John Grefe: Talent Isn’t Enough!

  • IM Silman
  • | Dec 31, 2013

My relationship with International Master John Grefe was complex, with many ups and downs. I met him two days after I arrived in San Francisco. At that time I was a penniless 18-year-old chess professional who was sleeping on a friend’s floor.



Oh to be young and thin again, and full of hope!

To my surprise, I was told that the new U.S. Champion, John Grefe, was going to be sharing that floor space! When he appeared, fresh from his U.S. Championship triumph, we shook hands and, in true “ignorant youth” fashion, I asked, “Can I show you one of my games?” (That’s the same as meeting a plumber at a party and asking, “Could you fix my sewage line for free?”)

His answer, the first words he ever spoke to me, taught me a quick lesson about chess etiquette: “Where’s your money?”


It’s quite rare to remember the first thing someone ever said to you, but oddly enough I also recall the first words Dennis Waterman said (it was his apartment that Grefe and I were staying at). I was 16 years old and was at a tournament in Salt Lake City (I had driven there with Michael Mills, the guy that played the greatest amateur game ever, and grandmaster Walter Browne). After finishing a game, I went to the skittles area and saw some guy (Waterman) beating up various players at blitz. I asked if I could play, and he responded: “I only play people that are good!”

Another initial “kick” that ended up as a lifelong friendship.

After Grefe’s well deserved slap-down we got along just fine. He showed me some of his games from the Championship, we hung out, and (a couple months later) we ended up facing off for first place in my first ever Berkeley tournament:

A great result for me since Grefe was much, much stronger than I was. How strong was he? Here’s a list of some of his better-known victims:

Arthur Bisguier, Edmar Mednis, William Martz, Walter Browne, Donald Byrne, Pal Benko, Norman Weinstein, Kim Commons, Lawrence Gilden, Tibor Weinberger, Sal Matera, Andrew Soltis, William Lombardy, Jack Peters, Jorge Szmetan, Eugenio Torre, Wolfgang Heidenfeld, Miguel Quinteros, Authur Dake, Miguel Najdorf, Ron Henley, Lawrence Day, Samuel Reshevsky, Bernard Zuckerman, Dumitru Ghizdavu, Jim Tarjan, John Fedorowicz, Milan Vukcevich, Arnold Denker, Kamran Shirazi, Nick De Firmian, Yehuda Gruenfeld, Ian Wells, Utut Adianto, Lubomir Ftacnik, and the “hit list” goes on and on.

John’s style was based on cutting edge opening play, powerful attacking mojo, and a magnificent tactical vision. He backed these things up with solid positional skills and good technique. So, how could such an obviously talented player fail to get the grandmaster title?

The fact is that after winning the 1973 U.S. Championship (tied with Lubomir Kavalek), he slowly but surely lost interest in the game. Gone was the deep preparation. Gone was the inner-fire that’s needed to reach the highest heights. Of course, he continued to play, and he remained a threat to anyone at any time. But once a player (any player) stops treating the game seriously, his results will always diminish.

Over the years we had many adventures together, and butted heads more than once. We shared living space many times, enjoyed lots of wonderful highs, and suffered through some difficult lows. As I age, I find the lows to be far more interesting than the highs (of course, at the time you experience it, this view is reversed!). Though we hadn’t seen each other for quite a few years, I had hoped to get up to San Francisco in the near future and, over an expensive meal that we never could have afforded in our glory/poverty days, have a long talk about our mutual experiences, lost friends, and lost opportunities. Sadly, that’s not going to happen now. John Grefe died on Sunday, December 22, 2013.

The following game, where he wipes out grandmaster Arnold Denker (Arnold was U.S. Champion in 1945 and 1946), shows just how hard it was to deal with Grefe’s aggressive, at times overwhelming style.

Here are a bevy of puzzles where you can test yourself and see if you can find what Grefe found. 

Puzzle 1:

In this game Grefe outplayed the great Reshevsky in the opening and early middlegame, and then he finished up with a series of perfect moves that simply swept his opponent off the board. Find those perfect moves!


Puzzle 2:

Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier (born 1929) was a feared attacking player for many decades. His two books on his games and memoirs (The Art of Bisguier, Vol. 1: The Early Years: 1945-1960 and The Art of Bisguier, Vol. 2: Selected Games 1961-2003) are highly recommended.

White was struggling the whole game, and now a tactical sequence brings in the full point. 

Arthur Bisguier, Las Vegas 2009 | Photo Wikipedia

Puzzle 3:

Jon Frankle (born 1955) is a strong American chess master who has beaten and drawn a number of powerful foes.

