A match of 14 games between Max Euwe and Paul Keres was staged in various Dutch cities - Amsterdam, Utrecht, Hilversum, The Hague and Rotterdam - between the 24th of December, 1939, and the 15th of January, 1940. Prior to this match, Euwe and Keres had played five times, with their first meeting in 1936; the score was +2 =2 -1 in favour of Euwe. The match was hard-fought, with only three draws. Euwe established an early two-point lead, but Keres overtook him, scoring +5 -1 =0 in games 5-10.
The late 1930's were a period of transition, with the world champion Alexander Alekhine being unable to maintain the overwhelming dominance he enjoyed in the earlier part of the decade. 1 Keres was FIDE's challenger to Alekhine for the world championship (but the champion still had the final say about whom he wished to play against). This match was an opportunity for Keres to reinforce his claim to being the primary challenger for the world championship crown, by playing Euwe, who had been the world champion of 1935-37. Keres wrote:
The encounters with the leading masters in Nottingham (1936) and in the AVRO (1938) had proved that Alekhine’s 'superclass' no longer existed, and that he would have to fight as hard for his place as any of the candidates ... It might be argued that Alekhine’s playing strength has declined somewhat as compared with the period of his greatest ascendancy, while that of his rivals has risen, resulting in the disappearance of the 'superclass'. However, Alekhine is not weaker than any one of the seven claimants. Possibly the decline of his strength is to be explained by approaching old age, fatigue, or analogous reasons; yet his original ideas, fighting temperament, colossal resourcefulness, ingenious combinations – all these have remained almost at the same level ... I can freely declare that none of his seven rivals possesses his resourcefulness, his most subtle grasp of positions, and his experience. The weapons with which he may be conquered consist of fundamental theoretical knowledge, accurate play and, above all, greater endurance and stronger nerves ... a match between Alekhine and any one of the seven candidates will constitute a chess event of exceptional interest, the outcome of which cannot be determined in advance. 2
From Mr. M. Levenbach's foreword in Euwe - Keres 1939-1940:
After his successful winning spurt in the second round of the major AVRO tournament in the autumn of 1938 Dr. Max Euwe immediately devised a new project. He worked in cooperation with the Euwe committee and there was extensive consultation with the executive board of the Dutch Federation ... The Euwe Committee consisted of Messrs A. de Bruyn, P. Jungman, Th. M. E. Liket, K. J. Nieukerke and Mr. M. Levenbach, with the tireless G. v. Harten as active secretary-treasurer. Full of enthusiasm, the Committee took up its duties, and considered two projects: a match against Paul Keres or against Reuben Fine, both winners of the above mentioned tournament. Keres had, under the provisions of this tournament, been given the right to a title fight with the world champion, Dr. Alekhine. Consequently, as Dr. Euwe and the Committee did not want to interfere with this, Fine was invited to play a 14 game match against Dr. Euwe in the summer of 1939. Fine, who was then in America, accepted the invitation, but declined in the spring of 1939 due to the international tensions ... Meantime, the negotiations between Keres and Alekhine about the battle for the world championship were floundered. This allowed the Committee to now feel themselves free to address an invitation to Keres, who was immediately prepared to play ... The course of the match caused us some disappointment, because Dr. Euwe, albeit at the smallest possible margin, lost the match. The match itself has had an exciting course and chess literature was enriched with many games of theoretical interest and of great beauty. 3
"Euwe-Keres, a test of strength of special significance - Is Keres also a match player? Upward trend in Euwe's performance. Keres, travelling by airplane from Stockholm, arrived in Amsterdam on Friday (22nd December), and on Sunday his duel with the former world champion, Dr. Euwe will commence. This match is viewed by the national and international chess communities with great anticipation. After all, this meeting will probably provide an answer to the question of whether Dr. Euwe has returned to a form which could entitle him to challenge the world champion Dr. Alekhine to a new title fight, or whether Paul Keres, at fourteen years younger, whom many in the chess world see as a future world champion, would be the most eligible. Euwe has already played two title matches, whereas Keres has not had the opportunity to prove that he is a world championship contender ... Keres has actually played only one match, in 1938 in Gothenberg against Gideon Stahlberg (Sweden), which ended in a tie (two wins, two losses, four draws). But everybody understands that being an excellent tournament player - which Keres has proven to be - by no means guarantees that he will be an ace in match play. The reverse is of course also the case. Keres, in the upcoming match against Euwe, may now have to demonstrate that he is equally as fearsome in match play as he has been in his tournament play in recent years. If so, then the Estonian may rightfully cherish world championship aspirations." 4
