Chess is a game that represents war on a board, where pieces are eliminated in a metaphor of combat and death based on their hierarchy. That’s why it’s 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 the threat of execution. Of course, he had a certain advantage because he was a chess champion.

He was born in 1882 in Yítomir, a city in central Ukraine that was part of the Russian Empire at that time, into a family of Jewish merchants with sufficient resources to send him to study in Western Europe. Specifically to Germany, where in 1901, he graduated from the Technical High School of Hannover and gained access to university, earning a doctorate in law between Leipzig and Berlin in 1906. By then, he had already become a prominent chess player, winning the tournament in the current German capital in 1902 and finishing second in Hannover, behind master Walter John.

A year later, he achieved the runner-up position in the Kiev Tournament, won by the considered best player in Russia, Mikhail Chigorin. In the following years, he continued to compete with the elite of the chess world: the Austrians Rudolf Spielman and Carl Schlechter, the Englishman Horatio Caro, the Pole Akiba Rubinstein… always ranking among the top players in each competition.

In 1907, he managed to draw a game against the latter, and the turning point came in 1911 when he won the Moscow City Championship, having moved there after obtaining his doctorate. He practiced law alongside the prestigious Igor Kistyakovsky, who later turned to politics and became the Secretary of State of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Bernstein, a legal and financial advisor for companies (banks, insurers, etc.), continued to progress in chess. In 1918, he visited Spain to participate in the San Sebastián Tournament, considered one of the highest-level tournaments held up to that point. Alongside his compatriot Aron Nimzowitsch, Bernstein filed a complaint because the organization allowed the registration of a young Cuban player who did not meet the requirement of having finished third in at least two tournaments.

Bernstein had to face him in the first round… and was eliminated. However, the Caribbean player would win the championship and eventually become one of the greatest figures of all time: José Raúl Capablanca. Bernstein faced him three more times without ever defeating him.

Despite that being the most brilliant period of his career, Ossip Bernstein perhaps never reached the brilliance of other chess players. Still, he was included in the Mikhail Chigorin Club (formed by players who had won a game in the World Championship) and managed to stay in the world’s top ten for over a decade, from 1903 to 1914. He might have extended his success if not for the events that unfolded due to the outbreak of World War I, with the main one being the Russian Revolution.

Jews hoped that the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout Russia during the czarist era would subside with the new regime. However, although discriminatory measures were initially adopted, the government’s good intentions clashed with the party’s criteria, which was radically secular and hostile to any religious manifestation. Therefore, from 1918, despite Lenin’s intentions, things started turning dark again for Judaism.

Confiscations and the dissolution of communities in the Soviet zone were added to the pogroms carried out by the White Army. For someone like Ossip Bernstein, things got even worse as he lost the fortune he had amassed through various businesses facilitated by his work. Then came the incident we mentioned at the beginning. In 1918, while traveling from Kiev to Odessa, Bernstein was arrested by the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, popularly known as the Cheka (Soviet secret police tasked with combating counter-revolution, speculation, and corruption). Everything happened very quickly, and once they learned he was a corporate lawyer, they put him in front of a firing squad.

Then one of those coincidences that fate sometimes plays out occurred. One of the officers was reviewing the list of prisoners when he recognized the name Ossip Bernstein. It turned out that he was a chess enthusiast, so he pulled him away from the firing squad and asked if he was the famous chess champion. Bernstein answered affirmatively, but apparently not convincingly enough because the officer challenged him to a life-or-death game.

If Bernstein couldn’t defeat him, he would also lose his life. Of course, the Chekist was no match, and he was defeated in a few moves. That day, Bernstein won more than just a game; he also won his survival and freedom, which he immediately used to get away.

A British ship took him to France, and he settled in Paris, where in 1928 he joined Astraea, a Masonic lodge formed by Russians. The war made people have more important things to think about than chess, and he knew that doubly from experience. So, while not abandoning it entirely, he temporarily set aside his hobby.

Occasionally, he played and even went on a tour accompanied by Alexander Alekhine, the world champion and compatriot with whom he had formed a friendship. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the post-war economic recovery, he managed to rebuild a considerable capital… which he lost again when the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression occurred.

He must have been as good at business as he was at chess because once the crisis passed, he amassed another fortune. However, it wasn’t the best time for him because in 1939, World War II began, and with the German invasion of France, he not only lost everything again but also had to flee the country.

In 1940, seeking refuge in Spain, he crossed the Pyrenees with his family in a dramatic adventure, traveling at night and hiding during the day over two exhausting days. It resulted in a heart attack for him, and they were all detained by the Civil Guard.

The intervention of some influential friends allowed them to be released from prison, and they settled in Barcelona until 1945, when, with the war over, they returned to Paris, having had French citizenship since 1932. Bernstein returned to chess and participated in several tournaments at a high level, almost always finishing among the top players. He even managed to play again in the Soviet Union after the end of the Stalinist era.

The most curious episode of those years took place in the Grand UNESCO International Tournament in Montevideo in 1954, where eighteen players participated. Bernstein lost to the Chilean René Letelier Martner, who ultimately became the winner, and had to compete for the runner-up position with Miguel Najdorf, an Argentine grandmaster who had initially protested having to play against a seventy-two-year-old and later, reconsidering his alleged advantage, managed to persuade the organization to increase the cash prize for the first place, taking it from the lower positions.

As we saw, it didn’t work out for him because Letelier won, but Bernstein also defeated him: thirty-seven moves inspired by the Ancient Indian Defense.

That brilliance earned him a special award. It was a special decade for him because he also received the title of International Grandmaster, but he was approaching the end of his life. In 1962, a second heart attack while traveling back from the 1962 Chess Olympiad left him in critical condition, and he passed away that same year while sleeping during a visit to friends in the French Pyrenees.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 28, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Ossip Bernstein, el ajedrecista que se jugó la vida en una partida


Arnold Denker, Larry Parr, The Bobby Fischer I knew and other stories | Bill Wall, Ossip Bernstein | Lindsay Stidham, Lined up for the firing squad, this chess master was offered to play a game of chess for his life | Chessgames | Wikipedia

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