Category : Personal

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.

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The Future of Chess

The best way to predict your future is to create it. – Abraham Lincoln

In times when the whole world is concerned about the future our game is not an exception. What will happen to chess? Does chess have a future?

I dare say that chess as a game has a future. Homo ludens has always loved games so there will always be people who will be enchanted by the 64 squares and 32 pieces.

Another question is how that future will look like. We have grown accustomed to the classical chess that comes from time immemorial, with the special atmosphere of the tournaments and matches, feeling that there is something precious and exalted in the aura of the chess world.

The pandemic forcefully changed the scenery. It forced us to stay at home, to forego all chess tournaments and if we wanted to play we were offered a digital version of our game.

I already wrote about this new world and its leader, Hikaru Nakamura. In a very recent interview Nakamura spoke about his disbelief in the future of classical chess and openly said that the future is online.

I understand that saying these things is in line with his business as a streamer and esports celebrity and that this type of future would be very favourable for him. As Carlsen has built his business companies that are slowly taking over the chess world Nakamura also wants to build his own domination, only in the online world.

When it comes to talk about the future, I always remember Kasparov’s words from 2011. Paraphrasing, he said that chess will be played only by the elite, the rest of the world will watch and be considered amateurs.

The elite just finished the only OTB tournament in this period in Wijk aan Zee. Previously it was Norway Chess. The rest? We stayed at home, watched the elite play and moved the pieces on our screens.

The pandemic sped things up, but all seems to be falling in place for Kasparov’s and Nakamura’s future.

I don’t like that future. I may be a tourist, amateur or Candidate Master in Kasparov’s terminology, but I love playing chess. I want to be the doer, not the watcher.

I also firmly believe in Abraham Lincoln’s words. It is always the person’s responsibility and it is within his or her own powers to create his or her future. What will happen to chess depends on us.

By “us” I mean the players who are not the elite. There will always be classical chess and OTB tournaments for them, they will look after their interests well. If the rest want to play OTB and want it badly, OTB will live. Then there will be organisers and sponsors who will make them happen. FIDE can also help, a major step in this direction will be including the opens in the World Championship cycle.

Of course, a lot depends on how long the pandemic continues to paralyse the world. If it is for too long, then no amount of love for the game will be able to change things simply because there will be no choice. But there are positive news in the world today so let’s try to be optimistic.

There are many actions in the world where the common people show their will and when united they manage to change things. The same applies to chess as well, so when the masks are finally down we will see how strong our love for the game is. I like to believe that it is and that we again get to experience the special atmosphere of the chess tournaments. The online world can and will exist, but nothing compares to the feeling of holding and moving your pawn from e2 to e4.

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A Different World

Already a lot has been written about the differences of online and OTB chess. I will not go into those details here. I want to describe what I see as a creation of a separate world of online chess.

The most striking example, or even better, a new leader of this new world is Hikaru Nakamura. He needs no introduction: a former world number 2 and a constant in the top 10 in the past 10 years or so. An ambitious player too, his statement about Sauron is part of chess lore. So what happened to Nakamura?

After realising that he will never dethrone Sauron it seems that Nakamura lost his ambition and motivation. His results in classical chess declined significantly and currently he is ranked 20th on the FIDE list of active players. But his speed prowess remained, or perhaps even improved – currently he is the world’s number 1 blitz player and world’s number 4 rapid player.

Moving to the online world was godsend for Nakamura. He continued to demonstrate his strength at fast time controls (the only time control possible online), but more importantly he was one of the first to create an online persona around which he built a huge following. The amounts of money he earns from his online activities are considerable (to say the least) and dwarf his earnings that come from the actual playing.

It didn’t take long for others to follow. While there is the random Giri or Radjabov or some Indian GMs, the majority of these others are players not even close to the strength of Nakamura.

I don’t know personally any of these streamers so I won’t be naming them in fear not to miss or offend somebody. The main point is that their success shows that being good at chess has nothing to do with being successful in the world of online chess.

