Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi: A Review

“The “Evil-Doer”, as the Soviet chess players now called Korchnoi, had turned chess into a matter of state urgency. The Soviet leadership received real time accounts of the world title matches as though they were dispatches from the front in time of war.”

It is difficult for anyone not living when Viktor Korchnoi

defected to understand what his leaving the “Mother country” meant to the Chess world at that time.

“…in taking a one-man stance against the hulking Soviet monster, he gained the entire world’s attention and imprinted his name in the history of the game forever. Just as a poet in Russia was much more than a writer, a grandmaster in the Soviet Union was much more than a chess player.”

“Chess’s next wave of popularity was exclusively down to Viktor Korchnoi. He represented quite a melting pot: the conflict between two opposing systems, the international tension caused by that very Cold War, and his personal drama, with the Soviet authorities refusing to allow his family to leave for the West. News of this standoff made chess front-page news again, and it was even the subject of the madly popular musical Chess, which ran for years in London and New York.”

Thus the stage is set by the author, GM Genna Sosonko in his magnificent new book, Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi.

“Almost half a century later, it is not easy to appreciate what such a decision by Korchnoi meant for a Soviet citizen, and how incredibly hard it was to make that final leap to freedom.”

Sosonko emigrated from the Soviet Union before Korchnoi, but he left after receiving permission from the monolithic State; Korchnoi defected, thus earning the opprobrium and enmity of not only the Soviet authorities, but also of the citizens of Russia. Korchnoi was considered a renegade; a traitor.

The following paragraphs explain the author’s aim in writing the book:

“There was a time when Sigmund Freud

dissuaded the writer Stephan Zweig

Stefan Zweig in seinem Salzburger Domizil am Kapuzinerberg. 1931. Photographie von Trude Fleischmann. [ Rechtehinweis: picture alliance/IMAGNO ]

from attempting to compile the former’s biography: “Whoever becomes a biographer forces himself to tell lies, conceal facts, commit fraud, embellish the truth and even mask their lack of understanding – it’s impossible to achieve the truth in a biography, and even if it were possible, that truth would be useless and you could do nothing with it.”

“I have to agree with the father of psychoanalysis and I have not attempted to write Korchnoi’s biography as such. Rather, this is a collection of memories, or to be more precise still: a collection of explanatory notes and interpretations of incomprehensible or misunderstood events from the complex life of a man whom I knew for nearly half a century, and alongside whom I spent in total many months – indeed years. I want to believe that these recollections will not only uncover the motives behind his controversial actions, but will also shed light on his approach to the game, his personality and behavior in everyday life. In any event, a portrayal of Korchnoi must obviously highlight the most important feature of his life – his dedication to chess – which grew into an obsession.”

“When he turned seventy, he asked me to write the foreword to his collected games. Naturally, I hardly imbued my text written for his big occasion with “plain speaking.”

“Yet, in the book you are now holding, I have attempted to do just that: in my reflections on this great player, I wanted to display him, as the English say, warts and all.”

The author has achieved his goal. It must have been painful at times to write so openly and honestly about someone with whom one spent so much time, and about someone for whom he obviously had so much affection, but Sosonko has done a masterful job in this outstanding work of art. I lived during the era of which the author writes, but did not play Chess seriously until 1970. Therefore I learned much from the early, pre-1970, period of Viktor the Terrible. Even though I have read extensively about the Chess world much of what I read in this book shed light on some of the dark spots.

“This is how Canadian grandmaster Kevin Spraggett

described a conversation with (Boris) Spassky:

He began to list Korchnoi’s many qualities:

…Killer Instinct (nobody can even compare with Viktor’s ‘gift’)

…Phenomenal capacity to work (both on the board and off the board)

…Iron nerves (even with seconds left on the clock)

…Ability to calculate (maybe only Fischer was better in this department)

…Tenacity and perseverance in defense (unmatched by anyone)

…The ability to counterattack (unrivaled in chess history)”…Impeccable technique (flawless, even better than Capa’s)

…Capacity to concentrate (unreal)

…Impervious to distractions during the game

…Brilliant understanding of strategy

…Superb tactician (only a few in history can compare with Viktor)

…Possessing the most profound opening preparation of any GM of his generation

…Subtle psychologist

…Super-human will to win (matched only by Fischer)

…Deep knowledge of all of his adversaries

…Enormous energy and self-discipline

Then Boris stopped, and just looked at me, begging me to ask the question that needed to be asked…I asked: “But, Boris, what does Viktor lack to become world champion?” Boris’s answer floored me: “He has no chess talent!”

And then Spassky roared with laughter…(https://kevinspraggettonchess.wordpress.com/author/kevinspraggettonchess/page/366/)

Viktor Korchoi was what is popularly known as a “late bloomer.” He may have had little, or no, talent for Chess, but no Grandmaster ever out worked the Evil Doer. He rose to the rarefied heights attained by strong determination, and an indomitable will to win.

“Korchnoi was born in Leningrad into a Jewish family on 23 March 1931. Lev Korchnoi (Viktor’s father) was killed at the very beginning of Russia’s involvement in World War II, and Rosa Abramova (his mother) took Vitya’s upbringing upon herself. The little boy lived through the Blockade of Leningrad, the death of many nearest and dearest, cold and hunger, and at one point was hospitalized with dystrophy.”

“Graham Greene

claimed that a difficult childhood was a priceless gift for a writer, while Soviet grandmaster Alexander Tolush

asserted that you needed to be poor, hungry and angry to be good at chess. There is no doubt that being brought up without his father and his tough childhood contributed to Korchnoi’s difficult personality, and were the reasons for complexes that it took him many years to shed.”

Viktor overcame the obstacles in his path to challenge for the World Chess Championship, becoming the second best Chess player in the world.

“If he noticed somebody voluntarily choosing a passive or quite unpromising opening line, he would shake his head: “What can we say here? X had a difficult childhood, a difficult childhood.” He would repeat this at a training session of the Dutch team prior to the Haifa Olympiad (1976) when we were analyzing some opening of Polugaevsky’s. This expression caught on, and became part of Dutch chess folklore for many years: what, did you have a difficult childhood or something?”

“Vladimir Tukmakov,

who worked with Korchnoi in the early 1990’s, was also amazed at the famous veteran’s energy and emotional state:

The several days that we spent analyzing together during his candidates quarter-final again(st) Gyula Sax

(Wijk-aan-Zee 1991) enabled me to understand him much better than the ten or so games that we had played against each other until then. Korchnoi was spewing out ideas like a fountain. Sometimes we would spend almost an entire day on chess, yet like a child he would then continue to play around with the chess pieces, trying out various positions.

Vasily Ivanchuk

also noticed this quality:

Sometimes you ask somebody to look at a position and they refuse – “I’m not interested, I don’t play that line.” Well, you would never hear such words from Viktor Lvovich. He would analyze any position, attempting to grasp it and suggesting ideas. For example, we would look at a position where we needed to find a way for black to equalize or for white to gain an advantage. When it looked like we had found it, everything seemed to work, and we had checked the variations, I would have stopped there. Yet Korchnoi always tried to penetrate the position more deeply, and to see if there was another way.

Jan Timman,

who had composed studies since he was young (http://www.arves.org/arves/index.php/en/halloffame/264-timman-jan), recalled: Viktor, unlike many colleagues, always took an interest in my compositions, and we would often spend hours analyzing together.”

Now the players no longer analyze, they head for the nearest computer for the answer.

“Korchnoi was sixteen when he managed to draw a game against Estonian master Ivo Nei

after escaping from the jaws of defeat. “This was the first time that I felt pleasure from a difficult, tiresome defense! But if, in my youth, the desire to defend was driven by mischief, a love for risk, then in the subsequent years defense became my serious, practical and psychological weapon. I enjoy drawing my opponent forward, allowing him the taste of attack during which he might get carried away, drop his guard, sacrifice some material. I often exploit those episodes to launch a counterattack, and that’s when the real battle begins,” Korchnoi said at the start of the 1960’s. He concluded: “Masters of defense have contributed no less to chess history than masters with an attacking style!”

