What ever happened to … Lev Psakhis?

by admin on January 26, 2009

As readers of this blog know, every now and then I like to do my small part to make the chess world smaller, by surfing some of the Russian chess websites and reporting on what I find. This way I can put my college Russian to some use.

On the ChessPro website, there is a very interesting interview of Grandmaster Lev Psakhis, conducted by Mark Livshitz. Psakhis celebrated his fiftieth birthday last November (coincidentally, the same month as my fiftieth birthday!), and the interview seems to have been conducted around that time — probably at the chess Olympiad in Dresden, although the article doesn’t say so.

A lot of you who weren’t alive or paying attention to chess in the early 1980s may not even know who Lev Psakhis is. He is a rarity in world chess, perhaps comparable to the nineteenth-century American player, Harry Nelson Pillsbury. Psakhis came out of nowhere, as a player with practically no international experience, to win the 1980 Soviet championship. He wasn’t even a grandmaster at that point, just an international master. And then, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he came back next year and won again — stopping even the great Kasparov during Kasparov’s surge to the top of world chess, when he could seemingly do no wrong. Psakhis beat Kasparov in round two, and then the two of them raced neck and neck for the next fifteen rounds, eventually tying for first place with a mind-blowing score of 12.5/17. The third-place finisher was two and a half points behind them! A good sporting analogy might be the 1977 British Open golf tournament, when a young Tom Watson beat the great Jack Nicklaus by one stroke — and the third-place finisher was ten shots behind.

But strangely enough, the 1981 Soviet championship would prove to be the pinnacle of Psakhis’ career — while for Kasparov, it was merely a springboard to greater accomplishments. As Livshitz says, Psakhis ran into a “wall made of air,” and gradually fell out of the world’s chess elite. Livshitz asks, “Who was at fault? The system or the era in which he formed as a chess player? A fatal case of bad luck or an unfortunate constellation of stars? I don’t know, in the final analysis, what lies behind his self-effacing irony and his philosophical sentences. And I doubt that anyone will ever completely succeed in understanding the two-time champion of the Soviet Union.”

Even so, it’s an extremely interesting interview, and here I will translate some of the highlights.

After learning to play chess at the comparatively late age of 9, Psakhis moved with his family to the back of beyond — the city of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. At first, Psakhis says, he was happy because in his old hometown children didn’t have to go to school when the temperature was below -25°. In Krasnoyarsk that’s nothing unusual, so Psakhis figured he would get a lot of free vacation days. It didn’t work out that way. Sure enough, the temperature dropped to -40°, and he stayed at home. “On the third day they [the schoolmasters] came and got me, and the ‘laugh’ was over,” he says.

Psakhis denies being a prodigy, but he first attacted attention in 1973, when the old chess great Salo Flohr came to Krasnoyarsk for a simultaneous exhibition. Flohr brought some Informants, and the 14-year-old Psakhis astounded him by telling him in each diagram who the players were. He had memorized every diagram in the book! The interviewer, Livshitz, asks in amazement, “And you say you weren’t a prodigy?” Psakhis replies, “No, I just had a good memory.”

After this Psakhis was invited to the famous Botvinnik school, where most of Russia’s grandmasters learned their trade. Someone else showed up at the same time. “At the end of 1973, Botvinnik got a new kid — Kasparov, or pardon me, Weinstein.” [Garry Kasparov’s birth name was Weinstein; Kasparov was his mother’s name, which he soon adopted because it sounded less Jewish.] The two of them enjoyed analyzing together for a while, but then Psakhis was thrown out of school — for playing the Cochrane Gambit!

“At some point we were supposed to play a pair of training matches. They gave me some girl as a sparring partner. I beat her with Black, and then as White in the Petroff Defense I sacrificed my knight on f7 on the fourth move. If this had been Tal’s school, not Botvinnik’s, I think that this would have been met with understanding. I think that the moment I took that pawn, I signed my own death sentence, and they stopped inviting me to the training sessions.”

