Vasyl Ivanchuk has spent three decades as one of the world’s best loved chess grandmasters — and one of the most feared by his colleagues. At his best Ivanchuk was always as good as anyone, and when he beat Kasparov, Karpov, Anand and Gelfand on the way to winning Linares 1991 as a 21-year-old it seemed he was the heir apparent to Garry Kasparov’s crown. That never came to pass, but the eccentric Ukrainian will be one of the most eagerly followed participants in the chess24 Legends of Chess.
Vasyl Ivanchuk won the USSR Young Masters as a 16-year-old in 1986, the European Junior Championship in 1987, and in 1988 won the New York Open and tied for first place in the World Junior Championship as he broke into the Top 10. At the time the chess world was still dominated by two players, reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov and his arch-rival, the 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov. Vasyl came into their orbit as an unworldly youth, and would later comment on what he learnt from them:
I recall Karpov getting extremely angry with me when I was his partner in Belote, and I made some mistakes. (Laughs) He was beside himself with anger, which really amazed me: I was playing for fun and didn’t treat the game so seriously. In general, I learned a lot from them — both in the art of chess, and behaviour. At that time, as a 17-year-old, I was sure that someone who was able to play chess well must, a priori, be a wonderful person who’s positive in every way. And conversely — if someone had negative qualities then he’d never be able to play chess well. Well, Karpov disabused me of that idea, making it very clear that those are absolutely different things, that personal and professional qualities have nothing in common. While from Kasparov I learned, in moments of stress, to allow myself quickly to explode and then calm down just as quickly i.e. that quality which is absolutely inherent to him. It’s important in particularly stressful periods not to keep your emotions inside.
Vasyl first knocked on the door of their club as a 19-year-old when he won Linares 1989, finishing half a point ahead of Karpov. Garry Kasparov was missing that year, but two years later Ivanchuk sensationally beat the World Champion in Round 1 of Linares 1991, with the final position a picture of complete dominance:
Vasyl went on to beat Karpov, Anand, Gurevich, Gelfand and Kamsky, scoring 9.5/13 to top a field featuring 8 of the Top 10.
That phenomenal result took him above Karpov into the world no. 2 spot, but although he won or tied for 1st in Linares twice more he was never able to eclipse the Two Ks. He never won a classical game against Karpov again (their score in wins is Karpov 3:1 Ivanchuk), while Kasparov racked up a dominant 11:4 score. The rating spot also didn’t prove just a final step towards the goal, since although Vasyl was again 2nd in 1992 and 2007 he never reached no. 1 on an official rating list.
No lesser authority than Garry Kasparov has stated that Vasyl Ivanchuk’s chess understanding is at the level of a World Champion. The range of openings he’s capable of playing required a fantastic memory as well as huge dedication before powerful computers arrived to accelerate the process, but he’s barely come close to the World Championship title.
It all started so well. In 1990 Vasyl topped the Manila Interzonal alongside Boris Gelfand and ahead of Vishy Anand and Nigel Short, thereby qualifying for the Candidates Matches. In the first Ivanchuk crushed Leonid Yudasin 4.5:0.5, but then in the next match he lost a thrilling rapid tiebreak to Artur Yusupov after the classical games ended 4:4. Yusupov would later talk about a sense of guilt over Ivanchuk’s World Championship failures, since despite being the clear underdog he’d been inspired by the news of the failure of the Moscow coup to play the chess of his life:
Vasyl fell short in the 1993 Interzonal and instead came closest to the goal in 2002, when it looked as though he was going to claim the FIDE World Championship title - since 1993 the title had been split between FIDE and the breakaway PCA formed by Kasparov and Short. He started as 4th seed but beat Vishy Anand in the semi-finals to reach a final against his compatriot and 19th seed Ruslan Ponomariov. It looked like Vasyl’s moment, but 18-year-old Ruslan instead won the 1st and 5th games of the 8-game match as he triumphed 4.5:2.5, becoming the youngest World Champion in history with a game to spare.
It took such cataclysms in the world to get me into optimal condition! I can’t play better chess than I played in the final games of that match. I never won anything in the “Informants”, except perhaps when featuring on the losing side, but for my games there I took first and second place. Some kind of extraordinary rise! The gift of a lifetime, a sign that this was the way I was capable, at times, of playing chess. Of course something like that could only happen on a single lucky day for me. A momentous creative surge! And so I managed to win that tiebreak, but I still feel somewhat uncomfortable towards Vasyl even now, because it wasn’t entirely fair on him. Some outside forces intervened and he was simply unlucky. I repeat, at that point he was a better chess player than I was…
Ivanchuk was unfortunate to be excluded from the 2005 and 2007 World Championship tournaments and reached his next and to date last Candidates Tournament after winning a 3rd place playoff against Ponomariov in the 2011 World Cup. Two years later, in 2013, Vasyl played in the London Candidates in a performance that typified his best and worst qualities. He beat both the frontrunners Magnus Carlsen (in a brilliant technical game) and Vladimir Kramnik (in the final game), but finished 2nd last after losing multiple games on time or in time-trouble collapses.
Vasyl himself talked about the problem back in 2011 when he was asked if winning the World Championship was his main unsatisfied ambition:
Not exactly becoming World Champion in classical chess… That’s only one tournament. Of course, I’d like to succeed in it, but somehow I feel that over the course of my chess career that desire itself has put some pressure on me, preventing me from concentrating on other tournaments, and causing anxiety.
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.
In his chess24 Q&A session Vasyl described his style of play as, “universal — I am not afraid of any type of position”, but while chess fans enjoy his style it’s his overall attitude that makes the Ukrainian such a larger-than-life figure. He takes a pure, unbridled joy in what he does, saying during that same session:
The main secret of success is you are doing what you love and loving what you are doing. This is really important. I'm a professional chess player for many, many years. I started chess from 6 years old and from 10 years old I’m playing in tournaments, but I don't remember a moment of my life when I considered chess mainly like my profession, mainly like my job.
Ivanchuk has long been considered a genius (88% voted in favour under Vlad Tkachiev’s article Is Ivanchuk a genius?), and in 2009 was encouraged to talk about other geniuses in chess, as reported by Yury Vasiliev:
A local journalist asked the “genius Ivanchuk” (as she put it) about who he considers chess geniuses. Vasily said it was a complicated question. And then he began to name names:
— Capablanca, definitely. Fischer, also.
— Alekhine? someone suggested.
— Yes. Alekhine was “approved” by Vasily.
— And Tal?
— A mystery. I can’t give a clear answer yes or no. I don’t understand Tal.
— Among women?
— Judit Polgar
— And Magnus Carlsen?
— A big talent. But I wouldn’t be confident of calling him a genius.
11 years later Vasyl was asked if he’d come to a conclusion!
Back in 2011 Boris Gelfand answered his own question, “Who plays better, Ivanchuk in good form or Carlsen?” with, “It seems to me it’s Ivanchuk in good form”. The best recent example of Ivanchuk in all his glory was winning the 2016 World Rapid Championship at the age of 47.
On the way Vasyl beat Magnus, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Vishy Anand, while at the closing ceremony he was busy playing Baadur Jobava at checkers — one of the great passions of the later stages of his career — when he was due up on stage to receive his gold medal. The way he ran, bounded up onto the podium and then continued to think about the checkers position is quintessential Ivanchuk:
He fits the stereotype of an “absent-minded genius”, but it’s his total focus on the task at hand and childlike passion that have enabled him to keep on playing into his 6th decade. On his day the suspicion is he can still beat anyone.
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