Tbilisi Memories

by admin on September 10, 2017

The FIDE World Cup is going crazy with upsets! Just look at the world’s top players on the September rating list and how they are doing so far, after the “classical” part of round 3.

  1. Carlsen — OUT
  2. Vachier-Lagrave — Tied, 1-1
  3. Kramnik — OUT
  4. Aronian — Tied, 1-1
  5. Caruana — Tied, 1-1
  6. Mamedyarov — OUT
  7. Anand — OUT
  8. So — Won, through to round 4
  9. Grischuk — Tied, 1-1
  10. Nakamura — OUT
  11. Karjakin — OUT

Amazing to see that only one of the top eleven players in the world is safe. Of course, it’s quite possible that Vachier-Lagrave, Aronian, Caruana, and Grischuk will all win their playoffs. But even if they do, less than half of the top 11 on the rating list will actually make it into the top 16 of the tournament.

Although I should write about some of the games, I want to post an entry that I had intended to post yesterday, before all the craziness about “shorts-gate” broke out. This is about my personal memories of Tbilisi.


The FIDE World Chess Cup is being held this year in Tbilisi, Georgia, which I visited for six days in 1978, when I was on a semester abroad in the Soviet Union, and again for two days in 1980 when I was in in a tour group that went around the Soviet Union for a month.

First, a wee bit of background. Georgia is a former Soviet republic that is now an independent country. It is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, going back to the fourth century A.D., a feat that is quite impressive given its small size and its location adjacent to Islamic countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan. Like many smaller countries it has been conquered and reconquered, but still has a strong sense of pride. It has a truly unique alphabet, in which every letter looks to me like a picture of a bunch of grapes. This is highly appropriate, because Georgia is a fertile wine-growing region.

When I visited in 1978, I was with 30 other American students in the Russian Language Program at Leningrad State University, and we were on our midterm break. We went to Moscow first, then Tbilisi, then to Kiev and back to Leningrad. We arrived in November 8 and found the hotel in a power outage. I’ll pick up my diary on the following day. I’ve added a few comments in italics that were not in my diary.

11/9/78: Today was generally a good day. In the morning it was very cold and it even snowed. Everyone was amazed by that, because we expected warmth here. We went on an excursion to ancient churches, but because of the cold no one took an interest in them. … In the afternoon we visited the Pantheon. Many of the most famous Georgians are buried there, but I know little about them. I was more interested in the stunning view. The Pantheon is on the side of a high, steep hill; after viewing the Pantheon we ascended to the top of the hill, which was surrounded by clouds.

[Tbilisi is near the Caucasus mountains and is nestled into a valley between two 6000-foot mountain ranges, with stunning views almost everywhere you go. Probably the abundance of slopes is one thing that makes it a good wine-growing region.]

For dinner I ate khachapuri [Georgian cheese bread] and drank laridze, a drink unique to Georgia … When we returned to the hotel on the bus we met a man who, though he had met us only once, told us he might fly to Leningrad to celebrate the New Year with us. What a people the Georgians are!

11/12/78: In the last two days I have gotten better acquainted with the city. My initial impression that this was a very “country” city was not entirely correct. Along Rustaveli and Lenin Prospekt, for example, the city seems very contemporary. I was especially amazed at how many automobiles there are. [In Leningrad at the time, very few people had cars, which could be obtained only if you had the right connections.] The Georgians didn’t earn the reputation [within the Soviet Union] as a wealthy people for nothing!

Undoubtedly my best hours in Tbilisi were yesterday evening. Officially there was a “concert of the independent collective of students from the U.S.A.” Our hotel, you see, is not only a hotel but also a youth camp, named the Golden Fleece. For that reason almost all the guests here are young. Accordingly, there was a proposal that we meet the members of the camp. A concert seemed to be a good way to organize a meeting. Originally there was great enthusiasm among us, but — as always happens — no one said firmly, “I will definitely perform.” And so until yesterday there were no concrete plans. Only after lunch did J.S., J. H., and I meet and work out a program. And that was our entire “independent collective.” I played five songs on the recorder and an encore, then John and Joe sang contemporary songs, with John on guitar. … After the concert a local group played contemporary music, and the other Americans and I joined in the dancing.

[Oh gawd, that must have been an awful performance. This concert was the sort of fake spontaneous event that our hosts were constantly foisting on us. I think that the lack of enthusiasm in our group was likely due to being tired of this sort of forced “international cooperation.” But my feeling was jeez, suck it up, guys. We’re here as representatives of the U.S., so let’s represent. By the way, I still remember Joe singing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” one of his favorite songs. See, that’s sharing something important.]

Even before yesterday evening, I had made one acquaintance in the camp, a man from Ufa named Khamit. He speaks English, and for him this was a rare chance to use the English language. He is reasonably friendly and asks me many questions. But with him I feel the same way I feel with many Russians — we have little in common, and we lack something necessary for friendship; perhaps mutual understanding.

