SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
One of my favourite players of all time is Svetozar Gligorich (born 1923), also known (affectionately) as Gligo. An amazingly talented player, for decades he dominated European chess. Gligorich’s games , in my opinion, rank as some of the most beautiful examples of how chess should be played! In his prime, there was hardly a player that he did not beat! His score against some of the world champions says it all: he won 4 games against Fischer; 5 games against Smyslov; 8 games against Petrosian; 2 games against each of Botvinnik, and Tal.
When I am asked by chess amateurs, interested in improving the level of their play, what player’s games they should study, I have never hesitated in recommending the games of Svetozar Gligorich!
SG: I started much later than many to-be-chessplayers, learning how to play the game at the age of eleven. As I discovered shortly thereafter, chess came easy to me. In 1939, at the age of sixteen, I became a master, this from the era when there were relatively few masters, and at a relatively young age.
Playing the legendary Paul Keres
SL: And when did you become a GM?
SG: Unfortunately, coinciding with my becoming a master in 1939, World War II broke out, and for the subsequent six years I fought as a member of a partisan unit against the Nazi-led Axis powers, and I was forced to put on hold the studying chess until 1945. At that point in time, I started to play chess again, and in 1951, I became a GM.
Against Bobby Fischer, a personal friend
SL: During this hiatus away from the board, did chess play a role for you?
SG: Although I was far removed from the latest goings-on about the game, chess actually saved my life three times. Those stories are probably too lengthy to get into now, maybe we can discuss those later on.SL: During those years, did you know Tigran Petrosian?
SG: Of course I did. Tigran was 6 years younger than I, and in 1945, the same year when I returned from the war, he became a master. As such, our chess lives were intertwined as we embarked on the journey as chess professionals in parallel and together. In the 50s, we became close friends as well, acknowledged that we shared a lot in common.
SL: Did you face Petrosian across the board many times?
SG: Yes, we played each other a total of 27 times, with 17 of the games decisive. I won eight of the encounters and Tigran came out on top nine times. Ten of the games were drawn.
SL: But it’s well known that Petrosian lost very few games in general. How were you able to beat Iron Tigran so many times?
SG: As I said earlier, we were very similar to each other philosophically and stylistically. We both preferred to play chess according to strict logic, as it is called, correct chess. For me it was not important who the opponent was sitting across from me, it was important that I play correct and active chess. Maybe I was, relatively speaking of course, a more unpleasant opponent for Petrosian for the reason that I was both logical in my approach and active in my style. Regardless, we were close friends away from the board despite our competitive struggles during our games.
SL: Please tell us a bit about Petrosian the person, as opposed to Petrosian the chessplayer.
SG: What is amazing is that in many respects, Tigran and I were so similar. We both were simple men and not saddled by ego problems. We both enjoyed music, humor, and we understood the intricacies of the game of chess. Possibly most interesting is that neither of us had pretenses that we must become champions. Regardless, nature and talent combined in Tigran and carried him to the greatest of heights.
Let me share some of my personal insights in the form of a story: In 1963 he was playing Botvinnik for the World Championship, and he confided in me that he couldn’t believe that he is playing Botvinnik for the title. Petrosian lamented that he was unable to concentrate and focus on the task at hand to compete for the title.
As a result, I think he was unable to collect himself and he lost. But then after gathering his energy and focusing on the task at hand through three stabilizing draws, Tigran struck back in game 5 and won a beautiful game with a king invasion; at this point, the impossible was already possible. It was a fantastic display of understanding, intuition, and skill all fused into one.
SL: What interesting memories do you have from games with Petrosian?
SG: Well, among the many vignettes over the 34 years we played each other, I’ll share an excellent memory from one game when I played against him. We were playing in an international tournament and we were leading the pack in the final round, when we squared off. I had the white pieces. Black equalized after the opening and Petrosian understandably offered me a draw.
Without thinking, I rejected his offer, as I was playing with white, and something inside me compelled me to react negatively, motivated by the feeling that with white I should endeavor to have an advantage, so I instantly rejected the offer. Seconds after saying no, I asked myself: why am I saying no? The position is equal and I felt the urge to take back my rejection.
