I met Nikolay Minev at a chess tournament in Seattle in August, 1983. I was a spectator at that tournament, and in one round I found myself engaged in very pleasant conversation with Nikolay’s wife Elena, who was there with her husband. Sometime later, I began taking chess lessons from Nikolay, but before long, our time together became less formal and more friendly, and he refused to accept any further payment from me. I was often first with the score of the most recent World Championship game, and as the two of us played through innumerable games together, I never ceased to marvel at how quickly Nikolay understood things that became clear to me only after his patient explanation.
Our friendship has continued for close to twenty-eight years now. I recently realized that I was uniquely positioned to share Nikolay’s story and perspective on chess with a wider audience than they had known before. First, he is my friend; and second, I have a blog! When I spoke with him about my blog, and suggested doing this interview, he agreed immediately. What follows is the conversation that took place in his study over the course of two afternoons. My thanks to Nikolay for being so generous with his time, and to Elena also, both for the two pictures of her and Nikolay and for insuring that we always had plenty of mouth-watering pastries on hand, and strong Bulgarian coffee.
DERRICK: Nikolay, there has been a lot of confusion about this point, so perhaps you will clear it up for us once and for all. Where and when were you born?
NIKOLAY: I was born in Bulgaria in the city of Russe, which is on the Danube across the Romanian border, and I was born on November 8, 1931. There was a lot of confusion about this because fifty years ago, FIDE published in their notes for one Olympiad that I was born in January, and from that time in many publications it was written that Minev was born on the 8th of January, 1931. It’s not true, and now the correct date is shown on the internet.
DERRICK: All right, I’m happy to publish the correct date here also. Tell me, how were you introduced to chess?
NIKOLAY: Very interesting! I was with my mom and my sister at the circus. One of our old friends was with my mom because my father had died many years before, and when we returned home, he said to my mom, “Why haven’t you put this young man in the chess club in Russe?” This was very interesting to me, but at the time we didn’t react very much. At this time I started to play soccer for the junior team. One day the soccer match was played in raining weather. When I returned home I didn’t tell my mother that I had been playing soccer, because my father had died from soccer. I began to be ill – three days with a very high temperature. The doctor came and said, “Okay, this guy probably was somewhere in very cold weather, and this is why he is sick.” My mother said, “Where were you?” and I confessed that I had been playing soccer. She said, “Now, you will stop playing soccer, and start playing chess,” and she bought me a chess board. That was the start.
DERRICK: Who was, or were, your most important teachers?
NIKOLAY: When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, a master from Russia came to Russe, a Bulgarian master named Kamen Piskov. This guy won the Bulgarian championship in 1947. I don’t know why, but he started to play with me every evening when I met him at the chess club. He beat me sometimes 12, 20 games, sometimes 15 games, sometimes 10 games. This went on for two or three months. After that I started to take some games from him. We played together in the 1947 championship; he won first place, I won last place.
DERRICK: Was there a particular event that made you decide to become a chess master?
NIKOLAY: The particular event was when I placed last in the Bulgarian championship of 1947. I am a competitive person, and I said, “No, no, no, I will go ahead!” Two years after that, in the autumn of 1949, I went to Sofia to the university to study medicine, and there I began immediately to develop. In 1950 I participated in the semi-final, qualifying for the final, and took first through third place in the championship.
DERRICK: Were there any books that you remember as especially important or helpful to you as a student?
NIKOLAY: First of all, when I learned chess, there were no books around. My friend Milev borrowed one book from the library, and took it home. It was Three Hundred Games by Tarrasch. After that, I took the book for myself, and I copied by hand half of the book. We saw only this book; there was nothing else, not even magazines. This was in 1946, immediately after the Second World War. There was no information coming, not even from Russia at this time. After that began to come Russian books, etc., but when I learned chess, there was no other information except for this book. It was incredible! After that, we changed this book for one other book: Five Hundred Games by Tartakower, and we also swallowed everything inside. This is, by the way, a very good book. You will learn everything about every opening. I still have this, in English.
DERRICK: Of which of your chess accomplishments are you the most proud?
