Russian Grandmaster Evgeni Vasiukov (1933-2018) has passed away at the age of 85. The 6-time Moscow Champion only began to play chess at the age of 15 but would go on to beat players that included World Champions Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian and Mikhail Tal. His most memorable game may have been one he lost to Tal, where the Magician from Riga famously later recounted his decision to let a hippopotamus drown. Vasiukov was President of the Russian Chess Federation Veterans Commission and remained an active player into his final months.
The Russian Chess Federation reports that Evgeni Vasiukov died on 10 May 2018, at the age of 85. Evgeni was a dynamic attacking player who was one of the world’s dozen best players at his peak in the early 1960s. We’ve selected some of his games that you can replay with computer analysis (simply click on a result):
Evgeni Vasiukov was born in Moscow on March 5, 1933, with his childhood overshadowed by the Second World War. He was evacuated from the city, his father was killed in battle and he only picked up chess at the age of 15. His rise was swift after that, though, as he became a USSR Master of Sport in 1954 and then truly made a name for himself by winning the Moscow Championship in 1955:
Despite being the youngest player in the event he scored 10.5/15 to finish 1.5 points ahead of the legendary Salo Flohr, who he beat in their individual encounter, and such famous names as Ragozin and Lilienthal. The article by A. Ishutinov in the tweet above notes Averbakh, Bronstein and Petrosian were away from Moscow in the period, but has a harsh rebuke for Vassily Smyslov, who would soon go on to win the World Championship but had chosen to work as an arbiter elsewhere rather than play the tournament:
It’s clear that the chess community and the organisations governing physical culture should explain to Comrade Smyslov what a public duty it is to pass on his experience and knowledge to the young, in defence of the sporting honour of his city.
Vasiukov would go on to prove that triumph was no fluke as he won the event five more times in 1958, 1960, 1962, 1972 and 1978. He was arguably even stronger as a blitz player and won the Moscow Veterans Blitz Championship as recently as September last year. His best known involvement in a blitz event, though, was when a 15-year-old Bobby Fischer turned up in Moscow in 1958. Vasiukov recounted that tale to Evgeny Surov for Chess-News on the occasion of Viktor Korchnoi’s 80th birthday (I previously translated parts of the sometimes controversial interview here):
I had the opportunity to spend time with him on more than one occasion. The first time was in Moscow, when he arrived and was supposed to play two training matches (not many people know about that). The American Chess Federation approached our Soviet one, and two people were supposed to play training matches against Fischer. Those were Boris Spassky, our youngest grandmaster, the World Junior Champion, and the World Student Team Champion (at the time those events were rated very highly after the Olympiads). The second person who was supposed to play Fischer was me. I was the Moscow Champion at the time, and a two-time World Student Champion.
But on his arrival in Moscow, Fischer said that he only wanted to play Botvinnik. That made a lot of people smile, as Mikhail Moiseyevich stood on such a pedestal, and the idea that he would simply play a training game against someone (and an American at that) was inconceivable. For the two weeks that Fischer was in Moscow he played blitz from morning to night and gave everyone an incredible battering. And then three people were invited, based on the results of the most recent “Vechernaya Moskva” blitz tournament, which was the unofficial Soviet Union blitz championship. They invited the three winners: Petrosian, who came third, Bronstein, who lost a match to me for first place, and myself. But David Ionovich [Bronstein], who had already played a World Championship match, said, "sorry, but why should I play a kid?" Tigran Vartanovich [Petrosian] and I arrived. We played in the grandmasters’ room, and Petrosian won by a small margin, while I literally crushed Fischer.
From that point on whenever we met he always treated me with great respect. There were even situations… for example, the 85th birthday of Andor Lilienthal was being celebrated in Budapest, there were a lot of guests, including Taimanov and the editor of the magazine “64”, Roshal, – but Fischer didn’t want to meet with anyone, while he met me twice. For one of those encounters he invited me to dinner, and we dined together.
