24 September 2017

The 12th Soviet Championship

I've occasionally remarked that the series on Top eBay Chess Items by Price is often a case of feast or famine. In the previous post, Man Ray Chess Photos, I noted, 'the short list had only a single item and I had to go well under my usual cutoff price to find it.' For this current post I had plenty to choose from, even if I again went under my usual cutoff price.

The item pictured below was titled 'Soviet Chess Photo: Panorama of 12th USSR Chess Championship 1940', and sold for US $316 after seven bids from two bidders. Just after the auction opened, the first bidder entered his maximum price. Some days later the second bidder came in with a lower price. Finding that it was insufficient to win, he increased it gradually over the next day, finally giving up. The first bidder had obviously decided that this was a valuable photo. How high was he willing to go?

Top: The entire item

Bottom: Detail from the item

The description said,

Original Soviet chess panoramic photo from 12th USSR chess championship in 1940. On the photo - Moscow conservatory, the place of the tournament. Size of the photo - 19,5 cm x 7 cm. Please notice that the photo was made by the original author by the process of bonding five smaller photos. Probably that was the only way to make a panoramic photo in 1940.

If you look carefully at the top photo, you can see the lines showing where the different photos have been joined. The description continued,

12TH SOVIET CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP: • This is a photograph from the famous 12th Soviet Chess Championship held in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory from September 4th through October 3rd, 1940. The 12th Soviet Chess Championship was truly a battle of the titans. Outstanding players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Vasily Smyslov, Alexander Kotov, Isaac Boleslavsky, Igor Bondarevsky, and Andre Lilienthal took part. This so-called "absolute championship" is rightfully considered one of the strongest USSR chess championships ever held.

Here’s an excerpt from Mikhail Botvinnik’s memoirs. "It was a tough tournament. There were many participants and very few off-days. The Grand Hall of the Conservatory has excellent acoustics. The spectators behaved impudently, made a great deal of noise, and clapped all the time. The excellent acoustics only made matters worse. Supposedly, Sergei Prokofiev applauded Keres vigorously after the latter won a game. The other people in his box reprimanded him,, and then the composer remarked, "I have every right to express my feelings." Would my friend Mr. Prokofiev be happy if he were playing a trio and spectators applauding the violinist’s performance drowned out his piano piece? Chess players are in a worse position, though. A pianist can afford to play a few false notes amid booming applause, something a chess player isn’t allowed to do."

The results of the 12th Soviet Chess Championship were truly sensational, since two young players, Andre Lilienthal and Igor Bondarevsky, came in first and second, respectively, leaving grandmasters Mikhail Botvinnik and Paul Keres, the tournament favorites, far behind. The unprecedented hype surrounding this tournament matched its historical significance. After all, the unofficial right to contend for the world championship crown, as well as the prestigious title of USSR champion were on the line.

"The most difficult and most monumental tournament in which I’ve ever taken part has come to a close," Andre Lilienthal wrote. "I have no reason to be displeased with myself. First off, my win over Botvinnik himself wasn’t too bad. Secondly, I snatched what seemed to be an irrevocably lost point from Bondarevsky in the last round. Thirdly, I managed not to lose a single game. Fourthly, I wound up in the wonderful young company of Bondarevsky and Smyslov at the top of the leaderboard. A decisive match for the title of USSR champion is up next. I have to prepare thoroughly for it, which, first and foremost, means getting some much needed rest."

Three months after the tournament was completed, on January 14th, 1941, the Soviet Committee on Physical Culture and Sports issued an order approving the tournament results and awarding Bondarevsky and Lilienthal, the tournament winners, grandmaster titles; however, this order was missing a key point, since it did not mention any sort of match between the two victors. That strange inconsistency came to light a month later when it was decided -- through a behind-the-scenes power struggle -- that one more tournament for the title of absolute USSR champion would be held, a tournament Mikhail Botvinnik won.

Unless I'm misreading something, that description is not entirely accurate. The first paragraph mentions the '12th Soviet Chess Championship', and refers to it as the 'so-called "absolute championship"'. The last paragraph implies that the absolute championship was played later, which is confirmed in Botvinnik's book on the 1941 tournament.

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