Ossip Bernstein, the chess player who risked his life in a game

Chess is a game that represents war on a board and in which, depending on their hierarchy, the pieces eliminate each other in a metaphor of combat and death. So it is ironic that a game played in 1918 literally saved a man’s life. His name was Ossip Samoilovich Bernstein and he had to win to prove his identity, under penalty of being executed. Of course he had a certain advantage because he was a champion in that sport.

He was born in 1882 in Yítomir, a city in central Ukraine that at that time was part of the Russian Empire, into a family of Jewish merchants with enough resources to send him to study in Western Europe. Specifically to Germany, where in 1901 he graduated from the Higher Technical School of Hannover and was able to enter the university, obtaining a doctorate in Law between those of Leipzig and Berlin in 1906. By then he had already become an outstanding chess player who in 1902 prevailed in the tournament of the current German capital and was second in Hannover, behind the teacher Walter John.

A year later he was runner-up in the kyiv Tournament, which was won by what was considered the best player in Russia, Mikhail Chigorin, and in the following years he continued to rub shoulders with the best in the chess world: the Austrians Rudolf Spielman and Carl Schlechter, the English Horatio Caro, Polish Akiba Rubinstein… always ranking among the first in each contest. In 1907 he managed to draw a game against the latter and the qualitative leap came in 1911, when he won the Moscow City Championship, where he had moved after obtaining his doctorate. There he practiced the profession of lawyer together with the prestigious Igor Kistyakovsky, who would later dedicate himself to politics, becoming secretary of state of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Cuban José Raúl Capablanca in 1920/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Bernstein, who was a financial legal advisor to companies (banks, insurance companies…), continued to progress in chess and that year he visited Spain to participate in the San Sebastian Tournament, considered one of the highest level held until then. Together with his compatriot Aron Nimzowitsch, Bernstein filed a protest because the organization admitted the registration of a young Cuban player who did not meet the requirement of having finished third in at least two tournaments. He precisely had to face him in the first round… and he was eliminated. Of course, the Caribbean would win the championship and, in the end, he would become one of the great figures of all time: José Raúl Capablanca. Bernstein would face him another three times without ever being able to defeat him.

And that was the most brilliant stage of his career, since Ossip Bernstein may never have reached the brilliance of other chess players, but he was included in the Mikhail Chigorin Club (made up of players who had won a World Championship game) and managed stay in the top ten world for more than a decade, between 1903 and 1914. Perhaps it could have prolonged it had it not been for the events that followed the outbreak of the First World War, the main one being the Russian Revolution. The Jews hoped that the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout Russia during the tsarist era would subside with the new regime but, although anti-discriminatory measures were initially adopted, the good intentions of the government collided with the criteria of the party, radically secular and hostile to any religious manifestation. Therefore, from 1918, despite Lenin, things began to turn black again for Judaism.

To the confiscations and dissolution of communities carried out in the Soviet zone were added the pogroms carried out by the White Army. For someone like Ossip Bernsein, things were even worse, since he lost the fortune he had amassed thanks to various businesses facilitated by his work. Then the incident that we described at the beginning occurred. Bernstein was traveling from kyiv to Odessa in that year 1918 when he was arrested by the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, popularly known as the Cheka (Soviet secret police destined to combat counter-revolution, speculation and corruption). Everything happened very quickly and it was enough to know that he was a business lawyer for them to put him before a firing squad.

Ossip Bernstein in 1961/Image: Jac. by Nijs at Wikimedia Commons

Then there was one of those coincidences with which fate sometimes plays on a whim. One of the officers was reviewing the list of inmates when he recognized the name of Ossip Bernstein. It turned out that he was a chess fan, so he pulled him away from the muzzle of the guns and asked if he was the famous chess champion. Bernstein answered in the affirmative but, apparently, not with enough conviction because the officer challenged him to a life or death game; if Bernstein was not able to defeat him he would also lose his life. Of course, the Chekist was no match and was defeated in a few moves. Bernstein won more than a game that day; he also won his survival and his freedom, which he immediately took advantage of to put land in the middle.

A British ship took him to France and he settled in Paris, where in 1928 he would join Astraea, a masonic lodge formed by Russians. The war made people have more important things to think about than chess, and he knew that twice from his experience, so, without giving it up entirely, he temporarily put his hobby on hold. From time to time he played and even toured accompanied by Alexander Alekhine, world champion and compatriot with whom he had become friends. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the post-war economic recovery, he managed to rebuild considerable capital…which he again lost when the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression hit. He must have been as good at business as he was at chess because once the crisis was over he amassed yet another fortune; yes, he did not have the best time for it because in 1939 World War II came and, with the German invasion of France, he not only lost everything again but he had to flee the country.

In 1940, seeking refuge in Spain, he crossed the Pyrenees with his family on a dramatic adventure, traveling at night and hiding during the day for two exhausting days; So much so that he suffered a heart attack and this meant that they were all arrested by the Civil Guard. The management of some influential friends allowed them to get out of jail and get together, settling in Barcelona until 1945, when, after the war, they returned to Paris, since they had French citizenship since 1932. Bernstein took up chess again and played several tournaments at good level, almost always being among the first. Even he was able to play again in the Soviet Union at the end of the Stalinist stage.

The most curious episode of those years took place in the Great International Unesco Tournament in Montevideo, in 1954, where eighteen players participated. Bernstein lost to the Chilean René Letelier Martner, who was ultimately the winner, and had to play for runner-up with Miguel Najdorf, an Argentine grandmaster who had first protested at having to play against a seventy-two-year-old man, and then , reconsidering his presumed advantage, managed to get the organization to increase the cash amount of the first prize by taking it away from the following positions. We have already seen that it went wrong because Letelier won, but Bernstein also defeated him: thirty-seven movements inspired by the Ancient Indian Defense.

That genius made him win a special award. It was a special decade for him because he also received the title of International Grand Master then, but it was nearing the end of his life. In 1962, a second heart attack while traveling by plane back from the XV Chess Olympiad in 1962 left him very ill and he died that same year in his sleep, during a visit to some friends in the French Pyrenees.


The Bobby Fischer I knew and other stories (Arnold Denker and Larry Parr)/ossip bernstein (Bill Wall at WebArchive)/Lined up for the firing squad, this chess master was offered to play a game of chess for his life (Lindsay Stidham in History Collection)/Chessgames/Wikipedia

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