Polugayevsky on winning when you have to.

May 7, 2010 at 3:34 am 10 comments

Like Geller, Polugayevsky had some difficulty getting to the very top and again, it is so hard to judge this when there is no room to be there in the first place. Still, he himself admitted some temperamental difficulties he had and it makes this story all the more interesting, from his chapter on the psychology of the chess struggle.

It took place at the Interzonal in Petropolis, 1973 and the passage is taken from Grandmaster Performance.

Two rounds before the end I was more than depressed, and all that could save me was two successive wins. But while a win even with Black in the penultimate round over international master Tan was a perfectly feasible proposition, to win ‘to order’ at the decisive moment against one of the strongest players in the world, Lajos Portisch…This seemed too unreal, especially since Portish was leading the tournament, was playing brilliantly, and not once in Petropolis had been obliged to stop the clocks.

But there was no choice. In a very sharp battle I won against Tan, and one step from the finish Portisch led me by one point, and led Yefim Geller, who was also in contention for a place in the first three, by half a point. There was no sense in hoping for a loss by my compatriot: in such situations one does not normally take risks, and it was highly probable that Geller would draw with Panno. This meant that I had nothing to lose…

I felt that never before in my life had I faced such a difficult task. Upon the result of one game hung my long-cherished dream of reaching the Candidates. …

The consciousness of all of this weighed heavily on me, and in such a state there was no possibility of my playing successfully. How was I to shake off this burden of many years, now concentrated in one single game? There was no answer, and I realised how pointless it was to hope to win in such a state of mind.

What was I to do? Should I cultivate a calmly indifferent attitude to the coming battle, as I had once done in my match with Aleksandr Zaitsev? Or should I arouse in myself a feeling of maximum competitive aggression, as before that game with Kholmov? Neither of these was really suitable – the first, because it inclined towards a rather quiet game, the second, since it was very easy to ‘overheat’. What was needed was a synthesis of these two conditions – enormous energy plus cool reason, but how was it to be attained?

Perhaps to some extent I was helped by a little incident.

During the tournament we were living in a mountain hotel, and the fresh air, together with a rather special, incomparable quietness, were highly suitable for chess players relaxing after one battle, and at the same time tuning up for another, in the following round.

And so, the evening before the last round, after dinner I went out for a breath of air, and began making circuits around the perimeter of a small swimming pool which was situated close to the hotel. Stars were suspended like mysterious lanterns in the dark southern sky, and it was very warm and very quiet. I encircled the pool once, twice, when I ran into Vlastimil Hort, who was returning to the hotel from the town.

‘Who are you playing tomorrow?’ the Czech grandmaster asked me.

Highly astonished, I replied: ‘Portisch…’

‘Aha…Difficult. It’s impossible to win against him at the moment, he just doesn’t lose at all!’

Hort said this even sympathetically, but for some reason this sympathy acted like a spark to a keg of gunpowder.

‘If it comes to that, I’ve even won against World Champions!’

This was a cry from the heart. And although this may seem like a poor fabrication, it was as though heard by the veteran Argentinian Miguel Najdorf who had come to Petropolis especially for the concluding rounds. His optimism is legendary, and he spent evenings with us in the hotel at chess and cards, when his voice would not die down even for a minute.

‘What?! Who are you playing? Portisch? And you need to win? You’ll win!!’

‘How will I win?’

‘You have the better chances. He needs a draw, but you need a win!’, Najdorf declared not altogether logically, but most convincingly. And he added:

‘You are playing well! Do you want to bet on it?!’

I suddenly sensed a growing feeling of confidence in victory. Indeed, it was equally likely for me as it was for Portisch. What about a draw being in his favour? Yes! But after all, not only I, but also he had to play ‘to order’!

A further half hour’s walking, a sound sleep, and in the morning I felt that I couldn’t wait for the moment when I would sit down at the board. Jumping ahead, I should perhaps mention that, in the bus on the way to the game, I listened with genuine pleasure to some amusing stories, and myself related some anecdote. Later, grandmaster Yuri Averbakh admitted that both he, and all the competitors, had been astonished to see me in such a mood prior to so important an encounter.

And so I awoke with a thirst for battle, but not a reckless battle, but one prepared beforehand, like a decisive encounter in a war. Hence the stages in my opening preparaton, carried out on the morning of the game.

First I had to decide the question: should I play what I normally play, or should I try to surprise my opponent with my choice of opening? My second made his recommendations to me on both possibilities, and we began considering opening with the king’s pawn. In its favour, apart from its surprise value, was the fact that afer 1e4 Portisch feels much less confident…

‘But if it should be a Lopez, what then?’ I asked dubiously.

‘Play the Italian Game!’

‘But I never played it even as a child!’

‘So much the better! Portisch plays only the variation with…Bc5.’

And I was shown a multitude of variations of primordial antiquity, which had been worked out taking Portisch’s games into account…

I hesitated, and was all ready to agree, when I suddenly sensed: this is no way to play! This is not the way to plan a decisive battle. After all, if I were to fail to gain an advantage from the opening, I would not forgive myself for having betrayed ‘my sort’ of chess. Very well, it might be easier for Portisch in the opening, but even if I were to fail to achieve what I wanted in my own schemes, I might quietly be able to gain an advantage in the middlegame.

And the Italian Game fell away of its own accord. And after it – also the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez, and 1 e4 in general.

But I also did not wish to permit the Nimzo-Indian Defence, which had been so well studied by my opponent, and by the method of elimination my choice fell on 1 Nf3: I would attempt to gain a slight advantage. In the end it would depend on me whether or not I was able to increase it.

