I have recently found a new use for YouTube in trying to track down film footage of the great players of the past. Whilst there is an abundance of footage of present day players, and those of the relatively recent past, especially Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov, there is, sadly, very little film of those of former days. Indeed one often has only a rather hazy idea of what many of those players actually looked, or indeed sounded like, being based on a small number of over-familiar but often poor quality photographs.
I searched for the great players of the inter-war period, there being of course absolutely no footage of players of even earlier vintages. Morphy died in 1884 when moving film had scarcely even been invented and Steinitz died in 1900, and I would have been amazed to have found film of either of these two gentlemen. But I thought I might come across a wealth of film of Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe and others of that generation. Alas there is a dearth of such material, but such as does exist is irresistibly fascinating. Disappointingly I could only find one piece of footage of Emanuel Lasker, which is on “Capablanca on film”, uploaded by “cojimero59”, which consists of Lasker and Capablanca analyzing a game, and I would guess dates from their 1921 match in Havana. I recall very recently watching something on YouTube which looked like a friendly blitz game between Alekhine, I think, and possibly Bogolyubov, with Emanuel Lasker looking on perched behind the clock, but annoyingly I cannot now locate this.
So far as Capablanca is concerned there is slightly more material available, with three or four pieces that contain live footage of him. There is the above-mentioned piece which is a montage of film, containing items available elsewhere on YouTube and has music by Segovia played over the top. There is “Capablanca, Jose Raul” uploaded by “SzachowyZapiecek” which is a very poor quality film, almost dissolving before ones eyes, of the great man giving a simul though it is unclear when or where. There is “Moscow 1925”, uploaded by “MikhailTal” (an alias I rather fancy!) which has footage of the Moscow 1925 tournament itself, and matches between several of the players competing, including Spielmann and Grunfeld, and a clip from the famous feature film “Chess Fever” which contains a cameo appearance by Capa as himself – filmed whilst he was in Moscow playing in the tournament. “Chess Fever” I have seen before, and I remember watching the whole film a few years ago, though there is only that one very brief appearance of the Cuban lasting no more than thirty seconds. These are all silent bits of film.
But then there is “Max Euwe and Capablanca (The Chess Machine)! RARE FOOTAGE”, uploaded by “FWCC1”, which is a rather intriguing little piece obviously made by a Dutch film-maker in either 1935 or 1937 during one of the world championship matches between Alekhine and Euwe. This shows Max Euwe and a Dutch interviewer, Hans Hollander, debating a chess position, when lo and behold, a dinner-jacketed Capablanca arrives on the scene, sits down at the board and immediately points out a win for Hollander. There then follows a brief conversation about the forthcoming Euwe-Alekhine match in which Capa makes some surprisingly frank comments, including that Alekhine’s game was “20% bluff”, that Euwe’s style was “clear and straightforward” and that he was “not so strong in some respects” as Alekhine. Euwe seems to take these slightly disparaging comments in good part, though they have to be translated for him by Hollander. The whole piece is designed to create an air of spontaneity though obviously carefully stage-managed. It is not clear whether it is the 1935 or the 1937 match that is being contemplated. Capablanca’s voice is perhaps not quite what one would have expected (though the sound quality is muzzy) being less markedly Latin-American than one might have supposed, and vaguely British in intonation.
Regarding Alekhine there is again very little material available. There is a film “Alekhine interview” uploaded by originaldrilo, which is a sound recording consisting of a BBC interview made and transmitted in 1938, which I have come across before, but which still makes for enthralling listening. For one thing his voice is not what one would have predicted, being high pitched and precious, though of course with a heavy Russian accent, as one might suppose. There is even a commenter on the footage who says that he does not think that it was Alekhine at all, but I think we can discount that (I don’t think the BBC would have been so easily fooled, even in 1938). The only piece of footage I could find that actually had film of him was: “Alekhine Rare Live film” uploaded by “alecksandrkoblents” (again surely an alias since the player of that name died in 1993) which contains what looks like a friendly game or, more likely, some analysis between him and Euwe, presumably before or after one of their two matches in 1935 or 1937. It also has Alekhine presiding over an exhibition match with people in costume as live pieces, which I have also seen before, and which dates again, I think, from the time of one of their matches in the Netherlands.
Moving forwards somewhat to the post-war era I came across a film of the 1945 radio match between the USSR and the USA: ‘Botvinnik Film Images.MP4′, uploaded by ‘FilmImages’ and made by the Soviets, which has film of the Soviet players in a room somewhere in Moscow – their opponents of course being on the other side of the world. There are telephonists, telegraphers and messengers scurrying around as moves are relayed, and we are given glimpses of each of the players, including Botvinnik, Smyslov, Flohr, Kotov and a twenty year old Bronstein who still has an almost complete head of hair!