Svetozar Gligoric, the Twentieth Century Man

When I was a teenager I got interested in chess mainly because a neighbour and a close friend started playing some casual chess with other friends. Soon after I got into it he gave me, what I now consider to be, a bad advice. He said: “If Gligoric were to teach you chess he could teach you to play better but he could not teach you to play like he does!” This advice somehow had a negative influence on me and my interest in chess.

Gligoric was a chess demigod and if even he could not teach me to be a great player what hope was there for me? Now I believe that if Gligoric was a good teacher and he really wanted to help and if I, or another pupil, had talent, he could not only teach one to play like he did, he could teach his protégé to play better than himself! That is the hallmark of a really good teacher.

Recently Gligoric, a much older Gligoric, or Gliga as we all called him, published a CD with the music he composed titled “How I Survived the Twentieth Century.” In the accompanying booklet and numerous interviews and videos Gliga described his life and how he managed to stay alive and thrive all those years. On several occasions he avoided death by chance. One example was while he, a mere youngster, was fighting the German Army as a member of the partisans in Yugoslav mountains. He was setting a machine gun into position when an enemy sniper fired at him from a neighbouring hill. At that point a young comrade who was sitting next to Gligoric rose to his feet in front of Gliga and was hit by a bullet right between the eyes.

Gligoric lived and went on to be a famous chess player and a celebrity, for a while the best player outside the Soviet Union, so strong in fact, that the best Soviet players were eager to avoid playing him if possible. Unbeknown to him there was another serious threat to his life that he found out about only recently even though this happened in 1957 while he was visiting the United States of America. You see, an organization of émigrés was unhappy with such visitors who made Yugoslav communist regime look good and decided to assassinate him. Luckily for Gliga there was an important man among them who prevented it. When told about this Gligoric said: “It’s good they did not do it. I was really playing great at the time.”

Gligoric could have lived anywhere he wanted but he never left the capital of Serbia Belgrade for very long. He was married but had no children. He was a successful reporter but seldom wrote about chess in Yugoslav papers. True, he authored a lot of chess books and articles for chess magazines. I believe his forte was political commentary although he himself appeared to be apolitical.

After his death a number of articles about him were published. I liked best the one by Vladan Dinic in Belgrade paper “Svedok” (Witness) and another one written by a well known chess beauty and a member of Serbian Ladies’ team at the Chess Olympiad 2012 in Istanbul. That would be Maria Monakova from Moscow and Belgrade. The trouble with the best articles about Gligoric, and especially videos, some of them lengthy and very informative, is that while they are available they are almost never in English. In Mr. Dinic’s article we read many new interesting details about our hero including that GM Ljubojevic broke down and cried when he heard the sad news about Gliga’s passing on to that Big Chess Board in the sky.

During my high school days I was living in the city of Split on the Adriatic coast. One day around 1960 Gliga came to town for a simul. We were sitting, some 40 of us, I hear echoes of “Ali Gliga and the forty wannabes”, in a big rectangle. The great hall of the Army House in Split was full with spectators as I took my seat. When Gliga was about to enter there was a hush for a moment and then a thunderous applause. The strong players from the leading chess club “Mornar” (Sailor) sat in a group and we were writing our moves down. Myself among them, some ten or so of us led by soon to be World Junior Champion now GM Bojan Kurajica. Gliga of course knew him and concentrated on him and the rest of us who were serious players. Kurajica drew his game and so did I. There were a couple of other draws and two wins by relatively weaker players. Interestingly enough both of them were sergeants in the Yugoslav Army. They sat somewhere in the middle and did not play theory or write their moves down. They were strong enough but unlike us they did not attract the attention of the “beast”.

When the simul started and Gliga made the first move alternating 1. e4 and 1. d4 all of us laughed loudly. The thing was Gliga was literally running around the hall making quick moves while sprinting! This slowed down after the first few moves. Obviously, he wanted to save some time especially since the number of boards was high. It has occurred to me that a number of his opponents were likely to make mistakes early on especially at that tempo.