NIKOLAY: I think my best individual result was in the tournament in Novi Sad, 1972. I finished in third through fifth place, but it was a very strong tournament. There were many other tournaments in which I placed well, but I had very little opportunity to play internationally because of my work. Until 1973, I worked as a doctor, and it was possible to go to major tournaments only twice a year. This was why I participated mostly in team competition. My best team result was in the World Student Team Championship, Reykjavik 1957, where I finished in first place on second board ahead of Spassky.
DERRICK: What has been your greatest disappointment in chess?
NIKOLAY: I don’t know. I have no disappointments in chess.
DERRICK: Do you have a favorite among your own games?
NIKOLAY: My favorite from my own games was my game with Lothar Zinn from the 1967 zonal tournament in Halle, Germany. The outcome of this game hung on just one move for probably twenty moves. The other game was my first victory over a grandmaster, which happened against Szabo in the 1954 Olympiad. This was the first time a Bulgarian had ever defeated a grandmaster.
DERRICK: You’ve already mentioned Three Hundred Games by Tarrasch and Tartakover’s Five Hundred Games as having been important to you. Do you have any other favorite book or books?
NIKOLAY: I read many books, and every book I think has something to offer. You are able to learn from every book. Those two books made a special impression on me because they were the first chess books I ever read, but I have many other books and in every one I have found something interesting.
DERRICK: When and why did you decide to move to the United States?
NIKOLAY: This was a special situation. In 1972, I was working as the chief of a toxicology laboratory in Sofia. I was offered the position of Deputy Editor of the Bulgarian chess magazine, with the expectation that after three or four years, I would be the Chief Editor. The salary was even a little bit better than I was earning as a doctor; I would only have to work fifteen days per month, and I would have time for chess.
In 1977, I was still Deputy Editor, and I began to understand that as someone who was not a Communist Party member, it was very unlikely that I would ever become Chief Editor. At that time I began to work very closely with Chess Informant. One day I spoke with Matanovic, and I told him what my situation was in Bulgaria. He told me that a friend of his by the name of Siaperas, who was the Secretary of the Greek Chess Federation, was looking for a coach for the Greek national team. I talked with Siaperas and confirmed my interest in the position, and in December 1979, accepted the position as coach of the Greek team.
In 1982, while we were living in Athens, our apartment in Sofia was taken from us, and it became clear to my wife Elena and me that we had fallen out of favor with the Bulgarian authorities. In December, we flew to Vienna, where we were given a choice of living in Austria, Australia, or the United States. We chose the United States because Elena had friends living in Seattle. When we were interviewed by the U.S. immigration officials, they were not at all impressed with my credentials as a doctor or with Elena’s as a chemical engineer, but they were very interested to hear that I had played chess with Reshevsky, Lombardy, and Fischer, and our visa application was granted immediately. After that we moved to Seattle; Elena found a temporary job and I started to have some students. I won first prize in a tournament in Los Angeles and some other local tournaments, and continued my work for Chess Informant on the Encyclopedia of Chess Endings. Elena soon found a permanent job in a good laboratory; I began to have many more students, and we started to be okay.
DERRICK: In the course of your career, you have faced no fewer than seven world champions, and four others who contended for the world championship. Would you share with us your personal impressions and recollections of these giants of the chessboard? Beginning with those who never became World Champion, what can you tell us about Paul Keres?
NIKOLAY: Keres beat me four times. Every time, what impressed me about Keres very much was his ability of calculation. He was already at the stage when he was very experienced, and every time somewhere in the game he out-calculated me.
DERRICK: All right, let’s move on: Sammy Reshevsky.
NIKOLAY: Sammy Reshevsky I played only one time. The game finished in a draw, and he respected me because he offered me a draw around move 20. He spoke many languages, including some Russian. I didn’t know him very well.
DERRICK: David Bronstein.
NIKOLAY: David Bronstein and I played twice, and both games finished in a draw. In both games, he tried to attack me, but he was not able to do that. I was proud that in one game, I rejected his offer of a draw. He was a very nice person. I did one interview with him. He spoke for about two hours, and after that, said, “Write what you want.” He had many ideas that chess should be quicker, not two and a half hours, but quicker because now we know so much theory. In his games, I am very impressed with his ideas about the game. He was the most original player who was not able to be World Champion. He deserved it much more than many others who were World Champion, in my opinion.
