Were Tal, Korchnoi and Geller 2200 rated players?

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It all started on a fairly ordinary day while studying one of the games in Ludek Pachman’s great trilogy, “Complete chess strategy”. I had reread it in an effort to “restart” my failures, in order to base my game once more on solid concepts before trying to move it forward.

In the chapter on pawn blocking, masterfully taught by the great Czech master, he evokes a game he played against Viktor Korchnoi in 1954. This is not done out of pride but, as he explains well, it is is a game with which he will have a much deeper and more intimate knowledge of what happened and why.

A modern classic on the position game is volume two from “Complete chess strategy”

It’s a decidedly unusual opening in which things go wrong for the author. Trying to explain where he went astray, he gives a position and a short line with the conclusion, “would give black a good game”. Normally I wouldn’t spend too much time on a note, which isn’t crucial for the lesson, but it was so contrary to what I expected, that I stopped and scratched my head. Is black having a good game? Truly?

As I played the game and the notes on ChessBase, I could easily start an engine with a single click on the keyboard, but that’s a principle that I do not deviate from: no engines when I study. I need to develop my brain and skills, not my motor addiction. So I spent a whole minute analyzing and my conclusion wasI think Pachman is out of his rocker”. Delusional? Arrogance? Barely. It was just my impression based on what I saw. I could easily be wrong and accepted it.

I decided to send a message to a GM friend. Not Yermo. Not yet. I explained my dismay, my confusion. I also explained my refusal to request an engine. Without even bothering to wait for me to send the position, he exclaimed: “Let’s be honest, these guys didn’t know anything about chess. Pachman was like what? 2200? “”Now you are too harsh too. He was not 2200“, I answered. “It was“insisted my friend. I copy and paste Pachman CV from Wikipedia in our chat, but he was not dissuaded.

Ludek Pachman was a hardworking grand master who wrote and published no less than 80 books throughout his career. He considered his book on strategy to be his best work.

Spending a lot of time arguing this was obviously pointless, and he was entitled to his opinion after all. Not being a GM at all myself, I was on shaky ground to debate it with him anyway. Still, it made me wonder: do modern great masters really despise the skill of their predecessors like this?

I have now sent a message to the veteran Grandmaster whose firm opinions have never left any doubts about his position, Alex Yermolinsky. I explained the story to him and why I asked him this. He told me he had an opinion on the matter and asked me to give him a few minutes while he prepared material to answer me. A few minutes later, he sent me a small database containing eight games. A little confused as there was no explanation accompanying them. Was I supposed to study this? “No study. You just have to see them.“I did and it all became clear.

The first three games were played by Tal, Korchnoi and Geller in 1955, all in different events, and they all reached this position with White:

Without knowledge of position theory, nor the need to consult the 3500-Elo programs, the movement that immediately catches the eye is the simple 12. e5! From the line 12… dxe5 13. bxe5 Nd5 14. Nxd5 winning a pawn seems irrefutable. The point, as you might have guessed, is that none of the Three Legends played it. Tal won his match thanks to a concerted effort at his opponent’s hara-kiri, but not because of a special play in the opening, while Korchnoi and Geller got nothing and drew.

These are the first three of eight games. The next matches are played in the 1950s and 1960s by players of much lesser notoriety, who have all played 12. e5! and who have all won their respective fights.

Incredible, isn’t it?“he told me.” 2200 today would play 12. e5 without hesitation. Can we conclude that Tal, Korchnoi and Geller were 2200?“It’s a rhetorical question. “What I mean is that it is impossible to estimate the strength of a player by small sample.

It is a valuable lesson, even if it is a lesson we think we have learned and mastered. Does this mean that we must stop questioning and analyzing moments of disagreement? Of course not, but we also shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on this person’s fault.

Special thanks to GM Alex Yermolinsky for the generous lesson, and to my anonymous GM friend whose comments led to this discussion, lesson and article.

You can see my personal on-the-fly analysis of the position in the video above at 9:03 PM. The video also includes a failed tactic (4:28) as well as a successful solution to one of Dvoretsky’s endgame study exercises ending after which I go a little crazy (42:50)


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