The Cruellest Month – three respected players pass

6/4/2009 – T S Eliot tells us that "April is the cruellest month", but in the chess world of 2009, it is May that has been the bitterest. Three prominent and popular masters passed away within two weeks of one another, two from the former Soviet Union – IM Mikhail Podgaets, Ukraine, GM Alexander Panchenko, Russia – and one from the Netherlands, IM Rob Hartoch. Obituaries by Steve Giddins.

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The Cruellest Month


IM Mikhail Podgaets, Ukraine

The first of these was IM Mikhail Podgaets, whose principal claim to fame in recent years was as a staunch and highly-respected trainer to ex-world champion Anatoly Karpov. Podgaets' active playing career was relatively short, but in the late 1960s, he showed great promise. Born on 23 July 1947, he achieved his biggest successes in two appearances in the final of the mighty Soviet Championships. On his debut, at Alma-Ata in 1968, he showed remarkable tenacity and defensive skill, surviving the first 14 rounds, before succumbing to his first defeat. He eventually finished with +3, -2, =14, for a share of 6-14th places, a tremendous result for a championship debutant. As the Soviet periodical Shakhmaty v SSSR pointed out, his exceptional defensive and manoeuvering skills did not mean that was unable to attack, as his game against Klovan demonstrated:

Podgaets,Mikhail - Klovan,Janis [A07]
URS-ch36 Alma-Ata (4), 1968
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 c6 4.0–0 Bg4 5.b3 e6 6.Bb2 Be7 7.d3 0–0 8.Nbd2 a5 9.a4 Nfd7 10.e4 Na6 11.Qe2 Qb6 12.Rfe1 Rfd8 13.Nf1 Bf6 14.e5 Be7 15.Ne3 Bh5 16.h4 Bg6 17.Bh3 h6 18.Ng2 Nf8 19.Nf4 Bh7 20.Kh1 c5 21.Rg1 c4 22.g4 cxd3 23.cxd3 Nb4 24.g5 h5

25.g6! Bxg6 26.Nd4 Bxh4 27.Nxg6 fxg6 28.Rxg6 Re8 29.Rxg7+! Kxg7 30.Rg1+ Kh8 31.Qxh5+ Nh7 32.Qxh4 Rg8 33.Bxe6 Rxg1+ 34.Kxg1 Qc7 35.Bf5 Rg8+ 36.Kf1 Rg7 37.Ne6 Qe7 38.Qh6 Rf7 39.Ng5 Qxg5 40.e6+ Rg7 41.Qxh7#. [Click to replay]

Two years later, in the final of the 38th USSR Championship at Riga, he demonstrated that his debut had been no fluke, with a very similar performance – 15 rounds before his first defeat, and an eventual share of 8-9th places. Amazingly, though, he never appeared in another Soviet final, although he remained active as a player for almost three decades, becoming individual champion of the Ukraine in 1976.


Mikhail Podgaets, who was seconding Anatoly Karpov in the Miskolc Rapid Chess match in September 2006, chatting with
GM Arshak Petrosian, trainer (and father-in-law) of Peter Leko.

In his later years, however, it was training work that occupied him. As a tireless analyst, it was work for which he was well suited, and in 1984, he began an association with Karpov, which lasted until his death. The latter's successful use of the Caro-Kann as Black was just one thing he owed to Podgaets' influence.


Assisting Anatoly Karpov during the Advanced Chess match in 1999 against Vishy Anand in León, Spain. In the above pictures, which were grabbed from a multimedia report in ChessBase Magazine 71, Karpov and Podgaets receive instruction from Frederic Friedel in the use of the hardware in the computer-assisted match.

Mikhail Podgaets passed away on 14 May 2009, still two months short of his 62nd birthday. His death was followed five days later by that of Alexander Panchenko, the Russian GM and trainer. Born on 5 October 1953, he was even younger than Podgaets. He became a grandmaster in 1980, and had excellent tournament victories at Sochi 1980 and Bayamo 1988, but it was as a trainer that he was most well-known. In 1982, he opened a chess school, and soon established himself as one of the best trainers in the Soviet Union. Well-known pupils includes Sorokin, Prudnikova, Galliamova, Scherbakov, Ulibin, Rublevsky, Shumiakina, and others.

Alexander Panchenko was especially well-known for his love of the endgame, which formed a major part of his training material. In 1997, he published in Russian his endgame textbook "The theory and practice of chess endings", an English edition of which followed in 2002. I can testify that it is one of the best, single-volume endgame textbooks available.