Some have questioned Vasiukov’s version of events, but there’s no reason to doubt he was a very strong player at the time, or that he’d earned the respect of Bobby Fischer. A couple of years earlier Vasiukov had beaten future World Champion Tigran Petrosian in the 1956 Moscow Championship, with Fischer commenting in his My Sixty Memorable Games, “I was impressed by that game as Petrosian must have been, since he got crushed.”
10…f4! was a bold choice in the opening that eventually culminated in:
36…Nf4! 37.gxf4 Bxf4 White resigned
Vasiukov finished joint fourth with Mikhail Tal in the second 1961 USSR Championship, behind Spassky, Polugaevsky and Bronstein, but despite qualifying for that formidable event 11 times his other results were disappointing, meaning he failed to get the chances to play in the World Championship cycle that he would have done if he was a citizen of another country. Among numerous tournament victories perhaps his best was winning the 1974 Manila Tournament, where he finished on 10.5/15, a point ahead of Tigran Petrosian and further ahead of such stars as Larsen, Gligoric, Ljubojevic, Andersson, Portisch and Torre.
Vasiukov’s most memorable game was arguably the one he lost to Mikhail Tal in the 1964 USSR Championship:
The game itself was spectacular. Tal played 19.Nxg7! here, went on to navigate the complications better, and then managed to win an opposite-coloured bishop ending only a single pawn up. The reason the game is remembered, though, is for perhaps the best move annotation ever in many people’s favourite chess book, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal:
I will never forget my game with GM Vasiukov on a USSR Championship. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not obvious; there was a large number of possible variations; but when I began to study hard and work through them, I found to my horror that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the infamous "tree of variations", from which the chess trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity.
And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanović Chukovsky: "Oh, what a difficult job it was. To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus".
I do not know from what associations the hippopotamus got into the chessboard, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how WOULD you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder.
After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully to myself: "Well, just let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went right off the chessboard just as he had come on... of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.
And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately calculated piece sacrifice.
Evgeni wasn’t only a co-author of marvels, though, and got some revenge on Tal in the 1968/9 USSR Championship. Again Tal sacrificed a knight, and then he made an even more spectacular sac:
26.Re6?! This one works if Black takes immediately, opening the d3-h7 diagonal for the white queen to hunt the black king, but after 26…f6 27.Qf2 d5! 28.Rd1 d4! Black had a winning position, as Vasiukov went on to prove (26…d5! immediately was objectively better, since 26…f6 gave Tal the chance to "take back" his sac).
It’s fitting to show games featuring Tal, since Vasiukov was a Tal-like player. In an 80th birthday tribute IM Mikhail Arkhangelsky started with Vasiukov-Lebedev 1960, where it was Evgeni who sacrificed a knight:
The knight jump to c3 on move 8 is symbolic of all Vasiukov’s creativity at its best, when the spirit triumphs over matter, while the beauty of the sacrifice flows naturally out of the logic of the position. To grasp that logic and see the beauty, however, is something he often managed better than others. It’s still a thrill for us when we go over his combinations.
Vasiukov never stopped playing chess. He won the World Senior Championship in 1995 and last year led the Russian team to a perfect 18/18 score in the 65+ World Senior Team Championship, where he scored an unbeaten +3. Our latest chess24 event featuring him was the Starodubtsev Memorial Rapid in January 2018, where he scored 4/9 in a field including the likes of Alexander Morozevich and Vladimir Potkin.
Let’s end, though, with a game he played in the 2002 Aeroflot Open at the mere age of 68, against Loek van Wely, back then the world no. 14. The game won the tournament’s beauty prize, and it’s not hard to see why.
17.f5! was the start of a sacrificial assault that never stopped:
17…hxg5 18.hxg5 Nd7 19.fxe6 Ne5 20.Rh1 fxe6 21.b3!
This little move is vital to destroy Black’s defences, since after the immediate 21.Rh8+? Kf7 22.Qf4+ Black can escape with 22…Kg6, while after 21.b3! Qb4 22.Rh8+ Kf7 23.Qf4+ if Black tried 23…Kg6 he’d run into 24.Nxe6! and mate is unavoidable. The game ended in crushing fashion with 32.g8=Q+
Our condolences to all Evgeni’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.