Requiem for a Romantic

  • GM Gserper
  • | Jun 1, 2014

Chess is a reflection of life. Our modern lives go faster and so too do the time controls we play today. When I tell kids that I played the so-called Capablanca's time control (two hours and 30 minutes for the first 40 moves) and then the game would be adjourned, I feel like a dinosaur. Our pragmatic age has affected the way we play chess as well. It is unimaginable for today's top players to sacrifice even a single pawn without a computer's approval.

So chess is different today from what the Royal Game used to be some 40 years ago. Therefore, you can imagine how sad I was when I heard the news that the famous Yugoslav grandmaster Dragoljub Velimirovic passed away last week. He was one of few remaining links to the "Golden Age" of chess.

Velimirovic was a strong chess player who won many international tournaments (you can see more info about his chess results here), but what he'll be remembered for is his attractive chess style.  He played what Tal called "tasty chess" and naturally had many fans. Velimirovic was very popular in the fomer Soviet Union.  So popular that super-GM Teimour Radjabov chose nickname 'Velimirovic' for his account on the Internet Chess Club. 

Dragoljub Velimirovic | Image from the Dutch National Archives & Spaarnestad Photo / Wikipedia

I remember that, when I was a kid, I started playing the Modern Benoni influenced by Velimirovic's games. Modern Benoni and the Sozin Attack are two openings that cannot be separated from Velimirovic's name. Here are two typical episodes:

In the last round of the Interzonal tournament in Moscow, 1982, Garry Kasparov is playing Velimirovic. The game is pretty much irrelevant for Kasparov since he already guaranteed himself qualification to the Candidates matches, and yet Kasparov chose the ultra solid Caro Kann. Why would the World's biggest expert of the Najdorf variation chicken out from playing his favorite opening? Kasparov explains in his book: "Velimirovic really wanted to become the first Yugoslav to beat me, so I didn't risk playing the Sicilian."

Our next example occured in an international tournament in Habana, 1971. One of the biggest opening experts in the history of chess, GM Efim Geller, is playing Velimirovic, who at that point is leading with the perfect score after the first five rounds. In his book Geller explains the move order (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4): "This move order intended to prevent Velimirovic's favorite Modern Benoni."

Now let's see what made these two giants of the Soviet chess school avoid the direct confrontation with Velimirovic in his favorite openings. 

One of the sharpest lines of the Sicilian Defense is named after Velimirovic, who developed the dangerous attacking set up when he wasn't even a master! The typical pattern there is White sacrifices his knight on the d5 or f5 squares and then brings his pieces and pawns for the decisive break, frequently playing "quiet" moves as if nothing really happened!

An entire chapter in Kasparov's book Revolution in the 70s is devoted to Velimirovic's opening heritage. There Kasparov explains that Velimirovic's chess contributions were not limmited to the "Velimirovic Attack"  in the Sozin variation. One of the popular lines of the Najdorf Sicilian was entirely refuted by Velimirovic!

Kasparov calls some of the Velimirovic's sacrifices more "flashy" than strong. I think the reason was that, for Velimirovic, the beauty of the idea was more important then the final result. He was a typical Chess Romantic! Kasparov uses the following game  as an example of the incorrect sacrifice:

So the sacrifice was incorrect, and Black could possibly refute it if he played the following half-dozen moves with computer precision. But if we use this logic, then we have to completely disregard the whole legacy of Mikhail Tal. Imagine that Velimirovic (or Tal for this matter) played perfect computer chess where unsound sacrifices, risk and sometimes pure bluff didn't exist.  Who would benefit from this kind of "perfect" chess? 

The chess heritage of Dragoljub Velimirovic is enormous and I plan to re-visit it again in the future. In conclusion I want to express my regret that a book of Velimirovic's best games was never published (at least I am not aware of it). It could have been a good tribute for a person who devoted his whole life to the creative side of chess!



