"Ten Funny Stories about Mark Taimanov", by Evgeny Gik

"Ten Funny Stories about Mark Taimanov", by Evgeny Gik

Nov 28, 2016, 10:34 PM |

This article was written by Gik in early 2016. Since then, both Gik and Taimanov have died...

Mark Taimanov (right) and Evgeny Gik in 2015.

How the Central Committee Fought Against the Bourgeoisie

In the summer 1955, there was a USSR vs. USA match in Moscow, and the American ambassador gave a reception honouring the U.S. Independence Day. The highest Soviet authorities were present - Khruschev, Bulganin, Malenkov; chess players were invited too. Khruschev had a short talk with Taimanov and asked him, "Do the Soviet players receive any fees when they play abroad?"

"Of course not, Nikita Sergeyevich", Taimanov answered. "How can we take money from the bourgeoisie? Our goal is to show the advantages of our socialist society and to prove that we're stronger than them."

"And when you play at home, you do receive fees?"

"Of course - how would we earn our living otherwise?"

Khruschev thought deeply. "Something's wrong here", he finally said. "So, you take nothing from the capitalists, who have heaps of money, but you take money from our poor country. This is unacceptable. You have to take money from them, and the more, the better!"

Several days later, a special Sports Committee order was issued, allowing the Soviet chess players to receive foreign currency when playing abroad. So, the party and personally comrade Khruschev allowed the Soviet chess players to become significantly richer.

Sudden Support

In 1971, Taimanov was accused in all possible mortal sins after losing 0-6 to Fischer, including betrayal of the socialist system. He was punished more and more, but then he suddenly got some support.

"Thanks to Bent Larsen, who'd also lost without scoring a single half-point", Taimanov used to say.

Indeed, Fischer's second 6-0 win sobered Taimanov's detractors a bit. The Danish player surely couldn't secretly conspire with capitalists to undermine the Soviet Union.

Fischer vs. Taimanov, 1971

The Custom Worker's Sympathies

After returning from Canada, Taimanov's belongins were thoroughly searched in the Moscow airport (chess players were usually exempt from such searches - Sp.) And bad luck struck: a Solzhenitsyn novel was found in his baggage. For possessing the book, the grandmaster soon lost most of his titles and benefits. But, of course, it was only an excuse. The head of customs was a friend of Taimanov's, and he sympathized with him:

"Oh, Mark Evgenyevich, if only you'd defeated Fischer, I would carry Solzhenitsyn's whole bibliography to your taxi with my own hands..."

The Writer's Troubles

So, Taimanov was punished very harshly because of Solzhenitsyn's book. But even bad things sometimes bring something good: Mstislav Rostropovich came up with an amazing joke.

"Have you heard? Solzhenitsyn is in big trouble now!"

"No, why?"

"Don't you know? They found Taimanov's Nimzo-Indian Defence in his belongings!"

A Simple Question

Taimanov's fiasco against Fischer was analyzed at the special gathering in the Soviet Chess Federation.

"Your strategy was wrong", numerous colleagues told Taimanov. "After losing, you had to play for a draw."

"But how?" asked Taimanov after admitting his guilt.

There was dead silence in the hall. No grandmaster could answer that simple question.


Taimanov once was the head of a Russian chess championship press center in St. Petersburg. To his disappointment, the playing level wasn't very high, and he wrote about that in the bulletin. In the next issue, chess organizer CM Alexander Kentler disagreed with the famous grandmaster: he praised the championship, and dismissed all the Soviet championships - where Botvinnik, Smyslov, Bronstein, Keres, Tal and others played - as "championships for a closed elite". Then Taimanov took to his pen again to reply. His letter is a classic of the chess epistolary genre.

A Letter to the Editors

Unilke Mr. Kentler, who primary knows about the Soviet championships from the press, I've played in 23 (!) of them, and I have all the reasons to state my competent opinion - and, alas, they aren't too complimentary for the current championship. And, frankly, I was baffled by the arrogance of a Candidate Master who disagreed with a grandmaster on the purely chess-related questions - while there's no doubt who understands chess better. The Soviet championships were never "for a closed elite": the "elitary" finals were preceded by many qualifying tournaments, involving much more players than today. And the interest for the finals themselves was much higher, as was the quality of games. Concerning this championship, let me tell you an old joke.

A Japanese businessman came to Moscow. After two weeks, he gave an interview.

