Underrated masters of the chess world

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Underrated masters of the chess world

Daniel Johnson is the founding editor of our online platform TheArticle where I contribute the weekly chess column every Saturday. In a previous incarnation Daniel edited the monthly Standpoint magazine, where one of his innovations was to introduce a regular Underrated/Overrated feature.

Inspired by this format I shall be devoting my column this week to the theme of one of the most unfairly denigrated of the recognised masters of our game. One of them is the subject of two new books.

Perhaps the most maligned great master in the entire history of world class chess, is the Ukrainian-born Efim Bogoljubov. His reputation has suffered badly from two decisive defeats at the hands of the great Alexander Alekhine. Indeed, voices have been raised ever since which question his suitability to challenge in the first place for the supreme chess title. It should, though, be noted that commentators at the time of Bogoljubov’s first challenge, in 1929, praised the fighting quality and aggressive spirit of the games — in particular, when compared to the draw-heavy contest at Buenos Aires from two years earlier, which had brought Alekhine the title against Capablanca.

Efim Dimitrievich Bogoljubov was born in Stanislavchyk, near Kiev (now Kyiv). After being interned at the outbreak of hostilities in the First World War and held in Germany for the duration of hostilities, he finished first at the postwar Berlin tournament of 1919. Clearly he harboured no hard feelings against his captors.

After World War II, he only played in a few tournaments. FIDÉ, the world chess federation, first awarded the official International Grandmaster title in 1950, but denied this accolade to Bogoljubov because they (unjustly) claimed he had been an ardent supporter of Hitler, only to relent the following year.

Bogoljubov was famous for his optimism at the board. During a game against Max Euwe, while the great Dutchman sat thinking, Bogoljubov (known as “Bogo”) walked back and forth outside the playing area. Asked about his game, Bogo replied: “Ach, ja, die Partie! Der Herr Doctor steht etwas besser, aber ich glaube, ich gewinne.” (“Ah yes, the game! The Doctor [Euwe] stands a little better, but I think I shall win.”).

Another anecdote shows how easy it was to underestimate Bogo, who patently enjoyed the good things in life. After one German tournament, a photo was taken of the participants in the event, which Bogo had actually won. When the print arrived at the organiser’s office, they were dismayed to find that Bogo had been omitted. The photographer’s reason for leaving Bogo out? A portly gentleman holding a stein of beer looked inappropriate in a photo of serious chessplayers.

The Russian International Master Grigory Bogdanovich has written two volumes designed to rehabilitate Bogoljubov’s reputation, The Creative Power of Bogoljubov, I and II (Published by Elk and Ruby). Bogdanovich’s trenchant conclusion is as follows: “It took several years of daily work to eliminate the historical injustice that had pushed the legacy of one of the most outstanding chess players in history, Efim Dmitrievich Bogoljubov, to the back of the closet, where it remained mostly ignored for decades. The reasons for the oblivion of his work boil down to both political conflict and banal human envy. He lived half of his life away from the land (Russia) where he had been born and raised, and remained a stranger in both his original and adopted (Germany) countries. I hope that these two volumes will rescue Bogoljubov’s games from obscurity, because they have much to teach us!” Note that the author claims Bogoljubov for Russia, though he was born in what is now Ukraine. When he was born in 1889, Ukraine belonged to the Russian Empire.

Let us take a brief look at Bogoljubov’s record in elite and large scale tournaments:

Pistyan 1922: first prize ahead of Alekhine;
Carlsbad 1923: shared first with Alekhine and Maroczy;
Breslau 1925: first, way ahead of Nimzowitsch and Rubinstein;
Moscow 1925: first, ahead of Lasker and Capablanca, the previous and reigning world champions;
Bad Kissingen 1928: first, again ahead of Capablanca, future world champion Euwe, and the leading Grandmasters Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch.

Additionally, Bogoljubov won matches against Nimzowitsch in 1920 and the world champion to be, Max Euwe, in 1928. From these outstanding performances it is clear to me that Bogoljubov most certainly deserved his shot at Alekhine’s title in 1929. At one time, in a curious anticipation of the Hitler/Stalin Non-Aggression Pact, Bogo even simultaneously held the national championship titles for both Germany and the USSR!

After his first defeat by Alekhine, Bogoljubov seemed to lose some of his élan. Whereas the 1929 challenge to Alekhine was fully justified, the reprise in 1934 was unnecessary. This does not, however, detract from the fact that Bogoljubov’s superlative performances during the 1920s fully justified his selection as the appropriate challenger to Alekhine at the close of that decade.

Here are a couple of Bogo wins which have particularly impressed me:

Efim Bogoljubov vs Jacques Mieses (1925)

Efim Bogoljubov vs Alexander Alekhine (1929)

Poignancy is added to this brief appreciation of Bogo when one realises that he was actually not a Russian but a Ukrainian. He must thus be added to that roster of Ukrainian grandmasters, which includes Efim Geller, Leonid Stein and Vasyl Ivanchuk, all of whom had serious world title aspirations.

Ljubomir Ljubojevic vs Leonid Stein (1973)

Efim Geller vs Vasily Smyslov (1965)

Garry Kasparov vs Vasyl Ivanchuk (1995)

It is not too late to donate to the fund for Ukrainian refugees set up by philanthropist Sujan Katuwal, in connection with my twenty board simultaneous chess  display on Saturday August 20 in Lewisham. For details on how to donate, please contact Sujan directly on skatuwal@hotmail.com or/and co-organiser:  Carmel@shrewsbury-house.org.

The British Championship concluded at Torquay last month and was sponsored by Chessable, the learning branch of the Play Magnus global chess imperium. Although leading British Grandmasters competing in the Chennai Olympiad were absent, such notables as Nick Pert, Nigel Davies, Danny Gormally, John Emms, Peter Wells and Keith Arkell (all Grandmasters) were in the lists.  The surprise winner was 21 year old FIDÉ Master (two title ranks below Grandmaster) Harry Grieve. He, like Bogoljubov, appears to have been underrated by his opponents.

To be honest, the new British champion had previously slipped invisibly beneath my radar, too. He has been extraordinarily active over the latter two years, gaining a prolific 200 rating points in only a couple of years. The warning signs were there for all, with Harry Grieve gaining his first International Master (one title rank below Grandmaster) qualification in January. Obviously a rising star in the British chess firmament, his dynamism and enterprise seem sure to guarantee him a sparkling future.

I cannot resist concluding with a classic miniature while Harry Grieve was on his way to the title against the solid English Grandmaster, Danny Gormally. Enjoy!

Raymond Keene s latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwell s .

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