Vlastimil Hort: Nicolas Rossolimo

by Vlastimil Hort
5/31/2018 – The Rossolimo variation in the Sicilian is well-known and popular but who remembers Rossolimo? He was a connoisseur of the art of living, a chess artist, and an imaginative attacker with a passion for live and chess. Vlastimil Hort shares memories.

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Chess artist Nicolas Rossolimo

He was a French-American-Greek-Russian Grandmaster. But did he really have four passports he could use? His father Spiridon Rossolimo was Greek, his mother Xenia Nikolajewna was Russian. He was born February 28, 1910 in Kiev (Ukraine), and died July 24, 1975, after a tragic accident in New York.

A cosmopolitan and globetrotter. I can well imagine him in a film role as chess clochard next to Jean Gabin. He had an adventurous life, "up and down". Rossolimo's family register is clearly orthodox but the orthodox Queen's Gambit has never been part of his opening repertoire. 1.e4 was his favourite move and in the classical Italian he went straight for business. The theoretically important line 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 bears his name. His style could be called late Romantic. He won a lot of "Brilliancy Prices", and should FIDE ever publish a world book of fine miniatures his name should be in it.

The combination in the following short game leaves a very aesthetic impression.

 

It is possible that he just prepared his chess memoirs for a book when I visited his studio. Unfortunately, this project was never finished. He copied all reports about his games in chess magazines, and then added light notes of his own, but the unfinished manuscript soon gathered dust in a box and was later lost.

But the fate of a combined biography of him and his wife Vera Budakovich was even worse. His wife had written it in Russian, and the manuscript was finished, perfect, and ready for printing. A visitor of Rossolimo's "Chess Studio" offered to translate the manuscript into English and took the Russian original with him. However, the unknown "translator" was never seen again. Unfortunately, Rossolimo's wife Vera did not want to give this project another try. A pity! And there is little hope that the script will one day surface at a chess auction. Too bad, I would really have known more about the highs and lows of a chess relationship. Who, after all, was this mysterious X.Y.?

But back to chess — and the spectacular game Rossolimo vs Romanenko, Bad Gastein 1948 — given above.

Bad Gastein 1948

Rg. Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Pts.
1 Erik Lundin
 
  1 0 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 15.0
2 Pal C Benko
 
0   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 14.5
3 Nicolas Rossolimo
 
1 ½   1 0 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 14.5
4 Cenek Kottnauer
 
1 ½ 0   ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 13.5
5 Erno Gereben
 
½ ½ 1 ½   0 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 11.5
6 Esteban Canal
 
0 ½ ½ 0 1   0 ½ 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 1 0 1 ½ 10.0
7 Gosta Danielsson
 
0 0 ½ ½ 0 1   1 ½ 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 10.0
8 Hans Mueller
 
0 0 0 ½ 1 ½ 0   0 0 0 1 1 1 1 0 1 1 1 ½ 9.5
9 Josef Lokvenc
 
0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1   ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 0 1 ½ 1 ½ ½ 9.5
10 Josef Platt
 
0 ½ ½ 0 0 0 0 1 ½   ½ 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 9.0
11 Sz Toth
 
½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ ½   1 ½ 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 ½ 9.0
12 Alfred Beni
 
0 ½ 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0   ½ 1 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 8.5
13 Rudolf Palme
 
½ 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 ½ 1 ½ ½   1 1 0 0 1 1 ½ 8.0
14 Gerald Abrahams
 
0 0 0 ½ 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0   0 1 ½ 0 1 1 8.0
15 Henry Grob
 
½ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 ½ 1 0 1   1 1 1 1 0 8.0
16 Gerhard Bruckner
 
0 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 1 0 1 0 ½ 1 0 0   1 0 ½ 1 7.5
17 Max Dorn
 
0 0 0 ½ 1 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 0 0   0 ½ 1 6.5
18 Leopold Watzl
 
0 0 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 1 0 1 1   1 0 6.5
19 Hans Polzer
 
0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0   1 5.5
20 Karl Galia
 
0 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 1 0   5.5

My chess friend André Schulz found out that the game above was not a tournament game but a casual game. Now the question arises: who was Romanenko? At the tournament in Bad Gastein he definitively was not among the participants. Did he even exist? Possibly a phenomenon similar to Nicolas Rossolimo? Maybe the game (miniature) was not even played but construed? After all, in the world of paintings there is no lack of fakes!

