One Night in St. John’s or How the Hell Do You Improve Your Chess?

The year was 1970, we were in St. John’s, Newfoundland playing in the Canadian Open. I put the above question to GM Bent Larsen of Denmark at the banquet held toward the end of the tournament. The winner of this and many other events said: “Study the games of strong players annotated by strong players!” A sensible advice I suppose but the question today would be: “Since computer programs such as Rybka or Houdini play the strongest chess do we concentrate on their analysis of chess positions or what?”

Personally, I find computer chess and its analytical fruit a bit dull and difficult to digest. But that’s me. I also never liked trying to learn massive amounts of chess theory for the same reason. And maybe that’s the price of getting really good at our beloved game.

If memory serves, I met Larsen in person three times. In 1964 at the Belgrade International Tournament when I do not think I really spoke to him except to ask for an autograph. I was one of the guys manning the demonstration boards. In St. John’s, NFLD in 1970 where I took no picture of him but talked to him a few times. And finally in Montreal in 1974 at the Canadian Open where my wife took a picture of us with an instant Polaroid camera. Alas, that photo has deteriorated over time but I give it here anyway.

Vojin Vujosevic and Bent Larsen in Montreal 1974

Incidentally, Larsen won the St. John’s tournament ahead of GM Benko and GM Browne. Here is one of Larsen’s wins over a direct rival for the first place.

We lived a couple of years in Malmoe, Sweden, in a region known as Skåne or Scania if you will. Copenhagen, Denmark and Larsen were just across the Oresund Strait. I had a job that made me go to Copenhagen maybe a total of 800 times but of course never met Larsen on those trips. While different from Danish the language spoken in Skåne the southernmost province of Gamla Svedala is close enough to Danish to be understood. Having found out about us the great Danish GM in his speech at the banquet said: “If I deliver this speech in Danish there is someone here who would understand me.” He also mentioned his next tournament was the U.S. Open. Somebody asked: “Who is going to win it?” And the reply by always supremely confident Dane: “There is no question about it. I will.” And he did too. He was winning a lot of games and a lot of tournaments in those days.

There was a number of good chess players present, mostly Canadian. I needed to win over Canadian master Walter Dobrich in the last round to be in the money. Somewhere along the way I sacked an exchange, I was on the black side of the French Defence, and managed to place a powerful Knight on e4. It was an interesting and possibly winning position but I could not find a clear win. The time had come to leave for Argentia and the ferryboat to our connection in Nova Scotia and the train for Toronto. The ferry left but the game just went on. Here I still may or may not have something:

Position after 46 moves:

W. Dobrich vs. V. Vujosevic – White to move.

During the game Larsen came and watched my game for a while. He said to my wife Smilja that I was apparently taking a long time to decide whether I wanted to win the game or not. Hours past and we were still playing. Walter Dobrich’s plane left the airport at Gander for Toronto but we were still playing this blasted game in St. John’s. In the end it was a draw by mutual exhaustion. My wife Smilja Vujosevic, on the other hand, managed to be top woman in the tourney outscoring England’s Dinah Dobson and Brazil’s Ruth Cardoso both well known internationally. So Smilja got a prize and a trophy. Quite an accomplishment for a total amateur with zero knowledge of theory.

In many ways it was a great time. Late summer in Newfoundland was pleasant, we were much younger then, the food tasted great and the drinks were divine. We discovered there for the first time Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant and Colonel Sanders chicken prepared with his secret recipe. With the Mountain Dew this meal tasted heavenly after an evening round. St. John’s as well as Newfoundland is a magic place beautiful and pleasant. It was poor. I heard a joke about a 100 megaton nuclear bomb exploding in the center of Newfoundland and causing $24 damage.  The island is the size of Japan but hosts only about 600.000 inhabitants or so. I always wanted to go back for a real vacation but somehow never was able to do so. St. John’s has a great natural harbour, famous Signal Hill above it, large ponds suddenly pop out of nowhere as you walk the streets. Or was it the effect of good Newfoundland screech?

We started the tournament badly because we did not sleep prior to the first round. Smilja and I were tired from the long trip from Toronto mostly by train but also ferryboat and a private car. Man, this is Canada. We are talking some serious space here: the distance from Toronto to St John’s NFLD is 2987 kilometres or 1851 miles. Our destination was the Welcome Hotel on the Main Street but a well meaning local persuaded us it was a bad place ” a dive for homosexuals”, a serious accusation in those days, and created an image of a place where drunks had regular knife fights in the hall. So he took us to a highly recommended safe place, a third rate flophouse, as we could not afford Holiday Inn where the tournament was held. The furniture was broken, our room’s door could not be closed, the bathroom was in the hall and we worried. Paranoia set in and even though there was no danger we hardly slept. Next day we transferred to the Welcome Hotel which turned out to be just fine. 

One evening my friend David was in a group that was doing some analysis after a round and felt hungry but had no money to buy a large pizza in a pizza parlour across the street. A master from Montreal volunteered to go and get some. They were very hopeful but the fellow was not coming back for a long time. David said later that the master said there was no pizza but David detected a strong pepperoni pizza smell wafting slowly in all directions from the guy. You can’t trust chess players, can you?

