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Monday, November 21, 2016

Victor Palciauskas

Black to move and win
     Bobby Fischer was not the only U.S. world chess champion in the seventies.  Dr. Victor Palciauskas (October 3, 1941 in Kaunas, Lithuania) was the tenth World Correspondence Champion from 1978 to 1984, scoring +8 -0 =7 in the finals. 
     Palciauskas was born in Lithuania in 1941 and his family moved to Germany in 1945 and to the U.S. in 1949. By that time he knew the moves, but didn't start to play seriously until he was 13 years old. 
     After his second-place finish at the 1958 Indiana Open, Palciauskas finished tied for 5th-7th in the 1959 U.S. Junior Championship held in Omaha, Nebraska with a score of +5 -2 =2. Robin Ault won the title on tie break over Gilbert Ramirez. Old timers will remember Ramirez as being famous for having been bitten by Bobby Fischer in a fight after the tournament.  As a result of his victory Ault earned an invitation to play in the 1959-60 U.S. Championship, but his disastrous 0-11 result caused the USCF to eliminate the automatic qualification of the winning junior champion.
     Ault also won in 1960, West Orange, New Jersey; Palciauskas did not play. But in Dayton, Ohio in 1961, Palciauskas tied for 7th-13th (+5 -2 =2); Ault won the junior title again. 
     In 1963 Palciauskas finished for 5th-10th in the U.S. Open, scoring +9 -3 =1. His 9.5 points put him behind only Lombardy, Robert Byrne, Gligoric and Benko and earned him the Master rating. Shortly after that he abandoned OTB play, mostly because of his studies and the fact that he did not live near a major chess center. 
     He received his PhD in theoretical physics in 1969 from the University of Illinois and the following year began teaching there. 
     At about that time he read an article by Walter Muir that outlined the path to the world correspondence championship and decided to give it a try. He had several major success in correspondence play, both nationally and internationally, but his entry into the finals of the World Correspondence Championship involved a bit of luck.  
     The 1976 North American Invitational was the qualifier for the world championship and Palciauskas tied for first with John Kalish, but finished second on tie breaks and thus did not qualify. However, at the ICCF meeting, Canadian John Cleeve learned that the finals of the upcoming world championship had three open spots reserved for special players. Dr. Max Euwe was one who was going to play by special invitation, but he passed away. Cleeve recommended Palciauskas for one of the available spots and it was accepted.
    For his achievements in correspondence play, in 1993 he was inducted into the U. S. Chess Hall of Fame. 
     The first question that probably comes to mind is what part did chess computers play in his win of the World Championship? The answer is none. 
     In 1976 CHESS 4.5 won the Class B section of the Paul Masson tournament in Northern California with a performance rating of 1950 and it wasn't until 1977 that the first microcomputer machine, Chess Challenger, was created. Also in 1977 a program called Chess 4.5 won the Minnesota Open scoring +5 -1 =0; its performance rating was 2271. 
     Then, again in 1977, Michael Stean became the first GM to lose to a computer even though it was a blitz game. In 1983, BELLE became the first computer to attain a master's rating when, in October, 1983, its USCF rating was 2203. Even by 1985 computers were barely at the master level. In 1985 Gary Kasparov played 15 of the top chess computers in Hamburg and scored 32-0. 
    Palciauskas' exploits in winning the World CC Championship are well documented, but his games in events leading up to that are lesser known and today's game features one of his interesting wins taken from the U.S. Correspondence Chess Championship. What caught my attention was the position after white's 15.Nd4. Black has an incredible move to win that was missed by both players, but not Stockfish.
     The opening, the Ponziani, is one that would never be played today in top level competition. The Ponziani, one of the oldest openings, was advocated by Howard Staunton in his 1847 book The Chess-Player's Handbook
     White's third move prepares to build a P-center with 4.d4, but 3.c3 is somewhat premature because the move takes away the most natural square for White's b8N, temporarily creates a hole on d3 and develops a pawn rather than a piece leaving White behind in development. 
     As long ago as 1904 Frank Marshall wrote that, "There is no point in White's third move unless Black plays badly. ... White practically surrenders the privilege of the first move." More recently, Graham Burgess called the Ponziani "a relic from a bygone age, popular neither at top level nor at club level". 
     On the other hand Bruce Pandolfini said every great teacher of openings who investigated the Ponziani has concluded that it leads to interesting play and deserves to be played more often...and it remains to be seen whether the Ponziani is an opening of the past or of the future. When Max Euwe and Walter Meiden published Chess Master Vs. Chess Amateur in 1963 Euwe wrote that it's not an opening for beginners because tactics predominate in the play. Euwe also added that there are no simple strategic principles to govern the general lines in this opening. Who are you going to believe?!

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