22 January 2016

A Walking Encyclopedia with an Independent Spirit

As FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman turns 50, Gennady Nesis and Dmitry Kryakvin wish him a happy birthday.

Alexander Khalifman turned on January 18. The famous grandmaster from St. Petersburg doesn't need any additional introductions, but it wouldn't be superfluous to remember Alexander's titles: FIDE World Champion 1999, three-time Olympic Champion, two-time World Champion and European Champion as a member of the Russian national team, Russian Champion in an individual event, and two-time Russian Champion in club events, holder of the European Champions' Cup, two-time Champion of St. Petersburg, a participant of the latest Match of the Century, and the winner of dozens of prestigious tournaments. 

Today Alexander is a popular coach, famous for his work with the Azerbaijani team and the Russian superclub Yugra; Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, one of the world's best players; Anna Ushenina, World Champion; and the generation of young St. Petersburg players led by Vladimir Fedoseev. Khalifman has also authored large-scale studies, Opening for White according to Anand and Opening for White according to Kramnik, which describe the current chess theory very fully. 

Sergei Zhigalko, Dmitry Yakovenko, and the Ugra captain

I admit that when I was a young player, Khalifman struck me not only with his strong and versatile play, but also with his frank and sincere judgment. Either that era was somewhat different or my perception was too romantic, but even after I read his first interview where he quite openly called white white and black black, the future world champion became one of my favorite chess players. Perhaps every generation has a hero like that: proud and independent, putting his convictions far above momentary gain.   

This is why, when I considered how to mark the famous player's birthday, I thought it wasn't enough to prepare for publication the most beautiful episodes from his games. The portrait of Khalifman the World Champion, Khalifman the brilliant attacking player, Khalifman the opening guru, and Khalifman the accomplished endgame master would not be complete without describing his personality and the difficult path that Alexander had to walk since childhood to climb to the top of the chess Olympus. This is why this article is preceded by the memories of a man who spent many years together with Alexander: Gennadij Nesis, the Honored Coach of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

To conclude, I would like to wish Alexander new achievements in chess as a sport and an art, strong health and family well-being, but most importantly, I would love to believe that his talent, experience and enormous knowledge will be in demand in Russia and fully available to both promising and already accomplished players.
Dmitry Kryakvin

Gennady Nesis:

"I saw Khalifman for the first time when he played at a tournament in the Pioneer Palace, a chess club for young players. We weren't familiar then. He studied with an excellent coach, Vasily Byvshev, a good and strong master. But he fell seriously ill at some point, and Khalifman found himself without a coach. At the Chigorin Club, where I worked, there was an education specialist, a fairly suspicious young man with a complicated past, but he was very kind to Alexander.

"It so happened that it was him who brought us together with Alexander. I remember my first meeting with Khalifman. He entered my study, gloomy, wearing a winter coat and a cap, and he grunted something that didn't seem very friendly. It was 1983. He was back from the USSR Youth Championship, where he played poorly, which was why he was in a bad mood. A year before that, in 1982, Alexander had become a champion, but this time he wasn't so lucky. Furthermore, he was finishing school soon.     

"I invited him to my place to talk about the future and look at his opening repertoire. I remember how he said half-jokingly, 'When I was at your place, it was for the first time that I saw some chairs!' I asked him, 'What do you sit on when you are at home?' 'We have stools!' Her mother traced her line to Baltic nobility and naval officers: all of them were tall and blonde, just like Alexander. Have you seen the monument to the sunk ship with the mermaid that was erected in Tallinn? A predecessor of Khalifman was a commander on that legendary ship. They were pure intelligentsia. His father's relatives, on the contrary, were Jews from the artistic circles. His grandfather was the director of the Shalyapin Museum and a bon vivant. His parents were very different, and the combination turned out to be very interesting. Alexander took everything from either side: talent, great physical strength, and a strong nervous system. 

Young USSR master

"He was very inhibited, and I had to bring him out. During his first visit he said hello to my family so quietly that no one heard him. And I had an idea: I took him to a tournament. A women's one. I had been invited to work with an Azerbaijani girl, she had a competition next to Tallinn. And Khalifman started to open up slowly there. Even then I understood that he would become a very good coach himself in the future. He was involved, responsible, he watched the games. And even at that age, he gave some very precious advice! On practical, opening, and even psychological aspects. We walked a great deal then, it was late August – early September, autumn hadn't begun yet, so we walked along the shore of the bay and then to the center of Tallinn. And Khalifman told me that he loved Dostoyevsky and read a lot. It turned out that he was quite a sophisticated boy! We talked more about life than about chess. Gradually I managed to get him to start chess studies. Even though he was very independent in this. 

