Vladas Mikėnas was active in top level chess for five decades. He met all the World Champions from Lasker to Kasparov, beat Alekhine, Botvinnik, Petrosian, Smyslov and Tal, represented Lithuania on top board at five Olympiads and played in ten USSR Championships. Besides playing himself he was a theoretician, coached Keres and worked as an arbiter at such high profile events as the 1985 Karpov-Kasparov match. Laurynas Barkauskas’ article on a legend of Baltic chess covers Mikėnas' “immortal game” and some anecdotes about his encounters with top players.
by Laurynas Barkauskas
Vladas Mikėnas (1910 – 1992) was one of the most prominent players from the Baltic states, a multiple champion of Estonia and Lithuania, an IM and an honorary GM. Mikėnas participated in five Chess Olympiads on the 1st board of the Lithuanian team before World War II. After Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, he also played in many USSR Championships. Mikėnas made contributions to chess theory such that his name features in several openings.
In his later years he was the Chief Arbiter in many outstanding events such as the 1984 Kasparov – Smyslov Candidates Tournament final match and the 1985 World Championship match between Karpov and Kasparov. Both Karpov and Kasparov held Mikėnas in high regard: Karpov called him maestro and noted that Mikėnas was unique in that he had met all the chess champions except Steinitz (Kasparov being the last one).
Mikėnas was born in Estonia and quickly became one of the country’s strongest players, claiming its chess crown in 1930. A year later he
travelled to his father's country, Lithuania, to play in the first Baltic Chess Championship.
Despite initially not being able to speak Lithuanian, he stayed in the country
and set a new goal of becoming the Lithuanian Chess Champion. In order to
achieve that in 1932 Mikėnas had to face a tricky opponent, Alexander Macht.
Macht was tricky not just on the chessboard: he would order tea and start sipping it loudly during Mikėnas’ thinking time. Mikėnas came up with a countermeasure – he asked for an empty glass and started “stirring” it with a teaspoon from time to time. Macht got the message and the match continued without further distractions. Nevertheless, Mikėnas didn’t manage to win the match and had to wait another year to become Lithuanian Champion, an achievement he repeated a further dozen times up until the age of 67.
During the period when the world was at an all-time low, Mikėnas was at his chess peak. According to Chessmetrics, he was ranked the 12th best player in the world in 1945. Mikėnas explains that the main reason he didn’t reach the very top was because he didn’t follow Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower’s advice: “There is only one mistake in chess – underestimating your opponent.” On the other hand, Mikėnas seemed not to make that mistake when playing against Grandmasters, as he had wins against such players as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Keres, Petrosian, Smyslov and Tal. That gained him the nickname Grandmaster killer (for reference, there were only 27 official Grandmasters in 1950).
A fan of the Alekhine Defence, Mikėnas was one of the few players who had an equal score against Alekhine (+1 -1 =3). In his autobiography, Mikėnas tells an anecdote about their most memorable encounter. After losing the first three games in the 1937 Kemeri tournament, Mikėnas was feeling down and found himself sitting sadly in a restaurant with many people dancing and laughing around him. Upon seeing this, Alekhine approached and encouraged him by giving some useful advice on how to continue fighting in the tournament. Afterwards, he asked whom Mikėnas was playing next. “You,” Mikėnas replied. Alekhine took this as a bad omen.
Indeed, the game the next day didn’t go well for Alekhine. After he played 23.Ne4 coffee was brought to the table and Alekhine, without taking his eyes from the board, tried to put a lump of sugar in it. Instead, he dropped in a white pawn and started stirring nervously. Upon seeing his mistake, he angrily pushed the cup away and spilled some coffee on the table.
Mikėnas tried to explain Alekhine’s nervousness to himself: “Maybe he realized that I could go into the endgame, which is unfavourable to him.” Mikėnas therefore played 23…Bxe4, after which Alekhine couldn’t contain his relief. Pointing to the c2-square with a trembling hand, he said to Mikėnas, “Young man, Rc2 would have ended the game”. Notwithstanding that missed opportunity, Mikėnas continued to press and, in the end, managed to win the game.
