The Sublime Soviet

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. 

Perhaps he was never likely to become world champion and not just because he came to the game so late. His love of chess as a form of art was wonderfully evident in his best games, which have a geometric beauty that touches on the sublime. But his defensive skills were not of the highest — and it is impossible to become world champion without that.

Stein himself would not have thought so, however, and he was preparing hard for the 1973 Interzonal in Brazil, from which the top three would qualify for the world championship candidates matches — and he was an undoubted favourite, especially now that FIDE had revoked the absurd rule that effectively discriminated against players from the USSR. He told a friend: “You will be      surprised . . . my whole life will take another course . . . then I’ll really start to play chess.”

Before this, however, Stein was to come to the UK, as part of the Soviet team in the European Team Championships, being held that year in the spa town of Bath. On the night before he was due to leave for England he died of a massive heart attack in his room in Moscow’s Rossiya Hotel. Apparently he was not alone at the time, something that the traditionally prudish Soviet press hushed up but which his team members revealed to English chess organisers in Bath, who were naturally shocked to learn of Stein’s sudden and otherwise unexplained death at the age of 38.

As with all artists cut down in their prime, it is agonising to consider how many masterpieces have been denied to the world. At the same time, we should be grateful for those which we have been given — and the sheer pyrotechnic brilliance of Stein was never better illustrated than in the following victory with the White pieces against the immensely solid ex-world champion Vassily Smyslov, in the USSR team championships of 1972. 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.e4 Bb7 5.Qe2 (an unusual development, in the style of a Russian romantic of an earlier era, Tchigorin) Bb4 6.e5 Ng8 7.d4 d6 8.a3!? (Stein is prepared to lose a tempo to ruin his own pawn structure!) Bxc3+ 9.bxc3 Ne7 10.h4! (Yet another strange-looking move, but its motive is clear: attack, at all costs) Nd7 11.h5 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 dxe5 13.h6 gxh6 14.Bxh6 exd4 15.Bg7 Rg8 16.Rxh7 Nf5 17.Bxd4 c5 18.g4! (A second battering ram, after the rush with the h-pawn) cxd4 19.gxf5 e5 20.Qd5 Rf8 21.cxd4 Rc8 22.Rd1 Qe7 23. Bg2 Rg8 24.Qb7 Rxc4 25.dxe5 (Stein could have won more simply here with 25.Qa8+ Qd8 26.Qd5 attacking both c4 and f7; but this banality would have denied us the game’s sublime denouement) Qxe5+ 26.Kf1 Qb5 27.Kg1 Qc6 (Smyslov utilises the Rg8’s pinning of Stein’s Bg2, but there is a marvelous refutation) 28.Qxc6 Rxc6 29.Rh8!! (A rare form of cross-pin. The point is that if 29…Rxh8 30.Bxc6 and the Knight on d7 is now itself pinned and lost) Rg6 30.fxg6 Rxh8 31.Bc6 Rg8 32.Bxd7+ Ke7 33.Bf5 fxg6 34.Rd7+ Kf6 35.Bd3 and a doubtless somewhat shell-shocked Smyslov resigned. A glorious example of the geometric beauty of Stein’s play.



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