Alexander Khalifman studies chess press

"In 1983, there was a major youth tournament in Lenindgrad. They didn't want to include Khalifman there. Actually, they always tried to pass him by, maybe because of his independent and even prickly character. And I often had to fight for him. Because if Alexander took the effort himself, this often resulted in conflicts. Whether with a strict official like Nikolai Krogius, or a milder one like Anatoly Bykhovsky. Then I had to go and ease the tensions. Then again, Bykhovsky had a difficult job working with the country's leading talents of the time, it required great diplomatic skills. 

"Alexander Khalifman's chess path was a difficult one. A simple example. Immediately after we started our joint work, Khalifman fulfilled the master's norm. Master Efim Stolyar, who was also my first formal coach, was the senior coach of the Burevestnik sports club. I contacted him saying that the boy had fulfilled the master's norm and should be granted a master's title. But Stolyar told me: 'You know, we have reached this year's target for masters at Burevestnik, let's postpone making his title official till early next year?' And this was December. I said, 'How come? He has been really looking forward to getting this title, he has achieved it fairly!' As many as two chess federations met to discuss this, the Leningrad and the all-Union one. And finally I made sure that he got the master's title in the outgoing year.

"There were plenty of cases like this. Alas, along with talent you needed communication skills in that era, and my student had them in short supply. Alexander had a difficult disposition. You could notice that he never thanked those who helped him and worked with him. This was his habit. In that he is very much like my daughter, a lawyer. They are both devilishly talented, with a fantastic memory, but tell them that someone had helped them, and...   

"I played by correspondence actively at the time, and our cooperation brought a great deal to that. Sometimes the correspondence game was still going on, but Khalifman already tested the new ideas in a face-to-face encounter. In the 1980s, I fought for the title of a world champion by correspondence, while Alexander came out on the Soviet arena. We even happened to have twin games, identical almost to a move, which each of us won in our relative competitions. This was mostly the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense and the Catalon Opening. Of course, behind all this was a great influence of a friend of mine, Genna Sosonko, who brought me to professional chess. We also looked into King's Indian Defense with the move 9.Kd2; the move 9.b4 hadn't yet gained popularity then.

"And when I first met Khalifman, he only played open games. This was the Leningrad Pioneer Palace's trademark style. Just try playing 1.g2-g3 there... If Vladimir Zak, the club's head coach, saw it, he could send you out of the chess school at once! There were cases like that. The students of that school were brilliant tacticians, they played for checkmate, take the very typical example of Irina Levitina. But despite the knowledge and experience of the teachers of that wonderful, remarkable school, it lacked theoreticians of modern openings.  

"Walking near Tallinn with Khalifman, I realized that he was a very educated and extremely intelligent person. Later, when we got to new and unfamiliar cities, he often struck me by how well he found his way around an unknown terrain. He walked around Linares only once and then he remembered all the routes, as if he had an in-built compass with him. And his memory? I don't think that anyone might disagree that even now, considering the range of his knowledge, he is one of the world's leading theoreticians. Which is why he is so popular as a coach. He knows everything, from King's Gambit to the lengthy variations of the Slav Defense.

"I have to point out that Alexander is a fairly secluded man, I have only twice been at his home, if I am not mistaken. If someone went to his place, the visit had to be preceded by a phone call with an explanation about who was coming and why. Otherwise it was pointless to ring at his door. If Khalifman was supposed to talk to someone, he usually went outside.  

"Our first serious event was the USSR Youth Championship in Kirovabad in 1984. Khalifman lost the first game to Stanislav Savchenko, a future Ukranian grandmaster. And I egged on this extremely conceited boy: 'Alexander, you don't have an international rating, right? You are a brilliant mathematician, so calculate. If you lose all the games, what rating will you have?' Khalifman didn't lose any of the remaining games, he actually won all of them! And I think he has never forgiven me for that phrase, which encouraged him then. The typical Khalifman!

"The tournament was simply fantastic, with Ivanchuk, Shirov and Dreev participating. During a thrilling battle versus Aleksey Dreev, Boris Gelfand told me, 'Gennadij, why are you worrying? Your Alexander will win. He is a genius!' Khalifman became the champion exactly on the day when he turned 18. 

