The legendary Genrikh Chepukaitis — Part 1, the welder from Saint Petersburg
A Russian welder

The legendary Genrikh Chepukaitis — Part 1, the welder from Saint Petersburg

Zeitnot17
Zeitnot17
Feb 12, 2019, 6:23 PM |
29

This post is a tribute to Genrikh Mikhailovich Chepukaitis (Генрих Михайлович Чепукайтис): a welder, an inveterate card player, an enthusiastic poet, a Master of Sports of the USSR and a chess player — one who never became a grandmaster yet might just be the best chess player you've never heard of.

Genrikh Chepukaitis

I discovered Chepukaitis — or Chip as his friends called him — when I asked my teammates in Team Ukraine whether there was any saying in Ukrainian or Russian similar to our saying, "A knight on the rim is grim." @AlexanderMatlak kindly shared with me these lines:

Гроссмейстер глупым быть не может, Но лошадь ум имеет тоже…

In English, this translates as:

The grandmaster cannot be stupid, But the horse has a mind too ...

When I investigated, I discovered that these are lines by Chepukaitis, whom I learned was a chess-playing poet whose favorite piece was the knight, or, as he often called it, the horse. (He would often say, "I love knights, without knights chess would just be boring.")

It's been a delight to discover Genrikh Mikhailovich. In Part 1 of this series, we'll look at how Chepukaitis became so good at blitz and how he arrived at his unique approach to the game. In Parts 2 and 3, we'll play through many of Chepukaitis' most notable games, first as White and then as Black. Since no chess player can play without losing, in Part 4 we'll examine a number of his defeats, which are equally interesting in their own right. For the same reason, we'll look at some fighting draws in Part 5. In Part 6, we'll delve into Chepukaitis' thinking on sacrifices. Finally, in Part 7 I'll close with some reflections.

One of the best in the world at blitz chess

Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) on 14 September 1934, Chepukaitis worked his entire working life as a welder at LOMO, the Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association. By all accounts, he was quite good at his job. For many years Chepukaitis wrote a chess column for the factory newsletter, which he called “Sprint on the chessboard” (later the title of his book on blitz chess) and which he signed as "Welder, 79th workshop, Chepukaytis." When Nikita Khrushchev visited the factory, the First Secretary of the Communist Party recognized Chepukaitis with an award for his performance.

Leonid Brezhnev and Grigory Romanov visiting LOMO in 1971

Chepukaitis died on 5 September 2004 at the resort town of Palanga, Lithuania, where he was attending a chess tournament. Although he never received a FIDE title or became a chess professional, he was one of the world's best blitz players, if not the best of his era, period. 

As Genna Sosonko recounted in his absolutely excellent memoir Smart Chip from St. Petersburg: and other tales from a bygone chess eraAnatoly Karpov once remarked that with the game's constantly shrinking time controls, "we might all end up playing blitz, and then Chepukaitis could become world champion."

To that, David Bronstein replied, "Yes, he might and I don't see anything wrong with that. Genrikh Chepukaitis is a magnificent strategist and a brilliant tactician. His countless victories in blitz tournaments are due to his uncommon skill in creating complicated situations, in which his opponents, who are used to 'correct' play, simply get lost."

In 1958, Viktor Korchnoi won Leningrad's blitz chess tournament (then held at the city's storied Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin Chess Club). Although Chepukaitis was just an untitled 23-year-old amateur club player, he finished second, tied with Boris Spassky and Mark Taimanov. Notably Chepukaitis beat each of these three GMs in his individual games against them.

In 1965, Chepukaitis, at age 30, won the Leningrad blitz tournament for the first time, winning a television set (his first) as the grand prize. He didn't stop, winning a total of five times, including 1967, 1976, 1978 and 1982. To give you an idea of how strong the Leningrad blitz tournaments were, in 1965 when Chepukaitis won for the first time, Semyon Furman finished second with Viktor Korchnoi in third place and Mark Taimanov in fourth. In 1967 when Chepukaitis won again, Mark Taimanov finished second with Mikhail Tal in third place

Chepukaitis was so good at blitz that Rona Petrosian (a woman not to be messed with) once prohibited her husband from playing in the Moscow blitz tournament because Chepukaitis was participating: "Tigranchik, you're the World Champion. Who will praise you if you win? And if you lose? It's fine if Bronstein, Tal or Kortchnoi beats you, but what if you lose to Chepukaitis? No, you will not play there!" (Bronstein tells the same story in his memoir Secret Notes.)

