Obituary: Yefim Geller

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FROM THE end of the Second World War until the early 1970s, the world of chess was dominated by the Soviet Union, with their best players taking turns at being world champion. Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky all held the title.

Yefim Geller was one of those among the elite group who missed out on the world championship, despite the fact that he was undoubtedly among the world's top ten players for over 20 years. He did, however, play a highly significant role in maintaining the supremacy of the USSR over that period and extending it into the 1980s.

Geller was born in Odessa, in the Ukraine, in 1925. His talent for chess was noticed early, but he had little opportunity to develop it until chess activity picked up after the Second World War. Moderate results in the Ukrainian championships of 1946, 1947 and 1948 were followed by a second place in 1949. He followed that by winning a semi-final of the Soviet championship and taking and sharing third place in the subsequent USSR championship.

At that time, the USSR championship was by far the strongest tournament in the world, and the result established Geller as an outstanding prospect. He confirmed his promise by finishing second in 1951 and third in 1952. He finally won the title in 1955, and took it for a second time in 1979. Geller also played in the Soviet team in seven Chess Olympiads between 1952 and 1980.

In his first international tournament, in Budapest 1952, he finished second behind Paul Keres but ahead of the world champion Botvinnik and future champions Petrosian and Smyslov. That result gained Geller the grandmaster title and confirmed his position as a potential world title challenger.

Over the next 25 years, he was to be a regular qualifier for the world championship candidates cycles - but he never succeeded in winning through to earn a match for the title. In the 1953 candidates, he finished sixth, but improved to share third place in 1956. His best result came in 1962, when he shared second place with Paul Keres. They were only half a point behind Petrosian who went on to defeat Botvinnik in the world title match.

Geller's own results against the world champions were most impressive: he not only claimed the scalp of every champion from Botvinnik to Karpov, but he had an overall plus score against Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian and Fischer. Indeed, his record against the young Bobby Fischer was so good that whenever the Soviet Chess Federation was invited to send players to an event at which Fischer was competing, they always tried to include Geller in their contingent to keep the young American under control.

Of all the great Soviet players, Geller was the one who perhaps least looked the part. A short, stocky man, and a chain-smoker, he shambled between the boards of great tournaments looking more like an extra than one of the stars. Unlike many of the Soviet champions, who appeared to be men of high intellectual calibre who had chosen to focus it on the game of chess, Geller looked as though he might never have been heard of if chess had not existed. At the board, however, he was a giant, with a depth of understanding and an impressive energy that totally contradicted his easy-going appearance.

His knowledge of the game and his analytical abilities were also held in the highest respect by his peers. When Botvinnik and Fischer met in a famous encounter at the Chess Olympics in 1962 in Varna, Bulgaria, it was Geller who stayed up all night to work out the only way for the Soviet world champion to save the game.

Nor was Botvinnik the only world champion to benefit from Geller's expertise; Geller was also a vital member of Anatoly Karpov's analytical team. Indeed, when Karpov lost one game through faulty play in the opening against Yasser Seirawan at the London tournament in 1982, the champion had a perfectly reasonable excuse for his defeat: Geller had gone shopping that morning and had been unavailable to prepare Karpov properly for the game.

When Karpov and Seirawan met the following year in another tournament, the game followed the previous one for several moves until Karpov unleashed a brilliant new idea that wiped his opponent from the board. There was little doubt in the minds of those who new the history of the encounter that this brilliant new idea - like so many of the subtle improvements to opening theory introduced by Soviet players over the previous 30 years - had its origins in Yefim Geller's laboratory.

As Geller himself said, his greatest satisfaction came from studying chess and discovering its inner secrets. Perhaps if he had been a little more personally ambitious, and less willing to share his discoveries with colleagues, he might have scaled the game's highest summit.

Yefim Petrovich Geller, chess player: born Odessa, Ukraine 2 March 1925; died Moscow 17 November 1998.