A patzer's tribute to Viktor Kupreichik (1949-2017)

A patzer's tribute to Viktor Kupreichik (1949-2017)


I haven't written anything on chess.com for a while, but on 22 May, Grandmaster Viktor Kupreichik passed away at the age of 68 and this news made me feel rather sad. One of my most memorable chess experiences is connected to a game I played exactly 20 years ago against the Belarus legend. As a result of that game, I became interested in Kupreichik as a player and I adopted several of his opening ideas into my own repertoire. This post is a tribute to Kupreichik and his legacy. 

Photo courtesy Russian Chess Federation.

In the spring of 1997, I was studying Russian Language at the University of Amsterdam but at the last minute, decided to play a chess tournament in the little town of Ter Apel, in the North of The Netherlands. The 'Klooster Ter Apel' tournament was at the time a fairly well-known little tournament where several strong Grandmasters played a round robin tourney in a beautiful cloiser surrounded by ancient forests - an attractive setting indeed. The previous year, Ulf Andersson had won the closed tournament and in 1995, Ivan Sokolov had won just ahead of Mickey Adams. 

This time, the participating grandmasters seemed even stronger: Alexander Khalifman, Alexei Shirov, and Robert Huebner were among the participants, as well as Dutch number one Loek van Wely. At the time I was regularly playing internet blitz chess (which was still in its infancy) against both Shirov and Van Wely, and it was nice to play chess with them in the same room for a change. And as if to remind me that playing against a grandmaster online was rather different than playing them in real life, I was paired, in the first round, against Viktor Kupreichik, of whom I had only heard but didn't really know at all. 

Inspired by the presence of so many strong players around me, I played one of the best and most interesting games in my entire career. I managed to surprise Kupreichik in one of his own pet variation of the Sicilian (more about that later) with an interesting idea, achieved a winning position with some nice tactics - only to ruin it almost entirely again just when I could deal the final blow. Then, my opponent inexplicably blundered an exchange and I achieved a totally winning position again, but too overwhelmed with this sudden opportunity, I offered a draw which Kupreichik immediately accepted, shaking his head as he shook my hand. 

That evening, I showed my game to several players including Robert Huebner, who was particularly impressed by my move 9...b5. Shirov, too, when I spoke to him afterwards, commended me on my creative play which he had observed while strolling through the playing hall. He had naturally assumed I had lost and was susprised when I told him I had held a draw and should have won. For once, I didn't feel like a patzer all that much! (When I played Shirov's compatriot Visturs Meijers a few rounds later, Shirov again came up to my board to watch, but this time I lost without much of a fight.)

Not only that game against Kupreichik, but the entire tournament was a success for me. I shared 2nd place and some decent prize money. I didn't speak to Kupreichik anymore after our game, but I was inspired, even during the tournament, to take a closer look at his older chess games. I discovered that not only had he been a very strong grandmaster who had beaten Mikhail Tal and held Garry Kasparov to a draw, but that he was in fact a very attractive and agressive player in his own right, with very interesting and creative opening ideas.

In those days, chess databases were not so complete yet as they are now, but I still managed to found sufficient games to get a good idea of Kupreichik's contribution to opening theory. 

The variation in the Sicilian which Kupreichik played against me is a case in point.

He has tried it on several occasions. In Kupreichik-Krakops, 1995, Black opted for 9...Qb6 10.Bb3 a5 whereas a few months after the game he played against me, in the Dutch city of Groningen, not far from Ter Apel actually, Kupreichik faced 9...Bd7 10.Bg5 Qb6 against Lanka in round 4, and 9...Na5 10.Bd5 Qb6 against Wang Lei in round 5. The variation hasn't attracted a lot of players, and perhaps this is actually because there are several decent ways of meeting this line, not in the least my move 9...b5 which was (and still is) a novelty - and a rather good one, I'd like to think. 

I was pleased when I discovered that Kupreichik had also played the Center Game (which I played at the time and thought to be highly underestimated), against Anatoly Lein in the semi-finals of the USSR championship in 1968. In fact, there appears to be a Kupreichik Variation of the Center Game: 

(Annoyingly, I have not been able to find out why this variation is called after Kupreichik, as to my knowledge he has never actually played it, so perhaps a reader can help me.)

However, the line that will forever be linked to Viktor Kupreichik's name is, of course, 5...Bd7 in the Sicilian, which is also called the 'Kupreichik Variation'. It is a mystery to me why this variation is not more popular, especially among club players with a healthy loathing for too much opening theory. After all, what you get after this move is "just an Open Sicilian without theory" as one player I know characterized the line.

One of Black's main ideas is to follow up with ...e7-e5 and Bd7-c6 and target e4, which worked nicely in the following game:

Note how after taking on e4 with the bishop, Black basically took over already. 

The bishop on d7 is certainly not misplayed in transitions into the Dragon, for instance after 6.Bc4 g6, which was often Kupreichik's choice. However, another idea of the quiet bishop move (10...Qc8!, overprotecting square e6) becomes clear in the following game: 

In the next game, Black again solves his opening problems with the help of his light-squared bishop:

Of course, Kupreichik wasn't the only player who has played this variation (names like Igor Efimov and Ivan Ivanisevic come to mind) - although he was definitely its most loyal supporter.

Here's another guy who's experimented with it:

True, in 2004 Carlsen wasn't yet the amazing wonder World Champion that he is now, but I like how already then he went his own way with the deliciously 'silly' move 6...Bc6!? giving up the bishop's pair just like that. Just like that? Well, no - if White takes, Black takes back on c6 with tempo, simplifies the position and releases the tension in the centre. Still, one would imagine you have to be called Magnus Carlsen to get away with this... (Actually, Black has scored more than fine in this variation, proving once more that old rules are there to be broken.)

Anyway, I'm digressing. I didn't intend to give a complete survey of all ideas in the Kupreichik Variation. Dutch IM Jeroen Bosch has written several excellent articles in New in Chess Yearbooks about it. (He has also played it himself on several occasions.)

Because of this one game, which happened to be an off day for my opponent, I learned that there's a whole world to discover right under our noses, in the heartland of the Sicilian Opening. And not just for patzers, but for strong grandmasters as well - as it turned out, even for future World Champions. Thank you, Viktor Kupreichik!