Reports | February 22, 2013 9:00

A Finn, an Englishman and a smashing pawn sac

November 1960 saw the 14th Chess Olympiad take place in Leipzig in the former GDR, during the days of the Berlin Wall. (Come to speak of it, could this despicable wall still be a reason for some to avoid the now popular Ruy Lopez branch? Or more to the point, in general, why should we name opening lines after human misdemeanours? The Kalashnikov variation in the Sicilian opening also springs to mind, but it is said to be named after a Viacheslav Kalashnikov. But still, let’s just use the accepted cruelty in the animal world, and we would end up with more friendly hedgehogs instead of being tempted to refer to the World War I ditches. That being said, let’s go back to the Leipzig Olympiad).

Those days the Soviet Union was reigning supreme at the Olympiads (and not only there) and before the last round they had secured the first place, without a single personal loss. Tal, who had crowned his spectacular rise and become world champion by beating Botvinnik with 12.5 - 8.5 in May the same year, was leading the team. He had a personal score of 11 out of 14. The rest of this dream team consisted of: Botvinnik, Keres, Korchnoi, Smyslov and Petrosian. Incredible! 

In those days Olympiads featured preliminaries and finals (in 1976 the Swiss system came into use). In the last round of finals-A the Soviet team faced England, which was holding the last but one place. Their leading player was Jonathan Penrose. Here is the game from the first board:

PGN string

Yes, the colours are correct; Tal was handling the black pieces. Quite a surprise and also a smashing game. The name of Penrose may not be all too well known to you. But a year after the game he earned the IM title, and before he had long been considered a talented player. He was to dominate the British chess scene for the next decade, becoming national champion for a record of times. He also made great scores for his country at later Olympiads, for instance an undefeated 12.5 out of 15 earning him for the second time a silver medal on board one, this time only behind Petrosian.

Jonathan Penrose always remained an amateur, preferring his career as a psychologist and university lecturer. Partly because of this he only got his deserved honorary GM title from FIDE at a later stage (1993). Unfortunately Penrose suffered from a bad health, and had apparent difficulties coping with the tension of over the board play.

Update: Penrose got the proper GM title, not the honorary version. See Leonard Barden's comment.

Genna Sosonko remembers that, encountering him at the Nice Olympiad in 1974, at the time Penrose, despite being only 40 years old, did not look like the reputed threat to grandmasters that he had been. Penrose subsequently focussed on correspondence chess, and in that field he became grandmaster ten years earlier: in 1983.

It is said that after the game against Tal, Penrose joked:

Now I will be assured of one year’s work: I will travel from town to town and show my game with the world champion!

Anyway, as you know now, he certainly was not an opponent to be underestimated by Tal at all.

And what about Tal himself? Well, he was about to celebrate his birthday the next day (9th November) and had initially agreed to have the last round off. (His son had been born during this Olympiad.) Because of this, he had played numerous rounds in a row earlier on during the Olympiad.

Before the last round the team captain asked him, for “strictly private reasons”, to play anyway (as a result Botvinnik and Smyslov did not play that last round). Tal:

I threatened him I would lose, and I carried out my threat, although God knows, I didn’t want to. It was just that the English master Penrose played the whole game very well.

as written by Tal in his biography. After the game Gligoric claimed that the loss was a good thing, because it proved that the Soviet players were human after all. Later, in the Russian chess yearbook of 1960, Abramov jokingly added that perhaps the loss should not be attributed to Tal, who really did not want to play, but to the team captain.

Tal nevertheless kept the second best result on board one, just behind Robatsch (who did not play the last round of finals-B, having beaten Finland’s board one Ojanen – more about him later! – the round before) and just ahead of Fischer (who beat Uhlmann in the last round). Just like, not surprisingly, all his team members obtained a medal on their boards. 

Half a year earlier, in May 1960, around the time that Botvinnik was to lose his title, in Helsinki the match Finland-Estonia had been played. In those days it was still good custom to organize friendly matches between neighbouring countries. Of course Keres was on first board for Estonia, Finland had Kaarle-Sakari Ojanen.

The latter, already participant at the Munich 1936 Olympiad, had taken the place from Book – here on second board – as he best player of the country (Westerinen was the obligatory youth player on board 10). At the time he had been national champion eight times and more titles were still to follow. Just like Penrose, Ojanen represented his country many times at the Olympiad, and even took the bronze medal on board one in Havana 1966. There was yet something more he had in common with Penrose: Ojanen was also a correspondence chess player, gaining the title of IM in that discipline in 1981.

