Who was Leonid Stein?
For many people, the golden era of Soviet Chess was in the 60’s. Already recognized as the best of the world (with all the World Champions since 1948), and with the sport reaching its popularity peak – chess was an important propaganda during the Cold War, and being a chessplayer was one of the most desired jobs in a period engulfed by a stygian political regime –, there were so many great chessplayers, able to even defeat World Champions, that some of them weren’t made known to the huge, enthusiastic chess audience.
Leonid Zacharovich Stein was one of those incredible chess players. In an era that brought us Botvinnik, Tal, Smyslov, Bronstein, Keres, and so many others, it is only natural that some others were ofuscated by them. Still, it’s enough to say that Stein, even among such magnificent players, managed to be three times Soviet Chess Champion.
Leonid Stein’s Career
Stein was born in Ukraine in November 12th, 1934. Besides the Soviet Championship titles won in 1963, 1965 and 1966, he represented his country in two Olympiads and succeeded on winning many international tournaments. In spite of that, he was out of luck in the Interzonal Tournaments, and always was out of the group of potential players to win a World Champion title. In the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal, Stein achieved the fifth place, with a total of 16,5 points in 23 matches. In normal circumstances, his score would be enough to guarantee his place in the World Championship. However, there was a rule – created to avoid an URSS “monopoly” – in which no more than three players from the same country could fight for the title. And, due to this rule, Stein was out of the competition.
Owner of a classical style that fought for the initiative at all costs, his games are a substantial fountain of learning to players that seek to improve their understanding. As an example, check what he did with the almost invincible Tigran Petrosian. [Stein x Petrosian]
But Tigran wasn’t the only one to suffer by the hands of this article’s hero. The list of players he defeated is a big one: Spassky, Tal, Smyslov, Keres, Korchnoi, Portisch [check here] – and they’re only a few among many others. Our legendary "Mequinho" was also crushed and his peculiar game style. You can see more details about their game here.
Stein and Tal
Stein also was a prodigious blitz chess player. One of his favorite partners to duel in this type of marathon was the equally great Mikhail Tal, recognized as one of the best blitz chessplayers at the time. The Moscow Chess Club had a room which would only be opened for hosting special events; quite often, Tal and Stein would meet there and play truly legendary matches. Reports stated that the club members were absolutely enthralled with the presence of the two amazing players, but the access to the room was only given to select invitees. Thus, only a few people had the privilege of watching these remarkable afternoon games between the two.
The fact that Stein died prematurely, with only 38 years old and in the peak of this career, is truly a sad one. He died right before the 1973 Petropolis Interzonal – in which he would be one of the favorites – due to an apparent heart attack in his room, in Moscow’s Rossiya Hotel. Bent Larsen, a formidable storyteller with an impressive memory, when asked about the circumstances of this tragic event, often answered: “Leonid Stein died, in the Fourth of July of 1973, because he had lost his mind at that day…” Bent’s chronicle, which brings many doubts about its reliability, included more picturesque details, such as a Stein throwing a party with two “female friends” in the hotel on that day. But I will refrain from talking about it so you can focus on what really matters – the chess legacy of this great player.
How far could he go? No one can give a definitive answer. But we will always remember that, at that time, the prime time of the chessplayers used to come later to them in comparison to the current players. He certainly would be, at least, one of the potential challengers for the World Championship title in the following years. Still, even with an abruptly interrupted career, this amazing player brought to us games that still are fountains of inspiration to many generations.
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