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Features Jan 29, 2015 | 3:17 PMby chess24 staff

Is Ivanchuk a genius?

Vassily Ivanchuk lost only one game in Wijk aan Zee, and in an interview afterwards mentioned it might have been because he failed to read enough Philippine folk-tales to understand his opponent, Wesley So. That's the kind of eccentricity for which we love Vassily, but is he, as so many claim, a genius? Does it matter that he's never been World Champion, rated no. 1 or dominated the chess world? Vlad Tkachiev examines the evidence for and against 'Chucky' as genius, and asks us to vote... after taking a read!

The following article originally appeared in Russian at ChEsSay.

Verdict: Genius
Subject to appeal

by Vlad Tkachiev

December 2013, Switzerland, the small town of Wohlen not far from Zurich, 13:02 local time. In the canteen of the local old people’s clinic twenty or so patients are wearily watching us – a group of three people arrived from Moscow. Somehow you just don’t want to believe that Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi is living here now, which may explain the roundabout route we end up taking. Finally, a door on one of the upper floors opens: “Where on earth have you been – I’ve been waiting for you for a whole hour!” All’s well - “Viktor the Terrible” is still in a fighting mood after his stroke. A wooden board is set up right there in the hallway with the position from the Carlsen-Ivanchuk game in London. Welcome to the museum of parallel chess history, where the main heroes are those who didn’t become World Champions – Keres, Bronstein, the owner of the flat himself. And, of course, Vassily Ivanchuk.

Vassily Ivanchuk | photo: Irina Stepaniuk

Incidentally, he won that game. And then another – against Vladimir Kramnik, thereby determining the name of the current holder of the chess crown. That no longer made any difference to Ivanchuk’s personal fate, though, since by that point he’d already utterly failed in the tournament. Just as he has in almost all the official World Championship competitions in which he’s taken part – except in 2001.

While collecting material for this article I was incredibly surprised to discover that Vassily doesn’t have so many official titles: the 2004 European Champion, a 4-time Olympiad Champion – twice with the USSR team and twice leading Ukraine. 1st place in the 2001 World Team Championship, 2007 World Blitz Champion. And that’s all!

At the same time, Ivanchuk is the winner of a multitude of events of different kinds and levels, including the chess Wimbledon – Linares, three (!) times. But that’s not the main thing. He’s a genius. Acknowledged. In his own lifetime. That’s the point where I want to delve deeper.

The chess public isn’t particularly prone to devalue that unofficial title, and the whole history of geniuses can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Morphy, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer, Kasparov. For some a few more, for some less, but those names would be common to any survey. Note: all of them, including Morphy, were the strongest players of their time – Champions. And then there’s Vassily Ivanchuk. For a short period of time he was the world’s second best chess player, but no more. Nevertheless, he’s been a genius in the eyes of the majority of people since he was something like 16. Will wonders never cease!

But what if we question the commonly accepted cliché and try to formulate an objective verdict? Let’s give it a go!

Public perception

It’s well-known that this is what creates and overthrows geniuses, so that’s where we’ll begin. Here are a few typical comments in the chess24 chat for 13th January:

trendelas4: >> Chucky is a genius
minne.danhieux: >> chucky is the coolest
kalmah: >> Chucky for the president of United Nations
kalmah: >> Chucky is a renaissance man,he developed his chess without computers purely with his brain, that makes the difference in this tournament
SensibleHare: >> lol…everyone likes Chucky!!
SensibleHare: >> with Ivanchuk…it’s ALL chess…Morning Noon Wedding night…24/7 chess chess chess
imek.prezimek: >> Ivanchuk is cute
BullDogDavery: >> this is why i call Chucky The Peoples Champion hes so down to earth
BullDogDavery: >> Chucky vs the Comps!!!
marcepolak: >> ivanchuk is looking for gold in his nose?:D

I deliberately put the most important comments for understanding the phenomenon of such popularity at the end. So then, Chucky is perceived as a ‘People’s Champion’ and he leads the battle of the human race against the computer invasion. He’s human and cool, but prone to eccentricities – during a game he loves to pick that source of countless ideas – his nose. It’s clear to everyone that’s the organ responsible for the superpowers of Chucky-Superman – a still-to-be-released comic book with uncertain prospects of film adaptation.

Hou Yifan and Ivanchuk during the final round in Wijk aan Zee | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

The opinion of professional colleagues

Even if some of them are former or current rivals, you can’t get by without this perspective – who else has studied Ivanchuk in such detail? In total I questioned ten grandmasters: Grischuk, Gelfand, Eljanov, Riazantsev, Rublevsky, Miroshnichenko, Kazhgaleyev, Chuchelov, Sulypa, Mikhalchishin and one journalist who’s covered a countless number of tournaments involving Vassily – Yury Vasiliev. I also didn’t forget about myself, so that, as in any self-respecting jury, there were 12 votes. Opinion was split exactly 50:50, and here it is in distilled form:


Ivanchuk has a style of play unlike anyone else’s and an exceptionally wide opening repertoire. He’s capable of seeing things hidden from the eyes of the majority. The creative clearly dominates over the sporting element in his play. Vassily lives chess and generates not individual moves but whole ideas – wherever he finds himself. A phenomenal memory combined with fanatical love provides the basis for Ivanchuk’s colossal erudition.