“Only Korchnoi can capture that pawn!” became a widely-used cliche to describe position where any sane chess player would not even consider accepting a sacrifice.

“Shall we ‘Korchnoi’ a bit?” I had heard masters and even grandmasters suggest this during analysis back tn the Soviet Union, when they considered capturing material that appeared particularly dangerous to accept.

Journalists of course lapped up the Leningrad grandmaster’s attitude to the game: “A man of courage who chose defense as his weapon!”…”Korchnoi captured the poisoned pawn and chalked up another win!”…”After the Leningrader accepted everything thrown at him in sacrifice, his opponent found himself without a mating attack and raised the white flag.” Phrases like these were often found in tournament reports.

“At the end of his life, Francois Mauriac wrote” “I’m not brave enough to revise my technique, as Verdi did after Wagner appeared.”

“Well, Korchnoi did have enough bravery. Middle aged, he decided to review his approach to the game, to become broader minded, to throw off his focus on material, to learn to play positions with the initiative, with sacrifices and with material imbalances. He managed to do this in the prime of a successful career. Only professionals are capable of appreciating the gigantic effort that Korchnoi made.”

“He said one day: “You know, I have a son in Ukraine, he’s 32 years old. Recently, he wrote to me that he had just realized that he had lived half his life. Well, at that age I suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to play chess!
Even though that’s when I won the national championship for the second time! I suppose you need a great deal of talent to win the championship of the Soviet Union without knowing many of the laws of chess! After all, all sorts of things have been written about me! I’m a great defender, that my play resembles Dostoevsky and all sorts of nonsense. Yet I couldn’t have played any differently, I didn’t know how to! So I started to work. I analyzed thousands of games. I mastered the most important skill of all – to wield the initiative!”

“Yet, after changing his style, he retained his won, original way of looking at the game. Korchnoi’s deliberations about chess were always to the point, yet unexpected.”

I end the review here. I could continue, going on and on, ad infinitum. I have attempted to convey the tenor of the book to the reader to the best of my ability. You, the reader, will decide if I managed to impart a glimmer of what this marvelous book contains.

A personal note: While reading a book to review I never write in the book; any book. To do so would be to deface the book. A book is sacrosanct. I place paper in the book, and then reread the pages containing the inserted slips of paper. It is almost like reading it twice. I agonized on what to include, which caused much anguish after deciding to exclude parts for the review. While rereading parts of the book I cogitated on how to begin the review. This, too, caused much anguish. There is so much contained in the book that I could write other, totally different, reviews, using none of the above.

I have read every book written by the author, one of the very best writer’s on the Royal game, not to mention his many articles. My admiration for Genna Sosonko is unbounded. This work is his pièce de résistance.


The High Planes Drifter

An excellent article, 1st Ron Finegold Memorial, by Davide Nastasio, appeared at the Chessbase website recently (https://en.chessbase.com/post/1st-ron-finegold-memorial).

5/7/2018 – “Open weekend tournaments in the United States are proof of chess as a very competitive high stakes sport. Local tournaments often celebrate the changing of seasons, recurring events, or, as in this case, memorialise (sic) a master player who dearly loved chess, and gifted such passion to his children. GM Elshan Moradiabadi took top honours (sic) in the inaugural Ron Finegold Memorial, held at the new Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Atlanta, which was founded by his son, Ben.”

Elshan Moradiabadi wins with 4½ out of 5

“From March 31st to April 1st, 2018 At the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Atlanta was held the Ron Finegold Memorial, a tournament with 4 sections and 92 players.

Ron Finegold (born in 1937), the father of GM Ben Finegold, was a National Master who died after a long illness on July 15th, 2014. His passion for chess brought him to teach the game to his children.”

“The Open weekend tournament in the USA is proof that chess is a sport. Five rounds in two days. On Saturday one can play for nine hours straight, for a total of three games, then follow on Sunday another six hours of playing. The last three hours are quite important because the last round is what divides the winner from the losers, those who will bring home the money from those who fought for nothing. The Open section of this tournament was particularly well stocked with two GMs, plus the US Women’s Champion of 2017, and a few national masters and candidate masters.”

Reading the above made me laugh. The ‘next generation’ considers the above playing schedule “grueling.” Back in the day we played five rounds over two days at a time control of 40 moves in two hours, followed by various time limits such as twenty moves in an hour, which became twenty moves in a half hour, followed by increasingly shorter time limits for the endgame. I won the Atlanta Chess Championship in 1976 at a time control of forty moves in two and one half hours, followed by twenty moves in one hour. Granted, there was only one game played at night for five weeks, but when we sat down it was known the game could possibly last well into the wee hours. During the 1980 US Open in Atlanta my opponent, Dauntless Don Mullis, finally resigned at three thirty the next morning. The game began at seven pm. And WE LIKED IT! My heart bleeds for these namby-pamby wussies…

The address given at the website of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Atlanta is, 2500 Old Alabama Rd., Suite 11, Roswell, GA 30076. Roswell is not Atlanta. It is a city far to the north of Atlanta. In 2014 the estimated population was 94,089, making it Georgia’s seventh largest city (http://www.visitroswellga.com/). Maybe it should be called the Atlanta Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Roswell?

A game Ron Finegold

lost to Bobby Fischer

at the Western Open in Bay City accompanies the article. No date is given. The other game contained in the article is by LM David Vest, aka, the High Planes Drifter, whom I have known for almost four decades. We played many speed games over the years, with Mr. Vest usually besting me. One time the Drifter informed me he intended to sacrifice the exchange in every game, which is exactly what he did, as I lost again and again… David gave me a lesson never forgotten. I used that lesson in a telephone game with the legendary one, playing an exchange sacrifice that brought the house DOWN! I proudly showed the game to Vest, who smiled with approval.

David Vest

Scott Prichard playing against Carter Peatman | Photo: Davide Nastasio (Vest is shown in the background playing Harry Le)

is the only player to hold the title of both Georgia State Chess Champion, and Georgia Senior Champion. The man from the High Planes stopped drifting and settled down at the House of Pain. Frequently heard from the younger players were things like, “Vest got me again,” and “How come I can’t beat that old man?” They knew the Chess road led through Mr. Vest, and to best Vest was a sign that, as one young player succinctly put it, “Now I’m getting somewhere!”

Mr. Vest talks with a booming voice, which was often heard, to the detriment of the other players, when he was right outside the front door, directly below the window of the main playing room, smoking his ready-rolled cigarettes. David was known for his “A.O.” theories. That’s for “Atmospheric Occupation.” As far as he was concerned, the only hope for mankind was to get off of the planet. He could not understand why everyone did not agree with him. For some reason he thought he was the first to come up with the idea of moving off planet. He told of taking his theories to the US government, and his disappointment in being rejected…Voice booming and eyes blazing, Mr. Vest would rail against our government and threaten to take his ides to the “Communist Chinese.” One time a VietNam veteran, who had listened to some of a Vest tirade, entered the HOP saying, “That man ain’t right.” He got no argument. I attempted to council Mr. Vest about toning down his traitorously inflammatory harangues, but it fell on deaf ears…Another time one of the Chess fathers, after listening to a Vest diatribe, said, “There is a fine line between sanity and insanity, and that man is on it.”

As can be seen in the photograph, Mr. Vest has a large scar in the shape of a horseshoe underneath his right eye, which was obtained when he moved to Louisville and began a job working with horses, which he loved. The horse obviously did reciprocate. Dave was fortunate as a kick to the head from a horse can be fatal. One legendary Atlanta player informed me the Drifter told them he had experience with horses to obtain the job. “What he did not say was the experience came from wagering at the track!” he said while laughing uproariously. “What the hell does Dave know about horses other than the betting odds?” he added.

