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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Dr. Ossip Bernstein

     Chess history has not been kind to Bernstein. He is best known for losing several well-known games to Capablanca. Edward Lasker said that Bernstein was of true world championship caliber and Harry Golombek called his style "massive and sparkling." 
     Bernstein was a player who according to Chessmetrics was ranked number 9 in the world 10 different months between the April 1904 and March 1906 and achieved a rating high of 2688 on the January 1906 rating list. His best individual performance: was 2716 at Ostend, 1907. 
     Born September 20, 1882 in Zhytomyr, Russian Empire to a family of Jewish heritage, Bernstein grew up in pre-revolutionary Russia. He earned a doctorate in law at Heidelberg University in 1906, and became a financial lawyer. 
     After the First World War, the October Revolution and during the Russian Civil War in 1918, he was arrested in Odessa by the Bolshevik secret police and ordered shot by a firing squad because he was a legal adviser to bankers. As the firing squad lined up, a superior officer asked to see the list of prisoners' names. Upon seeing Bernstein's name, he was asked whether he was the famous chess master. Not satisfied with Bernstein's affirmative reply, the officer made Bernstein play a game with him. If Bernstein lost or drew, he would be shot. With his hands shaking Bernstein won quickly and he, along with the other prisoners, was released. 
     After his narrow escape he, his wife and two small children fled on a British ship to Paris. As a successful businessman he had earned considerable wealth before losing it in the Bolshevik Revolution and in Paris he earned a second fortune that was lost in the Great Depression.  He then made a third fortune that was lost when France was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. 
     After the German invasion of France Bernstein and his wife left for Spain on foot, walking through the Pyrenees at night and hiding in caves during the day. Bernstein described the difficulty for two people in late middle age as they stumbled along in darkness, tripping over rocks and tortured by thirst before arriving in Spain with clothes torn and in a state of exhaustion. At the border Bernstein passed out with a heart attack and the Spanish guards arrested them and placed them in separate prisons. Through the intervention of some influential friends in Spain, his family was released and was allowed to stay in Spain where he played many friendly games with Alekhine. 
     He returned to Paris after the war and reestablished contact with a son who had been imprisoned by the Nazis for five years and was able to recoup some of his financial losses. After WW II he also returned to chess, usually doing quit well. 
     In 1954 at the age of 72 he tied for 2nd-3rd with Miguel Najdorf, behind René Letelier, at Montevideo. Nadjorf had been so confident of winning the tournament that he convinced the tournament organizers to double the first prize money at the expense of reducing the payouts for the lower prizes. Najdorf claimed, "That guy (Bernstein) is much too old to participate in such a tournament!" The plan backfired when Bernstein routed him in a 37-move game that won Bernstein the Brilliancy Prize. 
     In 1954 the 44-year old Najdorf was no spring chicken, but according to Chessmetrics his rating was over 2700, placing him number 7 in the world and sometimes it's good to youth get their comeuppance. It reminds me of the time I was playing in a weekender and during the last round was out in the hall when a young teenager who was playing an elderly fellow long past his prime came out and in a mocking manner began bragging to his friends about how "that old man" didn't know (expletive deleted) about chess and he was beating the (expletive deleted) out of him. Then he started telling his audience how many rating points he was going to gain and how much prize money he was going to pocket. Shortly after that, back at my board, the kid returned to his game and banged out a move. A few seconds later everybody heard him moan, "Awww, (expletive deleted)." Then came a long pause before he mumbled, "I resign" then fled the room in tears (no, it wasn't Bobby Fischer). The old man looked around and said, "He hung his Queen." and the whole room erupted in laughter. 
     When FIDE introduced titles in 1950, Bernstein was awarded the GM title. He died in a sanatorium on November 30, 1962 at St. Arroman in the French Pyrenees. 

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