Kindred’s Special: A Top Chess Star Amateur Who Was Among the First to Win the New Grandmaster Title

Of course I am talking about Osip S. Bernstein, born 9/20/1882 in Zhitomir, Ukraine, and died after a long, richly successful life as a lawyer specializing in international financial law. We can give thanks to Genna Sosonko and the 5/2011 magazine issue of New In Chess for bringing to Americans a biographical look at Osip Samoilovich Bernstein.

Born of Jewish parents where education was a primary certainty, Hanover’s Polytechnical Institute, Germany was selected for studies at university. His parents did not object to his early skills at chess and so enroute he stopped off in Warsaw, Poland where he defeated the great master Szymon Winawer. However, he decided to travel to Berlin, Germany and started the study of law, eventually receiving a degree in 1906, Dr. of Law at Heidelberg University and returned to Russia to start his law practice in international financial law setting up an office in Moscow; in time he became known as one of the best in the field.

From 1906-1917 he was invited and played in numerous major tournaments and had a reputation of winning the majority against the top players while dropping points to some of the lower entrants. Some considered this a lack staying power. Still, his play was sparkling, imaginative, aggressive and popular among the spectators as well as the other opponents. (I read elsewhere that he was the first to win the title of Grandmaster  along with Rubinstein, from another source although cannot verify this or the specific event at this writing.)

Osip had married Leah Iosifovna Rapoport in1908 and in subsequent years had two children, a daughter Anna and a son Ilya.  Anna followed her father into law and Ilya into becoming a very successful translator, being an excellent student of languages. Their marriage of 54-years together saw too many years of turmoil avoiding authorities due to their Jewish heritage.

The year 1917 saw the revolution and communist taking control of territory which extended to Ostend in 1919 and the Bernsteins just managed to escape to freedom, emigrating to various European countries over the years and eventually ending up in Paris, France in 1940, then to Vichy France until 1942.  From there they had to escape the Nazi invasion settling after a trek across the Spanish Pyrenees in Barcelona.  He played little chess during this period but had a good reputation in his legal field which saw them through many crises.

Occasionally he found time from his busy schedule to accept invitations and to play for the French Olympiad team where he managed to pull off a nifty win against Najdorf and some pretty nice games. Still, it was never certain that he might blunder, make a weak move, or fall asleep while waiting for his opponent to move.

In 1956 he was listed as lst board for France and returned to Russia as Khruschev had denounced Stalin and thawing of suppression had eased tensions.

Time erodes chess skill.  In his youth he always had an hour on his clock and this extended into his middle age. However with time, he began to slow down and often found himself in time trouble, his nerves effecting his thought processes most likely. He would build up a good position only to blow it toward the end. (How often do we see this in older players?) For example, he entered a weak Ostend tournament in 1956 doing poorly from a tournament four decades or more past sharing lst place with Rubinstein who was considered the strongest player in the world at that time. His last tournament was Amsterdam, 1961.

Dr. Bernstein’s final year of life ended in a sanatorium at a small hamlet called Saint Arroman in the French Pyrenees not far from Spain.

Years before, he had contemplated a more serious chess career but decided to pursue his main interest toward a profession in law achieving great success.  He kept a corner of his spirit for the game of chess devoting it whenever his free time allowed.  And all this during an era when Europe was shrouded in darkness and in flames and danger for his family.

In America today we have many former USSR emigrants who cherish chess as either livelihood and/or as a sport.  We have home grown champions who developed especially during the 1960s-1970s who largely quit serious chess to pursue their careers.  Such players as Weinstein, Commons, Rogoff, Lombardy, dominanted the USCF news along with a host of talented women players and succeeded the powerbase driven by Samuel Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, Isaac Kashdan, Shipman, Santasiere,  and earlier Frank Marshall, Edward Lasker, Herman Helms, Showalter among numerous others. Of this group, GM Ken Rogoff probably comes closest to that of our subject being married with children, a world leader in economics at the World Bank, a professor at Harvard, oft times invitee to national news outlets who seek his expertise.  Perhaps Obama and the White House along with the whole Congress could learn a lesson by learning to play chess and not just play at chess!!

Readers can find a very indepth article on the Osip Bernstein family in New In Chess as listed above.

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4 Responses to “Kindred’s Special: A Top Chess Star Amateur Who Was Among the First to Win the New Grandmaster Title”

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