Who was Ilya Kan?

by André Schulz
5/12/2019 – The Kan Variation, also known as Paulsen Variation, is a popular line of the Sicilian. It is named after Ilya Kan, a Russian player who was born 110 years ago last week, on May 4, 1909. He lived most of his life in Moscow where he worked as a lawyer. Kan played in ten Soviet Championships and helped Botvinnik to prepare for his World Championship matches against Smyslov but outside of Russia he is still rather unknown.

Mega Database 2019 Mega Database 2019

The "Mega" is the database every serious chessplayer needs. The database contains 7.6 million games from 1500 to 2018, in highest quality standard, full of top level analyses and completely classified.


Kan, Paulsen, Taimanov

Naming openings after the players who were the first to discover or analyse these variations or who made certain lines popular, or naming openings after tournaments or places where they came to prominence is a practice that has been coming out of fashion recently.

Moreover, different countries and cultures give different names to the same opening. For instance, in Germany the opening arising after 1.e4 e5 2.f3 c6 3.b5 is known as "Spanisch", while in English-speaking countries it is also known as Spanish Opening but also as the Ruy Lopez — after the Spanish priest who analysed it in his book Libro del Ajedrez, published in 1561. When the moves 1.d4 f6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5!? appear on the board German chess players talk about the "Wolga Gambit", while English-speaking chess players are more likely to talk about the Benko Gambit. 

And sometimes the names are not clear. What, for example, is the difference between the Paulsen, the Kan, and the Taimanov variation in the Sicilian?

The Yugoslavian Chess Informant once tried to bring order to the mess of opening variations by removing all opening names and replacing them with alphanumerical classifications. A legitimate try, of course, but it takes something away from the wonderful realm of chess openings.

Black has a lot of different set-ups in the Sicilian, and the following two are very similar:


In both systems the black queen usually goes to c7 and the set-ups often transpose to the same lines.

Both of these set-ups go back to the German master Wilfried Paulsen (July 31, 1828 to February 6, 1901), the elder brother of Louis Paulsen (January 15, 1833 to August 18 , 1891)  who was an even stronger player.

Examples of Wilfried Paulsen's Sicilian


In the 1960s the lines with 4...♞c6 became more and more known as "Taimanov Variation". At first Taimanov liked to play 4...a6, but he then switched to 4...♞c6, a line he played regularly and with success.

In the Soviet Union the set-up with 4...a6 was named after Ilya Kan and became known as "Kan-Variation". While English-speaking chess players gradually accepted Kan's name for this variation, German chess players were faithful to their compatriot and continued to call this line "Paulsen Variation". At any rate, Ilya Kan did not play this line that often: according to the ChessBase Megabase in only seven games and with limited success.

Here is one of Kan's two surviving wins:


The Sicilian Kan Variation

This dynamic and flexible opening starts with moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6. Through carefully selected games and analysis made for that system, the author will help you understand the opening without the need to memorize tons of moves.

But who was Ilya Kan? Outside of Russia not much is known about him. Ilya Abramovich Kan was born on May 4, 1909 in Samara. Kan was one of the best Soviet players of his time and took part in no less than ten USSR Championships. In his first championships he had guite good results but later they got worse.

At the 6. USSR Championship Kan finished third — his best result in national championships. In 1931 he finished 7th (Botvinnik won), and in 1933 he finished 9th (Botvinnik won again). In 1934/35 he shared places 9 to 12, in 1937 he was 13th, and in 1939 he shared places 13 to 14. But in the championships after World War II he always finished at the lower end of the table: in 1945 on place 17, 1947 he shared places 13 to 15, in 1952 he was 18th, and in 1955, in his last Soviet Championship, he finished on 17th.

Ilya Kan lived in Moscow and was a lawyer by profession. He also played in several Moscow City Championships and with a shared first place he achieved his best result in 1936.

Before the war Kan had some successes against the rising star and future World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. 


From 1952 to 1954 Kan trained with Botvinnik and played a number of training games against him to prepare Botvinnik for his World Championship matches against Smyslov.

In 1950 FIDE awarded Kan the title of an International Master. Kan played chess until he was old. His last known games are from 1974 and he was still strong enough to win against good players, e.g. Vladimir Tukmakov.


Ilya Kan died in 1978.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register