Sunday, 2 February 2014

The talkativeness of Soviet players

This post has been prompted by a note from a former chairman of the English Chess Federation: Having just finished my postgraduate course in computer science I hitchhiked to Bath and got to discuss computers and chess with Petrosyan who correctly forecast the major role that games databases would have in the game. (I thought he was bonkers.) It can be found here. I have made one minor alteration to that contribution, standardising the spelling of the name of the former world champion.

Emails have been exchanged between Bernard Cafferty, Leonard Barden and myself. We expanded the discussion. We were like minded in the sense that we considered Soviet players guarded when in the West. The talkativeness of players is a subject that places a premium on oral recollections, particularly reminiscences.

Certainly, there are qualifications; as so often, the time and context cannot be ignored. For instance, Stalin died in March 1953 and Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech in February 1956. Therefore, in principle, one would expect a Soviet to be more open after 1956 than before 1953, reverting to caution after Khrushchev's ousting in 1964. Nonetheless, we all find the contention about Petrosyan difficult to believe.

I know personally that the late David Ionovich Bronstein was happy to converse in the 1970s in fluent English with teen-aged opponents after giving a simultaneous display. On the other hand, I cannot recall any remarks made to me from Anatoly Karpov, Tigran Petrosyan, Oleg Romanishin or Rafael Vaganian. One time someone from the Soviet embassy, presumably either the cultural attaché or from his department, observed to me: You're one of us, a recognition of my eastern European surname. The point here, though, was my age. I was unlikely to have been a provocateur, it was safe to speak to me. Players from the USSR were warned to be on their guard.

In Averbakh's memoirs, he mentions in several places that Soviet delegations were accompanied by a member of the security organs. On page 96 he relates how the over-talkative Spassky got into trouble for, amongst other things, conversing with a family of Russian émigrés. On page 105 he relates how he was instructed as to the dos and don'ts expected of a Soviet citizen when abroad. One can speculate, too, even though Averbakh doesn't say, that some care was taken as to the choice of who would appear on TV in Curaçao in 1963: in this instance it was Rona Petrosyan, the wife of the soon to be world champion. On page 148 Averbakh tells of the cordial relationship he enjoyed, also in 1963, with the great cellist Gregor Pavlovich Piatigorsky, then in his sixties, how he was invited to see Piatigorsky's private collection of paintings. I should say that this does not contradict the message of caution that was conveyed to Soviet players. In this instance, it should be observed that Averbakh was a member of the Communist Party, one who had begun climbing the hierarchy, He was already an experienced editor (having edited Chess In Moscow from 1958, in 1962 he took over editing Shakhmaty v SSSR and Shakhmatny Byulleten), he was considered dependable. One can note in passing that the most serious accusation levelled against Averbakh dated from 1969 (see page 154). He was contacted by a woman who had been very helpful to him on Curaçao, he was guilty of the crime (sic) of showing a foreigner round Moscow. He wrote: Since in those days I had no other contact with foreigners, it became clear that it was the visit of Mrs Fielders that had led to the denunciation of me. He became a nevyezdnym, one forbidden to travel outside the USSR (present day Belarus imposes a similar penalty upon supposed troublemakers).

Not to be overlooked was the language barrier, a major inhibition to any soul, wary of an official translator, who was brave enough to speak his mind. Bernard mentioned to me a dig of Kotov's: Even Petrosyan speaks two languages! Evidently Armenian and Russian. (The omission of Georgian for someone born in Tbilisi is notable. Petrosyan suffered from the handicap of deafness.) In ostensibly equal societies, there are means to look down on others, even on a player of impeccable working class origins in a socialist state, here the son of an illiterate caretaker. (See page 15 of Vik Vasiliev's book on Petrosyan, ISBN 0 7134 2818 x, translated by Mike Basman.)

Shyness, too, can be a consideration. Vasiliev wrote of the former world champion; His inborn modesty prevented him from asking strangers ... (page 16, admittedly, this was during Petrosyan's childhood). On page 18 Vasiliev quoted Archil Ebralidze (immortalised by Kotov in Think Like a Grandmaster {ISBN  0 7134 0356 x , page 73} with the words: Archil, take his rook): You must understand you were rather modest, rather quiet. On page 23 Vasiliev wrote: Always modest and self-critical. Indeed, Vasiliev indicated that Petrosyan thought of himself  as something of a provincial. Then, too, there is (page 27): Let us remember that Petrosyan's childhood had been spent during the war years, that he had lost both his parents early. In general terms, Petrosyan strikes me as one of the least likely of the top Soviet players, certainly in his later years, to have engaged in conversation with a stranger in the West, particularly an adult who (ludicrously in Western eyes) might have been an agent.

Leonard Barden wrote of Petrosyan (in an email dated 2 November, 2013, I've made some insignificant emendations):

My impression at Bath (in 1973 – SSYS) was that the USSR team were even more of an uncommunicative group than usual. This could have been due to fear of questions about how exactly Stein died, and the presence of Krogius as delegation head. At the end when I asked for a GM for a junior simul Krogius came along himself and got a minus score which he apparently later misrepresented to his team.

As for Petrosyan in particular, I think he became more guarded as he got older. He and Geller were quite jolly on the Windsor excursion at the 1954 match, and he was a regular at the nightly blitz sessions in the hotel lounge during the 1960 Olympiad. He was probably the best blitz player of the group, which included Fischer, Tal, Kortschnoi and Najdorf, and liked to say 'Forward Kazimirovich' when winning.

It was different in 1978 when he gave his simul at Centymca after Hastings. He wasn't aware of the dangers of English juniors, was persuaded by John Keable that he was playing some random children, so brought along a high official from the embassy to watch him in action. Mike Wills talked to him before the start, and he let slip that he got tired after two hours in simuls (by hindsight this may have been an early cancer symptom). This news was relayed to the players, with advice not to take early draws, and precisely on schedule he made a couple of bad errors. Later he blundered against Short and knocked over the pieces, provoking Nigel's 'Armenian peasant' comment many years later. Given his fatigue problem and the high strength of the opposition his +1 was a good score, though he didn't see it that way. At the end I made a flowery speech of thanks comparing him favourably to Nimzowitsch, to which he replied that he had been tricked, which was of course true. I tried to say that we were following the model of the 1935 Moscow simuls against Capa and Flohr, but he wasn't impressed. I never noticed a hearing problem during this exchange and thought that he understood the gist of what I was saying even before Mike Wills translated it.

Mike Wills was very prominent in the running of the chess section of the London Central YMCA. He is looked upon with affection by many from those years. John Keable was a county strength player who turned out for Surrey. He was instrumental in organising Soviet players to give simultaneous displays after the Hastings congresses.

Are there other instances of what happened when a top Soviet player did speak to a foreigner? Bernard Cafferty told me that Grigory Levenfish committed the crime of speaking to Paul List (an émigré and an old friend from pre-1914) in 1947, which resulted in a travel ban for the Soviet. Bernard mentioned that this was given by Levenfish in his posthumous memoirs, published in Moscow in 1967. Leonard Barden added to that:

Hans Schenk came to the match hoping to speak with Flohr, whom he had known in Prague. He only got a few words as Flohr seemed terrified and was nervously looking behind him.

Were a foreigner to speak to a Soviet grandmaster, neither of whom had previously known one another, then it is certainly plausible that the subject of chess and computers would come up. On page 14 of his book 200 Open Games (ISBN 0 7134 0410), grandmaster David Bronstein related how he and his peers were often asked about such things. His opponent in that 1963 game was the computer EVM 'M-20'. Indeed, given David Bronstein's fluency in English and that he won Hastings jointly in 1975/6, I can well imagine a conversation about such a subject with a young Englishman around then. (In the opinion of Bernard Cafferty, the best English speakers amongst the Soviet players of the 1970s were Tal, Bronstein and Spassky, he added: Averbakh and Keres were not at all bad, but I am hard pushed to think of more in this category out of the 15 or so people I spoke to over the years, headed in chronological order by Bondarevsky, Smyslov, Tal, Kotov... and later on Krogius, Suetin, Tukmakov, Botvinnik, Kortschnoi (after defection), Taimanov.)