Cracked Grandmaster Tales

Cracked Grandmaster Tales

| 44 | Chess Players

I’ve talked to countless chess fans over the years and though all serious chess players have their favorite chess heroes, many of them aren’t in touch with the human side of the chess legends. This is the first of two articles showing some of the sad or crazy or funny or sweet moments that go on behind the scenes.

All of them are things I witnessed or was a part of, which means you’re getting the information from the horse’s mouth. 


Grandmaster Rosendo Balinas and the Cup of Honey

Grandmaster Rosendo Balinas (1941-1998), a Filipino, was the world’s strongest Asian player in the 60s and mid-70s (Eugenio Torre eventually took the “best Asian player throne”). He earned his grandmaster title when he won a powerful tournament in Odessa with an undefeated 10–4 score. He beat a lot of great players during his career, including Bent Larsen, Lev Polugaevsky, and Ludek Pachman.

During the Lone Pine tournament of 1979 I was paired with Balinas. I was pleased with the pairing since playing any grandmaster was a rush -- if I won, great. If I lost, I would view it as a learning experience. The game started in quiet fashion:

 At this point Balinas placed a thermos filled with hot tea on the table. Then he put a big cup of honey next to it.

I expected him to take a bit of honey and mix it in with the tea, but instead he shocked me! He took the tea, poured it into the honey (which turned into a thick goo) and then drank every bit of it. Appalled, I noticed that his eyes immediately glazed over as the sugar hit his brain. Then, smiling, he continued the game.

I should add that some years later, when I was in bad shape, he got revenge after I sacrificed all my pieces (for more or less nothing). When the opponent is ill or out of sorts, the healthy player smells blood and goes for the kill! Clearly, professional chess is a cruel game and not for the faint of heart! 

Grandmaster Igor Ivanov and the Game That Wasn’t a Game


Though Balinas’ sugar-bomb is beyond understanding, I have seen many strong players fall victim to alcohol. One grandmaster that suffered from this blight was Igor Vasilyevich Ivanov (1947-2005). This very sweet, kind man was extremely strong (his victory over Anatoly Karpov in 1979 makes that clear). We were friends (we occasionally studied together), and we played nine times (two wins for him, one for me, and six draws). However, my one victory is nothing to be proud of, and I don’t view it as a win at all.

Igor came to the board in a state of near coma. Unfortunately, he was an avid worshipper of the god Bacchus. Sitting (kind of) in his chair, his head and hands were lying on the table and he kept them there. Whenever I made a move he would slowly raise his hand, grab something, and after making the move his hand would crash back to the table.

Igor laughed as he resigned, but I felt horrible about “the game that wasn’t a game” and him drinking himself into a stupor.

I also remember Igor playing in the U.S. Championship (in San Diego). I watched as he (shades of Balinas!) took out his thermos of hot tea (or was it coffee?) and, as he started pouring it into the cup, he looked up and smiled at his opponent. Then he looked down and realized that he had poured the scalding liquid onto his hand! Leaping up, Igor started dancing around the room in a frenzy, screaming “Hot! Hot! Hot!” 

Allow me to share the following tribute to Igor, written by the great Boris Spassky.




By Boris Spassky

Igor Ivanov and I shared a similar fate. Neither of us could not adapt to the socialist paradise. Both of us received our living strength from Imperial Russia, which had over 1,000 years of culture. Igor was lucky and received a good musical education from his mother who died when he was only 14 years old. She dreamed to see him as a good pianist and cellist, but his passion was to become a professional chess player. Fortunately, Igor was very talented at chess.

As an artistic personality Igor was living like a careless bird, flying from one place to another, playing chess and piano and singing Russian romances. He did not have the persistence which is so important for getting the grandmaster’s title. Igor did not care about himself and became a grandmaster only a few months before his death. He could have easily gotten it 20 years ago!

In 1979, Igor won a famous game against Anatoly Karpov. As a consequence of this victory, Colonel Baturinsky, Schach Fuehrer of the USSR, gave him a chance to participate in the Capablanca Memorial in Havana the following year. This was the first and the last invitation which he received from the “generous colonel.” Coming back from Havana to Moscow, the plane of the Soviet company Aeroflot made a stop in Gander, Newfoundland. Igor asked for political asylum and the socialist paradise lost one of its most talented masters.

