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The Tartar Terminator
January/February 2012

I got up from the board feeling satisfied. I had drawn as Black against the former world champion Anatoly Karpov. This was not quite an achievement to tell my children about: the game was one of 14 played simultaneously by Karpov, at an event held in the offices of the inter-dealer brokers ICAP. Still, he had conceded only one other draw, winning the remaining 12 games with his usual imperturbable efficiency.


So I was feeling happy. But then a watching grandmaster, the London-based Russian Alex Chernaiev, came up and said: "You could have done better. You were following Polugaevsky-Nezhmetdinov, but then you made your own move, which was not a good idea." For a chess player with a sense of the game's artistic history, that was akin to being told that you had a chance to emulate Leonardo da Vinci, but instead made a clumsy daub. The 1958 game in which Rashid Nezhmetdinov beat the future world championship candidate Lev Polugaevsky is thought by many grandmasters to be the most dazzlingly beautiful creation ever manifested over a chessboard.


Karpov — especially as someone educated within the Soviet school of chess — would have known that game intimately: had I continued to follow Nezhmetdinov's moves, he would doubtless have found some improvement to Polugaevsky's play. All the same, I was embarrassed by Chernaiev's instant assessment and looked up Nezhmetdinov's Mona Lisa. He was almost right: although there were subtleties in Karpov's move order which meant that precisely the same middle-game position was hard to force, I had missed a chance to emulate one of the greatest attacks in chess history. In practice, I'm not too sorry I didn't attempt it: since I didn't know Nezhmetdinov's game by heart, I would probably have ended up sacrificing all my pieces for a non-existent mate. Besides, Karpov's defensive skills are greater than Polugaevsky's (or, indeed, anyone's).


This, however, is to be a column celebrating Rashid Gibiatovich Nezhmetdinov rather than Anatoly Yevgenyevich Karpov — not least because this year marks the centenary of his birth in 1912. For the wider public, Nezhmetdinov is a complete unknown; and his name probably means very little to the vast majority of today's young masters. Not only was he never a contender for the world championship, he was not even awarded the International Grandmaster title (partly because he was allowed to make only a couple of appearances outside the USSR).


Yet among the greatest Soviet players in the 1960s, including world champions Botvinnik and Tal, Nezhmetdinov was admired as almost no other of their competitors. The reason was that at his best he possessed an attacking ferocity which could blow any defences asunder. "Nobody sees combinations as Rashid Nezhmetdinov," said the usually ungenerous Botvinnik. Above all, he did this with an artistry that somehow sums up the full potential for beauty in the part-art, part-science, part-sport we call chess.

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