Mr. Vest’s rating plummeted as he continued to play Chess while pus oozed from his wound. His Master rating fell below 2100 and the word at the House was he would never be the same player. Mr. Vest proved them wrong when, after recovering, his rating steadily climbed to over 2200 once again, where it stayed for some time. After losing yet again to Vest one promising junior came down the stairs saying, “That man OWNS this place!”

Before leaving Atlanta and moving to the country the aforementioned legendary player informed me Mr. Vest was to be interviewed on an Atlanta radio station, WGST. “You’re kidding, right?” I asked. “I wish I were, but I’m not,” he said. “I just hope he don’t give Chess in Atlanta a bad name.” We listened with trepidation to the interview, with the legendary one muttering things like, “Lordy,” and “I hope he don’t mention Championship Chess.” When they went to a break I glanced over at the legendary one to see what can only be described as an ashen face. “I don’t know if I can take any more of this,” he said. He, and we, did. “Oh God,” the legendary one exclaimed at one point, “Chess in Atlanta will never be the same.” Having listened to Mr. Vest at length over the years I was grinning while enjoying the show. “You’ve gotta admit, it’s entertaining,” I stated. “Maybe in some kinda way in your warped brain, Bacon,” he said. “It’s sad Dave don’t know he’s making a fool of himself,” the legendary one said as he sat there shaking his head. “How did the drifter get on the show?” I asked. “He called in regularly,” was the reply.

By now you should understand why I decided to put Dave’s game through the clanking digital monsters at the ChessBase DataBase.

David Vest 2200 vs Harry Le 1971

1 c4 (David’s love of the English rivaled has that of LA Master Jerry Hanken, of whom Vest spoke highly) Nf6 2 Nc3 e5 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 e3 Be7 5 a3 (Komodo plays 5 Qb3) O-O 6 b4 (Stockfish plays either 6 d4 or Qb3) d6 (Stockfish plays either 6…d5, or 6…e4. Houey prefers d5)

7 d4 (This move cannot be found in the databases so must me a Theoretical Novelty. Unfortunately, it is not a good one. It is the way of Chess that the best move in the position on the previous move now becomes less than desirable.) exd4 8 exd4 Bg4 9 Be2 a6 10 h3 Bh5 11 Bf4 d5 12 g4 (I am not surprised Vest played this move, but a more circumspect move such as 12 0-0 may have been better. After 12…Bxf3 13 Bxf3 dxc4 white would have the possibility of completely ruining the black pawn structure with 14 Bxc6. There is also the possibility of playing 14 d5! Granted, black does not have to play to take the pawn, as after 12 0-0 he could play 12…Re8, for example) Bg6

Look at this position from white’s perspective and imagine your student sitting across from you. What move would you suggest, and why?

13 Ne5

After seeing this move one might question a student, offering 13 0-0 as an alternative. “Look kid,” one could begin, “You have followed the rules of the Royal game by developing your four minor pieces. You need only move your king to safety before developing your major pieces.”) dxc4

14 Nxg6 (I would be strongly tempted to play 14 Nxc6 bxc6 a5 Bxc4) hxg6 15. d5 Nb8!

(Shades of the man from the High Planes! Vest was famous for playing the Brooklyn variation of the Alekhine’s defense. An example:

IM Vinay Bhat (Earned GM title in 1997)

vs David Vest

1996 American Open

Los Angeles, California

B02 Alekhine’s defence, Brooklyn defence

1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Ng8 3. d4 d5 4. exd6 cxd6 5. c4 e6 6. Be2 Nf6 7. Nc3 Be7 8. Be3 Nbd7 9. Nf3 b6 10. O-O Bb7 11. Bf4 O-O 12. Rc1 a6 13. h3 Qb8 14. Re1 Qa7 15.Qb3 Rac8 16. Na4 Rfd8 17. Bf1 h6 18. Be3 Bc6 19. Nc3 Ba8 20. Qa4 Bc6 21. Qb3 Ba8 22. Qa4 Qb7 23. b4 Nb8 24. a3 Rc7 25. Bf4 Qc8 26. Qb3 Bxf3 27. gxf3 Nc6 28.Be3 Rb7 29. f4 Rb8 30. d5 Na7 31. Na4 exd5 32. Nxb6 Qf5 33. Nxd5 Nxd5 34. cxd5 Rd7 35. Kh2 Nb5 36. Bd3 Qh5 37. Be2 Qh4 38. Qd3 Bf6 39. Rg1 Bb2 40. Rg4 Qe7 41.Rcg1 Qd8 42. Bd1 Rc7 43. Bc2 Kf8 44. Qh7 Nxa3 45. Rxg7 Bxg7 46. Rxg7 Nxc2 47.Qg8+ 1-0)

16 g5 (I would take the pawn with 16 Bxc4. The game move is more in keeping with the High Planes Drifter’s fast & loose, shoot from the hip style, but 16 Bxc4 is best) Ne8

I could not help but wonder what Mr. Vest was thinking about while looking at this position. Many years ago the Drifter said that after 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nf8 he was “Sucking them into my vortex!” This position has Vest in the wrong plane! Now he is the one being sucking into a vortex…)

17 Qd2 (Now 17 Bxc4 is answered by 17…Bxg5) Bd6 18. Be3 Be5 (Black has driven white back and the bishop takes a dominating position. The amazing thing about the position is that black has only one piece off of the back rank but has the advantage)

19 f4 (Vest could take the pawn with 19 Bxc4, but Nd6 20 Be2 Re8 black has greatly improved his position ) Bxc3 20. Qxc3 Nd6

21 h4 (Having been outplayed Vest decides to thrust his sword, or fall on it…It was still possible to castle even though black could then play 21…b5, protecting the pawn. Still, after 23 Bf3 white would have the two bishops versus the two horses, which may have been why Vest pushed the pawn, come to think of it…You see, the Drifter LOVES the horses, so how could he possibly bet against them? I have often watched his play without Queens on the board, in which his knights shine) Re8

22 h5 Nf5 23 Bf2? (He had to try 23 Rh3 gxh5 24 Bxh5) Qxd5 24 Rh3 Qe4

25 Qb2? (Dave could have tried (25 O-O-O as 25… Qxe2 26 Re1 Qxf2 27. Rxe8+ Kh7 28. h6 Qf1+ 29. Kc2 Qg2+ 30. Kc1 Qf1+ only leads to a draw. 25…Nc6 is better, though…) gxh5 (25…Qg2! The remaining moves need no comment) 26 g6 fxg6 27 Kf1 Qxf4 28 Rf3 Qe4 29 Re1 Nc6 30 b5 Ne5 31 Rc3 Qh1+ 32 Bg1 Nd3 0-1

The High Plains Drifter was a strong Chess player; strong enough to beat many time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush

in the last round of one of the 2003 EMORY/CASTLE GRAND PRIX. The upset win translated into a first place tie with GM Julio Becerra.

The game was annotated by IM John Donaldson in the award winning Georgia Chess magazine. I will admit to being somewhat disappointed when the Drifter informed me he had “chickened out” when offering Irina a draw, which was declined.

I have met many Chess players during the course of my life. The mold was definitely broken after the Drifter came down from the High Planes. He often claimed to be “above you humans.” Fortunately, Chess kept him somewhat grounded…David Vest is definitely sui generis.

Fabulous Fabiano!

Fabiano Caruana

asserted his dominance early in the Candidates tournament, proving his mettle by winning his last two games following a loss to the last challenger for the crown, Sergei Karjakin.

IM Boris Kogan said, “The measure of a Chess player is how he plays after a defeat.” Caruana learned from his first candidates appearance, where he arguably played the best Chess. Unfortunately he had problems converting winning positions. This time he took advantage of better positions, converting them into wins.

