Josef's Site

Essay on Chess

 Story seventeen: SUMMIT TALKS…ON CHESS 

         Soon after arriving in America I made friends with a very hospitable family. The Leavitts were known in Springfield, Massachusetts, for their good deeds. The master of the house, Julian Leavitt, was an interesting person. He had visited many countries and knew seven languages. For many years he was the president of a successful company called “Sweet Life”.

Leavitts and Reagan

         When I visited his home for the first time, a big picture hanging on the wall attracted my attention. U. S. President, Ronald Reagan, was photographed with Julian and his wife, Barbara.  

        “Did President Reagan play chess?” I asked.

        “Quite possible, but I did not play with him,” Leavitt said. “However, I heard that Reagan touched upon chess when talking with the head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Reykjavik.”

           Talking about results of the Summit in Iceland, the American representative, Peter Robinson, said: “1986 was not the first time the U. S. and the Soviet Union confronted each other in Reykjavik. Fourteen years earlier, the American chess champion, Bobby Fischer, had confronted the Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. The men struggled at the chessboard for two months. The final outcome, checkmate, was a victory for Bobby Fischer.

         When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev traveled to Reykjavik, they did so as the representatives of two nations that had been engaged in the deep game, not unlike chess, of move and counter move, which had characterized the Cold War since it began more then three decades before. Both men played boldly, putting forward one negotiating proposal after another. Soon they stood just one move away from an agreement that would have eliminated virtually all nuclear weapons. The obstacle was the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. Ronald Reagan refused to give up. The result is stalemate. Today, many see in Reykjavik as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.”  

(Internet - “A crack in the ice: The Legacy of the Reykjavik Summit.”)

         As a student I was acquainted with Mikhail Gorbachev. While attending Moscow State University law faculty, I was a captain of its chess team. Gorbachev, as the head of the faculty youth committee, called together all sports team captains. He   encouraged them to lead their teams to victory in the university sports and athletics meetings, including in chess competitions. Very likely, during political negotiations in Iceland, he was also ready to talk with Reagan about modern chess.        

        The so-called chess “match of the century” in Reykjavik came to be seen as a proxy for the Cold War, as the Soviets had held the world title since World War II. Fischer, the individual who had triumphed over the might of the Communist system, became as an American hero.       

         Fischer failed to arrive in Iceland for the opening ceremony. For the next several days, it looked doubtful that the match would be played at all, for it was proving impossible for FIDE to accommodate Fischer's myriad demands. His behavior was full of self-contradictions, as it had been throughout his chess career. Finally, after a surprise doubling of the prize fund and much persuasion, including a phone call from the U. S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Fischer did fly to Iceland. Many commentators, particularly from the USSR, have suggested that all this was part of Fischer's plan to "psych out" Spassky. Fischer's supporters said that winning the World Championship was the mission of his life.

         A prodigy from Brooklyn who reached grandmaster stature at 15, Fischer became a global celebrity at 29 after defeating the world’s best player, becoming the only American to win the highest chess title. This match was covered like a sporting event and became a symbol in the posturing between Cold War superpowers.

         After winning the world championship in Reykjavik, Fischer remained a popular figure in this tiny North Atlantic state, a country with one of the highest number of chess players per capita in the world. He was granted Icelandic citizenship and lived in Iceland from 2005 until his death.

        There was a great deal of talk about Fischer among Leavitts’ friends. Julian played chess at the master level but did not have time to take part in tournaments because he always was busy. However, if Julian felt tired, he often sat at his chess table to “converse” with his permanent partners, chess books and pieces. He had a big chess library and received various chess magazines including those from other countries. So for him, chess was a hobby and wonderful form of relaxation.

         One day, Julian and I played blindfolded during a party at his home. I responded to Julian’s wishes to play a complicated Sveshnikov’s variation of this popular chess opening.


                                    SICILIAN DEFENSE

                                  Julian Leavitt – Josef Vatnikov

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bf4 e5 8. Bg5 a6 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Na3 b5 11.Nd5 f5 12.exf5 Bxf5 13.Qf3 (See diagram # 78)

         As a rule, grandmasters and masters do not use this move. Mr. Leavitt explained to me: “I like it because queen’s double attack occurred to me while driving my car.”

