GM Miron Sher, 1952-2020
Miron Sher. Photo: Facebook.

GM Miron Sher, 1952-2020

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
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49 | Chess Players

Miron Sher, a Russian-American grandmaster, winner of several open tournaments, and former coach of world number-two GM Fabiano Caruana and other strong players, has passed away at the age of 68 after a prolonged illness.

Miron Naumovich Sher was born June 29, 1952 in Chernivtsi, Ukraine (then the Soviet Union). Early successes on the chessboard include a shared first place at the Armed Forces Championship in 1981 and a shared third place at the semifinals of the Soviet Championship the same year. 

GM Adrian Mikhalchishin, originally from Ukraine, knew Sher since childhood and explained that his friend was a student of Albert Gurevich. Mikhalchishin said Sher never quite got to play on the Ukrainian youth team despite his talent since he was fighting for spots with future GMs Beliavksy, Romanishin, and others.

Already a strong player himself, Sher was active as a trainer from a young age as well. For example, he was a coach of the Russian national team in the years 1981-1985.

"Miron was known for his great opening knowledge, which helped him to become great trainer," Mikhalchishin said.

Sher and his wife, WGM Alla Grinfeld, met while Sher was studying in Voronezh, Russia. They were living in Kaliningrad when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and became Russian citizens, but decided to leave Russia.

Around the same time, he started to achieve success at international tournaments. He came in third, behind GMs Evgeny Vasyukov and Gennady Timoshchenko, at the 1989 Elekes tournament in Budapest. A year later he won the Belgorod tournament alone, and in 1991 he shared first place with GMs Igor Novikov and Maxim Sorokin in that tournament.

Sher in Heraklion, Greece in 2004
Sher in Heraklion, Greece, in 2004. Photo: Robert Hess.

Having been a Master of Sports of the USSR since 1975, Sher became an international master in 1988 and a grandmaster in 1992. He tied for first place at Arhus 1993 with GMs Lars Bo Hansen, Raj Tischbierek, Henrik Danielsen, Ralf Akesson, and Nick de Firmian. As the winner of the 1993-1994 Hastings Challengers, he qualified for the 1994-1995 Premier tournament, where he came in fourth behind GMs Thomas Luther, John Nunn, and Colin McNab.

After several visits to Scandinavia in the 1990s, Sher began coaching GM Peter Heine Nielsen, currently the second of World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen. Nielsen wrote about those travels:

"I was among the lucky to make his acquaintance. Me being a teenager, I recall getting up in the morning asking my parents if they had seen him, getting the reply: 'He has been sitting in the living room being ready to work for two hours already!' Entering the room with a guilty conscience, I however was greeted with his typical warm smile and we spent the next two days basically talking about chess non-stop.

"He was my introduction to classical chess-culture, and I recall showing Miron one of my games where he rightly suggested that here perhaps I could do the Rubinstein maneuver of playing ...a6...Qb8-a7! It was impossible not to notice that he enjoyed his work and always was happy to share his knowledge and opinions. We would look at my games, and I would ask about openings, do chess exercises, or he would show me interesting games. No question from me would ever be treated as it was stupid.

"I was very happy when he returned for a second visit, but not surprised when he made a name for himself in New York settling there with his family as a chess coach with numerous strong students, most notably, of course, Fabiano Caruana. Having fallen out of touch, we met again for lunch in 2015 catching up, and during the 2016 World Championship match in New York, he was a calming, experienced friend to talk to during intense games, giving advice, understanding the stress of the situation.

"My condolences and thoughts go to his family for their loss. Miron was a kind, humble, and knowledgeable person, who enriched the lives of many. I will always cherish the memories."

Peter Heine Nielsen
Peter Heine Nielsen, one of Sher's students. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In 1997 the Sher family moved to the United States, where he worked until recently as a highly respected coach. According to Mikhalchishin, one of the motivations for the move was so that Sher's son would not have to serve in the Russian army.

"He worked a lot," Mikhalchishin said, "and he declared somewhere in 2005 to become the first trainer who earned a million dollars!

"But as his wife Alla said, Miron wanted to decrease his training tempo but never was able to slow down."

WIM Beatriz Marinello, former U.S. Chess President and former FIDE Vice President, wrote on Facebook: "Miron was grandmaster and a renowned coach, who coached the Russian national team and then trained several generations of the best American scholastic players. Miron was a chess coach at the Dalton School and a friend. My condolences to his wife Alla and son Mikhail. We will always remember you."

To that, Polish GM Michal Krasenkow commented: "He was not only a GM and trainer but also a good organizer. In the 80s, when perestroika began in the Soviet Union, and it became easier for the Soviet citizens to travel abroad, he was probably the first person who organized groups of Soviet players traveling to tournaments, first in the Central and Eastern Europe, then in other countries. It is thanks to him that I took part in my first international tournament (Budapest 1988), as well as in the tournament in which I scored my first GM norm (Ptuj 1989)."