Garry Kimovich feared no-one the way he did this player, to such an extent that even his name was only whispered around Kasparov. Ivanchuk, meanwhile, has a childlike directness, something that was caught well by John Turturro in the film ‘The Luzhin Defence’. The only thing that determines Vassily’s strength at any particular moment is his condition, and there’s no chess player stronger than an in-form Ivanchuk.

Not a genius:

“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see” – that’s not about Ivanchuk. He wasn’t ahead of his time and wasn’t able to overcome his contemporaries, although the ability he started out with truly was outstanding. It’s impossible, though, to compare his contribution to opening theory with the legacy of Kasparov, Kramnik or Anand. At times Vassily, exploiting the image created, allows himself things that aren’t entirely correct, for example, at fast time controls. And, in general, the role of scattered genius is somewhat feigned. That makes it easier for him to hide his true “I”.

As you can see, the advocates of Ivanchuk’s genius are somewhat more eloquent and talkative which, in general, is understandable. I haven’t specified the view of each of those I asked and I’d warn you against attempting to guess who voted how – believe me, it’s impossible! On a few occasions it was amazing to what degree normal linear logic fails to operate here.

Who is the real Ivanchuk? | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

Games as evidence

As far as I was able I took a detailed look through the 3649 Ivanchuk games in my database. They’ve been a constant companion for my whole conscious life, since I began my chess career exactly at the moment Ivanchuk made his stunning debut on the chess stage. What jumps out at you: a truly wide range of openings, brilliant erudition in all stages of the game, refined technique. Now, in 2015, the originality of his ideas no longer strikes me as so unearthly as before – Vassily is still, essentially, a very classical chess player. It’s amazing how often one or another of his ideas is a replica of a game already played before, but Ivanchuk enlightens us by passing on that sacred knowledge. (click "Select game" to choose more games)  

At the same time he has a lot, an awful lot, of his own novelties, but it’s striking how few of them have turned into fully-fledged opening trends.

Chucky’s famous bursts of fantasy could be the topic for a separate article. I selected these examples with particular pleasure. I hope some of them will surprise you.

Ivanchuk at work | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

Among the unusual elements of his game I noticed a tendency to play with a rook and minor piece against a queen. You get the impression that it’s a material balance that excites Vassily as a special form of art.

His endgame technique is just impossible to praise enough – his knowledge of theoretical positions and typical schemes is off the scale. Plus, when his opponent has no clearly defined counterplay that traditionally makes Ivanchuk even stronger.

And here we come to weaknesses, the main one of which is: play in passive positions. Sometimes it all ends in utterly absurd and premature resignation. And, of course, his notorious nervous breakdowns – tragic and at times inexplicable…

From his personal file

Vassily Ivanchuk began to play chess at the age of 10 and won the USSR Junior Championship as a 15-year-old. An impressive fact – the youngster memorised all 48 games of the first Karpov-Kasparov match by heart. A passion for training and an undeniably outstanding memory stayed with him over the years: Ivanchuk speaks four foreign languages – English, Spanish, Turkish and Polish, has memorised the squares of the numbers from 1 to 30 and knows many songs and poems by heart.

  • His greatest achievement on the world rating list: 2nd in 1991 and 2007. That coincides with the two times he got married.
  • By his own admission he found a large number of original ideas in church, during services.
  • For New Year 2009 he proposed a new game with the chess pieces called “Kiss the queen” on ChessPro.
  • He takes a serious interest in checkers, plays at the strength of a Candidate Master and took part in the Lviv Championship. He has a passion for roulette in the casino – with positive results.
  • He prefers to watch sports that involve a personal confrontation: tennis and boxing.
  • He usually studies chess without the help of a computer, either blind or using a big chessboard and pieces.
  • In Linares 2009 he offered a draw to Dominguez on move 47 in a winning position, since he considered his behaviour in mutual time trouble inappropriate (the offer was accepted).

