The Tartar Terminator

I got up from the board feeling satisfied. I had drawn as Black against the former world champion Anatoly Karpov. This was not quite an achievement to tell my children about: the game was one of 14 played simultaneously by Karpov, at an event held in the offices of the inter-dealer brokers ICAP. Still, he had conceded only one other draw, winning the remaining 12 games with his usual imperturbable efficiency.

So I was feeling happy. But then a watching grandmaster, the London-based Russian Alex Chernaiev, came up and said: “You could have done better. You were following Polugaevsky-Nezhmetdinov, but then you made your own move, which was not a good idea.” For a chess player with a sense of the game’s artistic history, that was akin to being told that you had a chance to emulate Leonardo da Vinci, but instead made a clumsy daub. The 1958 game in which Rashid Nezhmetdinov beat the future world championship candidate Lev Polugaevsky is thought by many grandmasters to be the most dazzlingly beautiful creation ever manifested over a chessboard.

Karpov — especially as someone educated within the Soviet school of chess — would have known that game intimately: had I continued to follow Nezhmetdinov’s moves, he would doubtless have found some improvement to Polugaevsky’s play. All the same, I was embarrassed by Chernaiev’s instant assessment and looked up Nezhmetdinov’s Mona Lisa. He was almost right: although there were subtleties in Karpov’s move order which meant that precisely the same middle-game position was hard to force, I had missed a chance to emulate one of the greatest attacks in chess history. In practice, I’m not too sorry I didn’t attempt it: since I didn’t know Nezhmetdinov’s game by heart, I would probably have ended up sacrificing all my pieces for a non-existent mate. Besides, Karpov’s defensive skills are greater than Polugaevsky’s (or, indeed, anyone’s).

This, however, is to be a column celebrating Rashid Gibiatovich Nezhmetdinov rather than Anatoly Yevgenyevich Karpov — not least because this year marks the centenary of his birth in 1912. For the wider public, Nezhmetdinov is a complete unknown; and his name probably means very little to the vast majority of today’s young masters. Not only was he never a contender for the world championship, he was not even awarded the International Grandmaster title (partly because he was allowed to make only a couple of appearances outside the USSR).

Yet among the greatest Soviet players in the 1960s, including world champions Botvinnik and Tal, Nezhmetdinov was admired as almost no other of their competitors. The reason was that at his best he possessed an attacking ferocity which could blow any defences asunder. “Nobody sees combinations as Rashid Nezhmetdinov,” said the usually ungenerous Botvinnik. Above all, he did this with an artistry that somehow sums up the full potential for beauty in the part-art, part-science, part-sport we call chess.

The reason Nezhmetdinov himself gave for not having become one of the leading players — although he did win the Russian Federation Championship on five occasions — was that “I came to chess too late, as a 17-year-old, whereas all the champions — Botvinnik, Smyslov, Spassky, Petrosian, Tal-received training from the age of seven or eight.”

It was something of a miracle that Nezhmetdinov ever became a chess player. He was born to Tartar farmhands in the Kazakh town of Aktubinsk. The years of his childhood were dreadful ones in what became the new Soviet Union. His parents died of sheer physical exhaustion; he himself was saved by being taken in by a Muslim orphanage in Kazan. There he discovered chess, although his initial obsession was with chequers; he became Russian chequers champion at a time when that game was taken very seriously as another method of elevating the consciousness of the peasantry.

Nezhmetdinov’s pet phrase, according to his friends, was “our time will come”. It did for him in 1960, when to widespread astonishment Mikhail Tal invited the Tartar to be his assistant for his (successful) challenge against the world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. The surprise was partly because as Tal’s strength was overwhelmingly as an attacking player, it hardly seemed he needed coaching in that aspect.

The reason might have been simple pleasure on Tal’s part. He and Nezhmetdinov were good friends; moreover Tal adored playing blitz games, even when he was meant to be studying. What more morale-enhancing joie de vivre could he get during the grimmer hours of a world championship event than by playing rapid friendly games against the greatest artist of the 64 squares?

It was two years earlier that Nezhmetdinov had played his immortal game against Polugaevsky: here it is, with notes that barely scratch the surface of its fiendishly complex beauty: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 d6 3.Nc3 e5 4.e4 (a slightly unusual move by Polugaevsky — giving up time in exchange for space — also favoured by Karpov) exd4 5.Qxd4 Nc6 6.Qd2 g6 7.b3 Bg7 8.Bb2 0-0 9.Bd3 Ng4! (In an almost identical position against Karpov — the difference was that the ex-world champion’s Knight was still on g1 and his Bishop was already on b2 — I played the routine 9…Re8. Shame on me!) 10.Nge2 Qh4 11.h3 Nge5 12.0-0 f5 13.f3 Bh6 14.Qd1 f4 15.Nge2 g5 16.Nd5 g4 17.g3 fxg3 18.hxg3 Qh3 19.f4 Be6!! (with the idea that after 20.Nxc7 Bxf4! 21.Rxf4 Rxf4 22.Nxa8 Rf7! 23.Bxe5 Nxe5 Black’s vice-like grip is more than enough for the sacrificed material) 20.Bc2 Rf7 21.Kf2 Qh2+ 22.Ke3 Bxd5 23.cxd5 Nb4 24. Rh1 (Nezhmetdinov’s attack now seems thoroughly refuted. His simultaneous offer of queen and rook envisaged when playing 19…Be6!!, is truly astounding) Rxf4!! 25.Rxh2 Rf3+ 26.Kd4 Bg7 27.a4 (The best defensive try was the obscure 27.Ng1, although computer analysis shows that Black would still be winning) c5+ 28.dxc6 bxc6 29.Bd3 (a desperate last try to avoid mate) Nxd3+ 30.Kc4 d5+ 31.exd5+ cxd5+ 32.Kb5 Rb8+ 33.Kb5 Nc6+ and Polugaevsky resigned: after 34.Ka6 Black would have the choice of no fewer than three checkmates to conclude the hunt of the King: Nd3-b4, Rb6 or Nc5!

The last word should be Polugaevsky’s description of what it was like to be on the receiving end of this display of Nezhmetdinov’s genius: “Sunk in thought for a long time, I understood that I was to say good-bye to all hope and was losing a game that would be spread all over the world.”

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