DERRICK: Viktor Korchnoi.
NIKOLAY: My record with Viktor Korchnoi is 1-2; he beat me twice, I beat him one time. He is a very – how to say – combative person. Everybody is a rival for him, probably because of chess. I understood from Yasser Seirawan that it was not easy to work with him. He was very demanding all the time. But he played incredible chess, and I think that because of some circumstances, he was not able to be World Champion. He also deserved to be World Champion, in my opinion.
DERRICK: With regard to the seven World Champions you faced, I think the first was Euwe. Tell us about Euwe and your encounter with him.
NIKOLAY: I played with Euwe only one time, in 1954, in my second international tournament. Euwe was playing in probably his 150th international tournament. Our encounter was annotated in a book about Euwe by Teschner, in which he showed how I could have made a draw. What was incredible to me was that I saw this continuation, but I thought my position was so good that it wasn’t necessary for me to make a draw. After that, my decisions were bad; my assessment was bad. This means that he beat me in one moment in the game. I am not able to say anything else about Euwe because I didn’t know him.
DERRICK: Mikhail Botvinnik
NIKOLAY: I played Botvinnik also only one time. It was I think one of the best endgames of Botvinnik, who showed the world for the first time that it was possible to win the endgame of queen and b-pawn vs. queen. Before that, endgame theory said that it was not possible to win. He showed a new way to win. This game is annotated in many publications, including Botvinnik’s book, in which he devotes probably six pages to it. It was an incredible game. Twice I was two pawns down, with big counterplay for that. In the end, history will say that I was on the losing side of this theoretically important endgame.
DERRICK: Do you have any personal reflections about Botvinnik as an individual?
NIKOLAY: As an individual, Botvinnik didn’t speak very much. We spoke after the game, but I spoke much more than he did. He was very polite – incredibly polite – and I was very impressed with him. I was very young, and he was World Champion, and he made it a point to compliment my play. This means either that he respected me or that he was very polite, I don’t know which.
DERRICK: You also played with Botvinnik’s successor, Smyslov.
NIKOLAY: I played with Smyslov twice. The first time he beat me, in 1955, we repeated my game against Botvinnik. I repeated the game against Botvinnik because I was young and a little bit crazy, to attempt such a thing against Smyslov, who had Botvinnik as a rival and knew all his games. He played a big innovation against me that he had prepared after my game against Botvinnik. After this innovation, the position was a little bit better for him, and he slowly converted it to an endgame of queen, knight, and five pawns against queen, knight, and four pawns. This was an interesting moment for me. After the game, he said, “Why didn’t you exchange the queens? The game after that would have been very difficult for me to win.” You see, I was twenty-four years old, and I said, “Mr. Smyslov, I think that with the queen I had a better chance to resist.” He said, “No way. With the queen, you are lost.” This was the difference between Smyslov and me. He understood what was good and what was not.
DERRICK: Mikhail Tal.
NIKOLAY: With Tal, I was very good friends. I played with him one time, in Sarajevo, 1963, where he was first. I had a very good success; I was 4th-5th in a very strong tournament. The game is in Informant. At one moment, I started to feel that he was beginning to take more chances. I saw a pawn sacrifice, which was very nice, by the way, and I sacrificed the pawn. He thought for five minutes and offered a draw, which I rejected. After that, the game finished in a draw, but it was not easy for him.
One time, the two of us even played a soccer match, Bulgaria vs. USSR, in Reykjavik, 1957 during the World Junior Team Championship. He was the goalkeeper of the Russian team which lost 5-0, but they reported in Shakmaty v SSR that they lost 3-0, two goals less! After the game, Tal said, “You know what? I think that in your training camp before this tournament, you played more soccer than chess!”
DERRICK: Tigran Petrosian.
