Today marks the 16th anniversary of the death of Igor Ivanov, who died of cancer at the relatively young age of 58. To Montrealers who remember Igor from the time he first moved to Montreal in 1980 and to others who had the privilege of playing him in tournaments, the term ‘legendary’ is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe him.
Below I reproduce a blog article that I wrote back in 2012 and updated in 2019. Enjoy!
“I wrote the following article about Igor Ivanov some 8 or 9 years ago. Even today is hard to believe that Igor is no longer with us. Had he been alive today he would have been 72 years old and no doubt still playing the weekend chess scene!
I received some mail from readers who remembered Igor. Both the good and the bad: readers remember selectively and often imaginatively! One reader felt that Igor was better off dead. Another felt that Igor was my superior in OTB play!
In anycase, I have decided to publish this article again, for the readers’ benefit. Curiously, when thinking back of my many meetings with him, I can not but reflect on how much worse chess is in Canada today than when Igor first arrived! We had a growing membership!
We had a great magazine (today only a small percentage of CFC members receive its equivalent), a National Championship with ALL of the best players participating; a rating system that had not been corrupted by the politicians; an Olympiad selection process that was honest and fair (VERY different from today!). And the CFC had a profitable and growing book and equipment business, running out of a building that it infact owned…
Where did we go so wrong? The answer is simple: there are no strong players who want to become involved with an organization run by amateurs and amateur organizers who have been failing for 25, 30 years or more- Many of them are charlatans or worse, directly and indirectly involved with financial scandals, sex scandals, and missing funds that amount to hundreds of thousands of the members’ money.
Surfing the internet the other day, I stumbled across this photo of Igor Ivanov. It is from the cover of the March 1983 Chess Life.
It brought back a lot of memories of Igor and chess in North America in the 1980’s. Today not a lot of people talk about Igor (he died in 2005), but to those who knew him , he was unforgettable! Quite a character. And a brilliant chess player. It is a pity that the young players in Canada today did not have the opportunity to see Igor when he was at the top of his game.
He was feared by everyone! And he quickly became the top tournament player in North America.
I remember when Igor first arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1980. He wore these goofy glasses! I first met Igor at the Quebec Open Chess Championship (which he won). Legend has it that Igor, not quite understanding how the swiss tournament really worked in North America , and finding himself with black in the first round, equalized very easily against a 1700 player; Igor then proposed a draw (!!), which his opponent quickly snapped up!
Here is an old photo of Igor playing while still in the Soviet Union. Born in Leningrad in 1947, he showed talent for both the piano and chess. But chess was his passion. He rose up the chess ladder , but he never impressed. His personal life, his alcoholism depressed him and he never showed what he was really capable of. And in those days, only the very elite were given invitations.
In 1978 both he and Kasparov tied for first in the one swiss tournament that he ever played in til he defected to Canada. Then in 1979 he managed to defeat the World Champion (Karpov) in a team game, and this earned him an invitation (?!) to play in Cuba the following year. This was to be the first time (and only time) that he was to play outside of the Soviet Union, and he would take advantage of it!
So Igor defected to Canada when his return flight to Moscow had to refuel in Gander. There are all sorts of stories about how Igor was approached in Cuba with the possibility to defect, how it was planned and what not. That I will leave for another time and blog. By the end of the summer Igor was living in Montreal, and quickly adapted to life in the west. His chess spirit must have became ”liberated” because within 6 months he was simply the best North American tournament player. He won every major tournament at that time. He crushed all of the American grandmasters (Browne, Dzindi, etc).
Here is a 1981 photo of Igor playing the 1978 Canadian Champion Jean Hebert, who was the best french-speaking player in the world for a while. He got crushed too!
How good was Igor? I think the answer to that has to be prefaced by saying that Igor had a serious drinking problem (sometimes he would be found at local chess clubs under the table), and therefore, after a few years living in the west ,his chess strength declined as a direct result. And after about 1983 his results were never the same. That being said, the Igor that I knew in 1981 and 1982 was a great player! One of the best that I had ever played, and I include him in the group that includes names like Spassky, Tal, Shirov, Gelfand and Korchnoi.
I remember the young Alex Lesiege (who appeared on the scene after Igor had already gone to the ‘States) telling me that he had once played Igor in a weekend tournament in Quebec City (Igor came back occasionally to play in the odd weekend event) and that he crushed Igor easily.