Rossolimo was a seven-time champion of Paris. At the international tournament in Paris 1938, he finished second behind Capablanca — a remarkable result. Have we ever met at the board? Yes, twice: in Beverwijk 1969 and in Monte Carlo 1969. We had great respect for each other — both games ended in a draw.

Grand Prix Monte Carlo 1969

Rg. Title Name Land 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Pts.
1 GM Vassily V Smyslov
 
  ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 1 8.0
2 GM Lajos Portisch
 
½   ½ 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 8.0
3 GM William James Lombardy
 
½ ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 7.0
4 GM Vlastimil Hort
 
½ 1 ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 7.0
5 GM Lothar Schmid
 
0 0 0 ½   ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 6.0
6 GM Florin Gheorghiu
 
0 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 6.0
7 GM Nicolas Rossolimo
 
½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½   0 1 1 ½ ½ 5.5
8 GM Pal C Benko
 
0 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 1   0 ½ ½ 1 5.0
9 GM David Ionovich Bronstein
 
0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 1   ½ 1 ½ 4.5
10 IM Rudolf Teschner
 
½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½   0 1 4.5
11 IM Karoly Honfi
 
½ 0 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 1   0 2.5
12 GM Predrag Ostojic
 
0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 1   2.0

The Second World War stopped his promising chess career — a fate he shares with many of his chess colleagues of that time. In 1939, his only son Alexander was born. Now Rossolimo had to care for his family. At that time no easy task for a chess professional. For the time being Rossolimo stayed in France and in 1947 he became a French citizen.

Chantal Chaudé de Silans and Nicolas Rossolimo | Source: Pinterest

In Hastings 1948/49 and in Beverwijk 1953 he celebrated his greatest triumphs. The result in Beverwijk shows his class. His margin of 1½ points is impressive.

Beverwijk 1953

Rg. Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Pts.
1 Nicolas Rossolimo
 
  ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 9.0
2 Alberic O'Kelly de Galway
 
½   ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 7.5
3 Roman Toran Albero
 
½ ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 1 7.0
4 Haije J Kramer
 
0 ½ ½   1 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 7.0
5 Jan Hein Donner
 
0 1 ½ 0   ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 7.0
6 Max Euwe
 
0 ½ ½ ½ ½   1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 7.0
7 Geza Fuster
 
½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0   ½ 1 1 1 1 6.0
8 Theo D Van Scheltinga
 
0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½   ½ 1 1 1 5.5
9 Hans Bouwmeester
 
½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½   ½ 1 0 4.0
10 Nicolaas Cortlever
 
0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 0 ½   1 1 4.0
11 Wolfgang Heidenfeld
 
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0   1 1.0
12 Arthur Henry Trott
 
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0   1.0

In two chess olympiads, he played for France, in Dubrovnik 1950, and in Skopje 1972. But he also started in three olympiads as a reserve player for the USA: in 1958, 1960, and in 1966. It is well-known that back then life was not easy for a chess professional. To make ends meet Rossolimo decided to work as a cab driver. Throughout the night he drove customers around the city. Later, he worked as a bellhop in the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, took the nightshift in a laundry shop, and in 1959 he opened his famous chess studio in Greenwich Village — an institution! This was the finest hour of his life.

"In Spain, I helped my father to set up the pieces, and admired how he whirled around his opponents and kept all games in mind," his son Alexander remembered. Rossolimo's Chess Studio in Madrid turned into a financial disaster. But a chess professional sticks to his guns. "Up and Down". In 1955, Rossolimo won the US Championship. The first prize was a brand new Buick. The car was sold immediately because cash was urgently needed.

First the art of chess, then the results, was Rossolimo's creed. "I will never become a chess monster and a gatherer of points." In his only book "Au coin du feu" (Paris 1947) he shows his endgames and his previous studies. The book is a rarity and very high on my wishlist. Would a few hundred Euros on an auction be enough?

In 1975, I read about his third place at the New York Open. Good prize-money. "Grandmaitre can slow down a bit and does not need to do as much cab driving", I thought for myself. A few weeks later came the report about his tragic end. I was at a loss...

