A funny thing happened on the way to the tournament hall…

by ChessBase
11/27/2011 – Vassily Ivanchuk’s recent mugging in Sao Paulo shocked the chess world but it’s far from being the only mishap to befall a chessplayer on the way to or from work. It reminded Steve Giddins of some other off-board misfortunes in the past, from fire on the board (literally) to dog attacks and shootings. It's all in the latest issue of CHESS Magazine's Top Ten Greatest Chess Tournament Mishaps.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the tournament hall…

The news of Mr and Mrs Ivanchuk’s unfortunate encounter with gun-wielding robbers in Sao Paulo set me thinking. Our game is not the most dangerous in the world, but over the years, there have been a good many notable mishaps affecting chessplayers during tournaments. Some research by yours truly enables me to present to CHESS readers, for your awe, sympathy, schadenfreude, or whatever else, my Top Ten Greatest Chess Tournament Mishaps. In ascending order...

10. Fire on Board

Our first mishap concerns that larger than life character, Jan Hein Donner (picture right), without whom no collection of chess anecdotes would be complete. The incident occurred at the Anglo-Dutch match of 1973, which was held at Manchester Town Hall, and my source is Ray Keene, who was playing Euwe on board one, whilst Donner played Penrose on board two. Those were the days when smoking was allowed at the board, of course, and Donner made full use of the privilege, chain-smoking throughout the game. The only time his cigarette left his lips was in order to take the occasional sip from a cup of sugar, to which a small quantity of coffee had been added!

The tables being used had enormous Bakelite ashtrays, the size of dinner plates, and as the afternoon wore on, Donner’s ashtray mounted ever higher with discarded cigarettes and ash, much of which was still emitting smoke. Eventually, after several hours’ play, this mountain of ash suddenly burst into flames, causing the Bakelite ashtray to crack completely in half. The players both looked transfixed as the table all around them was burning, with neither player seemingly about to actually do anything! At this point, Ray Keene, who had finished his game and was standing by Donner’s board spectating, decided that action had to be taken to contain the conflagration, so he picked up Donner’s coffee cup and threw the contents over the fire. With the table now covered in a congealed, sugary syrup, the players looked at one another, whispered “draw?”, shook hands and evacuated the scene!

9. That Takes Some Bottle

As Denis Norden once said, during one of his TV outtake shows, “when we asked performers to name the group of people who cause them the most trouble, they unanimously named one particular group – the public!”. Few great players have ever been more popular with the public than Mikhail Tal, but even he had his problems. During the 1966 Olympiad in Havana, he went out one evening to a local bar in the city. Nobody seems entirely sure what happened, but it would appear that he was flirting with a local woman, whose husband or boyfriend took exception. Tal ended up being struck over the head with a bottle. As a result, he missed the first four rounds of the event, and when he did appear in the tournament hall, it was with his head heavily bandaged, and, no doubt, another black mark on his KGB file.

8. Hell Hath no Fury…

The 1994 Olympiad in Moscow served up enough mishaps to fill an entire article. Held at the grisly Cosmos Hotel, near to the former VDNH park, the players quickly realised that any venture outside the hotel doors was liable to see them mugged, robbed or worse. The captain of the Irish team was mugged in the street by a gang of gypsy children (a common problem in Moscow at that time – I know, I was living there!) and was only saved by an old lady, who waded into them with a brolly, to such effect that one later required hospital treatment! Another team captain unwisely visited the local bank to change several thousands of dollars in foreign currency, only for the bank, “coincidentally”, to be robbed at that very moment – he had, of course, been set up by the hotel reception staff, who had directed him to the bank in the first place.

But perhaps the worst incident involved GM Alex Yermolinsky. His presence in the city as part of the US team did not go unnoticed by his ex-wife, who lived in Moscow at the time. She telephoned him and asked to see him, so an unsuspecting Yermolinsky set off across town one evening, to the apartment she had specified. When he got there, he was greeted by several thugs, hired for the purpose, who beat him up and then sent him on his way, with a demand for $10,000 in cash before the end of the tournament. A battered and bruised Yermolinsky spent the rest of the Olympiad holed up in his hotel room, too terrified to set foot outside the Cosmos.

7. Set Upon at the Seaside

Despite its decline in status over the years, Hastings is still a Mecca for many foreign players, who are pleased to visit such a legendary chess venue. However, the young Azeri GM, Farhad Tahirov, may have ended up rather regretting his appearance at the Sussex seaside town in 2006-7. He played poorly, losing a hatful of rating points. Then, halfway through the event, he was seen to be suffering with a painful skin rash on his hands, and had to visit a doctor, who diagnosed some kind of eczema-type condition.

