Josef's Site

Essay on Chess


          It so happened that my plane flew out from Moscow, and landed in New York on Christmas Day.

        On the same day I arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts. My daughter, Rima Yashgur, met me. She wanted to make me happy by calling the head of the local chess club: “My father came to America for good. Can he attend your club?”  The reply was welcomed: “We’re open for everybody, from beginners to grandmasters.”       

         The unexpected telephone conversation bewildered the leader of Springfield’s players. “If a grandmaster is coming, what is his name?” he appealed to his friend who was a student in Russia. The latter was in a merry mood: “I suppose his name is Ostap Bender!”

         Thus, on that festive day, some local amateurs learned a humorous story about the unusual ‘Grossmeister’s” simultaneous exhibition in the Russian town on the bank of Volga River.

         This amusing story entertained Springfield’s chess enthusiasts whom the club’s head told about this fun piece of chess news. It was not difficult see that it was an extract from a literary work and that ‘Grossmeister, Ostap Bender, was a generalized character. But what real player came from Moscow to Springfield on that day? 

         Soon afterward it was announced that I would give a simultaneous exhibition at the Springfield Jewish Community Center. Many, especially those who had just learned about Ostap’s adventures, were curious about this event because they did not know who I was.

         I began to act like the ‘Grossmeister’ in Vasyuki. I shook hands with every participant and moved the white king’s pawn on two squares ahead. As Ostap Bender, I “felt in good spirits and knew for certain that the first move – pawn to king four- would not cause any complications.” From my childhood, I had pleasant memories of the Russian master, Vsevolod Rauser, whose saying became a proverbial one: “1.e2-e4 and White wins!”

          It was my first performance in the United States and I was trying to play it well. I gave a short speech before the beginning: “While playing chess everyone is an equal and you all speak the same language.”       

         A fascinating situation attracted viewers’ attention to the following game (See the diagram # 67).

        When I approached this board, my opponent waved his hand despondently: “I resign.” Indeed, Black’s position looked hopeless, and he scattered all pieces. I restrained him:

“Wait a minute! You could escape your king.”

         The final situation was restored, and I showed him the way to a draw: 1…Rf8! 2.Rxf8 a5+. Stalemate!

         My opponent did not agree, showing his moves: 2.b6! Rxf4 3.b7 Rxe4+ 4.Ka5 Re5+ 5.Ka6 Re6+ 6.Kxa7

         My partner took a quick look at me. Again Black’s position seemed hopeless. “A new white queen appears!” he said gladly. But after 6…Re5 7.b8Q Ra5+ 8.Kb6 Rxa4, his face was radiant with joy. White cannot prevent rook’s transfer to the f-file. “Positional draw”!

         Unfortunately, I did not learn the name of my ‘co-author’ who remained unknown. Such piquant situations often happened at the simultaneous exhibitions.

        My opponents ranged from youngsters to expert-level players. For example, the 9-year-old Ryan Gouvin with his semi-punk haircut and personal chess set wasn’t intimidated by me – he was just looking for a little fun. Meanwhile, I circled the tables, playing 30 challengers at the same time.

         The boy even smiled when his king was trapped and two friendly nods from the umpire, signaled that the game was over. “I like playing it in my spare time,” Ryan said. “It is fun. I play mostly anywhere I can get a chance to play.” His grandmother, Ethel Christman, who watched us playing, added: “Ryan loves chess and he almost never misses a game!”

         None, though, were able to beat the newcomer from Moscow who wrapped up all games in less than four hours. In the course of one evening, I made a lot of friends.

          Soon the local chess club brought up an interesting discussion called “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!”

         This paranoid refrain was the title of a 1966 movie about a panic touched off by a wayward Soviet submarine. An account of this story with chess comments by the American master, Rick Bauer, was in the spotlight. It follows below.       

         “Hollywood did not prepare me for the real life invasion of the chess world by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The immigrants that I have met and played have, for the most part, been totally honest and exceedingly polite. Sure, there have been a few bad ones, but no more than among the ‘natives’.

           My primary problems have come over the board.

                                       CENTER COUNTER DEFENSE                  

                                                Vatnikov –Bauer

                                                Massachusetts, 1992

1.      e4 d5

         It is not my style to play openings like this. At first, I thought I could blame this one on the opening but that did not hold up. Anyway, a week later, in a Springfield-New Britain match turned Blitz tournament, I played a Sicilian against Dr. Vatnikov and ran into a plan in the Closed that I was just as unprepared for.

2. exd5 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nxd5 4.d4 g6 5.g3!? 

         I knew two other plans: 5.c4 Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 which gains space in the center, but can allow counter play on the long diagonal, and 5.c3 Bg7 6.Bc4 0-0 7.0-0 Nb6 8.Bb3, blocking the diagonal but potentially allowing Black to balance the center (with e7-e5). Both give White chances for equality. White’s move allows him to preserve his options and looks just as promising. In a sense, he refutes my opening by not refuting it!

 5…Bg7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c5?!

