John Grefe: Talent Isn’t Enough!

John Grefe: Talent Isn’t Enough!

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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.

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