<i>Aleks</i> – GM Shabalov on Aleksander Wojtkiewicz' death

7/26/2006 – On July 14th Grandmaster Aleksander (Aleks) Wojtkiewitz, Polish citizen born in Latvia and resident in the USA, died at the age of just 43. He was well known, but also a sometimes controversial figure in the chess world. A colleague who knew him especially well is GM Alexander Shabalov. He and others have sent in their thoughts on Aleks' passing.

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Aleks in 1993

Aleks

By GM Alexander Shabalov

Aleksander Wojtkiewicz was born on January 15,1963 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union. His father, Pavel Wojtkiewicz, was a master strength player, (although Soviet authorities refused to grant him the title) and well-known chess and card hustler.

Aleks began playing chess at an early age, and by the time I joined the Riga Chess Club at age 7 – Aleks was five years older than me – he had become the strongest and most promising junior in the city. He was always Tal’s favorite student, because of his talent and his obvious affinity to the three required non-chess components of Tal’s chess school: smoking, drinking, and womanizing.


In the mid 90s

It all came to an abrupt end: In 1982, at 19, Aleks was called up for the draft. At the time, the Soviet Union was fighting a war in Afghanistan, a war which Aleks did not want to be any part of, neither philosophically nor practically. He went underground, making a living by hustling cards and chess on the streets of St. Petersburg and resort cities in the South of Russia, working as a pimp, and sleeping on the floor of different friends’ apartments. He lived this grueling lifestyle for four years, until in 1986, exhausted, he turned himself in to the authorities. Sentenced to two years imprisonment as a draft dodger, he began his stint in Latvian jail.

These two years made a profound impression on his psyche. His job as prison photographer included taking pictures of violent crime scenes. His most famous work in prison, however, was the invention of an important opening novelty, which was used to great effect in the game Adams-Shirov, Biel 1991.

Adams,Michael (2615) - Shirov,Alexei (2610) [B72]
Biel Biel (4), 1991
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Bc4 Bg7 7.0-0 0-0 8.h3 Nc6 9.Be3 Nxe4 10.Bxf7+?!

Previously, this position in the Dragon had been thought to be much better for White because of the sacrifice 10.Bxf7. Everyone had always played 10…Rxf7 and gotten an inferior position. Aleks’ creative novelty was 10...Kxf7! He mentioned the idea to me several months after his release. I relayed it to Shirov, and three years later it became the sensation of Biel. The game continued 11.Nxe4 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 e5 13.Be3 d5 14.Ng3 Kg8 15.c3 Be6 16.Ne2 g5 17.Qd2 h6 18.h4 gxh4 19.Bxh6 Qf6 20.Bg5 Qg6 21.Bxh4 Rf5 22.f4 Qg4 23.Bg5 Raf8 24.Rf2 d4 25.cxd4 exf4 26.Bxf4 Bc4 27.Be3 Rxf2 28.Bxf2 Bxe2 0-1.


In 1996

Released in early 1988 for “good behavior,” Aleks moved to Poland and began playing chess again. The night before leaving he visited a training camp in Yurmala with Sokolov, Salov, and Ehlvest, still fresh from their losses in Saint John’s Candidate matches. That was the last time the Magnificient Four of this generation were seen together.

Aleks' rise to true grandmaster power and his achievement of the title began with an excellent performance in the European Team Championship in Haifa in 1989. Although Polish chess officials welcomed him with open arms at first, their relationship quickly became strained. Having become a leading Polish player he enjoyed many benefits of the new, rapidly spreading capitalism in Poland. The Polish federation gave him an apartment and a car, and wanted to give him a house. Unfortunately, he showed up to the requisite meeting with the mayor of Warsaw and head of chess federation completely drunk, and told both that he wanted no favors from former communists like them. This, and similar incidents, lost him the support of the Polish federation. But Aleks continued playing strong chess.


Aleks in 2000

In a memorial speech in Curacao, Jaan Ehlvest called Wojt the James Bond of chess. I don’t know if I would go that far; maybe Don Quixote is a better comparison. Either way, he was of a generation that is slowly dying out: the devil-may-care, living-for-the-moment professional chess bum. He traveled from tournament to tournament, thinking little about money or a conventional lifestyle, only about playing chess and enjoying himself. He really lived his life as if there was no tomorrow.

I remember one funny story with Wojt from a knock out tournament in Tilburg in 1994. Aleks, Khalifman and I decided to visit Amsterdam for the evening, and during the entire two hour drive there, Aleks was explaining to us how his prison experiences had given him unerring gaydar. He assured us that he could recognize a homosexual from 200 meters distance. So we parked and were walking to a Chinese restaurant, passing through the Red Light District on the way. Aleks spotted a truly beautiful woman, and was so enchanted with her that he told us to go ahead, order him some egg rolls, and he would meet us shortly. Forty minutes later he appeared, red-faced. After some cajoling we got the story out of him: the woman had begun by giving him a wonderful massage and he was having a very enjoyable time. But then when things heated up and she removed her clothes, she turned out to be a man. Of course, the jokes about this incident never died, and I never ate Peking Duck again without laughing.


In 2002

In 1998 he had a son, Josef, with the Lithuanian player Laima Domarkaite. Sponsorship from the Polish airline LOT allowed Aleks to fly for free anywhere in the world, and he took advantage to play in many international tournaments. A more and more frequent visitor to the United States, he eventually settled here officially in 2002. He briefly attended the University of Maryland at Baltimore, taking advantage of their chess scholarship to play on the university team.

