Travail Pursuit #1: Lenin vs. Hitler

After far too long languishing in the archives of our website I’m dusting down and re-shaping “Travail Pursuit” which was always intended to be something of a blog about the more challenging and troublesome aspects of our great game. The occasion that has driven me into action is a couple of significant anniversaries that I’d like to mark the passing of in some way.

First of all, this year marks my twentieth year of competitive chess playing. I took up chess relatively late in life whilst I was studying for my A-levels and only played my first chess congress shortly before heading off to university at Manchester. It was whilst at university that I really got the bug for the game and I played both for the University of Manchester in the local league and also in as many congresses as I could reasonably fit in around my studies. Since 1994 I’ve played an awful lot of games of chess both over the board and online in correspondence competitions. Most of these games do not bear thinking about but some are interesting and a very small number I’d even regard as being ‘quite good’ – at least for a player of my standard.

So, what I intend to do in a series of posts over the next twelve months is reflect on some of these games and try and understand what I’ve learnt (or failed to learn over and over again!) during the course of twenty years. I doubt very much that these meanderings will be particularly instructive to most of our readers but I do hope they will provide a little bit of light entertainment at the very least. If nothing else they will help me justify the many thousands of hours I’ve spent indulging in a pastime that my family and friends really don’t understand at all!

The etching of Lenin and Hitler playing chess in Vienna, 1909

The etching of Lenin and Hitler playing chess in Vienna, 1909

“What has Lenin vs. Hitler got to do with anything?” I hear you cry. Well, this is where we come to our second significant anniversary as I will introduce to you the first game to spring from my archive. It was played on April the 14th 2008 and it has become, without doubt, my best known game of chess. Indeed I could say with some justification that it has even passed into internet folklore.

Let me explain. Four years ago when I was starting up the Hebden Bridge Chess Club website I came across a story in the press about a chess board and chess set that were being auctioned. The picture was of Lenin and Hitler playing a game of chess (right). The chess set was said to be the one in the picture that the two antagonists were using. Now, I’m a trained historian (my degree at Manchester was in history) and I know a fair amount about the history of chess, so I was pretty sure that this story was total garbage. However, when I looked into it a little bit more I understood that there was at least a basis for the tale. Lenin and Hitler were both living in Vienna in 1909 (when the game was supposed to have been played) and there is a reasonable chance that they were moving in similar circles. They might have even met. But could they have played a game of chess together? Most unlikely! Even if they had it would not have been a significant enough event at the time for someone to have painted a picture of them.

Nevertheless the story fired my imagination and I thought to myself, “This story would have much better provenance if the moves of the game and the result were being proffered as part of its telling.” Goodness knows, a score sheet really would be worth something. That was when I had the idea to create a story that allowed me to give the moves of the game and the result for the entertainment of my readers.

The story itself is of little interest now. You can still go and read it if you’re really interested. The point was that I had to find a game to pass off as having been played by the two. It had to be of an amateur standard, fairly short, a little bit obscure and in some way symbolic of the two characters involved. In the end I settled on one of my own games played just over a year before against Courier’s top board at that time, John Morgan. I think I picked it mostly because I wanted whoever represented Hitler to have “advanced on the right wing” and John played his favourite St George’s Defence against me so it seemed like an easy choice.

I published the story. It gained a little local notoriety and I had some positive feedback from readers who thought it was entertaining. I thought nothing more about for several years until recently when I stumbled upon the YouTube video below.

It seemed that someone from Italy had read my story and either thought that it was a real game between Lenin and Hitler, or wanted to be a bit mischievous by passing it off as real. They had removed all my annotations (which would have given the game away as they were rather silly) and simply played out the moves of the game with a fitting piece of background music. To my astonishment the clip had been viewed over 10,000 times and many of the comments left against it by viewers seem not to be questioning its veracity! There could well be hundreds, or even thousands of people out there who now think that Lenin and Hitler really did play chess in Vienna in 1909 and that Lenin won in short order. Now I reckon that however owns the board and picture should put them up for re-sale. They’ve got to be worth a lot more now that the world knows who won and what the moves of the game were!

So for my inaugural retrospective post on twenty years of amateur chess playing, it seems only right to set the record straight and give you the full moves, with some light notes, on the game between myself and John Morgan (not Lenin and Hitler!)

What then can we learn from this whole sorry episode:

  • That if a story is interesting enough it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true, people will believe it
  • In the last twenty years computer software have changed chess forever (I suspect this will be a recurring theme in these posts). One of the impacts is that engines have helped make some of the more obscure openings even more playable, especially at club level. Of course there have always been advocates of offbeat lines but computers have helped them prepare and refine their pet lines so it has become much, much harder to refute their play in a direct way
  • So on this basis it must be said that, if you’re facing an obscure opening that has a dubious reputation it’s probably best simply to play sensible chess rather than try to wipe your opponent from the board in short order
  • The corollary of this point is that if you’re going to play rococo systems like the St George then you have to be prepared to take the occasional thrashing. Naturally, you’ll also win plenty of games because you bamboozled your opponent completely!

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5 Responses to “Travail Pursuit #1: Lenin vs. Hitler”

  1. Adrian

    Apr 16. 2014

    As you say Dave, In the last twenty years computer software have changed chess forever. Which is a bit like saying the advent of the motorcar has changed man’s modus operandi for running or walking. Nice article :-)

    Reply to this comment
  2. Andy Bak

    Apr 17. 2014

    If it’s on the internet, it must be true ;)

    Reply to this comment
  3. Mike Huett

    Apr 29. 2014

    Dave,that is a fantastic story and you write brilliantly … nice one !

    Reply to this comment
    • Dave

      Apr 30. 2014

      Thanks Mike. I’m afraid the rest may not be of such a high standard. Still, good to set the benchmark as high as possible. Glad you enjoyed it. :)

      Reply to this comment

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