The Hague-Moscow 1948

Match/Tournament for the World Chess Championship

Max Euwe

Reviewer: Donald K. McKim
Russell Enterprises
240 pages

The chess world faced a new situation when World Champion, Alexander Alekhine died on March 24, 1946. The reigning champion had never died before, so uncharted waters were ahead. At the FIDE Congress, a decision was made for a championship tournament to be held in 1947. Six players were tapped to play, with another slot reserved for one of the winners from the Groningen Staunton tournament and the Treybal Memorial in Prague, both 1946 tournaments.

The six players named to compete for the championship were Max Euwe, the world champion who had lost his title to Alekhine; Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky, and Reuben Fine. Miguel Najdorf won the Prague tournament and Botvinnik the Groningen contest.

But practical difficulties beset the tournament plan. FIDE convened again in 1947 with the upshot being that Najdorf was dropped from the list, since the Prague tournament was probably considered too weak to merit its champion’s inclusion. Botvinnik would be included from the first list. But Fine dropped out for personal reasons. So a final roster of five was established: Botvinnik, Euwe, Keres, Reshevsky, and Smyslov.

The stage was set for a dual city—The Hague and Moscow match/tournament—held from March 2 to May 16, 1948 to determine the new World Champion of Chess. From then on, FIDE took the active role and prescribed an intricate system of qualification tournaments to establish the way a World Champion was determined. With this tournament, however, there was a galaxy of talent. The five players were one former world champion, two future world champions, and two persistent contenders. So the field was rich!

This book is a translation from the Dutch and is an excellent account of this high-powered tournament. Russell Enterprises has presented this attractively with a number of features to enhance the value of the volume.

Hans Ree’s Foreword provides a fascinating account of the events leading up to this unusual arrangement and interesting stories about the players and the tournament. Further backgrounds are provided in two pieces by J. Hannak and G.W.J. Zittersteyn.

Of particular interest are the moves of the games which the players had previously played against each other, annotated briefly by Max Euwe. This presents an intriguing background of the previous fifteen years when the five competitors had played collectively, seventy-five games against each other. Euwe’s notes are understandably brief; had more analysis been given, we would have had an even fuller picture.

Accounts of The Hague Leg with introductory remarks for rounds 1-10 are provided by L.G. Eeeink. The story of rounds 11-25 in Moscow come from G.W.J. Zittersteyn. Euwe’s analyses of these games are more detailed than those of the earlier matches. Final descriptions of the Official Closing Ceremony and of the Former and the Present World Champion by Zittersteyn and Hannak complete the book. Indexes and an excellent online computer-assisted supplement for download by Taylor Kingston are additional features, along with photographs throughout the volume.

The winner was Mikhail Botvinnik (14 points out of 20), followed by Smyslov (11); Reshevsky and Keres tied (10 ½); and Euwe (4)—the disappointment of the tournament, trailing far behind. Botvinnik thus ushered in the era of Russian chess dominance and his games in this book presage his towering accomplishments and influence. He maintained the lead throughout the cycles of the tournament, losing only to Reshevsky and then to Keres, in the final round.

The games themselves convey the power and finesse of these top-flight players. Though Botvinnik was dominant, robust games among all the players are a mark of this tournament. At this level, anything can happen in any game! It is pointed out, for example, in Round 19 that “Reshevsky may justifiably pride himself on the fact that he has been the only player to put Botvinnik in serious danger of losing on no fewer than three occasions.” Always plagued by time trouble, Reshevsky, though defeating Botvinnik in this round, made a number of bad moves which led him to losses.

The last round of the tournament is considered the most exciting. This featured Keres’ win over Botvinnik, and a move by Botvinnik that Euwe annotates as “Incomprehensible.” This is surely a rarity!

The other game in this round, Reshevsky versus Euwe, was important because since Keres defeated Botvinnik (already the champion), the American had to defeat the former World Champion in order not to slip into fourth place. After the Keres victory, we are told that “this was a sign for all hell to break loose! Dozens of cheering spectators stormed forward, the spotlights were turned on and the photographers swung into action. True pandemonium!” This elicited a criticism of Dr. Vidmar, the tournament director, for not stopping the Reshevsky-Euwe game so the scene could return to normal and the excited spectators return to quietness and decorum. The result was that Reshevsky defeated Euwe, using the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Euwe blundered on move 28, with a move he referred to in his annotation as “the decisive error.” It led to Euwe’s resignation a few moves later. With their wins, Keres and Reshevsky tied for third and fourth place.

The great disappointment—Euwe’s performance—remains one of the unexpected aspects of the tournament. Naturally, crowd support in The Hague Leg was strong for the Dutch hero. Euwe offered only this explanation when speaking at the closing ceremony. After acknowledging the nearly ideal conditions in Moscow which had led him to anticipate doing better than he had done in The Netherlands, Euwe said: “How then can I explain this failure to do well? I do not know, but for the last year or more I have felt like a runner with a twisted knee.”

As the years emerged, Euwe worked hard on behalf of the general interests of chess and FIDE in settling disputes and promoting the game. Dr. J. Hannak said of Euwe: “It cannot be denied—however many games he will still win or lose—he will never lose his reputation among the world’s masters as the man who has put the unification of the chess community under the emblem of friendship and brotherhood. In success or failure, Dr. Euwe will remain the moral exemplar, the soul of the international chess organization.”

This fine account of this unique tournament is an excellent volume in many ways. Strategically and tactically, the games repay careful study. As well, we are given splendid accounts of the overall tournament and the personalities of its players, all of whom belong in the pantheon of the great players of chess.