03 May 2018

May 1968 'On the Cover'

Last month's 'On the Cover', April 1968, featured a correspondence chess champion and a chess set. This month the series returns to the same two world class crossboard players who appeared in the November 1967 'On the Cover'.

Left: 'National Open Champion Pal Benko' (Details next month)
Right: 'Oscar'

Chess Life; 'Details next month' means we go back 50 years less a month to find out what happened in the tournament. From the June 1968 CL:-

At Lake Tahoe, Nevada, from March 24 to 29, 111 competitors took part in the National Open Tournament. When it was all over, International Grandmaster Pal Benko had the first prize of $1250 in his pocket. The tournament director and principle organizer, Ken Jones of Reno, is a lover of chess and philosophy. He has decided not to direct next year's event, a decision no doubt prompted by several misunderstandings and ensuing disputes during the tournament.

Chess Review

It fell to Bent Larsen of Denmark to win the first "Chess Oscar" this year at the tournament at Palma de Majorca. Larsen and the trophy therefore appear on our front cover this month, and the first part of Dr. Petar Trifunovich's account of Palma de Majorca carries the story in some detail. Does Larsen, who happened to win when and where the tournament organizers dreamed up the scheme of nominating and electing the "Player of the Year," merit that award? Petar gives some ponderable cons to rate against the Dane's four straight victories.

The first 'Chess Oscar' is a story worth repeating. From the May 1968 CR (p.156):-

Palma de Mallorca (*), Recounted by Dr. Petar Trifunovich, Part I

The '(*)' signalled an editorial footnote on the use of Majorca vs. Mallorca: 'Dr.Trifunovich prefers to go to "L".' Was there an unstated problem here? Let's continue with the main story:-

First "Chess Oscar" • As Palma was the last chess event for 1967, the organizers hit upon the great idea of proclaiming "the best chessplayer of the year." Along with the proclamation goes a "Chess Oscar" after the long established custom of filmdom. For chess, this is a (more modest) silver cup. This idea introduces a bit of change and enlivening into the humdrum routine of chess life.

For this purpose, a jury was constituted of chess journalists accredited by the tournament: Puig Laborda and Eduardo de Perez of Spain; Harry de Graaf of Holland; Silvain Zinser of France; and Deimitry Bjelica of Yugoslavia. They voted for Bent Larsen of Denmark as the best player in 1967 on the strength of his first-place victories in the Capablanca Memorial at Havana, the Winnipeg International (a tie with Klaus Darga of West Germany), the Interzonal at Sousse and the International Tournament at Palma de Mallorca.

The decision of course has no official significance -- rates perhaps somewhat less than the "grandmasterships" conferred by the Czar of Russia at St. Petersburg in 1914 -- for it was brought about without the collaboration or agreement of the FIDE. It is a one-sided declaration of the journalists who happened to collect at one tournament. And, in fact, one notable chess reporter present, Grandmaster Kotov, did not support the declaration.

Indeed, the objectivity of this decision may be questioned. The Chess Oscar may, first, be unduly apt to be awarded to the winner of the concurrent tournament. Second, the jury gave no explanation as to why Robert J. Fischer, for instance, surely a possible rival, was excluded. Surely, all aspirants and all results ought to be taken into consideration, both the positive and the negative. Here is a brief resume, which this commentator offers as possibly incomplete, speaking without full documentation.

Larsen shared third and fourth with Yefim Geller at Monaco; and, what is quite important, he was not only outscored but also beaten by Fischer. At Dundee in Ireland, Larsen split second and third with Fredrik Olafsson of Iceland, and behind Svetozar Gligorich of Yugoslavia. At Winnipeg, Larsen shared first with Darga. True, Larsen's great victories at Havana, Sousse and Palma are clean as a raindrop. But Fischer had first places exclusively: at Skopje and Monaco, he had no consort; and, even when dismissed from the Interzonal at Sousse, he led undefeated.

At the least, a decision between these two chess giants does not come easily. But the jury left us with no explanation. And what would have happened if the jury had designated someone else, someone not among the participants at Palma? "Oscar" certainly could not have been handed over!

That excerpt is perhaps too long-winded for this blog post, but it *was* the first 'Chess Oscar'.

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