An Encounter with David Bronstein

by Bill Price

On May 24, 1993, I met ex-Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein.

David Bronstein in the 1960'sBronstein was one of several Soviet grandmaster chess players whose name became familiar to me at an early age. I joined the USCF in 1964 at the age of 14, and in reading the Chess Life magazine every month I was introduced to most of the greatest names in world chess during the early and mid-sixties. There were Petrosian, who had just won the world championship in 1963, and Botvinnik, the ex-world champion. There were Smyslov, Tal, Keres, Geller, Stein, Korchnoi, Kholmov, Spassky, and many others. Some of the top American players were Fischer, Reshevsky, Bisguier, the Byrne brothers, Evans, Saidy, Lombardy, and Benko. World class players from other countries included Najdorf, Gligoric, Larsen, Portisch, Donner, and Unzicker.

When I read the chess column of the L.A. Times on Sunday, May 23rd, I saw that David Bronstein was to give a lecture and simultaneous exhibition at the Chess Palace in Long Beach. This was a great opportunity for me to meet one of these living legends in person! Even more enticing was the idea of getting his autograph in one my chess books which he had authored, a rare Russian edition of his famous work on the 1953 Zurich tournament, which I had bought several years earlier in a Russian book store.

The lecture was to begin at 7:30. I left work at 4:00 and drove straight to Long Beach. I arrived in plenty of time, around 5:00. I paid my $5.00 admission fee, and then waited for Mr. Bronstein to appear.

At about 7:10, a couple men walked into the room, one of them balding, bushy-eyebrowed, bespectacled old man. I immediately recognized him as Bronstein. He had aged considerably compared with the photos of him I had seen in my old chess magazines. He must have been around 70 years old. His manner was very unassuming, his clothes rather plain, and there was nothing in his appearance that would suggest his fame or chess prowess. His entrance was totally without fanfare, and a non-chess player would have surely taken him for just another of the many club members that kept trickling into the room.

Bronstein's autograph in Russian and EnglishThe manager of the club, Charles Rostedt, greeted Mr. Bronstein, and then informed him that several of the attendees were interested in autographs. I was the second in line. When it was my turn, I laid my book down in front of him, and asked him for his autograph in Russian and English. I was very nervous, and probably made a strange impression on him, even more so since he was hardly expecting anyone there to speak Russian with him. He seemed a bit confused at first, rather subdued, and even a bit intimidated. He examined the inside cover of the book briefly, and then asked me, in Russian, where he was to sign. After I showed him, he removed his glasses, squinted, took aim with his pen, and slowly began to write. After signing his name in Russian, he began mumbling something to me apologetically about his signature. "A 'B'", he said sheepishly, pointing to a flattened, slender stroke near the beginning of his name. "That's a 'B'." He then squinted again, and began to write his name in English. I noticed that the style of his English handwriting was much different from his Russian; it had a certain schoolboyish look to it, whereas his Russian penmanship was very polished and personalized.

The lecture lasted about an hour and a half. It consisted almost entirely of games from a very recent tournament in which he and a strong computer program had participated. Bronstein's English was not too good, but adequate. He had a thick, typically Russian accent. He was not as dynamic as I had imagined him to be, and gave the appearance of a very humble, polite, and quiet old gentleman. It was difficult for me to imagine that this was the David Bronstein, world-famous grandmaster, who almost won the world championship from Botvinnik in 1951.

Bronstein played the first two moves of the King's gambit on the display board. "This is what you should play," he said. "This is what you can learn about chess. Play for fun. Play the King's gambit." As for openings popular with grandmasters, he said, "They're boring. Look at this. Nowadays they play something like this." He played out the first three or four moves of a Nimzoindian defense and an English opening. "This is popular with the grandmasters. But it's boring."

After the lecture, Mr. Bronstein gave a simultaneous exhibition to about two dozen club players in the room. I didn’t have the time to stay and watch the entire exhibition from beginning to end, but did get to observe about half an hour of the action. The playing skill of his opponents probably ranged from absolute beginner to strong amateur. Mr. Bronstein played very modestly and deliberately. I was impressed with his play, not necessarily for its brilliance, but for the respect he had for his opponents. It was clear that he wanted everyone to have a good time and to enjoy chess. He had no need to gratify his ego with some cheap wins against weaker opponents. I’m sure he could have crushed everyone like so many ants, but instead he seemed to be allowing his opponents as many opportunities as possible.

One of the players, obviously quite new to chess, was timidly shifting his pieces around into a very awkward position. If he had been playing in an exhibition with a Fischer or a Kasparov, he would have lost the game very quickly. Bronstein, however, handled his opponent very respectfully and graciously. Every time he came around to this game, he stopped, gave the appearance of thinking very deeply for a few moments, and then made an innocuous waiting move of some kind, never upsetting the balance of the position or attempting an assault on his opponent’s flimsy defense.

Another player seemed quite excited when I walked over to look at his board. He was looking at me over his shoulder with an expression of incredulity, pointing at what he was about to do to his grandmaster opponent. He was on the point of trapping Bronstein’s Queen with a single move! When Bronstein ambled over to this fellow’s board and saw the move, he studied the position for a few seconds, made a gesture that seemed to say "oh, well…", coughed up his Queen, and walked on.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the outcome of either of these games. I always wondered if Bronstein managed to win the game minus his Queen, or if he ever put an end to the endless wood-shifting with the beginner. But one thing was clear to me. He was an unpretentious gentleman who loved and enjoyed chess, and wanted to make sure that other chess players enjoyed it as much as he did, regardless of their stature or strength.

David Bronstein in 1993

David Bronstein in 1993

Photograph by Bill Price

Copyright 1999 by Bill Price
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