Person of day   -  8 MARCH 2021

EFIM GELLER

EFIM GELLER

Efim Geller was born in Odessa, where he remained for his entire life. The young Efim was an active boy- he was excellent at football and represented his city’s basketball team at official competitions. Geller’s father was a fairly strong chess player and a student of the first Soviet grandmaster Boris Verlinsky, so he did not share his son’s interests and hoped that Efim would one day choose his favourite game. Before the War, however, nothing foretold Geller Jr’s spectacular career. During the Great Patriotic War, Efim served as a mechanic at an airfield and read chess literature in his spare time. So began the path of the great analytic…

After the War, Efim Geller broke into the Soviet chess elite: he immediately split 4th place at the Ukranian championship and later triumphed in the quarter-final of the qualifiers for Soviet championship with 12 points out of 15! But Geller did not have sufficient experience to qualify for the premier national champion at first attempt and in the semi-final, he lost several promising positions and came behind the winners. His star moment came in 1949, when the Odessite qualified for the final and caused a sensation there by defeating Boleslavsky, Kotov, Flor and other formidable chess players. Before the last round, candidate for master Efim Geller led the tournament, but a loss to Ratmir Kholmov left the debutant with a mere bronze medal.

From that moment onwards, the rising star of Soviet chess became a regular participant of the main national competition, but he only won the USSR championship twice in his career: in 1955, he defeated Vasily Smyslov in an additional match and in 1979, he achieved an anachronistic victory, defeating younger players like Garry Kasparov.

A key tournament in Geller’s career was the tournament in Budapest in 1952, which was attended by Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Tigran Petrosian, Laszlo Szabo and other world-class chess players. The pre-eminent Ukrainian grandmaster defeated the world champion in decisive fashion with blacks and ended up second, after Keres. Afterwards, Botvinnik admitted: “Before Geller, we did not understand the Old Indian Defence as a construction.” Indeed, Efim Geller’s contribution to this dynamic debut is truly enormous. “True, the laurels of the pioneer of the King’s Indian Defence do not belong to the Odessite. The contributions of Bronstein and Boleslavsky are weightier in this matter. However, it was Geller who managed to find the precise sequence of moves in all relevant variants of this extremely difficult debut and he evolved the strategy of blacks in the middlegame to such perfection that it became possible to play the Old Indian Defence at the highest level. It was Geller who became the foundation for subsequent generations of adherents to the Old Indian Defence and his textbook became the requirement, the Bible for aspiring talents.” (Sergey Shipov)

After the tournament in Budapest, grandmasters who were not friendly with Mikhail Botvinnik demanded that the champion be removed from the national team before the Soviet Union’s first Olympiad. A vote was held in which everyone supported the replacement of Botvinnik by Geller, except Isaac Boleslavsky. The young player was placed at the fourth board, where he made a substantial contribution to his team’s victory by winning 10,5 points out of 14. Afterwards, Efim Geller would play with the Soviet team in six more victorious Tournaments of Nations, winning five medals at his board. At the 1962 Olympiad, the grandmaster not only played well for his team, but he also found a way to a draw in the match between Botvinnik and Fischer, which allowed the team’s leader to salvage a valuable half-point in his contest with the leading American superstar.

In the 1950s, Efim Geller became a serious contender in candidates’ contests. In 1953 in Zurich, Geller only came sixth, but three years later in Amsterdam he finished the first round in first place, before losing decisive matches to Vasily Smyslov and Tigran Petrosian in the second round and finishing in third place. After a while, the Odessite experienced a small decline, but he was appointed trainer for the Soviet because he was a celebrated specialist in debuts and a renowned analytic. “The precise variants and potential plans of Efim Geller can be seen in many debuts, even though they were often performed by others! So the plaudits went elsewhere…the Odessite grandmaster’s analytical talent blossomed during his career as trainer. He helped not only his mentees but even colleagues who were competitors with whom he played at tournaments! You had to analyse a delayed round? Run to Geller! How should you play in this debut or that one against Fischer or Larse? Ask Geller! In our vicious age, very few are as generous and kind-hearted as Efim Geller. That is a dying breed of humans. Their greatness cannot be recognised by a place in a table or an article in an encyclopaedia…” (Sergey Shipov)

In the 1960s, the grandmaster stormed Olympus once again and came very close to qualifying for the final match against Mikhail Botvinnik at the candidates’ tournament in Curacao in 1962. Geller, Petrosian and Keres ran neck in neck- every half-point was worth its weight in gold. At the start of the decisive fourth round of the marathon, Efim caught Fischer with another one of his designs, this time with blacks in Sozin’s attack and he had only a simple move to make to achieve victory, by trapping the white queen. But he made a mistake, which he immediately recognised, and lost the match after becoming disheartened. In the end, he and Keres lost to Petrosian by a mere half-point.   

After Curacao, the American grandmaster publicly accused the first three prize-winners of collusion and FIDE replaced candidates’ tournaments with matches. In the quarter-final, Efim Geller swept aside Vasily Smyslov 5,5:2,5, but then lost the semi-final to Boris Spassky; the future chess king who was powering to the throne became an obstacle to Geller in the next cycle as well.

After celebrating his 40th birthday, the Odessite decreased his activity and focused his efforts on his training role. Geller was one of those who brought USSR victory in the Match of the Century in 1970, not only thanks to his victory over Svetozar Gligoric, but also his fruitful works with several players in the Soviet dream-team. In 1971, the grandmaster prepared a young Rafael Vaganian for the junior world championship and then he concentrated on his work in Boris Spassky’s team before the world champion’s epic battle with Robert Fischer.

Efim Geller is one of the few players who had a positive score against a series of world champions: Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Fischer and Karpov, whom he defeated in 1976 after a cascade of sacrifices. Considering his contribution to chess, the Odessite certainly stood in this cohort of extra-class grandmasters. In the last few years of his life, Geller lived in Peredelkino with his wife, regularly playing in Russian tournaments and winning one of the first world championships for seniors.