Josef's Site

Essay on Chess


          My conversation with the U.S. Congressman, Richard E. Neal, was not in regard to human rights or politics. It was quite easy to guess that our talk was about chess.

With Richard E. Neal

         Soon after coming to America, I received an invitation to play in the World Senior Championship to be held in Germany. I needed a travel document soon because the time for my trip to Europe was drawing near. I appealed to the Congressman’s office for aid, and all my problems were quickly resolved.

      When I came back, I wanted to say thanks to Richard Neal, and gave him an account of my trip to Germany.

       This International tournament was held in the resort town of Bad Wildbad whose reputation as a health spa dates back 600 years. Its chess reputation was not nearly as long, but it has quickly become popular for holding one of the best tournaments in Europe. Probably the organizers chose this place thanks to the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker, who often went there on holiday. His relatives, who owned the small hotel where I stayed, told me that von Weizsacker liked chess and taught his son who even took part in chess competitions.

         It was a good choice! To signal the beginning of each round the town bells rang for half an hour each day. Every participant (153 men and 23 women) received a colorful umbrella, replete with the insignia of the World Senior Championship, as a present from the Mayor of the town. During a period of two weeks we played an 11- rounds Swiss System, with the sessions lasting about seven hours.

         For the first time in my life, I played under the flag of the United States. Over 30 countries were represented, some by legendary grandmasters and renowned masters. First of all, I was glad to see my old friend, the Czech grandmaster Ludek Pachman. In 1968, he was a very active participant of the well-known political struggle in his country. When the Soviet tanks entered the capital of Czechoslovakia, he was arrested. The local communist leaders allowed him some liberty from time to time, but forbade him to play in chess tournaments. However, in 1971, the Moscow University team I led came to Prague to play with Czech student teams. A day before our arrival, Pachman left the jail, and his supporters asked me to play a friendly match with Pachman’s team of builders. I agreed. It was our match of solidarity, and many Europe newspapers appreciated this fact.

         After beating all the Czech teams, as well as teams in Germany and Hungary, I thought we would come home to Russia as heroes, but instead we came home to a lot of trouble. I even feared I would be punished, but the President of the Moscow State University, Rem Khokhlov, the outstanding physicist, who knew my good reputation at the university, saved me.

         The tournament in Bad Wildbad was very important for me, because when I was a Soviet citizen I was not allowed to participate in international events for a long time. It was difficult to win game after game for many reasons. My opponent in the 4th round, Wolfgang Schmidt of Hamburg, then attacked me with “peace negotiations”. Unwritten laws of ethnics are in evidence at chess competitions. It is customary, for example, to offer a draw only once during a time control. To do otherwise would be to annoy your opponent.

         Every time he asked, I politely replied: “I would like to play a little more”. I gained the advantage. Victory was near when again my opponent whispered “Draw?” in a strained, soft voice, hands and body trembling. I did not know what to do. As a Doctor of Law, I wanted to observe the rules. But some rules were made to be broken, and I acted as if I was a Doctor of Medicine, because the man’s life was more important. So I decided to calm the distressed man and the game was drawn.

          In another round I was confronted with an “alcohol attack”. I’ve been playing chess for many decades, and this was my first exposure to it. My opponent, Alexander K., from Odessa, Ukraine, was obviously in high spirits, as witnessed by the overpowering smell of alcohol on his breath. My position was much better when he offered a draw.

          I laughed, saying that if I stayed and played, my opponent’s “high spirits” and breath could easily befuddle me. So I agreed.

           Soon after the first rounds were played, someone said that the Polish master, Heinrich Fronszek, had hypnotized him. Later the man admitted that he was only joking, but it brought back memories.

         I did not think he was joking. As a journalist, I had written many articles about hypnosis, and even did a television film about the subject. I also knew the famous Polish hypnotist, Wolf Messing, who taught me quite a lot.

         When German troops annexed his country in 1939, Messing publicly predicted Hitler’s future defeat. The Gestapo put him under arrest. But Messing hypnotized the guards and escaped to the Soviet Union. When Stalin learned about it, he ordered Messing to be brought to him. Stalin said that he would believe that Wolf Messing was a hypnotist if he could leave his house undetected. The Soviet leader thought that only he himself could hypnotize a big group of people. Messing hypnotized all the guards and escaped from a tight corner successfully.