"A second question, which could be raised before the start of the contest, is: in which direction is Keres' style evolving? Playing successfully in international tournaments, his style is most impressive. He is full of enterprising spirit, has developed a marked preference for gambits, and almost always plays an attacking type of game. As some experts put it, in 'the wild' style. But despite this attacking game, Keres does not neglect the defence; he is perfectly aware of opening theory, he has already made a special study of opening variations, and is an artist in endgames ... Generally, it has been assumed that Keres would eventually adopt a quieter, safer, yes, one might even say, sedate style ... For Euwe, there is a lot at stake. After the second match for the world championship (1937), there was a major slump in his form, but in November 1938, in the second part of the AVRO tournament, our compatriot regained his old form. That is, he recaptured an inner certainty, with confidence in his own abilities returning again - which is not to be underestimated psychologically, because one may be technically very skilled, but without those attributes, the master will never reach peak performance ... This upward trend has been maintained in the past year, and Euwe has been unassailable in his match against Salo Landau. Not only because he defeated his fellow competitor by a large margin, but in particular the manner in which he proved he has overcome his slump. In this context, it was seen as beneficial for the Euwe Committee to organize a match against Keres. The result will matter a lot, to the extent of whether Euwe will again be allowed to make a bid for the highest title in the foreseeable future." 4
Euwe had briefly held the world champion title, then lost it again to Alekhine (see Alekhine - Euwe World Championship Match (1935) and Euwe - Alekhine World Championship Rematch (1937). After losing his title, Euwe was twice outdistanced in tournaments by Keres. He was 4th in Noordwijk (1938), in which Keres came second, and at AVRO (1938) (6th-27th November 1938) he shared 4th place with Alekhine and Samuel Reshevsky.
Euwe came second to the Hungarian champion Laszlo Szabo in a middle ranking tournament at Hastings (1938/39) over the New Year 1938-39.
Euwe was Dutch champion in 1938 and 1939, decisively beating Salo Landau, who had been the 1936 Dutch champion, in a match for the 1939 championship (+5 –0 =5). Apart from his victory at Bournemouth (1939), ahead of Ernst Ludwig Klein and Salomon Flohr (in August 1939), Euwe restricted himself to local tournaments in Holland before this match. His victories included Amsterdam (VARA) in May 1939, Baarn (A), and Amsterdam (KNSB), won jointly with Szabo and Flohr.
Keres and Reuben Fine had won AVRO (1938), a tremendously strong tournament, which included Alekhine and Jose Raul Capablanca in its line-up of eight of the top ten players in the world. Keres won on tiebreak, having defeated Fine 1½–½ in their individual two games. This tournament should have decided the next FIDE challenger and so determined the next world title challenger. A new cohort of players was entering the elite, and Keres was seen as a potential world champion. According to Capablanca, Amongst the new talents there are two who stand out more as great masters than the others: Mikhail Botvinnik and, on a secondary level, Keres. Also Alekhine, of course; but he is not new; he is old like me. Keres plays admirably well; his sense of fantasy is enormous, his imagination fiery. But his judgment is unsteady. He does not always know if the game in front of him is won, lost or drawn; and when it is won it also sometimes happens that he does not know for sure why and how it is won. 5
Keres was living a demanding life. From 1937 to 1941, apart from his burgeoning chess career, he studied mathematics at the University of Tartu, and after his great victory at AVRO, Keres was feted in municipal celebrations across his native Estonia. He played a match against Gideon Stahlberg (in Gothenburg, 20th April - 1st May 1938) which ended with a draw (+2 =4 -2, Keres - Stahlberg (1938). 6 With little time to rest and prepare, he played indifferently in the Leningrad/Moscow training (1939) (3rd January - 1st February), ending shared 12th. He won the tournament in Margate (1939) (in April), ahead of Capablanca. Keres then played for Estonia at the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires (21st August - 19th September 1939), on the top board (+11 -5 =3); the Estonian team won the bronze medal.
