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Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Murder of Russia's Button Czar

     Sergey Nikolaevich Nikolaev (September 27, 1961 – October 20, 2007, 46 years old) was an IM and coach. He abandoned his chess career in the late 1980s to became a successful businessman though he did maintain his interest in chess and continued to attend chess events in Moscow. 
     He was originally from the Sakha Republic (aka Yakutia Republic, it is a republic in far northeastern Russia, in northeastern Siberia). The Sakha Republic is huge with a population of about about a million with a climate and terrain that can only be described as “harsh.” It has the lowest lifespan in Russia and unemployment and alcoholism are common. As a point of interest, Yakutsk has the lowest winter temperatures for any city with temperatures reaching as low aa 30 degrees below zero (F) and a record low of almost 84 below! It is the biggest city built on continuous permafrost and most houses there are built on concrete piles. 
     In the Soviet Era (1917 to 1991) discrimination against the native population was common. There were restaurants in the capital of Yakutsk that didn't allow native Yakuts in. In Yakutsk anyone speaking the native language was often looked down on and told to speak a civilized language which Nikolaev did. In fact, he did not speak Yakut; at home they always spoke only Russian. 
     Even though he was the youngest of five brothers, from childhood he managed the family budget and learned the value of money as he calculated everything down to the last kopeck. Speaking of chess players when he got older, he said some of them stay babies until they retire, but he was already an old man by the age of seven. 
     His father and brothers all played chess. When the chess magazine “64” arrived there was always a fight over it and as the youngest, Nikolaev always was the last to see it. He studied in a group and at 12 he reached the first category. By the time he graduated and went to study in Leningrad he was a Candidate Master. He played in a lot of tournaments, but wasn't a fanatic because, as he said, he got very tired from working so hard at it. 
     After graduating from the commerce institute he returned home and became deputy head of a department in the republic's Ministry of Trade. He continued playing and soon obtained the Master title and in 1984 won the national Spartak championship, a strong master tournament. He was champion of the republic three times. The republic's team, for which he always played top board, placed highly in Russian events.  
     When Perestroika began emerging and opportunities to travel outside the country appeared, Nikolaev was one of the first people to start playing in foreign opens. In Harkany, Hungary, he won a tournament and became an IM. His play was erratic...he could beat GM, but still finish with a minus score. His style was tricky and tactical and earned him the nickname “Cunning Nikolasha.” 
     Chess wasn't his only interest and he often told his colleagues things that to them seemed strange and far-fetched. He would tell masters from some remote Russian town that soon everything would disappear from the shops and they should buy potatoes and flour. He would also remind them that they should not worry about ratings, but rather the future of their children because things were going to change for the worse. Life wasn't going to just get more expensive, it was going to get MUCH more expensive. It was his belief that only those who played at the very highest level could live off chess.  He often spoke about what seemed like odd stuff like getting an apartment, how to get a permit to live in Moscow, how to meet influential people. Everybody thought he was talking nonsense. 
     When he got the opportunity, he organized a tournament in Podolsk, near Moscow. That was in late 1990 and the Soviet Union was entering the last months of its existence and everything was in short supply, but at Nikolaev's tournament there was tea and coffee and pastries for all. Even toilet paper was supplied! He tried to combine playing with directing duties, but it was a bad idea and his results were poor, but the tournament was a success and he decided to continue organizing. 
     As a result, he developed a chess program in the republic that attracted Masters and GMs. He also wanted to put chess on television. It didn't work out and he realized that if he stayed in chess, he'd always be dependent on sponsors, high-ranking officials and circumstances beyond his control. He also realized that having passed 30, he couldn't make it as a professional player and the smartest thing to do was leave the game. He did read chess magazines but completely gave up playing chess and didn't even own a chess set. 
     He did not care much for the attitude many professionals took towards chess. He used to ask young players, "Have you thought about the future? Look at the veterans playing in tournaments, they're like lamp-posts in the street, every passing dog tries to lift its leg on them! And don't complain later that you've wasted your time, that I didn't warn you or you didn't know." 
     Nikolaev got a loan and established a button business. His belief was, "As long as the world turns a woman will always wear clothes, and buttons will always be needed." Back on the streets of Moscow he hired girls, supplied them with sacks of buttons and told them to sell them one by one. It may seem odd, but in those days he wasn't the only on in the button business; there others doing the same thing. 
     He realized there were bigger profits to made in other businesses, but it could be risky; one could go broke and, in those days, even get killed. So, he stuck with buttons and expanded his business to include thread and sewing accessories. He was very successful, eventually becoming the leading Russian supplier. By that time he employed mostly chess players.
     He ran the company with an iron fist, but employees respectfully called him Papa and because of his business acumen employees often referred to him as “the Genius.” If he gave someone a job, it was for a lifetime. In return he expected absolute loyalty. 
     Not a 9-5 type of guy, Nikolaev ridiculed schemes, business plans and timetables for development and wasn't a big fan of paperwork. Employees would spend however much they considered necessary on a job then give a personal report of their expenses and that was it. 
     Despite his personal low-key demeanor, underneath he had an iron will and when talking to him one couldn't read anything on his poker face.   On the other hand, he could read people and often a 15 minute chat would tell him all he needed to know about a person. It was a skill he tried to teach his employees. 
     Nikolaev liked to read books about wealthy people in an effort to learn about how they managed their lives, their money and everything else. That lead him to make the comment, "There are only three things you can earn honestly - calluses, hernias and debts. I'd also like to know, where did the firewood come from? It's a small detail, of course, but they keep it quiet. Where did it come from?"  Along with great self-confidence he also had the gift of persuasion because he believed he could always justify his point of view. 
     A rather odd person, he lived well. Fresh fruits, vegetables, juice, an occasional glass of the best red wine and Evian water were always available. He never drank tap water and washed his dishes in a special solution because he didn't trust commercial dish washing liquid...it left traces on the dishes. Initially he refused to use computers because they gave off radiation, but he eventually learned to use them, but only to surf the web, get the news and keep up with chess. He also disliked animals and tried to avoid them because he believed they carried diseases. Germs lurked everywhere so he wore gloves and was obsessed with health, medicine and nutrition. 
     All his friends were chess players and when they came to Moscow he always invited them to a restaurant. While there he would ask questions. Things like where exactly did the items on the menu come from, were the mushrooms really wild as stated on the menu?   Questions like that.
     He never married because he was skeptical of women and never allowed anyone to get too close because it placed restrictions and obligations on him that he didn't want. Besides, it was his belief that he wouldn't live long. He was right. 
     In 2007, Nikolaev was brutally murdered in the streets of Moscow. He was attacked after a soccer match by a gang of neo-Nazi youths near his home because of his Eurasian appearance. They used a baseball bat and a knife. 
     After the soccer match the gang marched around the southern part of the city, attacking anybody they saw who did not look like an ethnic Russian.  Despite numerous witnesses, nobody tried to aid Nikolaev nor did anybody alert the police for 30 minutes after the attack as he lay dead in the street. The gang of young people, aged 14-16, had disappeared by the time the police arrived. 
     Nikolaev was not the only victim. His friend Galijan Gulyashov was badly beaten, but survived and was admitted to the hospital in serious condition. 
     You can survey his games HERE.

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