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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Paul Keres, the man

     Why didn't Keres become world champion? Reshevsky thought he was too unsteady. Spassky observed that in order to reach the top you have to think solely of the goal and forget about everything else and that was something Keres simply couldn't do. 
     Raised in an independent nation, Keres witnessed Estonia occupied by Soviet forces and formally annexed by them in 1940. He then saw Estonia occupied by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944 and finally it was again occupied by the Red Army and was to remain part of the Soviet Union until after his death. 
     Keres played in tournaments in Nazi-occupied Europe where he met Alekhine on several occasions. He once asked Alekhine what he thought the Bolsheviks would do to him if he (Keres) fell into their hands. Alekhine warned him, “You should not have any doubt that they'd shorten you by a head.” 
     In the summer of 1944 Keres was playing in Finland and at the invitation of future FIDE president Folke Rogard, he went to Sweden, where he took part in a weak tournament in which he lost three games. The reason for his poor showing was that he was contemplating fleeing to neutral Sweden. So, after the tournament he returned to Estonia and made plans to return to Sweden with his wife and two children, but his wife did not want to emigrate. Her family was in Estonia and she had lived there her whole life. 
     Nevertheless, Keres had made up his mind and they departed expecting to meet a boat from Sweden that was to dock in Haapsalu in Estonia, but it didn't arrive. As a result, a well known Estonian writer, a singer and several members of the Estonian government fell into the hands of the Soviet army along with Keres. The government officials were arrested and sent to Siberia, and Keres' fate was hanging by a thread. He was summoned to the NKVD (the Soviet secret service and predecessor of the KGB) offices in Tallinn on several occasions. 
     According to GM Yury Averbach the NKVD Colonel, Boris Vainshtein, was in Tallinn on business after the Soviet Army had entered the city and had he a conversation with the head of the Estonian NKVD.  It so happened that Vainshtein was also the chairman of the Chess Section and he was asked if he could resolve the issue of whether Keres could participate in the USSR championship. Vainshtein refused to meet with Keres because it was beyond his authority to resolve the issue. The policy was those who had been in the occupied territories during the war would not be allowed into the first post-war championship. Vainshtein added that although he personally liked Keres, if they went by the book he should be given 2-5 years in prison for collaborating with the Germans and consorting with Alekhine. 
     Keres wrote a letter to the chess federation of the Soviet Union in which he tried to present the events of his attempt to flee Estonia in September 1944 in different light. He described how the Germans tried to persuade him it was essential that he be immediately evacuated to Germany. Keres then explained that because the Nazis were hounding him to evacuate and it was really against his wishes, he had to move from place to place with his wife and two little children in order to escape the troublesome offers and to create the illusion that he was, in fact, preparing to leave the country! He added that in the end he managed to escape from the clutches of the Nazis and live in a quiet place. Apparently the officials didn't believe him and never answered his letter. They stripped him of his USSR Grandmaster title and banned him from chess. 
     Fortunately for Keres, and the chess world, the first secretary of Estonia's Central Committee, Nikolai Karotamm, took Keres under his guardianship which afforded him a measure of protection that his wife believed saved him from a very, very bad fate. 
    It was suggested that Keres should write a letter to Vyacheslav Molotov, which he did. The result was he was given permission to resume his chess activities. Even so, Keres was plagued with difficulties whenever he wanted to travel abroad and the KGB didn't let him out of their scrutiny until almost the end of his life. 
     Beginning in 1958 the KGB took a special interest in Keres and began trying to get him to cooperate with the powers then in control.  But, as one KGB agent wrote in his notebook concerning a conversation with Keres, it was clear he didn't have any desire to cooperate with them. The result was both Keres and his wife became persons to be watched. A 1965 KGB memo notes of Keres' wife, “A trusted person reported that Maria Keres is a cultured, educated woman . Her character is resolute, talkative and inquisitive. It is felt that she has a high opinion of herself. The family lives very affluently. They own an American limousine. Nothing negative in Maria Keres' behavior in day-to-day life has been observed.” 
Mrs. Keres circa 2003

     Keres dodged a bullet involving his wife though. Every Soviet person going abroad had to fill out a form and one of the questions asked if they had relatives abroad. Keres always answered no and the KGB never found out that though Keres' wife had a sister who lived in Tallinn, there was another sister. She left Estonia in 1944, got married and ended up in Canada. 
     Keres got into serious trouble in 1969 when he was in Prague and had lunch with Ludek Pachman. By that time Pachman was considered an enemy of the Soviet Union. When the KGB learned of this meeting they took Keres to their headquarters in Lubyanka where he was subjected to an interrogation that was several hours long. Keres constantly had to be careful. When he went to Moscow he always took a notebook in which he noted who was talking with whom and who wasn't speaking to whom. Such information could be important.
     He always tried to remain stoic and appear unflappable. Despite his politeness and restraint, he wasn't against having fun though. He liked playing blitz and talking trash. Among close friends he liked to recite poems which were sometimes obscene. Even so, some astute observers noted that underneath, Keres was somewhat brooding by nature. 
     German was Keres's strongest foreign language but after the war he had to learn Russian. At the same time he found himself in a world where suspicion and mistrust were the order of the day. Native Russians understood the atmosphere, but Keres had to learn to live in a society with values that were totally different from those he was used to. The result was that even among fellow Soviet GMs he was always something of a foreigner. He had a slight accent, his manners, knowledge of languages, tennis and bridge, his necktie, good grooming, politeness and his overall demeanor were foreign to his colleagues. 
     Early on, Keres became a favorite of the public in the Soviet Union which irritated the leaders of Soviet chess, especially with the question of who should play a match with Alekhine for the title of world champion. Botvinnik wrote that he and Keres were friends, but Keres's wife claimed that in reality, they weren't too fond of each other. 
     When Botvinnik began preparing for a World Championship match with Alekhine he made a number of requests for himself, his seconds, his mother and his wife. He also demanded a training match against Keres! The idea was that Keres would be forced to give up any claims he had on a match against Alekhine. Alekhine's sudden death ended the whole affair. 
     There have always been rumors that at the 1948 match-tournament Keres had been forced to throw games to Botvinnik. Keres did win their last game, but it has been suggested the reason was to allow him to tie with the hated American, Reshevsky.  Actually, Botvinnik offered a draw in the opening of that last game, which Keres declined. When Botvinnik repeated the offer a few moves later, Keres swore at him in response. 
     What would have happened if Keres had escaped to Sweden in 1944?   Korchnoi thinks he would have won the world championship. Keres' widow disagreed.  He  not only lacked the singleness of purpose that becoming world champion requires but he was also incapable of exhibiting another trait gaining the world championship would have required of him...the merciless treatment of his rivals.
     Keres was from a family with longevity, but he only lived to the age of 59. Even at the relatively young age of 41 he was on medication for high blood pressure and just a few years later doctors insisted he give up tournament play. Keres had circulation problems and when playing in tournaments he was always impeccably dressed but wearing slippers because his feet hurt owing to gout.  He was returning home to Estonia after winning a tournament in Vancouver when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Helsinki. He was buried at Metsakalmistu cemetery in Tallinn.  Paul Keres Trivia  Paul Keres Genealogy

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