern, and Dynamic Age of Soviet domination, and he more than held his own against the greatest masters of these generations. In 1950, FIDE conferred him the inaugural title of Grandmaster. 

Bernstein, indeed, was a man of achievements. He was successful at whatever he chose to pursue – at chess and the legal profession alike – and all that despite the ordeals the Russian Revolution and the Second World War put him through. To his peers, however, he was first and foremost that chess player, the amateur who could have flashed his brilliance more often if only he devoted more time and energy to chess. “He was,” as his contemporary, Milan Vidmar, said, “the last of the galaxy of stars that had illumined the golden age of chess.”

Games

  1. Rubinstein vs. Bernstein – Rubinstein succumbs to a daring, intuitive attack. Either he loses his Queen or is mated.
 
  1. Albin vs. Bernstein – Albin neglects his development and is punished swiftly. Bernstein’s finishing combination is very clever.
 
  1. Bernstein vs. Mieses – Bernstein plays a slow, strategic game quite atypical of his sharp style. Mieses pays a heavy price for his dark-square weaknesses.
 
  1. Bernstein vs. Metger – Bernstein plays a Knight sacrifice that ends in mate, or the loss of Metger’s Queen.
 
  1. Bernstein vs. Najdorf – Bernstein’s magnum opus, a game of fireworks and amazing sacrifices.
 

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Eugene holds a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing, which he obtained from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Chess and writing are his passions, and one often completely absorbs him that he totally neglects the other. His other interests include classic literature, biographies, powerful memoirs, sports, and the visual arts. He spends his spare time doting on his two lovely daughters.
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Queenslander Queenslander 10/11/2022 07:47
Fabulous! A true star!
anandymous anandymous 10/8/2022 04:03
Excellent article, thank you for writing this.
tomanekrafael tomanekrafael 10/8/2022 10:12
Thanks, enjoyed biography and all games. Turbulent life, fantastic man...
Justjeff Justjeff 10/8/2022 04:00
Nice story.

I have to think that a 30 player round robin could only have been completed by players who were bored amateurs on vacation though.
Masquer Masquer 10/8/2022 01:24
Great well-written life story, thanks!
Alexandru27 Alexandru27 10/7/2022 07:32
Wow, thank you for this article!
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