The victim was Dr. Alexander Alekhine.

The victor could boast, as recently as the year 2010, that he also humiliated the great Capablanca in a tournament game by sacking queen!

The list of victims went on, including names of Dr. Lasker, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov…

Who is this guy anyway?

He is…

The last Chess Mohican

Andor Lilienthal (Moscow, 1911), the last of the original 27 chess grandmasters, died two years ago this May. He was 99.

His parents moved to Hungary when he was two. He had the distinction of having met every single world chess champion from Emanuel Lasker to Viswanathan Anand (with the sole exception of Wilhelm Steinitz). Lilienthal played 10 and beat 6 of them.

Schach war mein Leben

Lilienthal grew up in poverty. After finishing the 5th grade, he gave up school and started to learn tailoring. Luckily, for him and us, he then discovered chess

Beginnings: Coffee house chess in Paris

Lilienthal learned to play at 13, a relatively late start, and never had any formal training. Instead, he honed his natural talent  leading the bohemian and precarious life of a professional, playing in the coffeehouses of Western Europe in the 1930s. [3]

Coffeehouses were natural haunts for many of the best players. In his books, “Life for Chess,” Fiskultura and Sport, Moscow, 1969, and “Chess Was My Life,” Budapest, 1985, Lilienthal described encounters in 1929 with Capablanca, in the Café Central in Vienna, and with Dr. Lasker at the Café König in Berlin in October 1929.

But he spent most of time in Paris back then. At the Café de la Régence, once the epicenter of chess in Europe, he regularly played with players like Savielly Tartakower (whom Lilienthal later named as his first teacher), Kostić and Znosko-Borovsky, but also people better known in other fields, like Bernstein. An attorney by profession, he once advised Lilienthal, “You should look for an occupation for living, since it’s as hard to earn money with chess in Paris as it is anywhere else.” Lilienthal also played the artist Marcel Duchamp, and the composer Sergei Prokofiev, both of Master strength.

At the Régence he also met Alekhine who once stopped by and was told there was a 19-year old who was beating everyone in blitz. Alekhine approached Lilienthal and offered to play four games (5-minute blitz). To everybody’s surprise, Lilienthal won the first three. In his biography, Lilienthal wrote that Alekhine demanded that they play four more games but declined, saying that he wanted to retain the result as a pleasant memory.

Somehow after that time Lilienthal began playing in tournaments. He quickly established a reputation as an aggressive and dangerous player. His games were lauded for their elegance and he left many fantastic games with his attractive chess style (we will show some of them with the commentary from his “Life for Chess” book in future posts).

Russian edition of the chess book

“Life for Chess,” Russian edition (1969)

Lilienthal's Hundred best games

There are three more Lilienthal’s books published in Hungarian (1985), German (1988) and English (2001)

Lilienthal’s absolute moment of glory was to come in his clash against the near-invincible former world champion José Raul Capablanca at Hastings 1933-34. Capablanca, a virtuoso of the chessboard, was capable of going for years on end without losing a single game.

Lilienthal, however, remained glacially unimpressed by his formidable opponent’s reputation and delivered a death blow to the mighty Cuban in a sparkling game featuring a sublime queen sacrifice. [1] (When Bobby Fischer noticed Lilienthal in the audience at his 1992 return match against Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer greeted him, “Pawn e5 takes f6!”)

Back to the USSR

Lilienthal stayed in Russia after he played in the Moscow Tournament in 1935. He worked as a chess trainer to the trade unions and became a Soviet citizen in 1939.

He gave large simultaneous exhibitions. In 1935 in the Moscow Gorky Park, he tied the then world record, held by Frank Marshall (Montreal, 1922) by playing 155 players simultaneously. Lilienthal writes: “The play had already progressed considerably, when it began to rain. Within seconds 150 large black umbrellas were stretched over the chessboards. Finally I also got an umbrella, which a young man held over me. He accompanied me from board to board for about 5 to 6 hours. This helpful boy was Yuri Averbakh.” Averbakh also was one of the 12 players who won against Lilienthal. [5] Interestinlgy, today GM Averbakh (b. 1922) holds the title of doyen, the senior member among world’s GM elite.

Lilienthal was not a professional in the modern sense. Looking at his games we had the impression that an interesting position or a game meant more to him than a win (of course for the modern top players a win is the only thing that matters). Maybe this attitude prevented Lilienthal from achieving even better results. [2]

He won (+8-0=11) the 12th USSR Championship in 1940 (his best tournament result), together with Bondarevsky, leaving behind Smyslov, Keres, Boleslavsky and Botvinnik.

From 1951 to 1960, Lilienthal trained Petrosian, who became the ninth world champion in 1963. He also acted as Smyslov’s coach during his world championship matches with Botvinnik in 1954, 1957 and 1958.

Lilienthal moved back to Hungary in 1976. He was a much loved and highly respected member of the global chess community. His chess wisdom and experience were admired for their depth and insights. His good nature and a great sense of humor made him a subject of many chess anecdotes and legends.

* * *

We will see some anecdotes from his Russian book in upcoming posts.

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References:

1. Andor Lilienthal: Chess grandmaster, by Raymond Keene (www.impalapublications.com)

2. Andor Lilienthal – The last Chess Romantic, by Gregory Serper (www.chess.com)

3. Andor Lilienthal, a Chess Grandmaster, Dies at 99 (NewYork Times)

4. Andor Arnoldovich Lilienthal, 1911 – 2010 (www.chessbase.com)

5. Andor Lilienthal and His Contribution to the History of Modern Chess (www.chesscafe.com)

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