The Stanley Random Chess Files - No. 5b

A Personal Encounter with GM Victor Seignovich

Little is known about the personal life of GM Victor Seignovich, but an anecdote about a personal encounter with the famous Russian grandmaster sheds some light on his warm personality.

From Poland, Wlodzimierz Holsztynski writes:

Dear SRC GM Topov,

You ask about personal encounters with GM Victor Seignovich. My hands are shaking while I am typing, and it is not due to my age but because of the emotion.

I am sure that you remember that Grand Master was late to one of his tournaments in the West, that some special arrangements had to be made to get the tournament go smoothly. This is how it happened. This is the first time that this old story will see the light.

I was a young railroad worker at the time, at the border of Poland and White Russia which was also the border of ex-Russian Empire. I was crazy about chess. I even managed to buy myself a tournament chess set and... a chess clock!!! It cost me a fortune. I never used them because my friends were weak chess players. Thus we used some cheap sets, and some we made ourselves. Nevertheless, when I was by myself, I practiced using the clock, it was fun.

One evening a train from Russia arrived and inside I saw a youngster, about 20 years old, studying a chess position. He was even looking into a magazine which had chess diagrams. It was the first time that I saw something like this, a publication with a chess diagram. I winked to my friends, and I challenged that youngster. He was in no hurry to play me until I had explained to him that his train is going to stay put for many hours. 4-5 hours was standard, because before a train leaves the Russian territory its wheels have to be adjusted to the narrower Western rails.

He agreed to play a couple of blitzes. I lost but I made it interesting. Thus we played several games, I hardly won any but a couple. Five minutes per game was too fast for me. I asked him to play 15 minute games. He said "go ahead, take 15", but I had my pride, especially that I was older, I was 25 at the time (I had my 100th birthday recently). The youngster was nice, he agreed, we set both clocks to 15 minutes, and he was happy that he did, because he was using about all that time. He said so himself! Now I was winning about 10-15% of the games. You may wonder how was it possible to squeeze so many games into a 4-5 hour long slot? -- I told you that I was crazy about chess, that I winked to my friends.

The train stayed put at the border for who knows how long! That's how later GM Seignovich missed the beginning of the tournament at his destination. But he didn't seem to be sorry about the delay. He was amused. I was finally tired of that long chess night. It was around noon time that finally the train was ready to go further West.

Before he left, GM Seignovich wrote down the moves from two of our games, of which one was his brilliant win and the other was a hard fought game in which I was lucky to finally prevail. He asked for my name, had printed both his and mine on the score sheet, and dated and signed both of them. This is how I have learned his name. At the time I thought that GM were his initials or perhaps an aristocratic title.

I kept those score sheets secure for years but they didn't survive World War II. Thus all I am left with is the memory of a remarkable, kind youngster, who loved chess and drink as much as I did. I remember more details of my only encounter with a strong chess player but I have already had your attention for too long.

Best regards, Wlodzimzierz Holsztynski

Excited on account of this personal connection with the great Russian champion, I continued some correspondence with our friend from Poland, and I reproduce that correspondence here in full:

Dear Mr. Holsztynski,

Your account certainly breathes an air of humility and authenticity, and I am very excited to receive correspondence from someone who has actually met Victor Seignovich in person! Nonetheless, perhaps you can confirm a few details to verify the truth of your story.

Dear GrandMaster,

I'll gladly answer all your questions. I am honored by your interest in my episode of which I am so fond. It was only one of two cases, over all those years, that I played a passanger (passangers were looking down their nose on us, simple railroad workers). In the other case my partner (or, as we say in the West--opponent) was a complete amateur, a servant from India, he didn't quite knew the rules. As white he would move not one but two pawns, say to squares b3 and g3. We played several short series of games, each consisting of about four games. After each session he had to go to his master, do some chores around him, like making tea, then he had to ask for permission to play again. He won all games (and I must add that he made it look easy) but for the last game, after which he didn't play anymore. Oh, no, it was not because he lost to me but because after the game he had belched when he addressed his master. You see, it was only before the last game that my Indian partner agreed to have some vodka. I was surprised that after that one tea glass he didn't look stronger, he seemed a little bit disoriented. Anyway, his master would not let him to continue our games. I was somewhat sorry, no big deal, the Indian guy was not any GrandMaster like GM Seignovich, he was just a sharp, talented amateur.

Of course I am glad to clarify any points. When one gets somewhat older one likes to reminisce nonstop. The fact that we are talking about events from three quarters of a century ago is not much of an obstacle as long as my memory serves me well, and it does. The difficulty is elsewhere. Today we look differntly at things, we have different perception, different priorities. And this can fool me too! I've written that the standard stop for the trains was about 4-5 hours, and that in the particular case the train was waiting for the realingment about 18h. Actually you should double these figures. The standard delay was at least ten hours long. And that chess session with GM Victor Seignovich had lasted some 36h, a day and a half. Today everything happens fast. It is hard even for me to believe that so many people would spent so much time at our stop train doing nothing.

It was all blurr to me even then, at the time, except for the chess. We were taking breaks to eat, and when the nature called. Once or twice GrandMaster played a game on the side with one of my friends, while seriously concentrating on me. He didn't like the distraction and asked nicely to let him play just me. I didn't say a word but inside I was very proud of monopolizing his chess attention.