By now the result of the game between Ojanen and Keres may no longer be a surprise for you. Here are the moves of that encounter:

PGN string

Yet again a striking similarity: the same opening and the same forceful pawn sac e4-e5!, ...d6xe5, f4-f5!  featuring in both games. You can read more about the contemporary ins and outs of this versatile pawn sac in the upcoming ChessVibes Training magazine 95, this Saturday, 23 February.

Now a lot of questions remain: was Tal aware of this game when playing his last round game in Leipzig? Anyway, later the Russian yearbook 1960 only published Keres' crushing win in the second game of the friendly match; not a word about Ojanen’s victory in the first game. Maybe western sources did publish Ojanen’s win during the half year up to the Olympiad in Leipzig? So then, was Penrose aware of Ojanen’s win? Or did Keres share his knowledge about this Benoni line with his Olympiad team members? Who was the Soviet team captain and what were his strictly private reasons? Probably some more historical information can be found. It is also probable that some things from the nostalgic days of chess will always remain hidden.

Arthur van de Oudeweetering's picture

Arthur van de Oudeweetering is an International Master and professional trainer. He is one of the editors of ChessVibes Training and from time to time also writes book reviews.


Creemer's picture

No say nothing of the fried liver attack. (a gut-wrenchingly horrid B-film comes to mind)

Remco Gerlich's picture

I was thinking of the Frankenstein - Dracula variation of the Vienna. Fried liver just makes me hungry.

RdC's picture

Leonard Barden, now the veteran Guardian chess correspondent, had been a member of the 1960 England team. I believe he has written that he was aware of the ideas used in the earlier Keres game and had showed them to Penrose. So from the English side, it was a prepared line.

mikamesch's picture

Thank you for sharing this enjoyable article. It featured two nice games and a conspirational background story. Penroses victory over Tal was marvellous. A great play by the Englishman.
All in all a very nice read.

Bescheid's picture

"November 1960, in the days of the Berlin Wall?"

The Berlin Wall was erected in August 13, 1961.

Arthur's picture

You're right of course. I should have written "the days just before the Berlin Wall" to remind of the tension between the eastern and western bloc.

Arthur's picture

You're right of course. I should have written "the days just before the Berlin Wall" to remind of the tension between the eastern and western bloc.

elgransenor1's picture

With Penrose, brilliance seems to run in the family- his brother Roger Penrose is a world-renowned physicist.

saturnz's picture

very entertaining piece, I hope more will be published in the future

Anonymous's picture

Penrose - Tal 1960 1-0. "Penrose to the occasion."

But what does CG mean?

Leonard Barden's picture

What actually happened was that the postman arrived just as I was leaving the house on the departure day for Leipzig, delivering inter alia the latest issue of the Deutsche Schachzeiting. I hastily jammed the mail into the rest of my luggage, which included my opening indexes, then around 40 thick looseleaf files, effectively a handwritten ChessBase. There was a significant excess luggage charge at the airport.

On the morning of the final round when we were paired with the USSR who had already won the Olympiad, Penrose asked me for suggestions on what to play against Tal. I presented him with half-a-dozen bulging files, provoking a glazed look, and then as an afterthought added the Deutsche Schachzeitung which led on its first two pages with the game Ojanen-Keres.

Jonathan was immediately hooked and quickly decided this was his weapon for that afternoon. It succeded rather easily, and afterwards Penrose described his feeling during the game as being like an Essex v Middlesex county match. Tal failed to suss out Ojanen's key white plan of e5 dxe5 f5 with Ne4 and a mighty attack down the f file, erred early with Re8, fell into awful time pressure, and was crushed.

Tal had left Riga for a pre-Olympiad engagement causing him to arrive two days late in Leipzig (where on the morning he arrived I witnessed him in the Olympiad barber shop having a haircut while whizzing through the bulletins of the previous rounds) so hadn't received his DScz. Keres didn't mention his own disaster against Ojanen before Tal took on Penrose. Tal was apparenly quite annoyed at that.

What isn't generally known is that we had a fleeting chance that afternoon to draw with or even defeat the mighty Soviets at their peak. No thanks to me, as when Korchnoi as Black transposed my g3 Scheveningen Sicilian into a kind of f4 French, I was bemused and fell into a tactic where my Kh1/Ph2/Bg1 formation backed a d4 knight faced Black's Ba8 Rc8 and Qd7. I played Bd3-b5, Viktor took a brief swig at his cigarette, and played Qxb5 Nxb5 d4+ (check from the a8 bishop) forcing Qg2 Bxg2+ Rxc2+ and the rook ate my pawns. I felt a real idiot for that.