         Later Messing became a performer and hypnotized from the stage. My son Vitaly and I talked to him about hypnosis in chess. He affirmed that a man of great hypnotic abilities could influence his chess opponent. “If you asked me to play violin, I would,” he said.  “But I will never become a wonderful violinist. I do not play chess but if you ask me for that, I will do it hypnotizing your thoughts. But I will never play as Botvinnik who has a special chess talent.”

         Once, Messing visited the match SSSR- Yugoslavia in Moscow, and the former world champion Vassily Smyslov complained of David Bronstein’s losing situation. From a distance, Messing had hypnotized Bronstein’s opponent, and the Yugoslav grandmaster suddenly made a fatal mistake...

         The famous magician and People’s artist of the USSR, Arutiun Akopian was a passionate admirer of Tigran Patrosian (both were Armenians). Arutiun often came to the tournament hall, took up his permanent place on the 8th row, and looked intently at the stage where his favorite, the 9th world champion, played for the highest title against Boris Spassky. Akopian whispered some magic sounds and did enchanting symbols with his hands. During such an evening, Petrosian won. Once, I asked the magician: “Arutiun, do you play chess?” The answer was “No.”


         All of this came back to me when I met Fronczek (White) in the sixth round (See diagram #48).  We were among the leaders and we both were eager to advance.

         The beginning of our game was sharp. Sometimes he fixed his eyes on mine, and I would feel some sort of ...magic. Unfortunately, I did not have dark glasses such as the American grandmaster Pal Benko had used when playing a match against grandmaster Mikhail Tal. Of course, some Tal’s fantastic moves had an influence on Benko, as if he were hypnotized.

          I saw that I could take the knight and obtain a winning position. 21…bxc3 22.Rxg7+ Kh8 23.Qc2 N7g6 offers White no hope at all. But something restrained me from making this natural move. Instead I played 21...g6? 22.Qa4 Qb6 23.Qb3 Qa5 24.Qa4, and Black agreed to draw by move’s repetition.

         Grandmaster Mark Taimanov of Russia was the tournament favorite and the highest rated competitor. He came to Bad Wildbad dreaming of the world championship title that had eluded him earlier in his career. We met in the eighth round. (See diagram # 49)

I was Black. At this moment, I only had a couple of minutes left on my clock to reach the time control. I saw different possibilities such as 40…Ng4! 41.Qg2 f5 42.Bxc6 Rh2 43.Qf3 Rh1+ 44.Qxh1 Qg3+ 45.Qg2 Qxe3+ 46.Kf1 Qxc1+ 47.Ke2 Qc4+ or 40…Nd5 41.e4 Ne3 42.Qf2 Qg6+ 43.Bg2 Nxg2. Black also wins by 41.Qxc6? Qg3+ 42.Bg2 Qxe3+ 43.Kf1 Rf4+

                   Later, the French chess magazine showed a simple way to draw - 41.Qg2+ Kf8 42.Bxd5 Qxd5 43. Qxd5 cxd5 44.Rc5 Rh5 45.e4 Rh4! But I did not want a draw!

         It was very difficult to make a hasty decision in such a complicated situation. I chose a waiting move 40…Rh3. After 41.Rf1, I spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to find a winning way, but didn’t have the necessary tempo to win. In other words, it was “a tragedy of one tempo.” In the end, there was not enough time to reach the second time control, and I lost in equal position.

        About ten years later, this dispute position suddenly appeared…in my sleep. A magical voice cast reproached upon me why I made a weak move instead of a simple but a strong one – 40…Rh6? Advantageous variations ran through my drowsy head: 41.Qxc6 Qg3+ 42.Bg2 Qxe3+ or 41.Bxc6 Rg6+ 42.Bg2 Ng4, and Black remained with an overwhelming attack. White’s queen had to rush to help her king – 41.Qf2, but Black’s clear retort – 41…Rg6+ 42.Kf1 Nd5 43.Re1 Qe6 – gave him a good prospect. Such a waking dream has a philosophical tinge, like a demonstration of spirit over matter.