The tournament was marred by the inclusion of former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik,

who did not qualify for a spot in the field, but was given some kind of “free-pass.” This is fine for other tournaments where fans wish to see one of their local heroes battle the best. For a chance to face the World Champion it is unthinkable. Kramnik took the place of a more deserving player. Chess has become a young man’s game and Vladimir is over forty. When a player turns thirty in China they no longer compete, but must move on to coaching.

The tournament was also marred by several egregious blunders which altered the natural progression of events. In round seven Karjakin was languishing in last place when he faced Wesley So.

This position was reached:

Wesley blundered horribly when playing 35…Ke8? 35…Rc7 would have left the position even.

In round ten, against Vladimir Kramnik, Levon Aronian

had this position in front of him:

Because of the discovered check Levon must play 36…Rg7. He played 36…Qc7, resigning after 37 Ne8+.

In round thirteen Alexander Grischuk

sat behind the black pieces against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov:

The knight is under attack but 34… Nf5 keeps the game level. Grischuk played the unbelievable 34…Nxb5, which lost on the spot, although several more moves were played.

The multi-verse theory is everything that can happen does happen. Imagine we are in a universe where those three losing moves were not played, and each game ended in a draw. The final standings would have been much more in line with how the players performed:

Caruana 9

Karjackin 7 1/2
Mamedyarov 7 1/2
Ding 7 1/2
Grischuk 7
So 6 1/2

Kramnik 5 1/2
Aronian 5

Exchange Ding and Aronian and the final standings would look like about what one would figure going into the event.

“Is it just me or is Ding one of the success stories of the candidates. Thus far unbeaten, likely to learn hugely from the whole experience, if he isn’t amongst the favourites for the next edition I’ll be amazed.”
— Daniel Gormally (@elgransenor1) March 27, 2018 (https://en.chessbase.com/post/candidates-2018-berlin-round-14)

As for Levon Aronian there were those who worried his dismal play at Gibraltar foreshadowed rough seas ahead. For example, consider what GM Kevin Spraggett

wrote on his blog before the event began:

Round 1 of Candidates Tournament

by kevinspraggettonchess · Published March 10, 2018

The Candidates Tournament is the unique event that will decide who will be the challenger for the World Championship match (against Carlsen), later this year. As such, all the players will be especially careful not to risk anything unnecessary at the beginning.

Being a double round event, I suspect that most of the players who have a real chance to win will wait until the second half before they make their play for winning. But, of course, everything depends on circumstances, and should a player start to run away with the tournament in the first half, then the others will have to react.

Up until now I have not written much about the chances of the players. I don’t see anyone particularly better than the others, though of course the Armenian star Levon Aronian has had the best results in the past year.

But form is more important than results! It is very difficult to maintain top form for more than 3 months at a time, let alone an entire year. Though Aronian emerged on top in Gibraltar last month, his play showed signs of fatigue.

Otherwise I would have chosen Aronian as the favourite in Berlin.


I contemplated writing about the first round of Gibraltar, but the excellent coverage at the tournament website caused me to eschew a post. From the website:

“There was a remarkable success for two Hungarian sisters in round one. Not in itself an unprecedented event in top-level chess but what was unusual was that they were not named Polgar. Anita

Tradewise Gibraltar Chess, Masters, Rd 1, 23 January 2018

and Ticia Gara

Tradewise Gibraltar Chess, Masters, Rd 1, 23 January 2018

faced formidable opposition in the shape of Levon Aronian,

Tradewise Gibraltar Chess, Masters, Rd 1, 23 January 2018

top seed and arguably the most in-form chess player of last year, and celebrated super-GM Nigel Short.

Levon and Nigel have achieved a lot of successes in the Gibraltar tournament in their time and they haven’t got where they are today by conceding draws to players in the mid-2300 rating range but they could make little impression on the Hungarian sisters. Indeed, Levon might have done worse had Anita made more of her chances when we went astray in the middlegame. Nigel had the upper hand against Ticia but it came down to an opposite-coloured bishop endgame and he could make no headway.” (https://www.gibchess.com/round-1-2018).

Playing over the games of Aronian had caused thoughts similar to those of GM Spraggett. The complete collapse of Aronian brings to mind something known to Baseball as the “yips.” There have been pitchers, and position players, who have lost the ability to throw the baseball. It has come to be known as “Steve Blass disease.” Steve was a very good pitcher, good enough to win game seven of the 1971 World Series with a complete game 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. He pitched well again the following year, but “lost it” in 1973. New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch or Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax both developed problems throwing the ball to the first baseman. New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser, after a collision at home plate with Jim Pressley of the Atlanta Braves, developed problems in returning the ball to the pitcher. Jon Lester, a well known pitcher who helped the Cubs win it all in 2016, has had a problem throwing to first base, so he simply stopped throwing. Arguably, the most famous example occurred with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel, who, unfortunately, contracted the “yips” during the 2000 National League Division Series. In the first game Rick issued six bases on balls and threw five wild pitches. He was never the same, but was good enough to go to the minor leagues and return to MLB as an outfielder, one with a strong arm. I would urge anyone interested to read the book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, by Rick Ankiel.

A friend, Ron Sargent, a Vietnam veteran, was an extremely talented pool player. Word on the street was Ron could have been a world class player. That ended when he took a bullet to the head in ‘Nam. After numerous operations Ron managed to live a full life, which included marrying his high school sweet heart later in life, even though he had no feeling in one side of his face. Ron said, “Anyone can run a table, but it’s a totally different story when the cash is on the table and that little lump of shit gets caught in your throat.”

Some players, like baseball player Billy Martin,

thrive under pressure. In several World Series, he rose to the occasion when the pressure was at its zenith; others do not. This is not the first time Levon Aronian has under performed under pressure. It is quite possible Levon has a case of the “yips.” At his age and with his consistently poor results on the big stage, this could be the end of Aronian as a world class Chess player. No MLB player has ever over come the “yips.” Although it could be possible for Levon to “dig deep,” and find a solution to his “yips” problem, the odds are against it happening, because he will forever be plagued by “self-doubt.” In an interview with Ralph Ginzburg published in Harper’s magazine when Bobby Fischer

was eighteen, when asked to name the crucial ingredients needed to become one of the best Chess players, Bobby said, “A strong memory, concentration, imagination, and a strong will.” Obviously, one of these key ingredients is missing in the armory of Levon Aronian.

I will print part of an email sent to Kevin after reading his post:


I would not wager on the four players who participated in the Tal Memorial rapid/blitz, Grischuk; Karjakin; Kramnik; and Mamedyarov.

Ding a Ling and So so will battle for last.

That leaves Aronian and Caruana. The former has had a fantastic year, but his last tournament looks as though he has run outta steam. Then there is past under performing in these events…

Which leaves Fabulous Fabiano.

I do not say this because he is an American, but from a objective process of elimination.


My thoughts elicited this response from Michael Mulford, aka “Mulfish”:

“What’s the rationale for ruling out the four Tal Memorial players?”

Part of my response:

“My feeling is that the speed tournament took something outta those players…Bobby would NEVER have done that! A player needs to be FRESH AS A DAISY going into a grueling 14 round tournament!

It is a travesty that Kramnik is in the tournament! MVL should be there! He is old and will fade in the second half…

Mamed is the most unpredictable. He coulda lost today, but hung tuff! He has played well recently, elevating his game considerably, but Fabby is the most talented player…”

Because of playing much faster games in the event it is difficult to prognosticate the coming match for the human World Chess Championship. Caruana is no match for Carlsen in speed games, so he must win the match in the longer games, which is what I expect will happen.

Behind Enemy Lines

World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer said every game had a “critical position,” and a player MUST be aware when a critical position arises on the board. The following game caused me to reflect upon the comments of the greatest Chess player of all-time.