From your account, it appears that your meeting with Seignovich was less than a year before his death. I suspect that it was possibly when he was on his way to the 1930 Hungarian Open? This was one of his last public appearances prior to him being institutionalized, and he did indeed arrive at the tournament late. As I wrote earlier, this was when his alcohol induced delusions became public, and "he arrived dressed as a knight, and began eating his opponents rooks, apparently under the delusion that they were made of swiss cheese." Your story would certainly corroborate the sad state of affairs that emerged, and would go a long way to explaining how Seignovich had the opportuntiy to consume so much alcohol prior to the tournament in the first place, particularly if the train was extensively delayed. Do you remember him consuming copious amounts of alcohol? Did he appear deluded at any point?

Suddenly I feel a bit sad, possibly even guilty. I mean the vodka angle, so to speak.

Sure. Of course, we ate during the breaks, but we were drinking non-stop. You need to understand the circumstances. Grandmaster seemed perfectly normal to me. The way he dressed didn't surprise me because I was taking everything in stride. I've seen people dressing in every each way. This was a train stop where you could see a lot of different people from different places, and from different social strata. I assumed that he was an aristocrat and that's why he dressed somewhat differently. His hands were very smooth, very gentle, he never did any physical work in his life, I am sure of this.

From what you write it seems that he was on his way to Budapest. Thus it would be a roundabout way. There was also a more direct, Southern route but this part of the world was always in some turmoil or another, if not outright boiling then at least simmering, there was always a trouble, especially South of us. Thus we were getting a lot of trains and passangers who meant to go South. It was actually quite normal, it was common.

Yes, while we were taking breaks for eating, etc, we played and drank virtually nonstop. That's how we used to live. There were thirty to sixty male railroad workers living in four barracks, who had nothing to do but to drink and to play chess. Vodka was cheap because it was samogon (moonshine). The nearest small town was about hundred miles away (which was a significant distance in those days), the nearest villages were ten-fifteen miles away. During the winter we would attend village dances. We always went well prepared, and the farm boys were prepared too, so that after dances always someone got hurt (I mean dead or wishing to be dead) -- it was great. That was the only entertainment that we had.

GM Seignovich was not rough like us physically, but drinking wise I didn't see any problem, he fit with the rest of us perfectly. I never gave it another tought until now. He was very normal, we enjoyed each other company, he was not delusional, not at all. All of us had that v.a.g. (vodka absorbing gene), including the GrandMaster. I would never guess that GrandMaster Seignovich would have any problem with alcohol (except for not having enough of it). He was not like that Indian servant, for whom I was sorry--he didn't take to vodka instantly, he needed time to adjust. That's why I am sure that this amateur Indian never became a professional chessplayer. If it were not for his master I would fix it, and we would all hear about his achievements.

Further, it is widely known that Victor Seignovich had a distinct aversion to traditional chess. At what point of your meeting with Seignovich did you become aware that he was playing Stanley Random Chess, and not traditional chess? Perhaps he had some accompanying literature with him that tipped you off? Seignovich was known to have read the "Advanced Stanley Random Chess" by Volkington-Bovart from cover to cover at age 6, and it was unusual for him to appear anywhere without his favorite books!

Yes, there were some books in his compartment. I couldn't care less at the time about "literature". Remember that we had people from all over the world. We played with all kind of rules. I was used to be told about rules suddenly in the middle of the game. Some guys would get into a fight on such occasions. I was a quiet big bear and hardly ever had to get mad. I was willing to play by most any rules (I have mentioned the weird openings by the Indian guy). I am sorry that after three quarters of a century and many buckets of vodka I can't tell you that I remember perfectly the rules we played by. I remember that I accepted his rules without any quarrel. He explained them very clearly.

I enjoyed the challenge of various rules except when some fellow workers tried to cheat. They would suddenly say: you didn't see that you could take my rook with your queen, so now I take your queen off the board. I learned to tell them in advance: I see that I can take that rook, which you hang on purpose, you, sneaky bastard, but instead of snatching it I am going to checkmate you in four. It was a nuisance but then you don't get a grandmaster or even an Indian amateur at such a remote hole every day.

Thank you GrandMaster. I enjoy reading about the time of my youth, when chess and vodka were so important. I guess, GM Victor was stronger than me in the first one, while I was in the latter.

Best regards, Wlod

Dear Mr. Wlodzimierz Holsztynski,

Your moving account about your chance encounter with Seignovich left me in tears. I am greatly indebted to you for sharing this wonderful and heartwarming story. I plan to include a chapter about Seignovich in my forthcoming unauthorized autobiography. I would be most grateful if you would allow me the liberty of quoting you as a source? Certainly you have done much to enlighten the Stanley Random Chess playing community's understanding of Seignovich's last movements prior to his final tournament in 1930. In appreciation,

SR Chess GM Gregory Topov

GM Topov welcomes hearing from others who can shed light on the bizarre events that emerged at the 1930 Hungarian Open.

Posted Tuesday - 2006-04-04 - 12:07:25 EST
by Staff Reporter Verdra H. Ciretop in Toronto
All Rights Unreserved - Loof Lirpa Publishing
Text may be freely copied & redistributed

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