Interviews Sep 24, 2014 | 3:43 PMby Colin McGourty

Boris Gulko: Carlsen “a wonderful psychologist”

Boris Gulko at the 2013 Snowdrops and Oldhands tournament | photo: Anežka Kružíková,

67-year-old Boris Gulko has had an extraordinary career. The winner of both the USSR and US Chess Championships and a man with a 3:1 record of wins against Garry Kasparov, he and his wife spent 7 years as “refuseniks” after being denied permission to emigrate from the USSR to Israel. In a new interview with Sergey Kim for ChessPro, Gulko talks about those times but also the way in which modern chess has changed and how Magnus Carlsen and the other leaders of the new generation face completely new challenges.

Soviet Champion

The peak of Boris Gulko’s career came when he turned 30 in 1977. An unbeaten 9.5/15 in the USSR Championship and then a draw in the play-off that followed saw him share the title with Josif Dorfman, ahead of the likes of Petrosian, Tal and Polugaevsky. His wife, Anna Akhsharumova, had also won the women’s USSR title in 1976, but trouble was on the horizon.

Boris Gulko and Josif Dorfman were both declared USSR Champions after drawing their play-off 3:3 | photo: 64 / ChessPro

In the summer of 1978 he scored perhaps the best result of his career in the now Montenegrin city of Niksic, finishing 1.5 points clear of an all-star field alongside Jan Timman. 

A relic of the days when tournament books were still produced | photo: Lund Chess Academy

He explained, however, what it had taken to play in that event:

At that time I was one of the world’s strongest chess players, but I couldn’t play where I wanted. The USSR Champion walked into work each day at the chess club to see the head of the Chess Office, and that man proposed him tournaments that had either passed or been cancelled. Then he’d propose a tournament that was supposed to coincide with the zonal tournament. But I agreed because the name Las Palmas sounded like music to my ears back then! Then, unexpectedly, on the wishes of Karpov – who declared that he urgently required his coaches precisely then – they changed the dates of the zonal event. I got the possibility to play in both the zonal and Las Palmas! But then Baturinsky again called me in and said that I wouldn’t be sent to Las Palmas, but he offered Niksic. So many humiliations for a Champion of the Soviet Union! After emigration in one year I played as many good international tournaments as I had in my whole “Soviet” life.

The 1978 Olympiad 

The final straw for Gulko was the Chess Olympiad that began in Buenos Aires in October that year. That would go down in history as the only Olympiad the USSR team played in and failed to take gold medals, losing out to Hungary. 2014 is the first year since that the USSR or a former USSR country has failed to win, and in fact the Tromsø Olympiad was the first one since before the USSR first competed in 1952 where one of those countries failed even to make the Top 3 (China, Hungary and India took the medals).

1GM Spassky, Boris26301½101½½½½1½7
2GM Petrosian, Tigran262011½½½1½½½6
3GM Polugaevsky, Lev2620½½1½110111½8
4GM Gulko, Boris2565½100½2
1 res.GM Romanishin, Oleg2610111½½½½0½1
2 res.GM Vaganian, Rafael2555½½1½1½½1½½

Back in 1978 Gulko was barely used and suffered two defeats. He complained the team was only announced to the players a couple of hours before each game, and felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere surrounding the team and its KGB “assistants”:

In Buenos Aires I decided to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It was quite an extraordinary feeling to find yourself in the Soviet delegation – all around were normal people, but there you were, a Soviet… The delegation consisted of twenty people, but who knows who many of them were. A team “translator” who didn’t speak Spanish, a coach (Grandmaster Antoshin), who would binge drink during the tournament, and so on. It was a very unpleasant feeling to be a member of the Soviet delegation!


So he and his wife took the fateful decision to apply to leave the Soviet Union, later realising that they’d made a huge miscalculation:

It seemed people would apply and be allowed to leave. There might be some exceptions made for those in possession of state secrets, but we were both chess players! Of course I misjudged the situation, which is linked to a facet of my character – optimism. I thought we’d apply and leave. That’s what happened… only we had to wait seven years.