Selected highlights

 

The Sicilian Rossolimo for White

The Rossolimo Variation 3.Bb5 is considered to be one of the strongest replies to 2…Nc6 in the Sicilian Defence. The fact that the move has been played by practically all the top players proves its popularity and strength. But the most interesting aspect of playing 3.Bb5 is that we force sharp, attacking players who love to have the initiative to forget about the Open Sicilian and to adjust themselves to a new world, one full of positional ideas, manoeuvres and nuances.

More...

 

The Popular Italian

In the actual DVD Bologan covered all answers by Black against 3.Bc4, especially 3...Bc5, presenting all relevant possibilities for White.

More...

 

"I'll check them all" 

I have kept the visiting card of "Rossolimo's Chess Studio" for many years until I finally had the chance to visit him during the US Open 1974 in New York.

Scene of the crime: Rossolimo's Chess Studio in Greenwich Village, Manhattan (191, Sullivan Street, later 217 Thomspon Street).

On a mild summer evening, I finally had the chance to visit the lion's den. Grandmaitre immediately offered me a small glass of red wine and let me know that his exceedingly famous chess teaching would begin in half an hour. Yes, I would be a welcome spectator — with these words he invited me to stay. "I'll check them all", he repeated for a couple of times which made me think that he also needed an admirer. In the room were a demonstration board, a long table with chairs, and his famous, rolling office chair (which at that time was not yet everywhere on the market). A small kitchen and a puny bathroom completed his modest chess riches. Just behind the entrance door was the lecture room, his chess realm.

"Lesson 2" was on the curriculum, moves with the king and check. Grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo would be in his element, and he would check on complete beginners and adepts wherever he could. With his rolling office chair, he would rush from board to board to chase the white kings of his opponents with his black army and with great relish.

Greenwich Village. From the very first moment, I liked the multicultural atmosphere of this quarter. Street artists, painters, poets, and jugglers crowded the streets — colourful events everywhere. Various smells reached the nose from all corners. International dishes tempted with their specialities. Should Vlasty ever go to the US again he will definitely go to Greenwich Village!

The first participants of the evening course arrived. On every board a naked white king was ready. When the curious would leave the studio after a lesson they should definitely know a bit more about the "Jeu Royal".

The public was also very multicultural. A white American with her little son, Mexicans, African-Americans, Latinos, and a few old age pensioners of ambiguous origin had taken a seat at the long row of tables. I even heard Russian and Polish sounds. An attentive Chinese eventually brought the maestro some pastry. But before the lesson started the Grandmaitre held his French hat á la Maurice Chevalier and asked for an entrance fee of one dollar from each participant. A very moderate fee for the chess lesson.

"I'll check them all!"

On each board the black armies were slowly getting in motion. Soon Black had a simple check here, another there, sometimes even a double check or a cunning discovered check. I was amazed how incredibly quickly the participants learned from their mistakes. But they had a good incentive. Why? Every wrong or illegal move was punished immediately and cost the blunderer a quarter. The schadenfreude of the neighbouring players was palpable. The Maitre threw a glance at the clock, the lesson was slowly coming to an end. "I'll checkmate you all."

Late at night, there would be a "Night Rossolimo Show", after all, the master needed a dollar or two.

Visiting Rossolimo was very instructive — I learnt a lot, but unfortunately did not put it into action yet. Is it too late by now to open a "Hort Chess Studio"?

A little round of poker

"Le vin desserre la langue et ouvre les coeurs." As a French saying knows, wine loosens the tongue and opens the heart. Chess artist Rossolimo was rather satisfied with his takings of the day, and after thoroughly enjoying some wine he became talkative. But why does he berate and insult all Mexicans in such a mean way? What did they do to him? 

"These scoundrels, cheaters, tricheurs, crooks, obmana [Serbo-Croatian]." My question led to a flood of negative words in various languages. I suddenly remembered that he had hassled a small Mexican during the chess lesson quite a bit. He did not give him an inch. On the contrary, he gleefully punished and fined the little guy for every "illegal move".

I secretly wondered about the reason for his aversion against Mexicans. Gradually I managed to draw his story out of him.

