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Active Cultures: a chess master's checkered past

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Once a year Boris Gulko, the highest-ranked chess player living in the U.S., travels around the country playing in exhibition matches against numerous challengers simultaneously. "Simuls are fun for the players who participate and the grand masters who give them," he says. "Maybe if I gave them more often it would be hard work."

Gulko, who will play in a simultaneous exhibition in River Forest on Tuesday, was once one of the rising stars in the Soviet chess system. He was born in Germany in 1947, the son of an engineer and an army officer who was part of the Soviet forces occupying the eastern part of the country. As a small boy he played checkers; he didn't begin playing chess until he went to summer camp near Moscow when he was 12. "My first impression was it was complicated to keep the possibilities in mind," he says. "But when I become more familiar I had more pleasure." Three years later he won the Moscow youth championship.

He kept winning tournaments, which the Soviet authorities apparently resented because he was Jewish. In 1974 they told him he could no longer travel abroad, and in 1976 he was forbidden to play in tournaments for a year after he refused to sign a letter denouncing Viktor Korchnoi, a friend and former contender for the world title who'd defected. "It was a dirty letter--a letter about how terrible a person he was," says Gulko. "It was not true. I could not sign it."

The next year Gulko tied for the country's chess championship, and for a brief time he coached Garry Kasparov, the former world champion who's still generally acknowledged to be the world's best player. "He was 14," says Gulko. "But it was clear he was a future world champion and a genius. He had imagination and energy."

Gulko also got married, to Anna Akhsharumova, a chess player who'd won the USSR women's title in 1976. They asked to be allowed to emigrate but were turned down. The authorities then cut off their salaries and refused to allow them to play in tournaments for over two years. They and their young son lived on their savings and the money they made selling clothes donated to them by Jewish organizations in the West.

When Gulko was finally allowed to play in a 1981 tournament in Moscow, he won. During a speech afterward he asked that Korchnoi's wife and son, who were still in the USSR, be allowed to leave the country--which only further angered Soviet officials.

Gulko and his wife continued to ask to be allowed to emigrate and continued to be refused permission. They went on two hunger strikes and staged numerous public protests. During one protest outside a Moscow tournament in 1982 they were both arrested and spent the night in jail. Gulko went back a few days later and was beaten up and arrested again.

In February 1986 Lev Alburt, a grand master who'd defected from the USSR, played a simultaneous exhibition in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the family's situation. That April, Gulko was arrested four times for protesting in the streets and for holding a sign that said "Let us go to Israel." The following month the Soviet authorities finally allowed the family to leave, though they first took away Gulko's and Akhsharumova's chess medals.

"It was a relief to leave and find ourselves in the free world," says Gulko. "After I became free to travel to tournaments, it was a pleasure to play." The family spent a few months in Israel, and then the American Chess Foundation gave them money to move to the U.S. They now live in New Jersey.

Both players had got rusty because they hadn't been allowed to compete against top-level opponents. But soon Gulko was winning tournaments--in Marseilles, Los Angeles, and Biel, Switzerland. Akhsharumova won the U.S. women's championship in 1987, becoming the first person to win the national title in both the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1998 Gulko won the U.S. open and U.S. masters tournaments, and last year he won his second U.S. chess championship. But cash prizes in U.S. tournaments are small. Gulko is able to keep playing partly because his wife stopped competing and became a computer programmer and financial analyst.

Gulko has played in several tournaments in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. "Now it's a completely different country," he says, "different mentality."

Does he enjoy the trips?

"Yes, if it's not a long visit."

Gulko will play up to 40 people simultaneously at 8 PM on Tuesday, March 14, at Concordia University's Koehneke Community Center, 7400 Augusta in River Forest, an appearance sponsored by the Concordia Community Chess Club. The fee is $20 for players, $2 for spectators. For more information call 630-932-1455 before 10:30 PM.

--Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Roberts.

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