However during the time pressure Keres, who had been better against Peter Clarke for most of the game, made an error and Clarke had a brief chance for advantage, which he missed. Meanwhile Bob Wade was defending tenaciously against Petrosian and had good chances for a draw.

These two games were adjourned and I remember looking up at the scoreboard which said England 1 Sowjet Union 1, cursed again my stupidity and vowed that if I ever got a chance to get even with the Russians I would take it. I did remember that moment when working with juniors in the 1970s.

When Jonathan came into the dining hall, he was accorded a standing ovation. It was the only game the USSR lost at that Olympiad.

We spent ages on the adjourned games but by then Clarke was under the cosh again. If I recall right, Wade's game could still be salvaged but their adjournment analysis was better.

The opening did become known as the Penrose-Tal system, which upset Ojanen who had worked out the entire plan before his game with Keres and deserved the credit. He felt quite bitter about it. J Ojanen came up to Wade at the next Olympiad in Varna saying something like 'Penrose-Tal, MY variation'.

RS's picture

Mr Bardan, Thank you so much for this very interesting article. You should write more often

Peter Doggers's picture


Leonard Barden's picture

Also, ChessVibes is wrong to state in its introduction above that Penrose was an honorary GM. He was awarded the proper title and not the inferior honorary version. How it happened is through one of the late Bob Wade's many services to English chess.

In the late 1970s when Jonathan had virtually finished his over the board career I thought my friend and contemporary was worthy of the GM title. This was round about the time when, for a year or two, I was BCF international grader, so i had some status in putting his name forward. I thought that Penrose's performances in the 1961 Enschede zonal and in the 1968 Lugano Olympiad were of norm level and would satisfy the then regulations. Harry Golombek was FIDE delegate, so I put the matter to him. At that time Fide were going back and awarding some titles based on events from 10-25 years previously.

Thinking that Jonathan's case was slightly marginal, I thought it would improve his chances if a second English player was put up for the title. My crafty plan was to appeal to HG's ego by suggesting that he also put up himself on the basis of his result at Venice 1950 (probably close to a GM norm, and Prins who was half a point in front of HG in Venice did get the title using that as one of his norms), the 1951 Bad Pyrmont zonal, and one or two other events which I now forget.

Alas, the members of the qualification committee were in a mean title-giving mood at that time, were offended by England's presumptuous act of putting up two candidates, and turned both applications down, adding cynically that Penrose (by then in his mid-forties and with the fainting episode at Siegen 1970 and his poor result at Nice 1974 in his history) should try to earn it by future achievements.
There the matter rested for some 15 years. For part of that time Ray Keene was Fide delegate and, knowing he didn't rate Jonathan highly, I felt it was pointless to put his name forward again.

In 1992 or 1993 I visited Wade on another matter and found out in the course of conversation that he was then on the Fide qualifications committee. I suggested he put forward Penrose again. Bob agreed at once, and was emphatic that he would only go for the proper title and not for the HGM version which he regarded as inferior and not for players of true GM strength.

I mentioned Enschede and Lugano and Bob immediately went to his tournament collection and picked out the tournament bulletins for both events. We made out the application between us there and then, and Bob took it to the next qualifications committee meeting.

As he told me later, almost all of these eminent people, chosen presumably for their supposed expertise, hadn't heard of Penrose, knew little or nothing of his achievements, or were unsure whether Enschede and Lugano were sufficient. So they turned to Lothar Schmid, who was present and who they regarded as a fount of knowledge and asked "Lothar, what's your opinion?" As a direct contemporary who knew of Jonathan's achievements, a friend of English chess and of Bob, Lothar gave the application lavish praise and it was granted......

Wikipedia and other sources call Penrose HGM or GM emeritus and I guess that's why Chess Vibes is misinformed, but they are wrong.

Arthur's picture

Dear Leonard Barden, thank indeed you for your elaborate reaction and wonderful additional inside stories! Regarding the honorary GM title - this was indeed wrongly taken from Wikipedia and other sources. Thank you for correcting that and also adding the extensive background information on the final awarding of the GM title!

Peter Doggers's picture

Thanks for your wonderful insights and correction, Leonard! I added an update.

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