White, Black, Red or Green
It Makes No Difference

Like last year, the Tal Memorial in Moscow started with a blitz tournament that, apart from providing entertainment, had the function that is normally served by the drawing of lots. The participants could choose their pairing numbers in the serious tournament based on their result in blitz games.

Vladimir Kramnik had finished third in the blitz tournament, which meant that he was the third to choose his number, and obviously there were many numbers left that would give him white five times and black four. To general surprise, he chose a number that would give him five games with black.

Afterwards, he explained that he had done so because of a provision in the tie-break system that favored the player who had more often played black. A strange strategy, I thought. What if he didn't manage to tie for first, for instance, because playing black five times proved a disadvantage? Wouldn't it be better to play the tournament first, and only then worry about the tie-break?

But of course, that is exactly what Kramnik had done at the London Candidates, where the tie-break system had done him in. Perhaps his going for black five times had been a demonstrative gesture to remind the chess world that in London, he had only been second to Magnus Carlsen because of a foolish tie-break rule.

As a consequence of his action, Kramnik had black in the first round against Carlsen and lost. But this was his own fault, you might say. But then, in the second round, he lost with white against Hikaru Nakamura. So it didn't really matter, white or black. I was reminded of what the Israeli master Moshe Czerniak said to me during the zonal tournament in 1975 in the Bulgarian city Vratsa, when I was worrying about a difficult game next round, in which I would play black: “Come on, white, black, red, green, what's the difference? You just have to play chess.” 

Kramnik finished last in the Tal Memorial with 3 out of 9, and Anand scored only a half-point more. One might think that the bell tolls for the older generation, were it not that Boris Gelfand, who has just turned 45, won this super-tournament ahead of two world champions and the cream of the young generation. 

When Czerniak (1910-1984) spoke his brave words, I took it as the attitude of an old amateur. Maybe I had forgotten that in 1968 in Netanya, this old man (old in my eyes then) had beaten me in a game of 82 moves. And then, he was not a chess amateur at all, but a professional player, writer, teacher and organizer. 

Born in Poland, he emigrated to the British Mandate Palestine in 1934. When World War II broke out during the Olympiad in Buenos Aires in 1939, he stayed in Argentina until 1950, when he returned to what had become the State of Israel. Later, one of his pupils would be the well-known IM and study composer Yochanan Afek, who would write a book about him.

About the game that I show here, Czerniak has written: “My game with the Norwegian Rojahn in the 1939 Olympiad received opposite comments from two world champions. While Alekhine followed it closely (and even published it with his notes), Capablanca dismissed it with a barb: ‘They call this chess too?’” 

When you play over this game, both Alekhine's interest and Capablanca's reserve are easily comprehensible.

Alekhine's notes can be found in his posthumous book, Gran Ajedrez(1947), which was based on articles for the Spanish magazine Ajedrez Español. The editor, Ricardo Aguilera, put in a few parts of Alekhine’s handwritten manuscripts, with diagrams that Alekhine had drawn himself.

How times have changed. I showed his diagrams to my wife, who knows that I make mine with a few mouse clicks. Looking at Alekhine's drawings she said: “How wonderful. Why don't you do it like that for the newspaper?”

Especially the black knights on c6 and c5 are quite elegant, I think.

Part of Alekhine's analysis of Enevoldsen-Alekhine from the 1939 Olympiad.

Annotated Game: Simply click on the game to play through it.

Rojahn - Czerniak

1939 Olympiad, Buenos Aires