13…Nd4 14.Nc7+ Qxc7 15.Qxa8+ Ke7 16.c3 b4 17.cxb4 Qb6 18.Bxa6 Qxb4+ 19.Kf1 Qxb2 20.Qb7+ Qxb7 21.Bxb7 Bd3+ 22.Ke1 Bh6 23.Rd1 Nc2+ 24.Nxc2 Bxc2 25.Ra1 Rb8 26.Bd5 Rb2 27.Kf1 Bd3+ 28.Kg1 e4 29.h4 e3 30.fxe3 Bxe3+ 31.Kh2 Bf4+ 32. Kg1 Be3+ 33.Kh2 Bf4+ Draw

         After this we looked into some variations of our blindfold game. Black was mistaken: 21…Bd3. Another move was stronger: 21…d5 22.Bxd5 Kf6 23.Nc4 Bd3+ 24.Ke1 Bb4+ 25.Kd1 Rd8 26.Ne3 Bc3 27.Rc1 Be2 Mate

         Mr. Leavitt showed a variation that he “saw” during the game in case of 16. Bd3? -

16…Qa5+ 17.Kf1 Bxd3+18.cxd3 Qd2! 19.Re1 Qxd3+ 20.Kg1 Ne2+ 21.Kf1 Ng3++ 22.Kg1 Qf1+ 23.Rxf1 Ne2 Smothered Mate!       

          Philidor, the greatest player of the 18th century, would amaze crowds by playing up in three people at a time blindfolded.

          In those days, playing blindfold chess was considered a dangerous feat that could cause a mental breakdown or even madness.

          Such concerns have long since vanished, but blindfold chess still holds a fascination for non-players and even some professional players because it seems such a wondrous feat of memory.

          His home was full of guests, and most of them were seeing Julian’s blindfold game for the first time. “To play without looking at the board is so astonishing that it is hard to believe,” someone said.

         “It was nothing supernatural,” I explained. “It is easy to play a blindfold game. The opponents use their own well-developed chess memory. It is the same as an experienced musician performing a symphony without looking at the score.”

        In principle, every player, sitting at the chessboard, to a certain extent, plays blindfold. Meditating on his plans, he mentally considers many different variations and imagines the future development of events. The more experienced he is, the more clearly he discovers the invisible possibilities that could happen in several moves. Playing orally, without a chessboard, can even be one of the training methods which are used before competitions.

         One can add a recommendation to what it has been said. If father and son play chess, their blindfold games would be very useful because it helps to develop the children’s imagination. This can be useful in schooling.

         Some grandmasters use mental exercises as part of their training process. For instance, Anatoly Karpov and his former trainer, Igor Zaitzev, often played blindfold games especially when they traveled by air or by train.

          Blindfold chess at grandmaster level continues to be played today. The best players of the world take part at the traditional Melody Amber blindfold and rapid tournament in Monaco. It is an incredibly strong competition, and almost all rivals are young stars. Two games are played each day, the first played blindfold, with a fresh mind. Participants sat opposite each other and played by speaking their moves. A referee, listening to the voices of both grandmasters, wrote down moves that were immediately represented on the computer, in order to show them to spectators.

         The Netherlands’ patron of chess, Yun van Oosterom, left this tournament not only the sizable sum money for prizes but also an eccentric formula of competition. He called the tournament after the name of his daughter, Amber.

          I visited the Leavitts twice a year – on holidays. Julian told his friends a lot of interesting things about production, and reported “Sweet Life” news. Chess life was my field at such a celebrated table.

          The Leavitts’ guests were aware that chess could create a wonderful mood, like music and dance! I showed them a game from the International women’s tournament in Russia.


                          SICILIAN DEFENSE                

                           Saunina – Chekhova

                                Sochi, 1980

1. e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 Nc6 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.Bxc6 Bxc6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8. Bg5 e6 9.0-0-0 Be7 10.Rhe1 0-0 11.Qd2 Qc7 12.Kb1 Rfd8 13.Nd4 Be8 14.f4 a6 15.f5 Qc4 16.g4 b5 17.Qg2 b4 18.Nce2 e5 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.Nf3 Bc6

         20…Qxe4 21.Nc3 Qb7 22.Nd5 Bc6 23.g5! fxg5 24.f6!

 21. Ng3 a5 22.g5 Kh8

          If 22…fxg5 23.f6! Bxf6 24.Nh5!

23. gxf6 Bxf6 24.Nh5 Rg8 25.Qh3 Be7 26.f6 Bf8 27.Ng7 Bxe4

         27…Bxg7 28.Ng5 h6 29.Qf5 hxg5 30.Qh3+ Bh6 31.Qxh6 Mate

28. Rxe4! Qxe4 29.Ng5 Qg6 30.Qxh7+!! Qxh7 31.Nxf7 Mate (See diagram # 79)

          “It looks like a miracle!” exclaimed Mr. Leavitt.