Gonzalo Muniz (URU) FM (2281)

Herman C. Van Riemsdijk (BRA) IM (2285)

Open of Montevideo Marcel Duchamp Cup 2018 round 09

C68 Ruy Lopez, exchange variation

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. O-O Bd6 6. d4 exd4 7. Nxd4 Ne7 8. Nc3 O-O 9. f4 Re8 10. Nb3 f6 11. Be3 Nf5 (Not exactly a critical position. Nevertheless there is only one move for White to retain a small advantage, as all other moves leave his opponent with a small advantage.)

12. Bc5? Bxc5+ 13. Nxc5 (We have now reached the critical position. Black did not find the best move. Can you find it without consulting the clanking digital monster?)

13…Ne3? 14. Qxd8 Rxd8 15. Rf2 b6 16. Re2 Nc4 17. Nd3 Be6 18. h3 c5 19. Rae1 Na5 20. Rf2 Nc6 21. f5 Bf7 22. Nf4 Ne5 23. Ncd5 Ra7 24. Rd1 Re8 25. Re2 b5 26. Nd3 Nxd3 27. Rxd3 c6 28. Nf4 Bc4 29. b3 Bxd3 30. cxd3 Rd7 31. Rc2 Re5 32. Kf2 Kf7 33. Ke3 Rd6 34. a3 a5 35. g3 g5 36. Ne6 Rdxe6 37. fxe6+ Kxe6 38. b4 axb4 39. axb4 Kd6 40. Rf2 Re6 41. bxc5+ Kxc5 42. Rf5+ Kb4 43. h4 h6 44. d4 Ka4 45. Kd3 b4 46. d5 cxd5 47. exd5 Rb6 48. Kc2 Ka3 49. d6 b3+ 50. Kc3 Rc6+ 0-1

In the first position White should simple “advance to the rear” with Bf2. The line given by Stockfish at the ChessBomb is: 12. Bf2 Nh6 13. Qf3 b6 14. h3 Bb7 15. Nd2 c5 16. Rad1 Nf5 17. Qd3 Nd4 18. Be3 Nb5 19. Nxb5 axb5 20. Qxb5 (https://www.chessbomb.com/arena/2018-open-of-montevideo/09-Muniz_Gonzalo-Van_Riemsdijk_Herman_C_)

In the second position Black missed 13… Qe7 14. Nd3 Ne3.

Now that is a move one does not see every day!

Weiqi (Go) Versus Chess

“Using a universally relevant metaphor, Zbigniew Brzezinski,

former National Security Adviser to US president Jimmy Carter,

wrote in The Grand Chessboard,

published in 1997 (http://www.takeoverworld.info/Grand_Chessboard.pdf): “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.” China’s New Silk Road strategy certainly integrates the importance of Eurasia but it also neutralizes the US pivot to Asia by enveloping it in a move which is broader both in space and in time: an approach inspired by the intelligence of Weiqi has outwitted the calculation of a chess player.”
“The chronicle by Japanese writer Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) of an intense intellectual duel, translated in English as The Master of Go,

contributed to the popularity of the game in the West, but Weiqi is a product of the Chinese civilization and spread over time in the educated circles of Northeast Asia. Kawabata, who viewed the Master as one of his favorite creations, knew that for China the game of “abundant spiritual powers encompassed the principles of nature and the universe of human life,” and that the Chinese had named it “the diversion of the immortals.”

Several years ago I contrasted the number of players in the US Chess Open with the number of players in the US Go Congress, posting the findings on the United States Chess Federation forum, and was excoriated for so doing, except for one person, Michael Mulford, who put the nattering nabobs of negativism to shame by congratulating me for “good work.” Basically, the numbers showed Chess losing players while Go had gained enough to have caught up with, and surpassed, Chess. It has continued to the point that if one thinks of it as a graph, with Chess in the top left hand corner; and Go in the bottom left hand corner, an “X” would appear.

I have spent some time recently cogitating about why this has come to pass. Certainly world Chess (FIDE) being administered as a criminal enterprise for at least a quarter of a century has not helped the cause of the Royal game. It has not helped that members of the USCF policy board have stated things like it being better to work within a corrupt system than to leave the corrupt system. See my post, Scott Parker Versus Allen Priest, of November 29, 2017 (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/?s=alan+priest)

Now that the bank account of FIDE, the world governing body of Chess, has been closed I do not foresee anything but further decline for the game of Chess. IM Malcolm Pein,

Mr. Everything tin British Chess, commented for Chessdom, “The statement from the FIDE Treasurer was alarming to say the least, but not totally unexpected. As the statement said, we had been warned. All legal means should be used to remove Ilyumzhinov

from office as soon as possible. Taking away his executive authority has not been good enough for the bank and FIDE will experience difficulty finding another institution to handle it’s accounts and this threatens the viability of the organisation. ((http://www.chessdom.com/trouble-for-chess-as-swiss-bank-account-closed/))

Although both Weiqi (Go in America) and Chess are board games there are major differences between the two. The following encapsulates the drastic difference between the two games:

R. Saxon, Member of a GO club in Tokyo (3k). USCF B rated at chess
Updated Mar 14 2017

From my experience, GO players are far friendlier and more polite than Chess players, who are prone to both trash talk and to gloating after a win. This is especially true for club players and younger players. Chess players may engage in gamesmanship to psych out their opponent. I’ve known quite a few superb Chess players that were real nut cases. More than just a few, actually.

That has not been my experience with GO players. GO players are almost always successful and well-adjusted outside of GO. GO players are willing to say with sincerity that they enjoyed a game that they just lost. I don’t recall a Chess player ever being so gracious.

The nature of the game is a good indicator of the personality of the players that like them. Chess is an attacking game in which you try to control the center. It’s very direct and may be over quickly if a player makes a mistake. The idea of a “Checkmate” is like a home run or a touchdown. It’s a sudden and dramatic moment that appeals to a particular type of person.

Chess appeals to people who like to attack and who savor the win over the process.

GO, on the hand, is a slower game which starts at the corners and edges and only gradually moves to the center. It’s extremely complicated, but in a subtle way. GO strategy is indirect. It’s a game of influence and efficiency more than a game of capture. The best players are those that know how to sacrifice pieces for territory elsewhere or to take the initiative. Making tradeoffs are key. There’s usually no “checkmate” type moment or fast victory.

GO is a game of patience and position. It appeals to very bright people who don’t expect to win quickly but who are willing to earn success one small step at a time. GO players enjoy the process as much as the win.

There are many Chess players involved with Go. Natasha Regan,

a Woman Chess International Master who has represented the English women’s team at both Chess and Go, says: “When I learnt Go I was fascinated. It has a similar mix of strategy and tactics that you find in Chess and, with just a few simple rules, Go uncovers a whole new world of possibilities and creativity. Chess players may also find that they can use their Chess experience to improve in Go very quickly. I highly recommend learning this ancient but ever new game!” (https://www.britgo.org/learners/chessgo.html)

Consider, for example, this by Mike Klein: “Many cultures have nationally popular strategy games, but rarely do top chess players “cross the streams” and take other games seriously. That is not the case with GMs Tiger Hillarp Persson and Alexander Morozevich,

who long ago claimed the top title in chess, and who both now take go somewhat seriously.” (https://www.chess.com/news/view/chess-go-chess-go-morozevich-beats-tiger-in-dizzying-match-2272) Check out Tiger’s website and you will see annotated Go games along with Chess games (https://tiger.bagofcats.net/). Chess Grandmaster Alexander Morozevich

plays in Go tournaments,

and holds Go classes.


AlphaGo has done for the game of Go in America what Bobby Fischer did for the game of Chess when he defeated the World Chess Champion, Boris Spassky, in 1972.

The number of people playing Go has increased dramatically in the past few years. After the world-wide release of a new movie about Go, The Surrounding Game,

the number of people playing Go will increase exponentially. In a very short period of time the game of Go will be unrivaled, leaving all other board games in its wake.

