Interview with GM Oscar Panno

After 7 years of maintaining this blog I can now firmly say that all the good opportunities I had in this period were thanks to it. These include but are not limited to my work in ACP, Chessable, various coaching and writing opportunities.

The latest one isn’t an exception.

Some time ago I was contacted by Sergio Panno, the son of the legendary Argentinian Grandmaster Oscar Panno. He said that GM Robert Hungaski has informed him of my blog and that perhaps I would be interested in sharing a word about a book on his father. Sergio informed me about a translation to English of a biographical book about his father called Oscar Panno, The Southern Chess Grandmaster that Challenged the North.

The above link has quite a lot of free “look inside” pages that you can read, which I did and the book captivated me. I consider myself well-educated when it comes to chess history, but while reading those pages I realised that there was a chess world that existed in South America in the 1950s that I knew very little about.

As I kept reading I came to the idea to ask a few questions the great man himself. I asked Sergio and he said that his father wouldn’t mind. That is how the interview below came into existence.

For me, this was like getting in touch with history itself. A player who became a World Junior Champion in 1953 (ahead of Larsen, Ivkov, Olafsson), qualified from the Gothenburg Interzonal in 1955 for the Amsterdam Candidates in 1956 and who played against 7 World Champions. It was just a big unbelievable WOW for me.

The Grandmaster wrote back in Spanish and I translated his answers to English. This translation was approved by Sergio so I present you the interview fully in English.

You come from a country with rich chess tradition. How did the chess culture in Argentina help you to became a World Junior Champion at the age of 18?

Buenos Aires has always been very connected to Europe via France and England and chess was one of the favourite activities. From the beginning of the 20th century we were visited by great players who left their trace. The highest points were the match Capablanca-Alekhine in 1927 and the Olympiad in 1939. Due to World War II a lot of players remained in our country, Miguel Najdorf being the most famous example, who established himself and served as a great inspiration. The 1950s were the golden period of Argentine chess with 3 silver medals at the Olympiads in 1950, 1952 and 1954. This atmopshere helped me become a World Junior Champion at the age of 18. However, in the next period we suffered financial and sporting decline and this was notable in the next showings on the international arena.

You rose to prominence in the 1950s when study material was scarce. What type of chess work did you do in that period that made you one of the best players in the world? To be more precise, how did you work on the openings, middlegames, endgames, calculation, technique?

The chess information was very scarce and it reached us very late. For example, at the moment of boarding the plane to go to a tournament GM Julio Bolbochan gave us the Russian magazines Shakhmaty with exactly 1 year delay since their publication. For these reasons we were forced to compensate these problems with great personal efforts.

You have played 7 World Champions: Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. Can you describe how it felt playing each of them?

Smyslov: a great player who deserves all my admiration because he had a great impact on the strategic development in many openings.

Tal: a unique genius, who unfortunately suffered from health problems.

Petrosian: “first among equals” (as described by Averbakh) in the 1960s who deservedly dethroned the veteran Botvinnik. I had good relationship with him in spite of the language barrier.

Spassky: a great tactician who managed to beat Petrosian. I had good results with him and also good personal relations because we also shared a passion for tennis.

Fischer: completely dedicated to chess who impressed his rivals with his confidence and eagerness to fight.

Karpov: a product of the Soviet school who deservedly dominated for many years and was a model for conversion of small advantages.

Kasparov: in my opinion, the greatest player in history (in his best years) who mastered all the styles and techniques.

How did you prepare for Candidates tournament in Amsterdam in 1956? Did you have any specific player-oriented preparation or was it a more general one?

It was not possible to prepare because I was in the military until 1 day before the trip.

In spite of becoming a World Junior Champion in 1953 and becoming a top 10 player you still decided to change your career and become an engineer. What were the reasons for abandoning the career of a chess professional?

I was never a professional player because in Argentina it cannot be a way of life. For this it was necessary to travel to Europe as various players did, like Pilnik, Quinteros and later many others. I chose to stay because of my family and then I discovered other passion in engineering, to which I dedicated many years.

Even after leaving professional chess you kept a very high level. How did you manage that?

Because of my work and family commitments I had to plan my vacations for dates when an important event took place. Meanwhile I participated in local tournaments to keep me active.

What do you think was your strongest feature that made you different from the best players in the world?

Possibly I had to compensate the absence of an absolute dedication with great effort.

The Variation with 6…Nc6 followed by …a6 and …Rb8 in the Fianchetto Line of the King’s Indian bears your name (the Panno Variation). How did you invent it?

Up until 6…Nc6 the idea originated from the Yugoslavs, inviting White to play d5. I asked myself, what happens if White doesn’t push d5? So I proposed to attack the centre with the flank pawns, which was completely compatible with the Yugoslav system.

At the age of 85 you are still very active in chess, giving lectures every week to young players. What is it that keeps you going and what is the advice you give to the young players of today?

Today’s chess is heavily impacted by computers and the only advice that seems valid to give is to study the games of the great players to understand and improve one’s technique.

What is in your opinion the best way to integrate the chess education of your time with today’s use of databases and engines?

It is of utmost importance to obtain the chess literacy of the youngest, for this having chess in schools is fundamental.Then every one can develop his or her abilities since computers and internet are available to all.

After the interview was concluded I received a link from Sergio about a talk between Oscar Panno and Levon Aronian that was published on Youtube. You may wish to have a look at it here. It’s curious to see an interaction between Grandmasters of different epochs!

To conclude, I wish Oscar remains vital and that he continues to be an active part of the chess life not only in Argentina, but thanks to modern technology also in the whole world.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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4 Comments
  • Scott S
    Mar 13,2021 at 2:49 am

    This was a good interview; not knowing GM Panno before this I now want to learn more. Just found this blog after getting your Short and Sweet GQD course on Chessable, and I just want to thank you for the course – and this blog.

  • Mar 11,2021 at 2:34 pm

    Hi, Alex!
    This was an amazing post, I so thank of you to write it. I’m from 50 years old and I live in Brazil. I discovered chess two months ago and I felt in love for it. I know that I start later, bat I feel like a young student!

    I just found you and you Blog because Ches! This is so fascinate for me!!!!

    • Mar 15,2021 at 1:44 pm

      Thank you Erivan. Good luck with your chess studies, hope you enjoy them!

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