My problem was not so much Gligoric who of course was a formidable threat. It was my friend and fan don Ivan Cvitanovic a catholic priest. I am not a catholic but we were good friends from the chess club and sometimes discussed politics and religion, philosophy and poetry or played chess and ping-pong. Talk about a two fisted Christianity. My friend was standing behind me, furious that I did not accept his advice and did not play the moves he suggested. And as a punishment he poked me now and then in the ribs with his huge hard fist. I was sore for days.

Going back to Gliga’s beginnings we must wonder what Gligoric’s chess career might have been had not the WW2 interfered with it. He also lost his parents early but was lucky to be accepted into a Belgrade Doctor Miljanic family becoming his de facto number 4 son. They all moved out of Belgrade as the good doctor anticipated Hitler would attack Yugoslavia, who broke an agreement of friendship with Germany, without bothering with such nonsense as a formal war declaration. Days after Miljanic clan left the city Luftwaffe bombarded Belgrade, did a lot of damage, 16,000 people were killed, many buildings destroyed including the Serbian National Library which had myriads of books including many priceless and irreplaceable books and manuscripts from middle ages etc. Gliga might have easily been killed if they stayed.

In our vast archive of chess books and stuff I happened to find an unpublished game of Gligoric from before the big War. He became a chess master I believe when he was 16 years old. In those days only one person in all of Yugoslavia could become a master each year. There was this yearly tournament of the best non master players, in mid 1930’s Yugoslavia did not have more than 8 or 10 masters in the entire country, and only one of the “amateurs” would graduate to the master level each year.

The following game was played in a training (!) tournament in Belgrade in 1938.

I found this score sheet in a book I acquired many years ago in a Belgrade bookstore. I do not know if the moves were recorded in Gliga’s own handwriting or not. Here only a fragment is shown:

Gligoric – Dolgorukov Score Sheet

Here are the actual moves of the game:

Gliga played in the style that anticipated Petrosian and slowly strangled the opponent.

This Dolgorukov could have been an important man. Incidentally, that was the surname of the uncles of Peter the Great. Dolgorukovs were always members of high level Russian nobility. After the Russian revolution there was a flood of Russian refugees pouring out of the new Soviet state in all directions. Some 120,000 came to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia whose kings were related to the Russian Tsars as well as the British Royal House. Most of them settled in and around Belgrade. This somewhat oriental city was transformed by this huge infusion of mostly well educated professionals. There were a lot of doctors, professors, scientists, writers, military officers, nobles, chess players, painters, composers, musicians, actors, ballet dancers, opera singers etc, etc – among them a daughter of Mikhail Chigorin as well. Belgrade soon became a special city in many ways thanks to this beneficial influence. Unfortunately, as the Nazi threat was growing stronger, most of these people moved on further away to the West. Those who stayed had to endure four years of ugly war and fascist occupation and then had a very bad time when the Red Army entered the occupied Yugoslavia at the end of the war. Stalin did not take kindly to rejection.

One more thing about Gliga: a few years ago he was our guest at our summer residence at the outskirts of Belgrade that unfortunately our family does not have any more. He was brought by a mutual friend for dinner and an unforgettable evening. My wife Smilja prepared a few special things and Gliga brought a bottle of wine. While the wine was cooling in the fridge we drank cold beer. Said Gligoric: “I drink like a fish.” Amazingly, after beers and wine, not to mention his advanced age, he showed no signs of being affected by alcohol at all. The man must have had the proverbial hollow leg.

Gliga proved to be a fascinating conversationalist on a wide range of subjects. I found we agreed on many things. I wish I could say we were friends but that would be pushing it. I met Gligoric a number of times before this dinner but, not surprisingly, he did not remember me. True we were at one time members of the same chess club, the famous Belgrade “Partizan”, but he and most other GMs never came. What surprised me was he apparently did not remember my wife who played in the same team as he did in the national championships many times. True, that was a long time ago and we all had changed. I also remember his wife Dana, whom I did not know, kept asking my future wife to come and visit. Smilja wanted to but didn’t do it as she could not reciprocate due to abject poverty.

Stupidly, I did not take any photos, partly because I did not want to bother the great man and ruin a perfect evening and partly because I thought we would have other opportunities. Regrettably, we did not. In fact I never met him in person again.

So in conclusion: Rest in Peace, Gliga, you were great and so was your century!

Vojin Vujosevic.