Gideon Ståhlberg, A Swedish Lion in Argentina

Por Peter Holmgren

Juan S. Morgado asked me to write a few words about Gideon Ståhlberg to be published on the date of his death, May 26. Having been working on his biography for more than four years, my first thought was to select one chapter but found that to be too detailed and not to give the right view of Ståhlberg’s fascinating career. Instead I hope you will enjoy reading about some highlights from his career.

When Gideon Ståhlberg arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939 on board the Piriápolis, the Noah’s Ark of chess players, he was already a well-known grandmaster but still improving. Ståhlberg was now the undisputed leader of the Swedish national team, one of the strongest in the world. Unfortunately Gösta Stoltz was not able to join for Argentina and the stand-in Nils Bergkvist was not of the same caliber. Still Sweden finished on an honorable fourth place.

Gideon Ståhlberg

Ståhlberg was not a wonder child. Born in 1908 in Surte outside Gothenburg he grew up in a religious home where entertainments like card and board games were not a common activity. When the father died Gideon began playing chess with his older brother White and in 1923 he joined the local chess club. While studying at high school he soon outgrew his fellow club mates and joined Majornas SS, one of the leading clubs in Gothenburg. Ståhlberg’s first appearance in the Swedish national chess congress tournaments was in 1925. He climbed the categories one year at the time and already in his first year in the masters group he shared first place with Gösta Stoltz.

After a modest debut in one of the individual tournaments in parallel with the Olympiad in London 1927 he was selected for the Swedish team the next year in The Hague. Ståhlberg played on board three and the team finished 11th out of 17. In 1929 he defeated Allan Nilsson in a match, thereby becoming Swedish Champion.

Even if Ståhlberg from 1930 played on first board in all 13 Olympiads he participated in, he was not yet of real international level. He was defeated badly by Bogoljubow and Spielmann in matches and made a mediocre result in Swinemünde. These setbacks made him realize that he had to develop a more solid opening repertoire. The Queen’s Gambit became from now on his main weapon as White and the French Defense as Black. 1932 Ståhlberg moved to Stockholm where he could meet the best players in the country. Leaving his home was also a decisive step in becoming a professional chess player. An intensive life began with tournaments, chess journalism, simultaneous tours and lectures one after another. The improvement of Swedish chess could be observed in Folkestone 1933 with the team finishing third. Complemented by Gösta Danielson the three musketeers Ståhlberg, Gösta Stoltz and Erik Lundin performed even better in Warsaw 1935, only letting USA ahead of them in the result list.

Ståhlberg’s own status had in the meantime improved a lot by his win over Aron Nimzowitsch in a math in 1934. This opened up for numerous tournament invitations and already the same year he was named grandmaster after winning a tournament in Bad Niendorf, Germany. Another important milestone is Ståhlberg’s tied match with Paul Keres in1938.

Before leaving for South America, Ståhlberg defended his Swedish championship in a tournament, up to then having been decided in matches. What happened around the Olympiad in Buenos Aires is, I presume, well-known to the readers of this blog. If not, I recommend the tree tome mammoth work about the event by Juan Morgado. The consequence for Ståhlberg turned out to be a nine year stay in Argentina.

A good reason to stay a while in Argentina, apart from keeping away from the war, was the arrangement of a couple of strong tournaments. When one of them, in La Plata, was cancelled and with the Chess Federation of Argentina (FADA) suffering economically after the Olympiad, it was obvious that there would be no money for more international tournaments for quite some time. As a consequence Ståhlberg, being short of money himself, decided to return to Sweden when he received an invitation to a smaller tournament in Rosario. He travelled to Rosario for a week long tournament but stayed over a year! Apart from his chess duties in the local clubs Ståhlberg used the time to learn Spanish. In this language he wrote a book on the Queen’s Gambit and a collection of Capablanca’s best games.

The big event everybody was waiting for was finally a fact when the casino in Mar del Plata sponsored and accommodated a tournament in 1941 that now became annual. In his closing speech, Roberto Grau expressed his gratitude to the tournament winner Ståhlberg: “A man who carries in his blue eyes the sympathy that his distant homeland deserves has won the contest. It has been won by a great gentleman of the board and a great gentleman in private life, who honors us by staying in our country.”

Ståhlberg’s major opponent in Argentina, and the only one surpassing his results, was Miguel Najdorf. Together they dominated the chess scene, also after the war when strong players as Laszlo Szabó and Max Euwe visited the country. Sweden and Poland have had a love-hate relation since a millennium, and the feelings between Ståhlberg and Najdorf was no exception.

One of Ståhlberg’s most famous, and impressive, achievements in South America is the enormous simultaneous exhibition he took on at the Club Institución Sarmiento, de Santos Lugares in 1941. He played 400 games during 36 hours, winning 364, losing 22 and drawing 14. Thirty boards were constantly active and as the games were concluded the opponents were replaced, this procedure being continued through the display.

