Categories: Russian

Analysing by the riverside with Bobby Fischer

In a remarkable interview given to Yury Vasiliev of Sport Express, the 87-year-old GM Svetozar Gligorić talks about some of his career highs and lows, his friendship with Fischer and the unlikely new career he took up, aged 81.

Gligorić, a 12-time Champion of Yugoslavia, was one of the strongest and most popular grandmasters in the 1950s and 60s. An example of his playing strength was the story he told Vasiliev of how at the 1958 Munich Olympiad both Botvinnik and Smyslov declined to play him on top board in the deciding match. He never had quite the same success in the World Championship cycles, but he gives a fascinating account of one of his failures.

In 1968, Mikhail Tal came to Gligorić’s home town of Belgrade to play him in a Candidates Quaterfinal match. Gligorić relates what happened: 

I was really unlucky: the tournament hall was across the street from my house. Friends from all over Belgrade would drop in to talk to me, and I couldn’t say no. And then I also made a terrible mistake: during the match I read what the papers were writing. After the first five games I was leading: I’d won one game with black [quite a game!] and made four draws. Tal couldn’t do a thing, and he later told me he was sure he’d lose the match. But on the eve of the 6th game I read a comment by a journalist who declared that he was bored watching us choose the same variations again and again.

And then the game started, and I surprised myself on the 3rd move by deciding that instead of 3. Nc3, which I’d been playing up until then, I’d play Nf3, which I hadn’t even looked at. That spontaneous decision knocked me off balance. I was shocked and couldn’t understand why I’d done it. I lost the game with white. After that the whole atmosphere of the match began to weigh on me and I wanted it to end as soon as possible. I lost another two games – and it was all over.

Vasiliev then asks him to name his top ten players of all time:

I don’t think it’s fair to approach it like that and try to come up with some sort of top ten. Each age is governed by its own laws. Players today know a few times more than Alekhine and Capablanca did in their day. While trying to compare great players by talent is also extremely subjective.

How could you measure the talent, for example, of the 9th World Champion, Tigran Petrosian? He understood chess so deeply, and saw so much, that it led to him becoming very cautious. He had some sort of special telescope in his head that allowed him to see the first inkling of a threat from his opponent and, can you imagine it, Tigran snuffed out the danger a move before it had even arisen. After he won the title, Petrosian played on the first board at three Olympiads and posted a colossal result: he played 38 games, won 25 of them, drew 13 and didn’t lose a single one!

Asked to comment on the changes that have taken place in chess recently, Gligorić is refreshingly positive:

Previously, when I was playing, you had to spend a month preparing a variation. You had to read through books and study all the chess journals and tournament bulletins. While today you can do it in five minutes with the help of a computer. Therefore the way the young play today is phenomenal! They can sit at a computer for ten hours a day, they have more energy, and they’ve got better memories. When I played there were thirty grandmasters in the whole world, while today there are three thousand.

Gligorić’s friendship with Fischer began when Bobby arrived for the Portorož Interzonal Tournament in 1958.

I considered it my duty to take care of Bobby; he was 15, while I was 35. We spent a lot of time together. Once we were by the river, swimming and sunbathing. I was a good swimmer but Bobby tried to outswim me. And then sulked when he didn’t succeed. I told him: “Bobby, you need to train for about 20 years – and then you’ll beat me!” 

There, by the river, Fischer asked my opinion about a variation in the Sicilian Defence where white sacrifices a piece and develops an extremely strong attack on the black king. And it must be said that even then Bobby was already up-to-date with everything that was going on in the chess world. Everywhere he went he carried a pocket chess set. So he showed me a game, played somewhere in a minor tournament in Siberia, and asked what I thought about the rook move he was analysing.

Imagine my amazement when in the 21st and final round of the Interzonal Tournament in Portoroz I played Fischer and he played the line that he’d shown me by the river! And not just that, he made the same move that I hadn’t considered worthy of my attention! I got a draw with white, but nevertheless I have to admit that in the final position where I had three pawns for a piece Fischer was better [the game’s here].

It was just that by that time we both knew that we’d qualified to take part in the World Championship: I was second behind Tal, while Fischer was sharing 5th place.

Fischer unleashes his "river variation" on Gligorić at the 1958 Interzonal

Photo source: echecs-photos.be

When organisation was under way for the 1992 “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” between Spassky and Fischer, Bobby only agreed to negotiations on the condition that Gligorić was present.

He even refused to leave the plane if I wasn’t at the steps (Gligorić laughs). Bobby asked if I could play a training match with him. At first I didn’t want to, but I had to give in to his wishes [Gligoric later refuses to say how it went, as he gave Fischer his word]. He was panicking about how theory had developed during his twenty-year absence from chess. That was why he came up with his own version of chess, where the starting position would be determined by the drawing of lots. And he began to torment me with persistent requests to write a book about it.

I told Bobby that I had very little information, but he wouldn’t let it go: “Write that book! You have to do it!” In the end I started to gather a few crumbs of material, and a few years ago a book on “Fischer Random Chess” was published in London.

There I wrote that “Fischer Random Chess” would never replace classical chess, but could exist in parallel with it. And I turned out to be right: there are now tournaments in Fischer Random Chess, and moreover great success has been achieved in it by the same players who play well in classical chess.

I don’t think that classical chess will ever die out. Capablanca feared the spectre of the “draw death” of chess, while Fischer feared the rampant expansion of theory. Perhaps a time will come when grandmasters can’t think up anything new in the opening, but then the struggle’s centre of gravity will shift to the middlegame, and the endgame. To a degree we can already observe a situation like that now.

The interview ends with Gligorić talking about his life now, and includes a surprise or two:

I’ll tell you how it started. When I was 81 I began to take lessons in musical harmony. I studied for 2 years until my professor told me: “You don’t need to take any more lessons from me, you know harmony better than my students who are graduates of the musical academy”.

No doubt music and harmony have something in common, as both involve combinations.

– What sort of music do you compose? Is it classical?

– No. It’s popular music. I’m remembering my youth and want to live like a young man.

– Is it jazz?

– It’s a variety of music. Jazz, as well. And blues. And punk. And hip-hop.

mishanp :

View Comments (3)

  • Mishanp,

    This was one of the best article I have read recently. Gligoric comes across as an honest man of character.

    Thank you.


  • I first about this variation in 'Attack with Mikhail tal',from page 4 of that book 'Today the episode,known in its time as the "Argentine tragedy",has been largely forgotten.It occurred in the 14th round of the Goteborg Interzonal Tournament,1955,when by the will of the draw an unusual USSR v Argentina match took place. Geller had white against Panno, Keres against Najdorf and Spassky against Pilnik.Specially for that day, the Argentine grandmasters prepared an innovation in a well known variation of the Sicilian defence.'