NIKOLAY: Okay. One time. I lost against him one time: Havana, 1966. I lost in the endgame, which was two pawns against one pawn, with minor pieces on the board, knight and bishop. This was an adjourned game. Nobody helped me, but for the Russian team, everybody helped him, and there was only one hour between the adjournment and resumption of the game. What was the game? I tried to attack him all the time, and all the time I ran into a wall. I go h4, he stopped me. I go a4, he stopped me. I go e4, he stopped me. All the time, he stopped me before I could start something. This was his style. Finally, I reached a position in which I was lost. I was not very impressed, by the way, because my style is very different. But this is chess; there are players here and there. Korchnoi also was not very impressed. He said that Petrosian sees the coming attack before you even think about attacking him.
DERRICK: Next is Boris Spassky.
NIKOLAY: I played with him one time, Reykjavik, 1957, one of the biggest successes of my life because Spassky was second board and I was second board. Based on results, I took first place on second board. Based on percentage, he took first place. When we played together, the Bulgarian team had already lost on three boards, and ours was the last game. He made an incredible sacrifice of a pawn, and gained the attack. I took the pawn, and after that returned it and achieved the better position. At that time, when I achieved the better position – it was around move 30 or 35 – the captain of the Russian team, who I think was Kan, offered a draw to my captain. My captain came to me and said, “The Russians offer a draw.” I said, “I have a better position.” He said, “You have a better position, but the score is 3-0. If you lose, it will be 4-0. I don’t want to be 4-0!” he said, and I agreed.
Spassky was also very nice, but I was not very close to him. Another Bulgarian, Milev, was very close to him. Spassky has a practical style. I like his style because it is an active style, all the time seeking the initiative somewhere. At the Olympiad in 1962, I was with Milev in our room, and Spassky and Tal came to our room, asking for something. They waited for us to get prepared to go out, and they started to play chess. I remember that Tal said when they started to play, “You know, my result with Spassky is equal. Until now, I make three draws, and he won three games. Three, three!”
DERRICK: That brings us to the final World Champion that you played against, Bobby Fischer.
NIKOLAY: Okay. Olympiad, 1966. I was in my best form. I played in the final against Petrosian, Gligoric, Szabo, Bobby Fischer, Najdorf, Larsen, Uhlmann, and Pomar. They gave me the day off against Johannessen of Norway, a weaker player. Against all these guys, I drew 6, won one, and lost five. I lost almost all my games with the black pieces, and saved two, I think. One of these games was against Bobby Fischer. I had prepared a rare continuation in the French Defense, and at the moment I played the characteristic move, I tried to see how Bobby would react to it. I was not able to see his reaction because he played immediately the best move available. This meant that he had studied that variation. After that, it was a very interesting game. I missed one move. He had a bishop on g2 and a pawn on g3. I missed the move, pawn to g4. After g4, I was in bad shape. I was able to make an interesting move which held some chances for him to go wrong tactically. Even Yasser when he saw the game said, “Oh, you have this move now!” I said, “I have this move; I made this move, but I lost immediately.” Bobby thought a little bit, and found two or three moves in a row, very accurate moves which finished the game. It’s possible that against anybody else, I would have had some success. Against Bobby, it was not possible.
My impression of him was that he was interested only in chess. Nothing else. One evening they took the American team, the Bulgarian team, and others to the Tropicana, which is the best nightclub in Havana. On the stage were fifty women who were almost naked. Everybody was watching the show except Bobby Fischer, who had his pocket chess set out and was showing Benko some position from that day.
As a doctor, I will tell you that even at the Olympiad in Varna, in ’62, I started to see that something was wrong with him. In the first round, there was a power failure for twenty minutes. Everyone was talking, milling around, going here and there. Bobby took his chair, went to the corner, and with his back to the wall, stayed there for twenty minutes without moving. Clearly scared. This is the first symptom of schizophrenia.
DERRICK: Larry Evans conducted an interview with Yuri Averbakh in Chess Life in December 1990. Yuri Averbakh said in that interview, “I’ve seen two geniuses in my time. One was Tal. In short, the other was Fischer. Maybe Kasparov also.” What is your opinion about this?
NIKOLAY: This was his opinion. Different players have different styles, different approaches to chess. Many times you will say, “This is genius, the other not” because their style doesn’t suit you. It’s a personal preference.