11/13/1978: One rule most of all governs my life here — a day never passes without an unexpected event. Yesterday, about 6:00 in the evening, J. P. knocked on my door, entered, and told me that her friends were having a party and asked her to invite some other Americans. Earlier I had planned to spend the evening in my room, maybe plays some informal games of chess with Khamit (we also played in the afternoon; he used to be a second-category player and doesn’t play badly). [Second category = class B in America, or perhaps a bit higher.] But I took the opportunity to meet new people with pleasure. There were eight people at the party: Jane, Angela and I (Americans) and Alla, Nelly, Oleg, Igor, and one other man (Georgians). We ate dinner, drank (I tried vodka for the first time in my life, but drank very little), danced and talked. Because there is no public transportation to the hotel late at night, Jane and I spent the night at Alla’s apartment and Angela at Nelly’s.

In the morning, when I woke up, I realized with amazement that snow was falling — real snow, which stuck to the ground. We were told that usually there is no snow in Tbilisi until January, but nevertheless… After a twenty-minute wait on the street amid the falling snow, we hitchhiked back to the hotel.

[This is by far my favorite memory of Tbilisi, maybe even one of my favorite memories of the whole semester. It was a truly spontaneous event, not a forced-spontaneous event. We were always looking for this kind of opportunity, the chance to interact with Russians, or in this case, Georgians, in their native environment.

I also love the carelessness of youth, the willingness to take a chance and go on an adventure. Here we went to a party with five people none of us knew, except that presumably Jane knew one of them. And I’m impressed also with the hospitality of the Georgians, inviting in three visitors whom they didn’t know anything about, except that we were Americans. But in that era, in the Soviet Union, most people had never met an American, so the curiosity was great. And for many of them it was actually easier to speak openly to an American than to a fellow Russian, if they wanted to say anything critical of the current regime. They knew they could trust us not to turn them in, but to build that kind of trust with one of their own countrymen took time.

I’ll bet that our tour guides had a fit when they found out that we were missing from the hotel that night. Intourist was not only a tourist agency but also a branch of the KGB, so we all figured that our tour guides were supposed to keep an eye on us. So it was fun to give them the slip now and then!

Even if we were a little reckless, we weren’t too reckless. You’re supposed to drink vodka bottoms-up, and Russians delight in drinking Americans, as well as each other, under the table. But I wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. I took just a sip and did not care if anybody thought I was chicken.]

Two years later I visited Tbilisi again. It was a much shorter visit and some of my time was spent trying to arrange a rendezvous with a friend from Leningrad. The tour’s last stop in the Soviet Union was going to be Kiev, and I wanted to set up a meeting with my friend there. It’s a pretty amusing story, which tells you about the amazingly primitive communication system then in the Soviet Union. What an incredible difference cell phones have made…

6/9/1980: On Friday night I telephoned L., a task which proved more complicated than I expected. I ordered a call through the dezhurnaya (concierge) on my floor. The call was supposed to be put through at 10:00, but at 10:00 nothing happened, and by 10:30 still nothing had happened, and by 11:00 still nothing. I was totally in despair by that point, and I went to the dezhurnaya to ask if she had any idea why the call hadn’t come through. When I came back to my room I checked to see whether the phone was plugged in — and, sure enough, when I moved the desk away from the wall, the plug fell on the floor. What absurd fate, I thought. …

Hoping that L. would wait in E.A. [her teacher, who had a phone]’s apartment long enough, I ran to the telephone/telegraph/post office, where one can place phone calls directly to Leningrad. Somehow it seemed logical that almost all the people there were waiting to phone Leningrad. There was no line outside the Moscow booths, a very short line outside the Kiev, but to phone Leningrad I had to wait over an hour and a half! The time went by fairly quickly, though, because I talked with a Georgian architect who was sitting next to me in line. At 1:05 AM, which was 12:05 Leningrad time, it was finally my turn. I was sure that L. wouldn’t be at E.A.’s apartment that late … She answered the phone, and we talked for about five minutes. My face must have been beaming when I left the booth; the news was good. She will come to see me in Kiev …

[Oh well, who am I fooling? When I wrote “friend,” I really meant “fiancée.” We did get to meet in Kiev, and we got married later that year… and divorced 2½ years after that. Not all adventures work out happily in the end.]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. September 10, 2017 at 10:11 am

The first time that I saw Georgian writing I was transfixed by it. The shape of the letters and how they form words is like visual poetry or music. So romantic. It’s an alphabet created by children playing in make-believe castles or perhaps by gnomes. It’s a cultural treasure.


Roman Parparov September 10, 2017 at 2:50 pm

I hope you realize that Socialism barely existed in Georgia. It was but a curtain for a prospering tribal feudalism.


Matt September 11, 2017 at 4:27 pm

Wow, this was an interesting story. For different reasons.

1. Having seen a tourist info video on World Cup`s official broadcast, I thought to myself: how about visiting this magnificently exotic country sometime in the future, with my wife.

2. Having been born in November 1978, just couple days after your first trip there.

Also the fascinating event that`s going on and nice personal angle, naturally.


Roman Parparov September 15, 2017 at 8:50 am

Russia isn’t magnificently exotic, soon it’ll be exactly 100 years since it stopped being so; Georgia doesn’t hold the Cup. 🙂


paul B. September 15, 2017 at 9:51 am

Google “modern architecture in Georgia” then click Images; your mouth will drop. Georgia is overflowing with the most inventive architecture on our planet – giant eggs, flying saucers, stacks of pancakes. Their Ministry of Internal Affairs building is spectacular – an undulating ribbon of green glass where one would expect a fortress-like concrete bunker. After Communism, Georgians wanted their police buildings to express openness and transparency instead of fear.


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