The Last Cracked Grandmaster Tales

The Last Cracked Grandmaster Tales

| 45 | Fun & Trivia

This is my third and final Cracked Grandmaster Tales article. Click the links if you haven’t seen Cracked Grandmaster Tales and More Cracked Grandmaster Tales.

We’ll start with Najdorf again since some people felt that he wouldn’t resort to the gremlin-like antics I wrote about (as seen in More Cracked Grandmaster Tales). The fact is he did such things all the time. If anyone else acted that way, the opponent would go berserk with rage. But when Najdorf did it the “victim” just rolled his eyes, perhaps raved for a moment to let off steam, and then all would be well. He was a once-in-a-lifetime personality and the people around him took this stuff in stride.

Here are two quotes (by Pal Benko) from Benko’s and Silman’s PAL BENKO, MY LIFE, GAMES, AND COMPOSITIONS (John Watson added an opening survey to the book).


Pal Benko: “Once, Najdorf asked an opponent if he was playing for a win. The guy said, ‘No, I’m not. Would you like a draw?’ When Najdorf refused, his opponent became very irate and wanted to now why he asked if he was playing for a win in the first place. Najdorf said, ‘I was just wondering.’”

Pal Benko: “It must be understood that Najdorf was an incredibly nice guy, but he would use every trick in the book to win. During our third game, we adjourned in a position where I was up a pawn in a rook endgame. I didn’t have a chance to analyze the position, and was thinking about a move when we resumed on the next day. Suddenly he looked at me, his face showing pain and some outrage at the same time, and he said, ‘How can you do this to an old man like me? How can you play this out? I analyzed all night and it’s a dead draw! A dead draw! I guarantee it. In fact, I’ll bet you a thousand dollars it’s a draw! A thousand dollars!’ I ignored him and tried to think but he wouldn’t shut up, he just kept gibbering on and on. Finally I just gave him the draw, anything to get some quiet. Then I went upstairs to my room and looked at the position. Instantly I saw that it was easily winning for me – he had been lying through his teeth. So I rushed downstairs and confronted him. ‘Why did you lie to me like that? What in the hell is wrong with you? Why didn’t you let me think?’ He just smiled, put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Come on, I’ll take you out to a nice nightclub!’ How can you stay mad at a guy like that?”


Alla Kushnir Teaches Me a Lesson

Alla Kushnir played three title matches against the woman’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili, losing all three (though the last one was a super close four wins, five losses, and seven draws). The second strongest woman in the world, Kushnir was allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Israel with the stipulation that she would forgo the next women’s championship cycle (1973-1975).


Arriving at Lone Pine (from Israel), Kushnir was the only female player in the tournament! In those days, men weren’t used to losing to women (times have changed!), and quite a lot of the players were spooked at the possibility that they would get paired with her since she was obviously extremely strong. As luck would have it, she had to face grandmaster Larry Evans in the first round.

Not a good start for Evans, but he showed his strength of mind by fighting back and ending up in clear second place behind Vladimir Liberzon. Unfortunately, I was going to be her next victim.

Silman (victim) at Lone Pine 1975

She played well and deserved to win. Games like that (with time pressure blunders plaguing both sides) are seen all the time and the person with the better nerves usually triumphs. In this game she outplayed me, then we both made mistakes, and after the smoke cleared she was the last person standing. When you lose a game like this all you can do is tip your hat, congratulate the opponent, and do your best in the next game.

After beating me in round six, she wiped out grandmaster Bilek in round seven!

Kushnir had a very good tournament, winning the three games above, losing three (to grandmasters Benko, Biyiasas, and Forintos), and drawing grandmasters Reshevsky, Csom, and Robatsch (she made a quick draw with IM Martz in the final round).

In 1978 she tried one final time to play for the woman’s world championship. Facing Maia Chiburdanidze, Kushnir lost a 14-game match four to three (seven draws) and promptly retired from chess! As it turned out, Chiburdanidze was a monster and she went on to take Gaprindashvili’s title and kept it until the advent of the amazing Chinese women (Xie Jun took her title in 1991).

According to Batgirl, Lyudmila Belavenets (who won the USSR women’s championship in 1975) said that Kushnir (after retiring from chess) totally severed ties and communication with all her chess acquaintances and friends.

