Grigory Yakovlevich Levenfish (Russian: Григо́рий Я́ковлевич Левенфи́ш; March 21, 1889 [O.S. March 9], Piotrków – February 9, 1961, Moscow) was a Russian chess grandmaster who scored his peak competitive results in the 1920s and 1930s. He was twice Soviet champion, in 1934 (jointly with Ilya Rabinovich) and 1937. In 1937 he drew a match against future world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. He also had a career as an engineer. Levenfish was a well-regarded end-game specialist and chess writer.
Early life and education
Levenfish was born in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, to Jewish parents. He spent most of his formative years in St. Petersburg, where he attended St. Petersburg State University and studied chemical engineering.
Early chess successes
His earliest recognition as a prominent chess player came when he won the St. Petersburg chess championship of 1909, and played in the strong Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) tournament of 1911, although he made a minus score in the very strong field. At age 22, this was to be his first and last tournament outside Russia or the Soviet Union. His play at the time was compared to that of the great master Chigorin. Into the next decade, he continued to perform well in local tournaments, most notably winning the Leningrad Championships of 1922, 1924, and 1925 (jointly).
Excels in Soviet Championship
At a national level too, he enjoyed an excellent record at the Soviet Championship; third in 1920, second in 1923, co-champion at Leningrad in 1934 (tied with Ilya Rabinovich at 12/19), and outright champion at Tbilisi in 1937 with 12.5/19.
In the very strong Moscow International tournament of 1935, he scored 10.5/19, to tie for 6th-7th places, as Botvinnik and Salo Flohr won. In a Soviet-only tournament at Leningrad 1936, he placed third with 8.5/14. Participation in the Leningrad-Moscow training tournament of 1939 resulted in a shared 3rd-6th place finish, with 10/17, behind winner Flohr and Samuel Reshevsky.
Lack of support and recognition
Despite his successes, Levenfish was virtually ignored by the Soviet chess authorities. They consistently supported his great rival Botvinnik, and pretenders to the throne were not encouraged. Levenfish was a member of the older generation of masters, 22 years older than Botvinnik. He was the only strong Soviet master of his generation who was denied a stipend. This meant that he could only afford a poorly heated room in a run-down block of flats. Worse still, the government refused him permission to travel abroad and compete in tournaments such as AVRO 1938 (even though he was the reigning Soviet Champion). This further weakened his standing and most likely affected his morale; not to mention his continued development as a chess player. Other players born pre-revolution, such as Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch, were all allowed to travel and even ended up living abroad. Deprived of the same opportunities, Levenfish played only within the confines of Soviet Russia and supplemented his income with a job as an engineer in the glass industry. This eventually resulted in a slow retirement from active play.
Genna Sosonko, in his book Russian Silhouettes, echoes the thoughts of some grandmasters who knew him, and they speak of a man of integrity and independence, who never complained about his difficult living conditions. Spassky encountered him in a Moscow subway, just days before his death. Levenfish, who had a wretched look, was clutching a handkerchief to his mouth and declared that he had just had six teeth extracted. Smyslov recounts the time that Levenfish visited him, towards the end of his life, armed with a huge pile of papers. It turned out to be a manuscript detailing his lifetime work on rook endgames. He asked Smyslov to check for errors, and some minor corrections later, the book was published (1957) bearing both names, under the (translated) title The Theory Of Rook Endings (later published in English in 1971 under the title Rook Endings). Smyslov freely admits that all of the hard work was carried out by his co-author.
In his time, Grigory Levenfish also wrote books for beginners and edited a collaborative effort on chess openings, titled Modern Openings. His posthumously published autobiography, Izbrannye Partii I Vospominanya (1967), contained 79 annotated games.
As the games selection shows, Levenfish defeated virtually all of the top Russian and Soviet players from the 1910s to the early 1950s, and beat world champions Alexander Alekhine and Emanuel Lasker as well. Paul Keres and David Bronstein each had the advantage on him, but they were much younger men, and Levenfish was past his prime when those encounters took place. Levenfish was strong on the Black side of the French Defence and the Slav Defence, and generally played classical openings, although he did play the hypermodern Grunfeld Defence and Nimzo-Indian Defence on occasion.
Regarding his playing abilities, Sosonko points to his deep understanding of the game and a keen eye for brilliantly imaginative moves. It was as a tactician that he really excelled, delivering elegant combinations and unexpected tactical blows, that many thought were impossibly ambitious. He was also an accomplished and leading opening theorist; the inventor of the Levenfish Attack, a sharp variation of the Sicilian Defence, devised to combat Black's ever-popular Dragon set-up. It remains fully playable in modern practice.
Notable chess games
- Eugene Znosko-Borovsky vs Grigory Levenfish, St. Petersburg 1910, French Defence, Classical Variation (C14), 0-1 A key game from Levenfish's first major successful event.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Borislav Kostic, Carlsbad 1911, Queen's Gambit Declined (D55), 1-0 Levenfish journeyed abroad to a tournament at age 22, but this was to be his last time!
