Borislav Ivkov, 1933-2022 – Chess.com

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GM Borislav Ivkov, the first World Junior Champion, three-time Yugoslav champion, and former world championship candidate who defeated five world champions of chess, died on Monday at the age of 88. The news was confirmed by FIDE.

“To be honest, my whole playing life, I did not understand chess. For me, chess was a way to see the world, and there are so many beautiful things to experience and learn out there… There are possibly two things more beautiful than chess – music and women. But, like music and women, chess needs understanding. And there are some great people who understood the link between chess and life so well…”

This quote was taken from Milan Dinic’s interview with Ivkov from 2017 in British Chess Magazine. Dinic, who shared more interesting details about Ivkov on the FIDE website, described Ivkov as “a true gentleman, one of those people who can charm their way in and out of any conversation, showing their vast knowledge about almost every topic but never coming across as arrogant or impatient.”

Bora Ivkov
“Bora” Ivkov in 1963. Photo: F.N. Broers / Anefo / Dutch National Archives.

Borislav (Bora) Ivkov was born November 12, 1933 in Belgrade, then Yugoslavia. At the age of 16, he finished in shared fourth place in the 1949 Yugoslav Championship, which earned him the National Master title. 

He made fame early in his career for winning the first ever World Junior Championship for players under 20, held at Coventry and Birmingham in 1951. Three years later, he became an International Master and a year after that, a grandmaster.

That was in 1955, when becoming a grandmaster meant belonging to the strongest players in the world. Ivkov had scored breakthrough tournaments in Argentina, winning Mar del Plata 1955 with 11.5/15 and Buenos Aires 1955 with 13/17.

In the 1960s, Ivkov continued scoring several (shared) first prizes at strong tournaments. Examples are Beverwijk 1961 with GM Bent Larsen, Belgrade 1964 with GMs Viktor Korchnoi and Boris Spassky, Zagreb 1965 with Wolfgang Uhlmann (ahead of reigning world champion Tigran Petrosian), Sarajevo 1967 with GM Leonid Stein, Belgrade 1969 with GMs Lev Polugaevsky, Svetozar Gligoric, and Milan Matulovic, Amsterdam 1974 with GMs Vlastimil Jansa and Vladimir Tukmakov.

Ivkov famously defeated five world champions: Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Petrosian (twice), Bobby Fischer (twice), and Anatoly Karpov.

In September 1965 in Havana, Cuba, Ivkov came close to what would have been the finest tournament victory of his career. After beating both Fischer and Smyslov, he was leading by a point with two rounds to go.

The dramatic final phase of that tournament—famously played by Fischer via telex— was described by one of the participants, Dutch GM Jan Hein Donner, in his article “Ivkov’s Tragedy,” published a few weeks later in Elseviers Weekblad:

lvkov could have secured first place one round before the end – a situation that had not occurred in any of the previous Capablanca memorial tournaments. To bring this off, he had to beat cellar-dweller Garcia, a very weak player indeed. After only a dozen moves or so, Ivkov, with black, was clearly better and some 10 moves later he was totally winning. Yet Garcia somehow managed to muddle on and lvkov ended up in time-trouble. On the 36th move, the following position was reached. It hurts to have this revolting section of the game get into print.

Black has every right to be pleased with himself. He is three pawns and the exchange up. White has no real threats – “even if he were allowed two moves instead of the one,” as chess players would say. If only Ivkov had not been in such serious time-trouble! His hand hovered over the board, hesitated and suddenly found the only, ghastly way to lose the game instantaneously. Abandoned by all his guardian angels, Black played the unbelievable move: 36…d4-d3 and lost after 37.Bd2-c3.

Donner then also annotates the key moments in Ivkov’s last-round game:

By then, GM Efim Geller and Fischer had caught Ivkov in first place as they also finished their tournament on 15/21. Smyslov eventually managed to win a long game to finish on 15.5 points and win the tournament. Donner:

All I can add about Ivkov is that he bore up bravely under the hammer blows of fate. We didn’t see much of him towards the end of the tournament but when he appeared in public, he smiled in a sad and dignified way.

Ivkov was a three-time Yugoslav Champion with shared titles in 1958 and 1963, and a clear first place in 1972. He represented Yugoslavia 12 times at Olympiads, from 1956 to 1980, and six times in European Team Championships.

The Yugoslav grandmaster was a candidate for the world championship as well. He qualified from the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal to the Candidates matches the next year, when he lost his first-round Candidates match at Zagreb to Larsen. Ivkov played four more interzonal tournaments (Sousse 1967, Palma de Mallorca 1970, Petropolis 1973, and Rio de Janeiro 1979) but failed to qualify again. He came quite close in ’79, when he was 46 years old.

Borislav Ivkov in 2008
Borislav Ivkov in 2008. Photo: Francis Raymund Haro

Later successes included a tournament victory at the 1985 Capablanca Memorial at Cienfuegos (20 years after narrowly missing that victory!) and a shared win at the Petrosian Memorial at Moscow 1999. His last FIDE rated tournament was the 2013 “Snowdrops vs Old Hands” tournament in Podebrady, Czech Republic.

Ivkov was also an international arbiter and wrote several books, including the autobiography My 60 Years in Chess. He left a son and a grandson.

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