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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Botvinnink's Early Rival

    Grigory Y. Levenfish (March 21, 1889 – February 9, 1961) was a Russian grandmaster who scored his peak competitive results in the 1920s and 1930s.
     He was twice Soviet champion, in 1934 (tied with Ilya Rabinovich) and 1937. In 1937 he drew a match against future world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Levenfish was also a well-regarded chess writer.
     Born in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire he spent most of his formative years in St. Petersburg, where he attended St. Petersburg State University and studied chemical engineering.
     His earliest recognition as a prominent chess player came when he won the St. Petersburg chess championship of 1909, and played in the strong Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) tournament of 1911, although he made a minus score in the very strong field. At age 22, this was to be his first and last tournament outside Russia or the Soviet Union.
     His play at the time was compared to that of Chigorin. Into the next decade, he continued to perform well in local tournaments, most notably winning the Leningrad Championships of 1922, 1924, and 1925 (jointly). At a national level too, he enjoyed an excellent record at the Soviet Championship; third in 1920, second in 1923, co-champion at Leningrad in 1934 (tied with Ilya Rabinovich at 12/19), and outright champion at Tbilisi in 1937 with 12.5/19.
     In the very strong Moscow International tournament of 1935, he scored 10.5/19, to tie for 6th-7th places. In a Soviet-only tournament at Leningrad 1936, he placed third with 8.5/14. Participation in the Leningrad-Moscow training tournament of 1939 resulted in a shared 3rd-6th place finish, with 10/17, behind winner Flohr and Samuel Reshevsky.
     In match play, he drew a 13 game match Botvinnik in 1937 and beat Vladimir Alatortsev in 1940.
     Despite his successes, Levenfish was virtually ignored by the Soviet chess authorities. They consistently supported his rival Botvinnik, and pretenders to the throne were not encouraged. Levenfish was a member of the older generation of masters, 22 years older than Botvinnik. He was the only strong Soviet master of his generation who was denied a stipend. This meant that he could only afford a poorly heated room in a run-down block of flats.
     Worse still, the government refused him permission to travel abroad and compete in tournaments such as AVRO 1938 (even though he was the reigning Soviet Champion). This further weakened his standing not to mention his continued development as a player. Other players born pre-revolution, such as Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch, were all allowed to travel and even ended up living abroad. Deprived of the same opportunities, Levenfish played only within the confines of Soviet Russia and supplemented his income with a job as an engineer in the glass industry. This eventually resulted in a slow retirement from active play.
     Levenfish was awarded the title of International Grandmaster in 1950, the year the title was introduced officially. Those who knew Levenfish characterized him as a man of integrity and independence, who never complained about his difficult living conditions.
     Spassky encountered him in a Moscow subway, just days before his death. Levenfish, who had a wretched look, was clutching a handkerchief to his mouth and declared that he had just had six teeth extracted. Smyslov recounts the time that Levenfish visited him, towards the end of his life, armed with a huge pile of papers. It turned out to be a manuscript detailing his lifetime work on rook endgames. He asked Smyslov to check for errors, and some minor corrections later, the book was published bearing both names, under the title of The Theory Of Rook Endings.
     In his time, Levenfish also wrote books for beginners and edited a collaborative effort on chess openings, titled Modern Openings. His posthumously published autobiography, Izbrannye Partii I Vospominanya (1967), contained 79 annotated games. Levenfish defeated virtually all of the top Russian and Soviet players from the 1910s to the early 1950s, and beat world champions Alexander Alekhine and Emanuel Lasker as well.
     Levenfish was a prominent theorist in openings and in the middlegame he had not only an excellent grasp of tactics, but also an excellent command of positional play. His chief strongpoint however was tactics. A resourceful tactician, he planned complex and well-disguised combinations and set ingenious traps. Enjoy his smashing attack against Yudovich played in the 8th USSR Championship.


  1. I'm curious, how many languages do you speak?

    1. Just English and it took me 3 years to learn to speak it! I can read enough Spanish, German and Russian to get through a CHESS book though.