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Keres Plays With the Wehrmacht
by Tomasz Lissowski

    Contrary to the Latin saying that “During war, the Muses are silent,” Caissa was not mute during World War II.  The game of chess, with its dual nature of sport and pastime, and of course because of its close association with images of military conquest and war, became a small but active component of the Wheels of War on both sides.  The German command, following Dr. Goebbels’ slogan, “All forces - for the front,” included chess in its program called Truppenbetreuung or “Pastimes for soldiers.”  Groups of chess masters circulated from field hospitals to barracks to mess halls, playing exhibition tournaments and giving simultaneous displays.
    In May 1943, after Wehrmacht troops had disastrously lost the Battle of Stalingrad, a Truppenbetreuung event was held by the occupying authorities in the Polish city of Poznan.  In November 1939 the Germans had renamed that unfortunate city “Posen,” directly annexing the city and its captive people into the Reich.  The main attraction for the audience at the event would be the presence of Paul Keres, the Estonian grandmaster, a player generally recognized since AVRO 1938 as a candidate for the world chess championship.
    The war’s destiny for Keres (1916-1975) and his small homeland was one of bitter restraint and difficult circumstance.  In recalling the forgotten Poznan episode from the chess career of this splendid sportsman and individual, whose portrait was placed on bank notes, in 1991, by a newly independent Estonia, I will refrain from political or ethical conclusions and, instead, focus strictly on the facts.  Most of the reports which follow are generally unknown in chess circles, as is the accompanying photograph of a young Keres.  These were found in the annals of Ostdeutscher Beobachter, the German newspaper issued in occupied Poznan.  These reports, it should be emphasized, would have been almost impossible to locate without the kind guidance and suggestion of Professor Andrzej Kwilecki, the leading expert on Poznan chess history.

