AVRO 1938


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John Sherwood and Dale Brandreth

AVRO 1938

There are many international chess tournaments played each year.  Most quickly fade into the background but there are a few that catch the public imagination and emerge as an historic event.  Perhaps the most revered contest was that played in St. Petersburg in 1914, noted for the extraordinary victory of Lasker ahead of Capablanca.  Another such event was Hastings 1895 that saw victory for the "underdog" Pillsbury ahead of all the chess notables of the day.  Now I am going to take a look at the outstanding AVRO 1938 which has recently been recorded in a new Caissa Edition book of the same name.

For some reason AVRO 1938 has escaped all the chess authors other than Max Euwe.  It is probable that the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 interfered with publications by other authors.  Of course many of the games reached the public by means of newspaper articles and chess magazines but another tournament book remained unpublished.

Caissa Editions have corrected this in a book of annotated games by John Sherwood and historical background by Dale Brandreth.

This tournament sponsored by a Dutch broadcasting company, was held in an effort to provide a challenger to Alekhine for the World Championship.  This was a fond hope which was not fully acknowledged by the champion himself and added more confusion to an already vexed situation.  Alekhine had found many ways to avoid such a challenge and this event provided one more instance of his adroit footwork.  Even at the opening ceremony he commented that although it was "rumoured" that this tournament was being held to establish a challenger for the title, he reserved the right to play any other challenger that may have emerged from other sources.

Invitees to the AVRO represented the cream of the world chessplayers i.e. Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Keres and Euwe.   Here were gathered the incumbent world champion, two former and one future world champions.  The openiing and the first round took place in Amsterdam but thereafter each round was held in other Dutch towns including The Hague, Rotterdam, Leiden, Swolle, Breda, Groningen, Arnhem, Utrecht et al.  The contestants criticised the amount of travel involved and to a certain extent this effected their performance, mostly  the older members and Capablanca in particular, who was rumoured to be unwell.  

The early rounds of the tournament were dominated by Reuben Fine who won five of his first six games and drew the other.  Among his victims were  Alekhine, Botvinnik and Euwe!  Not a bad crop of scalps!  He attributed his success to the fact that he had bee involved in a revision to "Modern Chess Openings" and also started his games with 1.e4 whereas he had previously been recognised as a queen pawn player.  The only other player that kept in touch with him was the Estonian Paul Keres, who drew level with him in the ninth round, went ahead in the eleventh and at the end equalled Fine's score but won on tiebreak. 

 The final table makes interesting reading :



    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  
1 Keres,Paul   1 1 1 8
2 Fine,Reuben 0   1 10 10 11 1 8
3 Botvinnik,Mikhail 0   0 1 1 1 7
4 Euwe,Max 01 1   0 0 01 1 7
5 Reshevsky,Samuel Herman 0 01 0 1   1 7
6 Alekhine,Alexander 00 0 1   1 1 7
7 Capablanca,Jose Raul 0 0 10 0   1 6
8 Flohr,Salo 0 0 0 0 0   4

Who would have thought at the start of the tournament that Alekhine would finish 1 points behind the leaders and Capablanca, in next to last place, lagging 2 points behind the leaders. 

A game that probably cost Fine the first place was against his compatriot, Reshevsky, in the ninth round, in which he was adjudged the loser on time.  This was a disputed result that does not receive full treatment in the Caissa book which laconically states:

"After the breaks Fine had a lost ending but Reshevky overlooked more than one decisive line and permitted Fine to equalise.  Then Fine suddenly overstepped the time limit in a drawn position."

However, another version is given in "Reuben Fine" by Adian Woodger, who, quoting the BCM 1950, 399, writes:

"...... Fine   turned up sleepy and infuriated......." (he had been disturbed in an afternoon siesta to complete his unfinished game with Reshevsky who was clearing up a number of adjournments) - " ........ and proceeded to struggle exasperatedly against the man who had been his arch-rival for years.  In the end, both sides running utterly short of time, he managed to hold his own in an apparently critical position and was in the act of making the move that would secure the draw when both flags appeared to have dropped.  "You are too late" hissed Fine before the management could interfere.  "You are." the other man snarled back.  The referee had witnessed Fine's flag drop first and had proclaimed his decision accordingly : win for Reshevsky.  It would be interesting to read a direct contemporary account of this incident, after all if both flags were down and Fine had not struck his clock having made his last move, then Reshevsky cannot have completed his previous move.  Did Fine press the button on the clock and then both hands fall practically simultaneously?  Whatever the case Fine must must have come within a split second of a likely individual first place."

However, even had Fine won, it is unlikely that he would have pressed for a world championship match, as it would appear his mind was set on an occupation other than that of a professional chess player, as his rejection of an invitation to the 1948 world championship match tournament seemed to suggest.

Botvinnik demonstrated his potential by finishing in third place, his win against Capablanca being the game of the tournament that has remained as a model achievement.  This game, with Botvinnik's notes, is included in the illustrative games attached.

The other find of the tournament was Paul Keres, who despite his natural attacking flair, held himself in check and played all 14 games without conceding a loss.  His tie-break win earned him the chance to challenge Alekhine which he did without delay only to be another victim of the world champion's quick footsteps in averting any immediate acceptance of the challenge.  Keres was destined to never again getting so close to playing for the world crown.

As is usual with all Caissa's publications, the tournament book is impeccably produced in library style with red hardcovers suitably embossed in gilt lettering.  The one flaw is that there are some errors that require an errata sheet which even then does not fully cover all mistakes.  However, this does little to detract from the worthiness of a volume that would grace the most discriminating library shelve.  In the main Sherwood's notes are pithy and to the point and he is not too shy to admit to computer assistance and quote extracts from Euwe's book and other publications.

Another welcome feature is the inclusion of many sections from the pen of Dale Brandreth on the genesis of the tournament nd its administration, together with interviews with the participants.  The indices are copious and include games played by the participants just prior to the commencement.  Many of the games played found their way into other manuals for both entertainment and instructive purposes.

In the book, Brandreth, probably using other reports, puts forward suggestions concerning the results of individual players.  For instance he reveals that Capabalanca blames the lateness of receipt of his invitation which arrived just two months before the start of play.  He claimed that he had no opportunity to prepare, particularly as he had a pre-scheduled busy period in those two months.  This is rather an unusual explanation on the part of Capablanca as he was a natural player who did not rely on preparation.  In fact it was rumoured that he never had a chess board in his home!  It is probable that his poor health had more effect than he was willing to admit.

On the other hand, Alekhine had a very busy playing programme prior to the event and it was thought that he might have been rather stale and needed a rest to regain some freshness in his play.

There was some speculation on the lack of resolve on the part of Fine.  One explanation was that his lack of good physical preparation accounted for his poor results in the second half.  He had apparently increased in his body weight because of his inactivity and this sapped his strength in playing long games.  However, he put his success down to the fact that he had less to lose than his opponent's as he had decided on a change of profession.

Chess players are capable of many reasons for success/failure so most of these explanations must be taken as mere speculation.

The tournament was a very important event in chess history and the advent of the world war softened it's overall impact on the world championship that took an entirely different course from 1945.

The tournament book fills a gap in the record and it is fortunate that Caissa Editions assumed the role of correcting this omission and producing a most acceptable account of the proceedings.

A number of annotated games played can be seen HERE.

Bill Frost

July 2013.