Paul Keres: A Man Whose Life Reflected His Homeland

Paul Keres was born in Narva—then of the Russian Empire, now of Estonia—on January 7, 1916, and so his birth and his life would be defined by global wars and bloody revolution. As was his country, and so much of Eastern Europe, Keres the chessplayer was buffeted and battered between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The tragedy of an entire nation was reflected in the life of one great individual. That Keres achieved such greatness despite these terrible obstacles eases the pain of wondering what might have been had he been given a fair chance by fate.

The tragedy of an entire nation was reflected in the life of one great individual.

The end of World War II left Keres trapped in the USSR along with his country. His skill was valued as useful to the Soviet sports propaganda machine, but he would always be treated as a second-class citizen despite his first-class talent and results. At the World Championship tournament in 1948 it was made clear that Keres would not be allowed to topple the Soviet Patriarch of chess, Mikhail Botvinnik. Under the Estonian flag Paul Keres would have had a good chance of beating Botvinnik, but playing under the same flag he had no chance at all.

Politics didn’t stop Keres from a career of fantastic results and beautiful chess. He won the mighty Soviet Championship three times, including the 1951 tournament where he finished ahead of the strongest field imaginable, including Botvinnik. An elegant and aggressive player, it is fitting that chess tomes remember his name forever not with a “defense” or a “system”, but with the deadly complications of the Keres Attack.

Keres’s premature death came in 1975, soon after winning his last game and event in Vancouver, where he is still honored with a memorial tournament every year. It is a great credit to the man himself and to Estonians that Paul Keres is remembered so well and so fondly despite having been robbed by circumstance and intrigue of his best opportunities to plant the Estonian flag at the peak of chess Olympus.

This essay was published in translation in Postimees on January 7, 2016.

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