Sometime around 1980 a place named Gammons opened in the Peachtree Piedmont shopping center located in the section of Atlanta called Buckhead, the “high-end” district of Atlanta. In was a restaurant/bar, which contained tables with inlaid Backgammon boards.

I quit my job at a bookstore and began punching the proverbial time clock at Gammons, which closed at four am. The Backgammon craze burned brightly for a short period of time, as do most fads, such as putt-putt. Few remember the time when putt-putt was so popular it was on television, and the professional putters earned as much, if not more, that professional golfers.

Although quite popular for centuries, Chess lost its luster after the human World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov, was defeated by a computer program known as Deep Blue,

a product of the IBM corporation. The defeat by AlphaGo, a computer program from Google’s Deep Mind project, of first Lee Sedol,

one of the all-time great Go players, and then Ke Jie,

currently the top human Go player in the world, has, unlike Chess, been a tremendous boon for the ancient game of Go, which is riding a crest of popularity, while interest in Chess has waned.

I have wondered about the situation in the world considering the rise of China and the decline of the USA.

For example, consider these headlines:

China’s Rise, America’s Fall by Tyler Durden (https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-10-25/chinas-rise-americas-fall)

China’s rise didn’t have to mean America’s fall. Then came Trump. By Zachary Karabell(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/11/15/chinas-rise-didnt-have-to-mean-americas-fall-then-came-trump/?utm_term=.59f66290ffff)

Is China’s Rise America’s Fall? by Glenn Luk (https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/01/03/is-chinas-rise-americas-fall/#41bd7a0d1e5f)

Also to be considered is the stark difference between the two games. It could be that the people of the planet are moving away from the brutal, war like, mindset of a war like game such as Chess and toward a more cerebral game such as Go.

“While in chess or in Chinese chess (xiangqi)


the pieces with a certain preordained constraint of movement are on the board when the game begins, the grid is empty at the opening of the Weiqi game. During a chess game, one subtracts pieces; in Weiqi, one adds stones to the surface of the board. In the Classic of Weiqi, the author remarks that “since ancient times, one has never seen two identical Weiqi games.”

“In Written in a Dream, the polymath and statesman Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), a magister ludi, captures the depth and mystery of Weiqi: “The Weiqi game comes to an end, one is unaware that in the meantime the world has changed.”

Team Tal: A Review

Tal. Simply say “Tal” around any Chess player, or in any gathering of Chess players, and the response is magical. To those of us in the Chess community “Tal” is the definition of sui generis. “Tal played a kind of chess that nobody could understand at the time. Now that theory has taken a big step forward, and we have chess engines, we’re starting to realize that he was playing 21st-century chess.” – Grandmaster Alexei Shirov.

Valentin Kirillov,

Tal’s childhood friend, and his second from 1968 through 1976, has done the Chess world a HUGE service by lovingly writing about the Magician from Riga. Alexi Shirov writes in the introduction, “It’s a pity that my idea to ask Kirillov to write a book with his memories came a little too late-when he was already in poor health. Yet he has still created a new portrait of Tal (and his Latvian contemporaries)-a portrait as WE knew him.”

The author writes, “After we got our hands on our first records, which were extraordinarily hard to find in those days, music became a permanent fixture at the Tal residence. I distinctly remember my first exposure to rock and roll. Bill Haley’s raging Rock Around the Clock, which we played until the vinyl wore out, absolutely knocked my socks off.”

The author turned to writing about Chess.

“In those days, articles and reports on chess in the press tended to be academic and rather dry, which didn’t appeal to the millions of club players out there. I wanted to make my pieces a bit more accessible and lively, and crack a few jokes along the way-my editors were always there to keep me in check, though. If one argues that chess isn’t merely a science, but an art and a sport as well, then what’s stopping journalists from drawing upon the models, analogies, and comparisons made in literature, music, sports, and the circus? Using the knowledge and skill set I possessed, I tried to give my tales a certain flair.”

With this book the author has accomplished his mission. He succeeds by writing about the game Tal vs Bronstein

from the 1970 USSR Championship in hockey terms! Simply amazing…The more I read the more I came to admire the author. For example, here is what he writes about a man who was a colonel in the KGB, director of the Central Chess Club in Moscow, and vice president of the USSR Chess Federation.

“Viktor Baturinsky,

the big chess boss in the USSR, urged me to cut my long hippie hair-and asked Misha to make sure I did-before the awards ceremony of the USSR championship, because I was set to go on stage as the USSR champion’s coach. Naturally, I didn’t heed his advice, and the chess boss had to put my gold medal on over the disheveled locks flowing down to my shoulders.”

I am reminded of the time I lost a speed game horribly to Baturinsky at the FIDE congress in Atlanta in 1980. “You Americans cannot play Chess,” he said. I turned and walked away. “Set them up!” he shouted. I turned to look at him. He was LIVID! Granted, it was customary for the loser to replace the pieces, but the man had insulted me, and all American Chess players. I returned to the board and politely suggested he have sex with himself, at which point he lost it completely, and EXPLODED, as I turned and again walked away…

Team Tal: An Inside Story,

is replete with wonderful stories about Misha Tal, and his family, friends, and supporters; his team. Once begun, it could not put down. The book contains only two games so if you are looking for a book about the Chess played by Tal this is not it. If you want to read about the man who played that fantastical Chess, this book is for you! The book is filled with pictures of Tal and those who were involved in his life. In addition, there are many illustrations which are quite fascinating.

On his blog recently GM Kevin Spraggett

mentioned one of his favourite chess blogs, ‘Lost on Time’ (http://www.spraggettonchess.com/wednesday-coffee-20/) so I clicked on the link provided and discovered the editor, Justin Horton, had posted this concerning the Tal book:

Tal order

There was a series on the old blog, Bad Book Covers. I came across this yesterday, and had it been out back then, it would have been on it. (http://lostontime.blogspot.pt/2018/01/tal-order.html)


I recall Senior Master Brian McCarthy showing an old Informant that had seen so much action it no longer had a cover.
When someone questioned Brian about it he responded, “That don’t matter…It’s still got the MEAT!”

As Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t let other people get your kicks for you.” Judge the cover for yourself. I happen to like the cover and think it fits the “meat.”

The book also contains stories about fellow Latvian players such as Janis Klovans,

and Alvis Vitolins, and the man Tal dubbed, the Maestro, Alexander Koblencs. “Contemporary chess history knows numerous examples of successful creative partnerships, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Spassky -Bondarevsky, Karpov-Furman, and Kasparov-Nikitin are perhaps the most famous ones. As for Tal and Koblencs, we have two Don Quixotes on our hands.”

“He (Tal) had his favorites, for whom he had the greatest warmth and the utmost respect. He adored Vladimir Simagin, a true knight on the chess battlefield. “That man was on a constant quest; he was the Don Quixote of chess,” Tal said.

“When he came onto the scene, classical chess, as dry as the desert, was king. Everyone was all prim and proper. It felt like the Party and the government had instructed people to play balanced, strategic chess, from the opening to the endgame. Then suddenly, a real troublemaker-but he wasn’t just a troublemaker, for he added a ton to the game!-shows up and starts muddying the waters and making waves. He was like a gushing spring!” Boris Spassky said.

High praise, indeed.

Mikhail Tal could be recalcitrant.

“The Soviet authorities would say that anybody who didn’t agree with the prevailing ideology was a “nonconformist.” It goes without saying that Tal’s playing style was nonconformist.”

Sic transit Gloria mundi!’ (thus passes the glory of the world) Misha once joked after he was removed from his position as chief editor at Shas for organizing a real blowout of an office party on International Women’s Day, flouting the government’s anti-alcohol laws yet again.”

Another time, somebody asked him, “are you a morphinist?” He answered, “you’ve got it all wrong, I’m a Chigorinist…but Morphy was great, too.”

