…by Salo Flohr
The following article originally appeared in Russian, late-1957, in various Soviet chess publications:
The World’s Grand Masters
It was in Moscow, 1925, that the first great international chess competition was held. The elite of the chess world attended this event. Fortunately, Soviet scientists were close by. This world-class chess event would provide these scientists the opportunity to study the grand masters, and thereby determine what, if any, special mental or physical characteristics these expert chess players possessed.
It was only some time later, after serious and due consideration of the results of their investigations, that we have been finally appraised of the surprising diagnosis: chess players are normal human beings! So far as I know, these results have not been contradicted.
No Player Can Remain Fresh
Now, I am neither a scientist nor a doctor, but I can state with absolute confidence that no player begins a game 100 percent fresh. It is certain that each player is to some degree an actor, and that training helps to build this mask.
For example, you assume that the great masters such as Petrosian, Botvinnik, and Tal, are at all times during a game possessed of an Olympic calm ~ but you are wrong. Of course, they do have better control of their nerves than the average player, but still, in a tough situation, with defeat looming large, they too might blush like a school girl. In all seriousness, the heart-rate of a player will drastically increase as danger mounts on the board before him.
I know that it is the ambition of many, if not all, chess players to be the best ~ to be the champion of the world. Now, although I have never been champion of the world, fervently though I wished it to be, as a chess trainer I can give you sound advice in that direction.
So, here I would like to take the opportunity to answer some of the questions that have been put to me.
Chess begins at 10 Years of Age
What is the best age to begin chess? Of course, chess, like love, can catch a person at any age! Now, Alekhine, the greatest player of all-time, began at the age of seven and was a master by sixteen. Reshevsky, the North American grand master, was so skilled as a seven-year-old as to be able to tour the capitals of Europe giving simultaneous displays. Some wags have even suggested that he was a better player then than now! Now, Capablanca first pushed a “laborer” at four years of age. Tal was champion of the USSR at twenty years.
Taking all these famous examples into consideration, I believe that ten years of age is the ideal time to begin a child’s chess education. Of course, it must be said, that measures need to be taken to maintain the child’s interest, otherwise the attraction will be but fleeting.
Why the Soviets Excel
Often when traveling abroad I am asked about the secret of Soviet chess, and how is it that we have so many talented young players in the USSR. Of course, our only “secret” is that the USSR places tremendous importance on the education of our younger generation, permitting each child to develop where his or her inherent talent lies.
Spassky and Tal did not fall from the sky: we educated them. But now suppose you are already a player of the first-class: in fact, in pursuit of the world title. What would be an ideal training regime for you to follow?
Take Care of Your Health
The greatest chess players in the world, our grand masters here in the USSR, make it a cardinal point to always care for their health. Of our 19 finest players, only a mere five insist on smoking. Botvinnik and Smyslov, for their part, absolutely shun the enemy of tobacco.
I here am reminded of an incident concerning grandmaster Nimzowitsch. This great player could not tolerate cigarette or cigar smoke, and always firmly demanded that his opponents abstain from this vice during any game with him. Now, most of Nimzowitsch’s adversaries simply accepted this condition, but one time when Bogolubow played him, a new problem arose.
As Bogolubow sat across from Nimzowitsch, he calmly placed a full pack of cigarettes on the table. Greatly agitated, Nimzowitsch went and complained to the head referee. On returning to the table with Nimzowitsch, the referee found that Bogolubow was not smoking at all, but rather merely waiting for Nimzowitsch to return. The referee said, “But Bogolubow is not smoking. “No,” Nimzowitsch replied, “but he is threatening to – and in chess the threat is more powerful than the execution!”
Botvinnik, however, is ready for any eventuality at the chessboard: if he is scheduled to play a heavy smoker, he simply practices in a smoky room!
The meticulous preparation of Botvinnik
Botvinnik has been taking care of his health since childhood. For example, everyday he has the habit of walking at least two hours. Such activity is a necessity in view of the fact that daily he will sit at the chessboard hour after hour in deep concentration.