  • 2 years ago


     Thanks for the article GSerper. Velimirovic was one of the players made Modern Benoni and Sozin Attack two of most popular openings of agressive players after Fischer.
     I was influenced by Fischer when i started to Sozin Attack and then Velimirovic i played this variation with castle queen side. Here is a great game can be considered as an example of tasty chess of the greatmaster finished in 17 moves:

  • 2 years ago


    GM Gserper, another excellent article, Velimirovic's games truly creative.

  • 2 years ago


    You raise very interesting points, but I can't help but wonder: when all these cultural events were taking place back then, what where the people saying? I'd imagine any major change in the world would be met by deep dismay, and I'm not surprised that the change that chess computers have created isn't getting a different treatment.

    Of course, you can look at it as the erosion of culture, but it doesn't have to be that way. Just because things have changed, it doesn't mean that we can't remember these bygone eras in a positive light and appreciate their beautiful complexity. I'm looking forward to Part 2 of this article because I certainly do appreciate brilliancies, no matter their date!

    Perhaps I am too optimistic - but you know, we gotta keep movin' forward...

  • 2 years ago


    I'm not familiar with most of the historical events you referred to there, but I think I get the spirit of it and agree.  If having the competitive edge in a sport is entirely dependent on incremental theoretical improvements, then is there truly any possibility of "immortal" games?

    In no way do I mean to diminish the intellectual prowess and acheivement of our best players.  To illustrate, there is a story (not sure it is true) of two generals playing rather than fighting during the crusades.  How could that possibly happen now?  If it did, you can be sure that the opponents would have a few supercomputers and a team of advisors on their sides.

    I think there's something intuitively wrong about that, but I won't belabor a public forum with the less intuitive side of the argument.  I hope I'm wrong about that and that a chess Jesus is waiting in the wings to innaugurate an era of unbridled possibilities free from the shackles of brute combinatorics :)

  • 2 years ago


    No offense taken at all :)  Debate is good.  The core of it is, I think...

    "Computer analysis is available and will only get better - if you ignore it, you'll lose."

    The presumption is that the goal is simply to win, and I feel that there is just something mudane about that if you consider chess in its wider cultural context.  Chess is a zero sum game, but culture is not.  I am not saying that I hold up a chess engine as a paragon; I am saying that something HAS been lost, and that something is not a zero sum.

  • 2 years ago



    Of course, you make some very interesting points. But, since you are trained in these areas, why didn't you qualify the following statement?: "Perhaps I am mistaken about the causal chain but I find that after 30 years away from the chess community, I have returned to find it dominated by minutae, pedantry, and uninspired play." 

    Where do you see evidence that play is unispired? Again, I invite readers to take a gander at the games played in computer chess championships (the unofficial one being the TCEC, which is producing some marvelous chess games). You seem to think of engines as infallible beings, but they are far from that at this point in time! Many times, their evaluation functions will point out that move A is better than move B; however, if you look at the resulting lines, you'll see that move A only forces a draw, while move B reaches a winning position. 

    Plus, what is wrong with preparing with computers? As a chess professional, you want to maximize any edge you are given. If you don't want to prepare with computers, you can fall into a prepared line and get beaten swiftly - that's pure beauty if nothing else, for now we are working that much harder on improving our lovely royal game. 

    Furthermore, what solution do you propose we undertake? Computer analysis is available and will only get better - if you ignore it, you'll lose. So, if you can't get rid of it for now (don't forget that getting rid of engines means that countless programmers, who are simply in love with this game, will lose their job), what use is lamenting? As human beings, we should always look for solutions. Pitying the current state of affairs is of absolutely no use: we must aim to fix it!

    I apologize if this sounded a bit harsh - I am by no means addressing any of these concerns directly to you and resepect you deeply for being, of course, wiser than I am. But, truly, I think that your ideas could be improved upon...I find all chess beautiful - I love Morphy's brilliant attacks, but I also love Carlsen's quiet positional crushes. That's probably another reason why some people dislike top level play - the alien maneuvers and subtle positional techniques are nothing an amateur can understand. 

