“New in Chess  1997 nr.5”
The Life and Times of

   (1913 – 1997)

         Michael Ehn

         It has been the lot of many great chess masters who never took part in a
   world championship match that their personalities and achievements gradually
   faded from public memory until they finally became just a historical footnote.
   This is precisely what happened to Erich Gottlieb Eliskases (born February 15th,
   1913, in Innsbruck, Austria, died February 2nd, 1997, in Cordoba, Argentina).
   Hardly anybody still remembers that Eliskases was the last top-notch Austrian   chess player of the inter-war years and one of the great natural chess talents, or that for a time he was even considered a likely contender for the world title. But that is not the only reason why his life story deserves to be saved from total oblivion – his biography, tightly woven into the fabric of the global political events of the 20th century, raises a number of questions that go far beyond his own personality or the world of chess. His early chess years read like the beginning of a novel: in his family, nobody was familiar with the game; his father was a tailor, his family came from the Ladin-speaking region of south-western Tyrol. lt was pure chance that brought the 12-year-old boy into contact with the 'game of games', and he immediately took a keen interest in his new-found hobby. Only one year later, he applied for membership in the 'lnnsbrucker Schachgesellschaft' but was refused because of his tender age. However, he found a paternal friend and teacher in Carl P. Wagner, an Innsbruck chess player who recognised his extraordinary talent. At the age of 14, in 1927, Eliskases played his first tournament in the Schlechter Chess Club and immediately shared first prize. One year later, at the age of 15, he took part in the Tyrolean Championship and scored a convincing victory (with 7 points from 8 games!). He had thereby won the right to participate in the toumament for the Austrian Championship of 1929, which happened to be held in his native Innsbruck. The end result was another sensation: Eliskases shared first place with Esra Glass (+5 =3 -1) and thus became the youngest player ever to win the Austrian championship title.

      At that time, the Tyrolean was still studying at the 'Handelsakademie'    (business school) in lnnsbruck - as a student, he is reputed to have been above    average, although not excelling in any particular field. Against the resistance of some Austrian officials, the youngster was sent to the Hamburg Chess Olympiad, where he performed quite brilliantly: with a score of 73.3% (+8 =6 -1) he obtained the best result of all Austrian participants, contributing more than his share to the excellent placing of the Austrian team (they finished fourth). After graduating with honours from business school, he moved to Vienna, where he began his studies at the 'Hochschule für Welthandel', starting with the winter semester 1931/32. However, his passion for chess had already become all-consuming: 'Eli', as his friends called hi, joined the Hietzing Chess Club and was immediately challenged to an informal match by local hero GM Ernst Grünfeld, who won the match by a narrow margin. The rivalry between these two players lingered on through the following years; in the end, the scales were clearly tipped in Eliskases' favour. He started working for the 'Wiener Schachzeitung', at that time one of the leading chess publications in the world, finally becoming chief editor in 1936, after the departure of Albert Becker.
This work proved to be an excellent school for his own understanding of the game
- even such an authority as former world champion Emanuel Lasker once praised    the quality and depth of Eliskases' analyses. In addition, he had begun to play    postal chess from 1928 on and here, too, he was remarkably successful - for    example, he took third place in the Dr.Dyckhoff Memorial Tournament of 1932, a    kind of unofficial world championship for postal chess. His great breakthrough came in 1932. when the 'Linzer Schachverein' celebrated its 25th anniversary by organisjng a ten-game match between Austria's top player of the time, GM Rudolf Spielmann, and the young Tyrolean. After a dramatic fight, Erich Eliskases took the upper hand with a score of +3 =5 -2 and could now lay claim to the unofficial title of 'Österreichischer Vorkämpfer' (i.e. Austria's foremost player), even though Spielmann later declared that his psychological approach to the match had been faulty since he had underestimated his young opponent. Two further matches between the two players followed, now for the official title of Austrian top player: in 1936 Eliskases won with the score of +2 =7 -1, doing even better in the return-match of 1937 (+2 =8 -0). 

