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A talk with legendary Lajos Portisch – Part I

by Albert Silver
2/1/2012 – Lajos Portisch is one of the greatest Hungarian players of all time, and was third in the world at his height. He recently agreed to speak with Albert Silver and gave his first serious interview in English in over 20 years. In it he regaled us with stories ranging from his start in chess ate age twelve, to meetings with the great players, and even his many secret meetings with Bobby Fischer!
 

A talk with legendary Lajos Portisch Part I

By Albert Silver

When we first connected, Lajos asked for a slight postponement as he was studying a position and wanted to finish it first. Naturally, I agreed, but was impressed that at 74, despite his lowered activity, he still had this interest and drive.
He was analyzing an interesting line, a pawn sacrifice, but could not find the solution. He refused to consult an engine out of principle, he explained, and joked he was an old professional, which while true, didn’t appear to be all there was to it.


Lajos Portisch, still driven and active

Albert Silver – Your profile in Wikipedia describes you as a Hungarian Botvinnik. What do you think of that?

Lajos Portisch – Recently in the summer, I played in a senior tournament and it was a rapid tournament in Russia. Korchnoi won the tournament. Anyhow, in Russia they also told me I was the Hungarian Botvinnik. Then when I addressed the public, I was forced to say this was a mistake as I had never seen myself as Botvinnik. Of course I have studied all the great players in chess history including Botvinnik, and I knew his play, but that doesn’t mean there are any great similarities between our styles.

How would you characterize your own style in chess?

Positional. I was always very positional. Unfortunately I started very late. I was only twelve years old when I started to play the game, and it was a very slow development as I was born in a small town in Hungary. There were no books, no computers of course, nor even chess clocks. This is why I am not so good at rapid chess, and blitz is even worse. We were unable to play blitz games when I was a child since the club itself only owned three clocks, and they were hidden from us. The director of the club was afraid that if he let us use them he would be unable to play a team match. So I couldn’t practice with the clocks. Tactically I was very weak in the beginning, just like Spassky, who it is said was also very weak tactically, though he started much younger than me.

You started playing chess at twelve, which is a very late age to start and then develop into one of the top players in the world. How old were you when you realized you might be talented enough to become a professional player?

After I finished high school, I went to a university to study economics, however I had no talent for it. So I gave it up after one month on it and by then I had already decided I wanted to be a professional chess player. I was eighteen.

How strong were you at this time? Were you already of master strength?

Well it was just after the World Junior Championship which was my first real strong tournament. Spassky won it, and Mednis was there also. This was in 1955 in Antwerp. I was only fourth.

You obviously had to qualify to represent Hungary.

Yes, I qualified but I was lucky because the young players who were stronger were already over twenty years old which was the limit. The federation simply nominated me.

Had you won any tournaments prior to this?

Yes, but before I had not even been able to qualify for the final of the Hungarian championship. After my good result in the World Junior Championship, I gained self-confidence, and I then won the semi-final of the Hungarian championship, qualifying for the final. I had also been selected to be a member of the national team, as a reserve player, for friendly team competitions.

In fact I had wanted to become a musician, my parents more than me, because I played the violin when I was young, which I gave it up for the sake of chess.

The violin? I had read you were an accomplished opera singer

Yes, I am a singer now, but this is because of my musical background with the violin. I cannot play any longer as my fingers no longer move as they did. I only play the piano a little when I practice, but I have always loved music. Only classical though. Then chess grew in importance and I was forced to give up my music ambitions.

How soon were you able to support yourself as a professional chess player?

At that time, chess was not as organized as it is now. We received support from some of the clubs. We had so-called hidden jobs for which we received a salary, but not very much. There weren’t as many tournaments then as now. For example, when I played in Bewerwijk in 1964, my first. At that time it was held in Bewerwijk and not in Wijk aan Zee. It was bigger than Wijk aan Zee, which was just a village, whereas Bewerwijk was a town. There were no prizes then. The Dutch organizers said that prizes were against their principles.

Let me understand this correctly: the first tournaments from the Wijk aan Zee series had no prizes because the organizers declared it was against their principles??

No prizes. We received some compensation at the start, which was not much, but no prizes, no. Slowly, perhaps by the second or third tournament I played in there were prizes. The organizers realized that without prizes, it wasn’t a very serious tournament.

How did they motivate the players to win if there were no prizes?

We liked chess, and I never played for the sake of a prize. I have always played for the satisfaction from the game itself and competition.

I understand, but you still have to buy food, pay rent, etc.

We always got something, but in the beginning I played in many tournaments where there were practically no prizes at all. In most tournaments in Hungary there were no prizes either. When I became Hungarian Champion for the first time I only received a trophy.

What year was this?

1958. The next year I won it again after a playoff.

How many Wijk aan Zees have you participated in? I know you won four.

I never counted. I played in it many times. More than ten, maybe fifteen times. Actually, it is interesting because Holland has been the most successful country in the world to me. If I’m not mistaken, I won eight or nine tournaments there. There are the four in Wijk aan Zee, three of the Amsterdam IBMs, at least one Interpolis, and am not sure of the ninth. Perhaps if I count the Veterans vs. Ladies tournament where I was the best player in the men’s team.

The Wijk aan Zee in 1978, was the strongest one you won in terms of the lineup the players from what I saw.

I’m not sure. I think it was a rather short one, and if I’m not mistaken there were only twelve players altogether. In the earlier tournaments which I won, such as 1972 and 1975, the tournament was longer with at least sixteen players. Smyslov was there in 72, and in 78, yes, Korchnoi was there, and Timman. Korchnoi was certainly number two in the world behind Karpov.

He was to play Karpov for the title that very same year.

Exactly, yes.

You also met with all these great players: Korchnoi, Timman, Mecking… Speaking of whom, Korchnoi once said that if Mecking, who lived in Brazil, had had the proper infrastructure, he could have been world champion. Would you agree with this?

It’s hard to say. He was very talented of course, but Mecking had health problems at one point, and they were rather serious. These were probably a disadvantage of course, and he could not play for quite a long time. Whether or not he could have been a world champion is hard to say. There have been many chess players, like Korchnoi, like myself, like Timman, like Keres from the older generation, who never became world champion though they were very strong.

I think I only played once with Mecking in Wijk aan Zee. It is a funny story. We met in the church. I am a Catholic, you know, a believer, and go to the church every Sunday. There was only one very small church in Wijk aan Zee, and it was the first time I saw a single church being shared by both Protestants and Catholics. For example, in the morning there was a catholic mass, and later there was a protestant service. At that time it was very strange to me, but then I realized: why not? We pray to the same god after all. When we met at the church I told him I was surprised: “I thought you were Jewish!”. He laughed and said, “I thought the same of you!”

Of course this was only important to Bobby Fischer whose first question was always, “Do you believe in the Holocaust? If you do then we have nothing more to say to each other.”

I didn’t realize that history was subject to belief. I thought that facts just spoke for themselves.

Yes, poor Bobby, fortunately he made an exception in my case. He stayed a long time in Hungary, you know, and we met very often. We talked and we analyzed. He was still very strong at that time.

I didn’t know this.

Yes, he was really very strong I must tell you.

When was this?

Fifteen years ago approximately.

To be continued in Part II...

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