I, too, am a Chigorinist, having fallen in awe the first time I played over his 1893 match with Sigbert Tarrash, which is my all time favorite Chess match.

“We went to the movies a few times, too. I remember the new James Bond, Goldfinger,

and an erotic movie (they were taboo in the USSR!) about a passionate love affair between a woman guard and a prisoner at a concentration camp. We showed up a tad late, and when the lights came on at the end, we discovered that nearly our whole delegation was sitting there in the half-empty theater.”

A case could be made that after Bobby Fischer

defeated World Chess Champion Boris Spassky

in 1972 the best player still playing when Bobby stopped playing was Mikhail Tal.

“Although no records in professional chess could prove it, experts, journalists, and regular fans would probably characterize Tal’s achievements from 1972 through 1974 as record-breaking. I’ll let you be the judge- Tal did not suffer a single defeat from July 1972 through April 1973; six months later, he kicked off an even more remarkable streak of 96 games without a single loss (October 1973-October 1974), winning or sharing first place at six international tournaments. He won 72 games, yet drew 110 during both streaks combined…”

Possibly the most poignant part of the book concerns what happened to Mikhail’s possessions. Much is written about attempts to have a museum dedicated to Mikhail Tal in his old apartment.

“As per the Tal family’s instructions, our cargo was handed over directly to Ratko Knezevic at the Hussar of Riga Club-which had just opened its doors on the sixth floor of the Minsk Hotel to celebrate what would have been Mikhail Tal’s 60th birthday. Botvinnik and Karpov’s stories about Misha, Smyslov’s singing (he gave me a CD with his renditions of Russian romances on it), and Ivanchuk, who won the blitz tournament, reciting his own poems into the night were the highlights of the opening ceremony for me. By the way, the blitz competition winners received bags of candy instead of prize money at the tourney! I don’t know how his memorabilia then wound up in Elista.”

What are Tal’s treasured possessions doing in Elista?

“When Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

came to Riga to discuss plans to construct a knight-shaped, high -rise hotel, he even promised to share Tal’s memorabilia, which is now stuck in Elista.”

“There will be a chess club, tournament hall, and museum in the hotel,” the FIDE president said. He painted a beautiful picture, but a few years have passed, and there aren’t any knights towering over the Daugava River.”

Kirsan, if you have not taken Tal’s possessions to Zeta Reticuli please return them to Riga and the Latvians, where they belong!!!

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein: A Review

Ilan Rubin, founder and CEO, LLC Elk and Ruby Publishing House (www.elkand ruby.ru) read the post, The Laws of the Najdorf (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/the-laws-of-the-najdorf/) in which I mentioned having a desire to read the book published by his company, The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein,

by Genna Sosonko

then contacted me wanting to know if I would be interested in writing a book review. I answered in the affirmative and the book was on its way. I have recently purchased another book published by his company, Team Tal: An Inside Story,

by Valentin Kirillov

and Alexei Shirov,

which has arrived and is on top of a stack of books to be read. So many books, so little time…

David Bronstein

gave a simul at the House of Pain which I have always regretted missing. The owner of the Atlanta Chess Center, Thad Rogers, had some awful things to say about the Bronstein visit. After reading the book I have a better understanding of why Mr. Rogers said those things.

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein, by Genna Sosonko, is a extremely disquieting book. Yet I was riveted, reading all two hundred seventy one pages in only a few days. I have spent much more time thinking about the book than time spent reading it.

I have read all of the books by the author, and in addition, many articles. Genna is one of the best writers on the game of Chess. This book could be his best work. I write that knowing some may find the subject matter upsetting. The book concerns the aging of a Giant of the Chess world. “Colleague champion” was how former World Chess Champion Max Euwe

addressed David Bronstein in a telegram after the 1951 World Championship match between Bronstein and Mikhail Botvinnik,

the man who called himself, “First among peers,” which ended in a 12-12 tie. There can be no higher compliment.

Certainly there should have been a return match for the crown, but there was no match. When Botvinnik lost his crown, first to Mikhail Tal,

then to Vassily Smyslov,

there was a return match in which Botvinnik regained the title.

“You know, Botvinnik should have allowed me a return match; he was obliged to. In truth, though, I’m glad that I’m not hanging in the gallery at the chess club. Do you realize it was just half a point, half a point? And then, everything would have been completely different. Chess history and everything else. You see, Botvinnik and I had totally different outlooks on chess, and we were quite different people, too.”

The book left me wondering if Bronstein would have won a return match. Bronstein was afraid to win the match with Botvinnik for many of the same reasons Bobby Fischer

was afraid to play a match for the Chess championship of the world against any Russian. At the time of the 1951 match Bronstein’s father was being held in a Soviet gulag. How can one play his best while wondering what the “authorities” might do in reprisal if one wins? When living in a totalitarian system one tends to want to appease those who run the system, or at least not upset the Darth Vader’s in control.

One of the themes of the book considers the mental health of the Colleague champion. It caused me to consider a book read many years ago: Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us by John J. Ratey.

No human is perfect; we all have a certain percentage of different kinds of mental illness. The question is what percentage constitutes a full blown mental illness? Those who judge must determine if, for example, someone who has 49% of a particular mental illness, is considered mentally ill. What if that person rates in at 51%? Where is the line drawn? Who draws the line? While working at the Atlanta Chess & Game Center I had several people ask me if I thought this or that person was mentally ill. My answer was invariably the same. “I am not the one to ask that question.” When asked why, the reply would be, “On more than one occasion I have heard it said in the skittles room, “That guy Bacon is NUTS!”

“Botvinnik never took Bronstein seriously. His diary was full of negative and sarcastic commentary on his future opponent’s style: “neurotic and probably plagued by obsessive thoughts, but hard-working,” is one comment.

“Disregarding the fundamental truth that several different excuses always sound less convincing than one, Bronstein found a number of scapegoats and reasons for his loss: his hatred-filled opponent, the atmosphere of that time, fear for his father, his seconds, who neglected their duties, walks with a girlfriend who didn’t care about his career, and the hardships he had endured.”

“Psychologists say that you need to separate the ‘here and now’ from the ‘there and then’. They advise you to stop feeling regret about what was in the past and not to fool yourself. Bronstein didn’t want to come to terms with his past and nobody close to him dared to tell him that the match with Botvinnik was in the past, that life hadn’t stopped, and it was time to move on. Nobody dared to hit him over the head with the facts, to bring him back to reality. I admit to not knowing how such an attempt would have turned out, but nobody even attempted it, and everybody who regularly interacted with him shares responsibility for him remaining in such a state until the very end.”

“Bronstein the philosopher and Bronstein the talker had pushed aside Bronstein the chess player, and he increasingly seemed to be almost at odds with himself.”

“Ideas were bubbling in his head,” Yuri Averbakh

recalled. “He literally breathed them, couldn’t stop talking about everything that came to his mind. ‘How does your wife put up with your fountain of language?’ I once asked him. ‘She goes to visit the neighbours once she can’t put up with it any longer,’ David admitted with a guilty smile.”

Tom Furstenberg wrote: “David has so much to talk about he constantly ‘harasses’ organisers, sponsors, arbiters, and players with his ideas, even to the point of annoying them. This is why organisers occasionally do not want him in their tournaments and people sometimes do not take him seriously.”

“Furstenberg states that Bronstein also had other offers at the time, but none of them came to anything for the same reason. When Tom strongly recommended that he speak less, and especially stop repeating himself, Davy would answer, “I like people.” Of course, that wasn’t quite true. He liked people when they listened to him in admiration. Others, though, interested him only as an outlet to revisit Davy’s past.”

“It would probably have been useful for him to visit a therapist. The latter would have asked about something, and Davy would have talked for hours without even politely inquiring “how are you?” He never asked anybody that question. I can’t ever recall him asking me how things were or what plans I had. It was always about him, himself, and his chess. His place in chess was the meaning and substance of his entire life.”