During the Olympiad, on the 1st September, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. The members of the German team, including their best player Erich Eliskases, chose to remain in Argentina, as did most elite players such as Miguel Najdorf and Gideon Stahlberg. But despite the outbreak of war, Keres did not stay. He played in Buenos Aires (1939) (2nd-19th October), sharing first with Miguel Najdorf, and then returned home to Estonia. In this dangerous and turbulent period, he accepted the Dutch invitation to play Euwe, and travelled to Holland rather than undertaking a previously contemplated tour of the USA.
Game 1 - 24th December 1939 --- Amsterdam
Game 2 - 25th December 1939 --- Amsterdam
Game 3 - 27th December 1939 --- Utrecht
Game 4 - 29th December 1939 --- Amsterdam
Game 5 - 30th December 1939 --- Amsterdam
Game 6 - 1st January 1940 ------- The Hague
Game 7 - 2nd January 1940 ------ The Hague
Game 8 - 3rd January 1940 ------- Amsterdam
Game 9 - 5th January 1940 ------- Rotterdam
Game 10 - 6th January 1940 ------ Rotterdam
Game 11 - 7th January 1940 ------ Rotterdam
Game 12 - 10th January 1940 ----- Amsterdam
Game 13 - 13th January 1940 ----- Hilversum
Game 14 - 14th-15 January 1940 -- Amsterdam
The match almost collapsed at the last moment. After the Olympiad, Keres returned to Tallinn via Gibraltar, Genoa and Berlin. He had then planned to travel to Amsterdam by train. Due to visa difficulties, he was forced to commence the trip from Stockholm, but the ferry to Stockholm was overbooked. Keres was about to telegraph the Euwe Committee that the match would not take place, when he heard that a group of people in Riga had arranged a private aeroplane charter from Stockholm. He managed to persuade them to give him a seat. These travel problems surely could not have helped his frame of mind, or physical preparation, for the match. 7
The official opening of the match was held on the 23rd of December, at the Hotel Gooiland, in Hilversum. Keres gave a short speech. He said that he was happy to be back in the Netherlands, where he felt totally at home, thanks to his three previous visits, namely Zandvoort (1936), Noordwijk (1938) and AVRO (1938). The task that awaited him would be very onerous, as Dr. Euwe was one of the best match players in the world. Keres expressed his hopes that the quality of the games would be high, and gallantly wished that the best would win. 8 Euwe also spoke, and stated his belief that the "very young Keres" would undoubtedly be a future world champion, but the Dutch champion wryly hoped that this would happen "only in ten or fifteen years’ time". 9
The progress of the match
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4
Keres ½ ½ 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 0 1 ½ 0 7½
Euwe ½ ½ 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 ½ 1 6½
Euwe was White in the odd numbered games.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Keres ½ 1 1 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 6 7 7½ 7½
Euwe ½ 1 2 3 3 3 4 4 4 4 5 5 5½ 6½
Later analysis established that Euwe had an opportunity to gain an advantage from the opening, but instead mass exchanges on the queenside eventually led to a drawn position.
Euwe defended using his favourite Open Spanish, and the game followed Keres vs Euwe, 1937. Keres introduced a novelty, 11. Qe1, but it proved ineffective. Euwe was able to equalise with little trouble.
Keres played a pawn sacrifice, which gave him little compensation against Euwe’s accurate play. In the third successive Spanish opening, Euwe scored the first win of the match. The game followed the theory of the times for 17 moves. Keres then was outplayed, and his defence was marred by several blunders. He resigned in a hopeless position.
Keres again played the Spanish. This time, Euwe played a closed variation. After a long struggle, in which neither player gained the advantage, Keres miscalculated. He sacrificed a pawn to allow his <b> pawn to advance, but Euwe found a tactical refutation which left him three pawns up.