USSR Junior Champion and his coach

"We came back, and I thought that after such an enormous sports triumph all the doors would be open for us. But that was not the case... I can't say that everyone was happy to see us in Leningrad. But Alexander still got the right as the USSR Champion to play in Men's USSR Superfinal in Borzhomi, and that was where he proved his worth! He played brilliantly, this was one of his best tournaments of that period. He won several absolutely amazing games, for example, versus Gurgenidze, Zaichik, Yefimov, Aseev and Vitolins, and those games were played in a row! In each of them Khalifman sacrificed something, sometimes even a rook! It became clear there that he was a great talent indeed. Alexander joined the First League after the tournament. That's how his journey towards top-level chess started.

"1986 was a watershed year in Khalifman's life. I can just list the numerous milestone events that happened over such a short period: winning in the European Youth Championship, obtaining the IM title, moving from the First to the Higher League of the country's championship, the first performance at the USSR Peoples' Spartakiade, changing the university, marriage, and finally being enrolled in the army. But the most fateful was probably Alexander's decision to make chess the main profession of his life. 

"I remember the army period of Khalifman's life not only by the endless letters to the army's sports club and the Leningrad Military District's leadership, but also by the beautiful games Alexander played at different army competitions. Along with those individual and team tournaments, Khalifman participated in two very strong Higher Leagues of the USSR Championship (1987 and 1988). But the greatest impression was made by his performance shown as part of the CSKA team at the final of the European Champions' Cup in Rotterdam, 5 out of 5. In his article reviewing the tournament's results, Mikhail Tal called Khalifman 'the whirlpool from Neva banks'. Alexander's achievements became ever more impressive throughout the next period of his career: qualifying at the Soviet zonal tournament, winning at a major tournament in New York, his successful qualification for the 2nd GMA World Cup, and the triumph at the grand Moscow Swiss-system tournament.

"In the early 1990s, we went to Frankfurt, where I introduced him to the local organizers, who craved to get a strong grandmaster on their team. Khalifman was already considered a very serious player by then thanks to his victories. A chess fan and a millionaire lived in Frankfurt – a namesake of Robert Fischer, the 11th World Champion. He liked Khalifman very much, the three of us had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where Arthur Fischer suggested that his guest play for his club in Bundesliga. First Alexander played simply for the team, but then the local players and fans liked him. Besides, he was always very good at foreign languages. The club provided Khalifman with an apartment, and then the issue of his transition to the German Olympic team arose, for which it was necessary to obtain a citizenship. But some German grandmasters were against it. 'Will just Yusupov, Khalifman and Dautov play for the national Olympic team? Where are the Germans?' When a couple of such articles appeared in the media, Khalifman got angry and left. He played for German clubs later, but the issue of changing the federation was no longer on the agenda.  

Talking with Vladimir Kramnik

"Time and tournaments passed, new victories came, one year followed another. 1997 was a year of achievements, expectations and frustrated hopes; 1998 was a year of disappointment and contemplation; and finally came 1999, the year of triumph. 

"Khalifman's victory at the World Championship in Las Vegas was a pleasant surprise for me. The composition was extremely strong: almost all the best players were there, starting with Vladimir Kramnik. Khalifman's opponents were heavyweights: Gata Kamsky, Boris Gelfand, Judit Polgar. I had taken the return tickets for the day after the quarterfinals: we believed that it would be a normal, decent result. And suddenly Alexander was on a roll, and we had to change the tickets. We lived in an ordinary hotel before that, and then we moved to the expensive Caesar Palace. The ceiling was designed to resemble Italy's blue sky, and there were swimming pools, statues and other items of luxury like in Ancient Rome.

"When Khalifman won the final match versus Vladimir Akopian, he said he wanted to be alone, went to his room, locked the door and we didn't see each other for almost a day: he needed to realize what had happened and what he had achieved. I remember that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was very pleased with the outcome of the tournament and whispered at the banquet: 'You've relieved me from the "2K" problem! Let Khalifman be the champion now!' A man of great destiny and talent, Alexander deserved his brilliant victory, of course, and went down into chess history. 

The festivities marking the arrival of the new World Champion

Games of Alexander Khalifman 

Dreev – Khalifman
USSR Youth Championship, 1984

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 h5!?

Surprise! Black provokes an immediate crisis. This aggressive decision had a tremendous effect.

4.Nf3 h4 5.Nxh4 Rxh4 6.gxh4 Qxh4

Black's forces are active, and there's a convenient parking lot available for each of his minor pieces. The f2 square requires protection... But an exchange is still an exchange. 


An incorrect choice. Soviet commentators recommended 7.d4?! in order to finish the development quickly, but there's a strong retort 7...Nf6! with dangerous threats (and if 7...Nxd4 8.Be3 Bc5, as suggested, Black has a very good compensation, he has captured White's central pawn after all!)

