Gyula Sax (1951-2014), A Devilish Tactician

At the start of this year’s Tata Steel tournament there was a minute of silence in honor of Vugar Gashimov from Azerbaijan, who had died a few days earlier, at the age of 27, while being treated for a brain tumor. Gashimov’s last tournament had been Tata 2012.

Then, at the end of the tournament, we got the news that another great player had died on January 25, the Hungarian Gyula Sax, 62 years old. He had suffered a heart attack. I’ll write about Sax, because I have known him for many years.

Not during the later part of his life, though. After his death I read that in his last years, he had lived in quiet solitude. That didn’t mean that he had given up competitive chess; he had kept playing in team matches and tournaments, but these were not high level tournaments. His ambition had dropped, already at a time when his rating would justify more. My Dutch colleague Gert Ligterink wrote that a Hungarian journalist once told him that it had to do with love sickness, after Sax’s wife had left him in the 1990s. I do not know myself if this is true.

Sax had been Hungarian champion several times and twice he qualified for the candidates matches. Both times he was eliminated in his first match, in 1988 by Nigel Short and in 1991 by Victor Kortchnoi. In that match Kortchnoi had blundered a piece in the seventh game, but Sax didn’t notice. That game and also the next game ended in a draw, and Sax lost the tiebreak of two rapid games by 1½-½.

For twenty years, Sax was a pillar of strength of the Hungarian Olympic team, including 1978 in Buenos Aires, when Hungary won the Olympiad. It was the only time that the Soviet Union took part in the Olympiad without finishing first.

After his death, Judit Polgar wrote that Sax was the first grandmaster who treated her, when she was nine years old, as a fellow chessplayer. Judit’s sister Susan attested to his great human qualities. And Peter Leko told that when at the age of 11 he played for the first time at Wijk aan Zee, in a lower group, he got a lot of help from Sax, who also told him interesting chess stories.

He was a nice man. According to my memory he almost always beat me, and when I checked this with the database it proved to be true, and even worse than I had thought. He had beaten me five times and we had made four draws,that was all. Of course, he was much stronger than I, but against world champions, I had done better than against this devilish tactician.

My compatriot Hein Donner didn’t do much better. He played Sax three times and lost in 18, 24 and 25 moves. “I can’t play against him; he also looks so intelligent,” said Donner.

Even Jan Timman had a negative score against him. Genna Sosonko took a wise approach. He won his first game against Sax and drew the next seven games, with an average length of less than 15 moves. All in all, Sax vs. the Dutch brought no glory to our country.

In the last round of the Olympiad of 1978, only Hungary, the Soviet Union and the USA had a chance for gold. Sax settled the case in favor of Hungary by winning his game against the Yugoslav Alexander Matanovic.

Two years later Hungary missed winning the Olympiad on Malta by a hair’s-breadth. It had been leading from the start and it was only in the last round that the Soviet Union drew level. The two countries finished with the same number of board points and match points; the tie would be broken by the Sonneborn-Berger system. In this case, that meant that the Olympiad would be decided in the match between Scotland and Greece.

The last game to finish in that match was between Stephen Swanson and Georgios Makropoulos, the future Deputy President of FIDE. A few years ago, New in Chess Magazine asked Garry Kasparov what the most exciting game was that he had ever watched. Swanson-Makropoulos, was the answer. Indeed, the stakes in that game were high. If Makropoulos won, the Soviet Union would win the Olympiad; otherwise it would be Hungary.

At the time I thought that the Scot and the Greek would be mightily surprised when they found that a big flock of spectators who had done their calculations were swarming around the board where they were playing their adjourned game. But I was wrong. At the adjournment, Kasparov had offered his assistance to the Greeks – there were actually two adjourned games in their match – who therefore were well aware of the importance of their struggle.

And so were the Scots. They had not received an offer of assistance from the Hungarians and later said that they would never have accepted outside assistance anyway.

Makropoulos won his game. To be honest, his position at the adjournment had been so superior that he would certainly have managed to win it on his own.

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Buenos Aires 1978