Nona Gaprindashvili. A Bow to the Veterans, part 1

Apr 27, 2015, 12:42 PM |

Excerpt from Gaprindashvili's book I Prefer Risk (Предпочитаю риск).

A Bow to the Veterans

The first woman world champion Vera Menchik was tragically killed on 27th June 1944 during the Nazi bombing of London. After Alexander Alekhine suddenly died in March 1946 in Portugal, an unusual situation arose: the chess world was left with no champions for the first time.

Men solved their problems in 1947/48, when Mikhail Moiseevich Botvinnik won the 5-men tournament and proved his superiority. Women determined the strongest among themselves a bit later. In December 1949, a World Championship was opened in Moscow, with 16 players from 12 countries taking part. In January 1950, the second world champion, Lyudmila Vladimirovna Rudenko, was awarded with a laurel wreath.

Rudenko did much to popularize women's chess. She began to play in tournaments in 1926 and took part in many various competitions. Since 1927, Rudenko played in seventeen USSR championship, missing only one! I played Rudenko when her advanced age prevented her from competing for the world championship. Nevertheless, she still played brilliant games from time to time.

Rudenko's strongest suit was tactics. She has a great natural talent, but, since she learned chess before the Revolution, she didn't receive as much education as the younger women, so it's no wonder that Rudenko's positional skills were inferior to some of her opponents'. How talented should she have been to win the world championship despite those drawbacks!

Rudenko is a typical improviser. She doesn't miss combinational opportunities and boldly sharpens the position. Rudenko possesses good calculation skills, and her readiness to attack in any moment would confuse many opponents. That's why Rudenko played especially strong in mixed tournaments.

In the World Championship, the decisive game was played between Rudenko and other talented Soviet player, Olga Rubtsova. Winning this game in the 11th round, Rudenko took the lead (she trailed by half-point before the game) and stayed ahead for the rest of the tournament. Rudenko won the championship with 11.5/15; Rubtsova finished second, one point behind.

The 1949/50 championship was the highpoint of Rudenko's chess career. In 1953, she lost her title to Elizaveta Bykova in a match with a 6-8 score. I think that Rudenko is more talented than Bykova, but the result was deserved, because Bykova possessed better fighting skills, which are necessary in matches, and also successfully forced Rudenko into positional struggles that were advantageous to her.

Rudenko also didn't fare well in the 1956 match tournament with the world champion Bykova and candidates' tournament winner Rubtsova. But don't forget that Rudenko was already 52 at the time, and it was hard for her to withstand the pressure.

Having won the world championship and after losing the title, Lyudmila Vladimirovna would gladly play in various tournaments, even mere republic championships, never worrying that they would hurt her prestige. Talking with her was immensely beneficial for young chess-playing girls. For instance, when I, a rookie player, met the ex-world champion at the team tournament, I was flattered by how kind and simple she was to me and other young players, and her love for chess that she couldn't hide even if she tried made me very sympathetic towards her.

Elizaveta Ivanovna Bykova, the third world champion, has completely different style and personality. Unlike the emotional Rudenko, whose playing depended much on her mood and on whether the position was of the type she liked, Bykova is very composed, patient and persistent. Of course, she also likes positions of a certain type, especially those that allow to constantly apply pressure on the opponents without risking to lose. In such games, Bykova is very strong, and everyone who came under her positional pressure suffered much. I repeat: Bykova is very patient. She'd never hurry or fuss, as some woman players sometimes do, but would slowly and steadily tighten the noose.

Unlike some other players of her generation, Elizaveta Bykova would specifically prepare for each opponent, trying to find a psychological key to everyone. Against sharp, combinational players she would choose schemes that led to simplification and early endgames. At this stage of game, as in simple positions in general, Bykova was stronger than everyone.

One of Elizaveta Ivanovna's main distinctive features that's created by her personality is her ability to wait patiently. Her playing manner is very peculiar. Chess women would jokingly explain how Bykova wins her games: she castles, and then moves her King from g1 to h1 and back, waiting for her opponent to make a mistake.

