World Champion At the Third Attempt

Grigory Sanakoev

Reviewer: Timothy Randall
256 pages

Despite the absence of unhealthy lifestyle choices and aberrant behavior, two years ago I experienced a near-fatal cardiac arrest. One defibrillator and med flight later, I recognized the need to adapt a regimen of a veggie-enriched diet, daily blood thinners, additional exercise, and, after a decade absence, a return to postal chess.

Postal chess as a healing process, you inquire? Please bear with me.

Correspondence chess suffers from stereotyping, and has most certainly taken on collateral damage due to the ubiquitous internet, while also being stalked by the shadowy specter of computer assistance. Despite this, Gambit Publications has produced “World Champion at the Third Attempt”, a 256-page chess autobiography written with humility, candor, warmth, and humor by Correspondence Chess World Champion Grigory Sanakoev, offering 59 top-flight games plus many imbedded ones as bonus. Footnotes by several editors including GM John Nunn and FIDE master Graham Burgess are inserted as well as those by respected teacher and author Mark Dvoretsky, who included several examples of these games in his book “Attack & Defense”.

What does a collection of postal games have to offer, you may ask. A fair question. “Am I so conceited as to imagine that the facts of my chess biography are of interest to anyone but me?” asks the author, “No, my self-importance does not reach that far. But like a child who has discovered an interesting toy, or a traveler who has discovered one of the wonders of the world, or a bibliophile who has just read a masterpiece, I am eager to share something…the boundlessness and beauty of chess analysis – at the richness, the diversity of nuance, that postal chess contains.”

Given such a lofty goal in the book’s foreword, it may be surprising for readers to learn that the 12th world champion stumbled upon correspondence chess almost by accident. Discovering the game at the ancient age of ten, sometimes making captures as if playing draughts, Sanakoev worked hard to improve, with minimal coaching, to regional over-the-board competition as well as individual and team play at the national level. Later, while studying for his degree at university, Sanakoev was shown some chess positions by a friend who shared the passion for the game. After a short time, the colleague admitted the games were from a correspondence tournament in which results were not going very well… Sanakoev agreed to help, and while he did not consider this surrogate diversion “real chess”, he did take personal satisfaction in resurrecting inferior and even lost positions.

Years later, as the responsibilities and schedules of work and school slowly squeezed his availability for over-the-board competition, Sanakoev found his casual acquaintance with postal play grow in importance within his waking hours. “Any chance acquaintance (preferably female) who was prepared to listen silently and patiently for ten minutes while I held forth about the current problems in one of my games, would win my heart”, wrote Sanakoev, “for I didn’t know where and when I was going to meet anyone else as interesting and understanding to talk to!” While growing in playing and experience, (as well as confidence!) Sanakoev set an ambitious goal to compete for the correspondence world championship. As the book title spoils the plot of the author’s motivations, several trips up Mount Olympus are required before achieving his crowning glory.

Of the games provided, a preponderance of 31 Sicilians occur, and while I have never played the Najdorf in my life, I found interest and instruction in playing out the ten games with this variation. Readers will find an abundance of 1.e4 games encountering also eight Spanish openings, seven French Defenses, and five Caro-Kanns.

Among the noteworthy battles include game 14, when Sanakoev recalls a Reti endgame study, which comes to his rescue in saving a draw. In game 4, black’s 20……Rde8!! deserves at least the two exclams it receives, as white is provided the option to capture with his …f7 pawn black’s rooks on g8 or e8 (with check!), only to be quickly raked over the coals. In a game that helped the author claim his championship, a mate threat as well as the threatened loss of his queen are diffused with the ballsy 28.Kc1-b1!! (I have not seen such an innocuous king move receive double exclam since 27.Kh1-g1!! in Smyslov-Geller Moscow, 1965). In another key game, Sanakoev demonstrates an example of constructing a fortress to squeeze out another half-point. For fans who enjoy watching boa constrictors smother their prey, dial in game 42 where the author sacrifices sizeable material to force resignation at move 33 when all eight of his black pawns swarm to extinguish white.

While the author acknowledges the ease in which a writer can turn away people with unsolicited advice he cautiously offers nuggets of such wisdom applicable for either postal or over-the-board players:

* “There is no such thing as opening theory…(just) opening monographs and encyclopedias…by more or less well-known players, with brief and often mistaken comments…In practice you can play anything that suits your style…all opening books are full of errors and all variations can be strengthened.”
* “…the popularity of opening variations or the fashion for them has always seemed to me something of a mystery…You can only win a duel by choosing a weapon that suits you. Don’t let yourself be dazzled by anyone else’s armory. You can and must go your own way.”
* “…be an optimist. There are no hopeless positions; there are only inferior ones that can be saved. There are no drawn positions; there are only equal ones in which you can play for a win. But at the same time, don’t forget, that there is no such thing as a won position in which it is impossible to lose.” * “You don’t change your tactics when they have brought you success.”
* “Equal chances does not mean the game must end in a draw.”

And for the died-in-the-wool correspondence players he offers:

* “To have the chance of communicating with someone who lives far away in completely different circumstances, and to neglect it…always seems to me unpardonable.”
* “Turn the board around, and analyze from the opponent’s side!”
* “Traps are among the devices which have a place in postal chess of all levels.”
* “Never offer long provisional continuations if they aren’t strictly forced!”
* Importantly, “Make quite sure a good position is the last one you examine before going to sleep.”
* And finally, “It follows that a postal chess player has to live forever to complete all the tournaments in which he starts…This alone is a good reason to play postal chess!”

If a world champion offers a prescription for immortality, who am I to argue?