Close to his chess studio was a simple, Mexican tavern. The food was cooked according to original recipes and tasted delicious. As often as he could he went to lunch in this tavern. His gambler's soul also found nourishment. Because every Sunday afternoon the cosy tavern hosted small poker rounds. The stakes were small, as if playing with friends. Everyone knew everyone, the buy-in was a quarter. At such stakes, it seemed impossible to me that the pot would ever contain an astronomically high sum. Before the day of the fateful event, Nicolas Rossolimo, player, artist, and connoisseur of the art of living, hardly ever missed a round.

One day, almost lucky! During one of the poker rounds, my host was indeed dealt three aces. He confidently looked around. He discarded two cards and drew two more — another ace! Nicolas Rossolimo could hardly believe his luck, and raised the stakes. One of the Mexicans did not want to fold, the heap of dollar bills in the middle of the table grew bigger and bigger. Finally, both players showed their hands. The little man with a sombrero revealed one card after the next: 7, 8, 10, queen, king — nothing, not even a pair! A neutral observer would see nothing but a bluff that went badly wrong. With the big smile of a big winner, Nicolas Rossolimo reached for the pot. But STOP! Obviously, the poker round was played according to internal rules unknown to him. "Mister, I do have a 'cactus card' and that beats four aces — and only four aces." A lot of Mexicans had watched the homely poker round and every verbal or even more assertive protest would never have ended in his favour.

But as ill luck would have it, the following Sunday he joined again. After all, his chess studio was only a few steps away from the gambling den! But his time fortune did not smile on him. Though Grandmaitre played with all he got the cards simply did not fall his way. Mechanically, and as if in trance, he drew one card after the other. A glance on his hand — and he was amazed to see that he also had a "cactus card", namely 7, 8, 10, queen, king.

The gambling devil can be very mean. On the other side of the table sat another Mexican who slowly, one card after the other, revealed a hand with four aces. A scene right from a Western movie. Pure excitement. In sweet anticipation of pockets full of money, Rossolimo reached out to grab the substantial pot. "Mister, Mister, we are very sorry, you have just bad luck today. Our internal rule applies to everyone in the round. And according to the rules, the 'cactus card' wins only once a year against four aces. Sorry, Mister, really sorry!"

Despite the wounds the Mexicans had inflicted on Nicolas Rossolimo I still spent an amusing evening with the bon vivant, charmer, and connoisseur of the art of life. Savoir vivre!

Much later I heard that even the world-renowned French painter and artist Marcel Duchamp had been seeking inspiration in Rossolimo's Chess Studio.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Links




Vlastimil Hort was born January 12, 1944, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s he was one of the world's best players and a World Championship candidate. In 1979 he moved to West Germany where he still lives. Hort is an excellent blindfold player, a prolific author and a popular chess commentator.
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Masquer Masquer 6/2/2018 12:40
The poker story sounds like complete and utter BS. No one with brains would play poker being ignorant of the 'house' rules, and more so if such ridiculous 'cactus card' crap was really in effect. I call BS on this.
IMYY4U IMYY4U 6/1/2018 12:27
In his game against Romanenko, the move 13... Re8!!, while beautiful, only leads to a winning material advantage. Better was 13...Qe2! which leads to a forced mate.
GreenKlaser GreenKlaser 5/31/2018 09:47
In the sixties I played casual games with Nick. His wife liked to tell me he was a genius. The spelling of Thompson looks wrong. The poker story usually ends with the unique hand only being good once a night. It was demonstrated in Phil Silver's tv portrayal of Sgt. Bilko.
rook22 rook22 5/31/2018 05:47
Ivan Romanenko was indeed an American player, born in USSR, who lived in Washington DC at least in the 1950s and 1960s. A game of his is mentioned in Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess. --Allan Savage (USA)
rook22 rook22 5/31/2018 05:25
Vera Rossolimo did in fact publish a small, limited edition booklet of Nicolas' brilliancies after his death. It consists of photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles, some annotated by Nicolas; as well as typed, and handwritten pages. The title was: In Memory of International Grand Master Nicolas Rossolimo 1910-1975. I have a signed and numbered copy. Allan Savage
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