Puzzle 4:

Julius Loftsson (1941 - 2009) was a gentle, extremely nice man who had amazing positional skills, and he could outplay anyone if the game remained in calm, strategic waters. However, he was vulnerable (as Grefe demonstrates) if you managed to mix things up.

Puzzle 5:

Andrew Karklins is a very strong player. Two of his most famous victims are Peter Svidler at the 1995 World Open and Jaan Ehlvest at the 2009 Western States Open. Andrew is a powerful attacker, but in Grefe he faced an even better one.

Puzzle 6:

Heidenfeld (1911 – 1981) had quite an interesting life – he was not only an IM-strength player (he earned the title but refused to accept it from FIDE!), but he was also a writer, journalist, crossword puzzle designer, and he helped decode Nazi messages for the Allies during World War II. Some of his most prestigious victims were World Champion Max Euwe, Miguel Najdorf, and Ludek Pachman.

Puzzle 7:

Grandmaster Larry Melvyn Evans (1932 – 2010) was a close friend of Fischer’s and a powerful player in his own right that won or tied for first in the U.S. Championship no less than five times! He was also a fine writer, with many chess books to his credit (including contributions to Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games).

Larry Evans | Picture Wikipedia

Puzzle 8:

Black is dead lost. However, keep in mind that getting a winning position is one thing, but putting your opponent to “sleep” is quite another. As the old saying goes: the hardest thing in chess is to win a won game! Grefe makes it look easy.

Puzzle 9:

In our next game the position is more or less even. However, Grefe was always aware of hidden tactical possibilities that would take the opponent by surprise.

Puzzle 10:

Filipino Grandmaster Torre (born 1951) became Asia’s first ever grandmaster in 1974, and he was the first player to come ahead of Karpov in a tournament while Karpov was world champion. He once ranked 17th in the world.

In this position White is winning, but Grefe finishes off his opponent with surgical accuracy.

Puzzle 11:

Grandmaster Walter Browne won the U.S. Championship six times! He was the best American player (with the exception of Fischer) for more than a decade.

The following is a famous (and key) game in Grefe’s acquisition of the U.S. Championship.

At this point it's up to you to find the moves that powered John Grefe to the title.

Rest in peace, old friend. You will be missed.


  • 3 years ago


    I know how you feel Jeremy, I too lost a dear friend who's tactical ability could send shivers down the spine. Your article has brought back fond memory's. Thank You IM John Grefe your artistry will live on forever.

  • 3 years ago


    IM John Grefe tactical abilities were amazing, he is worth studying and analyzing his games.

  • 3 years ago


    What a wonderful story. Any story that inspires equally wonderful comments is to be cherished.  Even the puzzles were not only instructive but somehow insightful. I made it through them using the hit-or-miss method but never envisioned the entire tactical panorama in any of them until the end.

  • 3 years ago


    During the last few years of his life John and I were good friends, spending a lot of time together. 

    We watched sports, looked and chess and talked Indian Spirituality.

    The picture of John from 1973 is accurate, no doubt, but like all of us he continued to grow and change.

    John never lost his love of chess. He may have looked at a hundred games a week. I could not show him a recent top level game that he had not already seen. 

    He may have lost the fire required to sustain his chess at its peak potential, but he never lost the fire for God and spiritual practice.

    In Indian tradition there are people called Sadhus. They have given up the material in favor of seeking God consciousness. I always thought of John as a Sadhu. He owned a couple boxes of books and usually could not tell you where he would sleep a month from now. 

    The last 18 months of his life he had a house sitting situation that was a great blessing to him. He was not strong and his health was not great, so that stability was a very good thing.

    Having nothing, John was still generous, often giving to beggars on the street.

    His favorite spiritual book was the Yoga Vashista, especially the section on liberation. If you are a brilliant person, as John was, you might enjoy it. You might find liberation.

    John was an amazing fellow in a lot of ways. There are a lot of people, including me, who will miss him very much.

    On Craig Mar... Craig is definitely an original..probably one of a kind. He has an unmatched sense of humor. Listening to Craig analyzing positions in a coffee house is great education and entertainment. Talking to him about the Practice of Law is also time well spent.

    It would be great to see an article on Craig and his best games.

  • 3 years ago

    IM JMB2010

    But on the plus side, Bisguier is still kicking!

  • 3 years ago

    IM JMB2010

    Frown I was shocked to read on that he had died...a legend has gone. 

