This article was originally published in the November/December 2008 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.
Paul Keres (1916-1975) learned chess as a very young child when he and his older brother watched their father play. The Keres brothers played practiced against each other for years before learning how to record the moves but as soon as they found out about chess notation they eagerly sought out chess literature that could expand their understanding of the intricacies of the game. Such opportunities were severely limited in the small Estonian town of Parnu, so young Paul borrowed chess books—starting with the Dufresne manual—and he wrote down every single game score that he could find, soon amassing a collection of nearly 1000 games.
In 1929, Keres won Parnu’s lightning championship (10-second chess). That success led to his selection to participate in a team match against players from the city of Wiljandi. Keres drew his first game and he enjoyed a two pawn advantage in his second game when he hastily captured a rook, falling for a checkmating combination. Keres later wrote, “These first hours of instruction were painful, but also very useful.”
Local opportunities to play over the board chess were very limited, so Keres utilized correspondence chess to practice his openings and sharpen his overall game; he played up to 150 postal games at the same time!
Keres captured the Estonian national championship in 1935 (sharing first place and then winning the playoff match). Jeff Sonas has calculated Chessmetrics ratings for the greatest players in modern chess history, providing monthly rating lists that go back to 1840. According to Sonas, by 1935 Keres was already the eighth strongest player in the world. In 1938, Keres won the AVRO Tournament, a super strong, double round robin event named for the Dutch broadcasting company that sponsored it; Keres battled World Champion Alexander Alekhine, former World Champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Max Euwe, future World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik plus top contenders Reuben Fine, Salo Flohr and Sammy Reshevsky. Keres and Fine tied for first with 8.5 points, though Keres was considered the champion based on scoring 1.5/2 in his encounters with Fine. Keres was the only player who did not lose a single game. Fine scored 5.5/6 before facing Keres in the game that ultimately decided the winner of the event:
Reuben Fine - Paul Keres [C86]
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a4 Bg4 9.c3 0-0 10.axb5 axb5 11.Rxa8 Qxa8 12.Qxb5 "At that time this position was regarded as favorable for White, since at first glance one cannot see how Black can get his pawn back...When I first went in for this variation I was convinced that Black's advantage in development would, nevertheless, ensure him sufficient counter chances. After some thought, too, I succeeded in finding a continuation that deprived the method of play chosen by White of all its poison" (Keres). 12...Na7 Earlier in the year, Book obtained a strong position as White versus Alexander after 12...Na5 13.Bc2 Nxe4 14.Nxe5 Rb8 15.Bxe4 but Keres' 12th move is a significant improvement. 13.Qe2 Qxe4 "After 13...Nxe4 White can either continue 14.d4 or also 14.Qe3. There is no reason for Black to avoid the ensuing exchange of Queens" (Keres). 14.Qxe4 Nxe4 15.d4 Bxf3 16.gxf3 Ng5 17.Kg2 Rb8 18.Bc4 exd4 19.cxd4 Ne6 20.d5 Nc5 21.Nc3 Nc8 22.Re1 Kf8 23.Re2 f5? "Up to here Black has played well and obtained a clear advantage in position, but with the faulty text move he gives up the greater part of his advantage. White cannot now it is true get his Knight to e4 but the unprotected pawn on f5 enables him to gain an important tempo, in consequence of which White is in a position to almost even out the game. So as to increase his advantage Black must naturally continue with 23...Rb4! The limited scope of activity for the Bishop would have then set White some difficult problems: 24.Bb5 (or 24.Ba2 Nd3 winning a pawn) 24...Na7 25.Bc6 Nxc6 26.dxc6 Rc4 and Black would win the pawn on c6 with the better position. After the imprecise text move some highly interesting complications arise" (Keres). 24.Nb5 Nb6 25.b3 Nxd5! This is Black's only chance to retain the advantage. In fact, with imprecise play he could quickly stand worse: 25...c6? 26.dxc6 d5 27.b4 Nxc4 28.c7 Rc8 29.bxc5± 26.Nd4 White could have tried 26.Nxd6 Bxd6 27.Bxd5 Nxb3 28.Rb2 Ba3 29.Rxb3 Rxb3 30.Bxb3 Bxc1 but Keres preferred Black's chances despite the opposite colored bishops: "A possible winning plan would be as follows: Black blockades the enemy f pawn by playing ...f4, gets his Bishop to b6, his King to d4 and then advances his c pawn. Once this maneuver has been carried out then White must soon give up his pawn on f2, after which he would retain merely endgame study type of drawing chances. It is naturally possible that a penetrating analysis of this ending would show that White could make a draw but one does not go in for such a position of one's own free will." 26...Nb4 27.Bd2? Keres called this move "the decisive mistake" and suggested that White should have played 27.Nxf5 Bf6 28.Bf4 27...d5! "Black had placed all his hopes on this thrust. The ensuing complications are more or less forced and lead eventually to a position where the Black passed pawns on the Queen's wing, without paying attention to the lost exchange, ensure him an advantage sufficient for a win" (Keres). 28.Bxb4 Rxb4 29.Nc6 dxc4 30.Nxb4 cxb3 31.Nd5 Both players were in time pressure by this point. White hoped to force ...Bd6 but Keres uncorked a nice tactical resource instead. 31...Nd3! 32.Rd2 (32.Rxe7 b2 33.Nc3 Kxe7-+; 32.Nxe7 Nf4+ 33.Kf1 Nxe2 34.Kxe2 b2-+) 32...b2 33.Rd1 c5 Even stronger is 33...Nc1 34.Nc3 Bb4 35.Nb1 Ke7 after which White's pieces would be, as Keres put it, "well-nigh stalemated." 34.Rb1 c4 35.Kf1 Bc5 "Black discerns that he cannot force his passed pawns through and therefore looks around for more pawns to capture" (Keres). 36.Ke2 Bxf2 37.Ne3 c3 38.Nc2 Ne1! 39.Na3 (39.Nxe1 Bxe1 40.Kxe1 c2-+) 39...Bc5? Keres gave this move a question mark even though Black is still winning, because White now has the opportunity to redeploy his Rook on the b-file and offer much more resistance. Black should have played 39...Bh4 after which White is totally lost. For instance, 40.Rxe1 Bxe1 41.Kxe1 c2 42.Nxc2 b1Q+. 40.Kxe1? Keres suggested that White should have played 40.Rxe1 Bxa3 41.Kd3 Bb4 42.Kc2 after which Black would have to very carefully neutralize White's suddenly active Rook: 42...Kf7 43.Re5 Bd6 44.Rxf5+ Kg6 45.Rb5 Bxh2 46.Kxc3 Be5+ 47.Kd3 Kf5 48.Ke3 g5 and the advance of the h pawn will be decisive. 40...Bxa3 41.Kd1 Bd6 42.Kc2 Bxh2 43.Rh1 Be5 43...Bf4 44.Rxh7 Kf7 followed by ...Bd2 is more precise, according to Keres. Now Black will have to create another passed pawn in order to win. 44.Rxh7 Kf7 45.Rh1 g5 46.Re1 Kf6 47.Rg1 Kg6 48.Re1 Bf6 49.Rg1 g4 50.fxg4 f4 51.g5 Bd4 (51...Bxg5? 52.Kxc3 and White draws.) 52.Rd1 Be3 53.Kxc3 Bc1 54.Rd6+ Kxg5 55.Rb6 f3 56.Kd3 Kf4 57.Rb8 Kg3 Fine resigned here. According to Keres, one possible continuation would have been: 58.Rg8+ Kf2 59.Kc2 Ke2 60.Re8+ Kf1 61.Rf8 f2 62.Rf7 Ke2 63.Re7+ Kf3 64.Rf7+ Bf4 followed by the promotion of the f pawn. 0-1
Although the AVRO 1938 Tournament was not formally called a candidates tournament, it was natural to assume that the winner would get the opportunity to challenge Alekhine to a match. However, much like World War I wiped out Akiba Rubinstein’s best chance to play in a World Championship match, World War II started shortly after Keres’ great victory at AVRO 1938. Keres’ native Estonia was first occupied by the Soviet Union, then captured by the Nazis and then occupied again by the Soviets. Keres and Alekhine both played in tournaments run under the auspices of Nazi rule, a decision that later negatively affected Alekhine’s reputation in some quarters and that caused Keres to be subjected to careful scrutiny by the Soviets when they recaptured Estonia.