There are quite a few female chess players who have success with streaming and creating their own online personas. They are far from the elite women players, again proving the above point of no connection between chess strength and online success.

This is perfectly normal. The world of online chess is about entertainment, much less so about quality chess.

These cases show that the new online chess world has its own heroes and stars. The potential for earning in this (brave) new world is much higher as the internet knows no boundaries. These new stars soon will be earning a lot more than the top 10 player who isn’t present online.

Still, nothing in this world is easy. A new set of skills is required to succeed in this novel category of chess stardom. Also not to be underestimated is the investment in high-quality equipment and then developing the skills to make the most out of it.

The online and the OTB worlds will continue to exist as parallel dimensions when OTB becomes reality again. Until then, feel free to make yourself at home in a different world.

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Happy Holidays

The year ends in a hectic and messy day for me. A lot of things don’t work, a lot of things need my attention and I cannot manage everything. Frustration and despair abound.

Still, I would like to end with something beautiful.

The other day I saw the following position on social media. The solution is very pretty.

White to play.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2021. May it be surprisingly sparkling as the above example.

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Real Chess

I wrote about this in my newsletter (which you can join by signing up using the yellow box on the right) and here I will expand a bit on the idea.

Some time ago I saw the following position posted on social media.

I don’t know who the players were, but the clock times were shown and both players had around 50 seconds left. This obviously indicated that it was a bullet game. This is the first point to consider.

Next comes the move Black played.

He played 9…Ne4. This is the second point and, strangely enough, the winning move.

The third point explains Black’s winning move. Black didn’t blunder his queen, he intentionally played the winning 9…Ne4. If you’re still confused read the next sentence.

White premoved 10.Bf6.

Black naturally picked up the bishop and White resigned.

So what happened here? Simply put, Black gambled and won.

A bit less simply put, here we have a plethora of new factors that are present only in the online version of chess.

Nobody plays suicidal moves in chess and this is deeply ingrained in our sub-consciousness. It is very difficult to override this belief and we saw that White couldn’t, while Black could and he was rewarded.

As a game of complete information chess is an objective game. Moving to the internet, chess ceased to be a game of complete information. The player doesn’t have the information about his opponent’s premoves, disconnects, toilet visits or even time outs. Due to this lack of information chess now starts to resemble poker or other hazardous games, when gambling is very much part of them.

In the above example Black gambled that White would want to take the knight on f6 and since these captures are usually premoved in bullet, he bluffed by removing the knight that was supposed to be taken. The bluff worked and he won the game.

But how big a deal is this? Does it really matter if you win a bullet game by a successful bluff or you lose one by an unsuccessful one?

In my view, not at all. It is all a quick fix, a 5-second satisfaction before the next game begins and all is forgotten. The search for the quick fix and the instant gratification is prevalent in today’s society and with bullet chess has also found its ways to enter the mainstream when it comes to this type of human entertainment.

This behaviour of conscious bluffing by making suicidal moves exists only online. It makes online chess a different game to the over-the-board version. Online, and especially bullet, is entertainment, fun, sometimes a mindless clicking for hours, but ultimately something that is not serious. The fact that there are official tournaments with bullet time controls that have considerable prizes only further drives away online chess from its over-the-board cousin.

To address the title of this email. Real chess? In the current reality, it is indeed. Whether you like it or not, it’s here. And, I’m afraid, it’s here to stay.

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A Surprising g4 in the Najdorf

You must be wondering how a g4 move in the Najdorf can be surprising, but there are some cases when it is.

The year 2005 was a great year for me. At the end of it I made my first visit to Russia. In total I spent one month in Russia, divided between a tournament in Saratov and a stay in Moscow.

The tournament I played in Saratov was the first of the Aratovsky Memorials that became so strong in the following years. Back then it was a relatively unknown tournament, though very strong nevertheless.

In Round 5 of the tournament I was White against FM Isajevsky. He played the Najdorf and I had a chance to use a rare idea I discovered while analysing a previous game of mine.

