At 52 Boris Gelfand is the oldest player in the chess24 Legends of Chess, but a lifetime of devotion to the game makes him a player you underestimate at your peril. The Belarusian-born Israeli grandmaster first entered the Top 100 as a 19-year-old and reached world no. 3 three years later. His crowning achievement was to win the 2009 World Cup and 2011 Candidates to reach a 2012 World Championship match against Vishy Anand. He took the lead with five games to go, but Vishy hit back immediately and eventually won a rapid tiebreak 2.5:1.5.
Boris was given his first chess book as a 5-year-old and by the age of 6 had shown enough talent and enthusiasm for the game that he began to be coached by Eduard Zelkind, who Gelfand credits for teaching him early on that chess was not just about tactics:
At 9 years old I knew rook endgames to the same level as many current grandmasters, with no false modesty.
Boris was lucky with his early coaches, getting the chance to study at the Tigran Petrosian School, where he came into contact with the 9th World Chess Champion. What did he learn?
Firstly, spending time with a player of such great standing is an incredible event for a boy, and some things from that time still remain with me. He said, for example: think about every move, even if you’re playing blitz – don’t simply bang out a move. Every move should have some sort of idea. I still try to follow that. Or some types of position that he would explain… I’d lose a game and he’d say: what was there to think about here, exchange one rook, leave the other, transfer the knight to here and White wins. A global kind of thinking.
There wasn’t long to wait for results, with Boris winning the adult Belarusian Chess Championship in 1984 (he would win again a year later) before winning the Soviet Junior Championship as a 16-year-old in 1985. He finished unbeaten in sole first place on 9/11, half a point ahead of Vasyl Ivanchuk, who he beat in their individual encounter. His coach at the time, 7-time Belarusian Champion Albert Kapengut, described his protégé in terms that people would repeat throughout Gelfand’s career:
Boris is deeply devoted to chess and hard-working. A good memory combined with a systematic approach allows him to easily assimilate heaps of information.
Boris had entered the Top 100 when he became European Junior Champion in 1988 (this time he lost to Ivanchuk, but still finished half a point ahead of him!) and then later that year tied for first place with Ivanchuk, Grigory Serper and Joël Lautier with 9/13 in the World Junior Championship. Joël took the title with the better tiebreaks.
He finished ahead of over 100 grandmasters to win the GMA qualifier in Palma de Mallorca in 1989 and finished joint first with Ivanchuk on 9/13 in the 1990 Manila Interzonal, half a point ahead of Vishy Anand and Nigel Short. Boris would repeat that score in the 1993 Biel Interzonal, the last event of its kind, when he finished clear first ahead of Anand, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Kamsky, Adams, Shirov and many more stars.
The Interzonals were the gateway to the Candidates Matches that would determine the next World Championship challenger, but those wouldn’t go so easily for Boris. In 1991 he defeated Predrag Nikolic 5.5:4.5, but then lost to Nigel Short 3-5 in a match he later described as the most painful defeat of his career. Nigel would go on from there to play Garry Kasparov in the 1993 World Championship match, while after losing that match Boris got some advice from the legendary Viktor Korchnoi:
I already mentioned the first time I lost a Candidates Match to Short, in 1991… At that time, by the way, among the match losers were Ivanchuk, Anand, myself and Korchnoi… I remember as if it were today the closing ceremony at which Korchnoi sat between me and Ivanchuk. And he said: “guys, don’t get upset, you’ve got every chance of becoming World Champion. I reached my peak playing in Bagio, aged 47… Then I played another match for the World Championship when I was 50. In this hall here there are lots of guys who shout that they’re going to be World Champion, or promise they will be. They haven’t got a hope, while you’ve got every chance. So work on it and everything will be ok”. I remembered Viktor’s words and continue to work, not thinking about results, but about the process of improvement itself.
The focus was always the title for Boris, although the chaos that ensued in the chess world after Kasparov and Short split from FIDE in 1993 meant that he got fewer chances that he should have to compete for that title. In the 1994 FIDE Candidates Boris beat Mickey Adams and Vladimir Kramnik before losing to Anatoly Karpov in the semi-final (Karpov went on to defend the title against Gata Kamsky).