With chess out of the way, Kushnir immersed herself into academia, becoming a world-renowned archeologist and professor of numismatics (the study of ancient coins and other forms of ancient currency). She died in Tel Aviv in 2013 at the age of 71. 


The Hidden 3-Time Repetition

When I was a kid someone gave me a book titled, IF YOU MUST PLAY CHESS by two-time (1945 and 1946) U.S. champion Arnold Denker. Grandmaster Denker was famous for his wild attacking style and tactical genius, and the games in his book popped with energy. Needless to say, I read it from cover to cover.

About seven years later I found myself in an interesting situation. I was paired (in round three) with Mr. Denker during Lone Pine 1975. I was, of course, delighted to play him, but instead of him attacking like a maniac, he played a quiet positional game, systematically outplayed me, and achieved a dead won position.

I realized that I had played like an idiot and that my opponent had played extremely well, but the world keeps turning and I decided that if I was going to go down I would hold on as best I could and make him earn it. Indeed, as the game went on he started making mistakes and eventually I had turned a lost position into an inferior one that, after I go through more suffering, could probably be held.

Here I announced my intention to play 50...Qf5 with a draw by three-time repetition. Denker said it wasn’t a three-time rep and that I was lying! Horrified by his accusation, I got up and asked grandmaster Isaac Kashdan (the director and a close friend of Denker’s) to deal with our problem. I explained that I was going to repeat the position for the third time with my next move and thus claimed the draw, and Denker once again said, “He’s lying Kash! He’s lying!”

Kashdan, in true professional style said, “OK Arnold” and walked away! I had to physically drag Kashdan back to the board and demonstrate each repetition before he finally accepted reality.

Kashdan looked at his friend, said, “Sorry Arnold.” Denker pulled Reshevsky to the board and said, “I was winning, Sammy, I was winning!” and I just walked away from the whole mess.

After that, things became a bit uncomfortable when we played. We clashed heads in four more games, with him drawing one and me winning three. In one game he picked up a rook, realized he was hanging stuff, put it back and then denied he touched it (there were, as is often the case, no witnesses). In another he got so upset when his position started to deteriorate that he kept kicking me under the table.

This guy was a hardcore competitor, but he was a real gentleman away from the board. We always got along well if there wasn’t a chessboard between us. Denker died in 2005. I still cherish his book, and to this day occasionally open it up and enjoy some of his games.

Tal in Disneyland

After winning the 1988 Word Blitz Chess Championship in Saint John, Canada (at the age of 51), and pocketing the $50,000 dollar first prize, Mikhail Tal (the eighth world chess champion) decided to make a visit to Los Angeles and give a couple simultaneous exhibitions. It turns out that as he was leaving the Saint John hotel to go to the airport, he walked into a glass wall, splitting his head. Fortunately a messed up face and a little pain couldn’t contain his adventurous spirit, and (with a police escort) he caught his plane and made it the City of Angels. He looked like death warmed over, but he was here.

Realizing that his time was very limited, I decided to make the one day we had together memorable. First stop was lunch at the Hotel Bel-Air (owned by the Sultan of Brunei and filled with history, the hotel was a common place to stay for the likes of Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, and on and on it goes), and we enjoyed a lovely outdoor location with peacocks walking about. The fact that Ric Ocasek (The Cars) was sitting next to us with a couple of young ladies added to the ambiance.


Next stop was Disneyland and Tal was completely captivated! We did as many rides as possible, but he fell in love with the Pirates of the Caribbean and insisted we go on it a second time. Everything was going well until I opened my mouth and started talking about some cutting edge opening lines. Mistake! Suddenly he blurted out an endless stream of variations (often 20+ moves deep… all without sight of a board, of course) at warp speed and, to my shame, I couldn’t keep up. He would stop, glare at me, then continue with more variations ending in, “So, what do you think?”



Fortunately he took it all in stride, found the Disneyland store and, as he stuck one thing after another in his shopping cart for his family back in Russia, he happily sang some Russian shopping song, his face shining with satisfaction.

Tal was a very, very sweet man. He died in 1992 at the age of 55.

