The Last of the Chess Mohicans
Today is the 95th Birthday of the legendary chess player, the oldest Grand Master in the world, Andor Lilienthal. He is one of few people who can say that they played chess with Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine. Happy Birthday, Mr. Lilienthal!
How I learnt to play chess
After I finished the fifth form I gave up school and started to learn tailoring. By the age of 16 I passed the exam to be a tailor, meaning that I could myself tailor a jacket. But I did not make a tailor. In the union of unemployed I got acquainted and made friends with a peer and fellow in misfortune. One summer day we fixed up to meet in the union house backyard and go together to the football match. When I came there I found him sitting at the table with another fellow unemployed like we, staring at some woodwork, both were thoughtful and silent. I showed them the tickets for the football match saying that it was time to go. My friend waved me away and told me not to interfere and let them finish the game!.. I was waiting for five minutes… then for ten more minutes…then my patience snapped. I brushed everything off the board (I did not know that time that those were chess pieces), my friend and tailor colleague got furious. He grasped the stick which he always kept about himself, because he lost one leg, and bore down upon me. I took to heels.
I met him few days later. He apologized and we made peace. He offered to teach me to play chess. “You can’t even imagine what a marvellous game it is!” he said.
I was not eager but I did not bear to refuse. My friend showed me the moves and we started to play. He gave me a handicap of queen and two rooks for a start but despite the advantage I could not checkmate the rival’s king; many times in a row there was a stalemate. I was about to cry with anger. But the next day I started to win and not only rejected the handicap but also discarded the queen. My counterpart called me the braggart and …lost the game. Then he lost several times in sequence. At the end he again grasped his stick because he could not bear such an offensive defeat. And again I managed to flee.
That time I was already 16. It seems a bit late to begin playing chess but those days it was a usual thing; remember Chigorin who also started to play chess in the same age.
How I met Lasker
I was already crazy about chess and I dreamt about playing with the professional chess players. In Budapest I tried to play for money in cafes. At first I was losing, but then started to win and thus earned living (my mother died and I was in dire straits). I felt confined in Budapest, I was striving to move for Paris. One day I ventured. I had no money but somehow I managed to get to Vienna safely. In Vienna I found a café “Central”; there I got acquainted with the Grand Master Grünfeld, the famous chess theorist. One of the regular customers of the café helped me to hit the border between Austria and Germany; he just brought me to some bridge and said: “Germany is in the opposite side of the bridge. Fare well!” His name was Geza, he was a Hungarian, and I have never seen him afterwards.
My passport was valid only in Austria, so I crossed the border illegally…night-time. They threw me to jail. The food there was poor and strolls were seldom. But I was lucky because the jailer was a devoted chess player and the next day he brought chess. He played poorly and from time to time I lost couple of games thus making him incredibly happy. And he in turn made me happy by bringing me various tasty dishes. Few weeks later in the trial he gave me the best references. I was released upon the condition that as soon as get in Berlin I would go in Hungarian Embassy.
In the German capital I first of all went to every café, where people played chess. In café “König” which is the German for King, in the most noticeable place I saw the picture of Lasker. I saw Lasker’s pictures in many other cafes. Those days the Jew Lasker was the pride of Germany, because he remained the World Chess Champion for 27 years. The maestro himself also used to come to “König”. I played there simple games with insignificant stakes. Most counterparts played poorly and thus I earned living. One day I plucked up my courage and approached Lasker, but he refused to play with me. “Young man, I do not play chess any more!”, he said. Those days he played go, cards (bridge) and other games. (However afterwards we met over the chess board.)
How I played with Alekhine
In Paris in café “Regence” in Rue de Rivoli the portrait of Alekhine hung on the wall, and there was a table at which Napoleon played.
Alekhine also was a customer of that café. One day they told him about me. They said that there was a boy who perfectly played simple games. The “Doctor” (that’s how they called Alekhine in “Regence”) offered me to play four games, of course with no stake.
To spectators’ surprise he only managed to defeat me in the 4th game, whereas the three first games were won by me. Alekhine demanded revenge but I refused flatly: “Doctor I want to save this result for the rest of my life”, I said. Though Alekhine was a nervous and quick-tempered person, this time he saw my point and burst out laughing.
There was another episode. I was extremely eager to participate in the blitz tournament hold in Palais Royal palace, but I had no money to pay the entrance fee. When Alekhine knew about it, he paid the fee for me. I did my best to win this tournament otherwise the World Champion would have muddled away his money. I managed to win the main prize. After the tournament I came up to the Doctor to pay back the dept. But he rejected the money: he suggested that I should give the money back as soon as I became the Grand Master.
Remembering Alekhine I want to mention that his pictures do not reproduce his real masculine charms. I am convinced that if male chess players were awarded with prizes for handsomeness, then Alekhine would have shared the first and second place with Capablanca.
How I played with Botvinnik and Capablanca
In 1934-1935 I shared the fifth and sixth place with Michael Botvinnik in the tournament in Hastings. It was my first meeting with the future World Champion. After a year I shared the 1st and the 2nd place with Capablanca. But I managed to defeat Capablanca in the 28th move. That game where I conceded a queen was awarded for its gracefulness and was discussed in world mass media and called “the eternal”. After that game Botvinnik’s coach came up to me and told that I had been invited to the international tournament in Moscow. Of course I accepted the invitation.
In Moscow the participants of the tournament were accommodated in one of the best hotels, the “National”; windows of my room looked out on the Kremlin. Meals were perfect. There was plenty of caviar, and alcoholic beverages. All one needed to do is to sign the bill. One participant, a Swedish Grand master, who indulged in alcohol, asked me from time to time to sign his bill (in order to hide his indulgence). I myself hardly drank at all, but I liked caviar very much.
We played in Pushkin’s Museum of Fine Arts in Volkhonka. The audience was full. For those who could not get in, the demonstration boards were installed outside. Yes! That time the Soviet Union deserved its fame of the so called “chess El Dorado”!.. Botvinnik took the first place; Flor was the second, Lasker — the third, Capablanca — the fourth. Capablanca spent too much time in restaurant “Prague” where he listened to Gypsies and stayed up till late. But Botvinnik and Flor followed sport regime. The old saying is truth: a sound mind in a sound body.
My modest result in the tournament (8-11th place) was caused by the reason of other nature. In the tournament in spectators’ crowd I noticed an enchanting blonde woman with the fascinating and beautiful body. But to my disappointment her attention was captured by the table, by which Capablanca played. I was annoyed and half joking announced to the organizer’s assistant that I refused to play until he introduced me to that woman. He did it and the acquaintance lead to the happy long lasting marriage which lasted almost half a century. Taking this opportunity I would like to give a piece of advice to all foreigners: to marry Russian women if they dream about long happy marriage. (Capablanca, Flor and Rety had Russian wives).
Moscow 2001, two GMs, Boris Gelfand and Vladimir Kramnik congratulate the hero of an anniversary, Andor Lilienthal; in the photo next to him is his wife Olga Alexandrovna