From the Annals of Dirty Games of Chess and Politics

It seems that “chess appeals to the dictator in us all, providing the awesomeness of destruction without the tiresome details: bloody hands, murdered children and mass graves,” Dr Beachcombing.

Stalin has played chess. So we may assume that he has done all the above on the chessboard as well.

Beside chess, he also played games.

Today I would like you to read about one of his many games, one that you may have not heard before.

* * *

The Helsinki Olympiad of 1952 featured the debut of the USSR team. (Why did not they play in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, now Croatia, in 1950? Read on.)

The winners of the gold medal were not in doubt. On the other hand, Argentina and Yugoslavia were both in running for the silver medal.

The Najdorf-Gligoric encounter in the last round was deciding the second place. Whoever won, his country would take the silver.

Now you need to know that at around that time there was a conflict between the leaders of the USSR and Yugoslavia, Stalin and Tito. There are petty dictators all around the place. But these tho fellas acted on a grand scale affecting lives of millions of people. Grand Grandmasters. Their disagreements resulted in a split in 1948. This was the beginning of poor relations between the two countries and Yugoslavia played between East and West till the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Tito caricature from Crocodile MagazineTito caricature from Crocodile MagazineDuring the period of Stalin-Tito rift, the Russian propaganda caricatured Tito as a bowlegged bulldog, slobbery yapping on the Uncle Sam leash.

Or something like on these two caricatures from Crocodile, the Russian magazine of satire and cartoons.


Stalin and Tito caricature

Problem child: David Low in The Evening Standard, 25 Aug 1948

In the above cartoon you also see Stalin about to (almost) smother mate the problem child.

Because of all this background, one might think Stalin didn’t want Yugoslavia (the winner of the 1950 Dubrovnik Chess Olympiad) to show up high on the tournament table.

Here I would like to recount a story about chess of politics that Evgeny Gik, a Russian chess Master, writer and journalist told to Mr. Igor Dvinsky[1] (his story contains some inaccuracies[2] which should not discredit the whole story — where there’s smoke, there’s fire, as they say).

You are going to see how much dirty laundry there has always been in sports in spite of all our ideals of fair play, honor and chivalry (and not only in sports to be sure).

* * *

GM Kotov’s phone rang in the middle of the night. Comrade Stalin was on the other side. With his lovely “Oxford” accent he started off, “The boys played good. But there will be no celebration if Yugoslavs finish well.  They should not win [Argentina]. Do you understand me?” “Understood, Comrade Stalin”, meowed Kotov. “Very good,” said Stalin and hang up.

There was only one thing left to Kotov: to hang up himself if he did not do something about it. He was smart enough to get it. But what could he do so that Gligoric loses. And Gligoric was to play Najdorf. Najdorf…

At that moment an idea popped up in Kotov’s head. He remembered that Najdorf loved betting. He was always ready to bet on almost anything: tomorrow’s weather, the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections and the number of kittens the famous lioness Margo at the Hamburg Zoo is about to give birth to.

Kotov’s math mind (he graduated from mechanical engineering) immediately told him what a conversation with Najdorf might look like. At the crack of dawn he headed for the hotel where Najdorf was staying and found him while he was doing his morning exercise.

The Main Protagonists of the Story

GM Alexander KotovGM A. Kotov

GM Miguel NajdorfGM M. Najdorf

GM Svetozar GligoricGM S. Gligoric

“Miguel, I suggest we bet.” Kotov started, adapting himself to Miguel’s pace.

“On what?” asked Najdorf exhaling.

“I bet you don’t win the game against Gligoric.”

Najdorf stumbled and stopped, “What do you bet on?” he asked.

“My Golden Rook.”

(Just to let you know that at that very 1952 Olympiad opening ceremony, Kotov received the best tournament player of the year award. What’s more, the Golden Rook was of real gold!)

Najdorf agreed to it and put up his heavy gold watch in the bet. They shook hands.

* * *

So the game of the last round began (you may use a chess replayer below if you want to see the game in its entirety). The following position was reached after 38 moves. Zeitnot. It is Najdorf’s turn.

Position from Najdorf-Gligoric, 1952 Helsinki Olympiad

Najdorf-Gligoric, Helsinki 1952 (after 38…d3)

Here comes the culmination point of the story. Najdorf played 39.Nxd3, seemingly losing a pawn (39…Nxe4 40.fxe4 Qxe4+ and 41.Qxd3).

With 39.Nxd3 “Najdorf left a pawn en prise in time trouble, and then desperately clutched his head and reached out as if wanting to take the move back. Not having much time to think it over and not suspecting duplicity, Gligoric took the pawn, and soon thereafter lost the game. It transpired that Najdorf had staged the whole pantomime to blunt his opponent’s watchfulness. This can hardly be called ethical,” concludes GM Nikolai Krogius in his book.[3] (Allegedly, Najdorf had done a similar trick with Samuel Reshevsky before.)

It was a scandal, a provocation actually. The Yugoslav federation filed a protest. The appeal was rejected and the Yugoslavs went home with the bronze (see the top teams, their players and number of points scored in the Table 1 at the bottom of the page).

Here is Gligoric’s account on what happened:[4]

“Najdorf ‘ the king of South-American chess’ tried to defeat me with White on the top board, but I put up stubborn defense. When, in the decisive phase of the game I was thinking about how to reply, I was unexpectedly subjected to a cheerful conversation in Spanish between Najdorf and somebody else, right behind my back. Nevertheless, I managed to find a good move and Najdorf, as if in a trance, sat down, played his move offering me a pawn and then at once slapped his forehead as if realizing he had just made a ‘blunder’. I naively fell into the trap and, being in time pressure, grabbed the pawn [39…Nxe4??] after which Najdorf grabbed – a whole piece. Even the conservative Paul Keres, who watched the whole scenario, couldn’t stop himself from laughing, and perhaps I would have seen the funny side, too – since the bubbly Najdorf’s childish pranks were in a way cute – if it hadn’t been me who had just been defeated!”

They forgave Kotov the loss of the Golden Rook and he was even given in return a gilded statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin! Hooray!

How this anecdote is related to the birth of the Mar del Plata variation in the KID, you will see in an upcoming post…


1. Kotov, Knight, Rook and Tito (article in Russian in

Igor Dvinsky Mikhailovich graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

2. For example, Dvinsky says that the game has been adjourned; that Najdorf checkmated Gligoric, etc.

3. Nikolai Krogius, “Psychology in Chess,’  RHM Press 1976, p.170.

4. Svetozar Gligoric, “I play against pieces”, Batsford 2003


Table 1. 1952 Helsinki Olympiad Results (the top five teams)

Country Players Points
1 Soviet Union Keres, Smyslov, Bronstein, Geller, Boleslavsky, Kotov 21
2 Argentina Najdorf, J. Bolbochán, Eliskases, Pilnik, Rossetto 19½
3 Yugoslavia Gligorić, Rabar, Trifunović, Pirc, Fuderer, Milić 19
4 Czechoslovakia Filip, Pachman, Šajtar, Kottnauer, Zíta, Pithart 18
5 United States Reshevsky, Evans, Robert Byrne, Bisguier, Koltanowski, Berliner 17
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