When I read GM Becerra's article last week about a man who was an absolute inspiration to me, I just knew I had to share my own tribute to Lev Polugaevsky this week. Prior to reading GM Becerra's article, I actually did not know just how strong Polugaevsky had been relative to other top players, that he had been between #3 and #5 for quite a while. I did of course have the sense that he was terribly strong, from what I had seen of his games and analysis.
I knew GM Polugaevsky through his writing. Within my first year of tournament chess, I made the switch from e4 e5 as black to the Sicilian, and quickly gravitated to the Najdorf. Probably still in my second year of tournament play, I was in Games of Berkeley, which at the time had a terrific selection of chess books (of course I wanted all of them), and my teacher suggested Polugaevsky's book "Grandmaster Preparation."
The book is captivating from the very introduction where Polugaevsky tells the anecdote of "how this book found its author." He was on a walk with Botvinnik when the latter asked him why he'd never written a book yet. Polugaevsky mumbled some unconvincing objections, and Botvinnik cut through them flatly accusing him [correctly] of being lazy, and reminding him it was the duty of all grandmasters to write a book. From this coerced start-point, Polugaevsky actually really found himself as a chess author. His book was terrific, and he followed it with several more. I think part of the reason Polugaevsky was so slow to take on the project of writing a book was that he was such a conscientious and precise analyst that he knew completing a book would be a massive endeavor for him. I would like to think that I take after him in that regard-- yes I have not written a chess book because I am lazy, but that is also partly because I know that I would hold the work to very strict standards, and it could consume me for a very long time. Here I would like to throw in a quotation I found on wikipedia (I hope that means I can trust its authenticity, it certainly captures the spirit that I thought I perceived in Polugaevsky as a reader of his): "Sometimes you see books that have been written in one month. I don't like that. You should take at least two years for a book, or not do it at all."
Before you get restless, let me show you one of about 10 games of Polugaevsky's from Grandmaster Preparation that I remember over fifteen years after reading it. This was played against Mikhail Tal in the 1969 Soviet Championships; First try to solve a puzzle:
There is an equally amazing story to this amazing combination. Polugaevsky had helped Spassky prepare for his World Championship match against Petrosian earlier that same year. Together they had looked at this variation extensively. Although Petrosian's inhuman sense of danger avoided this brutal combination, he still went down in the decisive game 21 thanks to the opening work done by Polugaevsky and Spassky:
And after two more draws, Spassky became World Champion-- and Polugaevsky could freely use the fruits of their preparation in his own future games. The morning of his game with Tal, Polugaevsky had a feeling this opening might come up and was reviewing his analysis, when another soviet GM (I don't remember who, Geller?) came into his room, and saw a position on his board deep into the middlegame. He asked Polugaevsky something along the lines of: "what are you doing? Shouldn't you be preparing your opening instead of looking at some fanciful middlegame?" and Polugaevsky said he was preparing his opening. Later that day, while Polugaevsky sat happily at the board watching Tal struggle with the following position:
this other GM came by, and stopped. Something felt familiar, but he did not know what at first. Polugaevsky made eye contact and kept insistently smiling at him, until suddenly, it came back to him in a flash!! He had seen this position on the board in Polugaevsky's room that morning! Reading Grandmaster Preparation, you can share exactly Polugaevsky's unparalleled pleasure at that moment, and can be inspired to yourself search for beautiful chess ideas. To paraphrase Polugaevsky (I don't have my copy of the book with me) "for such moments, a life-time of arduous chess work is worth it."
Here is the full game; one thing I love about it is that though the opening prep is a bombshell, the game remains tense: the bishop sacrifice does not lead to a checkmate in 3, or a checkmate in 6, or even a decisive attack, but rather a strong e-pawn and then a winning endgame. Polugaevsky was really magnificent!
What a great game right?
Let me say something about opening preparation, and then I'll show you another, even far finer specimen of Polugaevsky's play (or you can skip ahead freely).
I do happen to be a supporter of Fischer Random/Chess960. I do happen to not enjoy the modern way of preparing openings, too many moves deep, a struggle to remember, and because there is so much to cover, relying on computer analysis instead of one's own analysis. I do think the depths to which opening knowledge has been pushed make the game less interesting to me, and the majority of chess fans. But that is the subject of discussions on other days, I am merely giving it as background to make clear how different what Polugaevsky did is, and how genuine my admiration is for his chess.
It takes away nothing from this game that Polugaevsky had the position with e6 under consideration at home before the game. He still had to (along with Spassky) come up with every deep idea that appeared in this game. He further had to understand Tal, and make some accurate predictions about what openings were likely that day. He did not have a database-- he had copious hand-written notebooks full of analytical work. It was hard work to produce this analysis, and it was not easy to quickly re-ingest it along with twenty other flavors right before a game. The deep and dynamic searching that Polugaevsky did into openings advanced his (and our, thanks to his games and writings) understanding of chess, and created many works of art.
Alright, here is perhaps his most famous game; with an even far deeper opening idea, and a far more intricate endgame (in fact so difficult as to include some errors towards the end, despite the world-class level of the two opponents).
Now that is art!
Polugaevsky is to me intimately linked with the variation that bears his name; an ultra-sharp variation of the Najdorf, which immediately appealed to me, and to which he devoted much of his considerable analytical energy. That is what we shall see in the next installment.