Despite his success with the Spanish (+2 =2 -0), Euwe chose a <d> pawn opening. Although Keres may have been surprised, he chose the Classical Nimzo-Indian in response. Euwe soon had the worse of it. Keres played very well, establishing a rook on Euwe’s second rank. He then won a pawn, and went into an opposite-coloured-bishops endgame, which he managed to win.
Euwe found himself in an inferior position from the opening. He managed to effect some simplification, but remained under positional pressure. Keres gained space on the kingside, but was still not winning, until Euwe sealed a poor 43rd move, that left him in a cramped position. Keres played extremely accurately in the ending to break through on the queenside and win.
The first eleven moves followed Game 1. Keres built up a promising position, having compromised his opponent's kingside defences, but then blundered a piece:
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After 30.Bc4+! he resigned, as 30...Kh8 31.Rxe4! wins the knight.
In a Slav Defence, both players chose sharp attacking lines. Keres (as White) emerged with the advantage, and, with Keres’ king still in the centre, Euwe sacrificed a knight on <e5> for two center pawns. This created a highly tactical position. In the ensuing melee of attack and counterattack, Euwe had a chance of snatching a draw, but his king was chased down the kingside, into a mating net.
According to Egon Varnusz, Keres' 23rd move was a “breathtakingly brilliant positional sacrifice of the Queen. This game ... was later called 'The Ninth', in reference to Beethoven’s last symphony.” 10 Keres commented that "Euwe played the opening inaccurately and lost a pawn, obtaining in return only highly problematic counter-chances on the kingside. In order to eliminate these possibilities I offered a positional queen sacrifice, after the acceptance of which Black's rooks and bishops began operating with destructive power". 11 Keres sacrificed a pawn with 22...d3, and then played the terrific queen sacrifice 22.Rxd3 Qxd3!
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Euwe had almost equalised (as Black) when he overlooked a sharp tactical pawn sacrifice by Keres on move 16. Taking the pawn lost, so instead Euwe, in his own words, "gave up two pawns, hoping for counterplay on the kingside". But his threats proved insufficient, and despite both players being short of time, "the ending (was) untenable." 12
Keres played a rare line in the Slav Defence with 6...Qa5. This variation was practically refuted by Euwe’s successful opening plan, which was later adopted in Botvinnik vs Denker, 1945. After these two sharp defeats, this variation has rarely been tried.
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Euwe’s 21.Nh5 (21.Re1! being the solid alternative to maintain the advantage) may have been too sharp, because instead of Keres’ 21...f6, the move 21...Be2 (which was suggested after the game) seems to lead to a forced draw: 21.Nh5 Be2 22.Nf6+ gxf6 23.Rg3+ Kh8 24.f3! (better than the 24.Bh6 suggested at the time) 24...Rg8 25.Rxg8+ Kxg8 26.Bh6 Qc8 27.Qb2 Bc4 28.Qf2 Kh8 29.Qh4 Qd8 30.Qg4 Qg8 31.Qf4 Qg6 32.Qb8+
Euwe won prettily, with (21.Nh5 f6 22.Rg3 Kh8 23.Ng7 Qe4 24.Nh5 Qf5 25.Nf6 Rf7 26.Be5 Nc6 27.Qd6 Ne5 28.de5 Raf8 29.h3 Bc4 30.Rd1 Ba2)
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31.Qd8!, after which Keres resigned.
According to Keres, "Euwe was simply unrecognisable and lost almost without a fight". 13 Keres played a Reti Opening, which Euwe invited him to transpose into a Queen's Gambit Accepted. On the 6th move, Euwe weakened his queenside gravely and unnecessarily with 6...b5,
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apparently fixated on typical Queen's Gambit maneuvers. Euwe later admitted that "This move, which can be very strong in the Queen's Gambit, is out of order in the present, and quite different, circumstances. The advanced pawns are soon subjected to an attack which proves embarrassing for Black. Correct was 6...Nc6 and 7...e6 to be followed by normal developing moves." 14 In the remainder of this short game, Euwe was dispirited, and played poorly. He lost the right to castle, and soon had "practically no moves left". Keres played "relentlessly", and won in 23 moves. The game was later followed as far as move 16 in Unzicker vs Deep Thought, 1991. Deep Thought varied with 16...b4, but still lost.
