New Vasiuki on the River Plate

2006

From the fashionable hotel “The Passed Pawn” stepped out the world champion José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera. He was surrounded by ladies…

The chat … was interrupted by the landing of a plane carrying the future world champion Alekhine. Welcoming cries shook the city. José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera made a wry face.

Ilf & Petrov, “The Twelve Chairs”

On September 16, 1927, two unknown newspapermen spent long hours scribbling and arguing in a small apartment in central Moscow. By the time the exhausted pair had called it a day in the wee hours of the next morning, somewhere halfway around the world in Buenos Aires Dr. Marcelo T. de Alvear was proclaiming the opening of a sporting event. This event would later account for the most whimsical chapter in the hilarious scribblings of the Moscow pair. Dr. de Alvear, President of the Republic of Argentina, opened the long awaited match for the world chess crown between the prohibitively favored title holder, the charismatic and brilliant Cuban, and the contender, an enigmatic and unlikable Russian émigré. The world-wide celebrity of this match would be unequalled in the annals of chess until the calendar flipped the last two digits of the year to show 1972, and Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.

The two sets of adversaries are hardly comparable, except for an additional piece of symmetry. In 1927, a Russian native became chess champion for the first time, while the 1972 match marked the end of the almost unbroken (except for a short interlude by Max Euwe) Russian domination of the chess Olympus.

We quicken our pace and count building numbers along Calle Paraguay. We are looking for number 1858. It’s 11 PM already and we fear it may be getting too late for visits. A massive double door with large Art Deco-ornamented glass inserts and an elegant head of a horse in the center of each side is brightly lit. Even without looking at the sign we are sure it must be the Club Argentino de Ajedrez.

The gate
The gate

We open the door and step into a vaulted passage leading to a courtyard and another door with chess piece designs. It too, opens with a simple push and we find ourselves inside a princely-bourgeois fin-de-siecle mansion, akin to the Back Bay townhouses of Boston Brahmins or the palaces of St.Petersburg grandees of Nabokov’s childhood. Oak paneling, more stained glass, an imposing staircase. Yet unlike at Nabokov’s mansion, there is no one to stop us, but also no one to ask where to go.

The door
The door

Finally, a stroke of luck – a middle-aged señor emerges from one of the many doors surrounding the lobby and hurries to the staircase. We try to catch his attention, while maintaining the best hidalgo courtesy we are capable of. We need to ask the all-important question that brought us here at this late – for a non-hidalgo – hour: “Could you tell us Señor, where in Buenos Aires the famous match between Capablanca and Alekhine took place?” The señor stops in his tracks and turns to us, pleasantly surprised. “Follow me,” he says.

He takes us up one flight of stairs to a wood-paneled room with a medieval style cast-iron chandelier, a grandfather clock, and numerous framed documents and photographs on the walls. The centerpiece of the room is an elaborate high fireplace with bas-reliefs and Corinthian columns. In front of the fireplace stand two wicker armchairs and a table capped with a protective glass shell under which a few chessmen seem scattered on the board accompanied by a chess clock. “Aqui!” – exclaims our host.

Memorial salon
Memorial salon

We notice another glass-covered board on the side of the room. No chairs there and no raised pedestal but a note tells us that it is a witness of the last hurrah of the “Iron Tigran” (Petrosyan), the former world champion who got whipped here by the rising Bobby Fischer on his way to Reykjavik in 1971.

Yes, here the match began and here it ended on November 29 of 1927. The final position is frozen on the board. This looks quaint. A world famous event took place in this room that could fit at most a dozen people and not very comfortably at that? Counting the combatants, Dr. de Alvear, Dr. Lazaro Molina Carranza, the club president, and Dr. Carlos A. Querencio, the match arbiter,  little room would be left for anybody else, much less a throng of fanatical spectators. Tiny Reykjavik used the Skautahöllin í Laugardal sports palace for the Bobby-Boris fight. The times had surely been a-changing.

Castle ambiance
Castle ambiance

We turn to the pictures and notes on the walls. Besides documents certifying the opening and conclusion of the epic battles signed by all the esteemed señores doctors, each of the great champions (Maestro Petrosyan excepted) left his inscribed likeness as a memento for the club. The range of languages and expressions is entertaining. Monsieur Alekhine, writing in French, the language of his adopted country, employs all the elaborate curlicues of the courteous style of the ancien regime. Capa, the native speaker, is elegant but briefer, calling his hosts “caballeros.” The bad boy Bobby is not impolite but he uses exactly five words in the body of his message. Is it just different times? I copy all the dedications into my notebook (see the texts in the appendix). It turns out that our guide Sr. Norberto Rial does not speak any language but Spanish (castellano, as the locals call it), hence he is unaware of what Alejandro Alekhine’s missive actually said. I offer to translate (and fulfill my promise through email, soon after returning to the States). Fischer’s screed hardly needs translation.

Alekhine
Alekhine

In contrast to the solemn memorial salon, the adjacent room is quite casual. A few elderly men are watching TV there, while drinking and snacking, with no chess in sight. Maybe Dr. Arón Schvartzman, 97, “the living glory” of Argentine chess and a member since 1923, is among them.  After all, the multi-day tournament in his honor had started at the club the day before. It is already midnight, but Don Norberto, who turned out to be not just any socio, but the librarian of the club, is eager to show us around.

