The eight best players in the world meet at the AVRO Tournament

by André Schulz
6/2/2020 – Today, the AVRO Tournament starts in Amsterdam. The eight best players in the world play a double-round-robin tournament in ten different Dutch cities. With Alexander Alekhine, José Raúl Capablanca and Max Euwe no less than three world champions start but maybe there's also a future world champion in the field. After all, Salo Flohr, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, and last but not least, Mikhail Botvinnik are all outstandings talents and potential world champions. | Photo: Salo Flohr, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe

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AVRO 1938

The Players

The field of eight includes José Raúl Capablanca, the former World Champion, and Alexander Alekhine, the reigning World Champion – who is now reigning again. We remember: In 1935 Dr. Alekhine played a World Championship match against Max Euwe, a Dutch teacher of Mathematics. Alekhine was not in good shape and lost the match and his title.

Alexander Alekhine

Chess was already popular in the Netherlands but after Euwe's win it became a national passion. The last game of the 1935 match, in which Euwe secured the title, was attended by 6000 (!) spectators.

Max Euwe

But the new world champion Euwe granted his predecessor Alekhine a rematch which Alekhine had demanded when agreeing to the match. Alekhine's predecessor Capablanca, who lost the title in 1927, is still waiting for a rematch.

José Raúl Capablanca

In the second match against Euwe Alekhine took things much more seriously. He changed his unhealthy lifestyle – at least for a time – and seemed to be focused and concentrated during the rematch. Max Euwe also takes part in the AVRO tournament and therefore three of the eight players are or were world champions. At first, Euwe was afraid that he had to teach in the morning but he managed to get a vacation for the tournament.

Though Alekhine is a tremendous player only a few people would have been willing to bet on him before the rematch against Euwe. But Alekhine's victory in the match makes the old question of determining a challenger to the world champion more complicated again. The world champion has always determined against whom he will play for the title but this often leads to unsatisfying results.

After winning the title Euwe wanted to put the organization of the World Championships into the hands of FIDE, the World Chess Federation and at the FIDE Congress in 1937 a proposal was made to organize a candidates' tournament to determine the challenger. The Dutch radio station AVRO was willing to sponsor such a tournament. However, this proposal did not find a majority and instead the delegates decided that Salo Flohr should be the official candidate for the world championship.

Salo Flohr

Salo Flohr has a tragic family history. He was born in 1908 in Horodenka, which back then was part of Austro-Hungary but now is part of the new Poland. Flohr's parents and six brothers died in an anti-Jewish pogrom in his hometown. Flohr fled to Prague and grew up with a brother at foster parents and later became a naturazlized Czech. He learned chess in the Prague cafés but probably brought his talent with him.

At the Chess Olympiads in Warsaw in 1935 and in Stockholm in 1937 Flohr played on board one for Czechoslovakia and in both Olympiads he was the best player of the whole tournament. Flohr would certainly be a worthy challenger but while he arrangements for a world championship match against Alekhine were discussed Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia made Flohr a refugee again and brought all plans for a match against Alekhine to a halt.

Unlike Euwe, Alekhine does not want to have anything to do with the FIDE, and prefers to negotiate here and there and with various players. He will also negotiate about the conditions of a possible title match with the winner of the AVRO tournament, but he will not grant the winner the automatic right to play for title. Thus, AVRO is one of the strongest – if not the strongest – tournaments in the history of chess but it is not a candidates tournament.

A possible contender for the crown is the 27-year old Mikhail Botvinnik from the Soviet Union who also starts in the AVRO tournament. He has had a number of successes in the past and enjoys the reputation of being a formidable theoretician and positional player who also knows how to attack and how to play the endgame.

Mikhail Botvinnik

Another promising young player is the 22-year old Estonian Paul Keres who is not only an outstanding chess talent but also a very good tennis player.

Paul Keres

Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky present the United States. Fine, just turned 24, and is a good friend of Dr. Euwe and at the world championship 1937 Fine was Euwe's second. Fine currently lives in the Netherlands and despite his relatively young age he has already managed to be married twice. After a divorce from his first wife he married the reporter Emma Thea Keesing.

Reuben Fine

Reshevsky also comes from the US but was born in Orzokow which back then was part of Russia and is now in Poland. In 1920 Reshevsky's parents emigrated with their many children to the USA. Reshevsky is a kind of wunderkind and as a child he was already able to defeat strong masters and to give simultaneous performances. But later Reshevsky interrupted his chess career to study business administration and became an accountant by profession. Only at the beginning of this decade he returned to tournament chess.

