Master of Attack: Dragoljub Velimirovic, 1942-2014

I find it difficult to call Dragoljub Velimirovic – who died on Thursday, May 22 at the age of 72 – a Serbian grandmaster, as I always knew him as a Yugoslav, in the great days of Yugoslav chess, when almost no week went by without an international tournament being held somewhere in Yugoslavia. Most of the foreign participants hardly knew or cared in which Yugoslav republic they were; it was just one country for us.

In 2010 Lubosh Kavalek wrote an article about Velimirovic for The Huffington Post with the title The Man with Too Much Chess Talent. The title was based on a remark by Bobby Fischer. What Kavalek and presumably Fischer meant was that Velimirovic, a dare-devil and a master of confusion who sacrificed pieces as if material counted for nothing, might have profited from a bit of sober moderation. Which is not to say that the actual accomplishments of this three-time champion of the mighty chess nation of Yugoslavia were modest.

In his book Revolution in the 70s, Garry Kasparov wrote: “In the last round of the Moscow Interzonal (1982) I met the legendary Dragoljub Velimirovic for the first time at the board.” Instead of his beloved Sicilian, Kasparov chose the Caro-Kann (and won the game) as he was impressed by Velimirovic’s victories against the Sicilian, not only with his Velimirovic Attack with 6.Bc4, but also in the main line (at that time) of the Najdorf Variation with 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Be7.

When even Kasparov found it wise to avoid the Sicilian, it stands to reason that ordinary mortals trembled at the prospect of Velimirovic’s Sicilian sacrifices on d5, f5 or e6. Certainly I was one of the trembling victims. My score against him was 4-0, for Velimirovic.

Still, Kasparov wrote: “True, at times in Velimirovic’s spectacular blows there was more ‘noise’ than novelty and strength.”

Perhaps, but often novelty and strength went well together. In 2012, Informant published the book TN!! The Best Theoretical Novelties. It has a list of players who were, at least once, designated by a jury as originators of the best novelty of the previous Informant. Anand heads the list with nine top novelties, Karpov won top honors eight times, Kasparov and Kramnik five times and Velimirovic and Topalov four times. With his number of best novelties, Velimirovic was in the select company of world champions.

In the Netherlands, and surely not only there, in the 70s and 80s, a small cottage industry developed of analysts who studied the intricacies of the Velimirovic Attack. The city of Groningen especially, with players as Erik Hoeksema, Christofoor Baljon and Gert Ligterink, was a bulwark of defenders of the case for Black. Apparently they prevailed, as the Velimirovic Attack is not very popular nowadays.

But ironically, for the general Dutch chess public, Velimirovic’s name became famous not for one of his brilliant attacking victories, but for a game he lost against Jan Timman at the Interzonal in Rio de Janeiro in 1979.

Timman had started badly in that tournament, but then he recovered and his chances to qualify for the candidates matches were still alive. An important game was that against Velimirovic. It had been adjourned for the first time after move 44 in a position that might be winning for Timman. It would be adjourned two more times and take 103 moves in all.

A crucial position was reached at the third adjournment after Black’s 77th move.

Rio de Janeiro 1979, after Black’s 77th

According to the highest authority at that time, the series of endgame books by the great analyst André Chéron, this position was objectively winning for White, but impossible to win in practice, because of the 50-move rule. In fact the last capture had been at move 64, so Timman’s time was running out.

The Dutch chess public was incensed by the injustice of it and the fire of sadness and anger was stoked up by Hein Donner, who in his newspaper de Volkskrant wrote five highly emotional articles about this game, the first one on October 4, at the first adjournment, and the final one on October 20, after Timman’s eventual victory.

The dates show how long a game could drag on in those days of adjournments. But looking at Donner’s articles now, I am mostly struck by the liberties allowed then to a chess journalist in one of the most popular Dutch newspapers. Five articles about one game. And by far the longest of these was not about breaking news, but a background article: a highly technical and detailed explanation of Chéron’s winning method for White from the diagram position, which tended to show that Timman would only be able to capture the pawn at a3 on move 128, while according to FIDE’s rules he had only until move 114 to do so.

Many Dutch amateur analysts tried to shorten the winning process and implored Donner that he should phone Timman in Rio de Janeiro to communicate their findings. Donner wisely refrained and in fact it turned out that Timman and his second Ulf Andersson had indeed managed to shorten Chéron’s winning method considerably.

Timman won the game; the Dutch chess world was jubilant. Timman was expected to qualify for the Candidates matches after all. But then in the final round (round 19!) some things went badly wrong for Timman and he missed qualification anyway.

This old story, engraved on the memory of Dutch players of my generation, is not the right way to do justice to Velimirovic, Master of Attack.

When Kasparov wrote about noise, rather than strength, he was referring to the game between Velimirovic and Lubomir Ljubojevic in the Yugoslav championship of 1972. It was a harsh judgment and I’ll leave it to the readers to judge if it was justified.

1972 Yugoslav Championship, after Black’s 13th move

Here Velimirovic sacrificed a rook with 14.Rxe6 fxe6 15.Nxe6 and Ljubojevic answered 15...Qa5, in itself a logical move, because it covers the important e1-square.

In 2007 Kasparov would show that with 15...Qb6, Black, after hair-raising complications, would have gotten the better of it.

OK, the rook sacrifice was not quite correct. But in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings that was published by Chess Informant in 1997, the verdict was still “unclear,” both after 15...Qa5 and after 15...Qb6. To paraphrase Kasparov, Velimirovic’s daring rook sacrifice had withstood the test of time for at least 25 years, and not because of a lack of interest from the analysts.

Click to play through the games:

Timman-Velimirovic, Rio de Janeiro 1979

Velimirovic-Ljubojevic, 1972 Yugoslav Championship