This position arose from the positional line 6 Be3 e5 7 Nf3, after 7…Qc7 8 a4 Be7 9 Be2 0-0 10 0-0 Nbd7 11 Nd2 b6.

Black’s treatment of the line was sub-optimal, as White has achieved the ideal set-up: he can continie with 12 Bc4 followed by Bg5, obtaining strong control over the d5-square, which coupled with Black’s inability to push …b5 leaves White firmly in control.

That would have been the typical treatment of the line from White’s side. However, while analysing my game against Gunnarsson from that year’s European Club Cup I discovered a surprising idea.

That idea was the move 12 g4. It was quite shocking for my opponent and understandably so – White is not supposed to attack on the kingside in this line!

The game was tense, it continued with 12…h6 13 h4 Qd8 14 g5 hg 15 hg Nh7 16 g6 fg 17 Nc4, which was very promising for White. My opponent blundered and lost only 4 moves later. This game didn’t make it into the databases (none of the Saratov tournament did) and even checking now I can only find 3 games with the 12 g4 idea, the latest one from 2015 when Wei Yi used it to beat Sevian.

These types of ideas, when a positional line is suddenly turned into a dynamic one, have become more common nowadays, with the modern engines coming up with such moves on regular basis. Still, it felt good to spark such a surprise back in 2005!

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The Chebanenko Slav

Recently I published my 7th course on Chessable, after the Simplest Scandinavian, the three courses of the QGD series and the Najdorf with the Anti-Sicilians. You can see these on the right hand side under My Chessable Books. The latest course is part of Chessable’s new golden standard, the so-called Lifetime Repertoires. The opening I chose for it – the Chebanenko Slav.

Why the Chebanenko?

I always thought that if a player is to play an opening for a lifetime then this opening should be less reliant on concrete variations and more on general understanding. The Chebanenko fit this description perfectly. Black needs to understand his main plans and ideas and these are more important than the concrete variations, mostly because the concrete lines come from these main principles and ideas.

As I mention in the Introduction of the course, Black has 5 of these main development ideas:

  1. To develop the bishop from c8 outside the pawn chain before playing …e6.
  2. To fianchetto the dark-squared bishop in order not to close the h3-c8 diagonal for the light-squared bishop.
  3. To play …e6 with the idea to take on c4 and expand with …b5 and …c5 in order to develop the bishop on b7.
  4. To play …e6 with the idea to to push …c5 and develop the knight on c6, in order to put pressure on White’s centre.
  5. To play …e6 and …a5 in order to fix the b4-square when White has played a4.

Add to these the possibility to play the move …b5 that is aided by the …a6 move and you already know the basis of all the variations in the Chebanenko!

Now you understand why my choice fell on the Chebanenko. It is easy to grasp conceptually, it is solid and robust and it provides strategically rich middlegames where Black can hope to outplay his opponent.

The course has more than 25 hours of video, which I recorded in the Chessable studios in 5 days. As a curiosity, I recorded the video on the Chapter White Plays Nf3 and Nc3 in one single sitting of 6 hours and 1minute! Don’t ask how I did it.

You can take a look at the course (which is still at a big discount) here. The course also has a free version, the Short&Sweet that has more than 1 hour of video.

An aspect I was very excited about was the promotional video of the course. I got to act! The video was a very professional high-level production and I really hope all promotional chess videos in the future are made at least on this level or better.

The Chebanenko Slav is out on Chessable.

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Against All (Draw) Odds

Ever since the draw odds were replaced in the World Championship matches (starting with the Kramnik-Topalov unification match in 2006) there has been an endless debate about the mixture of time controls in the most important event in the chess world.

In the past, things were clear. Rapid chess didn’t exist and the Champion had the draw odds. The reasoning was simple – if the Challenger wanted to become a Champion, he had to defeat that Champion. He had to prove that he was better than him in order to become one. Being equal to the Champion didn’t make him a Champion. Remember Bronstein.

