Person of day - 12 NOVEMBER 2023
Leonid Zakharovich Stein is one of the most colourful and at the same time tragic chess players of the 20th century. Stein died at 38, at the moment when he was one of the world’s strongest grandmasters and one of the favourites for the qualifying matches before the match against Robert Fisher. The American world champion was shocked by his death. Having been beaten repeatedly by Stein in blitz-chess, he immediately abandoned his reticence and sent the following telegram to Moscow: “I am shocked by the untimely death of Leonid Stein- a wonderful grandmaster and a good friend. I express my condolences to his family and the chess world.”
Leonid Stein was born on November 12, 1934, in Kamenets-Podolsky. During World War II, his family was evacuated to Central Asia, and subsequently moved to Lvov, where Leonid attended chess school. He was 13, which is a lot in today’s world, but after just 2 years he attained the title of “First-Class Sportsman”. The young chess player was lucky: he was taught by the master Alexey Sokolsky, who recently moved to Ukraine and made his student into a strong player. Another coach who had a great effect on Stein’s play was Yuri Sakharov, the trainer of the Ukrainian Soviet junior team.
While serving in the army, he became the champion of the Armed Forces and won the national tournament of “Candidates for Master of Sport”. After demobilisation, Leonid’s fate continued to be trying. Having entered the ranks of Ukraine’s strongest chess players, he was disqualified in 1958 for playing cards during a competition and missed the final of the Ukrainian championship. Leonid learned this hard lesson- in the next Ukrainian championship, he passed the exam for “Master of Sport” and was qualified for the semi-final of the Soviet national championship
In the semi-final of the Soviet Championship of 1959, Stein was helped by the master Evsey Polyak. He split 3rd place, but lost the additional match to Iivo Nei. In the next qualifying round he became the champion of Ukraine and once again split the semi-final in the national championship. However, Leonid’s opponent, the grandmaster Alexander Kotov, declined the match, saying that he, an elderly grandmaster, did not want to stand in the path of the talented chess player. Who knows what would have happened had Kotov accepted the match, but in the final Stein split the bronze medal with Efim Geller and left Boris Spassky himself outside the inter-zonal competition.
In 1962 in Stockholm, as a result of an additional match-tournament, he took sixth place and became a grandmaster, but did not make it to the candidates’ tournament due to the limit on Soviet chess players as a result of the Euwe-Botvinnik rule which stated that no more than four players from a single country can play in the qualifying match against the world champion.
He became the USSR champion in 1964, after a match-tournament against Spassky and Kholmov. In another inter-zonal tournament in 1964, he took fifth place and once again became the “superfluous fifth”. The injustice of this rule became evident and another FIDE Congress cancelled, but that did not help Stein
As a member of the Soviet national team, he won two Chess Olympiads and two European team championships. Between 1965 and 1966 he won two more individual Soviet championships.
At that time Leonid Stein was rightly considered one of the best chess players in the world. Robert Fisher offered to play Stein outside the champions’ cycle and the American genius’ patrons were ready to provide a solid prize fund for the match between the American and Soviet champions, but Stein was forced to decline the offer- he had no time between the constant stream of competitions: the USSR championship, the Soviet team championship, the zonal tournament, the inter-zonal tournament…
In 1967, Leonid Stein won by one point the super-tournament dedicated to the anniversary of the October Revolution which brought together the strongest players from the Soviet Union and the world. Sadly, a new misfortune lay in wait for him in another inter-zonal tournament; in the match-tournament he could not overcome Reshevsky and Hort, and an elderly American passed into the candidates’ matches. This blow could have broken anyone and Stein’s results declined for a while. In 1970, he participated in the Match of the Century as a mere substitute and played only one match against Bent Larsen.
At the start of the 1970s, the Ukrainian grandmaster reiterated his claim to the world championship; he split first place with Anatoly Karpov at the Alekhine Memorial in 1971 and split another first place with Tigran Petrosian at the super-tournament in Las Palmas in 1973. Stein was supposed to travel to England for the European team championship and go to the inter-zonal tournament in Petropolis from there, for which he was the main favourite, but on July 4th 1973 Leonid’s heart stopped…
“Stein possessed a wonderful talent…he had a subtle sense of positioning with mutual chances and a sharp tactical eye….his contribution to the treasures of chess is considerable, peculiar, notable and, in its own way, inimitable”. (A. Karpov)
Leonid Stein was a talented chess player, a wonderful grandmaster and a good friend. I was shocked by his death in 1973…he destroyed his own health with his incessant smoking. Once I timed how long he drew on a cigarette. 31 seconds! It is amazing that a grown man can treat his own health with such rapacity and dig his own grave”. (R. Fisher)
“I know how he died. Stein was preparing for the inter-zonal tournament in Brazil. And, as they did with everyone travelling to exotic countries, the doctors have him strong injections against a variety of illnesses…his organism could not cope with this. In hotel “Russia” at the dead of the night, someone called me on the phone and did not say anything. Later I understood that it was Leonid calling, but he no longer had the strength to say anything. In this way, having bade a silent farewell, a most talented chess player departed at the bloom of his age and strength”. (V. Korchnoi)