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In 1918 A Chess Master Was Ordered Shot By Firing Squad. Then He Was Offered A Match For His Life

Ossip Bernstein

Ossip was born into a Jewish family in 1882. He was born in the Ukranian city of Zhytomyr, in what would soon become the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, the Russian Empire was a tumultuous place and a horrible place to grow up. The area was under the rule of Alexander III when Ossip was born, and they were involved in the Great Game against the Britain Empire. This lasted over 65 years.

Civil Disobedience

The people in the lower call of the Russian Empire had a poor quality of life. The taxes were high, and the people couldn’t afford to eat. This led to many instances of civil disobedience, which soon became a regular occurrence.


The government needed to get some order and control, so they created a new, covert force known as the Cheka. The government was inspired by other areas that began using similar forces during the French Revolution. They targeted people who they believed were enemies of the Russian Revolution. They also targeted people who were thought to be part of the bourgeoisie and other religious figures.

Training As a Lawyer

Ossip grew in the Russian Empire before it fell to the revolution. Later, he began to train as a lawyer. It was then that he also started playing chess. He began competing against chess masters from around the world. In 1902, he went up against Harry Pillsbury, a prominent player from the United States. The two played blindfolded, and Pillsbury was the winner. That same year, Ossip won the General Chess Federation of Berlin, which earned him the title of chess master. Over the years, he became one of the most notable players in the world.


At the same time that Ossip was earning a reputation as an incredible chess player, he traveled to Germany where he attended Heidelberg University. In 1906, he graduated with a doctorate in law. After graduating, he moved back to the Russian Empire, where he began working as a lawyer in Moscow. It was there that he met a woman named Wilma, who he would marry and start a family with. While courting Wilma, he still made time for law and chess. He was very accomplished in both fields, and he became very wealthy.

Targeting Ossip

In 1918, the Bolsheviks seized power and became the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. When this was going on, the Cheka began targeting people like Ossip. When he started working as a consultant to bankers, he became a clear target. When the Cheka arrested a person, they weren’t treated fairly at all. They were automatically sentenced to death by firing squad. When Ossip was arrested, he was sure that his life was about to be cut short. Before Ossip was executed, one of his captors recognized his name. He had heard about a famous chess player with the same name as Ossip, and he asked if he was the same person. Ossip said that he was a chess champion, but the captors needed to prove that it was really him. It was then that the officer had an idea to settle the matter.

A Chess Match

In 1918 a chess master was ordered shot by firing squad. Then he was offered a match for his life. The officer wanted to play the game against Ossip himself. He looked at himself as a pretty good chess player, so he was sure that he would be Ossip. At the same time, Ossip realized that he was literally playing for his life. The officer told him that if he won the game, he would be freed. If not, he would be executed as planned.

The Game

Even though Ossip was playing for his life, he wasn’t very nervous. He had played against some of the best players in all the world. Playing against an officer was very easy for him. It didn’t take long for Ossip to win the match, and he was set free.


When Ossip was set free, he knew that he had to flee the country if he was going to live a long life. All of his money had been confiscated, but that didn’t stop him and his family from leaving. They boarded a British boat and made it to France. Ossip set his family up in Paris, hoping to rebuild their lives.

Nazi Germans

Ossip thought that his family could finally breathe easily in Paris, but it didn’t last. When the Nazis stormed the city, the government ultimately left. Many of the people in Paris had already left for other parts of France. Those who stayed were forced to stick to a curfew, and there was a rationing system put in place. Jewish people had it even worse, and many were taken to camps to be killed. Ossip realized that his family wouldn’t last when the Nazis took over, so they traveled to Spain to start over once again.

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