Boris emigrated to Israel in 1998 and next got a run at the title when a good finish in the 2005 World Cup saw him reach the 2007 Candidates Matches. Wins over Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Gata Kamsky qualified him for the 8-player World Championship tournament in Mexico City in 2007. Despite starting as 7th seed, Boris scored +2 and finished joint second with Vladimir Kramnik, while Vishy Anand won the undisputed World Championship title for the first time.
There were many years in the middle of his career when Boris got few opportunities, but he never got disheartened. As Levon Aronian put it when Gelfand qualified for the World Championship match:
He’s a man who treats chess with great reverence, and who works a lot… and is very, you might say, patient with it. You know, it’s easy to work when you can see an immediate return, but he’s had difficult periods, and still to believe in yourself and try to keep working despite that… I’m very, very glad for him, that his dedication and love for the game has borne fruit. This success shows that there’s chess longevity in his blood!
The path to a title match was typical in that Boris had to do everything the hard way. First he won the 2009 World Cup, beating Judit Polgar, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Dmitry Jakovenko, Sergey Karjakin and Ruslan Ponomariov in consecutive matches. That was originally meant to earn him a Candidates final against the Grand Prix winner, Levon Aronian, but instead a series of Candidates Matches was held in Kazan, Russia in 2011. Gelfand beat Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Gata Kamsky (winning on demand with the black pieces) and then Alexander Grischuk in the final, with a win in the 6th and final classical game just when it seemed we were headed to tiebreaks that would favour Grischuk.
The 2012 match in Moscow against Vishy Anand was the culmination of then 43-year-old Boris Gelfand’s career, and of a father’s hopes for his son. The film Album 61 recounted the story of how Abram Gelfand had put together 60 meticulously detailed albums charting the progress of his son:
Abram wasn’t there to see it, but Boris let no-one down. The match was evenly-balanced from the start, with the Israeli taking the lead after six draws – a scene you can see in the video above. With five games to go the title was suddenly in Gelfand’s grasp, but only for a moment – Vishy hit straight back to win the next game in just 17 moves.
That was a blow that could have crushed a less mentally strong opponent (Vishy himself crumbled in a similar scenario against Kasparov in 1995), but Boris went on to draw the next four games and take the match to a rapid playoff. Vishy was the clear favourite, but once again the match was decided by the finest of margins. In Game 2 Vishy squeezed out a win in a drawn ending while in Game 3 Boris missed a tablebase win in a rook ending. The Indian star went on to win that mini-match 2.5:1.5 and hold on to his title.
That match, between players with a combined age of 85, was the moment before the guard changed in world chess. Magnus Carlsen had already been the world’s top player for 3 or 4 years and would have been favourite in the Candidates Matches if he hadn’t withdrawn and been replaced by Alexander Grischuk. In the 2013 Candidates Tournament he beat Boris in both games and eventually edged out Vladimir Kramnik on tiebreaks to earn a match against Vishy.
The rest, as they say, is history, but if Boris’ chances of the title had all but gone he’d still posted a decent performance – finishing 5th despite starting as the bottom seed. In the same year he tied for first with Levon Aronian at the Alekhine Memorial above Anand, Kramnik, Ding Liren and Svidler (to name just players in the chess24 Legends of Chess) and then in the Tal Memorial in Moscow posted perhaps his best super-tournament result of his career:
Gelfand reached a peak rating of 2777, making him world no. 7, later in the same year.
In the years since Boris has kept on working hard, with some of his efforts gradually turning to his legacy. He’s become a coach himself, helping the likes of Daniil Dubov and even the Norwegian chess team – testimony to the high regard in which Magnus Carlsen holds Boris.
His two books, Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, draw on vast experience to explain how a top grandmaster actually thinks about chess and have already become modern classics.
Let’s end with Boris describing his own chess style:
My approach is very simple. Each position requires the strongest move and you need to try and find it.
That’s an illusion, of course, because very often you have several moves which are all good and even. Perhaps it’s more practical not to spend too much time and make one move out of three-five possible moves and save time and strength.
Of course when you can find the strongest move the game is wonderful and you feel proud to create such an artistic performance. You haven’t simply won an ordinary game but the one that is going to become a part of chess history, I would rather say.
Everyone has his own motivation. One simply wants to win but I want to play a game that will be a part of chess history. That’s another attitude.
Boris Gelfand is currently playing in the chess24 Legends of Chess super-tournament.
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