The correct decision was 7.Rg1! White shouldn't grasp at the h pawn, but try to use dynamics in order to quench the opponent's dynamics and get ready to castle queenside. In the lines 7...Qxh2 8.Rg2 Qh4 9.d3, 7...Bc5 8.Rg2 d6 9.d3 Bh3 10.Bg5 Qh7 11.Rg1 or 7...Nf6 8.d3 Qxh2 9.Rg3 d6 10.Be3 Black has compensation for quality, but nothing more.

7…Bc5 8.0–0?!

And here the recommendation was 8.d4, which could be countered by 8...Bxd4 9.Qe2 d6 10.Nd5 Bg4 11.Qd2 (11.Bf3 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Bxf2+) 11...Bh3!

8…Nf6 9.Qf3 d6 10.Qg3

10.d3? Nh5 would have led to an immediate fiasco.

10… Qh7 11.d3 Nd4 12.Be3 Bd7

As is the usual case in such situations, when White clutches at the extra material, he gradually sinks right to the bottom. Here Dreev made a desperate attempt to free himself.


More resilient is 13.Bxd4 Bxd4 14.Ne2 Bb6 15.a4 a5, but it's easy to see that White's position is already pretty bad here: 16.c3 0-0-0 17.b4 Rh8 18.h3 (18.bxa5 Nh5 19.Qf3 Nf4 20.h3 Nxe2+ 21.Qxe2 Bxa5 22.Qf3 Bxc3) 18...g5.

13…Bb6 14.Rac1 Nh5 15.Qh4 c6!

Suddenly the white queen finds itself in a trap, and the attempt to free it results in material losses. Defeat is inevitable. What followed was:

16.f3 Nf5 17.exf5 Bxe3+ 18.Kh1 Bxc1 19.Rxc1 Bxf5 20.Re1 Kd7 21.Ne2 Rh8 22.d4 g5 23.Qf2 Nf4 24.Bf1 Bxc2 25.Nxf4 exf4 26.d5 Ba4 27.b5 c5 28.Qe2 Kc8 29.Qg2 Bc2 30.Re7 Bf5 31.b6 axb6 32.Qb2 Bd7 33.Kg1 g4 34.Bd3 Qh4 35.Rxd7 Kxd7 36.Bf5+ Kc7 37.fxg4 Qe1+ 38.Kg2 f3+ 39.Kxf3 Qf1+ White resigned. 

Khalifman – Aseev
Borzhomi 1984

The famous USSR semifinal and the series of five games with sacrifices!

20.Rxd7! Bxd7 21.Nf6+ Kh8 22.Qh5 h6 23.Qxf7 Black resigned.

Khalifman (CSKA) – Lau (Solingen)
Rotterdam 1988 

Of course, Black only has an illusory compensation for the exchange, and White possesses a plethora of interesting opportunities, but the "whirlpool from Neva banks" has found the shortest path to the target.

22.Nf5+! gхf5 23.Qe3 Qc6 24.Qg5+ Qg6 25.Qхe7

The threat of the check on e7 made the German grandmaster lay down his arms.

Khalifman – Karpov
Reggio Emilia, 1991/92


"My best move is 41.Qe1! in the game versus Karpov (Reggio Emilia 1991/92), when I pondered after the time control, calculated everything till the end and found out that I was about to defeat one of the greatest players of all times. I've always loved this muted beauty of short moves." (Khalifman)


41...Bg7 42.Qe7 doesn't save: the knight is lost as there is no 42…Nd3 43.Be4. And 41...Nd7 42.Be4 loses the queen.

42.Qe8 Qb1+ 43.Kh2 Bd6+ 44.g3 Qg6 45.Qd8 

Anatoly Karpov resigned in view of the loss of a piece. 

Khalifman – Serper
St. Petersburg 1994

28.Rxb7+! Kxb7 29.Rxc7+! Kxc7 30.Qxa7+ Kc8 31.d6 

Checkmate is inevitable, and Grigory Serper stopped the clock.

"The combination is not difficult, of course, but it is quite striking. When I found it, I couldn't believe for a long time that such a thing could occur in a real game." Khalifman

Khalifman – Shirov
Pardubice 1994

White has a huge material edge, but how to defend against the emergence of a black queen? 28.Kd2? Bb4+ or 28.Bh3?! Bxa3 29.Qxb3 c1Q are not too comforting, but there's a simple and efficient way.

28.Ra4! c1Q 29.Rc4 

The line 29…Qb2+ 30.Ke3 c5 31.Bg2 Rb8 32.Bc6 Rb6 33.Rxd7+ Kb8 34.Rd8 cxd4+ 35.Kf3 is quite convincing, so Black resigned.

