AVRO 1938 International Chess Tournament

Dale Brandreth, Robert Sherwood

Reviewer: John Watson
Caissa Editions
167 pages (hardback)

The AVRO 1938 International Chess Tournament by Robert Sherwood and Dale Brandreth was a double round-robin among the world’s best players at the time: Alekhine, Capablanca, Euwe, Botvinnik, Keres, Fine, Reshevsky and Flohr. It served as a sort of Candidates Tournament to provide a challenger for Alekhine, in the sense that Alekhine agreed to play the winner, but he also reserved the right to play anyone else meeting his conditions before then (his match with Flohr had just fallen through, by Alekhine’s account due to the political situation in Czechoslovakia). Such a tournament is especially interesting in view of today’s ubiquitous super-tournaments, and in particular the dramatic, recently-concluded Candidates event. Sherwood and Brandreth have created the first complete book about this event in English. All the games are fully annotated by Sherwood, and Brandreth writes about the tournament in three essays.

AVRO 1938 was a travelling event, with rounds in Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, Groningen, Zwolle, Haarlem, Utrecht, Arnhem, Breda, and Leiden. The implications of this schedule are referred to in some pre-tournament interviews cited by Brandreth in his introductory piece “Arrival of the Masters.” Alekhine says, “The idea of the AVRO to hold a tournament with play in different towns is de facto new. It may deserve imitation because in this way more tournaments could come into being, whereas now with one town not enough support can be obtained. However, the additional traveling to and from is a disadvantage, especially for the older masters.”

Capablanca complains more directly:

“It’s not purely playing chess anymore… a physical factor has been added. It will be a handicap tournament. The younger players will be best able to stand it. What does it matter whether you sleep badly and every time get strange food when you are twenty or thirty years old. For Alekhine, especially, it must be a hindrance, and for me, the oldest, entirely.”

Interviewer: “So you feel the younger players have the best chances?”

“I feel that Botvinnik will win, if he plays as well as at Nottingham, and in addition I give Reshevsky a good chance, for he is young and very energetic.”

Interestingly, Capablanca also says, “My health is excellent and the travel has been splendid.” But after the tournament, we discover at the end of the book, both he and his wife Olga will blame his dismal result on the poor health that they claim he arrived with.

The pre-tournament predictions varied, with Alekhine and Botvinnik perhaps small favorites. In the end, two of the seemingly least-likely players triumphed: Keres and Fine. In his essay “The Results Analyzed”, Brandreth has some definite opinions about the causes for players’ performances, e.g., he suggests that Keres benefitted from toning down his usually aggressive play and playing in almost passive style, throwing his opponents off. In general, players were not inclined to take huge risks, and 33 of 57 games were drawn.

Fine’s outstanding previous result had been equal 3rd-5th in Nottingham 1936, 1/2 point behind Botvinnik and Capablanca and equal with Reshevsky and Euwe and ahead of Alekhine. In AVRO he began with an amazing 5.5 in the first six rounds, and his overall success was in part due to defeating Alekhine in both halves of the tournament. Brandreth includes this tidbit in his description of Fine’s performance; digging up this material is typical of his research in many books:

“At the end of the fifth round he was interviewed by Dr. Tartakover for the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf and ascribed his success to:

1. The theoretical knowledge obtained through his work on the new edition of MCO, to be published soon.
2. Abstinence from tournament play during the past six months. He felt that he had had too much of it in the previous two years.
3. Forcefully withdrawing from the enchantment of chess, thus regaining inner restfulness. Earlier this year he had decided to give up chess as a profession and complete his studies in mathematics. Last May he had asked the AVRO committee to release him from his contractual arrangement to play.
4. Playing 1.e4 in the first game against Botvinnik. This was selected more by intuition than by reason, and was psychologically in line with the above because it forced him to deal with new and less familiar situations and thus removed over-rating and under-estimation of both himself and his opponent from his calculations.
5. He had much less to lose than his opponents, and he believes this is main reason for his success.”

After this, Fine struggled, although not enough to relinquish 1st place entirely. Brandreth: “It seems obvious that battle fatigue had set in after his fantastic start. Contrasting Fine’s thin body features some five years before with his pudgy, contented-looking features at AVRO, I believe that Fine suffered from the lack of a tough physical regimen that would have increased his stamina and fighting spirit. The toughest wolves are lean and mean!”