Medical expertise

A close-up of Ivanchuk | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

But what is genius? After all, there’s no clear-cut definition of the concept. You have to agree that makes our investigation a little unusual. Among the studies I could find on that topic the one that most appealed to me was Cesare Lombroso’s “Genius and madness”. Don’t be put off by the title – I’m sure many of us link the extraordinary abilities of this or that person with some form of insanity. And there are even more who would happily take on that burden if it was possible. In any case, here are the main distinguishing traits of genius singled out by the Italian scholar in his book:

  1. The unnatural development of talent in a particular field from a very early age
  2. The presence of habits that are bad for keeping yourself in shape
  3. An urge to move about, restlessness
  4. A tendency to change professions and occupations
  5. A desire to solve the most complex questions of science, art and life
  6. A special – colourful and passionate – style of writing
  7. Deep internal suffering from religious doubts
  8. Abnormal speech patterns
  9. A heightened attention to your own dreams

In fact, Lambroso identified several more characteristic traits that are typical of mentally unstable geniuses, but you can find those yourself if interested. For me – on the basis of my personal observations – the system he proposes seems quite relevant.

From the horse’s mouth

…Chess is now simply killing me. It’s playing against me! It’s destroying me! 


 I was very upset after the loss, but I’m absolutely not planning on quitting chess…! 


I walked along Arbat Street, talked to painters, spent some time in the Pushkin Museum, went into a church which was fifty metres from the hotel and saw the same priest who took my confession last year… 


I can call myself one of the world’s strongest chess players. Comparing myself to the great chess players of the past isn’t, in my view, entirely appropriate, since those people already achieved a lot, while I hope I’ll still manage to achieve a lot. As for the concept of “genius”, that’s a question of taste. Tal was called a genius but, for instance, no-one called Botvinnik a genius. Or Lasker, who was World Champion for 27 years, also wasn’t called a genius. You can argue about genius, and no clear criteria for it exist.


…before the game against Ponomariov I had the following dream. I was going to play a match against Milov, and the winner would qualify to play Carlsen. And I prepared for Milov and told my second: “You have to get the latest ‘Informator’, because he often comments on games there, and he also plays in tournaments that might not make it into the database…” Then at breakfast I saw Milov and thought I absolutely had to look at Milov’s games. I don’t think the dream was a coincidence. 


No, I didn’t study maths at university – it’s simply a hobby. However, it sometimes draws me in so much that I can spend the whole night on it. I remember a case during a supertournament in 1996 in Las Palmas. I was interested in the question of what indicates that a number is divisible by seven? And how can you calculate it? Of course I realised mathematicians know the answer, but I wanted to get there on my own. And so I was sitting at night, thinking… One hour, two, three… The next day I had a game against Anatoly Karpov, but that was unimportant. And it was only at five in the morning that I suddenly grasped it: I understood all I needed. You can’t imagine what a pleasant feeling that is. 


Ivanchuk to the question of who he considers a chess genius:

Capablanca – definitely. Fischer – definitely.

A pause.

Alekhine? – someone suggested.

‌Yes. – Vassily “confirmed” Alekhine.





And Tal?

A mystery. I can’t give a clear yes or no. I don’t understand Tal.

And among women?

Judit Polgar.

And Magnus Carlsen?

A big talent, but I wouldn’t be confident of calling him a genius. 


Two geniuses meet? | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

It’s not even obligatory to sit at a computer or a chessboard. I can also walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that working using such a method will have any less effect than if I sit at a computer. It depends much more on getting into a mental state that allows you to discover new ideas. 


I still think I can become World Champion, but only on the condition that I look at that championship and the qualifying for it as normal tournaments – nothing special. Then I’ll be able to prepare. I know myself – if a tournament is very important, then that’s it, I can’t prepare for it – neither at the computer nor at the chessboard. When the tension drops a little then the desire to play chess returns and new ideas appear. Why is it like that? I don’t know. 


A very important aspect of Carlsen’s success is his resilience after defeats. Of course, like any chess player he prefers winning, but if something like that happens he quickly gets out of that “groggy” state, to use the boxing terminology. That doesn’t go so well for me. 


When I get interested in something, when I get drawn in – I do one thing and nothing else for hours on end. 


From Kasparov I learned, in moments of stress, to allow myself quickly to explode and then calm down just as quickly. 


They say that the concept of ‘genius’, in its current meaning, only arose in the 18th century. Well, that’s in the world of normal people, but in chess it was no doubt much sooner – I can’t imagine that Al-Suli or Greco were considered mere mortals. The title is unofficial, awarded by the public reluctantly and even harder to retain, though down the ages it’s valued above any kind of prizes won in a lifetime. Should Vassily Mikhailovich Ivanchuk be honoured with this higher title or not – that’s for you to decide.

GM Vlad Tkachiev

Vlad was born in Russia but grew up in Kazakhstan and now represents France. A Kazakh and French national champion and the winner of the 2007 European Championship, his first love has always been rapid chess, which he hopes will become the main form of the game. In recent years he set up the website WhyChess and now writes a blog, ChEsSay. | photo: Irina Stepaniuk

So what do you think? Vote now!

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