"How did you like our capital city?"
"The capital city is great, thanks."
"And what about your people?"
"Your people are great."
"Did you visit any factories?"
"Yes, it was great."
"And what's your general impression?"
"I'm deeply depressed."
Such was our championship. Great venue. Impressive array of participants. Superb organization. Thrilling competition. But the quality of playing..."
Mark Taimanov

A Unique Simultaneous Display

As you all know, Mark Taimanov's duo with Lyubov Bruk was very popular in the middle of the last century, both in our country and abroad. But the attendance of their performance began to slowly decline. To reverse the trend, Taimanov decided to add a phrase to the advertising posters, "The concert includes a simultaneous chess display on several boards." Before beginning, the grandmaster addressed the audience: "Anyone who wants to play chess with me, please come on stage." Two or three people (depending on the set list's difficulty) sat at the chess boards set between the pianos. In the pauses or between the numbers (Bruk and Taimanov's set list mostly consisted of small, short numbers by then), the performers would switch places. Taimanov would quickly make his moves while running from one piano to the other. The attendance began to grow sharply. But once - it happened in the town Zlatoust - Taimanov lost his game against a ten years-old boy. The local paper published a mocking article, "He plays piano like he plays chess!" After that, Taimanov stopped giving simuls during piano concerts. By the way, the newspaper also published a photo of the boy who defeated the famous grandmaster. His name was Tolya Karpov.

Anatoly Karpov and Mark Taimanov, with Arkady Dvorkovich (far left) and Isaac Linder in the background

Taimanov Sicilian on the Piano

In the last century, the Taimanov/Bruk piano duo was considered one of the world's best. After Mark Taimanov and Lyubov Bruk divorced, the grandmaster was replaced by his son Igor, a great piano player too. The new duo toured with much success too. The years passed, Lyubov Bruk eventually died, but the audience still loved Taimanov's performance of Chopin and Schumann. It was no wonder when they started to ask Mark and Igor Taimanov to perform together, both in St. Petersburg, where both lived, and in other cities. But, as it turned out, it was nearly impossible for them to play a duo. Both Mark Evgenyevich and Igor Markovich had always played the secondary piano part, complementary to Lyubov Bruk's main one. And now, to come onstage as a duo, one of them had to learn the main piano parts from scratch. And, sadly, both Taimanovs had too little time for that.

To clarify this musical situation, let's translate it into chess language. Imagine a grandmaster who successfully plays an opening with one colour and never plays it with the other one. The secondary piano part can be compared with playing Black in chess games. Let's even take Taimanov himself as an example. How many great victories did he score in the Sicilian as Black! But it could never have happened at all if Taimanov had White, since he never began his games with 1. e2-e4...

Vasily Smyslov (singing), Mark Taimanov (at the piano). 1998

The Fourteenth Symphony

Eduard Gufeld was a joker, a braggart and generally a very merry fellow. There was always noise around him, he loved to be the center of attention, joked constantly and played practical jokes on people.

He called his beautiful win against GM Bagirov his "Mona Lisa" and would eagerly show it to anyone willing to listen. He would publish it everywhere he could. Genna Sosonko once warned Gufeld, "Be careful - what if they make you play out this game forever in the afterlife, as a reward or punishment?" Gufeld agreed and said, "OK, but this depends on the fee..."

But not all Gufeld's ribs were harmless. I saw one such occasion during the 1969 Soviet Championship, where I was Taimanov's second - he qualified into the Interzonal from it, and then played his infamous match with Fischer. The play-off of the Taimanov - Gufeld game was set on the day of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony premiere. Of course, Taimanov, music lover as he was, wanted to visit that concert, and Gufeld gave him a pleasant surprise: he said that as a gift to his friend, he would ask to move the play-off to another day. Taimanov fully believed him and, without waiting for any official confirmation, went to the concert, but the intuition suddenly told him, "Why don't you go to the chess club first, just in case?" He decided to listen to his hunch and was right in it: there were no music lovers among the arbiters, and the play-off had already begun! When Taimanov came on stage, his clock was already started, and Gufeld was walking among the tables. After the tournament, I wrote, "It would be unfair to blame Gufeld who just decided to play a joke on his opponent. The only thing to blame, really, was Taimanov's love for Shostakovich's music." But it wouldn't be near as funny if Taimanov lost that game by no-showing and didn't qualify into the Interzonal...

Good Memories

The piano player Mark Taimanov was good friends with the violinist David Oistrakh. Oistrakh was somewhat condescending towards Taimanov the musician, but in chess matters, the grandmaster had far more authority - the famous musician played about as strong as a Candidate Master. The friends would often play chess, but one day, their encounters ended abruptly. After defeating Taimanov in a blitz game, Oistrakh removed the pieces from the board and said:

"Now, dear Mark, let's finish our marathon. I want to preserve good memories about our encounters."

Mark Taimanov with his fourth wife and twin children