Essays

Moscow Patzer: Searching for a Blitz Legend at Sokolniki


Kalinichev, S. -- Arbakov, V.; 1978 Moscow City Championship; Black to play and win.

1...g3+ 2.Rxg3 (if 2.Kxg3 Bf4+ 3.Kh3 Rh1#) Bf4 3. b4 Ke8 White resigns
Apr 04, 2003
The Moscow Times

By Carl Schreck

Patzer -- n. [Slang] an amateur or inferior chess player

Mention the name of international grandmaster Valentin Arbakov to local chess fanatics, and you'll likely get an uncomfortable response about squandered potential. A legend in chess circles, Arbakov is as well known for his for his proclivity for alcohol as for his dominance at blitz, or speed chess, in which each player has five minutes for the entire game.

I'd first read about Arbakov in Fred Waitzkin's book "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Waitzkin describes how he and his prodigy son, Josh, meet Arbakov in the Sokolniki Park chess club in northeast Moscow in 1984.

"Many grandmasters came to Sokolniki Park to test themselves [in blitz] against Arbakov," writes Waitzkin, "and though he was rarely sober, he almost never lost."

The other day I made a trip out to Sokolniki to see whether Arbakov was still hanging around the club and what he was up to these days.

After arriving at the club, which is tucked in the middle of a small forest in the park, I played some 10 ruble games on the outside tables with Boris, a 57-year-old pensioner who comes to the club every day. Three games later and 30 rubles lighter, I stood up and decided to try and find Arbakov.

A young, scraggly man who had noticed I was a foreigner came up to me. "You know who'll be here soon, right?" he asked. "International grandmaster Valentin Arbakov. I'll introduce you to him for 20 rubles." I declined, deciding to wait and talk to Arbakov without the middleman.

The current Sokolniki Chess and Checkers Club is not the same one Waitzkin described in his book. That one burned down in 1996 under what Boris described as "unclear circumstances."

The second version, not far from where the old one stood, is a small hut-like structure with three playing rooms and a total of 10 tables inside. Outside there are about 30 tables. Anyone wishing to play can rent a board and pieces for 15 rubles and a chess clock for another 15. You can also rent checkers and dominoes if chess is not your game.

"People come to play here all year round," said Raisa Dovgal, the club's receptionist. "More people come in the spring and summer because it's pleasant to play in the fresh air. But we have players who come and play outside on the very coldest of winter days."

Arbakov is still a regular, and he arrived only a few minutes after his would-be agent tried to squeeze a fee out of me. He immediately sat down and began playing 10-minute games with an elderly opponent.

Arbakov, who is 51 years old with disheveled hair, a three-day stubble and a stumpy build, mumbled to himself when he analyzed his position, sometimes antagonizing and drawing an obscene rebuttal from his opponent.

His pack of Winston Lights rested to the left of the board. Every time his opponent took a long time to move, Arbakov lit one up.

After he had played three games (two draws and a win), I finally gathered the nerve to interrupt and talk to him.

I asked him about the strongest player he'd ever beaten.

"I beat Tal in a blitz tournament in the 1970s," he said, referring to the 8th chess champion of the world, Mikhail Tal of the Soviet Union. "Tal was considered the strongest blitz player in the world," he said, sitting back down at the table and sloppily arranging his pieces.

"No, no, no!" a withered man in a stocking cap and an oversized down coat yelled, trotting over and stepping between us. "Bobby Fischer was the strongest blitz player! He beat Tal in the international blitz championship in Yugoslavia!"

I tried to pacify him with some head-nods and get back to my conversation with Arbakov. But when the interloper finally quit defending Fischer's honor, the grandmaster had already lit up another Winston and started his clock, having found an opportune moment to get out of talking to a nosy patzer.

Here's an Arbakov gem from 1978 against grandmaster Sergei Kalinichev. Playing black, Arbakov finds an elegant continuation that forces Kalinichev to resign. Try to find how Arbakov finishes him off.


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