Heroes of Chess

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Chess heroes arise from every culture and in every generation.

The early 20th century produced Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov and Tal. We are told never to meet our heroes or we will be disappointed. They are dead now but their chess legacy lives on.

Max Euwe (pronounced ‘Erva’) was born in Amsterdam and was taught chess by his mother when he was four. He began to play in tournaments when he was ten and became Dutch Champion in 1921.

A mathematics teacher, and therefore an amateur, his opportunities to play were restricted to school holidays.

However, he made steady progress throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s and beat Alexander Alekhine for the world title in 1935. Alekhine regained the title in 1937.

Euwe’s play had declined by the end of WW11, when international chess resumed.

Euwe was the author of a huge number of chess books, director of the Netherlands Research Centre for Information Services , a university professor on the same subject and president of FIDE (the world chess federation, 1970-78).

When Alekhine, the reigning World Champion, died in 1946, responsibility for the title was taken over by FIDE. In 1948 they organised a tournament of leading players to decide the champion.

The winner was Leningrad’s Mikhail Botvinnik. He learned chess at the age of twelve and, under Soviet tutelage, made rapid progress. By the mid-1930’s he was playing successfully at the top level.

The naturally talented Botvinnik was also a tremendously hard worker, studying the game for hours. He is said to be responsible for players adopting a professional attitude - diet, exercise, study and game preparation. Several opening discoveries are credited with his name.

Intense competition from other Soviet players, including Smyslov, caused him to lose the championship three times between 1948-63, but he regained it twice.

Vassily Smyslov, the son of a skilful Moscow chess player, learned to play aged six and studied his father’s chess books. Developing rapidly in the period 1935-38, he continued to improve during WW11. In the international arena during 1945-46, he showed himself to be world class.

Smyslov qualified to play Botvinnik for the world title in 1954 and drew. He qualified again in 1957 and won, only to lose the return match unexpectedly in 1958.

After this disappointment, he was never quite as good, although he continued to play internationally, well into old age. Editor of a chess newspaper, he wrote an autobiography and a ‘Best Games’ collection.

Mikhail Tal, a contemporary of Smyslov, was born in Riga, Latvia. The son of a doctor, he first encountered chess when he saw it played in his father’s waiting room.

He joined a chess club when he was eight and made steady progress.

After winning the Latvian Championship in 1953, his rapid progress resulted in him winning the prestigious USSR Championship in 1957.

His rise was meteoric and he qualified to play Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1960. Although he won the title, he lost the return match a year later.

Tal had a deformed hand, said to be the result of a war-time accident. His health was always poor; in particular he had kidney problems and this probably led to his loss of the title in 1961.

A tactical genius, he was virtually impossible to play against in certain types of position.

His record in international events was excellent especially when he was healthy.

A prolific chess journalist and enthusiast, Tal was well-liked but his unconventional lifestyle was not appreciated by the Soviet authorities.

In this week’s position from Botvinnik-Havin, white to move creates multiple winning threats.