Igor Ivanov

coolIgorIn writing Lisa, I broke with a fundamental literary convention: I did very little to hide the identities of the people on whom characters were based, sometimes nothing.

Consider for example Jennifer Dubois’ A Partial History of Lost Causes, a fictional account of Garry Kasparov, whom she names Alexander Bezetov. We’re all supposed to understand the convention, that we are all really talking about Garry Kimovich.

I’m not sure that readers got it; on the book’s Goodreads page there’s not one mention of the man who played Bxg7 against Portisch in 1983 and thereby radicalized my understanding of the world. Nor do I understand how the dissimulation improves the story.

That I don’t like this convention is one reason I use 57 chess personalities – directly, thinly veiled and by allusion. A partial list of names can be found here. But what I really wanted was to have Lisa’s character walk through a landscape that felt especially real, to myself and the reader.

I pushed it pretty far with Igor Ivanov though. I admit it; it was a controversial move – the kind you give the annotation ‘!?’. And I have some explaining to do.

The first time I didn’t see Igor was when he failed to show up for a critical game against my good friend David Pruess. That was the Western States tournament in 2005. David and I are heading back up to that same tournament tomorrow.

I don’t claim to have known the real Igor especially well. Nor did I try to portray a historically accurate figure (Genna Sosonko just wrote a portrait of Igor in NIC).  I wanted to view him through Lisa’s eyes. Hers is the voice of the story. And she really only knows the same five fundamental facts about Igor that I do:

Igor escaped. He couldn’t have known that his plane would have to make an emergency refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, on its arc from Havana to Moscow. Everyone knew that Igor’s ticket to Havana was largely due to his victory over world champion Anatoly Karpov in 1979.

Igor rode around in a Greyhound bus to play in our dinky little tournaments, and we never showed him appreciation. On the contrary, the American players complained. We didn’t like losing.

Igor crushed generations of American chess talent. I was one of his victims. I needed to write out how it felt, to be beaten down every time, to know you were going to lose, the way his drunken eyes looked at you, the way his big fingers wrapped themselves around your pieces.

Igor’s mind had a mathematical architecture. Music and math lived so comfortably alongside chess Igor’s chess. I needed to talk about the relationship of these three arts.

Like the great Alexander Wojtkiewicz who died in 2006, it was too late to do much when we realized what we were losing Igor.

I bring him back. And yes, it’s a fantasy.


  1. John Trivett

    I always followed Igor Ivanov career until I met him in a game in late 2003 and beat him when he left a rook en prise to me, Later, I was traveling with him to the WSO in 2004 and he told me ‘I will never forgive you for taking my rook as Karpov never forgave me when I took his’.

  2. Jesse Kraai

    Hi Gregory, thanks for posting. You are right. I remembered the story John told me about Igor as I had wanted it, not as it actually was: the real Igor knew in advance that the plane would stop in Gander. For the purposes of the story I wrote I’m happy that I made this mistake!

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