Mikėnas was giving a simultaneous display in 1929 in Estonia and, to everybody’s surprise, he was beaten by a thirteen-year-old, with whom he played a few more games afterwards. The boy’s name was Paul Keres and this was the first time Keres got noticed at a national level. Some years passed and Mikėnas had to play Keres in the unofficial Chess Olympiad in 1936 in Munich. On that day, Hungarian chess master Géza Maróczy came to their table before the game and said, “I’ve heard, maestro Keres, that today’s opponent once gave you some chess lessons”. “Yes, but I’m glad that I haven’t learned anything from him!” Keres replied, and all three of them laughed. However, Mikėnas managed to win the game and afterwards asked Keres tongue-in-cheek, “So, Paul, was this a good lesson?” “I hope it will be your first and last victory against me,” Keres replied.
In actual fact, Keres respected Mikėnas both as a person and a player, and asked him to become his chess coach in 1955. During Mikėnas’ coaching years, Keres became the player with the most second places in Candidates Tournaments (four tournaments in a row!) and subsequently received the nickname “Paul II”. After the 1959 Candidates Tournament, which Tal won to leave Keres in second place, Mikėnas was ruminating on the tournament in his hotel room when suddenly a waiter entered with some desserts and a good brand of Italian vermouth. The card read, “For coaching Keres badly. Tal!” The joke was in Tal’s style.
However, that same year in a tournament in Tal’s home town of Riga it was Mikėnas who made Tal feel uneasy by winning against him. Mikėnas consoled Tal: “Don’t worry, Misha – this loss is actually a good sign. I won against Alekhine, Botvinnik and Smyslov before they became World Champions.” The words were prophetic as Tal took the chess crown from Mikhail Botvinnik the following year.
Mikėnas was an attacking player who preferred playing semi-closed openings as that allowed easier manoeuvring of the pieces and more opportunities for tactical shots. Such a style helped Mikėnas take an honourable 5th place in the 1944 USSR Championship. The tournament winner, Botvinnik, who valued positional over tactical play, compared Mikėnas to Johann Strauss – a composer of “light music”.
Mikėnas hardly ever played 1.e4 and this is reflected in his contributions to opening theory. He developed the Mikenas-Carls Variation (A18) of the English Opening, which runs 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4. There is also the Mikenas Variation of the Modern Benoni (A66), a sharp attacking line: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.e5.
Mikėnas’ style can best be appreciated by looking at what became known as his immortal game, which was played in 1941 in the 4th Georgian Championship against N. Lebedev. The move of the game is the counterintuitive 20.f4!, which allows a seemingly destructive check with a fork, but instead ultimately led to a great sacrificial attack.
Here's the full game with Mikėnas' own annotations:
1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 e6 3. ♘c3 d5 4. ♗g5 ♗e7 5. e3 h6 6. ♗h4 O-O 7. ♖c1 c6 8. ♗d3 ♘bd7 9. ♘f3 dxc4 10. ♗xc4 ♘d5 11. ♗g3 ♘xc3 12. bxc3 c5 13. O-O a6 14. ♗d3 ♘f6 15. ♘e5 ♗d6 This move further weakens Black's position.
15... ♗d7 was necessary.
19. ♗g3 ♗xc5 20. f4! I noticed this interesting and sharp move at once, but I thought for a long time before finally making it. After all, 40 good moves don't grant you a win, but one bad move is often decisive.
23... ♕b5 is the move my opponent had to defend with, so he could meet 24. ♕c2 with (24. ♘g4! however, and after 24... ♗xf6 25. ♘xf6+ White would still have a strong attack.) 24... ♕xb1+ 25. ♕xb1 ♗xf6
Finally, I leave you with a quote from Mikėnas:
A chess player’s life is full of joys and worries, hopes and disappointments, but anybody who lived it fully would not exchange it for any other.