Polugaevsky's Boldness

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Jun 21, 2012

Grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky was a complicated chess player. Although – ironically – his name means “lion”, it has been said that he was a very timid kind of guy, and that this was the reason he was never able to directly compete for the world championship. He is famous for taking opening preparation to an unprecedented level, and it has even been suggested that his huge emphasis on pre-game analysis was the result of a lack of confidence in being able to solve the problems over the board, despite his undoubted practical strength.

At the same time, he played the sharpest, most complicated games, in which often his king barely survived before his counterattack began. He carried out the riskiest ideas – always, though, they were backed up by deep analysis, either before the game or during it. In many games – such as the one we will be seeing today – his king lingered in the center while a counterattack was prepared.

His raison d’être was a very sharp variation of the Najdorf which is now known as the “Polugaevsky variation". In this variation Black walks a thin line, subjecting his king to a number of possible sacrificial blows. All of this for a potential positional advantage, or – if White declines to take up the challenge – a “half-tempo” lead compared to the main lines. Polugaevsky invented the variation and analyzed it in incredible depth. Such devoted work on one specific variation of the game of chess might seem strange or limiting to some people, but think of the millions who spend their lives in an office, processing forms all day.

At this point Gruenfeld was quite simply intimidated by the surprise blow 20...Nb3+ and played the losing move 21.Kb1?, after which Black remains with an extra piece. There is still some excitement to come, but unfortunately it meant that Polugaevsky did not get to reveal the deep calculations he made when he decided on 17...b4. We will now look at this fantastic variation which could - should - have happened in the game, but did not:

According to Polugaevsky's annotations, he calculated the majority of this during the game, taking about an hour to decide on 17...b4. While it is the norm rather than the exception for strong players to claim that they calculated more than they actually did, Polugaevsky does not seem to be the kind of person to do that. I do not know how much Gruenfeld saw. Although it appears that 21.axb3 should lead to a draw while the move in the game (21.Kb1) is obviously much worse for White, it is very easy for a player to be unsettled and confused by the situation created by his opponent. Perhaps he saw the forced variation with the king walking up to f4, with many pieces hanging, and thought, "there must be a win for Black." Such a vague assessment, based on emotion, can easily cause desperation to set in, so he played the losing move.

So, Polugaevsky's enormous calculations at move 17 were wasted - or were they? The variations at move 21 did not come about, but their existence baffled Gruenfeld to such an extent that he made a losing move instead.

We all know that what seems obvious in post-game analysis - that by method of elimination White had to choose 21.axb3, regardless of the dangers - can seem completely confusing with the clock ticking. Fears, worries and self-reproach can all get in the way of rational thinking and literally freeze the mind. On the other hand, sometimes competitive situations can bring out a player's creativity and allow him to find ideas that he might miss when analysing in the comfort of his home. The big difference here is that the complications were initiated by Polugaevsky. Thus the situation was upsetting and confusing for Gruenfeld, regardless of the objective evaluation - the more so since his choice of 6.Bg5 indicated that he wanted to be the one doing the attacking!


  • 2 years ago


    There's an uncanny comment. Let me just quote :

    From NIC Yearbook 61, 2001 (Tibor Karolyi, Survey SI 7.4):

    "I once had a pupil, Adrien Leroy, who went on to train with Polugaevsky. Adrien told me that the great Polu once admitted that his variation had a hole and that the line was incorrect. He told Adrien he would never tell anyone what was wrong with it."

  • 4 years ago


    Former Soviet champ in back 1969...

  • 4 years ago

    NM talcapa

    Great article! Polugaevsky's "Birth of the Variation" is one of my favorite books.

  • 4 years ago


    I'd love to see a series of articles on this topic!

  • 4 years ago


    Very nice article ,,, many thanks to you IM Smith.

  • 4 years ago


    I have met Pulugaevky during a simultaneous games in a small town in FRance. He was very impressive person. I lost in 16 moves on volga gambit. I remember the glance he gave to me when I plaid this variation. If he was discret the killer instinct was there.

    A souvenir for me and my friends

    Cheers for the article !!

  • 4 years ago


    Another very informative, clear article from IM Smith, thanks!

  • 4 years ago


    enjoyed the story. Thanks for sharing

  • 4 years ago


    I had a book back in the 80's by this great grandmaster!! I think it was called Grand master preperation.  he explained the development of his variation. while I gave the book away to a prison, I did not forget the lessons he showed me about opening preparation.  The type of complications he envoked required at home prep, and lots of it.  His influence probably had at least some impact on how I busted the Pickett line of the Philidor.  Know your opening like the back of your hand and keep looking harder and harder at your hand!!  Marvinni you came very close to a truth about variations but I feel the need for a little semantical clarification....When you study an opening, I mean really study an opening you will never play every variation you studied but you will get to use all of them!!      

  • 4 years ago


    Chess has changed because of guys like Polugaevsky, all the brilliant combinations are known and hence, draws are mostly the results nowadays.   The game was most interesting ( of course at the top level ) in the 1960's to early 2000's.

  • 4 years ago


    Another candidate for World Champion I wasn't familiar with. He's actually fantastic. He's beaten Tal, Spassky, Petrosian, Keres, and drew with Fischer. What a hidden treasure.

  • 4 years ago


    The Sicilian Labyrinth book is awsome.

  • 4 years ago

    IM pfren

    Polu was probably the first GM who made opening preparation a science.

    He was very strong at tactics, but his positional understanding was somewhat wanting.

    Nevertheless, he had great score against, say, Efim Geller, who was also an exquisite theoretician, an extremely potent positional player, but rather weak at tactics (at least for the elite level).

    His pet line in the Najdorf is not popular anymore, but far from "refuted"- some Najdorf nerds like Loek van Wely do employ it still - but occasionally.

  • 4 years ago


    Well, Polugaevsky also wrote probably the best opening book ever, -The Sicilian Labyrinth. Highly recommended, even today.

  • 4 years ago


    Great article!

  • 4 years ago


    Fantastic article - that game is insane! Hanging pieces all over the place.


    I like this observation too: "The variations at move 21 did not come about, but their existence baffled Gruenfeld to such an extent that he made a losing move instead."

  • 4 years ago


    Interesting article. had played through a number Polugaevsky's games years ago but never knowing much about him. .. Thanks

  • 4 years ago


    Yeah, I'm with channet on this one. That's a very high elo. It's surprising he never challenged for WC.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice article. If I remember correctly, he lost a brilliancy game to Nezhmetdinov in the 1950s, but stayed as a good challenger to others.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice article, thank you :)

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