Oscar Panno: “Chess is cruel”

by Javier Vargas Pereira
6/1/2020 – Oscar Panno was born on March 17, 1935, in Buenos Aires, and was one of the greatest chess players from Argentina. He won the World Junior Championship in 1953 and went on to play the 1956 Candidates Tournament. He came third at the 1955 Interzonal in Gothenburg, ahead of strong players such as Efim Geller, Tigran Petrosian or Boris Spassky. In this extensive, unpublished interview from 2005, the Grandmaster tells his story and touches on universal themes related to chess, such as its educational value in society. | Pictured: Panno at the 1956 Candidates in Amsterdam | Photo: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo

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A symbolic war

This interview took place on July 25, 2005, while grandmaster Oscar Panno gave a series of courses and conferences in Mexico City.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 17, 1935, he is considered one of the strongest chess players in Latin America. In this broad conversation, he argues that chess is a symptom of social maturity in any society. He defines it as a game of pure strategy, a kind of symbolic war, where there are ends, difficulty to reach those ends and different ways to reach them, which is comparable to common life.

[If you speak Spanish, you can read the original here.]

Javier Vargas: When did you start playing chess?

Oscar Panno: Well, I learned when I was six, with my father and an older brother. I had barely heard of chess when my father brought home a series of games, like Ludo and checkers, and other games played with dice. He brought them so that we would be entertained on rainy days, so we would not go out so much to play football, as it was dangerous to go out in the streets at the time. 

We used to play Ludo or Chinese checkers because the rules are very basic, but my father had the patience to teach us the movement of the chess pieces, so that we could figure out some openings. The boys that were starting out would advance the rook pawns — they would take out the rooks because they were much easier to move — and when they lost the rooks they would take out the bishops or the queen. The last thing they had left were the knights, which are more difficult to move.

Actually we were lucky that among the literary magazines which my father collected there was one called “Leoplán”, which was a monthly magazine. We discovered a section by Roberto Grau called “Entre torres”. There he published games, technical advice, anecdotes, problems and a whole series of things. It was fascinating because it was a whole world in itself. There we discovered the nomenclature and how to write our moves. This was complemented by the fact that we started playing a little better between us. Some friends from the neighbourhood also joined in, who were getting to know the pieces, and so we organized family tournaments, etcetera.

Finally, I discovered in my grandfather's library about three books that he had kept. One was “El peón cuatro de dama de Bogoljubow en la apertura moderna” (“Bogoljubow’s pawn to queen four in the modern openings”), and with that we got into a bit of theory.

When I was about 12 years old, I joined the club “River Plate” with my brother in order to go swimming, because someone had said that we needed to expand our chests and all that. We became members of the club, a club dedicated to football, an important institution, very organized. There was a fantastic chess room with kids playing, with clocks and a number of things that were a mystery to us at the time. Then I got hooked on it, my brother not so much because he liked football and swimming better. But I started going on weekends, just for chess, and that's when I started. One day the rivalries with other kids started, some tournament and some weird stuff I hadn't seen, and all that got me excited. 

Oscar Panno, Julio Bolbochán

Oscar Panno (left) and Julio Bolbochán at the “Club Argentino” | Photo: Diario La Razón

What does chess mean to you?

Chess, well, it doesn't leave a mark in a definite way, but it does become a part of your life. When you are young, the hours that can be devoted to other types of entertainment, you spend studying and competing. When you grow up, if it becomes a profession, you have to adopt it in a more serious way. In my case, it wasn't a profession: it was worse, because I dedicated to chess the time that I had left from other activities as a student or as a professional. During my annual vacation I used to play some tournaments, so chess conditions one's life a little bit. And as a professional, it was necessary to go to Europe and dedicate yourself more enthusiastically to preparation and to figure out how far you can go.

Chess is an important discipline, it's like when you do something well, like playing the violin or singing or something, and you end up doing presentations with an audience, and the time comes when you have to pay more attention to it, and it's hours of rehearsal, and it demands a lot of time. In that sense, I'm grateful to chess for allowing me to be successful.

Of course it is a rather cruel game. For example, I like tennis better, because tennis gives you the chance to take revenge: you can make a mistake on a point and nothing happens, you have to keep playing. You lose the point after two mistakes; the game by two points; the set by two games; and so on. Then, when you lose, it's because your rival played better. On the other hand, chess is a very precise construction that one can spoil with just one move. Chess is cruel. But since it is an intellectual challenge that is above other sporting manifestations, then one gets excited about it. It is an inner satisfaction perhaps without comparison, and that is why chess attracts more attention.

Does it contribute to happiness?

Well, happiness has to be defined. I believe that it contributes to a mental and spiritual expansion of the human being. Now, it is debatable if that spiritual expansion serves to make one happier, because there are people who can be very happy with a simpler life. If one begins developing intellectually, this leads to other considerations and other speculations. One can end up, let us say, more bitter than happy. 

What did your victory at the 1953 World Junior Championship mean to Argentina?

Oscar Panno

Well, that was actually a major achievement. I remember it with the pride of having contributed by winning the first world chess title for Argentina. 

Argentina is a very chess-oriented country, as you can see from its performances throughout the 20th century, but it didn't have any world titles yet — it only had two second places in 1950 and in Helsinki 1952, at the Chess Olympiads, behind Yugoslavia and Russia, which was formidable, but no world title. So I got the first world title, although later on some other guys also won. It did have a big impact because the press has a lot of influence. So by achieving such a success, there was an outburst, a media explosion, everybody got interested.

I tell you, in tennis the same thing happened with Guillermo Vilas, when he started to fight for the number one spot in the world. Everybody started playing tennis and it stopped being an elitist sport in Argentina, because until then it had been a luxury, and then everybody started buying rackets, and it became so popular that now you go whenever you want to a court and you do not have a big problem.

[Photo: Panno in 1977 (Hans Peters / Anefo)]

How was your preparation in competitive chess? Who was your trainer? For how long?

In general, I consider that one is self-taught in chess, as the hours that one spends with his board, in a corner, at home with the books, are the most important. But of course when you have a teacher, let's say a guide, someone who takes care of the analysis of the games and gives you advice, it's very important because you save a lot of time, you separate yourself from the rest very quickly. That was the case with me when I went to the club and they appointed Julio Burruchaga as a permanent teacher. Grandmaster Julio Burruchaga was there and from that moment on I began a more serious and more important training. 

In “River Plate”, in 1944 or 1945, there was no teacher because of the death of Roberto Grau at the age of 44. It was a very big misfortune. They tried sporadically, but they couldn't get a stable teacher. Then came Burruchaga, who was hired as a permanent teacher. He would go every Saturday, and then I would show up with all the doubts that had come up during the week, with analyses, with games and everything. In that sense, I go back to the matter of being self-taught, because it is good that Burruchaga corrected the analyses and looked at the alternatives, but the student had to find the problems. Otherwise, the teacher keeps giving master classes, but in that case there's less chance of success. 

In 1950, the 100th anniversary of the death of Ontiveros de Martín was commemorated and a major tournament was held for players under-16, and I won the tournament at a metropolitan level, showing a certain amount of enthusiasm and good preparation, but the problem came later, when I qualified to play in the under-20 World Championship in Copenhagen. I was 18 years old, so the club had the courtesy of assigning Burruchaga to prepare us well, and things were even organized so that he could accompany me later as coach, and when we went to the World Championship Julio was a decisive element because he gave me permanent support. That shows that, when there is investment and a real interest from the highest administrative level, better results are achieved than when everything is left to chance and circumstances.

To what extent is chess a reflection of a people's culture?

Well, this is not easy to answer, but I am convinced that chess is obviously a cultural and intellectual manifestation. There are countries that are very poor in material terms, for example Yugoslavia, which has gone through many problems, but they had a formidable chess scene. One has to respect that, despite having little material power, a country counts with very thoughtful people. In that sense, I think they are worthy of respect, and those are countries that are ready to make the leap, that is, they have good raw material to work with. 

So, chess, in that sense, marks a society. The number of chess players per capita is a symptom of social maturity. Argentina has a good basis because it has been a very chess-oriented country in general, thanks to its link with Europe through the port in Buenos Aires.

Then there are countries that do not have the same conditions, but that are moving forward anyway. Chile did it once with the school for talents; they invested heavily and achieved a lot. Brazil does it permanently, and now it has a better chess team than Argentina, for example, in the Olympiads. They go with all the strength they have, because they have invested — they have professional chess players supported by the different states of Brazil. 

Oscar Panno

At the 1956 Candidates in Amsterdam | Photo: Daan Noske / Anefo

Is it possible to apply the principles of chess to ordinary life?

Chess is a game of strategy, it is a game of pure strategy, that is, it is a kind of symbolic war, a game of strategy where there are ends, there is difficulty in reaching those ends, and there are different ways to obtain those ends. One compares that with ordinary life, with any human manifestation, and one realizes that you can also create strategies in society, in work, in study. We have ends and we have circumstances. The one who learns to play chess is preparing himself internally to solve problems that arise while trying to achieve a higher end. Chess is a symbolic game that serves for any human manifestation.

So, is chess science, art, sport, or all at once?

I think there is a mixture of all that, because it is obviously a game that is used as competition. But chess must be focused from a different angle because it's, we could say, an exact science, enormously complex, but still science. Even physics or chemistry are very complex sciences that we haven't exhausted yet, and chess is comparable because the board has a fixed number of pieces, with permanent rules that are not modified, so the combination of all that has to be a more or less defined number. It's an astronomically gigantic number, and that's been proven now with calculating machines.

These are the first steps because the machines have not yet left the sphere of the brute force of calculus, there is no analogical thinking, they cannot learn from their mistakes. They do not imagine things, they do not have an ability to act, but with the brute force of calculation they have advanced in many necessary aspects, by not committing errors, by not losing material, they sustain games with more success than humans, above all if they are rapid games, because the human being perhaps with his concepts can look at ideas at a higher level than the machine, but he commits errors and imprecisions. The machine only capitalizes, the machine doesn't make mistakes, and that points to the fact that chess is an exact science, that in a thousand years perhaps it could be exhausted by supercomputers. For the human being it will always be an infinite game, because we cannot see all the alternatives that are presented.

But we also find an artistic vein in studies, in endgames, in the games from the past. I remember now a comparison: we start a game and there are so many possibilities, it's like a block of granite in which the work of art is all potential, but the sculptor has to come and leave out the portion that is not essential, and when the sculptor removes that portion the work of art remains. In the granite there are infinite works of art, depending on the sculptor. In chess too. There are a number of works of art that are truly worthy of the greatest respect and admiration.

The competitive part is linked to human being's desire to triumph, to hunt, the prehistoric hunter who must impose himself on a rival. The one who wins in a fair game obtains a very useful and constructive satisfaction. 

Let's say that chess brings a little bit of everything, and it is up to each person to choose the branch that is most convenient, most advantageous or most enjoyable.

As for the game itself, what do you think of the ludic side of chess?

It is an intellectual sport, in which psychology plays a role. Despite being such an intellectual sport, it has never had the commercial success of poker or even backgammon. Chess can only be played for intellectual pleasure. Chess is so elevated, that it is above these manifestations. Of course, professionals now receive prizes for having provoked interest in seeing them perform, but the challenge when the board is in front of both contestants is not for money but to see who wins.

Oscar Panno, Jan Timman

Facing Jan Timman in Amsterdam, 1977 | Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo

It has been said that chess is a replica of war, so the principles of chess are applicable to war or vice versa, and also in politics, which is another area where they would be applicable. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I mentioned it was a bloodless war in which the soldiers go to the box and not to the cemetery. If you read “The Art of War” by Chinese author Sun Tzu, you will realize that a lot of the advice and the observations are valid for chess. And vice versa: the concepts are applicable to war situations. You need a strategy, because the goal is to defeat the enemy or occupy a city, and there are difficulties depending on where the attacks are carried out. We are describing, in other terms, a game of chess. The strategy of a war is the strategy of chess; they are identical, they are handled with the same elementary algorithm. I would say that, rather than being similar, they are identical.

What about politics?

Well, that's if you want to see politics as war or competition. Politics are murkier, because there are no absolute truths; I would even say that you have to sell your soul several times in politics. Politicians sell their souls plenty of times, because for them this seems to be the  highest pursuit, and they commit mortal sins that we would never commit as simple citizens. For them political triumph is above any issue that for us can be fundamental — principles, etcetera — and I speak for Argentina, because here the government is obviously a detestable corporation. 

How do you explain the chess boom in Argentina in the 1940s, 1950s and later? Without a doubt it was much bigger than in the other Latin American countries.

It's an explanation that goes back to the beginning of the last century. In 1905 the Argentine Chess Club was founded and it became a very important institution. The connection of Buenos Aires with Europe was so intense that Argentina had a semi-European city, despite the three months of sailing we had to do. Argentina began to bring masters from Europe: Tartakower, Reti, even Lasker arrived. It became a very chess-oriented country, so much so that Capablanca and Alekhine, who were running away from each other, finally met...Well, who organized the 1927 World Championship match? Buenos Aires, a South American city which could only be reached after travelling for three months. With countries like Slovakia available, Argentina organized it. Alekhine dethroned Capablanca, and that had a big influence on people, although there had been already a lot of chess before.

The news reached other cities — Córdoba, Rosario, Mendoza. Argentina created a federation that affiliated to the International Federation in 1924, and began to participate in the Olympiads with certain players like Grau and Daniel Reta. In 1939, it was commissioned to organize an Olympiad, a Tournament of Nations. But, when the assignment was received, Grau spoke to the president of the country and the president said: “Well, it was not foreseen in the budget, but we'll see what can be done, you have our moral support”. And Grau started touring around the country collecting funds. He got a lot of people interested and the Championship took place and all the chess players arrived by ship.

And in the middle of the Olympiad Germany invades Poland and England enters the fight, and that was terrible because the Olympiad ended with some teams avoiding each other, like Germany and Poland, although they had to do it and agree to a 2:2 score so as not to interrupt the tournament. Of course, if they are killing your countrymen, you cannot play chess. Then the German team could not return to Germany. They all stayed in Argentina, except for one player, who went to Sao Paulo.

It is the case of Miguel Najdorf, from Poland.

Yes, Miguel Najdorf from Poland stayed as well. He established a family because he also lost his family in Warsaw. And his dilemma was: Do I stay? To do what? Where? And he was the leader of Argentine chess in Burruchaga’s time, and he formed a club, not exactly a school, but he was a pole of attraction that generated a stimulus for others.

Does that explain Argentina's success in terms of players, tournaments and so on?

I think the basis, which was already strong, was strengthened by the Olympiad. When the Olympiads returned after the war, in the year 1950, Argentina came second behind Yugoslavia; in 1952, it came second behind the Soviet Union; in Amsterdam 1954, it also came second behind the Soviet Union, where I played for the first time, on the third board.

Candidatos 1956

The Candidates from 1956: Miroslav Filip, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Herman Pilnik, David Bronstein, Efim Geller, Boris Spassky, Tigran Petrosian, Oscar Panno, László Szabo | Photo: Herbert Behrens / Anefo

Do you think chess should be taught in schools?