(Adam Mickiewicz University)
Poznan City Album, c1920-1929

Great Hall
Poznan City Album, c1920-1929

    An anonymous journalist reported the following to his readers on Monday, May 24, 1943:
    The Days of Chess for Wehrmacht in Posen began Sunday afternoon with a short ceremony in the Great Hall of Reichsuniversität [before and after the war known as Adam Mickiewicz University - T.L.].  Afterwards simultaneous exhibitions were conducted, with the participation of the world championship candidate Paul Keres (Reval) against forty players, and three chess masters: Eysser (Bayreuth), Rogmann (Berlin) and Dr. Kraemer (Posen), each against twenty opponents, mostly soldiers.
    The opening ceremonies of this, the hitherto largest chess event for the Wehrmacht in the District of Varta River, was attended by representatives of the Wehrmacht, the State, and the Party, with General Bielfeld, military commandant in Posen, among the honorable visitors.
    In his short speech, party comrade Dr. Altmann, who was representing the German Labor Front for the Management of Varta District, expressed his joy at the large attendance at a chess event organized by the National - Socialistic Commune “Kraft durch Freude” [“Force through Joy,” a Nazi governmental agency organizing holidays and other events for Reich employees - T.L.] in cooperation with the All-German Chess Union, on behalf of the Wehrmacht Main Headquarters, for purposes of the military forces’ recreation, chess program.  The speaker announced that District Management had established a special prize.  Military commandant General Bielfeld in the name of all the soldiers who were taking part in the event, thanked the organizers for setting up the exhibition.  The General noted that chess play requires certain features, which could be said to be truly soldierly in nature: courage, concentration, logical thinking and ambition.  Wehrmacht Command will accordingly continue to promote chess among its soldiers as one of the more useful pastimes.
    Reichsschachwart [Reich Chess Secretary - T.L.] Majer described the actions undertaken by “Kraft und Freude” for placing chess (a game unlike any other and one involving numerous features of character and intellect, ones particularly useful for developing the spirit) on such a wide basis for the people.  Chess was a very popular source of diversion and relaxation among soldiers between battles, as well as at field hospitals, during the First World War.  In the same manner, chess is a useful military amusement during the present war.  Comrade Majer then introduced the world championship candidate, Paul Keres, who during the past seven years has successfully participated in international tournaments, and who reached a place in the first rank of internationally known chess masters.
    The Secretary also introduced the other chess masters present in Posen, namely Gruenfeld (Vienna), Rogmann (Berlin), Eysser (Bayreuth) and also Obergefreite Bickenbach (Posen) [Obergefreite ranks between a Private and a Corporal - T.L.], who jointly with Keres will take part in a four day encounter starting on the following Monday in Posener Hoff [Poznan Castle - T.L.], wishing them both luck for a hopefully fascinating event.
    Afterwards four masters approached the boards for simultaneous play.  The largest interest, of course, focused on the forty games conducted by Grandmaster Keres.  Though boards where Rogmann, Eysser and Dr. Kraemer were playing against twenty each, however, were also besieged by kibitzers.  After only a few minutes Rogmann was able to gain the first victory when one of his antagonists resigned in a lost position.  Shortly thereafter Keres won his first point too, though he faced twice the number of opponents.  As time went on, numerous players were dispatched, until finally only the hardiest and most implacable players withstood against the master’s superior knowledge.  The display ended after slightly more than four hours.  According to expectations, Keres came off as great victor with 33.5-6.5.  He won 32 games, drew 3, and lost 5.  Rogmann won 15 games, drew 3, and lost 2 (scoring a total of 16.5-3.5).  Eysser won 17, drew one, and lost two times (scoring 17.5-2.5).  Dr. Kraemer defeated 16 partners, played one draw, and had to reconcile himself to 3 defeats (scoring 16.5-3.5).
    The following players finished their games against Keres successfully: Sonderfuehrer Waeber, Sonderfuehrer Lau, Barthell, Jannasch, Popp (Reich’s Railway); draws were made by Oberfeldfebel Biedendorf, Gefreite Bruechold, and Gefreite Kanitz. Against Rogmann, Lieutenant Braun and Gefreite Maier won; Thuernau, Wachmeister Zwergel and Oberfeldfebel Junker played a draw.  Eysser was defeated by Rueffer (Reich’s Railway) and Gefreite Waldheuer, with a draw reached by Sturm.  The victory over Dr. Kraemer were gained by Oberarzt Dr. Thomas Hauptmann of Schutzpolizei, Roelofsen and Unteroffizier Winnerling, Poppenberg played a draw.  Sonderfuehrer Waeber gained the XXI Military Region prize for the first victory over Keres.
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.24

Keres vs. members of the Wehrmacht
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.24

The First Round of the Master Chess Tournament
    The first round of the Posen Chess Master Tournament for the Wehrmacht was played on Monday.  The main interest centered on the game of the world chess championship candidate Keres with Obergefreite Bickenbach.  In the endgame Keres won without incident, despite his opponent’s obstinate resistance.  In the game between Master Eysser from Bayreuth and Rogmann, the latter remained victorious after he weakened his opponent’s queenside by a surprising tactical maneuver.  In the game Gruenfeld versus Kieninger, Gruenfeld slowly and carefully built an advantage, winning the game due to his passed pawn.  Keres, Gruenfeld and Rogmann now lead.
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.25
Bickenbach — Keres,P
Two Knights: Italian
POL Poznan
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Nc3 Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Bxd5 Qxd5 7.Nc3 Qa5 8.d3 Bg4 9.Bd2 Nd4 10.Ne2 Nxf3+ 11.gxf3 Qd5 12.Nc3 Qxf3 13.Qxf3 Bxf3 14.Rg1 0-0-0 15.Rg3 Bc6 16.0-0-0 Rd4 17.Re1 Rh4 18.h3 f5 19.Rg5 g6 20.Rxe5 Rxh3 21.Rg1 Bd6 22.Re2 Bf3 23.Re6 Kd7 24.Rge1 a6 25.Bg5 h6 26.Bf6 Rg8 27.a3 g5 28.b4 Rg6 29.d4 Rh1 30.Rxh1 Kxe6 0-1. 
Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, Tallinn 1995, p158