Things changed in 2006 because in the unification match there had to be a winner. There was nobody to give the draw odds to – Kramnik beat Kasparov in 2000 and drew Leko in 2004 (maintaining his title because of the draw odds in his favour), but he was outside FIDE, though he did follow along the traditional lineage of “a Champion is the player who beats the previous Champion in a match”; Topalov was the FIDE Champion after winning San Luis in 2005. So there was a duel between the FIDE Champion and the Champion of the traditional lineage. There had to be a winner. They decided on a rapid tie-break.

Going again back in the past for comparison, in case of a tie of a Candidates match for example, the players were playing more classical games, until one player won. The extreme case was that of Vassily Smyslov winning the match against Robert Hubner by guessing the colour on the which the roullette ball would land, following a tie after 14 games of their Candidates match in 1983.

But surely a World Championship cannot be decided by a roullete ball? In fact, it can be much worse.

Nowadays we have rapid and blitz tie-breaks in case of a tie. Magnus Carlsen won his last two World Championship matches in the rapid tie-breaks. He is also of the opinion that there should be no draw odds and that playing rapid (and blitz) tie-breaks (and an Armageddon at the end) is fine.

But there is also another camp, and I agree with it, that the classical World Champion should be decided in classical chess. We already have rapid and blitz World Championships. The question is what to do in case of a tie?

I don’t see anything wrong with the old system. The logic of “beat the king to become one” makes perfect sense to me. Now that we have a legitimate World Champion (no need for reunifications a-la 2006) the old system can be reintroduced.

The main argument against that is that it gives the Champion a priviledge, that he can play only for a draw and keep his title.

I don’t think this is a priviledge or an advantage for the Champion. Playing for a draw is never good and it puts the player in a psychologically inferior position. The draw odds in favour of the Champion also motivate the Challenger to show that he is better, to actually win the match. It creates the imbalance that is needed for an exciting match.

If taken to the extreme, to the Armageddon, today’s system makes mockery of the world title. As aptly put by GM Ivan Sokolov, one player will win because the other failed to win. Theoretically, a player can become a World Champion by drawing all the games. Imagine, a Challenger can draw all his games against the Champion and this will make him (her) a Champion! Isn’t that the same as draw odds? Only that the draw odds will be decided at the end, when one player chooses to play Black in the Armageddon, meaning that we don’t know from the start who has these draw odds in their favour.

It is too easy to accept the current situation because Carlsen is better than everybody else in all time controls. But try to imagine the chaos if he loses his title in an Armageddon game by drawing it with White. In the eyes of the public, will that player stand in the same line as the previous holders of that same title? I know (s)he won’t in mine. The point is that the current system can produce an “accidental” Champion.

It is irrelevant whether the probability of the above happening is low or insignificant. We are talking about the system here.

Chess is a traditional game and while we are trying to make it more in tune with modern times by employing faster time controls I think we should still respect the centuries-old traditions. We have more than enough rapid and blitz elsewhere, we don’t need to mix them with the classical match.

There is nothing wrong with keeping the traditions. The old system worked fine and, as they say, why fix it if it wasn’t broken?

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Oversaturation

Too much of a good thing is still too much.

I love chess, looking at it, analysing, playing, working on it. I love to watch the best players play, the commentary is excellent nowadays and it adds value to the experience. I sometimes learn something new while watching.

The pandemic forced everybody to stay at home and chess content exploded as result. Incessant tournaments, one following another, streams, publications, webinars, coaching, all you can imagine is coming out on a daily basis, often a lot of them at the same time.

While it is better to have than have not, I think that currently there is an oversaturation of chess content. It feels like an insane schedule where everybody feels compelled to produce, produce, produce. I cannot keep up, but can anybody? Unless it’s somebody’s job to keep up with everything and they dedicate their whole day to it, I sincerely doubt it.

I feel overwhelmed by the bombardment of chess content and in view of my own commitments I gave up on even trying to keep up.

I follow the news and the games, but not live. When the day (or the tournament) finishes I’d download the games and check them quickly, mostly for opening information. If I had read somewhere that a game had been interesting for some reason, I’d check that one in more detail. Otherwise, it’s mostly browsing.