- Grigory Levenfish vs Alexander Alekhine, St. Petersburg 1913, Queen's Pawn Game, Wade-Tartakower Defence (A46), 1-0 Alekhine was of the same generation of Masters as Levenfish, and he had the head-to-head edge at this time.
- Ilya Rabinovich vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1923, Two Knights' Defence (C59), 0-1 Utter demolition of White's Kingside in a scorching miniature.
- Boris Verlinsky vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship (1924) · Spanish Game: Closed Variations. Morphy Attack (C77) · 0-1 This game won a brilliancy prize and was replayed in Isaac Asimov's 1950 novel Pebble in the Sky with the protagonist, Joseph Schwartz, as black.
- Emanuel Lasker vs Grigory Levenfish, Moscow International 1925, French Defence, Classical Variation (C14), 0-1 Defeating Lasker was always a notable feat.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Fedor Bohatirchuk, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1933, Ruy Lopez, Deferred Steinitz Defence (C79), 1-0 Bohatirchuk was another classical master of this era, a co-Soviet champion from 1927, who had Botvinnik's number in their rivalry.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Viacheslav Ragozin, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1935, French Defence, Winawer Variation (C16), 1-0 This time Levenfish proves his skill on the White side of the French!
- Grigory Levenfish vs Salo Flohr, Moscow International 1936, Slav Defence (D17), 1-0 Flohr was one of the top five players in the world, with a string of tournament victories during the 1930s.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Mikhail Botvinnik, Leningrad-Moscow match 1937, Grunfeld Defence (D83), 1-0 Levenfish played some of the best chess of his life in this match, which wound up all square after 13 games.
- Mikhail Botvinnik vs Grigory Levenfish, Leningrad-Moscow match 1937, Slav Defence (D10), 0-1 Botvinnik can prove no advantage and in fact suffers defeat against the solid Slav.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Mikhail Botvinnik, Leningrad-Moscow match 1937, Nimzo-Indian Defence, Classical Variation (E34), 1-0 Another beautiful positional performance.
- Mikhail Botvinnik vs Grigory Levenfish, Leningrad-Moscow match 1937, Slav Defence (D10), 0-1 After the match, Botvinnik would devote special analytical efforts to the Slav.
- Vladimir Alatortsev vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship, Tbilisi 1937, Catalan Opening (E00), 0-1 This tournament saw Levenfish claim clear first place and the Soviet title.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Alexander Kotov, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1939, Queen's Gambit Declined, Exchange / Three Knights' Variation (D37), 1-0 Levenfish defeats the second prize winner that year.
- Igor Bondarevsky vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1939, Grunfeld Defence, Exchange Variation (D85), 0-1 Bondarevsky was making his move into the top Soviet echelon around this time.
- Lev Aronin vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1947, Nimzo-Indian Defence (E20), 0-1 Aronin plays very imaginitively in the opening with the rare 4.g3, but has to concede defeat to the Old Master.
- Alexander Tolush vs Grigory Levenfish, USSR Championship, Leningrad 1947, Slav Defence, Geller Gambit (D15), 0-1 Tolush was a very dangerous attacker, and here adopts a sharp variation, but to no avail.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Igor Bondarevsky, USSR Championship, Moscow 1948, Nimzo-Indian Defence, Rubinstein Variation (E53), 1-0 Levenfish was no longer challenging for the Soviet title, but he could definitely defeat anyone on a given day during this era.
- Grigory Levenfish vs Vasily Smyslov, USSR Championship, Moscow 1949, Grunfeld Defence, Russian / Smyslov Variation (D98), 1-0 Smyslov, a World Champion to be, was that year's Soviet co-champion. The two were friends and became co-authors later on. This game shows that Levenfish's tactical skills were still intact at age 60, as he blows up Smyslov's Kingside with a surprise rook sacrifice.
- Viktor Korchnoi vs Grigory Levenfish, Minsk 1953, Catalan System, Closed Variation (E07), 0-1 Levenfish spots Korchnoi 42 years, but shows he still has impressive tactical alertness with a pretty concluding combination.
- Modern Openings, edited by Grigory Levenfish. In Russian.
- Izbrannye Partii I Vospominanya, by Grigory Levenfish, 1967. In Russian. His posthumous autobiography with 79 annotated games.
- Rook Endings, by Grigory Levenfish and Vasily Smyslov, 1971, Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-0449-3.
- Hooper, David and Whyld, Kenneth (1984). The Oxford Companion To Chess. Oxford University. ISBN 0-19-217540-8.
- Sosonko, Genna (2005). Russian Silhouettes. New In Chess. ISBN 90-5691-078-7.
- Sunnucks, Anne (1970). The Encyclopaedia of Chess. Hale. ISBN 0-7091-1030-8.