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Out of Time: The 1936 Nottingham Chess Tournament

23 February 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

When you think of Nottingham’s rich sport and gaming history, your mind might immediately wander to the worldwide success of Warhammer, the unprecedented double European Cup winning Forest team, or even Herbert Kilpin, the Notts legend that founded A.C Milan. What you might not know is that the city hosted the 1936 Nottingham Chess Tournament, which is still remembered as one of the most legendary events in the history of the game...



Nottingham might not immediately spring to mind as a great chess city. Certainly not ahead of cities like Havana, St. Petersburg, Vienna or New York, which have all produced grand champions and hosted legendary games. But the 1936 Nottingham chess tournament is still remembered in almost mythological terms. Dr J. Hannak even went so far as to describe the tournament, which was held at the University of Nottingham between 10-28 August, as the “greatest chess tournament ever,” – sentiments echoed by W.H. Watts, who called it “the most important chess event the world so far has seen.”

The reason? It remains one of the few tournaments in chess history to include five past, present or future grand champions: Russians Mikhail Botvinnik, the future three-time world champion and the methodical Alexander Alekhine; Dutch grandmaster Max Euwe; legendary Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablance, considered by many to be one of the greatest players of all time, and Emanuel Lasker, the enigmatic German genius who had reigned as champion from 1894-1921 – the longest reign of any officially recognised World Chess Champion in the history of the game. 

It was a coming together of giants of the game, and a generational clash for the ages. Imagine Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock all competing for the Best Director Academy Award; it was almost unimaginable that, not only had these five greats gathered together in one place, but four of them would return home having lost. 

The tournament also represented something of a changing of the guard in world chess. Three true veterans of the game were present, including Milan Vidmar, whose career pre-dated World War One, Efin Bogoljubow who, though past his best, was still optimistic of success and Savielly Tartakower. It’s hard to imagine a sporting entrance more dramatic than Tartakower’s, who sent shockwaves through the tournament before a single game had been played. The night before the opening match, a Dutch ship believed to be carrying him sank to the bottom of the Thames during a storm. Tournament organisers, assuming he had died, hastily announced his passing to a hall full of shocked attendees, only to have Tartakower stroll in twenty minutes later, very much alive and ready to play. 

The 1936 Nottingham chess tournament is still remembered in almost mythological terms

These established players were widely expected to be challenged, if not surpassed, in Nottingham by four young pretenders to the throne, Sam Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, Salo Flohr and, in only his second voyage to a tournament not in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Botvinnik, who turned 25 during the eighteen-day tournament.  

Many of the details of the tournament come from the methodical writings recorded by Botvinnik’s fellow Russian, Alexander Alekhine, who kept a detailed account of each and every game. The British press reported that the atmosphere was one of incredible tension – helped in no small part by false death rumours – and that Alekhine, a notorious chain-smoker, went through over 100 cigarettes during a single game. The pressure ultimately told on both the experienced and younger players, as the tournament was decided by an uncharacteristic, extraordinary series of blunders which helped determine the top five places. 

It was to be the last tournament for the great Emanuel Lasker who, having utterly dominated chess with his unique psychological approach to the game for almost three decades, was ultimately defeated, and died four years later in New York at the age of 72. The eventual winner, young Mikhail Botvinnik, seized victory in somewhat contentious circumstances. Having methodically worked his way to seven draws and seven victories, he met with last-placed British master William Winter, who completely outplayed him on the final day. With first prize on the line, and defeat seeming certain, Botvinnik was inexplicably offered a generous draw by Winter. Why? Winter was a well-known Stalinist, and would have rather seen a Soviet player crowned as champion. His wish was granted, and Botvinnik became the first Soviet player to achieve success outside of the Soviet Union. 

In an era when world-class players meet one another every three or four months, modern chess fans have grown accustomed to the regularity of matches between true greats. But 1936 was a wildly different time for chess, and tournaments like Nottingham’s were incredibly rare – that calibre of competition was not matched for almost two decades. While Vienna’s 1882 tournament or the 1924 tournament in New York may be considered the most legendary in the early years of the game, neither matched Nottingham’s 1936 tournament for its ability to bring the sheer number of grand champions together in one city for a tournament that is rightly considered as one of, if not the, greatest in any era of the game. 

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