The 3-Time Soviet Champion Who Became A Master At 24

The 3-Time Soviet Champion Who Became A Master At 24

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There was an era, a time now frozen in memory, when it seemed like every single time I opened a chess magazine, there was GM Leonid Stein winning a tournament, or he was the subject of a column in a chess newspaper. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stein seemed to be literally everywhere in the chess world.

Let's take a closer look at this legendary grandmaster:

Record Against Top GMs

Stein's record from the late 1960s to the early 1970s against GMs Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, and Mikhail Tal is a staggering 8-5 with 32 draws! Let this sink in for just a moment. All four of these players were world champions, and all are iconic players in the history of chess, each for a different reason.

I would also hasten to add that one could make a strong case for each of them being on the list of the world's top-ten players of all time, or at the very least, of the last 100 years. Of the major grandmasters of the day, in addition to the above, Stein had plus-records against GM Paul Keres, GM David Bronstein, Tal, and Spassky. Stein had an "even" record against Petrosian, Botvinnik, and GM Vasily Smyslov. Only GMs Efim Geller, Viktor Korchnoi, and an emerging Anatoly Karpov could boast a "plus" record against Stein.

Leonid Stein
Stein had a plus score against many chess legends, including Tal. Photo: Rob Croes/Dutch National Archives, CC.

As fate would have it, Karpov himself said of Stein: "Stein possessed a wonderful talent; he had a subtle sense of positioning with mutual chances and a sharp tactical eye. His contribution to the treasury of chess is considerable, peculiar, notable, and in its own way inimitable."

Unfortunately, during Stein's prime years there was an absurd rule in FIDE that limited to three the number of players from each country into the eight-player Candidates tournament. Of course, when the USSR was concerned, this was cruel as well as absurd as they boasted at any given time six to eight of the top-ten players in the world!

For example, during Stein's prime years during 1965-71, colleagues that Stein had to compete with from the USSR included Spassky, Petrosian, Geller, Smyslov, Korchnoi, Lev Polugaevsky, and Keres! That's three world champions from the seven above—Smyslov, Petrosian and Spassky—and two more—Polugaevsky and Geller—who are among the greatest theoreticians in the history of chess, not to mention Geller's extraordinary reputation as "Giant Killer" among the chess elite of the world... and still others: Viktor Korchnoi, who made it to the title match vs. Anatoly Karpov, and Paul Keres, who quite possibly could be considered with Stein to be the greatest player never to have won the world title!

Development As A Player

That's quite an impressive achievement among a group of players who are themselves full of impressive achievements. So just who is this mysterious figure? Who is this player whom very few have even heard of but who owns the record he does over such luminaries of chess as Tal, Bobby Fischer, Spassky, Petrosian, Keres, Botvinnik, and others?

Leonid Stein was born of humble origins on November 12, 1934 in Kamenets-Podolsky, Ukraine. Then his family moved to central Asia and next finally back to the city of Lviv in what is now Ukraine. He doesn't have the chess pedigree so many others do, especially the ones mentioned above. He didn't even start playing chess until he was 13 years old. However, he began to evolve very quickly once he got serious with chess. He was given the title of "first-class sportsman" at age 15, became a candidate master at 18, and then a master at 24.

He finally achieved the grandmaster norm at age 27 but was playing at that level much earlier as his results reflect. In 1955 and '56 he tied for first place in the individual army championships. Stein's talent after a modest beginning was starting to grow in leaps and bounds while raising eyebrows among even the most jaded of chess veterans along the way.

Leonid Stein.
Stein became a grandmaster at age 27. Photo: Bert Verhoeff/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Recalls Viktor Kart, an instructor at the Lviv Sports Academy: "Already Stein was staggering for both his talent and the flippancy of his play. He would find bearings in the most complex positions like a clairvoyant. He seemed to possess a vision that, when explained to others, bordered on the existential. Whereas an experienced player is considering his move, at any moment he sees only part of the board, Stein would grasp the entire board, foreseeing in some way the resulting positions. When he began to explain the variations he had seen, the board would literally appear to move.

"Yet while possessing such a priceless talent that was obvious to everyone, Stein could be highly impatient and quite incapable of forcing himself to focus and often making hasty decisions, which his more experienced opponents would proceed to exploit."

