Grigory Yakovlevich


For the past couple of weeks I've been a stranger to Outside of a few hasty comments and some weak analysis (on my part) of a peculiar opening idea I had in the Ruy Lopez on Allygirl's blog, I really haven't had much time for chess.  I was in a serious auto accident two weeks ago. I don't drive.  My best friend was driving and I was in the passenger seat.  Turning left at an intersection, she pulled out in front of an oncoming car that slammed into her door head on.  My injuries were insignificant, but my friend was wedged in her seat and her door had to be cut off to free her.  Remarkably, she wasn't killed or even extensively injured. However, she was hurt: several broken ribs, a broken hand, 2 broken fingers, a possible broken foot (both feet are swollen badly) and bruises from her shoulders to her calves. Like me, she was also beat up by the seat belt, shoulder harness and air-bag.  Most of my already somewhat limited time has been spent helping to care for her.  Such is life.

I was dwelling on this when it occurred to me that the same events that have prevented me from indulging in my favorite pasttime have ironically afforded me certain time voids in which I had nothing to do other than wait.  I started carrying several books with me to fill those voids. One of the books was Genna Sosonko's Russian Silhouettes. Sosonko has published 3 books of vignettes of Russian chess, mostly reprints of his New in Chess articles.  Each tale in each book is a gem and each one gives the reader deeper insight into and greater apprecation for the players who grew up and lived within the Soviet Union.

One of the most intriguing stories is that of Grigory Yakovlevich Levenfish. If ever a great novelist or playright wishes to create a tragedy played out against the backdrop of Soviet Russia themed by the Soviet/Russian predilection for Chess, Levenfish's life would provide the fodder of inspiration.

In the annals of great players, Levenfish has been largely forgotten. Even in his own time he was consistently snubbed by the powers-that-be in spite of all that might be reasonable. Before starting this entry, I perused the wikipedia entry on Levenfish. While it lacks the power of Sosonko's prose, it seems fairly accurate and touches on some of the same issues. Rather than recount all the accomplishments and disappointments that define Levenfish, I can refer the reader to the Wiki page while strongly encouraging the same reader to obtain a copy of Russian Silhouetes

I will, however, touch on one instance - possibly the most significant one - of Levenfish's tragic position.  Levenfish was an "Old School" player, having played in the Carlsbad Tournament of 1911.  In 1935 he was co-champion of the Soviet Union and in 1937, he was full champion.  However the leader of the modern chess movement in the USSR, Mikhail Botvinnik, who was on a chess sabbatical at the time and didn't participate, was the "Chosen One." (for his correctness as much as for his chess).  Levenfish's position as Soviet champion sent mixed signals.  Nikolai Krylenko, the head of Soviet Chess, Checkers and Mountain-climbing, arranged a match between Botvinnik and Levenfish for the championship to clear the air of any uncertainty, fully confident in Botvinnik's ability to win and solidify his position.  The match was a draw. And the reigning champion had draw odds. Thus Levenfish remained the Soviet champion - for what little good it did for him.  Botvinnik continued to receive preferential treatment as if he had won, while Levenfish continued to be ignored as if he had lost.

           A superlative game from the Botvinnik-Levenfish match, 1937