He played voraciously in his last years, happily driving to small weekend Swisses with relatively low prizes anywhere in a 300 mile radius of his home. He also developed a strong reputation as a teacher, and had private students of all levels up and down the East Coast. At his memorial service last Monday in Baltimore, one enthusiastic Class C player told a beautiful story about his last lesson with Wojt. He had had, the student explained, the “tournament of his life” at the World Open, and had proudly sat down to show Wojt the games. In a bad mood, Aleks criticized everything: “this move is terrible,” “how could you play there,” etc. Finally, in the last game, the student made one decent move. Aleks smiled and said: “Well, you’ve spent four years working with me, paid me thousands of dollars, and now…. look…at last... you made a good move!”

Aleks is survived by his son, Josef, his mother Teresa, and his longtime companion, Amber Berglund. A collection is being made to help cover the costs of his funeral. Donations can be sent to the Aleks Wojtkiewicz Funeral Fund, 4813 Fernley Square, Halethorpe, MD, 21227.


Goodbye, my dear friend Sasha, rest in peace

By Leonid Sandler

I was shocked to learn the terrible news of the sudden death of my dear friend Alexander Wojtkiewicz. I have known Sasha since we were little kids, when together we started to attend the chess section of the Riga Pioneer Palace, in 1970. We were very fortunate to have an excellent coach, Alfred Akmentinsh, who by the way was a trainer of Alexander Shabalov and many other strong players.

Sasha Wojtkiewicz was always one of the best students in Pioneer Palace, and he quickly showed his exceptional talent. The chess atmosphere in those days in Latvia was terrific. Mikhail Tal, Vladimir Bagirov, Aivars Gipslis, Alvis Vitolinsh (all deceased) were helping and mentoring us juniors. Wojtkiewicz played a lot, analyzed, and soon became one of the best players in the country. When the two of us for the first time participated in the Latvian Chess Championship, Sasha was leading with one round to go (despite missing the game of round two together with yours truly). Only a loss in the last round to the experienced master Valery Zuravlev stopped him from winning the very strong championship. Wojtkiewicz came second and received his Master Sporta (sport master) title which was an excellent effort.

In his early days he always played on the first board for the various Latvian Junior teams, and I can tell you that he showed his talent by beating a lot of players of his generation. Unfortunately his chess path was abruptly stopped by external circumstances: the ethnic Pole became very interested in the movement Solidarnosz, and his free spirit and beliefs were brutally stopped by Soviet military officials in Latvia. He refused to serve in the Soviet army and was put into jail. That naturally stopped his chess progress. He returned to active chess tournament life only years later, when he emigrated to Poland, where he twice won the Poland championship. Later Sasja decided to live in the USA, where his chess carier thrived. He played many, many tournaments, all over the country and overseas, often with distinction.

The last time I spoke to my dear friend of some 36 years was just a month ago, and he was full of energy and plans: to play, play, play... He had also just started to discover his past. And now this sudden death.

Rest in peace, my dear friend Sasha. You will be sadly missed around the chess world.

Leonid Sandler, International master,
Melbourne, Australia


Aleksander Wojtkiewicz in a recent picture (by Phillip R. Smith)

Cause of death

We received the following message from Elizabeth Karnazes of San Francisco, California:

Dear Chess Friends, as Woit's close friend and attorney of many years, people are asking me about his passing. I have spoken with Woit's physician and the medical examiner. Woit did not die of liver failure or alcoholism. He died of a perforated intestine, and massive bleeding. If he had been helped sooner, he would have lived. He had lost so much blood by the time the ambulance was called, it was too late to save him. Some people, myself included, have been upset by Woit's obituary stating he died of liver problems. We would all appreciate a correction.

Finally, Woit was very concerned about his mother and often sent her money to live. It was his dying wish that someone would take care of his mother. Donations for Woit's mother, Tamara, can be sent to the Alexander Wojtkiewicz Memorial Fund care of Law Offices of Elizabeth Karnazes P.O. Box 4747 Foster City, CA 94404 (650) 345-9200. Thank you for your help.

And the following from IM Mark Ginsburg, Tucson, AZ, USA

Alexander Wojtkiewicz died of total liver failure, a consequence of heavy drinking. We who knew him, knew he was capable of prodigious alcohol intake. At the World Open, and for some months previously, he had ascites and spontaneous bleeding from venous endpoints that are consistent with the liver no longer functioning. This took its toll on his appearance. Doctors and non-doctors alike noticed the changes. At the World Open, I was standing around with Nick DeFirmian, and "Wojo" mentioned he had taken a breather from drinking to give his liver some recovery time. As we know, this is well-intentioned, but livers don't recover in that manner, unfortunately. The intestinal blockage could well have been caused by the stasis (blood backup) and clotting (obstruction), since the liver is not processing the expected blood volume per time unit. To sum up, he had a perforated instestine as well as end-stage liver disease. To suggest that he only had a perforated intestine and to wipe away the alcohol abuse is strange obfuscation. It is not necessary to sanitize biographies in this day and age. His alcohol use and effervescent personality lent truth to the trite adage "he burned his candle at both ends" that we hear so often about celebrities.

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