Killer Instinct


I keep it no secret that one of my favorite writers on chess is GM Gennady Borisvich Sosonko.  He contributed many articles to New in Chess between 1988 and 1999, some of which were re-published in his three books - Smart Chip from St. Petersburg, Russian Silhouettes and The Reliable Past - each one a pure gem.

Sosonko himself was born in 1943 in Troitsk, Russia. He had early success as Lenningrad's junior champion and functioned as a chess trainer until he defected to the Netherlands in 1972. He immediately won the 1973 Dutch Championship. Sosonko has been considered one of the leading experts in the Catalan (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2). In 1984 he drew a short match with Jan Timman (+1-1=0).  Timman also founded the Holland-based New in Chess  magazine in 1984 and Sosonko became a regular contributor and editor of its quarterly volumes and yearbooks.

Sosonko utilizing his favorite opening to make short work of Judit Polgar in 1991:

















 Now it gets complicated.

 In an article called "Grand Slam" Sosonko wrote about his aquaintance, Irina Levitina. Levitina was Soviet Women's Champion 4 times and, after defecting, U.S. Women's Champion 3 times. She has also been the Women's World Champion of Bridge 4 times.
   The following short passage from "Grand Slam" describes her game in the Leningrad Championship at the Chigorin Club against the one-time Women's World Chess Champion, Ludmila Rudenko (the first women's champion after Menchik). Levitina was 15; Rudenko was 65.  It was Levitina's first adult tournament.

             "Irina was playing Black in the Leningrad Variation of the
           Dutch Defence and obtained a strong attacking position straight 
          out of the opening.  At that moment Ludmila Vladimirovna, with 
          a knitted shaw thrown over her shoulders, bearing a striking
           resemblance to the poet Anna Akhmatova in the last years of 
          her life, began feeling unwell.  The clocks were stopped and 
          Rudenko lay down with an ashen face and closed her eyes in a 
          room backstage.  I was present as a trainer at the Chigorin Club 
          at the time and immediately called an ambulance.
             'What on earth is going on?'  Levitina's voice rang out as soon 
          as I put the phone down.  'When do we finish the game?'   The
          doctors arrived quite quickly and after takng Rudenko's blood
          pressure they rushed her off to [the] hospital.   'Look at the
          position, Gennady Borisovich,'  Irena addressed me again, 
          'after f4 and gxf4 and Nh5 Black has a huge attack on the dark
          squares.'  'But Ira, how can you talk like this,'  I replied, trying 
          to portray the stark reality for her.  'Ludmila Vladimirovna might 
          not even be with us anymore, she might be gone forever, so 
          who cares about the dark squares?'  Ira insisted: 'If she doesn't
           take, f3 is threatened - how do you defend?' "

   An extreme reaction worthy of chronicling to be sure, but how far does it actually stray from the mind-set of competitors? 

   In his article "Killer Instinct,"  Sosonko explores the meaning, purpose and even necessity of playing according to the spirit of the game in a cold-hearted and unforgiving fashion.  " . . . Caïssa doesn't like it when some other goddess than she is worshipped. Caïssa doesn't like that. She likes those who enter her kingdom unconditionally and live by her laws.  Only after the game can you return to the normal world, getting to know it in the same way that a fish gets to know about water only after it found itself on dry land."

   GM Sosonko provides many instances in which a well-intentioned player tried to do what he considered the honorable thing and circumvent the laws governing the spirit of competition.  One such incident involved Malakhov and Azmaiparashvili in te 2003 European championships in which Malakhov allowed Azmaiparashvili to change his move (an obvious mind-slip in which he reversed his intended moves) unchallenged with the rationale, "I didn't want to ruin the logical development of the duel."  Azmaiparashvili won the game. Sosonko summarized the incident: " As far as I can see, this type of incident is almost never repaid with interest.  Moreover, it does considerable pschological  damage to the part who shows mercy, weakness or indecisiveness.  It leads to discomfort, an unpleasant aftertaste and a burning wound in a disturbed soul, as it contrdicts the principles of the game itself."   Malakhov said afterwards, "After the game Iwas left with an unpleasant taste, but that was due mainly to my own play."  Was it?

   "Mistakes at the board should be punished, but so should any other 'unchesslike attitudes.' "

   The killer instinct dictates that one must show no mercy, no compromise and strive to win at all costs - but only under the strict observance of the laws governing the spirit of competition. To illustrate this idea, Sosonko noted two incidents, one involving Korchnoi, the other Fischer, both of whom had absentmindedly touched a piece, and, rather than trying to avoid the consequence by saying j'adoube, Korchnoi resigned and Fischer played a clearly losing move.  Sosonko considers such brutal honesty, not at all adverse to the idea of winning at all costs, but rather a tempering at the forge of experience and totally in keeping with the spirit of the game.

To be a world champion you have to be something of a barbarian. You must have a well-developed Killer Instinct  - Boris Spassky