David MacEnulty, who in his capacity as program director at New York's Dalton School worked together with Sher for many years, told Chess.com: "Grandmaster Miron Sher was a grandmaster of far more than chess. He was one of the most superb human beings ever to grace the earth. I first met Miron in, I think, 1994. He and Alla had recently arrived in America, and NM Steve Colding called to see if I would like to hire a brilliant Russian grandmaster to help with my team in the Bronx. When Miron gave his first lesson, I knew immediately I was in the presence of a chess wizard. His English was still a work in progress, but his chess was clear, concise, to the point, and completely understandable.

"I hired him on the spot; it was the best decision I ever made as a chess teacher. Miron was the key to all my later success as a chess coach. He was brilliant but soft-spoken, always optimistic, always prepared, and always generous with his knowledge, which was extraordinarily deep. At the national tournaments, we had a team of coaches to analyze the kids' games. When I needed help—which was a frequent occurrence—I would go to one of the masters. If they didn’t have a clear understanding, we would take it to Miron. He always knew immediately and would quote a game from St. Petersburg 1909, Carlsbad 1929, Zurich 1953 or some other event to show the genesis of the position.

"I remember once I carried around a game Seirawan had played against a Brazilian master. It was a Scotch game where the master made a weak 12th move, but I couldn’t figure out what he should have played. I showed the game to Miron and asked what he thought. After wincing at that ugly 12th move, he studied the position briefly and came up with an idea that would never have crossed my mind. I asked how he found that, and he said there was—and he showed it to me—an analogous position in the Gruenfeld with colors reversed!

"For all his wisdom, knowledge and expertise, he was never one for self-promotion. One year at the Grade Nationals our team won three first places and five other trophies in the top five. When I tried to acknowledge Miron’s contribution—which was monumental—he simply shrugged and said, 'They played well.'

"Wise, kind, generous, humble and warm, he was the perfect man. We have lost a great one."

Celebratory dinner with GM Miron Sher, WGM Alla Grinfeld and WIM Beatriz Marinello after my final NYS Chess Championship in Saratoga Springs.  I have been honored to work with these great minds for many years.
A dinner in 2019 with Sher next to his wife WGM Alla Grinfeld on the left and with WIM Beatriz Marinello and David Field MacEnulty on the right. Photo: Facebook.

World number-two Caruana was coached by Sher from the age of eight until he was 12 and moved to Europe in 2004. Caruana wrote: "He was a great man, kind and caring. He was one of the most influential coaches, helping many young, promising players (including me) improve and become grandmasters. I have a lot of good memories as a kid being his student, and he will be sorely missed."

Miron Sher Fabiano Caruana
Miron Sher with Fabiano Caruana, his most famous pupil.

GM Robert Hess, who was coached by Sher as well, wrote (full text on Facebook): "People joke that you can’t spell chess without Hess. The truth is you can’t spell Robert Hess without Miron Sher. Miron taught me so much more than how to become a strong chess player. Throughout our journeys—from Argentina to Greece, to France, and to wherever else we traveled—he helped me become a much better person. He stressed the value of being well-rounded as a chess player and, more importantly, as a person. He encouraged and challenged me to step outside my comfort zones, whether it was with a new opening, a new food, or a new outlook. Our bond, since my childhood and until forever, is indestructible.

"I reflect upon our times together with nothing but love. Because that’s what it was. A shared love of chess that brought us both immense joy. Shared laughs and deep reflections during our many walks down many city streets, as he helped navigate me through not just the winding variations the world of chess has to offer but the countless lessons life has to as well."

Robert Hess Miron Sher
A young Robert Hess as he won the K-3 SuperNationals in Kansas City in 2001 with his mentor. Photo: Robert Hess.

Hess also shared the following game, saying: "It's amazingly instructive. The idea Bd5-e4-d3-f1-g2-h1 was really something and hard to see!"

Robert Hess Miron Sher
A young Hess at the Pan-American U-10 tournament in Mendoza, Argentina, in 2001. Mikhalchishin said Hess was Sher's favorite student and thought he could become a world top-10. Photo: Robert Hess.

FM Mike Klein said that in some years Sher literally coached the K-1, K-3, and K-5 champions at the scholastic nationals. "He was the coach you wanted if you had a gifted child," said Klein, who also provided the following anecdote.

"Miron and I both worked at Chess in the Schools in New York City in the early 2000s. I didn't love studying chess back then, but I did love the c3-Sicilian, and more than that, I loved quietly seeking him out and listening to any stories from the old country. He always had time for them and for me.