“His listeners (including me) wouldn’t ask difficult questions out of respect for this great chess player and highly insecure person. As such, we strengthened his conceit and intoxication with his own uniqueness. If my opinion wasn’t the same as his, I would rarely disagree with him openly, although I could have argued frequently. I was constantly aware that I was talking with an outstanding chess player and, at the same time, a slightly unhinged person.”

“Psychotic symptoms are a normal part of human development, and everybody has a genetic inclination to experience them. Particular risk factors, though, are childhood traumas, and a psychotic state or neurosis may fuel or intensify genius.”

It got back to me that the owner of the Atlanta Chess & Game Center, Thad Rogers, said I was a “Small, insecure man.” I have probably been called worse. It made me wonder why someone would say that about me. I am, like Bronstein, a small man. Like most children who were bullied I have reason to be insecure. Bullies pick smaller boys as their targets because they are cowards. I learned boxing at a Boys Club and fought back against the cowards, and feel I have been fighting all my life. Reading this book caused empathetic feelings to be evoked.

“Viktor Korchnoi

invited Bronstein to Brussels in 1991 to his match with Jan Timman,

but he never engaged his services. “He talks so much that it gives me a headache,” Viktor explained to his seconds.

“He would trustingly take his ‘victim’ aside and he would start to fire off his ideas, thoughts, and views in a quiet, nearly toneless voice. Sometimes, they were interesting, sometimes amusing or moralizing, but always original, unexpected, and paradoxical, and Bronstein would experience genuine satisfaction if he sensed he had been able to ensnare his listener in a web of his monologue, filled with complicated twists and turns,” Mark Taimanov


"Among his repeat stories, the endless refrain was, of course, his match with Botvinnik, and he constantly talked about what had been and what might have been had what happened not happened. His other monologue subjects included: reforming the rules of chess, including allowing the pieces to be set up freely behind the row of pawns, reducing the time allowed for thinking, the compulsory use of charts showing how much time is spent on thinking, as well as the idea that young players who think that they are the first to comprehend the game's subtleties and who receive enormous prized for doing so, dance on living classics' graves."

I could not help but wonder if a better word would have been "soliloquy" in lieu of "monologue."

"Although conversing with Bronstein was a tough challenge, the reward, when the grandmaster was in the mood, came in the form of brilliant flashes of colorful comparisons, clever thoughts and unusual conclusions that his listeners would never forget."

"Bronstein didn't like the fact that computers brought the truth in chess closer, that memorization had replaced improvisation: "By inventing computers, they wiped the wonderful game of chess from the face of the Earth. Chess is in crisis because it has been analyzed to death. The sense of mystery has disappeared. Chess today has nothing to do with the chess that my generation played."

A friend who stopped playing Chess, turning to Poker, said much the same thing, "GMs used to be thought of as some kind of mysterious Gods. Now there are considered to be nothing more than mere mortals."

Botvinnik was Bronstein's bête noire.

"Moreover, just like in all of Bronstein's deliberations, there was no avoiding the main wrongdoer. He criticized the 'computer' way of Botvinnik's thinking, claiming that the latter "reacted painfully to another man's genius and wrote with pretend disdain about chess as an art. Let's quote Botvinnik here: "Sometimes (and maybe often!) the thinking of a chess player is surrounded by mystique: the workings of a player's brains are presented as some sort of wonder, a magical and totally inexplicable phenomenon. Further, it is claimed that not only is the thinking of chess 'geniuses' a mystery, but that advantage is gained at the board thanks to some magical laws of chess art. We need to accept that unidentified laws of the chess battle do indeed exist, but that they can and will be identified just like the as yet unidentified way a grandmaster thinks. Moreover, it's fair to assume that these laws and the ways of thinking are relatively elementary – after all, youngsters play chess, and fairly well?" Botvinnik wrote in 1960."

"When he began, yet again, to claim: Believe me, that champion's title was of no interest to me," I said, "do you know David, how Toulouse-Latrec's grandfather informed his wife, born a duchess, at the breakfast table just what they had lost in the revolution of 1789?"
Bronstein looked at me nonplussed. "When his wife replied that she didn't give a damn, the artist's grandfather smiled sarcastically and stated, 'you certainly do give a damn, Citizen Duchess, because you wouldn't have talked about it every day if you didn't give a damn.' "
"Let me assure you," said David pulling me by the arm, "that I really don't care at all about this. Do you really think that I missed Na7 in game 23? Such an obvious move? Do you really believe that?"
I realized that any criticism on this matter was pointless and never again interrupted him when he got going about his match with Botvinnik.
The fear embedded in the minds of Soviet citizens who had lived through that terrible era was one reason for his unfinished thoughts, his hints, and his reticence…
How can one express the atmosphere of 1951 – when he was already an adult and a public figure – in words? How much willpower and which subtle hints are required to recreate the darkness of the time?"

Another time, "What ideas did Botvinnik have, I ask? Do you really think I didn't see that I shouldn't have taken the pawn and given white the advantage of two bishops versus two knights in game 23? Do you really think I missed that?"

Still later, "How was I supposed to play chess anyway, when I had this constant feeling of terror? Not facing Botvinnik, although I overestimated him at the time, I thought he was better than he turned out to be. No, it was terror facing my personal situation, the country I lived in, everything together. You experienced something similar, even if it wasn't for long. So you must understand what I'm talking about."

Reading the book made me think of David Bronstein as the Don Quixote of Chess.

"The functionaries did indeed dislike this now professional troublemaker, but realizing he was an oddball, they allowed him to play the role of frondeur, dreamer, village idiot, and eccentric maverick waving a toy sword.”

“That was the case with David Bronstein, too. In the half-century that followed, his tournaments included some brilliant games, elegant moves and original ideas, but there were no consistently strong results, or continual flow of inspiration. The formidable, ingenious player left him long before his actual death.You could perceive his abilities of old here and there in the games, but most of them were lacking in both joy and vigour.”

“At the very end, he became even more irritable and complained about everything. About his life ruined by chess and lived in vain. And of course, Davy complained about this Sosonko dude, who was just waiting pen in hand for him to kick the bucket so that he could publish his memoirs about the near world champion. The interesting thing, though, is that all of Davy’s complaints, although frequently unfair and exaggerated, and sometimes even absurd, had a grain of truth to them.”

“The fate of those long in the tooth is loneliness. Besides illnesses and adversity, the loss of friends and relatives, the horror of living without witnesses was tougher for him to bear than perhaps for anybody else. After all, there is no soul more desolate than an idol whose name was once on everybody’s lips.”

“Once, however, after repeating for the umpteenth time that Botvinnik had been utterly right all along, he added with a childlike smile: “Though that was still one hell of an imagination I possessed.”

“My heart began to ache at those words, however, and a powerful thought pierced my mind: “why did I write all that stuff about this great chess player who suffered so much at the end of his life? Why? What was the point of all that philosophizing and those attempted explanations? Who was all that for?” You see, I knew deep own that I shouldn’t have tried to recall anything. I should have left the departed alone in their graves and should have allowed the living to keep their illusions.”

This “Sosonko dude” was obviously troubled and full of doubt. In deciding to publish the book he has done the Chess world a great service.

“When Vladimir Nabokov

died, his niece scolded his wife, Vera, for apparently allowing her husband to die. The writer’s wife responded: “Vladimir died exactly when he was supposed to die. He was no longer able to do what he enjoyed: thinking and writing.”

After reading those words I realized my life, too, will end when I am unable to do those things.

“Let’s repeat these harsh words here: David Bronstein died exactly when he was supposed to die. He was no longer able to do what he enjoyed most of all – to play, discuss, and think about chess.”

This is a magnificent book, written with love for the subject. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Purchase and read this stunning, thought provoking book.