Stein was an impulsive, impressionable, and vulnerable person but what a fearless fighter! An impression of his style is reflected here. He proclaimed to the world that Tal and Bronstein weren't the only dynamic players rocking the positional school of chess that had held sway under Botvinnik's long and storied reign. Stein's excellent results earned him the right to enter the Interzonal at Stockholm the following year. Even though his results were excellent, placing sixth, he was denied the right to advance because of the rule FIDE had in place limiting the number of players from each country to three.

Early Successes

No tribute to Stein would be complete without this jewel of a King's Indian, his favorite reply to d4, here against the formidable GM Nikolai Krogius, who incidentally is still alive today at age 90!

It's also interesting to note that Krogius himself was known for his sharp tactical play, was an essential component in Spassky's match the year he took the world title from the legendary Petrosian, and chose the career of a professional sports psychologist, one of the first in this field.

Not long after defeating Krogius, Stein entered his first USSR championship, handing the eventual winner and future world champion and icon Petrosian his only loss in the tournament. The year was 1961.

Stein also defeated Bronstein and Geller in this tournament and in the final round future world champion Spassky. This game would decide the fate of the fourth-qualifying place in the Interzonal tournament, the first three going to Petrosian, Geller, and Korchnoi. Stein and Spassky at this point were both equal on points and in the event of a draw would have to meet in a playoff.

As a result, Spassky, who had the black pieces, decided to outplay his less experienced opponent by choosing in the words of GM Igor Bondarevsky "a tempting but essentially bad opening variation."

Stein won a bronze medal in the national championship. Thus he earned his grandmaster norm and a qualifying place in his first Interzonal tournament and by the end of the year in the USSR Team Cup where he destroyed Tal in a Sicilian Defense.

To give an idea of the brilliance of Stein, here is how he dealt with the iconic swashbuckling Tal in spectacular fashion. Keep in mind this is just a year from Tal's legendary triumph over Botvinnik for the world championship. Tal was 24 years old at this time and very much in his chess prime. It's noteworthy to add that at this point Stein owned a 3-0 record over him with 18 draws.

For lovers of tactical fireworks, can you imagine a more dynamic opening to feature the latent talent of these two bold, enterprising players, each in their respective primes? For those of you unfamiliar with either this game or Stein himself, I am honored to present it:

GM Garry Kasparov said: "Not without reason was Stein referred to as the 'second Tal' during this time frame. To that pair I would add Spassky. This trio went beyond the bounds of Botvinnik-Smyslov harmony. They expanded our understanding of the limits of the game, changed our impressions of the correlation of material and quality of position, of situations with disrupted material and strategic balance—and created the grounds for the emergence of the ultra-modern dynamic chess."

In "My Great Predecessors," Kasparov also wrote: "These developments were also sharply advanced by Fischer. But, figuratively speaking, whereas Fischer's weapons were strangulation or the cudgel, these three musketeers were virtuoso swordsmen who also hurled daggers and fired from the crossbow. With this trio intuition played the main role. Fischer revered rules whereas for them, it was exceptions, paradoxes."

Stein's 21-move dismantling of GM Lajos Portisch, one of the greatest grandmasters in the history of chess, is included as never before or since had Portisch lost in such short order. He was often referred to as "The Hungarian Botvinnik" for his incredible positional game and mastery of strategic nuances.

USSR Championship And Interzonal Achievements

Regardless of the frustration implied in the politics of the qualifying rules, Stein continued to evolve, hatching little "gems" like the game with Portisch and, in the bargain, winning his first USSR championship a year later in 1963. Stein actually drew his first eight games, but then won eight of his next 10 games before losing to GM Vladimir Bagirov, which tied him with Spassky and GM Ratmir Kholmov. A three-man tournament ensued. During this playoff, Spassky drew once with Kholmov and defeated him in the other game. Stein drew with Kholmov twice and then with Black defeated Spassky, thus securing his first Soviet title.

Here is Stein's victory over Spassky:

As Kasparov writes: "The accuracy with which Stein refuted his formidable opponent is impressive." Thus Stein wins his first gold medal USSR title. However, despite his success, still to come was the double-round, eight-man battle for the four places in the Interzonal tournament.

The absurdity of the system in place was further exemplified when it became apparent, by virtue of the Soviet authorities, that one of the qualifying places was to be given to "golden boy" Smyslov without playing even a single game. The remaining seven players, all grandmasters of an elite level, now had to battle it out for just three qualifying places.

The players from the recent USSR championship, exhausted from the previous event, understandably came out of the proverbial chute in a less than definitive fashion. Stein drew three games in a row, and Spassky lost two of his first three games, drawing the third. In the fourth round they had to play each other and, as one can surmise, they were both chomping at the bit, especially Spassky who was eager to beat the man who was rapidly becoming something of a nemesis.

According to Kasparov in "My Great Predecessors," Bondarevsky, friend, coach, and mentor to Spassky, assured friends that this game would indeed be the turning point. But things did not go as Bondarevsky and Spassky hoped. This game, in addition, made an important contribution to the famed Marshall counterattack in the Ruy Lopez. Stein sacs a bishop on move 22, but Spassky holds on.

After nine rounds all the players in the Interzonal actually still had chances of winning. Bronstein had 4.5 of 7; Spassky, Korchnoi, and Kholmov all had 4 of 8; Stein 3.5 of 7; Geller and GM Alexey Suetin both had 3.5 of 8.

In the 10th round, both Stein and Spassky won, Boris with a queen sacrifice vs. Geller, and Stein crushed Korchnoi who was quickly emerging from the ranks, having already won the USSR title twice.

I include this game because Korchnoi himself insisted that it be included in Kasparov's "My Great Predecessors." Considering what a curmudgeon Korchnoi could be, one could heretofore only speculate as to the nature of this victory, hence its inclusion here:

In the end, the qualifying places were attained by Spassky, 7 of 12, and Bronstein and Stein, both with 6.5. In the Interzonal that immediately followed, the task of the Soviets was even more challenging than it had been in Stockholm in 1962. For the same three of six Candidate vacancies, five world-class GMs were competing: Stein, Spassky, and Bronstein, plus Tal and Smyslov.

At this juncture, Stein had indeed rattled the cages of the intelligentsia of the chess world. IM Vasily Panov wrote: "It would be unthinkable if the champion did not qualify for the Zonal tournament. He began the Zonal in even more spectacular fashion than the championship of the country: five draws then a loss, and still he finished in the top three! What confidence and self-control. With such stable nerves and belief in himself, Stein's further successes are assured."

Unfortunately, as Kasparov wryly points out, it was precisely stable nerves Stein was lacking. As was often the case, Stein began slowly: 3.5 out of the first eight games. Then he won 12 of his next 13 games—defeating the mighty Svetozar Gligoric, then Larry Evans, Pal Benko, and Bent Larsen, who was becoming the strongest Western player after Fischer. Stein drew in the penultimate round 22 and was by this time sharing third-fifth places with Tal and Spassky, just behind Smyslov and Larsen.

On the final day, Tal and Spassky won their games while Larsen and Smyslov drew with each other. However, Stein, handling the white pieces in a Ruy Lopez was unfortunately unable to defeat the formidable and tenacious GM Klaus Darga.

According to his annotator Efim Lazarev and old friend and colleague Eduard Gufeld, it was ultimately "nerves" that let Stein down. However, no less than Kasparov himself believes that Darga rose to the occasion and played an accurate and inspired defense to Stein's Spanish Game. Darga had a well-earned reputation as one of Germany's strongest GMs, and this extended well beyond national borders as well-earned victories over players like Spassky, Larsen, and Keres attested.

Even if Stein had emerged victorious, still another absurd scenario would have followed as Smyslov, Spassky, Tal, and Stein would all have had to play an additional match tournament for the three qualifying places. As described by Kasparov in his "My Great Predecessors": "But even as it was, the result of the Amsterdam Interzonal was highly significant. 1-4: Smyslov, Spassky, Tal, and Larsen, 17 out of 23; fifth was Stein with 16.5; Bronstein with 16. The last two remained outside the Candidates event. Borislav Ivkov and Portisch who finished seventh and sixth respectively were admitted instead....???!! This was such a scandalous injustice that from the next FIDE cycle the restriction on Soviet players was finally abolished."