How NOT to Eat Dessert


The 1990s. I was enjoying Rome when I realized I had a tournament that I promised to visit. Leaping in my car, I drove nonstop to the lovely Principality of Monte Carlo, known for its stunning ocean views, world-famous casinos, and (most important to me) the Melody Amber tournament. This wonderful event was sponsored by the Dutch businessman and lover of chess, Joop van Oosterom. He named it after his daughter.


I was there for just a couple days, which were filled with analysis with Karpov and other chess greats, and a very nice visit with my dear friend, Yasser Seirawan (that’s where we agreed to work together on his Play Winning Chess series). Great stuff, but this tale is all about dessert.

I was enjoying the buffet at a five-star hotel’s restaurant (the tournament was held there), and, of course, most of the players were eating there too. At one point a Russian player, frustrated that he couldn’t find a waiter, got up and walked over to the dessert trolley. Giving the room one final look for help, he stuck his whole hand in the huge bowl of pudding and ladled it onto his plate!


I couldn’t believe my eyes (I had intended to order that dessert, but I quickly changed my mind!). Things continued to devolve. Seeing his friend successfully making the dessert trolley his own, another Russian got up, walked up to the trolley, and stuck his hand in the same bowl!

Ever since then I’ve done my best to avoid buffets and, in particular, dessert trolleys.


How I Became a Simultaneous Villain

Chess professionals have different philosophies when it comes to giving simultaneous exhibitions. For example, Emanuel Lasker had fun, took chances, and didn’t take the games seriously. He expected to lose quite a few simul games, and he was happy to do so since it made the victors and the audience happy. Other players in his time and today see simultaneous exhibitions in the same way.

The other kind of simultaneous player wants to win every game, and he takes the whole thing very seriously indeed. He views it as a competition: many vs. one. And that is also perfectly okay.

I gave my first “serious” simultaneous exhibition in my mid-twenties (1979 or 1980) in Berkeley. At the time I was living a typical Haight Ashbury existence (my novel, Autobiography of a Goat, will give you more insight into what I mean) and I arrived at the exhibition in bad shape. At first I was doing very well in all the games, but suddenly I hit a wall and I started making one horrible move after another and...suffice it to say that it was awful (I don’t remember the exact number, but it was something like 15 losses and 15 wins).

The next day I woke up, looked at the San Francisco Chronicle, and to my horror notice a headline: SILMAN’S SIMULTANEOUS DISASTER!

After that unpleasant experience I swore to take each simultaneous exhibition seriously and I rarely lost a game.

Fast forward to 1989. I was playing in Wijk aan Zee. It was memorable tournament. Anand wiped me out in table tennis again and again, Fedorowicz chased me around town after suffering through the great beer caper, my tooth was knocked out by an aggressive olive as I lay face down in the winter slush, and my hardcover edition of Klaus Kinski’s novel, ALL I NEED IS LOVE, vanished in the maw of those grandmasters that demanded I loan it to them.

I was asked to join various other grandmasters and international masters in a series of simultaneous exhibitions against children (something like 40 per simul). I won the first 39 fairly fast, but one kid was quite good and was holding on like grim death. He offered a draw, I refused, and eventually I prevailed.

A while later the tournament organizers and all the GMs and IMs that did the simuls got together for a dinner and discussions about the exhibitions. The main organizer took the microphone. It went something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for your kind participation. Let’s see how everyone did:

“Grandmaster so-and-so won 37, drew 1, and lost 2.”

Everyone applauded.

“International Master so-and-so won 34 and lost 6.” 

Massive applause. And it went on and on like that, with everyone losing at least one game.

Then they mentioned my result:

“Jeremy Silman won every game, 40-0.”

Endless boos and jeers! I was stunned. Why was I being booed? It turned out that all the titled players were supposed to lose at least one game, but nobody told me. And so a simultaneous villain was born…a chess pariah…an untouchable. I wandered from Euro-village to Euro-village and in every one people threw trash at me or beat me with sticks. Life became a living hell. Then, as I stood on the precipice on a particularly large mountain, I...

Okay, okay...I wasn’t a pariah. Nobody hit me with sticks. Yes, the boos were real, I did indeed drown under the waves of public humiliation, but life goes on and lessons are (or are not) learned.

A word of warning. If you play me in a simultaneous exhibition don’t expect me to show mercy. I still try as hard as possible (unless I'm in Wijk aan Zee!) to win every game.

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