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks a lot !

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago


    Thank you Mr Silman, our memory and humanity is what makes us Citizens of the... Heart 

  • 3 years ago


    Striving for any FIDE title in the 70's really meant something ...the GM title all the more so,  it meant you were extremely talented, and had spent time in Europe getting the norms, typically. The lack of FIDE tournaments in the states back then outside of perhps NYC contributed to the difficulty.  Plus, the norms require playing mostly other GM's from a certain number of other countries or regions.  Since FIDE has never considered our States as different regions, it's still difficult.  Thankfully, the Soviet Union dissolved and Eastern Block countries were granted freedom so travel restrictions were relaxd; players could come here to live, work and play.  In CA, in the 70's,for example, maybe the People's tournaments in Berkeley or Lone Pine were the rare exceptions where someone might be able to get a norm but Lone Pine was by invitation only and most of the players there were world-class GM's already. That Grefe scored well there shows he was at the GM level.  Anyone who grew up in that era playing chess knows or should know the challenges facing American players back then. Kudos to the American players that made GM back then and worked hard for the IM titles!  We lesser players salute you!

  • 3 years ago


    Thank You!

  • 3 years ago


    "Where's your money?"

    Lol that made my day! :D

  • 3 years ago


    In the 6th puzzle after  32. Qxh4 bxc3 wrote (32... Ngxf633. Qh6+Kg834. exf6Qf835. Nxf8Rxh636. Nxd7Rxh337. Bxh3and Black's a knight down for nothing. )

    But i think after 32... Ngxf6 33. Qh6+ Kg8 white can play better than and gain at least a rook for nothing: (34. Nxf6+ Qxf6 35 exf6 Rxh6 36. Rxh6) you see white needs only 3 move to take the second Rook from a1 to h1 or h3 to force mate while Black can not do anything, so Black should give his Knigt too for f6 and find a way to take the second pawn on f6 with his Rook to avoid the mate and be a Rook down for nothing (not only a Knight), even it seems imposible! Grefe is a great player!

  • 3 years ago


    So sad to see John Grefe gone.  The years pass much too quickly.  I hope everybody remembers him for his accomplishments.

  • 3 years ago


    You've reminded me of another Craig Mar story:

    Back in the Lone Pine tournament days ( '78 -79 ? ) a group of young Berkeley chess players decided to drive  to Lone Pine to watch the famous GMS. Craig was going on the trip. We stopped to pick him up at his home in Oakland, and mind you ... this was for a 3 - 4 day road trip... all Craig had with him was a small Kentucky Fried chicken box. No backpack, no suitcase - just the small Kentucky Fried chicken box. 

    Later someone peeked inside. There was no food in the box, just one pair of underwear for the 4 day trip.





    Gabi_plays wrote:

    I was always a Craig Mar fan... one time Craig waited until the decisive moment of the game -- then he slowly took out and put on a white glove, made the killing move... then put the glove away.

    That’s a funny story Gabi_plays.

    Craig Mar occasionally drops by Santana Row in San Jose to play chess. Yes, Craig is quite the character; he lives by his own rules. I remember Craig wore the same blue jacket for more than 20 years! And I have a friend who drove to a tournament in L.A. with Craig about 30 years ago. He told me that Craig carried around a three piece KFC meal all weekend and survived only on that!

    Craig owns rental properties now and is doing quite well, although you can't tell by the clothes he wears!

  • 3 years ago


    Another awe inspiring article!! Thank You! Happy New Year!

  • 3 years ago


    Gabi_plays wrote:

    I was always a Craig Mar fan... one time Craig waited until the decisive moment of the game -- then he slowly took out and put on a white glove, made the killing move... then put the glove away.

    That’s a funny story Gabi_plays.

    Craig Mar occasionally drops by Santana Row in San Jose to play chess. Yes, Craig is quite the character; he lives by his own rules. I remember Craig wore the same blue jacket for more than 20 years! And I have a friend who drove to a tournament in L.A. with Craig about 30 years ago. He told me that Craig carried around a three piece KFC meal all weekend and survived only on that!

    Craig owns rental properties now and is doing quite well, although you can't tell by the clothes he wears!

  • 3 years ago


    This old stuff games are good stuff learn today!!!!!!!! you Know that right!

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks for the stories here IM Silman!  It looks like a tough row to hoe to try to make a living in chess!

  • 3 years ago


    RIP John Grefe.  You had a great friend in Silman.  You wont be forgotten now.  

Back to Top

Post your reply: