Study of the Month: Darko, not Donnie

by Siegfried Hornecker
12/25/2021 – The Serbian name "Darko" comes from "Dar" for "gift". Good wishes are bestowed often upon our children, be it luck with the Biblical name "The son of luck" or "Benjamin", or in this case, the gift of being gifted. A special gift indeed was given to Darko Hlebec, an interesting composing style. Study specialist Siegfried Hornecker presents presents examples of his work and Darko's comments about it.

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Darko, not Donnie

I thought a good way of getting information from Darko was sending a small interview questionnaire, but instead of replying to it in the format I had sent him, he decided to reply in separate e-mails (below I removed the space for his replies).

S: Many thanks for agreeing to the interview! Your first endgame studies appeared in 2007 in the then-freshly revived magazine "MatPlus". Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself, how old you were back then, and how you got to composing endgame studies?

S: It is my impression that chess composers in Belgrade met rather often in their chess club. Did you participate in such meetings often?

S: Your international breakthrough was the special prize in the Harold van der Heijden 50 JT in 2011. White really doesn't want Black to castle queenside there, first sacrificing the queen and later the rook on b8. I had composed a few studies with that idea before, and was inspired by the books of Tim Krabbé to do so. I'll have a few questions here. First of all, what was your inspiration for this study, and did you read Tim Krabbé's books or website?

S: How did it feel to have a great international success?

S: Your style is usually of rather forced endgame studies, i.e. with a rather high flow but often also high use of material. It seems that you found a balance between material usage and other ideas to keep the tactical play where you want it to go that is appreciated by judges, as evident for example by the 1st prize in the 2020 FIDE World Cup?

S: This style allows for some interesting ending pictures, checkmates with many self-blocks, usually active. Still, the evolution of your skill is shown by comparing early studies (MatPlus#1446) with modern ones. Can you explain how you evolved, i.e. how your style was refined?

S: In 2013, our friend Milan Velimirović passed away. There was a meeting in his memory, which I attended, as I had been using the MatPlus website since the early days, I think since early 2007. Can you tell us about your personal connection with Milan?

S: Information for the readers: The MatPlus magazine, and the subscriber-only "MatPlus Review" had been stopped by Milan again at that time, but the website with forum remained up as a meeting space for chess composers. After his death, it is continued by his friends.

S: The WCCC - the World Congress of Chess Composition - was held in Belgrade in 2016. I went to Belgrade three times, twice for local events and the final time in 2016 to the Congress. What was your experience with the WCCC in 2016? How was it to meet international composers? Did you be there much even? I currently don't remember seeing you there much?

S: Talk about anything you want here. No politics or religion, please, that only leads to arguments.

Darko Hlebec

Before we get into the e-mails he sent in reply, the background information about the questions I had sent is necessary for the readers to understand. All the studies given below are also replayable at the end.

In the database, the endgame studies start in 2007, first appearing in the  MatPlus (archive link) magazine. His very first endgame study there received an honorable mention:


Darko Hlebec, MatPlus, issue 25 (Spring 2007), honorable mention. White to move and win

1.Nd4 Nb5+ 2.N:b5 c2 3.Nc3+ B:c3 4.Rb6+ Bb4+ 5.R:b4+ Ka1

This is, I think, how far I had solved it from the diagram back in the day.

6.Rb1+! K:b1 7.Bd2 c1Q+ 8.B:c1 K:c1 9.h5 d4 10.h6 d3 11.h7 d2 12.h8Q d1Q 13.Qb2 mate

This study has an idea similar to a famous Afek study - incidentally, also an early one - but is otherwise completely different. In any case, this study is among the ones refered to in the first question, and again in another question. Darko writes (I corrected the spelling where necessary, and added explanations in hard brackets; all texts were sent to Darko prior to publication again for his consent):

First of all, thank you Siegfried for inviting me to give an interview. Regarding my study published in Mat Plus magazine in 2007, it was my first study with which I participated in a composition competition, but my first [overall] study was published in 2003. I was 18 years old and I became very interested in chess studies. I became a member of the Society of Problem Chess of Yugoslavia, and now Serbia. As for the meetings, I started going to them in 2002 after I got in touch with Marjan Kovačević through the Chess federation, who invited me to come. The meetings were then in the club C22 in New Belgrade [Novi Beograd or New Belgrade is a municipality of the city of Belgrade], so that when I again started coming in 2007, they were in the center of Belgrade in the chess club Belgrade. Meetings were once a week; once a year there was a festival of problem chess. Because of Corona they have thinned out, but there have been solving competitions several times a year. I never read that book, I got the inspiration for a study that won a special prize at the Harold Van Der Heijden 50 JT by watching a study from Smyslov, a former World Chess Champion. During one Chess Olympiad in which he participated, Smyslov showed the audience one of his studies in which White had to sacrifice a bishop to disable Black castling. That idea interested me, I came up with the idea to try making a double sacrifice, and I succeeded in that in the end. I think Smyslov would have liked my study. Of course it is a nice feeling when success is achieved, because the path to success is never easy. At the beginning of my career, I did studies with many pieces, but later I reduced that number. I love sharp fight, effective sacrifices and nice final pictures like a checkmate or a stalemate. Studies cannot be ordinary, boring endings from practical games, the real beauty of chess comes to the fore in studies.

The Smyslov study is included in the replayable entries below as well. Your author is still impressed by Smyslov's great singing skills, of his recordings only the traditional song about Stenka Rasin (or rather parts thereof) seems easily findable, however. Darko's reworking of the study idea, with two sacrifices, went as follows. It was presented also in an earlier issue of this column, but should be repeated here:


Darko Hlebec, Harold van der Heijden 50 JT 2011, special prize. White to move and win

1.Qb8+! B:b8 2.g:h7 Nd4+! 3.c:d4 Bb3+ 4.R:b3 Be5 5.Rb8+! R:b8 6.d:e5 Kd8 7.Kd6! Kc8 8.K:c6! Rb6+ 9.K:b6 a1Q 10.h8Q+ Kd7 11.e6+ and 12.Q:a1 wins

Darko's second reply was about our mutual friend whose death in 2013 caused me to write my e-book (linked at the author info) and to visit Belgrade. The idea for my book was there earlier, but after Milan's death I needed a way to "let out" the grief for that man whom I never met in person but whose magazine and forum greatly had influenced me. Darko writes:

I met Milan Velimirović in 2007, when he started again printing one of the best magazines in problem chess - Mat Plus, and I was honored to publish my studies there. Milan was a big fan of chess composition, he was Grandmaster in problem chess, his best works were in mate in two, but he also loved studies. He was a good man, and unfortunately he left too soon.

The third e-mail deals with the World Congress of Chess Composition 2016:

The world congress of problem chess in Belgrade 2016 was the first congress in my hometown. I have only good memories of that event. There I meet for the first time some really good study composers like Martin Minski, and Steffen Slumstrup Nielsen. I hope Belgrade will once again host the world congress.

Darko's fourth - and last - e-mail thanked another chess composer from Belgrade:

I can't help mentioning the man to whom I owe great gratitude for all my successes - my friend and second Branislav Djurasević. Branko is a great lover of chess studies, ever since I met him he has helped me in every possible way, from sending studies to installing study based, and chess programs. He always gave me the right advice, thanks to him I achieved my greatest success - winning the FIDE World Cup. He is the best second in the world!