Posener Schloss
(Poznan Castle)
Poznan City Album, c1920-1929

Keres and Rogmann Lead
    In the second round of the masters’ tournament for the Wehrmacht in “Posener Hoff,” tense and complicated games developed.  In a Spanish Opening the world championship candidate Keres proposed to Vienna chess master Gruenfeld the exchange of queens, in order to maintain a small but lasting pressure.  Gruenfeld held out for a draw, but after he made several imprudent moves, Keres’ rooks invaded the kingside.  Gruenfeld overstepped the time limit in a lost position.  A Spanish Opening between Rogmann and Kieninger was adjourned after 40 moves, but on resumption was easily won by Rogmann.  A wonderful success was gained by Obergefreite Bickenbach against Bayreuth master Eysser.  The game ended in a draw.  The score after the second round: Keres and Rogmann - 2 points each, Gruenfeld - 1 point, Obergefreite Bickenbach and Eysser - 0.5 point each, Kieninger - 0 points.
    Some valuable awards for the master tournament have been offered by the mayor of Posen, as well as by the Wehrmacht Commandant and the Regional Management of the German Labor Front.  In addition, the Posen Commune of “Force through Joy” has offered a brilliancy prize.
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.26
Keres,P — Grünfeld,E
Spanish: Closed (Knight Attack)
POL Poznan
Annotations by G.R. in Deutsche Schachzeitung.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Nc3 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.Nd5 Na5 9.Nxe7 Qxe7 10.d4 Nxb3 11.axb3 Bb7 
11...Bg4 was a serious alternative; on b7 the bishop does not play a large role.
12.Bg5 h6 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Re1 0-0 15.dxe5 dxe5 16.Qd3 
Now, and in the future, the break c7-c5 must be avoided.
16...Rfe8 17.Qc3 Qe7 18.b4 Rac8 19.Qc5 
The break c7-c5 must be prevented at any price.  After queens are exchanged White preserves some pressure.
19...Qxc5 20.bxc5 Rcd8 21.Re2 Re7 22.Ne1 f6 23.f3 Red7 24.Nd3 Rd4 25.Kf2 Ra8 26.Ra5 Kf7 27.Ke3 Rad8 28.Rd2 Ke7 29.g4 Bc8 
Something should have been done against the opponent’s threatened action on the kingside; 29...h5 was officious.
30.Ra1 Bb7 31.h4 g5? 
Now White’s rooks will invade through the h-file into Black’s position.
32.hxg5 hxg5 33.Rh1 Rf8
A quiet but powerful move.
Returning to d7 would have been an error for 35.Rh7+ Rf7 36.Rxf7+ Kxf7 37.Nxe5+.
35.Rh7+ Rf7 36.Rdh2 Bc8 37.Rxf7+ Kxf7 38.Rh7+ Kg6 39.Rxc7 Be6 40.Rc6 (Time), 1-0. 
And in this hopeless position Black overstepped the time limit.
Deutsche Schachzeitung, 1943, p62
Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, Tallinn 1995, p158

