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How a game of chess saved a man’s life in the Bolshevik Revolution

Andrew Pourciaux

Chess is one of those games that spans across thousands of years and hundreds of cultures. Harkening as far back as the 7th century, the game has been hailed as a test of intelligence, strategy and the ability to think ahead.

While many chess masters swear by the game and many amateurs enjoy passing the hours by playing, few would say that the game managed to save their life. But in the case of Russian chess grandmaster Ossip Bernstein, it would be that very game that saved him from an execution.

Ossip Bernstein, chess player, (1882-1962). The picture was probably taken in Berlin not later than 1902.

Ossip Bernstein, chess player, (1882-1962). The picture was probably taken in Berlin not later than 1902.

In 1917, Russia underwent a major political revolution known as the October Revolution. The ruling aristocracy was overthrown by the Bolsheviks and Soviet Russia was founded. The ruling Tsar family was executed and communism had officially arrived in Russia.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, Russian communist revolutionary, politician, and political theorist.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, Russian communist revolutionary, politician, and political theorist.

Through a series of political and military conflict, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, came to power and began a series of reformations in the country. Property was nationalized, banks were seized, factories were given to the hands of the state.

The total transformation of Russia was a long and bloody affair, leading to the deaths of hundreds in the initial conflict, and hundreds of thousands in the years to come.

Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square.

Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square.

Lenin’s policies might have been beneficial for the worker, but there were those who saw him as a threat. An assassination attempt led Vladimir to create the Cheka, a secret police organization whose job was to reduce threats to the state.

MV Lyubov Orlova – Ghost ship ?

This would lead to an era known as the Red Terror, where the Cheka would execute thousands of people in order to secure Soviet Russia’s sovereignty.

Ossip Bernstein (1961). Photo by Jac de Nijs Anefo CC BY SA 3.0 nl

Ossip Bernstein (1961). Photo by Jac de Nijs Anefo CC BY SA 3.0 nl

One such target of the Cheka was none other than chess grandmaster Ossip Bernstein. A financial lawyer, Bernstein was the exact kind of person that communists believed to be part of the problem with their pre-revolution society. Since he worked as an advisor to banks, who were considered to be enemies of the people, he was a prime target for arrest and execution.

Members of the presidium of VCheKa (left to right) Yakov Peters, Józef Unszlicht, Abram Belenky (standing), Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, 1921.

Members of the presidium of VCheKa (left to right) Yakov Peters, Józef Unszlicht, Abram Belenky (standing), Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, 1921.

And arrested he was. The Cheka took him in and orders were given for him to stand before the firing squad for his apparent crimes against the state. As he was awaiting his execution, watching the firing line assemble into position, an officer noticed Bernstein’s name on the list. This was a surprise for him to see the name of the man who had once won the Moscow City Championship chess tournament. The officer was skeptical and asked Bernstein if he was really the chess master. Bernstein confirmed his identity.

IBM Chess Tournament 1961 (the Netherlands). Left to right Ossip Bernstein, unknown person, Max Euwe, Frans Kuijpers. Photo by Jac de Nijs CC BY SA 3.0

IBM Chess Tournament 1961 (the Netherlands). Left to right Ossip Bernstein, unknown person, Max Euwe, Frans Kuijpers. Photo by Jac de Nijs CC BY SA 3.0

The officer didn’t quite believe Bernstein and instead decided to test the grandmaster with a simple wager. They would play against each other in a game of chess. If Bernstein lost or if the game was a draw, he would be shot by the firing squad.

Ossip Bernstein.

Ossip Bernstein.

But if Bernstein could win the game, he would be given his freedom and allowed to walk away.

No doubt the game must have been stressful, but Bernstein agreed and was able to win the game in a short amount of time. After all, he was a brilliant chess player who had won many games playing against serious competition.

Chess match in Amsterdam, 1954.

Chess match in Amsterdam, 1954.

After he checkmated the officer, they were true to their word and allowed Bernstein to leave the firing wall, unharmed. This would be the only time that chess would be a matter of life and death for Ossip Bernstein.

Read another story from us: The Georgian Legion of the German Army stationed on the German-occupied Dutch island of Texel revolted against Nazi Germany.

Bernstein would flee the country as quickly as possible. Such a brush with death convinced him that he would no longer be safe in Russia. There was little chance of the Cheka challenging him to another game of chess should they capture him again. So, he made his way to France, where he resided until the Nazis invaded in 1940.


Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting.