Geller is best remembered today for the tactical ability and original attacking style which characterized the earlier part of his career. In later years he became a more rounded player. He was noted as an openings expert and was one of the pioneers, along with fellow Ukrainians Isaac Boleslavsky and David Bronstein, in developing the King's Indian Defense. Geller also greatly advanced the knowledge in several variations of the Sicilian Defense, such as the quiet line with 6.Be2 against the Najdorf Variation. He also introduced the sharp Geller Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4) against the Slav Defense. Former champion Botvinnik stated that in his opinion Geller was the best player in the world in the late 1960s.
Geller was a man of few words, with a characteristic facial expression, frequently rocked his head and would skeptically raise his eyebrows. When playing he was fond of wearing checked jackets and there was always the ashtray full of cigarette butts next to his board for he was a chain smoker. His walk, characterized by a slow waddle reminded people of either a former boxer, which he once was, or an old sailor who had wandered on shore.
Geller served in the army in World War II and obtained a degree in economics from the University of Odessa. His other passion was basketball and though he was a short, stocky fellow built more along the lines of a wrestler he was a star on a powerful Odessa team. Nevertheless his basketball coach, a chess enthusiast, urged him to concentrate on chess.When he appeared on the stage of the Central House of Railway Workers in Moscow back in 1949 for his first USSR Championship, it was to join the chess world's elite players for decades to come.
At the time of his Moscow debut in 1949 Geller was 24 years old which is old by today's standards but in those years during the war there was no time for chess. He more than made up for lost time becoming a Grandmaster three years later. And, the following year he was playing in the famous Zurich Candidates tournament in 1953. He was to qualify for six Candidates events during his career. His best finish was in 1962 when he finished just half a point behind the winner, Tigran Petrosian. Geller played in numerous international tournaments, ten Olympiads, and twenty-three Championships of the Soviet Union. He won the championship twice, on 1955 and 1979 and the ripe old age of 54.
Geller stood out as an analyst; his goal was always to find, not just a good move, but the best one. Geller said if he was feeling anxious or uncomfortable he would sit down at the chess board for five or six hours and gradually he would feel better. His widow, Oksana, remembered that sometimes in his sleep he would whisper chess moves or he might wake up in the middle of the night and go over to a table and write down some variation. His knowledge of openings was very deep. At the Interzonal Tournament in Petropolis in 1973 David Bronstein lost to Geller by playing the Alekhine Defense and commented, “...what should I have played against him? After all, he knows everything.”
In his younger years he was primarily a tactician, but even then he understood the importance of the strategic side of the game even as he was launching a wild attack. But in the late 1950's to early 1960's he experienced a change as his play gradually shifted to deeper positional play.
One of his serious weaknesses was related to his desire to always find the best move...time pressure. He always had a high number of games lost by overstepping the time limit. For some odd reason he would prefer overstepping to making a bad move or playing the first one that came to mind.
Geller sometimes did not notice the obvious. This trait caused Tahl to remark that the number of one-move blunders by Geller was greater than by any other grandmaster of his class. Korchnoi once remarked that sometimes he could be beaten simply by playing something totally unexpected because a change of the situation sometimes resulted in the often excitable Geller not being able to keep his emotions under control.
At the board Geller was not above trying to intimidate lesser players. He would look daggers at his opponent, bash the clock and noisily fiddle with his scoresheet. Spassky told about how Geller, when playing against a young Bobby Fischer, by his appearance and facial expressions seemed to be saying, “You're just a little shit trying to be a genius.” It was said that while Geller was good natured, he also was an opportunist and did everything that was advantageous to him.
Geller's last few chess years were difficult and he would likely not have been comfortable with chess as it's played today. Not only because of all the rapid and blitz tournaments which he disliked, but he disliked the new time controls which discouraged lengthy thinking, the disappearance of adjourned games and he certainly would never have liked the idea of using computers for opening preparation.
Geller was born into and grew up in a Jewish family in Odessa, although he was quite indifferent to his Jewishness and with his way of life he fully blended in with the environment and the country where he lived. He was a “Soviet man” but never a Party member. Although, to be safe, in his books he was careful to talk about the advantages of the socialist system, and condemned Bobby Fischer as a typical representative of the rotten capitalist system. In the 1972 Fischer vs. Spassky match it was Geller who demanded an official inspection of the tournament hall for the purpose of discovering some secret electronic apparatus that might be influencing Spassky's thinking. Viktor Baturinsky, the chief of the chess department of the Sports Committee in the Soviet Union, claimed it was all done on Geller' s personal initiative and Moscow did not give any authorization.
Sosonko wtote about the time, five years after he had left the Soviet Union, he and Geller had shared first place in the Hoogovens tournament in 1977. In an article in 64 magazine written by Geller he made no mention of Sosonko. Then, on 1980, Sosonko asked Geller to sign a copy of his book on the K-Indian Defense. Geller thought about it, then simply wrote, “With best wishes.” No signature or anything! In 1970 at the Match Soviet Union vs Rest of the World Geller complained to journalists that wins by the Rest of the World team were being greeted with considerably greater applause than those by the Soviet grandmasters.
Vladimir Tukmakov said of Geller, that while he wasn't a stupid man, he was not an an eloquent speaker and was somewhat inarticulate. So, often he simply preferred to hold his tongue, especially in a crowd, or in unfamiliar company. He enjoyed playing cards, dominoes and billiards. He liked to eat and drink with friends. But his failure to pay attention to calories and cholesterol caught up with him in his old age and he became overweight and had difficulty breathing. Still, he refused to give up cigarettes (he preferred Chesterfields).
He left this world after a long illness on November 17, 1998 and two days later he was buried in a cemetery only a fifteen minute walk away from his house.
Fischer vs. Geller Skopje 1967