Person of day - 15 OCTOBER 2023
“If Petrosian was the King of Armenia, Vaganian became its crown-prince. He had everything: elated meetings in Yerevan after another vanquished tournament, interviews for newspapers and TV, recognition of the citizens, autograph sessions, congratulations from childhood friends, meetings with the elders of the city and endless banquets, where tables broke under the weight of plates and where the famous Armenian cognac was poured generously. Grandmasters who visited Armenia in those times remembered that one only had to mention that you were a friend or colleague of “Rafik”, that you instantly became an honoured guest. Paying the cheque at a restaurant was out of the question. Needless to say, he had little time for actual training.” (Genna Sosonko)
The favourite of the Yerevan chess world learned to play chess when he was 5. His father- a physicist- was an ardent admirer of the game who once beat Max Euwe during his youth in a simul with clock.
“I remember an instance when Rafael Vaganian worked as a demonstrator at a super tournament in Yerevan in 1965. The legendary Swedish grandmaster Gideon Stahlberg- a renowned drinker- felt that he needed some doping. He called over Rafael, gave him three roubles and asked him to buy him something to drink. A clever and respectful young man from a professor’s family, Rafael brought Stahlberg a bottle of Borjomi water with the words “Grandmaster, this is a healthier drink!” One can only imagine Stahlberg’s face when he had to swim without the necessary fuel.” (Adrian Mikhalchishin)
When he was 16, Vaganian became the Soviet champion among juniors, but he could not repeat Anatoly Karpov’s achievement and win the world championship. Nonetheless, in 1971, Vaganian immediately became a grandmaster (despite the lack of an international title) after victory at a tournament in Banja Luka.
“Botvinnik once noticed that Vaganian plays like chess never existed before him. These words convey both opprobrium for a disinclination to work and to study classical heritage and wonderment at authenticity and a lack of any prejudices. Perhaps that was why Vaganian’s judgment on some aspects of the game were sharp and unconventional. For example, he once said that the difference between Reti and Nimzowitsch lay in their varying positioning styles: Reti was more attack-focused while Nimzowitsch’s system was based on defence.” (Genna Sosonko)
In 1970s, Vaganian played in several finals of Soviet championships, won medals at military competitions and came first at the world junior team championship. In 1978, he came second in the zonal tournament and qualified for the inter-zonal. His star moment came in 1985, when Vaganian won the inter-zonal competition in Biel one point ahead of silver medallist. Then, at the candidates’ tournament in Montpellier, Rafael split 1st-3rd places with Artur Jussupow and Andrei Sokolov. In the semi-final in 1986, he lost heavily to Sokolov- 2:6. In the next cycle of the world championship in 1988, he lost the 1/8 finals to Lajos Portisch 2,5:3,5.
He won the 1989 Soviet championship. As a member of the Soviet team, he won two Olympiads (in 1984 and 1986), two world team championships (in 1985, when he was the best on the 3rdboard with 6 points out of 8, and 1989), three European team championships (in 1980, 1983 and 1989) and a match against Team World in 1984. In the latter, Vaganian lost 1,5:2,5 to Zoltan Ribli. From 1984-1986, he was third on FIDE’s ratings list, beneath Kasparov and Karpov.
In 1989, he played in the final of the world blitz championship, where he lost to Mikhail Tal.
After the collapse of the USSR, he came third at Olympiads, world championship and European team championships with the Armenian team. He has also won the European Cup and a bronze medal at the European League with De Variant- a Dutch team. He played in several FIDE knockout world championships and he carries the title of “Mr Bundesliga” for his result at the German team championship: 14,5 out of 15 points- the best ever!
Aside from Robert Fischer, he has played against every world champion from Vassily Smylov to Vishy Anand. He has beaten all of them, except the younger generation of Kasparov, Kramnik and Anand.
In 2011, the President of Armenia awarded Rafael Vaganian a medal “For Service to the Motherland”, I Category. He is also an honorary citizen of Yerevan.
Rafael’s wife Irina used to be a celebrated chess player. The couple have a son and daughter.