         My idea with the Center-Counter was to merge it with the Gruenfeld and Catalan for an overall defensive-offensive system. But the Center-Counter can be stubbornly independent. After this move, I will win my pawn back, but not my position.

8. dxc5 Na6 (See diagram # 68)


9. Qe2!

         The threatened 10.Rd1 turns my knight on d5 into a clear liability, and wins the opening outright. While I struggle to regain my pawn, my opponent surges ahead in developing.


         9…Nxc5 10.Rd1 b6 11.c4 Ba6 would be an inspired try, but 12.Na3! e6 13.Qc2 wins the battle of the pins (13…Nb4 14.Rxd8 Nxc2 15.Rxf8+ Kxf8 16.Nxc2).

10. c4 Nf6

          I didn’t want to move the knight back in front of the bishop, but 10…Ndb4 would just give White more play on the queen side: 11.Bf4 Qxc5 12.a3 Nc6 13.b4.                                           

11. Bf4 Qxc5 12.Nc3 Qh5?!

         I don’t like to bluff, but felt that I had to here, since I couldn’t find another way to develop my pieces. I should have looked for counter play against the c-pawn. 12…Be6 13.Ne5 Nh5! 14.Bxb7 Nxf4 15.gxf4 Bxe5 provides some not too unfavorable complications. White could opt out of these with 13.b3, but then 13…Rad8 solves the problem queenside, since 14.Ng5 would then be met by 14…Bc8!

13. Qxe7 Re8 14.Qa3!

         Bluff called and refuted. A troika of minor pieces protects his king, while the faraway queen actually maintains an annoying pressure on a7.

14…Bh3 15.Rfe1 Bxg2 16.Kxg2 Rac8 17.Rxe8+ Nxe8 18.Rd1 Bf8


19. Qa4 Qc5 20.b3 Nec7 21.Qd7

         The queen has been rehabilitated!

21…Re8 22.Nd5 Nxd5!?

         It was a desperate try to untangle my pieces. During the game, I thought this was another bluff, since the threat of perpetual with 23.Qxe8 Nxf4+ 24.gxf4 Qh5 fails to the threat of mate with 25.Rd8! But 24…Nc7 would actually give me more play than I deserved.

23. Rxd5 Qe7?

         I need to trade queens, but only with 23…Qc8. Once you start tangling up your pieces it’s hard to stop!

24. Qxe7 Bxe7

         24…Rxe7 25.Rd8


         I hadn’t even recognized a7 as a weakness, and now he wins the darned thing! The key is that the seventh rank is defended by 25.Rd7 Nc5, but 25…b6 invites 26.Rd7. All I’ve got left now is one final bluff. And it’s not likely he’ll believe that I can trap his bishop.

 25…Rd8 26.Rxd8+ Bxd8 27.Bxa7 b6 28.Ne5 Nb4 29.Nd7 Nxa2 30.Bxb6 Be7 31.Bc5!

         Now my king can’t stop the passed pawns unless I trade into the lost knight ending. 1-0

         It was my first chess victory in America.

         40 years before, I had the same debut in my hometown of Berdichev (Ukraine). I came there after my decennial absence: I left this place as a beginner and returned for a short time as a well-known chess master. Previous to the simultaneous playing, the organizer gave a small speech about facts which this town can take a legitimate pride in. He named the famous French writer, Honore de Balzac, who was an amateur and probably drew into chess his mistress, the Polish countess, Evelina Hanska. Both were married in Berdichev.

         Balzac once received an unusual letter from the Ukraine signed The Stranger. The writer, Evelina Hanska proved to be the wife of a baron, with whom Balzac began an affair which lasted seventeen years, from 1823. Although the baron died in 1841, Balzac did not marry Evelina until five months before his death. Why so late? It is easier to be a lover than a husband, Balzac explained, for the same reason that it is more difficult to show a ready wit all day long than to produce an occasional bon appetit.

         Is this fact connected with my life? Yes! After my simultaneous playing, I went to a dance party. My first partner was a girl who asked me during the tango: “Do you know about Balzac’s wedding in Berdichev?” An affirmative answer followed, and in three days our own wedding was held in the same town.

         Our wedding in Berdichev took place in post-war years. The town had not yet recovered from Hitler’s bombings. My bride’s family lived in a court with many neighbors who were also interested in this event. My newly wife, of course, decided that the best place for this celebration would her little apartment.

           The number of guests was greater than the number of squares on the chessboard. Therefore, the walls to the neighbors were breached and this small room became a big hall. The wedding was a true chess one when my friends brought a big checked cake with chocolate chess pieces (See diagram # 69)

           This ancient chess problem is over 650 years old.  The neighbor’s six-year-old boy, Boris Muchnik (now he is a well-known American scientist in the field of laser physics), was the first who could find a solution (1.Rhg7) and regaled himself with the sweet black king.

         A few days later, I left Berdichev and my fans hung a placard on the local station building with the famous words of Julius Caesar: “veni, vidi, vici” It means: “I came, I saw, I conquered”.


Faina and Josef, the newly-married couple, in the Moscow Kremlin, 1953