That is my best effort to try to stay afloat, yet there is this constant feeling of fear of missing out. I haven’t watched a second of any of the streams out there, though I’d like to, I’m sure Nakamura or Kovalenko have curious things to say. I would like to watch the events live, to spend hours following the games, as Svidler, Leko and co. have those rare insights that I’m after. But, no time for that, I have things to do instead of just observe.

For how long will this continue? Personally, I don’t see it stopping any time soon. Even when chess returns to the playing halls the online content will continue to blossom. Chess is moving in the direction of e-sports and I expect it to establish its place there. It may be different from the chess we are used to playing, with its premoves and disconnects, but that is the “new reality,” whether we like it or not.

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Learning Languages II

Continuing with the stories about Italian, Spanish and Russian.

In my first year at University I had to choose a second language. I didn’t know which one to choose, but my father told me that at the end of the first year, in the summer, there is a chance I can go to Milan to stay at an apartment of a business friend of his who will be out of town. So I took Italian. Unfortunately my Italian professor wasn’t very good (or I was bad at learning a language in the “scholarly way”) so I didn’t learn anything throughout the year even though I was regularly visiting the lectures. This was worrying as I had an oral exam to take. I was pinning my hopes on that trip to Milan. When that one came, in the summer of 1995, I was feeling as lost as possible. It was my first trip completely alone (I even had to take a bus to Belgrade to take the flight to Milan) and upon landing in Milan I had no idea where I had to go. I somehow found the bus to take me to the Central Station and when I got off I had no idea where in the city I was. I had one map of the city with a circle around the address of the apartment but since I couldn’t see where I was at that moment (in spite of me finding a McDonalds and sitting down and carefully studying the map) it was of no use. I wandered around for a while and eventually got tired, so I decided to take a taxi. I found one, but the driver refused to drive me to the address! He explained (in Italian, of course, which I didn’t understand one bit!) that I was very close to the apartment and I could walk there. Sign language helped as he pointed me towards the street and after some walking I finally found my home in Milan!

Apart from trying to learn the language my idea of going to Italy was to play tournaments. So I bought some chess magazines where the tournaments were announced and I started calling them. This was the biggest frustration as they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian (often I forced myself to, leading to more frustration) so it was very difficult to get the information I needed. I barely opened my mouth in Italian for the month I spent in Italy that summer. But I was exposed to the language all the time around me, both in spoken and written, and upon returning to Skopje I was amazed at the miracle that happened at the exam. When I opened my mouth to speak I started to speak fluently! The professor was as shocked as I was, she couldn’t understand how a student who didn’t know a single thing during the year now suddenly speaks fluently! So the exam consisted of me basically retelling my Italian trip and she enjoying the story. Needless to say I got the highest grade.

If this wasn’t strange enough, the fact that the exactly same story repeated during the second year at University makes it even more perplexing. As the lectures started I again returned to the “know nothing, understand nothing” student. I couldn’t follow the lectures, which this time were more complicated, and I also had problems understanding when things were discussed in class. After another year of frustration I went to Italy again in the summer (this was in 1996) and it had exactly the same effect as the year before – in spite of me not speaking the language (I remember a funny story when after struggling to find a tournament address I ran into a chess player who was also looking for it and when we found it he told me “Abbiamo trovato il torneo”, meaning “we found the tournament” but I didn’t understand that simple sentence then, it only dawned on me the following day what it meant) it was the exposure that did the work and when I returned and took the exam it was with the same success as the year before.

In 1996 I visited France and Spain for the first time, but while I started to play in France more often almost immediately, Spain was still further in the future for me. As for Italian, I kept on going there every single year and was spending more and more time there playing tournaments and soon enough I was speaking it fluently. I must say that I don’t speak it in the way I’d like to, for example I never use congiuntivo and passato remoto, but after the years of frustration I’m just happy to feel comfortable when I speak it and when I’m in Italy.