Anyway, back to the question.

Bobby Fischer’s bizarre advice, on how to improve at chess comes to mind. He answered the question with: “Lesson number 1: Play over all the variations in the MCO! Lesson number 2: Repeat lesson number 1!” Modern Chess Openings by Walter Korn was a huge compendium of “everything you wanted to know about chess openings but were afraid to ask.” We own a copy but never seriously looked at it.

Something like that was actually done by serious chess players in the recent past. They would endlessly study openings and games from books and magazines, specialize in some lines and play them. In those days there were no laptops and desktops, no digital cameras, no cell phones, no internet and an occasional dinosaur roamed the Earth. Their work on openings was never done. Young players with more time, more health and energy, perhaps more funds etc would eventually overcome and push out the older generation. The old geezers would fade away sooner or later and complain about the young whipper-snappers who don’t really understand chess but have memorized all the theory sometimes way into the ending! Now I read how those former whipper-snappers complain about, mostly younger players, who have memorized oodles of computer analysis and win because of those damn computers. But in reality it is the same thing as before.

Naturally, older, sorry, mature chess players are more likely to have health problems, to be dogged by lack of funds, to worry about feeding themselves and their families, to be so tired from the daily struggle for survival that they don’t have sufficient energy, stamina, ambition, and so on one needs to succeed in chess or anything.

I heard an interesting statement from IM Lawrence Day. He answered my question with: “You play best when your confidence matches your ability!” Hmm, maybe true but how do you actually improve? He once wrote that he observed most players work on what are already their strong points and neglect their weaknesses. Well, this sounds right. I have myself thought that what decides your rating is your biggest weakness not your good points. So if you work on two or three of your biggest weaknesses this should really help you improve your play and your rating. Assuming you have the time, the ambition, etc.

On the other hand, while accepting all of the advice above I have always thought that the decisive factor to really succeed in chess, assuming talent, ambition, a lot of free time, drive to succeed, good health and so on is actually – support. Nobody can succeed alone. It is a myth. Not even Bobby Fischer. He, as we know had initially a lot of support from his sister and mother. Much later from others such as GM Larry Evans and GM Bill Lombardy. And before that from his friend and sparring partner John W. Collins. John wrote in his book “My Seven Chess Prodigies” that he played Bobby Fischer at least 50,000 5-minute games! And he was by no means the only sparring partner of young Bobby Fischer. Also RJF was a valued guest of John and his sister and received a lot of tasty free meals as well as advice and moral support.

Bobby was a monomaniac and such people don’t need much advice on how to improve. They know how. Bobby was also helped by a variety of other people. Yugoslav and Serbian champions Svetozar Gligoric and Nikola Karaklajic come to mind. Same can be said for Dimitrije Bjelica. There were also folks like Henry Kissinger who saved Fischer’s 1972 match with Spassky by talking Bobby into playing in Reykjavik and provided, if I am not mistaken, a military jet to fly him over to Iceland when he was late for the match. There were also New York chess book store owner Albrecht Buschke, IM Anthony Saidy, Colonel Ed Edmonson, Frank Brady and many others. And Pal Benko gave up his berth in the Candidates for Bobby. Plus, we don’t even know about all the helpers he had initially when still unknown.

 And what about all the people who contributed money such as British millionaire Jim Slater in 1972 and numerous other people who helped Bobby in many ways? Succeeding alone in a big way? Give me a break!

Fischer’s lawyer and chess master Fred Cramer had arranged for Bobby, then a newly crowned chess king, a series of simuls and lectures, doing TV commercials etc – basically a two-year tour of a number of US cities for a total take of about 20 million dollars. Do you have any idea of what the buying power of 20 million dollars was back then? Probably like $500 million now. And our prima donna refused to participate! It was rumoured Bobby was bothered by other people or companies making even more money than he did. If he were to make a bundle and they went broke in the process I imagine he would have found it more to his liking.

In reality for Bobby it was never about money. His appetite for large chess prizes came from a belief that he and chess itself would be valued and recognized by all if there was a lot of money in the offing. Botvinnik once wrote that Fischer, a product of American businesslike society, was business oriented and therefore demanded more money. In my humble opinion nothing could be further from the truth. To RJF a sum of $100.000 was a big pile of money. A million dollars was another pile of money only bigger.

So, again, how do you improve at chess? It’s quite simple actually. Some day I will write a book on the subject – How to Learn to Play Top Notch Chess in 1004 Easy Lessons!

 All, you have to do to really succeed at the Royal Game is:

Make sure you have a lot of family and friend support. Start at an extremely early age. Use books, magazines, computers, CDs and DVDs on chess, best chess software, play a lot both over the board and on line. It is helpful if you have sponsors with deep pockets and a lot of teachers, sparring partners, publicity, support from your chess association and even your country. Not to mention a fanatical will to win, good health, strong central nervous system, and an ability to work day in and day out. Once you manage all of the above you have it made.

 Vojin Vujosevic.