Rona Yakovlevna may well have been right. At the Moscow blitz championship she had barred her husband from joining, Mikhail Tal won with Chepukaitis coming in second ahead of Viktor Kortchnoi. If Petrosian had played, it's quite conceivable that Chepukaitis would have beaten him at blitz. As Peter Svidler once declared, Chepukaitis "in his prime could easily hold his own against World Champions." 

Peter Svidler playing Genrikh Chepukaitis in blitz. Notice how Genrikh Mikhailovich's hand is poised to strike.

Even later in life, long after the Soviet Union broke up and Leningrad became Saint Petersburg, years after he turned 60, Chepukaitis, still an untitled amateur, kept playing blitz chess, regularly beating titled professionals less than half his age whom he regularly gave time odds of their five minutes against his one minute.

In 2002, at age 67, he even won the Saint Petersburg blitz tournament for a sixth time with a score of 14.0/19 in a final littered with GMs and rising players. Not only did he win, but he did so in dramatic fashion. Even though he did not qualify from the semi-final, the judges allowed him, as a five-time champion, to play in the finals. He started badly, losing two games and drawing another, before started winning. By the 15th round, Chepukaytis approached the leaders, then caught up with them, and in the final round won his game, becoming the champion. 

How did a welder become one of the world's best blitz players?

The world's best blitz player today is Magnus Carlsen. The only job he's ever held in his entire life has been a professional chess player. Not only has Carlsen never worked a "real" job, his father even gave up his own career so that Magnus could focus exclusively on chess. Now imagine that rather than dedicating his entire life to chess, Magnus woke up at 5 a.m. every morning to commute by bus to a factory where he donned his overalls, goggles and protective gear and pulled exhausting long shifts as a welder. Imagine that Magnus worked as a welder day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. If Magnus had spent his entire working life as a welder, do you think he'd be one of the world's best in any version of chess?

Yet that's exactly what Chepukaitis accomplished. Genrikh Mikhailovich did not have a father who introduced him to chess, let alone one who gave up his own engineering career to support him. His father was a factory foreman who died at Stalingrad in 1942, when Genrikh Mikhailovich was 8. As a child in Leningrad, Genrikh Mikhailovich was fortunate to simply survive the war. After he completed his military service, Genrikh Mikhailovich did not get to study economics at Leningrad State University. He did not get paid a handsome salary from a state-sponsored sports society so he could train full-time. He was not given a luxurious state-sponsored flat. He did not get to travel abroad. He did not get any special privileges whatsoever.

So how did a man who labored every day of his working life as a welder at a Russian optical-mechanical factory get to be one of the world's best at blitz chess?

While Chepukaitis did not learn to play until age 14 (which is late compared to many giants of the game and which is unthinkable in today's game where you can forget about it if you haven't already become a grandmaster by 14), he had the good fortune to be stationed at the Baku Military District for his military service. Never promoted above private, he was good enough to become the three-time chess champion of the Baku Military District Officer's Club.

Vladimir Makogonov

Even better, during his military service, Chepukaitis studied with Vladimir Andreevich Makogonov, who worked as a chess instructor in Baku for the Soviet Air Force. For those who might not recognize the name, Vladimir Andreevich was one of the world's best players, reaching no. 5 in 1945 before retiring from tournament play. He trained Vasily Smyslov for his world championship matches and much later became one of Garry Kasparov's first teachers. 

Best of all, Chepukaitis wasn't just one of Makogonov's students. Because chess didn't interest any other enlisted men or officers, he was Makogonov's only student for two years. As Chepukaitis recounted, "I did not receive 'lessons' exactly - I would refuse them right away. Instead, we talked chess, discussed various positions and approaches - a lot of general talk and absolutely no opening preparation or endgame shaping."