Samuel Reshevsky

Change of generations

In chess we are facing a generational change. Capablanca is almost 50 years of age, although he has recently rejuvenated himself in a way: three weeks ago he married a Russian princess in the USA, and he is now spending his honeymoon in the Netherlands. Alekhine is also not very far from 50 and at 37 years of age Euwe is no longer young. They have to compete with young players such as Botvinnik and Keres and it is certainly only a matter of time before Alekhine loses his title.

The tournament is not played in one place and one city, but travels from round to round to different cities. At noon, the players travel from their hotel in Amsterdam, the Amstel Hotel, to the respective tournament location. Usually, they will take the train but when the tournament comes to Groningen the players will fly. After the round the players return to Amsterdam but often they will have no time to rest because they will have to play their adjourned games on the next day. A tough schedule that might favour the younger players.

The Amstel Hotel

 Travelling schedule

Round  1 Amsterdam  
Round  2 Den Haag  
Round  3 Rotterdam  
Round  4 Groningen  
Round  5 Zwolle  
Round  6 Haarlem  
Round  7 Amsterdam  
Round  8 Utrecht  
Round  9 Arnhem  
Round 10 Breda  
Round 11 Rotterdam  
Round 12 Den Haag  
Round 13 Leiden  
Round 14 Amsterdam  

AVRO and the new media

Sponsor of the tournament is the "Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep" (The General Broadcasting Association), founded in 1923 and the first Dutch radio station. AVRO broadcasts on the Hilversum station and shares the space with the station of the socialist-oriented "Vereeniging van Arbeiders Radio Amateurs" (VARA) and the Protestant station VPRO.

The house of AVRO in Hilversum

Modern technology

The chess tournament's journey through the country will certainly help to promote the AVRO channel. The format has tradition. After all, the World Championship match between Euwe and Alekhine was played in different places, and last year, AVRO organised a simultaneous tour with Lasker and Bogoljubow that visited the major cities of the Netherlands  and attracted hundreds of spectators in each city.

More and more households have a radio receiver, a development that has a lot of positive sides but can also be frightening. Last month a man by the name of Orson Welles demonstrated in the USA how easily people can be influenced by false information. In a radio show Welles managed to make his listeners believe that the earth would be attacked by aliens. Many of his listeners took the well-done fictitious account for real and fled their homes in panic.

But you can also use the new media in a different way.

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has been regularly broadcasting such recordings for a few years now, even though hardly anyone owns a device to receive the signals – yet.

Cinematography seems to be much more real than the radio, at least in some ways but also comes with the danger of propagande. For example, Leni Riefenstahl, a young German dancer, actress and director just released Olympia, a two-part film about the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, in which Riefenstahl shows the Olympic competitions in unique pictures that have never been seen before.

Adolf Hitler himself had invited Riefenstahl to film the Olympics in Berlin and there are sources that indicate that Olympia was secretly funded by the Third Reich and it is certainly no coincidence that Olympia premiered for Hitler's 49th birthday in 1938.

In fact, Riefenstahl has close ties to the National Socialists and is said to be a good friend of Hitler. Hitler gave Riefenstahl the opportunity to direct  "The Victory of Faith" (Der Sieg des Glaubens), a propaganda film about the fifth Nuremberg Rally in 1933, and in 1935 Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) was released, a propaganda film about the 1934 rally in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl then completed this trilogy with Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces ("Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht"), a propagandistic portrait of the German Wehrmacht.

Leni Riefenstahl: Olympia - Festival of Beauty

Leni Riefenstahl: Olympia - Festival of Nations

The opening ceremony of the AVRO Tournament was much less dramatic and spectacular. Girls in the national costumes of the players greeted each player – with the exception of Capablanca, who had not yet arrived – in their national language with the words: "Dear countryman! You are about to go into battle and fight for the honour of our country. It will be a fight with the noblest weapons imaginable and I wish you victory from my heart. Fight this fight with nobility and courage. I bring you greetings on behalf of all those who will breathlessly watch the battle. May you fare well. We have placed our hopes in you."

Gustaaf de Clercq, president of the AVRO, then drew lots. The tournament of the world's best players can begin.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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