         In the final round, I faced the Russian grandmaster, Nikolai Krogius, which also turned out to be a “tragedy of one tempo.” He played Black (See diagram # 50)

         I saw a promising attack 41.g5 fxg5 42.fxg5 Nxd5 43.cxd5 hxg5 44.h6 but decided to wait a little.

 41.Nb4 Ra8 42.Re3 Nd7 43.Qd3 Nc5 44.Qe2 Ne6 45.Qf1 Nd4 46.Bd3 b5 47.Nc2 47.cxb5! 47… Nec6

         My opponent was lucky because I erred in a winning position.

48.e5? As the French say, it was an “idee fixe”. White should

play 48.Nxd4 Nxd4 and then 49.e5! dxe5 50.Bg6 Qd7 51.Bxe8 Rxe8 51.fxe5

          If I won the game, I could move up into first place, but I was a bundle of nerves and could not restrain myself because I wanted to win quickly.

48…dxe5 49.Bg6 Qd7 50.Bxe8 Rxe8 51. fxe5? 51.f5 leads to a draw.

51...Nxe5 52. Re4? Nb3!

          I did not see this move because of my time-trouble. I lost and took only the ninth place, while Taimanov became the world senior champion. Not without reason it is said: “Delay may mean death.”  

         When I came home, I tried to assess my performance. I was just as good as my rivals in understanding chess, but I was less physically conditioned. Haste was the main reason for my losses. One should follow the outstanding Russian master Chigorin’s habit: one hand restrained the other one from making a hurried move.

         Besides, I needed to prove to myself that the pension age did not weak my chess strength.

         Not long before my flight to Germany, the local oculist, Dr. Theodore Ingis, brought me a present, a tie with many chess pieces, he got in Europe. “From now on, you will beat all your opponents,” he promised with a pleased smile upon his face. “Why?” I replied. “You will always have extra pieces”.

         Certainly, soon I took part at cited above World Senior Championship. When I put on my chess tie, I won. Unfortunately, I came to play the decisive games without my talisman. Is this the real reason why I lost? 

          The Congressman, listening to the whole of my report, noted that chess players had emotional problems only in comparison to such athletes as boxers or hockey-players. “You are right, we do not have physical traumas during the tournament,” I said. “But every well-known chess player can tell you about his amusing stories.”

          Being on the front during World War II, I always carried a small chess set in my backpack. Sometimes, during intervals between battles, I found chess partners among the front-line soldiers. Once at the railroad station Krymskaya, near the city of Krasnodar, I met another officer who liked chess. It was getting dark. One could not play at the station because of the blackout. We found another place with poor light, and played the whole night. At dawn, we saw that German planes had bombed the station... We exchanged glances, laughing: chess, probably, saved our lives. My new friend’s name was Alexander

         Cherepkov. After the war he became an International master and lived in Leningrad.

         In a couple of days hard fighting began. A German shell wounded me, and the chess pieces from my backpack were scattered in different directions.

         In summer of 1949, I played in Russia’s championship that took place in the city of Cheboksary, capital of Chuvash autonomous republic. Suddenly, a chandelier from the high ceiling of the tournament hall fell right onto the chessboard where I was playing with the International master Leo Aronin. Both of us escaped with nothing more than a fright.

          Several days later, a ship outing on the full-flowing River Volga was organized for the participants. In the middle of the river, everyone jumped into the water to swim. I did the same though I could not swim, and I nearly drowned. I had a narrow escape. One of my tournament opponents gave me help in time.

          “Assistance to drowning persons is in the hands of those persons themselves.”

         This humorous aphorism was widely practiced in Russia since the well-known writers Ilia Ilf and Evgeny Petrov had published their novel The Twelve Chairs. A whole chapter The Interplanetary Chess Tournament was devoted to the game. In the end, the adventures forced all chess players to jump into the water of the deep Volga River but nobody did drown, probably because the slogan above was always hanging on the wall of the room where they played chess…

         So get this off your chess, and let’s continue.