As a player, Makogonov was known for his positional style, and so, as a chess instructor, he emphasized positional principles. As Makogonov's pupil, Chepukaitis took in his mentor's teachings. While Chepukaitis' games often yielded wonderful tactics, Chepukaitis disagreed with anyone who suggested that he was a brilliant tactician. Like his teacher, Chepukaitis viewed himself primarily as a strategic player.

While Makogonov would speak in terms befitting a respected Soviet titled chess master (I'm thinking especially of Makogonov's Rule: "In positions where no other important matters need to be considered, one should identify one's worst-placed piece and bring it to a more active square."), Chepukaitis, as factory worker who happened to play chess, felt free to reinterpret the same concept in earthier language:

Treat your position like a woman. Women like cosmetics, make-up. So, if you do the make-up to your position, it will be gracious to you.

[After I posted this Part 1, my chess.com friend and fellow blogger @simaginfan put together an excellent post, Vladimir Makogonov. Some Games and Photographs. I encourage you to read it and to follow its author.] 

Speaking of Chepukaitis' military service, here's a photograph of the 1955 Soviet Armed Forces chess championship.

That's Chepukaitis' name on one of the players' plaques above the chessboard displays. (I'm looking at the sign saying Чепукайтис above and slightly to the right of the tallest officer standing in the second row.) According to the Russian chess website e3e5.com that posted the photo, the participants are seated in the front row. To my eye, the man seated in the center, third from the right, looks like a younger version of Chepukaitis.  

“It’s not necessary to play well, it’s necessary that your opponent play badly!”

Chepukaitis readily admitted that, despite his many victories, he was still a "bad player" with "lots of weaknesses" in openings and the endgame. For that reason, he decided he "had to develop a style that would at least ... give some practical chances" and concluded doing so would be "particularly easy" in blitz.

He expressed his main idea in a single phrase: "Хорошо играть совсем не обязательно, надо, чтобы партнер играл плохо!," which translates colloquially as “You need not play well, just help your opponent to play badly."

Here's Chepukaitis, in an excellent interview by Mikhail Savinov, explaining why it's not important to play the best move:

I transfer the risk of making the decisions to my opponent. Chess is very deep game, and there is a chance that I might spoil my position playing a weak move after just one second thinking. So I keep myself away from resolving particular positions, give my opponent the widest possible choice of opportunities and hope he marries the wrong woman. [Chepukaitis was married five times himself, once to two women at the same time.]

Misha Savinov viewed Chepukaitis as a talented and carefree romantic with his "own understanding of the game," one that "can't be verified by an analysis engine." Although he was a poet himself, Chepukaitis took a much more pragmatic and far less poetic view of his chess. To him, chess was not a quest for any abstract truths or beauty on the chessboard. He wanted to win. His secret was to be "profoundly awkward." He aimed to "disturb my opponent, prevent his ideas, make him think, make him choose the path, preferably the wrong path." 

As we'll be exploring later in this series, Chepukaitis spelled out his ideas in his book Спринт на шахматной доске. Как победить в блице (Sprint on a chessboard. How to win in blitz), published in English as Winning at Blitz A Fun Guide Blitz Chess. (Both the Russian and English language versions begin with Genna Sosonko's remembrance of Smart Chip.) He also wrote two articles (see Part 1 and Part 2) for Bystrov Sergey's Russian chess website bs-chess.com, as well as a series of lectures posted on gmchess.com. (I've also found the same lectures posted in Russian as a zipped Word document here.) If you'd like to jump ahead, you could do worse than reading Chepukaitis' own pieces.

A gambler, a hustler and a cheat

As if it were not enough for him, Chepukaitis was much more than a welder, a poet and a chess player.

In The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote "gamblers know how a man can sit for almost twenty-four hours at cards, without looking to right, or to left." Chepukaitis certainly knew what it was to be a gambler. He played cards all the time, not just at the factory break room, but also late into the evening and often through the entire night at card houses, the type of places where you really don't want to end up owing any money. He played one-on-one blitz matches that stretched well beyond 24 hours, sometimes for two or three days straight. He played any type of game anytime against anyone, be it backgammon, cards, dominoes, shmen (a Russian game that reminds me of liar's poker) or whatever. Sometimes he'd even play two games at once, like when he played a hand of cards while waiting for his opponent to make a move on the chessboard. Whether at cards or the chessboard, he regularly wagered stakes greater than his monthly salary.