The work of Branko extended also to delivering me from and to the airport when I visited Belgrade. Together with Borislav Gadjanski (the president of the Serbian Chess Problem Society), Marjan Kovačević (also writer of the chess column in the newspaper "Politika"), and others (Milomir Babić comes to mind) there is a core of good chess problemists in the Serbian capital. Now I could talk on about my personal experiences with them, but let us return to our monthly hero instead:


Darko Hlebec, FIDE World Cup 2020, 1st place. Black to move, White wins

1.-f1N+ 2.Rh:f1 N:f1+ 3.Ke2 Ra:d5 4.Ne5 Ng3+ 5.Kf3 Bf6 6.Qb4+ R7d6 7.Qb7+ Ke6 8.Qc8+ K:e5 9.Q:f5+ N:f5 10.Re4 mate

Four active selfblocks, i.e. pieces that move to their final squares during the solution, where they block flights for their own king, have impressed the judge Yochanan Afek, who received the entries anonymously. The following quotation is from the award (taken from the PDF file on the ARVES website's awards archive):

11 years ago I was privileged to award a shared victory in a major tourney to a gem study displaying an ideal mate by a knight underpromotion following 4 active selfblocks. (Yuri Bazlov, 1st-2nd prize, Corus-70 JT, 2009). Here we witness a similar magic carried out by a single Rook (not by promoting though...) mating following 4 active self-blocks! The fluent and natural introductory play with all units active is highlighted by a queen sacrifice so that the absence of a white key is easily forgiven.

The FIDE World Cup in composition is an annual tourney, in many genres of composition, sponsored by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), organized by Andrey Selivanov. There are statistics of the number of participants for 2018 to 2020 on his website. Endgame studies had 56 entries in 2020.

As I received no further e-mails, I will add that Darko has 76 endgame studies in the database, between 2007 and 2020. So the 2003 study is missing, and also at least the one year since the latest database version was published. I also checked the FIDE World Cup 2021 award, but Darko wasn't in there.

(PS: While I was finishing the article, Darko sent me his 2003 study, so it is replayable below. One sees that it is a very early work.)

I will close with a short celebration of two strong Serbian players. Certainly, the - unrelated to Milan - GMs Dragoljub Velimirović or Milan Matulović might come to mind to readers, or maybe even the absolute top players like Ljubomir Ljubojević or Svetozar Gligorić. But for me a small interesting story, an interesting fact, is fascinating, as there are quite some successful chess sisters, but only one pair of twins in modern chess to hold the Woman Grandmaster title...

Serbia is still facing the wounds of the wars. For this reason, when I offered Darko to say anything he wants (which he didn't do), the restriction to non-politics is one that not only has an abstract but a real background, although to my knowledge he isn't a very political person. Speaking of Serbian politics, it is telling for the standing of chess that a Woman Grandmaster has been sports minister for a while: Alisa Marić.

Personally, I welcome chess masters taking political offices if this contributes to what I call the Greater Good, which in this case would be by helping the development of chess in their country. Obviously, this would be an exception to the rule of no politics, to talk about for example the influence of this - one has to nearly say "superstar" - famous chess master who held a political office. We read on the internet that she has a TV show called "Alisa in the Wonderland of Chess", where the name is likely a play on Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland", a novel that is associated with chess, among other things. This is to a great degree also because of the later novel "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There", which begins with a chess diagram.

Alisa, by the way, holds a special unique record, according to Wikipedia: Together with her 20 minutes later born sister Mirjana they are the only twin pair in the history of modern chess to hold the "Woman Grandmaster" title. Alisa, of course, holds a PhD in economics. But - maybe closing our gap to the previous month's issue - Mirjana graduated at the Belgrade University in mathematics.

Photo: Alisa Maric

It is fascinating how in a small country like Serbia, in its capital city that holds around 15 percent of its population, there is such a thriving and beautiful chess life, in composition and in practical play, and also literary. To the names given above in this article, I just want to add one more that most readers have heard about, a company run from Belgrade with a flagship periodical of the same name: Šahovski Informator. In my opinion, with which I close this fifth year of the column, Belgrade not only is the capital of Serbia but also one of the capitals of chess.



Siegfried (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.


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