"I eventually had to ask him about a famous game, Nunn-Sher 1994. I waited until I knew him a little better, trying to observe the chess player coda that you don't approach someone for the first time and ask about a magnificent loss. Miron never took any exception. Instead, he told me about the secret trick he'd learned from this game: Miron realized that Nunn never played any of the moves that he expected, so after that loss, he stopped trying to guess them, and he fared much better in the next game. I don't know how many more stories Miron leaves behind, but I only wish that he was around to offer one more."

Noah Chasin, whose son Nico attended Sher's classes for many years, wrote: "I knew him quite well, and I believe we had deep mutual respect. His students were among the most impassioned and faithful that I've ever encountered, and his retention rate was, I think, unparalleled. He was extremely opinionated but always undercut his argumentative nature with an impish smile and a wonderful sense of humor. We really adored him as did nearly everyone who met him."

Shaun Smith of Chess in the Schools, where Miron taught classes for elite high schoolers: "He will be missed. I loved watching Miron Sher teach lunch club in John Galvin’s office at 318K. He delivered lessons based on games that had been played that morning, and he always had the most prepared lessons! I also will never forget our trip together to Greece to coach Justus Williams. His calm coaching techniques and long walks before every round served as a great inspiration to me and Justus. Miron will be missed."

NM Shawn Martinez, a New York City chess coach, wrote: "Miron was a huge influence in my chess career growing up learning chess in IS318. In order to participate in his class, you needed to be in the top group or specially selected by Elizabeth [Spiegel, nee Vicary]. This was a class that began at 7:30 a.m. before school even started so the dedication had to be there! In those days he would tell many detailed stories during his lessons and for me, it was like reliving the experience through the lesson, and even getting the chance to have my own game analyzed by him was surreal. He was truly dedicated to his students. I am currently the same age as Carlsen and Wesley So, and these are players that in their teens Miron would speak highly of along with Fabiano and many others. He had a true eye for talent and remarkable skill in teaching that elevated many who worked with him. I will forever be honored for the opportunity to know and work with him."

If you want to know some of the teaching tricks and techniques that made him so successful, past "Chess Educator of the Year" WFM Elizabeth Spiegel shared these thoughts from their time teaching together at IS 318, the only middle school ever to win the high school nationals:

"Miron taught our advanced players at IS 318 from 2000 to 2013. He was a phenomenal teacher; rich material, amazing questions, lots of different rules and thinking techniques to explain. I learned many teaching ideas from him that I still use every day in my classroom. A few of my favorites:

  • He emphasized the importance of noticing tactical targets: pieces that are not defended, but also “not well defended,” his term which meant a piece is defended only the same number of times as it’s attacked, so if its attacked again it’s winnable.
  • He encouraged us to think of “dream moves,” a sort of thinking technique where you ask “if I could lift this piece up and drop it anywhere, where would it be amazing?” This opens your mind to what’s possible, without worrying about what’s easy.
  • Miron introduced me to the excellent teacher trick of asking a class for the last move of a variation, which both ensures that students have calculated the variation to completion, and also makes it possible for one student to give an answer without ruining the problem for everyone else.
  • He coined the term “spy pawn” to describe a white pawn on, say, g7, shielding the black king. Because a spy pawn can never be taken, it provides an unusual kind of protection for the defender.
  • My all time favorite Sher rule is “the 20% rule.” This says that if a pawn has been advanced to the 5th rank or further, pushing it is the correct move 20% of the time. When I first heard Miron explain this, I had to stifle my laughter. It’s absurd, of course, to try to approximate the complexities of chess with the blunt force of probability. But it made our shared students into aggressive pushers of passed pawns, so that worked out well.

"These techniques and fun rules made Miron an effective teacher. But Miron was much more than effective. He changed his students’ lives and he did that by treating them with an unusual and unfailing respect. In his class at 318, when a student would suggest a variation or asked a detailed question in class, Miron would always respond the same way. He would listen, repeat the variation slowly so that everyone was following, and then, very deliberately, think for 10-15 seconds. He would then turn back to the student, nod several times, and reply, 'Yes, now I understand your idea. Let me think...'

"This is a profoundly respectful way to respond to a question: it acknowledges the question as a complex thought that must be first understood in its own right, before any attempt to answer it. Imagine what this must be like for a child: to have a International Grandmaster of Chess, a white-haired, world-famous foreign-sounding man with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, treat you as an intellectual equal. It allows you, maybe for the first time, to see yourself as a thinker worthy of respect, a mental force to be reckoned with. This is why children loved and trusted and learned so much from Miron: he was an intellectual giant who lifted everyone else up and never gave any indication he was the tallest person in the room."

"[He was] one of the greatest trainers left," Mikhalchishin said. "Pity that he did not write a book about his experience."

Sher leaves behind his wife Alla and son Mikhail.

@MikeKlein and @GMHess contributed to this obituary.

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