According to Fred Reinfeld, "In the thirteenth game, Euwe played so nervously for the offensive that that he soon found himself with a very inferior game and was only too glad to accept his opponent's offer of a draw". 15 Euwe could not gain any advantage against Keres’ Queen's Indian. He sacrificed a pawn, which gave him positional compensation, but still no tangible advantage. He then, probably more mindful of the state of the match score than the requirements of the position, made a superficial attacking move. This gave Keres a superior game and Euwe was glad to agree to his proposal of a draw.
According to Garry Kasparov, this game was "Euwe's best achievement in this uncompromising encounter". 16 Euwe defended with a Queen's Gambit Accepted, and the game followed contemporary theory until move 13. Keres played passively, and this allowed Euwe to develop a significant initiative. With his two bishops and queen raking his opponent's kingside, he won the exchange, then overcame Keres' determined defence in a complex endgame. His eventual victory attracted praise for the quality of his endgame technique.
There were reports that "At the insistence of the Euwe Committee, an arrangement was made immediately after the end of the first match for a return match against Keres. It was to take place in 1941 ..." 17, 18 Unfortunately, this was not to be. The day after the conclusion of the match, the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad newspaper led with the following headlines:
The Motor Vessel Arendskerk torpedoed by German submarine and The war enters Finland. Russian terror from the air.
Germany was to invade the Low Countries and the Dutch forces surrendered on the 14th May 1940. Soon afterwards, on 6th August 1940, Estonia too was occupied - by the Soviet Union. The fates of Euwe and Keres were to be determined not by any civilised competition but in the chaos and suffering of a world war.
Euwe wrote a match book in Dutch: Euwe - Keres 1939-1940, published in 1940 by De Schaakwereld.
Emanuel Lasker wrote, The 14 games played in the match between Paul Keres and Max Euwe (Holland 1939/40), New York 1940. 19
1 See Chessmetrics website at http://www.chessmetrics.com/cm/cm2/...
2 Keres in Chess Review, March 1941, pp. 51-53. The rivals mentioned (apart from Keres) being Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Flohr and Reshevsky.
3 Euwe - Keres 1939-1940, by Max Euwe. (In Dutch)
4 Translated from an unsigned article in Zaans Volksblad, 23rd December 1939, http://www.delpher.nl/nl/kranten/vi...
5 Capablanca, quoted and translated by Edward Winter. From an interview published in the Buenos Aires magazine El Gráfico, 1939 and reprinted pp. 103-107 in Homenaje a Capablanca (Havana, 1943), http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/...
6 Tidskrift för Schack, June 1938, pp. 110-112, http://www.schack.se/tfsarkiv/histo...
7 De Residentiebode, 23rd December 1939.
8 De Telegraaf, 24th December 1939.
9 Het Vaderland, 24th December 1939.
10 Paul Keres’ Best Games, by Egon Varnusz, Vol. 1, p. 102.
11 Keres quoted in My Great Predecessors, Part 2, by Garry Kasparov, p. 78.
12 The Keres-Euwe Match in Chess Review, April 1940, p. 65, quotes taken from notes by Euwe.
13 My Great Predecessors, Part 2, by Garry Kasparov, p. 82.
14 The Keres-Euwe Match in Chess Review, May 1940, p. 90.
15 The Keres-Euwe Match by Fred Reinfeld, Chess Review, January 1940, p. 27.
16 My Great Predecessors, Part 2, by Garry Kasparov, p. 82.
17 Max Euwe: The Biography, by Alexander Munninghoff, p. 241.
18 Het Volksdagblad, 16th January 1940.
19 Books by Emanuel Lasker quoted in Bibliography of Emanuel Lasker: Second World Chess Champion, by Isaak Linder.
Original collection: Game Collection: Euwe - Keres by User: Chessical.