Panchenko practiced what he preached, particularly loving to secure the bishop pair and exploit it in the endgame. The following game, taken from his book, is a typically impressive example, against a very strong opponent:

Panchenko,Alexander N (2495) - Azmaiparashvili,Zurab (2415) [D34]
URS-ch48 sf Dnipropetrovsk 1980
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 c5 4.0–0 Nc6 5.d4 e6 6.c4 Be7 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Nc3 0–0 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 Be6 12.Qa4 Qd7 13.Rfd1 Nxd4 14.Bxd4 Qxa4 15.Nxa4 Ne4 16.f3 Nf6 17.Nc5 b6 18.Nxe6 fxe6 19.Rac1 Rac8 20.e3 Bd6 21.Bf1 Rxc1 22.Rxc1 e5 23.Bc3 Rc8 24.Bh3 Rc6 25.Kf2 Kf7 26.Ke2 Bb4 27.Bd2 Rxc1 28.Bxc1

Ke7 29.b3 Bc5 30.Bb2 Bd6 31.f4 exf4 32.exf4 Kf7 33.Kf3 Ng8 34.Bd7 Nf6 35.Bf5 Ng8 36.g4 Ne7 37.Bd7 g5 38.f5 Bxh2 39.Be6+ Ke8 40.Bg7 Nc6 41.Bxd5 Ne5+ 42.Ke4 Nxg4 43.f6 Ne5 44.Kf5 Nf7 45.Bc6+ Kd8 46.Ke6 Kc7 47.Bf3 Nd8+ 48.Kd5 Bd6 49.Bh5 Nc6 50.f7 Nb4+ 51.Kc4 Be7 52.a4 Nc2 53.f8Q Ne3+ 54.Kb5 Bxf8 55.Bxf8 Nf5 56.Bg6 Nd4+ 57.Kc4 Nf3 58.Kd5 Nd2 59.b4 a5 60.b5 Nf1 61.Bxh6 Ne3+ 62.Kd4 1-0. [Click to replay]

The last of May's sad list of departed masters was the Dutch IM Rob Hartoch, who was a familiar figure to anyone who played chess with any regularity in The Netherlands. The gentle giant passed away on 28 May, at the age of 62, having been ill for some time. Although he never obtained the GM title, Hartoch had been seen as one of the most promising lights in Dutch chess in the mid 1960s. In 1965, he finished second in the world junior championship in Barcelona, behind Kurajica (whom he beat in the last round), but ahead of such players as Hubner and Tukmakov. As Jan Timman wrote, in a warm tribute on the Dutch site Schakersinfo.nl, the big debate in Dutch chess around that time was whether Timman or Hartoch was the greater prospect. Alas, though, Rob lacked the steel and determination needed to scale the heights, and although he took many grandmaster scalps, he was never to reach the level that his talent warranted.

In later years, declining health combined with a deep-seated fear of losing, resulted in Rob becoming known as the drawing master of Dutch chess. He would take part in Open events, and happily draw seven or eight of his games, usually in very short order, and often against lower-rated opposition. However, anyone careless enough to put their head in his mouth would still be liable to get it bitten off, as I witnessed when I sat next to him during one open in Amsterdam, and watched what happened when a 2300 player had the temerity to turn down Rob's early draw offer!


Rob Hartoch as arbiter at the Essent Chess Tournament 2007 [photo Fred Lucas]

I personally got to know Rob quite well during the last seven or eight years of his life, principally via the Hoogeveen tournament, where he was usually the arbiter of the Open section. Several times, we stayed in the same accommodation, and would spend the evenings discussing "the old times". As a lover of chess history, I found Rob a fascinating person to talk to, and always loved seeing him at tournaments. During one such evening chat, I asked him what he regarded as his best game, and without hesitation, he pulled a slip of paper from his wallet. It was the scoresheet of the following game, which he used to carry around with him always:

Hartoch,Robert G (2400) - Keres,Paul (2615) [A57]
IBM Amsterdam (6), 1971
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 c5 3.d5 b5 4.c4 Bb7 5.e3 g6 6.Nc3 b4 7.Ne2 Bg7 8.Ng3 e6 9.e4 exd5 10.exd5 0–0 11.Be2 d6 12.0–0 Nbd7 13.Bf4 Nb6 14.Qd2 Re8 15.Bd3 Ba6 16.Rac1 Rc8 17.b3 Rc7 18.h3 Qe7 19.Rfe1 Qf8 20.Rxe8 Nxe8 21.Ne2 Bc8 22.Nh2 Nd7 23.Be3 a5 24.g4 a4 25.f4 Ra7 26.Nf3 Qe7 27.Kg2 axb3 28.axb3 Ra3 29.Bc2 Ra2 30.Bf2 Nb6 31.Re1 Qd8 32.Bh4 Qd7 33.Qd3 Nf6 34.Ng3 h5?

35.f5! hxg4 36.hxg4 Nxg4 37.fxg6 f6 38.Kg1 Ne5 39.Nxe5 dxe5 40.Qf5 Qe8 41.Qh5 Bh3 42.Bxf6 Bxf6 43.Qxh3 Qe7 44.Bf5 Kf8 45.Rf1 Ke8 46.Ne4 Bg7 47.Qh7 Bf8 48.d6 Qg7 49.d7+ Kd8 50.Qxg7 Bxg7 51.Nxc5 Nxd7 52.Rd1 Ra7 53.Rxd7+ Rxd7 54.Nxd7 1-0. [Click to replay]

I will miss you, Rob. Rest in peace, my friend.

Steve Giddins



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