Moscow Patzer: A Bread Run With the Great BronsteinMay 08, 2003
The Moscow Times
By Carl Schreck
Patzer (pat?sr) n. [Slang] an amateur or inferior chess player
Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein needed only one point to become world chess champion. And with two games remaining in his 1951 match with reigning champion Mikhail Botvinnik in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, he seemed a lock to win.
After all, two draws or one win would suffice, and preventing a grandmaster from drawing when he wants is a formidable task, even for the great Soviet champion Botvinnik.
But Bronstein was an energetic player. His creative and unexpected ideas on the board presented a stark contrast to the "chess as science" trend pushed by Botvinnik, the patriarch of the Soviet chess school.
And ever the romantic at the board, Bronstein refused to play conservatively.
He lost game 23 and drew game 24, leaving the match a tie. Because the world champion had draw odds, Botvinnik retained the title.
Anybody who watched the grounder trickle through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series or Roberto Baggio miss his penalty shot in the 1994 World Cup final can imagine Bronstein's anguish after the match.
For years rumors persisted about why he lost.
Some say Soviet authorities pressured him to lose in order to keep Botvinnik, a favorite of the Communist Party leadership, on the throne.
Chess writer Lev Khariton described an interview with Luis Rentero, longtime organizer of the prestigious annual Linares chess tournament, in which Rentero tells how Bronstein consoled a young Bobby Fischer, who was teary-eyed after a loss to Boris Spassky in the 1960 Mar del Plata tournament.
"Listen," Bronstein said to the future world champion. "They forced me to lose an entire match to Botvinnik, and I didn't cry."
In an interview in the journal Chess in Russia, Bronstein initially denied having said it, but eventually conceded that he may have uttered something of that nature. "Too much time has passed," he said.
Though Bronstein went on to have a successful career, winning many Soviet and international tournaments, he will likely be remembered more for what he didn't accomplish rather than what he did.
I first talked to Bronstein on the phone a little over a year ago. I was helping two British journalists do research for their book about the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world championship match. They wanted me to interview Bronstein about his opinion of the match participants.
So I got his number from a mutual friend and gave him a call. He wasn't too keen on the idea of talking about Fischer and Spassky.
"I've already written so much about that match," Bronstein said. "If you want, you can read my books."
He went back and forth between Russian and entirely competent English, though he was modest and constantly reminded me that his command of my native language was inadequate.
But he wouldn't agree to meet me for an official interview. He did, however, offer to take a walk with me in the center of Moscow, not far from his apartment, and go buy a loaf of bread.
I didn't take him up on the offer. I was busy and couldn't waste an hour on a trip to the store. I regret it now.
So last week on May Day, I was thinking that maybe I could get some answers out of the grandmaster about the match.
I called him hoping to take him up on his bread-run offer and talk about 1951. I asked him if he'd meet me for an interview for this column -- a sort of "where are they now" piece. Bronstein -- who turned 79 in February -- declined.
But we talked for an hour -- again in Russ-lish -- and I told him I'd call back in a few months about possibly meeting up. It's unlikely that we'll talk much about chess, though, and even less likely that I'll get an on-the-record interview: Bronstein specifically asked me not to print the content of our May Day conversation.
But that's OK. I'll probably need some bread anyway. Man cannot live by chess alone.
Here is a Bronstein position from the 1997 Wijk aan Zee tournament, showing Bronstein's jones for chessboard fireworks has not been dampened by age. He mates Richard Vedder in spectacular fashion.