Leonid Stein
Stein (left) playing against Smyslov at the 1964 Interzonal. Photo: Gahetna/Dutch National Archives, CC.

This, however, did not help Stein (or Bronstein either for that matter), who was older than any of the candidates with the exception of Smyslov. Kasparov's regarded opinion is that Stein was by this time (1965) the only player who could have rivaled Spassky for the winner of the Candidates cycle. When we take into account the results of their individual encounters at this time, it becomes particularly relevant and, in Stein's case, that much more poignant. But Stein was running out of time and opportunity.

However, he still had some brilliant moments left in him, and directly afterward Stein demonstrated that he was one of the strongest players on the planet: To put matters in perspective, dear reader and fellow chess combatant, consider this: During this cycle, Stein performed splendidly for the Soviet team in two Olympiads (1964 and 1966), defeated Botvinnik with Black in the Trades Union Team Championship (1965), won two more USSR titles in 1965 and 1966, as well as the Grandmaster tournament in Moscow in 1967, ahead of the current and two future world champions.

1967 Moscow International Tournament

It was during this fertile period of Stein's that none other than the gifted and iconic Keres found himself a victim of Stein's brilliance and in one of his most beloved openings, the Spanish Game or Ruy Lopez, an opening Keres was well-known to be an expert in.

This game occurred during the 1967 Moscow International Tournament, which boasted an all-star cast of the world's strongest players with the exception of Fischer, Larsen, and Korchnoi. By this time Stein had already won the USSR championship three times (three gold medals in four years), something no other Soviet player had achieved, and this tournament became one, if not the greatest, of his achievements.

You know it's a tough crowd when Ludek Pachman and Wolfgang Uhlmann are tied for last place. The rest of the cast was as follows: first place; Stein; next Smyslov, Aivars Gipslis, Milko Bobotsov, and Tal, all tied for second; then Portisch, Bronstein, and Geller; Miguel Najdorf, Spassky, Petrosian, Keres, Florin Gheorghiu, Miroslav Filip, and Biljik. The game with Keres is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is Keres' choice of the Open Variation, an unusual choice for Keres who normally preferred the closed variations of the Lopez.

A landmark win even for Stein and one he is said to have considered among the greatest wins in his illustrious career. At this time a strong argument can be made that the three strongest players in the world were Spassky, Stein, and, of course, the champion at this time, Petrosian.

I myself was alive, coming into my teen years at this time, and inhaling every game by these players I could get my hands on, and it's difficult to argue that these were indeed the three strongest players. Tal was past his prime, as was Keres, despite the fact they were both still capable of brilliancies. Korchnoi was yet to hit his peak, Karpov was too inexperienced, and Fischer as well was yet to hit his proverbial stride—that amazing period was just ahead but not yet.

Duel Between Stein and Petrosian

Interestingly, especially for both fans of these two players and lovers of the King's Indian, in the tournament that game with Keres is from, a theoretical duel was developing between Stein and Petrosian. This theoretical duel was to continue after this game and was to lead to the creation of a fundamentally new system of counterplay in what is one of the sharpest opening variations in chess, the Ukrainian Variation of the King's Indian Defense.

This "conversation" between Iron Tigran and Leonid regarding their contribution to the Ukrainian Variation of the King's Indian Defense was to continue.


I would next like to share some anecdotes concerning the amazing Stein and the era of chess when he lived, one that is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Chess."

There are literally only a handful of players who are mentioned with the reverence afforded Stein and for good reason. Stein had a dynamic style. No article, essay, or assessment of Stein would be complete without mention of his experience with the player many consider to be the best chess player of all time or at the very least the greatest pure natural talent since Jose Raul Capablanca.

When speaking of the best players of all time, there is one name that always is mentioned and linked with Stein, and that's Robert James Fischer. Regardless of how one judges the American's place among the world elite, one thing is certain. No one has ever had the run Bobby did during his impressive string of games without a loss or draw that led to his wresting of the crown from Spassky.

