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Fifty years ago next month a most unusual chess talent won the then awesomely strong championship of the Soviet Union. Having triumphed in 1963, beating Boris Spassky in a play-off, he took the title again in 1965 and 1966. But within ten years of his first great victory he was dead, of a heart attack, at the age of 38. This was Leonid Stein — all but forgotten now, but in his all-too-brief heyday a man whose attacking brilliance terrified his opponents and thrilled his admirers.

In some ways Stein was the model of what the Soviet Union stood for. He was of working-class origin, a factory worker who entered the Red Army as a private and who learnt the rules of chess at the remarkably late age of 13. In other respects Stein (a Jew from Kamenets-Podolsk) was not so much in the spirit of the austere Mikhail Botvinnik, the monogamous, teetotal, non-smoking, devotedly Communist leader of the Soviet chess establishment. Stein never married, apparently preferring to play the field. He chain-smoked. And he was a prodigious consumer of vodka.

However, unlike Mikhail Tal — the other Soviet-era chess romantic who sought beauty before pure logic — Stein was not alcoholic: none of his opponents ever found him arriving at the board smelling of the hard stuff. The drinking was for relaxation afterwards. Ray Keene, an English grandmaster who became friends with Stein (and the author of a fine biography, Leonid Stein: Master of Attack), recounted to me how on one occasion he was playing bridge with Stein when the Ukrainian was so intoxicated he trumped his own card. But Stein would never have treated chess with such disrespect — not least because this game at which he discovered such an unexpected talent was what preserved him from a life of manual labour.

Aside from winning the Soviet championship on three occasions, Stein also achieved the remarkable double of victory in the two strongest international tournaments ever held in the USSR — and considered by some the strongest tournaments in all chess history. In 1967 he took clear first prize in the Moscow tournament held to commemorate the jubilee of the 1917 revolution, leaving the world champion Tigran Petrosian, not to mention the future champion Boris Spassky, trailing way behind in his wake. Then in 1971, he tied for first place with Anatoly Karpov in another mighty Moscow tournament, ahead of a field that included the current world champion and three ex-world champions.

With such an extraordinary record, it was a great disappointment to Stein, not to mention his many admirers, that he never progressed to challenge for the supreme title himself. In a way, this was Bobby Fischer's fault: following the American's complaint that world championship events were dangerously compromised by the presence of too many Russians who colluded with each other, the game's ruling body (FIDE) decided that a maximum of only three players from any single country could be allowed in the final stages of the world championship cycle, the so-called "candidates matches". Even then, Stein might have qualified, but nerves got the better of him in a handful of vital games during the 1960s, when victory would have enabled him to leapfrog some of his more imperturbable compatriots. 

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