Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review of The Hague-Moscow 1948 by Max Euwe

What a pleasure it was to learn that this book was finally available in English! 

For anyone who may not be aware of the history, in 1948 a Match/Tournament was held to fill the void left by the death of Alexander Alekhine in 1946.  Held under the auspices of FIDE for the first time the idea was to not only crown a new champion, but also to set up a regular cycle of title defenses. 

Prior to FIDE stepping in to take over the process the world champion himself would decide how often the title would be defended and against whom.  That process led to the ridiculous dry spell from 1937 when Alekhine regained his title from Max Euwe, to 1946 when Alekhine died of no title matches taking place.

FIDE stepped in to ensure that there would now be a regular championship cycle beginning with this event.

This book is published by Russell Enterprises and is 240 pages, using Figurine Algebraic Notation.  The sections of the book include a Foreword by Hans Ree, articles about the lead up to the tournament, and games comprising the prior meetings between the contestants.

I have long been a fan of the history of chess and the world championships, but this tournament has always remained somewhat shrouded in mystery.  Mostly because there was little available in the way of annotated games that were published in English.  I had purchased Gligoric's book on the world championships simply to get the game scores a few years ago.

So it was with a high level of anticipation that I sat down to read this book.  It did not disappoint!

After Alekhine's death there was some talk of simply reinstating the title to the prior world champ, Dr. Max Euwe of the Netherlands.  In fact, Euwe was fond of saying that he was world champion twice...the first time from 1935-37 when he held the title he had won from Alekhine, and the second time for one day in 1948 prior to the decision being made to hold this match/tournament rather than simply restoring the title to Dr. Euwe.

One thing that seems to have been mostly lost with the passage of time is the knowledge that while there were five contestants (Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Max Euwe, and Sammy Reshevsky) who played in this event, there were originally six who were slated, with the final spot being given to the American, Rueben Fine. 

However, by that time Dr. Fine had made the decision to pursue psychology rather than to continue as a professional chess player.  At that point FIDE considered adding Miguel Najdorf in the final slot, but ultimately decided to run the event with five players, meaning that everyone would get extra rest days since each playing day one of the contestants would have a bye.

Naturally the majority of chess aficionados recall that Botvinnik won the title rather handily.  Sadly, however, the event was not completely above board.  In the years afterwards it came to light that the Soviet authorities pressured Paul Keres to throw games to Botvinnik.  There is much debate on the extent of the pressure, with varying opinions on whether or not it actually took place, but it seems to me that based on what I've read from Soviet GM's (i.e. David Bronstein in Secret Notes) that there was at least some coercion to this effect.

That being said, the tournament was designed to be split between two cities, with the first ten rounds taking place in The Hague and the final fifteen in Moscow.  (Keeping in mind that in order for five contestants to play twenty games each five additional rounds were needed due to the byes.)

Sadly for the Dutch fans, their hero Euwe got out of the gates slow, and slowed down further from there.  After the first ten rounds Euwe had managed only 1.5 points.  Botvinnik meanwhile had opened a two point lead which he never relinquished.

The detail level of the annotations of the games varies greatly, with some games being only lightly annotated whilst some are covered with a far greater level of detail.

There is a writeup at the beginning of each round which describes the state of the tournament and related events, followed by the games for that round.  The ECO codes are given for each game along with the name of the opening, and there is an index in the back of the book by both name and code, making cross referencing a breeze.  Furthermore, in an ingenious move the games are separately indexed between the prior meetings leading up to the tournament and the tournament itself.  I found this to be a very nice feature.

Dr. Euwe annotations are very much geared for improvement at the club level as they are more wordy than they are variational.  The focus is on clear explanations which can be understood by all readers.  However, when the situation warrants, detailed variations are given.

Overall I give this book a very solid four out of five stars.

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