Stein was one of the few players who held his own during Bobby Fischer's meteoric rise, a fact not lost on Fischer and acknowledged by him as well. He had great respect for Stein as did everyone else at that time in the world and for good reason.

Stein loved to play blitz, and among his favorite people to play was Geller, who recounts the following story. Fischer, Geller, and Stein were in Stockholm in 1962 for one of the Interzonal competitions, and Fischer had yet to actually meet Stein.

Blitz Games With Bobby Fisher

Arriving at the hotel where they were playing, Fischer, having no one to play with, was introduced by Geller to "Mr. Stein." Lazarev, Stein's biographer, tells the following story about a blitz session between Fischer and Stein the night of the first round at Stockholm: 

That night after the first round, Stein came to see Geller. Fischer too dropped in. In his halting Russian he suggested a lightning chess match with Geller. Geller, who was clearly in a bad mood that evening (after losing to an unheralded Colombian IM) but on hearing the offer, could not restrain a sly grin and, pointing to Stein, who was sitting modestly in a corner, said, "Play him instead." Since Fischer had not been present at the drawing of lots and Stein had not played in the first round, the American was not acquainted with him.

Geller introduced him and at first Bobby declined to play someone he took for a novice, someone who could not be a worthy opponent at blitz. However, then he agreed to play "Mr. Stein" but added that he would not play for nothing....

Bobby proposed a small stake, "10 crowns." To equalize their chances, he offered "Mr. Stein" a handicap; if "Mr. Stein" won even two points in five games, the stake would be his. "Very well," Stein replied. In less than 10 minutes Fischer had lost the first game, and he lost the second even faster.... Geller was laughing so hard there were tears in his eyes.

The outcome surprised Fischer so that he now proposed playing on equal terms. With greater respect for the newcomer, Fischer now began playing less rashly but still failed to secure an advantage. In the evenings that followed, Bobby often invited Stein, with whom he had now become quite friendly, to new blitz encounters in which first one, then the other would emerge victorious.

Match With Fischer

A few years later Fischer challenged Stein to a match, the first to win 10 games, but Stein had so many engagements that none other than Castro himself showed his approval. For a while, it looked like it might come off when Castro made it clear he was all for it. Fischer announced at a press conference that all was ready, and "Castro would even like to watch the match." 

I include the following even though Stein lost because it's such a great game. Stein may have dominated Fischer in blitz, but Fischer was one of the few who could boast a plus score against the Ukrainian grandmaster.

Plans were made for a future match, but it never came to be because of Stein's untimely passing.

Soviet School Of Chess

Another of his favorite partners to duel in this marathon was the equally gifted Tal, who was widely recognized as one of the best blitz players at that time. The Moscow Chess Club had a room that would only be opened for hosting special events. Quite often Tal and Stein would meet and play truly legendary matches. Reports stated that club members were absolutely enthralled with the presence of the two amazing players, but access to the room was given only to select invitees. Thus, only a few had the actual privilege of watching these remarkable afternoon games between the two.

Stein had a dynamic style that heralded a new era in chess, one that was collectively referred to as the "Soviet School of Chess." This new school, noted for its dynamic play, was epitomized by players like Tal, Spassky, and Stein.

Stein was heavily influenced by Mikhail Chigorin and Alexander Alekhine and excelled with the black pieces in sharp openings such as the Sicilian, King's Indian, and Grunfeld Defense. Stein possessed a bold aggressive style, not quite as willing to roll the proverbial dice in unforeseeable circumstances as say Tal but rather closer to someone like Keres or even Bronstein, for example.

It was beginning to look more and more like it was to be Stein who would be playing Petrosian for the title. But unfortunately, this was not to be, and after his mid-'60s successes, Stein experienced a slump. All accounts, from his close friends like Gufeld to discerning players who straddled the Golden Age, such as Karpov and Kasparov, indicated that the enormous strain together with the political aspects of qualifying did two things, one they chipped away at his confidence and nervous system, and simultaneously they used up much of that most valuable of currency, time. And time was rapidly running out.

In the next cycle he failed to qualify for the Interzonal tournament, finishing sixth in the extremely strong 37th USSR championship, although he displayed his old form in this little gem against noted theoretician Seymon Furman.