    I would love to read your input. Perhaps you can provide us with some anecdotes about your experience with artificial intelligence and chess...

  • 2 years ago


    I suppose that another option to keep things interesting would be FIDE sanctioned beer chess.  I could live with that.

  • 2 years ago


    I think I'm starting to warm up to the idea of chess960.  I must admit that I didn't really get it at the time of its invention, but now it is making quite a bit of sense to me, and seems quite prescient on his part.

    It's interesting that someone with such a prodigious memory for games and board positions would advocate a variant like that.

  • 2 years ago


    This was an excellent post. I'm writing a blog about improving at chess and my last two posts have been about beauty in chess games. It is something I'd like to get out of my chess so I will follow up this player and Tal and Nezhmetdinov. My blog is here if you're interested.

  • 2 years ago


    I suppose my point is that, the "training tool" is more rigorous than human players, and now, rather than seeking new horizons, we are seeking a competence within a mechanically and systematically explored problem space.

    Man vs. man is obstensibly the purpose, but one man beating another is largely the result of memorizing the optimal lines and seeking advantage or draw.

    Optimal lines and advantage, of course, have always been sought after.  All I am saying is that if those lines have been thoroughly explored by a machine...

  • 2 years ago


    I have to say I have never seen computers as a threat to the "humanitarian wind" of chess. I simply looked upon them as a resource of reference and a tool for training nothing more. Though I understand were my elders are coming from on the subject. I feel so long as chess is primarily about man vs man we need not fear all the romance leaving the game

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    I have to say I have never seen computers as a threat to the "humanitarian wind" of chess. I simply looked upon them as a resource of reference and a tool for training nothing more. Though I understand were my elders are coming from on the subject. I feel so long as chess is primarily about man vs man we need not fear all the romance leaving the game.

  • 2 years ago

    FM krstulov_alex


    you said: ,,Then the FIA/Formula I World Championships and Niki Lauda's dilemmas and streak of choices after his 8-01-1977 near fatal accident..." Niki Lauda's near fatal accident was in 1976...

  • 2 years ago


    hail Velimirovic !

  • 2 years ago


    I read this article last night and up popped this opportunity.

    b6r/1kB5/pQnPBp1n/1p5p/5p2/8/PPP3PP/4R2K b - -

  • 2 years ago


    cunctatorg: Point taken, but I think I was pointing toward a wider concern which I suppose the article provokes but does not address directly. I'm not bemoaning the state of competitive chess; I am playing devil's advocate. 

    I started playing chess before chess algorithms were generally available, studied artificial intelligence and game theory as a graduate student, and have only recently come back to the world of chess to find it utterly transformed in response to developments in computer science.  I find it disheartening.

    The fact of the matter is that the global chess community appears, to my eyes, to be holding up mathematical precision of analysis as the ideal.  As someone who has worked in that area, I feel have to challenge that with an outside perspective.  I don't see it as progress in a great game.

    There will, on occassion, be that rare individual capable of taking on the best that computational science has to offer, but the majority are patzers by comparison if you hold that to be the standard.  Perhaps I am mistaken about the causal chain but I find that after 30 years away from the chess community, I have returned to find it dominated by minutae, pedantry, and uninspired play.

    I am just pointing out that if the state of the art is expanding theory with near mathematical precision with the assistance of computational analysis, what really is the point?  Is this not the same as doping, conceptually?

    I am not seeing breakthroughs in chess anymore.  The landscape of possibilities is adequately mapped, and I am hearing its death knell as a cultural force, when considered from an historical perspective.

    This is not a sentimental or nostalgic statement.  It's an outsider view on the evolution of a game with a rich history, and the observation that it appears to me that the map has been fundamentally confused with the territory.

  • 2 years ago


    Thanks GM Gserper for reminding us about the romantic side of chess, Mr. Velimirovic's games are very pretty!

  • 2 years ago


    Why did Petar Popovic play 35. ... Rh6?

  • 2 years ago


    Great tribute. Really enjoyed those games.

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