So Psakhis went back to Siberia. But in spite of the lack of competition, he continued to improve. As a teenager, and still not even a master yet, he won first place in the championship of the Russian republic. (Note: In the Soviet era, Russia was only one of several republics that made up the Soviet Union. Even so, winning this tournament as a candidate master would be something like winning the U.S. championship as a low-level master.)

After winning this tournament, Psakhis eventually got the chance to play in his first international tournament, in Poland, as a last-minute substitute for Vitaly Tseshkovsky. He started out terribly, with one point in three rounds. “And suddenly something happened. In the fourth round I started my real professional career as a chess player, which lasted two years,” he says. He won game after game and finished the Polish tournament in first place, then came back home and won the semifinal of the Soviet championship, thereby qualifying for the championship section. “The principle of my play [at that time] was analogous to the Brazilian approach to soccer: our opponents will score as much as they can, and we will score as much as we have to,” he says.

Still, he had no expectation of winning the whole championship. With five rounds to play, he was still only at 50 percent, three games behind the leader, Kupreichik. But then Kupreichik collapsed, scoring only ½ point out of his last 5 games. For Psakhis, it was the exact opposite — he finished with 4½ out of his last 5, blazing past Kupreichik and everybody else, except for Alexander Beliavsky, who managed to tie him for first.

Psakhis’s reaction to this, as he recounts in the interview, was very strange: “I won [in the last round] against Evgeni Vasiukov, and I saw with horror that I might be the undisputed champion. Next Yusupov lost, and I can honestly say that I did not want him to lose. My close friend Seryozha Dolmatov stood badly, and someone else lost too, and I was simply horrified. My only hope that I would not be the undisputed champion was if Beliavsky could beat Rashkovsky, and when this actually happened, I was very happy. I’m telling you the truth.”

Amazing … Psakhis was happy that somebody shared the title with him. Somehow I don’t think Kasparov would have reacted quite the same way! All I can think is that perhaps Psakhis had a little bit of the “impostor syndrome” — he just didn’t feel ready yet for the title of Soviet champion. Or perhaps he just didn’t have Kasparov’s drive to be number one?

However, the next year’s tournament was a very different matter. That was Kasparov’s first year playing in the Soviet championship, and as I mentioned earlier, the two of them simply blew through the rest of the field. Psakhis’ description of his critical round-two encounter with Kasparov is fascinating. Traditionally an e4 player, Psakhis had started experimenting with d4 in many blitz games against Kasparov. In those days, Psakhis says, Kasparov was simply unbeatable at speed chess, but it was a great way for Psakhis to learn how to play 1. d4. And so when he played it against Kasparov in the Soviet championship, the latter was flustered.

“Kasparov looked at me with extreme surprise… He probably figured that I wanted to play against him in the King’s Indian, which he used to play at that time. So he thought for about six or seven minutes and played 1. … e6. This move, in turn, slightly astonished me. What is he going to do if I play 2. e4? I knew he wouldn’t go into a French, and he would probably play 2. … c5 and we’ll get some kind of Sicilian. After thinking for five minutes, I played 2. c4. He went 2. … Nf6. From our earlier games I had prepared 3. Nf3, the Queen’s Indian Defense. But on 3. Nf3 he will go into a Benoni, and I won’t be able to play the variation I had prepared… So I went 3. Nc3, and he played 3. … Bb4, and we went into a Nimzo-Indian, having each taken about 20 minutes to this point. After this we both sat there drenched in sweat and a little bit frightened… He was no expert in the Nimzo-Indian for Black, but as for me, I didn’t know anything at all!”

Later Kasparov sacrificed a piece unsoundly, but this was the Kasparov of 1981 — even his unsound sacrifices would have been enough to beat most mortals. “He dreamed up some unbelievable complications, and the play started to resemble roulette. We both sat there and calculated, and calculated again, and so after 24 moves we each had about two moves until the time control [at move 40!] in an unbelievably complicated position, and the tension just grew and grew. From the 18th to the 24th move even the slightest mistake on either side would have led to disaster… Finally, in the end, it was hopeless for him, and we were simply banging away on the clock. Somewhere around the 45th move — I didn’t know how many it was, I could only guess — his flag finally fell, and I said that I would adjourn the game. After that Kasparov resigned.”