DERRICK: In general, what course of study would you recommend for the serious student of chess?
NIKOLAY: No study! You should take information. Chess is information. There is no magic book. You should take information all the time. It’s possible to take information from articles; every article has something positive to put in your mind. When you see many games, you put in your mind much information. This is until the end of your life. Much more information than you are able after that to use in practice. In short, try to absorb as much information as you can.
Let me give one example from my own life. When I was twenty years old and not even a Bulgarian master, in one game I had a bishop on b7 and a pawn on d5. I remembered that I had seen two or three games in which the pawn was sacrificed on d4 only to open the diagonal for the bishop, but I was at that stage where I didn’t have a great understanding of these guys, and I calculated, “Why should I give away the pawn when it’s not necessary at this moment.” I thought about this for ten or fifteen minutes, and I decided, “Everybody says that the bishop should play,” and I sacrificed the pawn. Incredible to me, I won after five moves, and I understood that if you have information, you must use that information. And the information was right.
Tal made one very nice combination sometime in the seventies. The journalists asked him, “How did you make this combination?” He said, “No, no, I didn’t make it. I saw this from Nona Gaprindashvili. She sacrificed in this way and won in this way against Servaty.” You see, Tal, who was World Champion, took information about something which he used after that to his advantage. This is the way in which chess is going. This is the reason why there exist good players who never read books, but only see games. Nakamura gave an interview recently in which he said, “How did I learn chess? I saw games. I saw games of Miles and some others.” Every time in some article there is something positive. The question is, will you understand it or not. In chess, if you have more information, you are better. The second part is to use this information over the board.
DERRICK: What is your opinion about the future of chess? Will advances in opening theory and computer analysis make it necessary to change the game in some fundamental way, such as by adding new pieces or by randomizing the starting position?
NIKOLAY: No, I don’t think so. You are not able to play over the board like a computer. Your opponent is not able to play like a computer. If you study chess by computer, do you know what will happen? I played one guy like this. Even Saidy came to me and said, “Be careful, because this guy has studied all the openings by computer. He knows everything and he’s very dangerous.” We started to play, and we played some opening with which I was also familiar. Somewhere around move twenty or twenty-five, I won a pawn, and he resigned immediately, and said, “You know what, Mr. Minev? You played a novelty at move 15.” I said, “What novelty?” He said, “This move.” I said, “This move is very logical on the board.” He said, “It’s not in the computer!”
This is the way. The human brain is limited. You are not able to learn everything. Even sometimes when I play something which I have known for many years, but haven’t used for five years, I say, “What’s the best move here?” Many times you make a decision in a position in which it’s not possible to say which move is the best. You should take the direction according to your understanding of strategy. A computer here is useless. If there are tactics on the board, the computer will see. It has a target. If it has no target, it won’t know what to do after the opening.
Probably chess will start to be a little bit quicker, as Bronstein said, not two hours for forty moves, but to be, let’s say, one and a half hour or one hour. Many tournaments now are in this way.
DERRICK: Nikolay, is there anything else you would like to say before we end this interview?
NIKOLAY: Let me tell you the most interesting moment in my life. In 1954, when I was 22 years old and about to be champion of Bulgaria for the first time, I lived with my mother and sister. My mother had a group of friends who came one evening every week to play Canasta. One day, these three women came to our home with the husband of one of the women. He was about 65 years old, and they announced that he is the best chess player in his building and his region, and because he understood that I was the best player in Bulgaria, he wanted to see how he played chess against me. Naturally he was a weak player, practically no theory. After two games in which I beat him, he started to be a little bit agitated. After I beat him five games, he started to think very much, every move. We played probably three hours, and I beat him – I don’t remember, but probably fifteen games or something like that. And now, everyone started to leave. All three women asked him, “What happened in your match?” I didn’t say anything. This guy looked at them and said, “You know, this youngster made very good resistance!”
Note: The interested reader will find a great deal more information about Nikolay Minev, including a biography, bibliography, and all his known games, at http://www.thechesslibrary.com/minev.html .