That same evening Stein met a young Karpov, who later recalled: "My teacher Seymon Furman introduced me to the famous grandmaster when they were analyzing their game. I watched with great interest how they approached the game's positions in their own unique way. Furman endeavored to offer generalizing evaluations while Stein 'fired out' a machine gun-like stream of variations.... He had a fantastic talent."

By the end of 1969, Stein had made the best score on board one of the USSR team championship w/ a score of four wins and four draws. The following year, 1970, Stein shared second and third places in a strong tournament in Caracas where Karpov achieved the GM norm and finished third in the 38th USSR championship, 8-1 with 12 draws.

The next year he also won eight games in the USSR championship but lost five games landing in fifth place, but two of his victories against Tal and Polugaevsky were judged the finest of the entire tournament. His style continued to evolve and like nearly all serious players became more and more solid positional and technical while still retaining his previous tactical content.

With the white pieces, he increasingly played the Catalan, King's Indian Attack, and English Opening and began more and more to have a predilection for fianchettoing both bishops in many of his games. Below is an example of this evolution against none other than the Poet Laureate of Chess, Tal himself.

In the autumn of 1971, FIDE took the important decision to stage not one but two Interzonal tournaments and to invite the top eight grandmasters at that time to participate. Stein acquired a real chance to avoid suffering again in the Zonal USSR championship. He merely had to confirm his class, which did not take long. With only five rounds to go, Stein was ahead with 8.5 out of 12 points; one point ahead of Bronstein, Smyslov, and Petrosian; 1.5 ahead of Karpov, Tal, and Vladimir Tukmakov; two ahead of Korchnoi; and 2.5 ahead of Spassky. The latter was naturally eager to make up for lost ground, and in the 14th round, he engaged Stein in an epic battle.

The miraculous escape enabled Stein to remain in first place and can be interpreted as "poetic justice" by even the most jaded of individuals given the run of luck that had plagued Stein for so much of his life, simply because of FIDE rules regarding the number of qualifiers from each country. In an interview after the Spassky game, Stein said: "I will try my luck again. At the age of 38 possibly all is not yet lost."

During the summer of 1973, Stein was scheduled to fly to Brazil for a tournament, and he began to prepare for the endeavor. The following game vs. Smyslov reflects Stein's progression to a more positional style of chess. I would add that as in music, most musicians who start with rock and blues eventually evolve to jazz and classical. It's an inevitable progression in most cases if the musician has discernment because, as in chess, the growth of the individual implies a progression of sophistication that allows one more range and depth of expression.

Heart Attack

A few weeks after this game, on July 4, 1973, Stein died of a heart attack. Many different versions explain the nature of his passing. Rumors have run rampant in the chess world ever since. The most colorful is that Stein fell under the charms of GM Yuri Averbakh's daughter and, after a long night of lovemaking, succumbed because of his exertions.

We do know that he had rheumatic fever as a child during World War II. None other than Korchnoi claims that a young doctor gave Stein an injection just prior to leaving for Brazil that killed him. Here is Korchnoi's account, word for word:

I know how he died. Stein was preparing for the Interzonal tournament in Brazil. And, as they did with everyone traveling to exotic countries, the doctors have him strong injections against a variety of illnesses.… His organism could not cope with this. In hotel “Russia” at the dead of the night, someone called me on the phone and did not say anything. Later I understood that it was Leonid calling, but he no longer had the strength to say anything. In this way, having bade a silent farewell, a most talented chess player departed at the bloom of his age and strength.

Gufeld told Kasparov at the 1980 International Tournament in Baku: "You know, in 1973 Stein was stronger than even Karpov!"

Fischer expressed his thoughts this way: "I am shocked by the untimely death of Leonid Stein, a brilliant grandmaster and a good friend. I express my sympathy to his family and the chess community."

I always insist on celebrating a man's life, what he accomplished rather than lamenting what he could have done, if only, or what he did not achieve, and this is a man who accomplished quite a lot in the brief time he was allotted.

One fact is certain, Stein was a unique player who stood out in a unique time, a time called the "Golden Age of Chess." His hallowed place among the pantheon of iconic legendary players will forever be secure.

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