The Orchid Opening of Robatsch

The Orchid Opening of Robatsch


Austrian Karl Robatsch (1928-2000) enjoyed playing uncommon opening moves. In one large online openings database, 1…g6 represents less than 2.6% of the responses to White’s 1. e4.  However, Robatsch was fond of that move when he played Black and a rather uncommon opening often bears his name, though it is also commonly called the Modern Defense: 1. e4  g6  2. d4  Bg7.  Robatsch did not invent this opening, which has been played since the 16th century, but he was the first to analyze it seriously shortly after the second World War and its popularity grew thereafter. 

As I have researched several blogs on the lives of the players behind various named openings, it has intrigued me to discover so many famous players that have highly developed talents in domains other than chess.  Bill Wall recently published a fascinating list in his blog here about chess masters who have Ph.D. or M.D. degrees.

While Robatsch did not earn a place on that list, his knowledge of chess earned him an Elo rating of 2653 and his knowledge of orchids earned him the title of “Professor”, awarded to him by the President of Austria.  I will return to Robatsch’s orchidology shortly, but let us first consider his career in chess, which may, strangely enough, help us to understand his fascination for orchids.

Robatsch became the chess champion of Austria in 1960 and became an International Grandmaster the following year, having spent a mere three years as an IM before his promotion to GM.  He appeared in 11 Olympiads for his country, wherein he earned 86 points from the 146 games that he played. 

His high point in these tournaments came at the 1960 Olympiad that was held in Leipzig in the former East Germany.  It was during this event that Robatsch amassed 13.5 points in 16 games, winning the individual gold medal for board one ahead of both Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal, who was World Champion at the time.  And Robatsch did this at a time when he was not yet a Grandmaster.

Here is a game from that tournament where Robatsch had an advantage against Tal, but the "Magician from Riga" was able to hold the Austrian to a draw.  I have translated a few of Lothar Karrer's annotations to this game that appeared in Robatsch’s obituary in the Wiener Zeitung.

In Nick de Firmian’s description of the Robatsch Defense, he notes that “the great virtue of the Robatsch is its flexibility.”  The opening often transposes to other openings such as the Pirc or the King’s Indian Defense.  It therefore becomes no surprise to learn that Robatsch also contributed to the development of the Ufimtsev variation of the Pirc.

So how does all this help elucidate Robatsch’s love of orchids?  When I recently wrote about Philidor’s music I theorized a connection between chess and music that could account for his love of both fields, and I also have a hypothesis that relates Robatsch’s love of chess with his love of orchids.

Robatsch had specialized in the study of a taxonomically complex genus of orchids called Epictatis.  The English page for this genus on Wikipedia contains 22 references to Robatsch.  He made significant contributions to the study of this group of orchids even in the final years of his life.

The entry on Robatsch in the Oxford Companion to Chess tells us that he was known for “surprising moves in the opening phase.”  Recall that the Robatsch Opening itself often transposes to other openings.  Another way to view this phenomenon is that this category of openings branches to one or more specific openings much like a genus branches to several specific species.  

Thus, much as temporal patterns connected chess to music for Philidor, so do the complexities of classification and cross-pollination connect both chess openings theory and orchidology.  Hence, it is not particularly surprising that the same intellect would be drawn to both fields of study.

Here is Robatsch playing the Robatsch against Durao during his great performance at the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad.  Durao resigned after Robatsch forked his King and pawn.