He is also critical of Alekhine’s opening strategy:

“Had Alekhine asked himself from where his creativity brought him many of his most impressive victories, I think he would have realized that he had better chances with more offbeat openings, putting his opponents into uncharted territory, where probably all but Keres would have been uncomfortable. It would have been more interesting for the chess public, too, since his positions as black versus Fine and Botvinnik were pathetic and lifeless.

In the second half Alekhine scored one point more than in the first half. It is known that before his 1937 match with Euwe he had given up both alcohol and smoking, and evidently this strict regimen was also followed at AVRO. Although it is reasonable to assume that giving up alcohol was beneficial, I think the calming effect of cigarettes in the cauldron of AVRO might have outpaced the longer-term detriment…”

Alekhine’s comments on the tournament are perceptive. After complaining about the arduous travel schedule, he makes no excuses for the overall result:

“When we have said this, and have added that the tournament revealed no player who outclassed the rest (the first two prizes were tied for), there still remains a salient fact of which the chess world will have to take account—the victory of youth. We may try to explain or excuse the ill-success of one player or another by special circumstances, such as fatigue or ill-health; we may throw doubt on the superiority of a tournament winner, since success is almost always partly a matter of luck; but in all fairness, we cannot get away from the fact that three representatives of the younger generation beat the World Champion and his two predecessors.”

Fun stuff. As Brandreth concludes: “History will, I think, look at AVRO 1938 as the greatest tournament up to that time, for its success in bringing the best players of the day together, for some superb games, for its push towards FIDE control of the World Championship title, and for its contributions to chess theory and practice.”

A much less heralded but still interesting event was held in 1932 in Pasadena California. In Pasadena 1932 International Chess Tournament, once again, Sherwood analyses the games, whereas Brandreth contributes the results of years of research as well as an essay about the tournament and its course. According to him, Pasadena “came about largely due to the confluence of two circumstances: the interest of chess organizers in California in holding an international event, and the availability of the reigning world champion, Alekhine, as part of his world tour, which was to include the Pasadena tourney followed by a Mexico City event and concomitant simultaneous exhibitions. Earlier there were hopes that Capablanca might play as well.”

Capablanca was apparently poised to play, but Alekhine threw a wrench in the works in a letter to the organizers: “Does Capablanca participate in the tournament and does your Committee agree to pay me in that case 2000 dollars extra fee?”

A lot of money in depression times. Brandreth further points out: “Consider Capablanca’s viewpoint too. Suppose that Capablanca were included in the tournament and Alekhine won, with Capa second or even lower. Even allowing for the fact that a close result in a tournament is not equivalent to winning a match, the interest in a Capa – Alekhine match would likely be greatly diminished. In a tournament such as Pasadena, with the same competitors augmented by Capablanca, the chances of either one scoring a substantial victory in the total score would be slight. Capa could hardly see either of these results as equivalent to another title match.”

In the end, Alekhine’s strongest opponent would be Kashdan, at the time a world top-10 player. The other entrants were Reshevsky and Fine (still too young and not yet elite players), Steiner, Dake, Reinfeld, Araiza, Bernstein, Factor, Borochow and Fink. Alekhine clinched first place with a round to go, with Kashdan finishing in second place a respectable point behind, and Dake, Reshevsky, and Steiner well behind in 3rd-5th. Sherwood does a very good job of annotating the games (some are missing), not foregoing detailed analysis when needed but not going overboard, and being sure to note important opportunities and turning points.

After the main tournament section, there is a two-page report on the “Minor tournament,” whose participants included strong players from many western states and California. To my delight, I found out that this tournament was won by my [JW’s] mentor and childhood friend Reverend Howard Ohman of Omaha, Nebraska. To conclude the book, Bruce Monson contributes a lengthy essay on the Pasadena Congress Women’s Chess tournament. He describes the career of Mary Bain, one of America’s leading women players for years, with a lengthier account of Lavieve Mae Hines, who was coached by Alekhine himself and won the Women’s Congress.