          Women as well as men discussed the mystery of why the current chess scene shows limited participation by “the fair”. There were several points of view. Some women do not like aggressiveness and rivalry in chess, but it does not prevent them from being successful in science or business.

         Chess is the only sport in which men and women can compete as equals. Physical size, strength and quickness have an influence upon chess. Family reasons are also important. Somebody said as a joke that a woman cannot be silent sitting at the chessboard for four of five hours in succession.

         When a male loses to a female, she is a victorious warrior, he is a defeated one.  Judit Polgar, the world’s strongest woman in chess, proved that she was equal to the male grandmasters. Once she said: “I cannot remember beating a man who was not “sick or otherwise ill-disposed.” 

            There is one more feature of the game - chess at a distance. It is old as the game itself. Azerbaijani oriental scientists established that as early as the 13th century people knew about playing chess blindfolded. Trade caravans from India went over Baku to Europe. Travelers on camels played without pieces. Later, chess moves were transmitted by mail, radio, telegraph, telephone and now mostly via Internet.

          I have known the Leavitt family for a long time. I saw Julian’s granddaughter, Sheva, soon after she was born and was present at her naming ceremony.

         “I hope Sheva will become a chess champion, it does not matter where – in school, in the town, in the state, and even in the country,” Julian said. He was very interested in developing her chess skills.

         So Sheva became the heiress to her grandpa’s legacy. As a chess teacher, I met her when she was seven. She already knew how pieces move, possessed some chess techniques and features, and could record chess games.

         While writing this story, Sheva Cohn was in Second grade at Heritage Academy in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She had an idea concerning chess education of Harry Potter and his friends. In the same class was her chess friend, Eliana Yashgur. She was happy for her younger brother, five-year-old David, who did not speak yet in his babyhood but could already pronounce the word “chess.” It was like magic.

         I met with Sheva regularly. I tried to make every lesson understanding to a child. Chess problems with minimal number of pieces were selected for solving. Such a position is called “baby” because it contains not more than five pieces.

         At the start, the game presents a bewildering variety of possible formations and combinations. It is true of most beginners that they cannot see the wood for the trees. What they need is a reduction of all these possibilities to a relatively small number of patterns that repeat themselves endlessly. 

         Therefore, at first, I acquainted Sheva with the elementary checkmates. Trying to work out such positions is a good way to discover and exploit the potentialities of different chess pieces.

       Chess is a game which the better you play the more you enjoy. We often played instructive games with a chess clock. I paid attention to the changes in the situation and every time we talked about the value of the current position. Step by step, the girl acquired habits of positional play.

         Several times during our game, Sheva hummed a favorite song. I tried to catch this melody. It was, for example, her lovely song “Edelweiss” from the popular American movie “The Sound of Music.” Another time, sitting at the table in the yard, she was in a good mood and began to sing. I took up the melody.

         One day, at the beginning of the lesson, Sheva asked, “Do you know Harry Potter?”

 “I do,” I replied. “Everybody in the world should know Harry Potter,” she exclaimed.  “And everyone who likes chess should know Garry Kasparov,” I replied.. “Can Harry meet Garry?” Sheva asked with uncertainty. “Of course…”

          At that very instant, we turned on the television, and Sheva saw Garry Kasparov’s playing with a machine. It was an unusual match. He did not touch chess pieces, did not write his moves on the score sheet, and did not push the clock.

         Harry Potter looked through Sheva’s home television from the opposite side of the wall where his picture hung. A boy with a thin face, black hair, wise green eyes… He wore round glasses. It seemed that Harry Potter gazed intently at what was going on in the historical match “man versus machine” in which Garry Kasparov played against the strongest chess computer, X3D Fritz, ( New York, 2003).

          The computer had almost three million follow up positions in its opening library. Kasparov gave up a pawn for an attack, but if his assault didn’t succeed, then X3D Fritz would have good chances to win. Sword and shield!

Kasparov-X3Z Fritz (See diagram # 80)

          In case of 34.Rdd2, the machine prepared a fantastic move – 34…Rxb2!! It threatens 35…Rb1; if 35.Qxe3, then 35… Rb1.  If 35.Kxb2, then 35…Qb3+ 36.Kc1 Qb1. The white king could be mated!

 34. Rcd2 Qe1+ 35.Rd1

         35. Kc2? Bb1+ 36.Kc3 Qc1+, and Black mates!

35…Qe3+ 36.R1d2 Qg1+ 37.Rd1

         Draw. Both sides sheathed their swords. Peace!