Essentially, this was what really happened, except, of course, Bykova didn't just move her King - she maneuvered her pieces at the rear ranks, waiting until the opponent, made complacent by those seemingly harmless moves, stages a rash flank attack and creates positional weaknesses. And she paid for that dearly - Bykova's ability to punish for mistakes was excellent.

Elizaveta Ivanovna stood out because of her work rate. She would work hard to improve her playing, study the opening and ending theory with much success. There are few brilliant combinations in her games, and this creates a dangerous illusion that you can play riskier moves against Bykova. But many woman players suffered because they underestimated Elizaveta Ivanovna's peculiar gift, her positional strength, her specific vision that allowed her to immediately see the opponent's mistakes.

In addition, Bykova is fantastically resilient, she doesn't give up even in hopeless positions, searching for smallest opportunities to make her opponent's life harder and sometimes even saves half-points with this approach. In such cases, she always rejoices openly, sometimes even chuckling at her opponent, because she thinks that she didn't get lucky, but rather was deservedly rewarded for her resilience.

I think that I managed to defeat Bykova relatively easily because I and Mikhail Vasilyevich Shishov knew exactly what a strong opponent she was, especially in matches. Although Bykova did win several Soviet championships, as well as the 1952 Candidates' tournament, I still think that Bykova's chess style and personality was especially suitable for matches, not tournaments. In 1953, she defeated Lyudmila Rudenko.

Three years later, in a 8-round three-player tournament Bykova lost her title to Olga Rubtsova, who scored 10/16 and finished a half-point ahead of Bykova (Rudenko finished last with 4.5 points). Nevertheless, in a 1958 return match, Bykova defeated Rubtsova convincingly, 8.5-5.5. The next year, Bykova scored an even more impressive victory against Kira Alexeyevna Zvorykina - 8.5-4.5.

Elizaveta Ivanovna Bykova had done much for the development of women's chess movement. By her initiative, woman chess players during the World War II would visit hospitals with lectures and simultaneous displays. She also wrote several books, including a big historical work about Soviet woman chess players and a biography of Vera Menchik.

The fourth world champion Olga Rubtsova, as well as her predecessors, is a chess fanatic. She grew up in a chess-loving family. Rubtsova married A.B. Polyak, a chess master, and her daughter Elena Fatalibekova played in the USSR championship at an early age of 17. In 1974, Elena became a Soviet champion.

Olga Nikolayevna holds a distinctive record - she played in 19 Soviet championships, winning five of them! By the way, Rubtsova was the first ever USSR champion - she won this title in 1927. She played in her last Soviet championship in 1965 at the age of 54, led for quite a bit of time, but then got tired, and her results slumped. Olga Rubtsova played in the 1949/50 world championship (finishing second), three Candidates' tournaments and, as we already know, in a World Championship match tournament, and played a match against Bykova. Together with Kira Zvorykina, Rubtsova in 1957 took part in the first women's chess Olympiad, which the Soviet team won.

Seeing that it's hard for her to play at the board, Olga Nikolayevna took up correspondence playing (which, by the way, is becoming more and more popular against women) and become a correspondence world champion in 1972.

Olga Nikolayevna is a very gifted player. She has good positional vision, but her main strength is sharp combinational playing; she had no rivals in it in her best years. I would even call Rubtsova a somewhat romantic player. Like Rudenko, she doesn't like positional playing, preferring the piece battles, always trying to create an attack, even if this damages her position.

Olga Nikolayevna is a very nice woman, it's very good to play against her and even to... lose to her. In the 1964 USSR Championship that took place in Tbilisi, I lost to her, but had no hard feelings - so correct and kind she was.

As the chess players (especially women) age, they become more careful and try to play it safe. The players of Rubtsova's style usually evolve their style because their calculating abilities diminish with age. But this didn't happen to Rubtsova, she stayed faithful to her attacking ideals and principles. So, in my eyes, Olga Nikolayevna Rubtsova was and always will be the model of devotion to chess, of a fearless fighter who's willing to take any risks and make any sacrifices for attack.

To be continued.