Genius from the Bike Factory

Albin Planinc, the tragic Slovenian


In a less cruel world we would this year have been marking the 70th birthday of one of the most original and mysterious chess talents of the modern era. But Albin Planinc, who was born in the Slovenian town of Brise in 1944, died in tragic circumstances in 2008. Or perhaps one could say that death marked the end of a tragic life. He had been resident in an institution for many years: profound mental problems had forced his retirement from chess in 1979 when he was still in his thirties.

It was ten years before that, in 1969, that as a complete unknown the 25-year-old Planinc won a major tournament in Ljubljana, ahead of ten notable international grandmasters. While the other players spent the mornings in their hotel rooms preparing, Planinc was working his shift in a local bicycle factory. No one could quite believe it, though Slovenians (then part of the Yugoslav federation) were of course thrilled that the tall, skinny local lad — and one of the workers! — had triumphed so unexpectedly.

Four years later Planinc recorded his greatest success, winning the awesomely strong IBM Amsterdam tournament of 1973 ahead of Boris Spassky. This time it was the whole chess world which was thrilled, not so much because there was a new star in the firmament, but because of the sheer unconventionality of Planinc’s style. He did not just play every game to win, but — or so it seemed — to win beautifully.

Yet his opponents had already noticed that there was something strange about this chessboard magician. The Dutch master Hans Ree wrote in New in Chess that Planinc took no part in the social life of tournaments “walking with a slight stoop, with his eyes fixed on the ground. Maybe this reserved appearance added to his popularity, because it made him the proverbial chess genius, locked in his own world, averse to social contacts and shining at the board.”

This behaviour might nowadays be identified as on the autistic spectrum, but it seems Planinc’s real curse was profound depression, tending to paranoia. The latter is more often associated in the public mind with chess-players — his contemporary Bobby Fischer being the most prominent example. (Numerologists will also note that both men died at 64, the number of squares on the chessboard.)

Planinc’s mental illness began to affect his chessboard performance adversely — whether or not because of any drugs prescribed, I do not know, although it seems likely. From 1975 onwards, he generally finished near the bottom of the events he played in. One was the Zagreb international tournament of 1975, where he was crushed by the British grandmaster Ray Keene, who gave me his memories of Planinc in that event: “He said nothing to anyone, at least in the form of words. In analysis he would mention only chess moves, not what he thought about them. It was impossible either to like or dislike him, there seemed to be nothing there. And he had a strange way of walking, very slowly, like a lizard. But he had fabulous ideas. I watched one of his games unfold, against Grandmaster Minić, and I could hardly believe what I was witnessing — amazing chess!”

There was not much more of it to come. Planinc’s final tournament before the darkness closed in completely was in 1979: with horrible aptness, this was an event held to commemorate the great Akiba Rubinstein, whose own chess career had been cut short by mental illness.

Last year I became aware that the acclaimed Slovenian director and actor Jan Cvitkovič had made a documentary about Planinc, Totalni Gambit, which he was kind enough to send me, adding that “the beauty of some of his games made me cry”. The film reveals that Planinc’s mother had ended her life in the same mental institution that looked after him: this suggests a genetic element in his condition, rather than that it had any link to his silent obsession with chess. The film also interviews his only known girlfriend, who says sadly “We never stood a chance . . . Chess could not do it. How could I do it?”

This is redolent of the tormented chess genius in Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defence. Luzhin’s fiancée sees that the chess that so absorbs him is putting an unimaginable strain on her beloved; but he copes even less well with the real world, when she tries to free him from the 64 squares. According to Hans Ree, the heavily-medicated Planinc “near the end was in a wheelchair, unable to stop the saliva drooling from his mouth”.

Dreadful. So let’s end instead with one of Albin Planinc’s moments of glory, that game against Minić which Keene observed with such amazement: it has an unfathomable beauty.

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