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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Semyon Furman

     Sometime in the mid-1960's I believe it was, I subscribed to a short-lived edition of Shakhmatny Bulletin in English. I don't remember who the translator/publisher was and the magazine was about 6 months behind the Russian edition, but it was always interesting because in those days any news coming out of Russia was welcomed. There was always plenty of opening analysis that was handy for correspondence games. That's where I first heard the name Semyon Furman.
     Semyon Abramovich Furman (December 1, 1920 – March 17, 1978) was a Soviet International Grandmaster and trainer. He is best known for developing Anatoly Karpov into a World Champion, but was a formidable player himself as well as a successful coach for several other world-class players.
     Born in Pinsk, Furman was a factory worker in Leningrad who developed his chess skills in his spare time and was a late bloomer by chess standards, not reaching even National Master strength until he was well into adulthood. His chess development was on hold during World War II, as Leningrad was placed under siege by the Nazis beginning in 1941. Organized chess started up again as the Second World War ended and Furman began slowly moving up through the very deep ranks of Soviet players.

     Pinsk, in Belorussia, was mostly Jewish and Furman's parents spoke Yiddish and he also understood it, but no Jewish festivals or traditions were observed in the family. Also, Furman was not a Communist Party member and although he was pressed to join, he never did and many of his tournaments and foreign trips did not take place precisely because of that.
     The year 1947 brought some rewards for Furman. He tied for first place in the All-Union Championship of the Spartak Club, with Vladimir Simagin, but lost the playoff match. Then, in the Leningrad Championship, he tied for 3rd-4th places and the Saratov 1947 National Tournament, he tied 2nd-3rd place. After that he began registering considerable successes in Soviet Championships and even when he failed to qualify his results were solid, especially considering the company he was playing in.
     Furman gradually proved he belonged in the upper echelon of Soviet chess elite, with many victories over top players but he did not become a Grandmaster until 1966, at age 46, after his first place result at Harrachov. It was difficult in those years for all but the very top Soviet players to travel abroad to international tournaments, where titles could be earned, and Furman had few opportunities. He did play for the USSR in the 1961 European Team Championship at Oberhausen on board ten, scoring 4/7, and contributing to the overall gold medal team victory. Chessmetrics.com puts Furman's peak rating at 2708 in 1948 which put him number 11 in the world at that time. Because of lack of international opportunities, Furman did not formally receive the title until eighteen years later.
     Furman was awarded the Honored Trainer of the USSR in 1973 for his work with young players. He served as trainer to the combined Soviet teams to the 1974 Nice Olympiad and the 1977 European Team Championship in Moscow. An exceptional opening specialist he was respected as being of virtually world-class strength with the White pieces, with which he scored most of his wins over the top players. He was sometimes referred to as "the world champion when playing White." He could not score anywhere near as well as Black, and this held back his success.
     Furman's health began to deteriorate in the mid-1960s. He became seriously ill and lost about 40 pounds in a month and had to undergo an operation for stomach cancer. He was operated on by Melnikov, a leader in oncology at that time. The operation was a success, but the cancer eventually returned eleven years later and he died at Leningrad in 1978, just before Karpov's match with Korchnoi for the World Championship. Karpov wrote that he missed Furman's help greatly during that match, which he won only narrowly.
    GM Genna Sosonko told about how one time he was analyzing with Furman and after one of Sosonko's moves Furman characteristically raised his eyebrows and glanced under his glasses and said, “Interesting. Who did you get this idea from?” Sosonko swore that he had thought it up at the board. Furman then replied, “That may be so, but all the same in your subconscious there remained a game seen earlier played by one of the classics.” This statement makes a good point for playing over a lot of GM games subconsciously absorbing patterns.
     When it came to opening analysis Furman always tried to delve into every position for himself even though he had an excellent memory for the analysis of others. His analysis often reached deep into the endgame and everything was recorded in thick notebooks , accompanied with diagrams drawn by hand.
     Furman was described by Sosonko as a simple and uneducated man who never studied anywhere after school adding that while he was no intellectual, he was a very devoted friend, and, although he did not have a lot to say , he had a very good sense of humor.
     With white Furman practically always opened with l . d4, occasionally playing l.c4 or l.Nf3 , whereas with black he played many openings such as the Gruenfeld, Pirc and the Alekhine Defences, and Indian set-ups. As strong a practical player as he was, he was a stronger theoretician whose contributions to the Nimzo-Indian, King ' s Indian, Sicilian, the Queen ' s Gambit Accepted and the Breyer Variation in the Ruy Lopez are important even today.
     Furman was a taciturn man. He spoke slowly and his movements were measured. He would unhurriedly move the pieces on the board, slowly reach for the clock button , take out a cigarette , turn on his lighter, adjust his spectacles. His wife described him as studying chess all the time. He liked to use a pocket set because they did not have much room in their house. But even without a set he was always thinking about chess.

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