After sixteen rounds, Psakhis stood in first place, with 12 points to Kasparov’s 11½. But Psakhis was only able to draw in round 17, and Kasparov pulled even with him by winning. Psakhis’ reaction this time was very different from the previous year. “I remember that after the last round I was walking around as if I had a dark cloud over my head — I could have won, but only tied. But my friend Boris Gulko told me, ‘Just wait — in the future you will remember this tournament as one of the best in your life.'”

Gulko’s words turned out to be prophetic. Psakhis says, “It turned out to be not just one of the best, but the best of my career, which basically came to an end then, although I did have a little bit more joy at Dortmund, where I became a grandmaster.” (That’s right! Psakhis is the answer to a trivia question: Who won two Soviet championships before he even became a GM?) At that point, rated ninth in the world, Psakhis’ career ran into the aforementioned “wall made of air.” As he says, “I very gradually changed from a very strong grandmaster to a strong one, from a strong one to a good one, from a good one to an ordinary one, until finally I turned my attention completely to working as a trainer.”

In the interview, Livshitz gently probes for the hidden reasons behind Psakhis’s decline. For the most part, Psakhis won’t bite. Of course, one reason was that the Soviet chess establishment gave him, as a Jew, very few opportunities to play abroad. About this, Psakhis only says, “For me, this was a very sore spot for a very long time. But I wasn’t the only one in that position. Maybe my example was one of the most vivid? But not only that, the head of the chess federation, Nikolai Krogius, was my personal enemy. He was friends with hardly anybody, but I was among the small group of people that he hated.”

Livshitz probes a little more: “But what if you had had an ‘angel’ on the level of Aliev?” [Western readers might not understand this reference. Remember that Garry Kasparov was half-Jewish, too, and could have faced some of the same problems as Psakhis did. But Kasparov was the protegé of Heydar Aliev, president of Azerbaijan and member of the Politburo of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet era, everything came down to whom you knew. In the calculus of influence, Aliev was an ace of spades, while Krogius would barely even count as a face card.]

But Psakhis only answers, “I don’t want to get into that now.”

In fact, for someone who “coulda been a contender,” in the words of Marlon Brando, Psakhis actually seems completely at peace with the way his life has worked out. He emigrated in 1990 to Israel and played several times on Israel’s Olympic team. Around 1992 he started to work with Judit and Zsuzsa (Susan) Polgar, and as he says, this was the beginning of his new career as a trainer. At first he was about 90 percent a chess player and 10 percent a trainer, but over time the percentages reversed, and since 2006 he has been 100 percent a trainer. He has especially been involved with the growth of the world’s new chess superpower — India. One of his pupils is Parimarjan Negi, the world’s second-youngest grandmaster ever (age 13), who won the Philadelphia International last year and tied for first place in the World Open. He also coached the Indian teams at the Chess Olympiad in Dresden, where the men finished 16th.

At the end of the interview, Livshitz asks, “Considering all of your life experience, if you had a chance to do it all over, would you have changed anything?” Says Psakhis, “One can never change anything in one’s life. As our friends the Indians say, it’s all karma… Even if I had played the Caro-Kann, instead of the French, it would not have changed anything in my life. That’s simply the way it went, and this moment is what it has led to.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Henry January 27, 2009 at 6:22 am

Do you know Psakhis? He seems like a person one would like to count as a friend


admin January 27, 2009 at 9:49 am

No, I don’t know him or any other world-class players personally. I wish!

I think it’s a credit to the interviewer, LIvshitz, that he was able to bring out Psakhis’ personality so clearly. Psakhis seems to me like a very admirable person, someone who could have been bitter about the chances that passed him by, but isn’t.


Andres D. Hortillosa January 27, 2009 at 11:30 am

Psakhis also worked with Kasparov in his world championship matches. This substantive post like many others is one reason I frequent your blog.


Lauri February 12, 2009 at 12:40 am

This amazing post! Thanks dearly. I’ll treasure this for a long time.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: