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Chess Master Ossip Bernstein: They wanted to execute him but winning the game of chess saved his life

Boban Docevski

Chess is a game of strategy and the best strategy is the one that makes you win. Chess champions win big financial prizes at the end of tournaments, but in this case, the prize was even higher. In the game of chess that Ossip Bernstein played in 1918, his own life at stake.

Ossip Bernstein was a famous Russian-French chess player and a successful financial lawyer. With many victories in his long chess-playing career, Bernstein became renowned across the Russian Empire and became a chess Grandmaster in 1950. Besides bringing him a lot of prizes, the game of chess also saved Bernstein’s life when things got ugly after the October Revolution.

Ossip Samoilovich Bernstein c. 1902

Ossip Samoilovich Bernstein c. 1902

Ossip Samoilovich Bernstein was born 20 September 1882 in the city of Zhytomyr, in pre-revolutionary Russian Empire. In 1906 Bernstein received his doctor’s degree in law at Heidelberg University and started his career as a financial lawyer. October Revolution revolution brought huge changes across the Russian Empire.

Some of those changes involved the seizing of private property, the nationalization of all the Russian banks, the confiscation of private bank accounts, and the execution of all of those which collaborated with the bankers and the royalty. One of those people was Osip Bernstein. In 1918, after the October Revolution and during the Ukrainian War of Independence, Bernstein was working In Odessa, Ukraine as a legal advisor to bankers. Because of his involvement with the banks and his support for capitalism, Bernstein was arrested by the Cheka – the Bolshevik secret police that was created to eliminate all of the political enemies of the state.  After the arrest, he was ordered to be executed by a firing squad.

On the day of his execution, while the firing squad was preparing to shoot, their superior officer demanded to see the list of names of the prisoners selected for execution. As a chess lover, the officer immediately recognized the name of Ossip Bernstein. The officer asked him is he really the famous chess master and Bernstein confirmed.

Ossip Bernstein in Saint Petersburg in 1909

Ossip Bernstein in Saint Petersburg in 1909

 

Picture was taken during the Kiev chess tournament in 1903. Bernstein is third from the left

Picture was taken during the Kiev chess tournament in 1903. Bernstein is third from the left

The answer wasn’t enough for the officer to be convinced and he demanded to play a game of chess with him. The conditions of the game were very simple: if Bernstein won and proved he is really a chess master he would be released; if he lost or drew, he would be shot. Bernstein managed to win the game without any difficulties, and he was immediately released. Feeling unsafe in the newly formed Soviet Union, Bernstein and his family escaped to Paris. Here he continued his career as a financial lawyer and kept playing chess as a representative of France.

Bernstein remained in France until 1940, they year when France capitulated, and it was conquered by the Nazis. Because of his Jewish heritage, Bernstein was prosecuted by the new authorities.

During the summer of 1940, he escaped to Spain, where the Spanish border patrol arrested him and his family. Luckily, some of his influential friends in Spain managed to negotiate his release and organized for him to stay in Spain until the war was over. Bernstein returned to Paris in 1945.

Ossip Bernstein in 1961 / Author: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo  Nationaal Archief   CC BY-SA 3.0 nl 

Ossip Bernstein in 1961 / Author: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo  Nationaal Archief   CC BY-SA 3.0 nl 

One of Bernstein’s more interesting chess games happened in 1954 when he was 72. On the tournament that happened at Montevideo, Bernstein came to the semifinal, and he was supposed to play against Miguel Najdorf. Najdorf was offended that he should play against an aged opponent and he was so confident that he would win that he even managed to convince the organizers to double the First Prize money at the expense of the payouts for the lower prizes. Bernstein beat him with a 37-move Old Indian Defense (a chess opening) and made him regret his decision about the prize.

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During his life, Ossip Bernstein earned and lost his fortunes three times. First, during the Bolshevik Revolution, then he lost his other wealth during the Great Depression, and when he earned some wealth again, he lost it when Nazi Germany invaded France. But most importantly, he managed to keep his most valued treasure – his life. Bernstein died on 30 November 1962 in a sanatorium in the French Pyrenees.