 As a gambling chess player with mad skills, it was inevitable that Chepukaitis would become a chess hustler. As J. C. Hallman recounts in The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game, Chepukaitis "had a hustler's instincts, and when he saw Americans at his club it spelled opportunity." He would propose a blitz game for a few rubles, play the first game in a friendly fashion and draw it, and then would reel off win after win after win after win until he had won all his mark was willing to lose and then more. If a game wasn't going well, Chepukaitis would look at his opponent as though he was the enemy.

In the spirit of hustlers everywhere (think of Wilson playing GM Maurice Ashley in Washington Park or this dude cheating in a game down in the Dominican Republic), Chepukaitis was a catch-me-if-you-can cheat. In a drawn endgame with opposite colored bishops, he wasn't above switching the color of his bishop and then (after a decent interval of pointless moves so his opponent wouldn't realize what had just happened until it was too late) snatching up his opponent's pawns. 

It's one thing to bend the rules while hustling a mark for a few rubles at a chess club. It's another thing entirely to cheat at an official tournament, yet that's precisely what Genrikh Mikhailovich did. On December 22, 2001, Genrikh Mikhailovich playing Black found himself facing Igor Sharkov in Round 8 of the semi-finals of the Saint Petersburg blitz tournament. Sharkov was quite decent: a Candidate Master in love with his computer and very diligent. Early on in their game, the two sides exchanged queens. Even if it often led to unpleasant positions, Genrikh Mikhailovich had a habit of walking his king in the opening and he did so here. (In Part 4, we'll look at a game where this habit cost him a game.) When his king had returned to e8, Genrikh Mikhailovich made the best move in the position — he castled queenside (not incidentally, in the direction of his button on the clock). 

Remembering the rules, Sharkov, without making a move, immediately stopped the clock and called over Igor Bolotinsky, an internationally respected arbiter, saying, “My opponent made an illegal move. Please award him a loss." Bolotinsky asked Genrikh Mikhailovich whether he had moved his king. Naturally Genrikh Mikhailovich said he did not remember. Stunned by what he heard, Sharkov offered the testimony of two witnesses who had been watching the game. Bolotinsky refused to listen to the witnesses, perhaps because they could have been in cahoots with Sharkov. Shocked even more, Sharkov offered to reproduce the entire game as evidence of the correctness of his words. Genrikh Mikhailovich expressed his doubt that anyone could remember all the moves in a five-minute blitz game. Bolotinsky rejected Sharkov's offer, apparently thinking that Sharkov might somehow be able to make up a sequence of moves to support his claim. Bolotinsky made his decision — “Play on!” — and turned the clock back on. When Sharkov refused to play, Bolotinsky awarded the game to Genrikh Mikhailovich. After Sharkov had walked away, Bolotinsky asked, "Genrikh Mikhailovich, tell me honestly, did you move your king?" Genrikh Mikhailovich replied, "But I don’t like Sharkov.” 

What are we to make of this? Bolotinsky promised Genrikh Mikhailovich to award him a zero next time. Even the Russian chess website Satyricon, which had always shown sincere sympathy for Genrikh Mikhailovich, found it difficult to explain his behavior. As for Genrikh Mikhailovich, he wrote afterwards that he was not certain that he had moved his king and that he was happy that this episode was in the past.

As for myself, I am not in a hurry to offer my opinions on this aspect of Genrikh Mikhailovich's play, believing that each of us is fully capable of forming our own views. As we bring Part 1 to a close, I will simply offer this observation — If you want to learn how to play chess as correctly and precisely as possible, you might choose to look at the games of a player known for his relentless, even pathological dedication, or perhaps a devout disciple of the Soviet school of chess who was seen as exploiting other people's ideas or even a champion whose chess has been described as being computer-like, bloodless and soulless. If, however, you'd like to explore how chess can be played in outlandish ways that appear to violate the principles of the game, it might not be a bad idea to look at the games of a gambler, a hustler and even a cheat. 

In Part 2, we will begin to do exactly that, looking at Chepukaitis' games as White. Be sure to click the button above to follow me so that you can read it and the rest of the series when I post it.