Every time our chess diagonals crossed, I was very glad to meet Igor. Both of us liked the Russian operatic romances. We especially enjoyed the great bass singer Feodor Shaliapin and the beautiful soprano Nadezda Obuhova. We reminisced about our chess teacher from the Palace of Pioneers, Alexander Cherepkov, who is now 86 years old, and of course we talked of St. Petersburg.

Igor did not have any illusions about communists or perestroika. It is easy to change the state’s flag and emblem, but it is not possible to change a head or a conscience. It takes decades.

Igor’s professional life in the West was difficult. He played many tournaments with small prizes and really needed the grandmaster’s title to get the invitations for the big events. The country where he started his new chess life, Canada, is not for chess. Both its chess leaders in the early 1980s -- Kevin Spraggett and Igor Ivanov -- had to move to another area: Kevin to Europe and Igor to the USA. In his new homeland, he won nine Grand Prix titles, which was a great accomplishment.

Igor was lucky to meet his wife Elizabeth who gave him everything, and he was very grateful to her. The last part of his life, Igor settled with her in St. George, Utah, where he headed a chess school and almost became a “balanced American.” He liked his friends, his wife, children, animals, music, and adventures. Two cats, Petrushka and Sasha, played an important role in his life. Igor liked to give concerts where he played piano and sang. He was good-natured and people liked him for his excellent sense of humor.

We played in the last round in the Interzonal in Toluca, Mexico in 1982. Igor needed a point for the grandmaster title, and I a point to qualify for the Candidates. Igor defended his inferior position like an ancient Greek hero and made a draw! Nether of us needed a draw! After the game, we looked at each other with open mouths. Friendship is friendship, but sport is sport.

Last October, Igor being very ill, wanted to meet his friends one last time. Thanks to his good friend Alan Crooks he was able to come to Reno but was only able to play two games.

Igor left this world courageously: no complaints, no regrets, just hiding his pain. Before saying good-bye, we pretended we would meet again, but our eyes were very sad: we knew that in this life we had met each other for the last time. Igor left us on November 17, 2005.

I will have warm feelings for Igor forever.

San Francisco October 5, 2006


The Unknown Grandmaster


Alcohol nightmares were quite common in my day (has that changed?), as shown by another grandmaster friend of mine who had imbibed a bit too much and passed out in an empty room next to the tournament hall. I (and another GM) found a baggage dolly, tossed the unconscious victim on it, and wheeled him into the elevator and up to his room.

Grandmaster Walter Browne and Curse of the Faulty Glasses

John Grefe on the left, Browne on the right

Browne had come to the Sunnyvale tournament full of confidence. He felt that his sub-par eyesight was hindering his performances and he had just bought glasses. Claiming that he was finally able to see, he drew me in an early round and, after winning a couple games, faced Dennis Waterman who, in those days, was a formidable opponent.

I was friends with both these gentlemen and, as luck would have it, my game was next to theirs (I was sitting beside Walter). Waterman, playing Black, had noticed my draw against Browne and decided to try the same opening:

After playing 33.Re1 Browne’s face showed complete confidence and he was waiting for Black to resign when the 6’4” Waterman leapt on his chair, screamed “Woo hoo! Woo hoo!” as he lifted the queen way up into the sky, and then descended with it as the “woo hoo” continued to fill the room.

At that moment Browne realized that it wasn’t Waterman that was getting mated, but Browne. A strangled “No!” burst out of his mouth, and he physically reached up to prevent Black’s queen from landing on h2. Alas, the downward momentum was too much to stop and Waterman smashed the queen onto h2, knocking the pawn off the table. 


Browne, in shock, yelled “My eyes! My eyes!” Then he stormed out of the room. Browne’s new glasses were found in a garbage can a short time later.

Walter Browne was one of the most exciting chess players in the world. But many people don’t know that Walter was also a world-class poker player and Scrabble player.

Dennis Waterman (who lives in Vegas) was another all-around great game player. He was 2400-strength at chess, a magnificent Scrabble player, one of the world’s finest backgammon players, and is (right now) a world-class poker player.

When those two came face to face you knew fireworks would ensue. Sure enough, Browne, Waterman and I were at a huge New Year’s party and I was watching them battle away on the Scrabble board. Suddenly they started to argue, punches were thrown, and... well, there was never a boring moment when Browne and Waterman got together.

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