Those were years marred by repression during which the Gulkos protested and even went on hunger strikes, although Boris notes that among chess players it was only World Champion Anatoly Karpov who would no longer greet him. Gulko responded to Kim’s suggestion that Karpov’s hands were tied as the Champion was almost a chess official:

He was a great chess player and if he’d conducted himself like a great man he could have done what he wanted, like Spassky or Kasparov. But such was his choice.

Kasparov's nemesis

His years as a refusenik were not all negative, however, as Gulko went on to score a series of wins against none other than Garry Kasparov.

Gulko managed to beat Kasparov both as a Soviet and an American citizen | photo: Genna Sosonko / Chess-News

You can play through all three of Gulko's wins below:

Gulko explained his success:

It’s a question of styles. Perhaps my style didn’t quite “suit” Kasparov. I liked complex play, and he didn’t manage to overwhelm me with his trademark bulldozer style. The games went pretty well for me in the opening, but I don’t think I had some special recipe. Naturally, any person who loses a game gets upset, and the same applies to Garry, although he got upset much more rarely than others (smiles)

In general he conducted himself pretty well. In 1981 in Frunze at the USSR Championship he shrugged his shoulders and said, “you could have won earlier”, which was the pure truth. I had a combination that I simply forgot about. True, when I annotated the game now for a book I came to the conclusion that the path I chose back then was the more rational one. My situation during that championship wasn’t easy. I was already a “refusenik” and therefore wasn’t playing too successfully. I felt like a woman who’d been taken into a harem and wouldn’t be released…   

The American years

Eventually, however, the Soviet Union was transformed during the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Gulkos were able to emigrate to America in 1986:

It was another issue that when I emigrated after seven years of “refusal” I was already 39 – no spring chicken… Nevertheless, I’m glad that I managed to continue my chess career!

Gulko’s wife Anna won the USSR Championship again in 1984 and the US Championship – with a perfect score – in 1987, but she went on to retrain as a programmer in the USA. Gulko remarked on a curious difference between male and female chess champions:

In general I’ve noticed a strange fact: the situation for male chess players looks much more hopeless than it does for women. Top female players changed their profession and achieved great success. Alla Kushnir was a Professor of Archaeology, Larissa Volpert was a top philologist. Back in their day, however, they won USSR Championships and fought for the World Championship title! You can’t say the same about men who fought for the World Championship title. Somehow it’s exactly the reverse of the situation with alcoholism, where it’s well-known that men can recover while for women it’s hopeless. In chess everything is the other way around!

Nowadays Boris Gulko writes a (non-chess) newspaper column and does some chess coaching, but he still keeps an eye on recent chess developments. 

Modern chess

"They solve problems we didn't face" - Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana | photo: Ahmed Mukhtar, Shamkir Chess

He was asked to give his assessment of the younger generation:

It’s a different chess. Polugaevsky said that to me back when I last played him in Reggio Emilia in the early 90s. His main point was that previously we could turn up, sit down at the board and start to play from the first move. Now that’s impossible. Even back then the influence of preparation was beginning to tell, although it still wasn’t an entirely computer age… Rafael Vaganian also told me: “You know, the chess which you and I played no longer exists!”

It’s become much harder to play nowadays, because chess players have become centaurs of a kind. The role of the head is taken by the computer. There’s a huge amount of preparation and, if your opponent makes an unexpected move in the opening, you realise that you’re going to be playing against a computer. In my last tournament I caught myself thinking a cowardly thought in messy positions: “if only I could switch on Fritz it would calculate it all!” It seems to me that in non-standard positions chess players have begun to play significantly weaker, because all their strength and energy goes on working with the computer. And I often see in annotations to something like the 35th move: “Here I forgot my home analysis”…

Chess has changed dramatically, and only a few of the world’s top players play genuinely impressive and interesting chess. They solve problems we didn’t face – Carlsen, Aronian, now Caruana as well. They lure their opponent out of the “well-kept park of computer analysis” into the wilds of the chess forest – Carlsen does that absolutely brilliantly – a wonderful psychologist! His feel for his opponent and feel for the dynamics of play is amazing. As I understand it, it’s now much harder to do than it was for us back then. I noticed that the simpler the play (and chess has become simpler because it’s lost the opening stage), the more mastery is required in order to win. There’s less scope for a battle. Just look – Carlsen plays on in dead-drawn endings and then it turns out he’s able to win. 

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