Rogmann Delivers a Dramatic Game to Keres
    In the third round of the Posen Masters’ Chess Tournament for the Wehrmacht, Gruenfeld won against Eysser who in the middlegame did not find the best defense.  Rogmann secured a point in the game against Obergefreite Bickenbach.  Kieninger held an isolated central pawn against Keres.  This weakness ran through the whole game as a red thread.  Nevertheless Kieninger defended obstinately.  The game was adjourned and will be continued today.  After three rounds Keres and Rogmann lead with 3 points, followed by Gruenfeld with 2 points. [Keres’ score seems like speculation as his adjourned game had yet to be finished.- T.L.]
    The fourth round saw the dramatic game between Rogmann and Keres.  In the Spanish Opening Rogmann gained a wonderful attacking position.  It appeared Keres was about to lose, but then he found a defense.  In an interesting position Rogmann had a sure draw in hand.  Still, he wanted to win, and fell victim in his attempt after a surprising retort by his opponent.  Rogmann resigned to Keres after four hours.  Gruenfeld defended against Bickenbach a la Prussian.  He won the endgame after hard resistance.  The game Eysser - Kieninger was adjourned in a position difficult to evaluate.
    Keres played his fifth round and final game a day early against Eysser.  He forced the Bayreuth master to resign after thirty moves.  Thus with four points Keres secured first place in the tournament.  A hard fight between Gruenfeld and Rogmann is expected today on 1 o’clock, PM, until 5 o’clock.  The game Kieninger - Bickenbach will decide who will be fourth in this tournament.
    Tonight at 8 o’clock a farewell banquet will be held in the “Posener Hoff,” together with the award ceremony for the tournament winner.  It will be held in collaboration with the Reich Theater of Posen [Wielki Theater - T.L.].  Soldiers and civilians interested in chess are invited.
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.27
Kieninger,G — Keres,P
Semi-Slav: Exchange
1943.05.25 & 27
POL Poznan
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Bd3 Bd6 8.0-0 0-0 9.Re1 Re8 10.Qc2 Nf8 11.e4 dxe4 12.Nxe4 Nd5 13.Bg5 f6 14.Nxd6 Rxe1+ 15.Rxe1 Qxd6 16.Bh4 Be6 17.Bg3 Qd7 18.a3 Nb6 19.Qc5 Rd8 20.h3 Nc8 21.Be4 a6 22.Qb4 Ne7 23.Bb1 Nfg6 24.h4 Bg4 25.Ba2+ Nd5 26.Nh2 Be6 27.Qd2 Nf8 28.Qa5 Bf7 29.Nf3 Ne7 30.Bxf7+ Kxf7 31.Bc7 Re8 32.Bb6 Nd5 33.Rxe8 Qxe8 34.Bc5 Ng6 35.h5 Ngf4 36.Nh4 Qd7 37.h6 g5 38.Nf3 Nxg2 39.Kxg2 Qg4+ 40.Kh2 Qxf3 41.Qd8 Qxf2+ 42.Kh1 Qe1+ 43.Kh2 Nf4 44.Qf8+ Kg6 45.Qg7+ Kh5 46.Qxh7 Qf2+ 47.Kh1 Qg2# 0-1. 
Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, Tallinn 1995, p158
Rogmann,G — Keres,P
Spanish: Closed (Center Attack)
POL Poznan
Annotations by G.R. in Deutsche Schachzeitung.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d4 exd4 7.e5 Ne4 8.Re1 Nc5 9.Bxc6 dxc6 10.Nxd4 0-0 
Grünfeld and other masters prefer here 10...Ne6 and, as shown by this game, that line seems to be better.
11.Nc3 Re8 12.Be3 Bf8 13.f4 f6 14.exf6 Qxf6 
So played Keres against Dr. Alekhine in Kemeri 1937.  That game, which ended with a draw, was unknown to the commander of the white forces.
15.Qf3 Bf5 
Surprising because Black in this line tries to preserve his pair of bishops as compensation for White’s better pawn position.  In this sense 15...Bd7 comes into account.
16.Nxf5 Qxf5 17.Re2 h5 
This weakening move is hard to avoid, as g2-g4 is a permanent threat.  White’s position is undoubtedly superior, moreover Black must avoid a general exchange in order not to loose the endgame.
18.Rae1 Rad8 
18...Bd6 immediately was better.  Now Black’s position becomes critical.
19.Kf1! Bd6 20.Bxc5 Rxe2 21.Qxe2! Qxc5 
Forced; if 21...Bxc5, 22.Qc4+ followed by 23.Re5 and the bishop is lost.
22.Qe6+ Kh8
In preliminary calculations White planned to play 23.Qf7, then later the seemingly strong knight move.
Saving idea!  The endgame after 23...Qd5 24.Qxd5 cxd5 25.Nxd6 Rxd6 26.Re7 would be inconvenient for Black.
White seemingly had a win in his pocket, threatening 25.Nf7+ as well as 25.Qe8+.  However, the open position of White’s king allows Keres to slip away.
24...Qd3+! 25.Kg1? 
White plays carelessly for a win and overlooks a nice rejoinder.  Correct was 25.Re2 after which Black should have taken the draw by perpetual check: ...Qd1+.
25...Qd4+ 26.Kh1 Qxf4 
The refutation!
27.Nf7+ Kh7 28.Nxd6 Rxd6 29.Qe8 Qf5 30.h3 Rd2 31.Qb8 Qd5 32.Rg1 Rxb2 33.Qxc7 c5 34.a4 c4 35.Qg3 Qe4 36.Re1 h4 37.Qxg7+ Kxg7 38.Rxe4 c3 39.Rc4 c2 40.Kh2 b5 41.axb5 axb5 42.Rc7+ Kf6 
And after several moves White resigned.
43.Rc6+ Ke5 44.Rc5+ Kd4 45.Rh5 c1Q 46.Rd5+ Ke3 47.Rd3+ Ke2 0-1. 
Deutsche Schachzeitung, 1943, p62-63
Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, Tallinn 1995, p158-159