But worst of all was what happened after the last round. Having a couple of hours to kill before the prize-giving, he decided to take a walk along the seafront. Unfortunately, he passed by a particularly dodgy pub, frequented by various skinheads and other charmers, several of whom attacked and robbed him. He lost almost £1,000 in cash, plus a mobile phone and camera, as well as ending up in hospital for treatment to his injuries.

Strangely, he has not played at Hastings since…

6. Driven to Distraction

Of course, before one can be mugged at a tournament, one has to get there. That too, can have its hazards, with the dangers of the road never far away. In 1977, shortly after arriving in Belgrade for his Candidates final against Boris Spassky, Viktor Korchnoi’s car ran into the back of an army truck and overturned. Once again, poor Ray Keene was involved, and ended up crawling out of the upturned vehicle. Fortunately, all the inhabitants escaped with no more than a few cuts and bruises.

But the closest call I have heard involved Dutch GM Loek van Wely. In the early months of 2002, he was driving to a German Bundesliga fixture in his brand new Jaguar X. Somewhere on the autobahn between Koblentz and Frankfurt, he lost control of the vehicle and turned the car over whilst driving at something in the region of 100 miles per hour. The car was a write-off, as a photo in New in Chess 2002/3 showed, but “Lucky Loek” walked away with only a mild concussion.

Far be it for me to suggest that GM van Wely’s driving is in any way questionable, but this was the third car he had written off in five years. I am told by friends in Amsterdam that anybody in Dutch chess who wishes to eliminate a rival no longer bothers hiring a hitman – they just get Loeky to give the guy a lift home…

5. Blind Man's Butt

As Chucky’s Sao Paulo incident shows, even getting to and through the tournament in one piece does not guarantee safety. There is also what can happen after the event. One of the most notorious chess incidents in recent years occurred at the closing ceremony of the 2004 Olympiad in Calvià, Majorca, and involved FIDE Vice-President and Georgian GM, Zurab Azmaiparashvili. I think I can say, without fear of the libel lawyers, that “Azmai” is a somewhat controversial character, but his Calvià debacle resulted from his attempts to defend a lady’s honour. Well, sort of…

During the closing ceremony, he realised that the FIDE officials had forgotten to present a trophy, named after the former women’s world champion and Georgian national heroine, Nona Gaprindashvili. In his attempts to alert them to this oversight, Azmai tried to climb onto the stage, which was being patrolled by uniformed security guards. At some point hereabouts, there was what Formula One TV commentator Murray Walker used to call “a coming together”, between Azmai’s head and that of one of the security guards. What one would naturally describe as a head-butt, in fact, but Azmai later insisted it was an accident, and that he had not seen the guard’s head millimetres in front of his own. Perhaps he was playing that well-known children’s party game, “Blind Man’s Butt”? If so, this proved to be a serious blunder, as his move was countered by that other popular party game, “Security Guard’s Knock”, in which three other security guards jump on the player and beat the living daylights out of him.

FIDE VP Zurab Azmaiparashvili after being released from prison in Mallorca

This unfortunate outburst of party games was capped by a two-day session of “Escape from Alcatraz”, before charges were dropped, and the FIDE Vice-President was freed from the local gaol and allowed to return home.

4. Children and Animals

Nigel Short’s next opponent was known for his dangerous paw to king four opening

Any performer knows that one should never work with children or animals. Children are sometimes unavoidable in chess, but animals are definitely to be avoided. The late Harry Golombek witnessed a narrow escape at the 1967 Sousse Interzonal in Tunisia when one of the camels on which tourists could take rides along the beach “made a determined attempt to bite a Russian grandmaster”. However, in the beast’s defence, Golombek suggested that “perhaps the creature was more intelligent than most and had seen how badly the said grandmaster had been playing in the tournament”.

Whilst the unnamed Russian GM had a narrow escape, Britain’s Nigel Short was less lucky. At the super-tournament in the ancient Russian city of Novgorod in 1997, he decided to take a midnight stroll down by the river to contemplate what to play in his last-round clash against Kasparov the next day. Unfortunately, one of the locals was also there, accompanied by his Russian shepherd dog. The latter was clearly a Kasparov fan, because it proceeded to attack Nigel and bit both of his arms as he desperately tried to fend it off. Eventually, the dozy owner realised that his pet was taking international relations a bit too far, and managed to call the beast off, but Nigel had by then been quite badly bitten. He spent much of the night in a Russian hospital, an experience he later described as far more shocking than the attack itself, so filthy was the place. In addition, rabies was quite widespread amongst dogs in Russia at that time, so it must have been a worrying time for the English GM.

