More Cracked Grandmaster Tales

More Cracked Grandmaster Tales

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In my first edition of Cracked Grandmaster Tales, I shared stories about Grandmaster Rosendo Balinas, Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, a tribute to Igor Ivanov by Boris Spassky, a short tale about an unknown grandmaster, and a story about the late Walter Browne (and his battling buddy, Dennis Waterman).

This time I’ll turn my attention to three true chess legends: Miguel Najdorf, the ninth world champion Tigran Petrosian, and the seventh world champion Vasily Smyslov.

All of these tales show some of the sad or crazy or funny or sweet moments that go on behind the scenes. And all of them are things I witnessed or was a part of, which means you’re getting the information from the horse’s mouth. 


Miguel Najdorf and the Dirty Trick

via wikipedia

Every real chess player knows the name Najdorf. Fischer’s and Kasparov’s favorite opening (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6) is named after him, and this “animated” individual has countless tales attributed to him. In fact, he was one of the most likable, lively, and crazy players in the history of chess.

When I got paired with the great Miguel in Lone Pine 1976, I was over the moon. Who wouldn’t be happy if they got to play Najdorf?

Black has a very comfortable position, and though I didn’t know what his last move did, I was intent on figuring out its purpose. However, after a bit of a think I looked up and stared at my opponent (I had plenty of time on the clock and decided to indulge myself). I was thinking, “Wow, I’m actually playing Najdorf. How cool is that? What can be better than this!?”

At that moment Najdorf looked me in the eye and screamed (so everyone in the whole room could hear it), “Why are you looking at me, little boy? Why are you looking at me?”

I freaked out and wanted to leave the board as quickly as possible. I bashed down 30...Ne4 and quickly rushed away. Unfortunately, White’s 30.Qf3 was a trap and though just about everything would be fine for me (30...Qd7 is probably best), my move walked right into his landmine.

After I resigned, I signed the scoresheets. Then I glared at Najdorf in quite an unfriendly manner. Seeing that I was angry, he got up, walked around the table, put his arm on my shoulders, and said, “It happens to everybody. Don’t let it get to you. Let’s go and look at some of the games together and try to figure out what’s going on!”

Najdorf had a magical way of calming anyone down. After this incident, Najdorf would (every day for the rest of the event) make a move in his game, come to my table and drag me to his, and ask, “How am I doing? Is my position okay?” 

It was simply impossible to be mad at him.


Tigran Petrosian Hunts me Down

via wikipedia

When I was in my early teens my chess heroes were Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, Tigran Petrosian (who took the world championship from Botvinnik in 1963), and Bobby Fischer. Of course, meeting Lasker and Alekhine was impossible, but a child can dream and I had high hopes that someday, against all odds, I would meet the latter two.

Lone Pine 1976 was the event that allowed me to finally see Petrosian face to face -- sort of. I was in the skittles room where several grandmasters were analyzing a game. A particular position was bothering them all, and there was no consensus as to what was really going on. Then Petrosian walked in, looked at the position for 10 to 15 seconds, tossed out a subtle positional move, and left.

The GMs stared at the move for a while and suddenly realized that Petrosian had solved it!

This was also the tournament where Petrosian played a masterpiece against Jack Peters. The king-walk from one side of the board to the other stands out:

I was a mere bystander for Petrosian’s skittles appearance and the game against Peters, and I thought that those two incidents were the closest I’d ever come to him.

Cut to my game against John Fedorowicz, which featured no fewer than three exchange sacrifices:

Okay, it was an interesting game but no big deal. HOWEVER...

I was walking around the tournament hall an hour or two after the game ended when, to my amazement, Petrosian rushed up to me and started talking about the endgame in the Fedorowicz game (he didn’t care about the exchange sacrifices; all he cared about was the endgame). We chatted about the ins and outs of that endgame, and then he asked if I would like to find some private place and analyze it! Ahhh...heaven! Pure delight! Literally a dream come true.

We spent a long time analyzing every detail. Then he said he had to go, and that seemed to be that. During that session he pointed out that I should have played 31.Nxa6, which would win handily. We also looked at the actual game (31.Nd5) but he seemed dissatisfied about something.

The next day he rushed up to me and dragged me to our analysis hideout again. This time he criticized my 33rd move (33.Rd3), which seemed so natural and good when I played it (he recommended 33.Re3 followed by my king rushing forward).

Finally, after my inferior 33.Rd3 Nc3 34.Ke3 he asked why Black didn’t simply push the a-pawn. We put some serious time into that (he was sticking my king all over the place), and he eventually decided that the game was a likely draw after 34...a4 35.Kf3!!, which is a move I would never have found (35.Rxd6?? b3! 36.Rd8+ Kg7 37.cxb3 axb3 38.Rb8 b2 39.Rxb2 Nd1+ wins for Black).

This time he was far more satisfied and that ended our interactions. I’ll always cherish the memory of those two analysis sessions.

Vassily Smyslov and the Psychic Premonition

via wikipedia

Lone Pine 1976 had to be the greatest tournament I ever played in due to my interactions with Petrosian, Najdorf and the seventh world champion, Vassily Smyslov. The pairings were posted in the evening, and when I saw who my opponent would be I...well, let’s say that I was extremely excited.

Dennis Waterman (we helped each other prepare during the event) told me to study Smyslov’s favorite systems (not an easy thing to do since Smyslov played a lot of different openings). As I sat down with the books I brought, I suddenly had a profound psychic flash. I put all but one of the books away and told Dennis, “He’s not going to play any of his usual openings. In fact, he’s going to play something he’s never played before.”

Dennis: “Funny. Now open those books so we can figure out what you should do against his stuff.”

Me: “No, I’m serious. He’s going to play 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 and now 5...g6.”

Dennis: “Are you feverish? Everyone knows that 5...g6 is a beginner move. Nobody in their right mind plays that. It’s awful.”

Me: “It might be awful, but he’s going to play it!”

Shaking his head in disgust, he walked out. Opening the one book I’d brought with me that covered the position after 5.Bd3 I noted that Dennis was right -- the move 5...g6 was indeed considered to be moronic and one line was given to show just how bad Black’s game was after it. I quickly memorized the “refutation” and went to bed.

The next day Waterman watched the initial moves so he could give me a “You should have listened to me!” look. The game followed the moves I expected, and after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Smyslov blitzed out the “awful” 5...g6, Waterman’s mouth fell to the floor, and I continued with the book recommendation.

As one might imagine, the “refutation” was total garbage, and Smyslov wiped me off the board (In fact, he hardly sat down during the game, usually walking up when it was his move, tossing his reply at me while he was standing, and walking away!). Afterwards 5...g6 became all the fashion, and our game appeared in magazines and books showing how White should NOT play!

The moral of this story: Sometimes a spirit might tell you the future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a future you want to experience!

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