But when I looked up and saw that Petrosian had already removed his hearing aides and was getting settled in his chair preparing to analyze the position anew, I realized that the window of opportunity had closed. To have restarted the conversation would have meant to yell in across the tournament hall.
I accepted that my communication connection with Petrosian for that game was now gone. The combination of my inner discomfort together with Tigran’s redoubled concentration on the game resulted in only 7 more moves being played until Tigran was victorious. It was good lesson I learned that day.
SL: How would you assess the current state of affairs in the chess world, and how would you asses the quality of the chess being played here in Jermuk?
Svetozar Gligoric: Of course I am pleased with the overall quality of play here in Armenia, and there have been some truly outstanding games. It is my opinion that today, playing chess is much, much harder than it was back in the times when I played. Nowadays, players are extraordinarily well-prepared, and the creative aspect of the game has diminished.
The role of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of computers are significant, and players are obliged to be aware of the latest information and topical lines. On top of that, players are compelled to come up with new ideas, something that is not so easy to do in this day and age.
SL: With a long and impressive career as a chess player, are you satisfied that you dedicated your life to chess?
Gligoric was part of the arbiters team during this epic match
Svetozar Gligoric: I think yes because my principle passion when playing chess was to create at the board. Secondary for me was the result. In that sense I always had ample opportunity to be creative and for that reason I can say I feel quite fulfilled by my chosen profession.
SL: How did you digest your defeats? How did you overcome failures?
Svetozar Gligoric: To be honest I don’t think that I took it all that badly. This is the nature of sport. Defeat should be a motivation for you to improve, work harder, and do better the next time. As Capablanca said, the best teacher is defeat. You simply need the will and strength to be able to turn the experience into something positive.
SL: One aspect of your creativity was your discovery of many new ideas in the openings. How important is this aspect of your legacy?
Svetozar Gligoric: Of course, I was always very happy and proud when I discovered new ideas in openings, especially in those lines where former world champions and other great players had been unable to find anything new. Indeed I brought to life several new ideas, in such openings as the King’s Indian defense, Sicilian defense, French defense, Ruy Lopez, the Nimzo-Indian defense and others.
One time Najdorf approached me and – I am not sure if he was complimenting me or not – but he said, “Svetozar, if I had the positions out of openings that you always emerged with, then I would probably have become World Champion.” I guess he was being more critical of my play, a backhanded complement of sorts, of how I was unable to realize my advantages, but in any case, I do think I had a good feel for openings.
SL: Is there something you could identify which prevented you from becoming champion? You mentioned that creativity was your greatest passion in chess, but in a match, the result becomes the paramount factor.
Svetozar Gligoric: Well, of course I have played many matches. Maybe on the account that I was not driven to become champion as some were, it was unpleasant for me to be in the tense environment that envelops you during such a match.
For example, in my candidates match against Tal, after five games I was leading, but the expectations of my fans and friends who were constantly visiting me and calling me and encouraging me to win, I began to feel exhaustion from this added burden. The pressures of those expectations probably undermined my subconscious will to win, and when I lost the match, I felt more relief than disappointment. I could add that there was a similar expression of emotion by Petrosian, in 1969 after he lost the title to Spassky.
The first meeting we had after his loss, he confided in me that he also felt this gigantic relief, stating how content he was that he was now an ex-champion forever, and was no longer burdened by the additional weight of being world champion. In fact, his results after this loss were much better than those while he was the champion.
SL: You have lived a long life, seen the world, felt many emotions. What would you identify as the essence of life?
Svetozar Gligoric: The most important things are love and creativity. The harmony between man and woman, as in music, as in life.
SL: As I understood you have been fueled by the need to create throughout your career. When you retired from chess, how did you envision applying your creativity now that you were no longer to be playing?
Svetozar Gligoric: In fact when I realized that I was no longer able to create on the chessboard as I wanted, I retired as it was no longer a practical exponent of my desire to create. My first love, before chess, before journalism, was music.
As such, upon my retirement I decided to study music in earnest. I didn’t know many of the nuances of the field, but because I felt and understood music in its essence, I was able to take advantage of today’s modern technology which has enabled me to record the notes on a computer, transforming my musical ideas into documented notes and chords.
I am grateful that at the age of 86, I compose music. I will continue to compose, and this has become a very fulfilling creative outlet for me to perpetuate my efforts in creating for the world.
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS