Remembering Svetozar Gligoric: 2 February 1923 – 14 August 2012

by Dagobert Kohlmeyer
2/2/2023 – Today, chess legend Svetozar Gligoric, who passed away in 2012, would have turned 100 years old. In World War II he fought as a partisan against the Germans, and after the war he became one of the world's best chess players. He was very popular among his peers and even managed to be friends with Bobby Fischer. Dagobert Kohlmeyer remembers the King's Indian expert. | Photos: Dagobert Kohlmeyer

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100 years Svetozar Gligoric

A great of world chess would have turned 100 years old today, 2 February: Svetozar Gligorić. The most famous grandmaster from the Balkans was one of the strongest players on the planet after the Second World War. Highly esteemed by friends and opponents, "Gliga" became a folk hero in his native Yugoslavia and especially in Serbia. He mastered several languages and made chess popular not only in his country. In addition, Gligorić was a passionate music lover and worked as a composer in the last decade of his life.

It is one of the lasting experiences of every chess reporter to have met this versatile, extraordinary grandmaster and to see him in action. I was lucky enough to do so over 30 years ago at the re-match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spasski in Yugoslavia. As a close friend of the American, Gligorić played a key role in making the event happen. In September/October 1992, he used all his experience and authority to ensure that this memorable event on the Adriatic and in Belgrade went off as smoothly as possible.

Modestly, as was his way, he mostly kept a low profile and was only present at a few press conferences. Otherwise Gligorić sat in a small study on the first floor of the hotel "Maestral" in Sveti Stefan, where the first half of the duel between the two world champions took place. Every day Svetozar received a visit in his cabinet from the Hungarian chess player Zita Rajczanyi, who also had some part in making Bobby Fischer play again after a 20-year break.

Sveti Stefan 1992: Gligorić and sponsor Vasiljević

Before the match against Spassky, the American had played six training games with his friend Gligoric, one of his few confidants. However, they were not published, the Yugoslav national hero had to promise this to the cautious Fischer. However, Gligoric revealed the result to me. When I asked the maestro about it later, he replied with a smile: "I only managed to win one game and to make a few draws." Bobby won convincingly. A picture of the scoresheet of one of the games of the match can be found on the internet.

Fischer's scoresheet of one of the training games

To this day, I like to think back to my encounters with the chess legend. Men like Svetozar Gligorić hardly exist anymore in our time. They have become rare. What was so special about this man?

Svetozar Gligorić, who was born on 2 February 1923, came from a poor Belgrade family. He started playing chess at the age of eleven. A lodger in the family taught him the rules. Svetozar carved his first chess set out of wine bottle corks and won his first tournament in 1938, four years after learning the game. With a lot of energy, he became one of the world's leading grandmasters after World War II and was among the top ten in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Zürich 1953

Between 1947 and 1971 Gligorić became Yugoslav champion 12 times. From 1950 to 1982, the record-breaking national player took part in 15 chess Olympiads for his country, achieving a score of +88 -26 =109 in 223 games. In the first Olympiad after the Second World War in Dubrovnik in 1950, Gligorić played on board one and led the Yugoslav team to a historic success by winning the gold medal. In the 1950s, Yugoslavia usually finished second or third.



Che Guevara watches Gligoric play at the Chess Olympiad in Havana

As a young man, Gligorić had fought in a partisan unit during the war. After his chess career, he worked as a journalist, author and organiser. His book about the 1972 World Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky became a bestseller and was translated into numerous languages. It is considered the most successful work about the "match of the century" in Reykjavik. Due to his services to chess, the grandmaster received a free place for all national championships until the end of his life.

Gligorić died on 14 August 2012 in Belgrade after a stroke. He was 89 years old. The news of his death caused great sadness and dismay in the chess world. The funeral took place in the Avenue of the Great at the New Belgrade Cemetery (Novo Groblje). The Dresden grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann told me at the time in a first reaction:

"Gligorić was a real popular figure. With the grandmaster from Belgrade the chess world lost one of its important personalities. Svetozar was a fair sportsman and a real gentleman, very respected throughout the world. I often crossed blades with him. He had character and was a very strong player. Nevertheless, I always got on very well with him at the board. Maybe I was something like a bogey opponent for him. Our games were always very interesting. In Yugoslavia he was the chess idol par excellence and the enthusiasm of the spectators at all the tournaments he took part in was enormous. Gligorić always had a fighting attitude and played wonderful games. That's why chess fans loved him so much."

Boris Spassky, who turned 86 earlier this week, was also very moved: "We were always good friends, because Gligorić was one of my mentors. We played together in many tournaments. Gliga's death was a great and irretrievable loss for me, because he was a really good and benevolent person."


Svetozar Gligorić and Boris Spassky

In a statement of condolence, Serbia's then Minister of Sport Alisa Marić described Gligorić as the greatest Yugoslav chess player of all time, who was above all a valuable and noble person. The grandmaster wrote: "Our Gliga brought world fame to the country's chess, and for generations of young chess players he was a role model and teacher. It was an honour to have known him and learned from him for decades."

At the chessboard, Svetozar Gligorić was an uncompromising fighter and at the same time a true gentleman. His principle was: "I play against pieces", which is also the title of his well-known book with selected games by Gligorić. There is a FIDE Fairplay Prize named after Gligorić. This honours personalities who have promoted the educational spirit of the sport through exemplary behaviour in a given year. In 2000, Serbia issued a special stamp in honour of Gligorić.    

The likeable grandmaster played his last major tournament, the Rilton Cup, at the age of 80 in early 2004. His last two published games were played in 2007 in Moscow in a commemorative match USSR-Yugoslavia where he lost honourably 0.5:1.5 against Viktor Korchnoi.

Gligorić also significantly enriched chess theory, especially in his favourite opening, the King's Indian, but also in the Spanish as well as the Nimzo Indian Defence. Many top players benefited from his ideas, including Bobby Fischer and Garri Kasparov. The Belgrade chess player played his most famous games in 1953 in Mar del Plata against the unforgotten Miguel Najdorf and in 1970 in Zagreb against his friend Tigran Petrosjan. They were, of course, King's Indians.





Until his old age, Gligoric received many invitations, especially to countries where chess is held in high esteem. For example, he was the guest of honour at the Petrosian Memorial 2009 in Jermuk, Armenia. On his relationship with Tigran Petrosian he said:

"We were philosophically and stylistically very similar. We both preferred to play chess according to strict logic, which is what they call proper chess. For me it wasn't important who was sitting opposite me, it was important that I played correct and active chess. Perhaps I was a relatively more unpleasant opponent for Petrosian because I was both logical in my approach and active in my style. Regardless, we were close friends off the board despite competing during our games."

Svetozar Gligorić was a versatile personality. He was very interested in art and culture, but his greatest passion besides chess was music. At the age of 81, he began taking lessons in harmony. He composed popular music, and in 2011 Gligorić released a CD with his own compositions inspired by jazz, ballads and also rap. Chapeau!

When Svetozar Gligorić died, it was not only the chess world that mourned the loss of a distinguished sportsman. Many foreign newspapers, including the New York Times, carried a tribute to the most famous grandmaster from the Balkans. He left his mark on the chess world in many ways: as a top ten player, remarkable theoretician, eloquent commentator, inspiring journalist, tournament organiser and World Championship arbiter. Few chess personalities have left so many traces.

After Gligoric's death, the games of his training match against Fischer were published posthumously.




Hort stories: "Pricao mi Gliga..."

Dagobert Kohlmeyer is one of the best known German chess journalists. For more than 25 years Kohlmeyer, who lives in Berlin, has been travelling all over the world to report about and to capture impressions of Chess Olympiads, World Championships, and top tournaments.


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