That he was not so impressed! Well, no doubt Alex did crush Igor on that day, but what Alex did not know is that Igor in the years 1981 and 1982 played a higher level of chess than Alex would never be capable of, even at his best! Igor was that good!
I always found Igor a difficult opponent. I believe that when he arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1980 I was the stronger player, but Igor’s experience in the tough Soviet School as well as his profound understanding of chess psychology gave him the edge!
I would often easily outplay him strategically, get a huge (often winning) advantage, but I could not beat him! He showed his best when his back was to the wall.
I learned a lot from him in those first years when he actually spent a fair amount of time in Montreal. I must have played him about 40 times, though only about half of them can be found in databases.
Igor and I stopped speaking with each other for a long time after 1987. We both became victims of the idiocy that exists in Canadian chess politics.
In early 1987 John Prentice, the dean of Canadian Chess, died suddenly while on vacation (true, he was already in his 80’s , but he was quite strong physically) and certain unscrupulous individuals tried to personally profit by this.
Before either Igor and I knew what was happening, we both found ourselves needing legal advice.
John Prentice is on the right, Phil Haley is on the left. John Prentice was Canadian Chess for decades. He put Canadian chess on the map, and he ensured that our zonal status was secure Prentice was a very high ranking FIDE official, and he often sponsored the National Team out of his own pocket! (He was a very wealthy individual).
He made sure that the chess politicians in Canada did not get out of line! Nobody could bully Prentice, or others while he was around. For example, when the CFC annual meeting in Ottawa 1984 voted to punish Jean Hebert for some indiscretion that took place at the Canadian Zonal, it was Prentice who quickly defused the situation and had the decision reversed.
Prentice is the 4th person from the left, standing beside Castro. Photo taken at closing ceremony of the 1966 Olympiad in Havana. Here Castro is presenting Bondarevsky a medal (in those days Bondarevsky was Spassky’s trainer.
A short bio follows for those of you don’t know who Prentice was:
John Prentice (1907-87)
Source: Canadian Chess Chat 1966.07 Vol.20, No.7, p.148-9; FIDE Representative’s Report by John Prentice, Canadian Chess Chat 1966.09 Vol.20, No.9, p.216-7.
Born Vienna, Austria, arrived Canada 1938 ;Successful business person; named member of one of Canada’s 50 wealthiest families in 1987;Founded Pacific Veneer 1938, which was later merged into Canadian Forest Products and then renamed Canfor; long-time company president ;Director, Bank of Montreal ;Chairman, Canada Council for 5 years ;CFC President 1955-1971 ;FIDE Representative 1957-1987 ;FIDE Vice-President;Represented FIDE at 1966 World Championship closing ceremony, crowning Tigran Petrosian as World Champion;Received Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal for contributions in the field of chess 1977;Canadian Chess Hall of Fame 2000
But when Prentice died in early 1987 ,right before Igor and I were to play a match for the Canadian Title, it did not take long for some dishonest individuals to take advantage of the vacuum that was created. What happened will be the subject for another blog entry, but I will say that sorting out the mess that ensued took a lot of time and money, and my first grey hairs appeared as a result (I was 32 at the time)!
Had it not been for the loyalty of some of my best friends, I am not sure if I could have got thru it in one piece! It was the closest time that I was actually prepared (and ready!) to take the CFC to court. Fortunately… that would not be necessary , as in the end the rascals responsible for the mess were soon history. (Though a few have since crawled back !)
The result was that the entire CFC executive was thrown out a few months later at the annual meeting, and then the CFC entered into a period of confusion and lack of direction for the next few years afterwards. But principally , ofcourse, that Igor and I stopped speaking to one another.
Around 1994 Igor and I started to speak with one another again. That was nice, but because I was living in Portugal by that time, we did not have too many opportunities to see each other. The last time I saw Igor was just about 1 year before he died (at the Canadian Zonal in Toronto in 2004).
I had a very nice chat with him one evening during the tournament. We were sitting on a bench outside the residences where we were playing, talking of some of our common acquaintances back in Montreal (we often fought for the same girlfriends!) . It was pleasant.
I remember, also, when talking of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in NYC, Igor said that had that attack been on Moscow, then the Russians would have erased Bagdad from the map! Igor may have defected from Russia, but his soul would always be Russian…”