I must admit that I did not guess completely the course of events in the opening. Portisch chose against me that very same variation in which a few rounds earlier I had lost as Black to Panno. Did that mean that he was aiming for a different piece set-up? At the board I took a radical decision: I deviated from the path chosen by Panno, and was ready to agree both to the Queen’s Gambit, and to the Tarrasch Defence. The result was a higly unusual form of the Reti Opening. White did not achieve anything in it, but…I lost the opening advantage ‘promised’ by theory, but gained more: a complicated position was reached, which was unfamiliar – or only slightly familiar – to Portisch, and we were both forced to think for ourselves.

The fact that this was to my advantage is shown by the game.

This story is fascinating for its account of the many aspects of life going into this momentous victory. Luck, the possibility of rising above one’s own psychological flaws, belief in one’s own style, cool analysis, the ability to listen to advice and then correctly reject it.

I love in particular the actual gun Portisch pointed at him. The opening Portisch himself had messed up a few days earlier. Brilliant! It brings to mind the discussion you can see elsewhere of Geller talking about this sort of thing.

How to win when you don’t need to is easy. To win when there is no choice, that is hard. And yet I believe that Najdorf had a point. It may well be harder to draw to order than to win, so perhaps, although he didn’t really believe it, this was an advantage Polugayevsky had.


Entry filed under: chess.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jonathan Mestel  |  May 11, 2010 at 4:21 am

    Permit me a boast – Portisch is the strongest player in the world I have a good score against: 2/2.

    On one occasion I had a job interview in the morning in Cambridge,
    and then played Portisch in the afternoon in London. I got the job and tore Lajos apart. Now why can’t we have more days like that.
    And I chose 1 e4, but that what my normal game in those days.
    Jonathan the arrogant ex-chess-player

    • 2. Andrew  |  May 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

      “After e4, Black can resign” Weaver Adams. What I gather from hanging around universities is that if you can quote something, it must be true. So Portisch had no chance.

      Other than that, it is a particularly fine record. Get a T-shirt!

  • 3. Andrew  |  May 9, 2010 at 7:06 am

    I think what Richard means by “choice of opening” is “choice of response” – that is certainly what I saw as the key point. Portisch could have chosen some simple response to the Reti, instead he chose to try some kind of mindgame transposition to a Polugayevsky losing game (with colours reversed).

    Given Portisch equalised (according to Polugayevsky) perhaps this was OK or irrelevant; there’s always a risk of over-determining these question in hindsight.

    It remains my view that Portisch chose an unnecessarily fraught path to equalising. Rather than asking “What will make Polugayevsky feel uncomfortable” he should have been asking “What were my last 6 draws against the Reti?”

    In fact, my dim recollections of chess literature is that the question “how to play for a draw” is a recurring theme;not as a tactical problem but a psychological one.

    • 4. Richard09  |  May 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm

      The choice of opening is rarely dictated by one of the players. Usually, it is to some extent a dance of possibilities being excluded or included. In particular, 1 Nf3 is one of the least commital opening moves, leaving many possibilities open. Polugaevsky acknowledges that, and the fact that the opening became a Reti rather than a QG or Tarrasch (for example) is at least in part due to Portisch’s choices.

      It may be that Portisch chose a dangerous path in the game in question, but I stand by my view that, at least as far as the opening went, it worked for him.

      The only good way to be able to make a draw offer is to have an advantage in the game. You have to play for a win – not recklessly, but definitely with a full point in mind. The plan is to get to a place where you can say, OK, this is probably a draw, but if anybody’s winning, I am. Then if you offer a handshake, you may get one back. If you don’t try to win, you will probably lose, and if you offer a draw, it will probably be rejected.

      • 5. Andrew  |  May 10, 2010 at 10:13 am

        Your argument is certainly reasonable; clearly emerging from the opening with a positive as Black can’t be all bad. It’s much too easy to overthink history.

        Also, paradox (my position was so inferior that it was superior) is a trope well-beloved of commentators. Polugayevsky’s use of it doesn’t have to mean more than conformance to the standards of a literary genre.

        It’s obviously pretty unlikely that Polugayevsky was accepting a draw any time soon given the scenario. An advantage & a submachine gun, maybe.

        • 6. cathychua  |  May 10, 2010 at 6:29 pm

          You are all rather exaggerating what Polugayevsky says, aren’t you? He merely observes that he comes out of the opening in equal but unworked over territory. Don’t make a drama out of it!!

  • 7. Andrew  |  May 7, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    You mean, the opening Polugayevsky had stuffed up previously? It is a bit of a double-edged sword; I think if I wanted a draw and my opponent opened N-f3 I would put cleverness back in the box for another day. Portisch wasn’t thinking clearly, so perhaps the half point was weighing on him.

    Ideally you play every game the same way; with confidence & optimism. You can’t win unless your opponent helps you, so it’s not really in your sole control.

    • 8. cathychua  |  May 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm

      Absolutely the half point must have been weighing on him. Think of those situations you see sometimes where a really flash cricket team – let’s say the Australians – only need a draw and completely fall apart. It is easier said than done, shooting for part of a win….

      • 9. Richard09  |  May 8, 2010 at 1:59 am

        I think Portisch’s choice of opening was a reasonable shot. If Polugaevsky had followed Panno’s line but lost the advantage, he would definitely have been psychologically damaged (screwing it up from both sides of the board). Polugaevsky’s assessment that the opening worked to his advantage reads like hindsight.
        “I lost the opening advantage ‘promised’ by theory, but gained more: a complicated position was reached, which was unfamiliar – or only slightly familiar – to Portisch, and we were both forced to think for ourselves.”
        Actually, most players would generally regard that as a successful opening for Black: no advantage for White, and a position that could be played for a win. Portisch was probably well satisfied at that point.

        • 10. cathychua  |  May 8, 2010 at 11:32 pm

          The point is that Polugayevsky is white, not black. It was white who chose to play the Reti….ie 1Nf3


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