Traps, Tricks & Mistakes: Ivkov’s Tragedy

This post is a collaboration with Mr Andrew Crosby who is an expert in chess gambits.
Andrew usually plays them in his games with great success. In addition, he is an active member of our virtual club taking part in our online tournaments and matches.

Borislav Ivkov (1933 – 2022) was born in Belgrade, then Yugoslavia, now Serbia. He learned chess at the age of 9 and very impressively shared fourth place in the Yugoslav Championship, when only 16, earning the National Master title.

Ivkov gained international fame in 1951 by winning the first-ever World Junior Championship for players that were under 20. It took place in Birmingham, England.

In 1955 he became a grandmaster and a year later entered the world top ten at position 9. Ivkov remained in the top 40 for 20 years thereafter. For more than 15 of those years, he was the second ranked Yugoslav player after Svetozar Gligoric.

Ivkov’s famous games include victories against five world champions: Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian (twice), Bobby Fischer (twice) and Anatoly Karpov.

Like any other chess player, Ivkov suffered occasional embarrassing defeats.

In 1965 Ivkov took part in the 4th Capablanca Memorial International Chess Tournament in Havana. This edition of the tournament gained worldwide significance because Bobby Fischer was one of the participants. However, he couldn’t travel to Cuba because the US State Department refused him a visa. Instead, he played by telex from the Marshall Chess Club (New York).

Ivkov shared 2nd-4th place after coming close to what would have been the finest achievement of his career. With two rounds to go, he was leading by a point and his next opponent was the local Cuban player Gilberto García the tail ender.

Ivkov with the Black pieces outplayed his opponent and after 36 moves he had a winning position. However, inexplicably, he played the worst move and lost.

The Dutch player GM Jan Hein Donner, also a participant in the event, described the dramatic final phase of that game:

“Ivkov could have secured first place one round before the end — a situation that had not occurred in any of the previous Capablanca memorial tournaments. To bring this off, he had to beat cellar-dweller Garcia, a very weak player indeed. After only a dozen moves or so, Ivkov, with black, was clearly better and some 10 moves later he was totally winning. Yet Garcia somehow managed to muddle on and Ivkov ended up in time trouble. On the 36th move, the following position was reached. It hurts to have this revolting section of the game get into print.”

“Black has every right to be pleased with himself. He is three pawns and the exchange up. White has no real threats — ‘even if he were allowed two moves instead of the one’, as chess players would say. If only Ivkov had not been in such serious time trouble! His hand hovered over the board, hesitated and suddenly found the only, ghastly way to lose the game instantaneously. Abandoned by all his guardian angels, Black played the unbelievable move: 36…d4-d3 and lost after 37.Bd2-c3

Because disasters never come alone, Ivkov went on to lose the last round as well!

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