Despite his trauma, Nigel drew a hard-fought battle against the world champion the following day, and eventually recovered from his injuries, miraculously with no long-term infection.

3. Glad to See the Back of Him

One of the most famous and controversial physical injury incidents ever was Tony Miles’ back problem at Tilburg 1985. A couple of rounds into the super-tournament, Miles felt his back give way as he sat at the board. This was a recurrence of an old spinal problem from which he had suffered intermittently since his youth. This attack proved far worse than normal, however, and he found that the only position he could assume which did not result in acute spasms of pain was lying flat.

Just when it seemed he would have to withdraw from the tournament, a solution was found which involved his playing his games whilst lying flat on his stomach on a massage table, placed next to the board. It created a rather irregular appearance in the tournament room, but from Miles’ viewpoint, it enabled him to play pain-free. There would probably have been no more than a few jokes made about it had it not been for the fact that he suddenly started winning games, one after the other! There had to be an explanation for this, of course, and so several players filed a written complaint, saying that Miles’ appearance was distracting his opponents. When some other players said that they had not noticed, they were assured by Ljubojevic, one of the protesters, that they were being distracted, they just hadn’t noticed!

Tony Miles taking a more horizontal approach to his chess. His unorthodox “flat-out”
playing style brought him great results and a few complaints!

Most of the players reacted well, but Djindzichashvili played his games against Miles without sitting at the board, like a simultaneous display, whilst Hübner insisted on a pre-arranged draw, with absurd moves (the score was 1 d4 e5 2 dxe5 Qh4 3 Nf3 Qa4 4 Nc3 Qa5 5 e4 draw agreed). Eventually, two weeks of fun, protests, meetings and some chess, saw Miles put up one of the great fighting performances of his career and win the tournament, equal first with Hübner and Korchnoi.

2. Nothing to Laugh About

Most of our stories so far have had a greater or lesser amount of humour in them, but there is nothing remotely funny about this one. In May 1990, top Russian GM Artur Yusupov, one of the true nice guys of world chess, returned to Moscow after taking second equal prize at the SKA tournament in Munich. Hence he was carrying quite a lot of money on the homeward trip. Shortly after he had arrived home, armed thieves came to his apartment and proceeded to relieve him of money and other valuables. However, what was much worse was that, although Yusupov put up no resistance, one of the thieves panicked and discharged a shotgun into his stomach.

For some time Yusupov was critically ill, but thankfully he eventually made a full recovery. However, those close to him, such as his trainer Mark Dvoretsky, feel that his energy levels were never quite the same after this traumatic experience, and he gradually fell back from his position as one of the top half-dozen players in the world.

1. Not a Leg to Stand On

Pride of place in this gallery of Caïssic mishaps goes to a story I was told at Wijk aan Zee a few years ago. I was sitting in the bar of the de Moriaan, where the play takes place, and got talking to a local resident, who had lived in nearby Beverwijk all his life. In the early years of the event, and indeed, right up until the 1970s, most of the players were accommodated, not in hotels, but with local families. In 1961, when my interlocutor was 14 or 15, his family played host to the legendary Ernst Grünfeld. By this time he was 67 years old and was one of various European veterans who played at Beverwijk around this period.

Grünfeld had lost a leg when in his early childhood and had an artificial leg. Despite his age, and this handicap, he spurned the organisers’ offer of a car, and insisted on walking the mile or so to the venue each afternoon. On one particular day, he set off, but disaster struck. Some way along the road, he fell over, and his wooden leg came off and fell into a ditch! A distressed Grünfeld managed to get to a phone box and ring the organisers. In those days in Holland, all chess-related problems ended up on the desk of Max Euwe, and thus it was that the good Doctor came on the line. Hearing of Grünfeld’s plight, he jumped into a car, and a few minutes later, he managed to rescue the poor man and his wooden leg and take him back to his digs.

Imagine the scene at my interlocutor’s home, when the doorbell suddenly rings, and when his mother opens it, there standing on the doorstep, with their house guest, is the great and saintly Dr Euwe! Hard though it is to credit in this country, Euwe’s face was known to everybody in Holland and by all accounts the lady of the house could not have been more flustered if the king and queen had descended on her home.

After a refreshing cup of coffee and a few minutes’ rest, Grünfeld was re-united with his artificial appendage and driven to the tournament hall. Unfortunately, he faced the powerful young East German GM Wolfgang Uhlmann that day, and despite having White, the trauma took its toll on him. He was annihilated in just 21 moves!

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