Remembering the Chicken King

By Dan F. Oakes

In 1984, I turned 16, graduated from high school, had no interest in going to college, and nothing in particular that I wanted to do with my life. Fortunately, I found an alternative to doing anything productive - I stumbled into Labate's Chess Center, then located at the intersection of Beach and Ball (I'm not making this up) in Anaheim. I became a chess bum, in the most enjoyable sense of the word, and I found the best place imaginable to do it. I ended up working full-time at the Center (or, as we called it in Labate's-slang, The Centaur), and when I wasn't working, I was studying chess, playing blitz or tournament games, or late night (all night) "Siamese Chess," as we referred to what is now more popularly known as Bughouse. Labate's was home to many a top experts and master, and for the weekend tournaments, many a visiting IM or GM. It really was, for quite a while, the place to be for chess in Southern California. Of course, it left me with a great many stories, but since I chose to write an article, and not a book, I had to pick few notes about Igor Ivanov.

If you didn't know Igor, you have my sympathies. He was a regular on the tournament circuit, and since Labate's ran huge grand prix tournaments one weekend each month, and every Tuesday or Thursday night 5-weeks at a time, he was a regular at Labate's. The Grand Prix was something sponsored by Church's Fried Chicken; tournament successes brought points, and running annual tallies were kept, with year-end prizes for final standings. The battle was usually for second place - Igor hit the tournament trial, and he hit it hard, racking up "Chicken Points" like a madman, and setting the standard for the Grand Prix race.

He was a transplant from Russia, via Canada, and reasonably considered by many "The Greatest non-GM in the World." We also had "The Greatest non-IM in the World," Cyrus Lakdawala, who subsequently proved us right be gaining the IM title. Igor had crushed Karpov in a beautiful game in '79, and narrowly missed qualifying for the candidates matches with his performance at the 1982 Toluca interzonal, finishing 4th, 1 point behind Portisch and Torre, and ½ point behind Spassky.

But if Igor ever felt he was slumming, showing up for Tuesday weeknighters while Torre was duking it out for the right to challenge Karpov for the world title, he never showed it. Instead, he would occasionally stay late to play bughouse or blitz with people (myself included) who really had no business being on the other side of a chess set from him. He would make friends with anyone, regardless of rating, and hold discussion on any variety of topics. And with pure joy and no pretense, as befits a bona fide artist, with a grin, he would ask anyone who wanted to be dazzled by his brilliance, "Have you seen my game with Karpov?" Thereupon, he would not only show the game, but also all of the world class analysis and "what ifs" that were involved.

Igor enjoyed life, and everyone who knew him seemed to enjoy it more for having known him. He traded chess lessons for Ms. Pac Man lessons, and subsequently became not only a world-class chess player, but a world-class Ms. Pac Man player. He danced in the parking lot of Labate's, and also wandered around periodically for up to ½ hour at the time. To the uninitiated who tried to be helpful by informing Igor that it was his move, Igor would say, "Yes, I'm analyzing." If asked why he wasn't analyzing at the board, Igor would say with his grin, "The pieces get in the way."

If Igor ever gave an inkling of disappointment that he was destined for more, it was in his not-too-uncommon nights when his chess would be combined with vodka. One such night came amid a Tuesday night tournament (a Grand Prix event) which lasted 6 consecutive Tuesdays. On one of those Tuesdays, Igor lost to a 1900 player named Doug McCusker. Coincidentally, I caught a break and scored my biggest tournament win to date, over Dan Durham (2430) who hung a piece in a not-particularly-complicated position. As I had been playing tournament chess for only about a year and a half, and had started the game (as black): 1. d4...d5; 2. c4...Bf5 (hey, gotta mix it up against those senior masters), I was quite thrilled. This led to my only tournament game against Igor, where I had the white side of a Sicilian. I was pretty sure I was winning through about move 17, as I recall, and I also recall that I resigned around move 23.

This led to another great Labate's moment - going into the final round, three of us were 4-1 - Ivanov, Durham, and myself. However, I had played both Ivanov and Durham, and they had not played each other. I walked up to Dan Durham, who was standing staring at the pairing sheet: Board 1 - Ivanov-Durham; Board 2 - Kinzie-Oakes. We were tied for first place alright, but my opponent was rated about 1800, and his was an IM. Durham shook his head, glanced over at me, and said semi-disgustedly, "I never should have lost to your ass, Danny boy."

As I finished off my best tournament to date with a piece sac and a winning attack in a Dutch defense, Ivanov castled long against Durham's QGD, and brushed him off the board about as easily as you'd get a bothersome fly away off of your shoulder. It was a great attack, and when our games ended at about the same time, I said to Igor, "Nice attack!" Igor, who had been following my game as well, just smiled and said, "Like you." So we tied for first place at 5-1, splitting the money and a handful of Grand Prix points. Of course, over the year, Igor added several hundred to his total, racking up another title.

Igor was also an incredibly gifted musician. He had a often-difficult life - he was orphaned at 14; he tied for first place with Kasparov in a qualifying event for the USSR Championship final...but lost on tiebreaks; He defected from the Soviet Union by making a run for it from a plane making a refueling stop, leaving pretty much with just the clothes on his back. He ended up settling in Utah with his wife, Elizabeth (nee Jameson), a former bridge partner of mine. In 2005, he was diagnosed with cancer. That didn't stop him from finishing in 8th place at the US Open that same year, and winning the Utah Open in late October 2005. Three weeks later, he was dead - not yet 60. In 2005, his year of illness, he was awarded the grandmaster title. GM norm performances from the late 70's were finally recognized; my understanding is that part of the non-recognition was Soviet backlash for his defection. In Anaheim, California, though, we all knew we had a GM in our midst, and a good one...regardless of what letters they put after his name. The modest, unassuming, often shy, funny, and immensely talented man with the zest for life and a genuine love for people was always a grandmaster, in the best sense of the word.

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