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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Evgeny Ruban, A Hooligan Who Was Stripped of His Master Title

    You probably never heard of Evgeny Ruban (1941-1997). A very strong player from Siberia, he was never allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union, but wherever he was exiled to, Chita, Kostroma or Volkovyssk, he was the city champion. As a homosexual, he was charged with hooliganism which was later upgraded to hooliganism with extreme cynicism. He was stripped of his Master title and reduced to the title of Candidate Master of Sport and even had his picture removed from the Chigorin Chess Club in St. Petersburg. But, he was in good company; Korchnoi's photo disappeared in 1976. Only a handful of Ruban's early games have survived. 
    In 1959 at the national youth team championship in Riga, Ruban played on board two for Belorussia, when he kicked off the team because of a conflict with his coaches; staying out late at night and independent behavior were a violation of the sporting regime, a term that usually meant drunkenness or an unacceptable level of individualism. As a result, he was disqualified for a year. That event wasn't the last; many more were to come.
     Physically he looked “Jewish” which was disadvantage. He maintained that his parents were Ukrainian and when he moved to Minsk he asked the Soviet Master Albert Kapengut's father, a historian, about the possibility of joining majoring in history. Kapengut's father, thinking Ruban was Jewish, mentioned the possible difficulties of getting in and Ruban quickly told him, “You know, I'm a Russian.” It didn't matter though because Ruban was drafted into the army. He played a lot chess in army tournaments, but still was not a master.
     After the army, he arrived in Leningrad in 1965 where he lived for six years. There he entered the university to study philosophy. And that's when his chess talent blossomed. He won the quarter-final of the city championship, made the master norm in the semi-final and became city champion in the final. His trademark was that he always played in a suit. He was viewed as being smart, self-disciplined and solemn, but at the same time sarcastic, caustic and cynical. GM Sosonko, who knew him at that time, wrote that he didn't like him at all. Sosonko wrote that after winning the Leningrad Championship, Ruban became more self-assured, but also more arrogant because he thought he was a “star.” Sosonko described how Ruban whould show up at the chess club all dressed up wearing a bow tie. In those days few men wore beards, but Ruban was an exception. During games he would often smile to himself and stroke his beard. Sosonko also wrote, “He could wound you for any reason and consciously pick at the wound. All this with a nice smile.”
     Ruban was always short on money. He lived in a student dormitory on a monthly stipend so small that it was of impossible to survive on it and he occasionally made a little money from chess. Kapengut recalled playing in a tournament against Ruban in 1965 in Vilnius where they gave out food vouchers and Ruban exchanged his for cash and lived on yogurt and a roll. Ruban spent what little money he had on books, especially on philosophy, but he would read anything and was rarely without a book.
     While a student he had already started drinking and at the Chigorin Club's team championship which took place on Sundays he would arrive for his game still under the influence from his partying on Saturday and into Sunday morining. Team members would get him a beer...a littler hair of the dog that had bitten him.
     Even when drinking, he was still very strong. In the semi-final of the 1966 Soviet Championship Ruban arrived after binge drinking and lost his first four games, but in the end shared fourth place, missing qualification for the final by only half a point.
     In 1967 at Rostov-on-Don he played in a tournament for young masters which was his first really strong event. There he finished with a plus 2 score and handed the eventual winner Vladimir Tukmakov his only defeat.
     Ruban had a classical style and as excellent knowledge of the openings and his play was characterized by his ability to exploit the initiative well and play logical, positional chess. He also had a fairly good endgame technique. In the 1960s he learned a lot from the famous Soviet GM Isaac Boleslavsky. Strong players often gathered at Boleslavsky's house to discuss theory and research openings.
     He obtained his degree in 1970 and was accepted as a postgraduate student. That's when his troubles really started. One day in Leningrad in a small public park he met a young factory worker, shared some vodka and cheese and Ruban offered the young man money for sex. The young man agreed and visitors saw them. Some visitors intervened and a disturbance broke out, police were called and the two were arrested. The story about what happened in the police van isn't clear. One version is that Ruban offered the police sex if they were let go. Another version is that the young man demanded his payment, but Ruban refused claiming they'd been interrupted and the act have never been brought to fruition. His suggestion was that the young man collect his money from the police.
     The outcome of the matter was that the young man, blaming it on the vodka, showed remorse and promised he'd never do anything like that again; he was released on bail. Ruban, on the other hand, got involed in a philosophical discussion with the investigators about Socrates and the tolerant attitude towards homosexuals in the upper echelons of ancient Greek society, quoted Plato and gave Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Proust as examples. The investigators weren't impressed and he was refused bail and went to court charged with hooliganism.
     In court Ruban talked about a professor who had introduced him to gay sex when he was in dire financial straits , and how he didn't regret it because it had showed him who he really was. He refused to admit he was guilty of anything and his final statement was that he was grateful to the Soviet court that was sending him to a camp because people like him were needed there. The court threw the book at him...four years for hooliganism committed with extreme cynicism.
     He was released early and exiled. When his sentence ended he returned to Belorussia and resumed tournament play. It was at that time that he was stripped of his master title. At the championship of Belorussia he finished first by a half point, but awarding him the titled created a controversy. It was finally determined that a pederast wouldn't be a fitting champion and the title was awarded to the runner up.
     Ruban sent a request to Leningrad for the federation of the city where he had been champion to support a petition to restore his master title. At a committee meeting to determine what should be done the problem was solved when the director of the Chigorin Chess Club waded up the request and threw it in the wastebasket. Ruban wanted to return to Leningrad but needed a residence permit. He tried to get work as a security guard in order to get a temporary permit and even looked in to arranging a fake marriage, but was unsuccessful and had to return to Belorussia. He never did get his master title restored.
     As a homosexual and an outcast Ruban found it very difficulty to find employment but finally got a job as an orderly in a hospital morgue and finally found work as a lighting technician in a drama theater. He told a few acquaintances that he had written a play; some say he wrote crime novels. Being a convicted homosexual meant he could have no close friends because close association with such a person would stigmatize the other person, too, and bring them under suspicion.
     In the 1970s he was again convicted and sentenced and exiled. Upon his return he worked for a while as an instructor in the chess club, but was soon fired for drunkenness. He didn't leave the club though. He still hung out there reading library books on philosophy, art and crime novels. All the young players admired his knowledge of philosophy and literature. Sitting around in a shabby suit he always willing to accept a small gift, he drank every day and often didn't eat. All this left him emotionally disturbed and sometimes out of control. One time at a chess club he created a disturbance and shouted obscenities at a master who had been involved in his disqualification back in 1959.
     By the end of the 1980s he was scruffy, filthy and completely broken down. He lived in poverty with his elderly mother in her small apartment where they survived on her small pension. After getting drunk, he was hit by a car and taken to a hospital where he remained in critical condition for two weeks before beginning to recover; but then he suddenly died. His mother couldn't afford to pay for his funeral and it was paid for by the woman who had hit him. Almost nobody came to his funeral. The place where he was buried doesn't even have a name; locals just call it “the cemetery.” There is just a plaque with his name on it.

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