The year 2005 was a huge year for me. I made my second GM norm and I travelled extensively. Two of those travels had big impact on my languages.

From May to July I spent a month and a half in Cuba and immediately after that a month and a half in Spain, all the time playing tournaments. These three months in Spanish-speaking countries helped me learn Spanish.

It is curious that I first learned Spanish in Cuba. It is different than the one in Spain and I was surprised to learn that when at the end of my stay in Cuba I understood Cubans talking to me I didn’t understand the Spanish in Spain!

The way I learned Spanish was again by exposure. My knowledge of Italian also helped, even though I often confused and mixed the two. I remember what helped me a lot was watching films on TV in English in Santa Clara that had subtitles in Spanish and this was very useful for me as I am a visual type who best remembers when he sees something in writing, thus helping me distinguish words and their meaning. Of course, the social life in Cuba is fantastic and the constant communication (or the attempts at it) sped up the process of learning. I remember one funny episode in the restaurant of the hotel in Santa Clara. For some reason GM Borges Mateos, who spoke only Spanish, and IM Schilow, who spoke Russian, thought that I am the best person to translate for them so they can communicate. As I described above Russian still sounded “nyanyanya” to me and in Spanish I could barely distinguish the words, but somehow I managed to enable them to understand each other! This is probably my most successful translation attempt ever!

Coming to Spain from Cuba took some time to adjust to the new accent but at the end of these 3 months in Spanish-speaking countries I could speak the language. Not ideal, of course, but I could understand it and people could understand me.

In the winter of the same year I had a chance to spend one month in Russia. I played a tournament in Saratov and then I spent some 20 days in Moscow. This is when Russian “clicked” for me. I started to distinguish the words from the “nyanyanya” and since I already had enough book knowledge of words from my childhood and chess books I could easily start talking. My accent was far from perfect, but for me the feeling of comfort with a language and in a country where that language is spoken is the measure by which I determine how well I speak a language.

There was a curious episode with my Russian. I was standing in line for a ticket in one museum and I noticed that for Russians the price of the tickets was literally cents, while for foreigners it was almost 40 times that much. So I thought there is no harm in trying to pretend I was Russian. While still standing in line I was thinking whether I should say something or just hand over the money. I knew I was running a risk to be recognised as a foreigner if I spoke… When my turn came I gave the cents for the ticket and with a tightly closed mouth said “один” (“one”). The cashier abruptly raised her head, looked at me sharply, but said nothing. She gave me the ticket and I walked away. I knew that if she talked I would have been exposed, but I was lucky she didn’t.

Ever since the end of 2005 I feel comfortable with Russian and speak it freely, which has helped me tremendously in the chess world.

In 2007 I was invited to live in Spain and it is then that I finally mastered Spanish. That year I also went to Cuba but this time I felt different and much more comfortable, practically serving as the local guide for the foreign players. It was a great time going to discotheques in Havana and mingling with the locals. Starting from 2007 I lived in Spain for 2 years and as my job consisted of coaching the kids in the local club. I was forced to speak Spanish all the time and this meant that finally I felt in Spain like at home.

After feeling at home with Spanish I was surprised to find out that it has overtaken my Italian and in the period 2009-2010 I had problems in Italy as all the time the Spanish words were coming out of my mouth! This was frustrating, but then things evened out as I started to go more often in Italy and eventually both languages somehow “separated” in my head.

Nowadays it is a nice feeling to go to Italy or Spain and feel like home. It brings back memories from decades ago and I really feel comfortable in these countries. And I am happy for that.

People have told me that I have talent for languages. I don’t know what that means, but I suppose it’s the same for talented chess players – it just comes naturally. It’s not always easy, but sooner rather than later you overcome the difficulty and come to a new level.

This concludes the stories of the languages I learned. I have been asked whether I’ll learn another language, to which I always say “I don’t think so” even though I’ve always liked the sound of French. But as I don’t see myself spending a prolongued time in France I think that for now I’ll stay with the above 7.

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