I am totally convinced of that, and many Latin American countries can get involved. We have economic crises that do not allow us to handle the cultural aspect, where chess would belong, let's say with the generosity that should be given to medicine. But chess has a characteristic to which I give great importance: chess is the most powerful educational tool that I know, and the most economical, because in order to play, to start studying and playing and to participate and to start thinking about problems and to be able to elaborate the internal personality of a boy who dedicates himself a little bit to this, nothing is needed — a cardboard and some pieces, which can be built or drawn rather easily.

It helps children to learn to think, to reason, to play, to exercise their memory, to exercise responsibility. The boy sees that taking responsibility for his moves has a future importance, independently of the result of the game, whether he wins or loses; he realizes, in any case, whether his move was effective or not.

Anatoly Karpov, the brilliant Soviet world champion, went to Argentina several times. One of those times he gave a lecture and attached great importance to the boy learning how to make decisions:

A child of 8 to 10 years old, who learns from his older brother, from his parents, from his teachers, and is always aware of what to do and how, when he's playing chess he's the first one to notice and he agrees with my concept of responsibility. Every move he makes, which he can choose freely, will have importance in the future, and then he realizes things that you don't see normally while being educated. He realizes the ability to make decisions, to pay attention and think ahead, and how important this is in the future. 

When does a child think so much about the future? With chess he has to think about it. If not, he will be brought down by failure. In chess, you have to think about the importance of your actions.

How would you define intuition applied to chess?

Well, for a start, we would need to define intuition. I do not know what intuition is, but it's like a subliminal intention that has to do with experience, because the human mind reasons a little by analogy and that's what the computer hasn't learned to do. When there is a problem that is totally different from what is known, the machine tends to stop and has no patterns to grab hold of. The human being tries to make comparisons with previous experiences. So I think that intuition has a similar mechanism as reasoning, but on a subliminal level, where there are very dark areas that we don't know about.

What about creativity?

It's where we don't know what's going to happen to the machines. Human beings obviously have talents and ingenuity. For example, Morphy, from the 19th century, and then players like David Bronstein, like Boreslavsky, like Bobby Fischer in his time, enormous talents like Geller or Stein, some more complete ones like Botvinnik or Keres or Smyslov; let us not forget about Tal, who was an absolute phenomenon.

And the question of how creativity can be achieved in machines is one of the aspects in which programmers get stuck. Because what is creativity? It's proposing a scheme in an unknown terrain, proposing some solution and using it to benefit something. It is assumed that one day, when machines learn to think, to reason by analogy, the embryo of creativity will be fostered in them. And, since the machine has no limits, by expanding its memory, its speed and its hardware, it can become as big of a monster as human beings permit. And that's where we enter the realm of science fiction.

But how does the chess master apply that creativity during the game, during combinations, in strategy, in tactics? Where is the creative part of the player in a game?

I would say that, on the tactical side of combinations, chess is all about calculations.

In other words, in the technique of calculation.

Of course, the calculation technique is the simplest part because it requires training, concentration. But there are areas of higher strategy that are more likely to develop creativity.

What do you mean by higher strategy?

There are two elements in the game: strategy and tactics. The strategic one is the general plans that can be modified according to the movements of the enemy, and the tactical one is the punctual clashes to get something immediately, which would be the clash of forces in a battle — he managed to catch so many prisoners, he recovered such weaponry, he took control of a hill. The general strategy is related to planning and cannot do without an attack.

But when I was talking about creativity I forgot to talk about Mozart. We know he's a genius, but where did he get the melodies? From the creative elements within him. And he was a genius because there were many musicians who could not do the same despite being marvellous technically. In chess, we have also seen geniuses: Tal, Fischer, now Kasparov, among others.

Thank you very much. It has been a very interesting and very pleasant conversation. 

Translation from Spanish: Carlos Colodro


Journalist specializing in chess. In Chile, his native country, he was a Professor of Philosophy and Advisor on Youth Affairs to President Salvador Allende (from 1970 to 1973). In Mexico, where he lives since 1975, he has been a bookseller, editor and teacher.