The anatomy of Agony

by Jonathan Speelman
8/3/2020 – Star columnist Jon Speelman tells a story from the old days, when Soviet tournaments were long and inordinately slow. In it, he mentions Leonid Yurtaev, a fierce attacking player who in 1996 became Kyrgyzstan’s first-ever grandmaster and sadly died in 2011 aged just 52. Speelman then goes on to analyse two of Yurtaev’s finest efforts. | Pictured: The city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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Remembering Leonid Yurtaev

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

Until recently, this was designated as an Agony column for readers to send their games into with one horrid (agonizing) one and, as a counterpoint, a delightful (ecstatic) one.

It’s a format I will return to from time to time so please do keep sending games in. But generally now the remit is broader, though today we return to the original idea, admittedly in a fiendishly refined form.

Stuart RachelsThis is a construction task picked out by the French Canadian computer scientist François Labelle from the output of his program, which he passed on to American IM Stuart Rachels, and Stuart in turn passed on to me.

The problem is: Find a game (with legal moves) ending in 7.Rc7 mate with the black king on d7 (NB it’s Rc7, not Rxc7).

This turns out to be extremely difficult and it’s a real honour to be able to publish it here for the first time. I took the best part of a week with many periods of bittersweet agony. After a few days, I passed it on to Luke McShane, who remarked fairly soon that, “It will take several bus journeys”. Indeed, I was on the top of a London bus (#113 to Edgware) when the penny finally dropped. This led to a short period of real delight followed by a warm glow inside for a couple of days.

If you do solve this you have all my admiration and please crow in the comments below, but don’t give away the solution — though you’re welcome to email me at Luke did solve it after I gave him a couple of hints, and I’ll start doing the same here in the comments in a week’s time. They will be as Fritzpa (which has nothing to do with a certain piece of software, but a ginger cat we had years ago). The solution will appear in the next column.

It’s an open secret that grandmasters occasionally (and in some countries at some times in the past rather more often than occasionally) agree draws without playing. It’s not our finest hour, and I’ve very seldom indulged — though on the couple of occasions when I’ve had to play chess on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day I’ve been sorely tempted.

Today I’m starting — though I can't actually find the (non) game in a database — with one such which occurred for a very good reason: my opponent had recently saved, if not my life, certainly my peace of mind for a day. This was at a tournament in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which from 1926 to 1991 was named Frunze, after the Soviet Bolshevik leader Mikhail Frunze, and hosted a military academy in his name: today the city is Bishkek (apparently its old name before Frunze was Pishpek).

In the old days Soviet tournaments were long and inordinately slow, and Frunze 1979 lasted (nearly?) a whole month — what with travelling there via Moscow and back, playing days, adjournment days and rest days. I wasn’t yet a grandmaster and harboured the vague hope that I might get a GM norm, but discovered well before the end that this was already impossible.

Frunze has some lovely wide avenues and each day before the game — which was presumably at about 3 pm — I used to walk down one to the city gates and out for a while into the countryside. There was a city wall adorned with paintings of the might of Soviet man and the amity of the hundred different Soviet nations (good luck with that after it all collapsed), and these in some way stuck two fingers up at the vast tableau outside with the Tian Shan mountains in the distance separating Kyrgyzstan from China.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

On a rest day, we went out into the mountains and I, less wimpy than usual, jumped over some stepping stones in a stream. My glasses fell off, and this would certainly have spoilt the rest of the day (presumably I did have the sense to have a spare pair with me on the trip) had not the then-IM Leonid Yurtaev retrieved them. The result a few days later was a very short game in which he was White and I played a Caro Kann, if I recall.

Yurtaev, who sadly died in 2011 aged just 52, was a fierce attacking player, who in 1996 became Kyrgyzstan’s first-ever grandmaster. In Frunze 1979, he beat a Mikhalchishin, whom I originally took to be the grandmaster Adrian but apparently, looking at Informator 27, was an M. Mihaljcisin, and the tournament winner Alexander Beliavsky. Both were impressive, and I’m starting with the former which was originally annotated for Informator 28 by Sergei Makarichev — I’ve updated the annotations with help from my engine.


This game, which was decided by a single blunder, was unannotated in MegaBase, so the notes are all mine.


The Accelerated Dragon - a sharp weapon against 1.e4

After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6! leads to the so-called "Accelerated Dragon Defense". On this DVD the Russian grandmaster and top women player Nadezhda Kosintseva reveals the secrets of her favourite opening.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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