In 1946, Alekhine became the first modern World Chess Champion to die while still holding the title. Traditionally, the World Champion handpicked a challenger, primarily based on how much financial support that player had. FIDE had long sought a larger role in determining the rules and formats of World Championship matches and Alekhine’s death provided FIDE the opportunity to take control of the title.
FIDE invited the six surviving players from AVRO 1938 (with the lone exception being the replacement of last place finisher Flohr with Vasily Smyslov) to play in a “World Championship Tournament.” Only Fine declined his invitation. The round robin event consisted of each player playing five games against each of the other players (20 rounds total). Botvinnik won decisively with a score of 14 points, while Smyslov had 11, Keres and Reshevsky tallied 10.5 each and former World Champion Euwe ended up well off the pace with just 4 points.
Botvinnik’s victory margin came from his 4-1 rout of Keres, including victories in each of their first four games. Due to Keres’ precarious status as a non-Russian in the Soviet Union there has been endless speculation about whether he was coerced to throw his games versus Botvinnik. In 1998, the Chess Café’s Tim Kingston took a fairly exhaustive look at this issue (you can find his article here) and concluded that although it is not an open and shut case, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that something was amiss—or, as Kingston colorfully put it, “Conclusion: the Commies did it.” Strong GMs have subjected those games to much analysis and reached starkly opposite conclusions: some GMs say that Keres made glaring mistakes that prove he threw the games that he lost to Botvinnik, while other GMs say that the mistakes were no worse than similar mistakes that other GMs have made in high pressure games (you may recall that recently Kramnik missed a mate in one in a high stakes match versus a powerful computer program).
By Sonas’ rankings, Keres was the second best player in the world for a significant portion of the time between July 1943 and July 1960 (52 of the 204 months during that time span, including 18 straight months from 1955-56 and 32 out of 33 months from July 1955 to March 1958). Keres has the 24th highest one year peak Chessmetrics rating but a strong indicator of his durability is that his ranking increases progressively over longer time spans: Keres’ 10 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the 19th best all-time, his 15 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the 15th best all-time and his 20 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the seventh best all-time, trailing only Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, Viktor Korchnoi and Vasily Smyslov.
Although Botvinnik retained the world title for the better part of 15 years (losing once each to Smyslov and Mikhail Tal only to win rematches against each opponent), Keres may very well have been the best player in the world in the early 1950s. Keres won the Soviet Championship—arguably the strongest tournament in the world at the time—in 1950 and 1951; Botvinnik did not participate in the 1950 event but he finished fifth in 1951, two full points behind Keres, who thus earned the top spot on the Soviet Olympic team, relegating World Champion Botvinnik to second board (Botvinnik declined his invitation to play on the team).
After the 1948 World Chess Championship Tournament, Keres finished second or tied for second in the Candidates’ Tournament four straight times (1953, 1956, 1959, 1962). His performance in the 1959 event (18.5/28) was particularly impressive—3 points ahead of future World Champion Tigran Petrosian, 3.5 points clear of former World Champion Vasily Smyslov and six points ahead of 16 year old future World Champion Bobby Fischer—but Tal’s breathtaking result (20/28) denied Keres a shot at the title. Sonas considers the 1959 Candidates Tournament to be the best tournament of Keres’ career and the 22nd best tournament performance of all-time.
Keres remained a strong player on the international scene until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1975 at age 59 but he never seriously challenged for the world title after 1965, when he lost a Candidates quarterfinal match to Boris Spassky, who emerged from that cycle as the next World Champion.