Ståhlberg crossed the Andes to Chile twice. In 1946 he made a three month tour with simuls, lectures, a small tournament in Santiago and a match against Rodrigo Flores, considered the best player of the country at the time. He returned early 1947 to play in Viña del Mar as preparation for the extra important Mar del Plata event. After the war European top players could be invited and this year none less than the ex-world champion Max Euwe participated. Najdorf won, as he had since 1942, half a point ahead of Ståhlberg while Euwe was a disappointment. To give him a chance to rehabilitate himself a six master double round tournament was set up. Ståhlberg now played the best chess of his life and won in superior style but Euwe failed again.

With the world championship title becoming vacant after Alekhine’s death in 1946 FIDE was able to take control. In spite of many good arguments for Najdorf, and also Ståhlberg, to participate in the world championship deciding match tournament, the original decision for Botvinnik, Smyslov, Keres, Reshevsky and Euwe remained. FIDE also defined and awarded the grandmaster title. The first nominations were presented in 1950 with Ståhlberg as one of them.

Ståhlberg returned to Sweden in time for the Interzonal tournament in Saltsjöbaden in 1948. There he qualified for the Candidate’s tournament in Budapest that was played with some delay in 1950. His 7th place in the very strong field must be considered respectable. His performance in tournaments continued to be strong, e.g. in Trencianske Teplice 1949, Amsterdam 1950 and Budapest 1952. In the Olympiad in Helsinki 1952 he excelled on board one with 11 points out of 13 games, including a dramatic time scramble win against the bad loser Reshevsky.

A new career as world championship arbiter opened up in 1951 when Ståhlberg was appointed IA, International Arbiter. Being popular and highly respected in the USSR made him an easy choice for FIDE to all matches from 1951 up to 1963 except for 1954 when a tournament in Bucharest, Romania, coincided.

Having qualified a second time for the Candidates’ tournament in 1953 turned out to be Ståhlberg’s last success in the world championship cycle. He failed in Zürich, tailing the field with as much as 3½ points. After this, his results varied a lot. E.g. he failed completely in Stockholm at Christmas 1955, but right after was able to win in Beverwijk. To celebrate Ståhlberg’s 50th anniversary a smaller grandmaster tournament was arranged in Gothenburg. It was won by Ståhlberg ahead of his peers Flohr and Ragozin. With increasing health problems the activity decreased but 1964 became an unusually active year. A long tour in South Africa was followed by tournaments in Israel and Cuba as well as the Olympiad in Tel Aviv, all with good results. His last international tournament was in Yerevan 1965.

A somewhat irregular life style with obesity, a weakened hart, too much alcohol and the neglecting of warning signs, resulted in a heart attack and his death in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in 1967. Ståhlberg was very proud for the invitation and when Erik Lundin when saying good bye, asked Ståhlberg if he really thought he could manage 19 tough tournament rounds he answered: “Absolutely, there is nothing wrong with my head”.

No one has made his mark on Swedish chess like Gideon Ståhlberg. It is fair to say that he constitutes an epoch by himself. His competitive achievements, his prolific writing, his engagement in Swedish chess organization, his strong personality, and his witty and ironic, sometimes sarcastic, humor may have been surpassed by someone in each separate case, but never as a whole. He was twice a candidate for the World Championship, took active part in the Swedish congress discussions, “owned the room” he entered and made many appreciated speeches and lectures. He toured Sweden and the neighboring countries, spent nine years in South America, wrote textbooks on chess, a series of tournament books and served as arbiter in six world championship matches. Ståhlberg also edited weekly columns in several newspapers during his whole career and often reported daily during tournament play and arbitration work.

Ståhlberg was more than a chess player, enjoying the friendship of the cultural and journalistic elite. He was well read and had the memory of an elephant, no matter if it was related to lines of succession, Olympic athletic results or horse racing odds. He was almost as strong at bridge as at chess and in the 30s and also in South America he competed on the highest level.

In an obituary it was written: ”Gideon Ståhlberg was a genius, but he was also intelligent which is not always the case with chess geniuses.”

About Peter:

Playing chess during breaks at high school inspired me to join a chess club in 1969. These were very good times for chess in Sweden with Ulf Andersson winning the Swedish Championship as the youngest ever and the Junior World Championship being held in Stockholm with a certain Anatoly Karpov as winner and Bent Larsen and Boris Spassky visiting. I got caught up in Caïsa’s grip, even though love was never really returned. After a long break when a growing family and playing the oboe in symphony orchestras took over, my interest in chess was revived when I accidentally ended up at a book auction in 1996, which was the beginning of an intensive collecting of chess literature in all its forms. Gradually, my library has broken all boundaries, and the last ten years its information has more been used for chess history writings while the collecting is more of a secondary activity. My first major work was a 500 pages chronicle over the Stockholm Chess Federation 1911–2011. In 2017 I co-wrote a similar work about the Swedish Chess Federation. Having retired from work in the telecom industry since five years give me time to maintain a history column in Tidskrift för Schack and serving as secretary in the Swedish Chess Academy, an organization aiming at financial support for our elite and junior players, when not researching and writing about Gideon Ståhlberg.

Peter Holmgren

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