         Eliskases' leading position in Austrian chess was now undisputed. The    Tyrolean's style had always been characterised by extreme perseverance and    circumspection. He retained his composure even in the most difficult positions,    playing with uncompromising practicality and without any flourishes. As Hans Kmoch once remarked, 'neither far-fetched innovations, nor sacrificial dreams, nor headstands' were to be found in his games. In the thirties, he played in  many strong tournaments; those were the years of his rise to fame in the international chess community. As an example, let us just mention his consistently good showing at Chess Olympiads - e.g. Warsaw 1935, where he scored points for Austria practically single-handedly - and the first prize he shared with Lajos Steiner in the Trebitsch Memorial Tournament of 1936. In the 1937 elite tournament at Semmering, although failing to reach the 50% mark, he had the personal satisfaction of not only having defeated the final winner, the then 21-year-old Paul Keres, but also having outplayed former world champion Jose Raul Capablanca in the Cuban's own field of excellence, the endgame. In the same year, he was AIexander AIekhine's second in the Russian's return-match with Max Euwe. Overjoyed at the recovery of his title, Alekhine presented his young second with a gold cigarette case. (After winning against Efim Bogoljubow in 1934, on the other hand, he is reported to have treated his second, Hans Kmoch, to a small goulash!)
         Then there followed Eliskases' two most successful years, coinciding with    Austria's incorporation into the Third Reich: 1938 and 1939. About this time,    Eliskases seems to have realysed that his style of play was too cautious to strive after greater laurels, and he successfully tried a more aggressive approach: at Noordwijk in 1938 he achieved his biggest success by taking first prize (+6 =3 -0), ahead of Paul Keres and Max Euwe. The ending from his game against Paul Keres made its way around the world. There, followed an incredible run of successes:    Eliskases won six strong tournaments, each time by a clear margin: the German    Championship at Bad Oeynhausen in 1938, Krefeld 1938, Bad Oeynhausen 1939 (the German Championship again), Bad Elster 1939, Bad Harzburg 1939 and the Vienna 'Wertungsturnier' of 1939. In the same year, he played a match against the  strongest player of the 'Deutsches Reich', the Russian Efim Bogoljubow, winning   with a score of +6 =11 -3. He was now considered a likely candidate for a world    championship match and was fervently supported by the 'Grossdeutscher    Schachbund' (GSB), submitting to its ideology without reservations. It obviously    flattered him to play the part of the 'upright German', who was destined to win    international recognition for the 'German style of fighting chess', as well as   dedicating himself to the 'purity' of the German language (a goal he pursued until the end of his life, as witnessed by his 1962 translation of Roman Toran's   biography of David Bronstein).
In spite of his rapid climb to the top, he was always described as a polite and pleasant person without the slightest trace of superciliousness. The GSB had high hopes for him. Even world champion Alexander Alekhine, towards the end of his anti-Semitic tract 'Jewish and Aryan Chess' (1941), referred to Eliskases as his most worthy successor:  'On the contrary, it would be of much greater service to the world chess community if, for example, Keres or Eliskases became the title holder. And if in fact the one or, the other should prove to be a better player, I would acknowledge this quite ungrudgingly. But who is the    better of the two? To be sure, Keres has a truly attractive ´Morphy style´,   Eliskases’ chess is much comprehensive, evoking the notion of a truly universal    style of chess. Can it really be considered mere chance that Eliskases beat the    Estonian grandmaster not only al Semmering in 1937 but also in Buenos Aires?’    One cannot simply dismiss these statements as an attempt by Alekhine to please    the Nazi regime, since several documents prove that as early as 1939 the plan of    staging a world championship match between Alekhine and Eliskases in 1941 was    being entertained by German chess circles. 

         Then history intervened and played havoc with Eliskases' ambitions: it was    precisely during the Chess Olympiad of 1939 in Buenos Aires, where two Austrians   played in the German team - Eliskases (on top board) and Albert Becker - that the Second World War broke out. (The German team won despite anumber of   obstacles; some countries refused to play against ‘Grossdeutschland', and those    meetings had to be scored as a 2-2 draw without play.) Most players, Eliskases    and Becker among them, could not or would not return to their countries, and this put an end to the Tyrolean's promising career, at least for the time being, since the following years were dominated by the need to survive in a new environment. He eked out a living by giving simultaneous exhibitions and playing in tournaments. In 1941, after the tournament of Sao Paulo, he stayed in Brazil, working as a bridge teacher. Threatened by internment and expulsion (since Brazil had broken off all official contacts with Germany), he narrowly escaped that fate with the help of some Brazilian chess enthusiasts, who hired him as their chess teacher on a regular basis. In 1947, he found a steady job at a department store of the German firm 'Renner' in Porto Alegre and also became a chess teacher at the firm's chess club. In 1951, he returned to Argentina and settled down in Cordoba, where he met 'a nice girl', as he himself expressed it, and married her on May 17th, 1954. He was granted the GM title not in 1950, but in 1952, just like Bogoljubow, whose political activities for the Nazi regime had been under scrutiny for some time. But what was FIDE's reason for  procrastination in the case of Eliskases? No accusations had ever been raised   against him, so perhaps he had simply been forgotten? After the war, the chess career of Eliskases, who had become an Argentine citizen, was revived, but he was now considered just a 'regular' grandmaster. He played in many South American tournaments until the seventies, with fair to middling success, even winning the Zonal Tournament at Mar del Plata in 1951 and finishing in 10th place in the Interzonal Tournament at Saltsjöbaden in 1952 (on the way to that tournament, he revisited his native Austria for the first time since the war). The best result of his 'South American period' was certainly his victory in (Mar del Plata in 1948 (+9 =8 -0), ahead of world class players such as Gideon Stahlberg, Miguel Najdorf and Laszlo Szabo. For example, who had ever seen the great Najdorf go down in just 24 moves? Erich Eliskases is probably the only Chess player to have represented three different countries at Chess Olympiads: Austria (1930-35), Germany (1939) and Argentina (1952, 1958, 1960 and 1964); besides, he is the only Austrian to have beaten three world Champions (Max Euwe, José Raul Capablanca and Bobby Fischer!). In 1976, he retumed to his native Tyrol with his wife and son, intending to sett1e there. He also played chess - even for the Austrian national team! - but after about half a year the couple had to return to Cordoba; the old ties had been permanently severed, and besides his wife suffered in the rough climate of the Alps. The last years of his life were spent in Cordoba, overshadowed by illness and depression. His Chess heritage, consisting of extensive comments to his own games, the publication of which had become an important goal in his final years, was left to a Viennese chess friend.
        Was Eliskases a 'Victim of the Second World War', as the Austrian chess    magazine 'Schach Aktiv’ claimed in a headline in its March 1983 issue, or had he   profited from and tacitly condoned the Nazi regime? What was his own part, and    what part did Chess in general play during the Nazi years? These are difficult but pressing questions, as yet unanswered with regard to chess in Germany and  Austria (as opposed to the topic of music and literature during the Nazi regime); as a matter of fact, these questions have yet to be seriously examined.