The Research Player

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

In a previous article, I addressed the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy, in which skill is attributed to both genetics and environment. I noted that, while talk of nature often concerns only genetic inclination towards talent, we might also consider genetic tendency towards drive, which prompts the skill-seeker to alter her environment such that she might increase her skill beyond that which her combination of environment and natural talent would otherwise allow.

For example, Fischer became a great player only because the three stars aligned. His environment led him towards chess; his talent, presumably, brought strong results early-on; and finally, his incessant drive allowed him to keep studying long after most would-be champions would have put the board away.

Today, I advance an even stronger argument: perhaps, natural talent doesn’t even exist; perhaps we’re dealing only with environment and drive. Natural talent is simply an apparition, a phantom, often confused with natural drive, but not even existing in its own right. Or, more profoundly, perhaps the existence of natural talent is not scientifically-supportable, and, whether or not it exists, we need not believe in it. Continue reading

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The Iron Fortress

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player
Petrosian

Petrosian as a youth in Moscow

1963 world chess champion Tigran Petrosian was nearly deaf, a trait that produced several interesting tournament tales. In one tournament game, Petrosian offered Serbian grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić a draw. Gligorić was taken aback and declined, but seconds later he reevaluated and accepted the draw offer. Petrosian, however, had already entered “concentration mode” and had shut off his hearing aid. He didn’t hear Gligorić’s re-offer, kept playing, and went on to win the game.

At a candidate’s match in Seville, Petrosian played Robert Hübner, who was at the time a frail 22-year-old college student. Hübner was driven to distraction by the noise produced by the crowds and by the streets outside. Ultimately, he overlooked a winning move, burst into tears, and forfeited the tournament. Petrosian, meanwhile, hadn’t heard a sound [1].

Petrosian’s performance on the chessboard matched closely his external demeanor. No matter how destructive and chaotic was his opponent’s attack, Petrosian’s iron fortress would remain standing. Continue reading

The American

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Chess’s greatest player can tell us a lot about the game, the mind, and man in general.

The Soviets dominated world chess through the 20th century.  Why? Because the state subsidized the game.  Soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Lenin regime officially introduced chess to the USSR as a means to gain international dominance on the mental battlefield.  (2) The government organized state-run tournaments and chess clubs.  It established official chess columns and publications. Most effective of all: a chess requirement was established for all Soviet schools.  Students began in elementary school; the students who showed the most promise were chosen for more advanced lessons; those students who showed the most promise were again moved to even more advanced teaching, and so on.  The plan worked; the USSR became a veritable grandmaster factory, churning out greats such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrossian, and many more.  Suddenly, though, an unknown American player exploded onto the international scene, effectively turning the chess world upside down.

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The Deep Dark Forest

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Mikhail Tal in his 1960 world championship match vs. Botvinnik

Chessmaster and once world champion Mikhail Tal was known for aggressive, even reckless attacking play.  He’d make sacrifices so novel and absurd that, even if there was a winning counterattack, which there often was, his bewildered opponent wouldn’t be able to find it.  In fact, Tal’s play produced positions so complex that neither side could fully calculate the repercussions.  Tal played merely on instinct, and more often than not, it prevailed.  To top it all off, he spent the whole game staring you down with his intimidating glare.

“Some sacrifices are sound; the rest are mine.” – Mikhail Tal

This is how crazy Mikhail Tal was: in 1992, he was hospitalized due to multiple organ failures.  But he snuck out of the hospital to play a blitz tournament in Moscow, defeated then world champion Garry Kasparov, and then returned to the hospital to die soon after!

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