While at the board he will take refreshment every two hours with a piece of chocolate and a cup of hot tea with lemon. The thermos is, additionally, always at his elbow, ready during games.
Speaking of lemons, this reminds me of the 1954 USSR-USA match. The New York Times reported to its readers on the peculiar thirst of Bronstein: he drank the “juice from nine lemons”.
This was just how Bronstein phrased his request to the hotel staff (“I would like the juice of nine lemons, please.”). A by-stander, thinking Bronstein’s English had gone wrong, said, “Do you mean lemonade?” No, Bronstein insisted that he wanted the juice of nine big lemons squeezed into a glass for him. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the man from Moscow downed the drink to the last drop!
This incident caused a small stir in the US, but, in fact, the explanation is quite simple: as a rule, our chess players are accompanied to events with a doctor. The physician with the team at that time feared Bronstein was becoming tired and prescribed the lemon juice as a tonic. Evidently, this was just in order, as he won his next four games.
So, the moral here is: drink lemon juice and you will play like Bronstein, and fear no adversary. However, as Bronstein himself says, he does not recommend “stronger refreshments.”
The Dangers of Coffee
In many of the western countries, doctors seem to believe that coffee is good for one’s health, and a fine stimulant. I myself was at one time a coffee drinker, but I have come to the conclusion that too much is harmful, particularly in the evening as it will disturb sleep.
But, then again, isn’t it true that Lasker, Capablanca, Euwe, Botvinnik, and Smyslov enjoyed an occasional espresso? So, we see that each person will have his or her own habits, and as long as it does not turn into a vice, it’s fine.
For example, a number of our chess players were heavy smokers in the past, but today, realizing its harmful effects, have given up this practice.
A fine example of the true champion’s will was given by the great Alekhine when he, temporarily, lost his title to Euwe. At that time, Alekhine was totally given over to alcohol. Training for the re-match, however, Alekhine completely abandoned alcohol, smoking, and coffee alike. All he had to drink was milk. One reporter insisted that Alekhine was so serious about his new health regime that he traveled about with his own personal cow!
The result? When Alekhine arrived in Holland for the re-match, he was a new man, full of confidence and bursting with health. Quite easily he defeated Euwe, recovering his title. A wonderful example of health and will-power!
Fish is Preferable to Meat
When a player is doing well in a match, the public often asks about his diet. I recall when Smyslov defeated Botvinnik for the world championship a reporter asked Mrs. Smyslov about what she cooked for her husband. “More than anything else, I cook him codfish,” she replied.
So, there you have it, beloved readers – eat codfish and you shall play like Smyslov. Seriously, it is an inexpensive and nutritious food that will help you to play well.
Indeed, I have noticed that many champions prefer fish. Further, they never eat late at night, nor ever to excess.
These things will help you to become better and better, and although no one else may recognize your progress, my advice is to stick to it and remain steadfast.
Why I recall that even Bogolubow was not much for recognizing young talent. In fact, he even went so far as once to say, “ Although there are a lot of fine young players today, I really think there are only two men in the entire world who are experts – myself and Alekhine.”
Physical Exercise Also
Well now, I believe that I have given my readers the main requirements to become world champion, but I must add one more thing: also practice sports.
All the top Soviet players do so. Botvinnik and Smyslov go in for gymnastics. Spassky is an all-around athlete. Keres is a tennis player (and first-rate at it, too). Geller plays basketball.
Driving an Automobile
Many of the grand masters find that driving an auto is a suitable past-time in that it provides relief from the mental strain of chess. Botvinnik, Smyslov, Keres, Kotov, Geller, Taimanov, Lilenthal, and Averbach all enjoy driving.
Of course, there are occasional traffic problems to deal with. A few years back, Taimanov, then an inexperienced motorist, was driving Smyslov about Leningrad, showing him the beautiful view. Well, after one too many violations, they were stopped by a traffic policeman. “I am escorting a distinguished guest,” argued Taimanov. “This is Smyslov, one of the greatest chess players in the world!” The officer of the law, however, was adamant. “Well, unless you’d like to bring the grandmaster the rest of the way on foot, you’d better not break anymore laws! Here’s your ticket.”