Khalifman – Sveshnikov
Elista 1996

One of the decisive wins of the Russian Champion 1996

13.d5! bxa4 14.Qxa4 exd5

If 14...Bxd5, Khalifman suggested the winning line: 15.Nc3! Bxg2 16.Kxg2 Qb7+ 17.Kg1 Be7 18.Rfd1 Rc8 (or 18...Rd8 19.Rab1) 19.Ra2! a6 (no salvation from 19...Qc6 20.Qxc6 Rxc6 21.Rxa7 Nb6 22.Ra6!) 20.Rad2 Rd8 21.Bf4!, and the black pieces never entered the game: 21…Qc8 22.Ne4 Qb7 23.Be5! f6 24.Bc3 Qb5 25.Qa2 c4 26.Ba5 with a win.

15.Nc3 d4 16.Nd5! Bxd5

No better is 16...Qd8 17.Bf4 Bxd5 18.Bxd5 Rc8 19.Bb7, winning an exchange.

17.Bxd5 Rd8 18.Bf4 Qf6

Other continuations are not comforting either: 18...Qb4? 19.Qa2!, 18...Bd6 19.Rfb1 Qc7 20.Rb7 Bxf4 21.Rxc7 Bxc7 22.Qb3 0–0 23.Rxa7 or 18...Be7 19.Bc6 Qb4 20.Qxa7.

19.Qb5! Bd6 20.Ra6 Rb8 21.Bb7!

A flashy final move: Black bears major material losses.

21…Bxf4 22.Rxf6 gxf6 23.gxf4 f5 24.Qc6 Kd8 25.Qd5 Kc7 26.Bc6 Black resigned.

Khalifman – Akopian
Las Vegas 1999. The Final

Perhaps the most important win in the St. Petersburg grandmaster's life: the World Championship Final, with the score 1,5:1,5. The d2 pawn distracts the white forces, and it can't be won: 51.Ke3 Nd5+.

51.c6! bxc6 52.Rxc6 Rd3+ 53.Ke4 Ke7 54.h5

And it turns out that Black is powerless against the armada of the white passers.

54…Rd4+ 55.Kxe5 Rxb4 56.Rc7+ Kf8 57.Rd7 Ng2 58.h6 Kg8 59.g5 Ne3 60.g6 Rb5+ 61.Ke4 

After the two subsequent tense draws the Russian won the knockout FIDE World Championship.

Las Vegas became the peak of Alexander Khalifman's chess career

Khalifman – Bareev
Wijk aan Zee 2002


A beautiful game! White lacks several pawns, but checkmate looms in all the lines.


A beautiful finish also occurred after 17...Bf6 18.Ng5 Bg7 19.Nxh7! Kxh7 20.Rg5 f5 21.Rfg1 Qb6 22.Bc3! Bxc3 23.Qxh5+!

18.Bxf4 e5 19.Qh6 exf4 20.Rg5!

There is no salvation: 20…f5 21.Rxg6+ hxg6 22.Qxg6+ Kh8 23.Qh6+ Kg8 24.Bc4+ Qxc4 25.Rg1+ Kf7 26.Qg6#. Evgeny Bareev capitulated. 

Recently: in the commentators' booth with Sergei Shipov 

Wang Yue – Khalifman
Calvia 2004

Alexander Khalifman's hard-fought victory over the strong Chinese allowed the Russians to bypass the Armenian team at the very finish in the battle for the silver. The white king is cut off horizontally, so there is probably no salvation even after the most resilient 48.Rb6+ Kg5 49.Rb8, but Wang Yue expected that after

48.e6 fxe6+ 49.Kxe6 

he would be able to save the game due to the remote passed pawn. Surprisingly, had the white rook been placed on b8, there would have been a draw on the board, but now Wang Yue lacks only one tempo to save the day! The weaker side needs to force the black king on the square in front of the pawn and have the time to get his king to d2 to prevent the maneuver Re1-g1, which would free the black monarch. The need to play Rb7-b8 doesn't allow doing this in due time.

49...Re4+ 50.Kd5 Re1 51.Rb8 h4 52.Rh8 Kg5 53.Kd4 Kg4 54.Kd3 h3 55.Rg8+

55.Kd2 Re5 is already late, and the other attempt is countered by a subtle in-between check.

55...Kf3 56.Rh8 Re3+! 57.Kd4 Kf2 58.Ra8 Rb3

White resigned because it can't prevent the black queen from appearing on the board.

Notes by Dmitry Kryakvin