The Ending of the Posen Masters’ Chess Tournament
    Before the start of the last round, adjourned games were played.  Kieninger showed some resistance against Keres, but was forced by his opponent into a mating net.  Eysser was not able to convert his better position into a win and had to be satisfied with a draw.  The decisive game for the second prize was played in the last round between Gruenfeld and Rogmann, and it developed into a complex position.  Grunfeld offered a draw on his eighteenth move.  Rogmann refused as the position still contained a lot of possibilities for further fight.  Rogmann complicated the position, but it turned against him.  He overlooked a tactical possibility in the middlegame and lost.  Gruenfeld thus secured second prize.  In the game between Kieninger and Bickenbach, the player from Munich won easily.
Ostdeutscher Beobachter, 1943.05.28
Keres,P — Eysser
Caro-Kann: Panov (Carlsbad)
POL Poznan
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.c5 Be7 8.Bb5 Bd7 9.Nf3 0-0 10.0-0 Ne4 11.Bxe7 Nxe7 12.Bd3 f5 13.Ne2 Ng6 14.b4 a6 15.a4 Qc7 16.Qb3 b5 17.axb5 Bxb5 18.Bxb5 axb5 19.Qd3 Qc6 20.Ne5 Nxe5 21.dxe5 Rxa1 22.Rxa1 Ra8 23.Ra3 Rxa3 24.Qxa3 d4 25.f3 Nd2 26.Qd3 Nc4 27.Qxd4 Qa8 28.Qd7 1-0. 
 Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, Tallinn 1995, p158

    Keres convincingly won the tournament.  Gruenfeld also was successful.  Rogmann, who during two and a half years has not played a single tournament game because of his “Truppenbetreuung” chess engagements for soldiers in conquered areas, could easily have made a large surprise.  Eysser, who for the past year and a half has been engaged in delivering chess amusement for soldiers (and who has also been engaged in organizing the chess “Truppenbetreuung”) has also not played any tournament games, but was very close to being a surprise.  Eysser’s extensive efforts also kept him from playing his best.  Kieninger and Bickenbach were defeated only after stout resistance.
    The press from the Varta District showed great interest in the tournament.  Many radio reports were dedicated to the event.  Listeners from Posen and Litzmannstadt [Lodz - T.L.] suggested to Secretary Majer that every Saturday at 4.30 P. M., the radio should have a Wehrmacht chess report.  The first such report was aired June 5th.
Deutsche Schachzeitung, 1943, p56

    Keres’ post-war chess activities are well known; it is not necessary to recount them here.  Ernst Grünfeld lived in Vienna until his death.  Though not rich, he was never poor or hungry.  Georg Kieninger (1902-1975) was the champion of West Germany in 1947 and during the next ten years remained one of the best chess masters in his country.
    But many stories are yet to be written.  For example, whatever happened to Rogmann and Eysser, those tireless participants of “Wehrmachtbetreuung”?  Did Obergefreite Bickenbach survive the war?  What were the lots of those who had defeated Keres in the Posen simul for the Wehrmacht: Sonderfuehrer Lau, Barthell, Jannasch, Popp and Sonderfuehrer Waeber, who received the award for the most rapid win over the Estonian grandmaster?  Will anybody ever be able to answer such questions?
© Tomasz Lissowski 1999

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