Downstairs in the big game room, the regular Tuesday rapid play chess tournament for the competitors rated below 2100 is still underway. A crowd has gathered around the last active board where a young woman seems to have an advantage over her male opponent, but with only 15 minutes per player per game, the outcome of this semi-blitz is hard to predict. A cash prize of 35 pesos (about $10 US) awaits the lucky overall winner, but then the participation fee is only 3 pesos for club members.

Najdorf room
Najdorf room

With all due respect to Dr. Schvartzman, who won South American and Argentine championships in the 1930’s and 40’s, the room is dedicated to the patron-saint of Argentine chess, grandmaster Miguel (Mieczysław, and probably if you dig deeper, Moishe) Najdorf. He put the club on the map when the going got tough for both him and the club. And he had played chess with Fidel and Che, as well as Churchill, Khrushchev, the Shah, and of course General Perón. He also had a pen-pal interested in chess in the Vatican – one Jan Pawel II. I wonder what language the Warsaw-born Don Miguel had used for that correspondence. After all, besides Polish and Spanish, John Paul II was also fluent in Yiddish.

The long wall of the room presents a row of portraits of world champions, male and female, and FIDE presidents. The list of champions ends with Kasparov and Polgar, both no longer incumbent, while the latest FIDE boss on display is His Excellency Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. The urbane smiling face of the ruler of the last patch of Genghis Khan’s European domain is undoubtedly also that of commander-in-chief of today’s chess universe. He has plenty to smile about. He has fulfilled the dream of the return of the grand New Vasiuki back to the Volga shores. It is in his dusty Kalmykian capital, somewhat rustic for his beloved Rolls-Royces, that Topalov and Kramnik will duke it out for the crown of the true heir to Garry Kasparov.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (top right); (late) Vasily Smyslov (bottom right)
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (top right); (late) Vasily Smyslov (bottom right)
Capablanca, Alekhine (top right)
Capablanca, Alekhine (top right)

Boris, Bobby, Tolya, and Garry

(middle row)

The club’s history is distinguished, Don Norberto tells us. Besides hosting legendary matches, it contracted for master classes with many famous players, who in addition to Capa and Alekhine, included Dr. Emanuel Lasker. And in 2005 they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the club. Not all, however, is bright and cheery in the club’s situation. The total membership of about 400 socios is quite respectable, but while the 67 life members are exempted from paying dues, 129 out of 219 adult regulars are in payment arrears, with the same proportion of bad-standing ones among children and juniors.

The tour concludes in the library, where many books have apparently been preserved from the early days of the club, and, surprisingly (or maybe not), in French. This does not phase their monolingual keeper (he can probably read the chess notation, which is all that counts) or detract from his legitimate pride. It’s 1 AM by now and even the chess club is about to close. We thank Sr. Rial, and stumble back out on Calle Paraguay eager to reach our crash pad at the corner of Libertad and Arenales as soon as we can.

Distinguished Centenario
Distinguished Centenario

Appendix. Appreciation notes on the walls of the Memorial Salon of the Club Argentino de Ajedrez

Alekhine

Original:

Au Club Argentino de Ajedrez avec mes remerciements sincéres pour l’amiable hospitalité de ses membres dont je garderai le meilleur des souvenirs et dans l’espoir que mon prochain départ après un sejour trop court a mon gré n’aura pas le sense d’un “adieu”, mais celui d’un “au revoir”.

Buenos Aires, Octobre 1926

A. Alekhine

Spanish:

Al Club Argentino de Ajedrez con agradecimiento sincero por la hospitalidad amable de sus socios de que guardaré recuerdos mejores, y con esperanza que mi proxima salida despues una permanencia demasiado corta a pesar de mi, no tendrá el sentido de un “adios”, sino lo de un “hasta luego”.

Buenos Aires, Octobre 1926

A. Alekhine

English:

To the Argentine Chess Club with sincere gratitude for the friendly hospitality of its members, of which I will keep the best memories, and in the hope that my approaching departure, after too short a stay despite my wishes, will not signify a “farewell” but will rather be a token of future reunions.

Buenos Aires, October 1926

A. Alekhine

Capablanca

Original:

Al Club Argentino de Ajedrez en cuyos salones he tenido el gusto de apreciar las distinguidas cualidades de sus socios como ajedrecistas y amables caballeros. Le deseo larga vida y prosperidad.

J.R. Capablanca

Buenos Aires

Junio 9/911

English:

To the Argentine Chess Club in whose salons I have had the pleasure to appreciate the distinguished qualities of its members as chess players and amiable gentlemen. I wish them a long and prosperous life.

J.R. Capablanca

Buenos Aires

June 9, 1911

Fischer

Bobby Fischer

For the Argentine Chess Club

Best regards

Chess with Fischer and post-Fischer

Reykjavik, Iceland

IMG_4145

Höfði, the Summit House. No, this is not the site where Fischer and Spassky played, that was at Laugardalshöll, a major sports arena. This is simply the cottage where Reagan and Gorbachev met 14 years later.

Boris Spassky autographed this book at the Billerica Chess Club, circa 1986

As Fischer withdrew from competition, Spassky lost in the following cycle to the next champion, Karpov (Leningrad, 1974)