Russian grandmaster Vitaly Tseshkovsky died this past Saturday, the day before Christmas, at the age of 67. He went out with his spurs on, while playing in the opening round of a chess tournament in Krasnodar.
I suspect that many if not most of my readers have never heard of him before (at least not unless they've already seen mention of his passing somewhere else), and even the few who have heard of him know very little about the man. While I've known of him for at least three decades, from whenever it was in my youth that I picked up the old R.H.M Press book on the 1974 USSR Championship, his performance in that event wasn't very good (7/15, tying for 10th-11th of 16) and he rarely played outside the Soviet Union during his salad days. For all I know, he might be a larger than life figure to Russian players and those from the former Soviet Union, but to most westerners who have heard of him he was probably "just" another random GM.
The last couple of days I've spent some time looking him up though, and he deserves more renown as a chess player than he has received. As those of us who can remember the Soviet Championships can attest, they were often super-tournaments in their own right. All the Soviet world champions from Mikhail Botvinnik through Garry Kasparov participated on a fairly regular basis, as did such figures as Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Efim Geller, Lev Polugaevsky, Leonid Stein, Alexander Beliavsky, Viktor Korchnoi and many other players in the world's absolute elite. Qualifying for such a tournament was an accomplishment, while winning a Soviet championship marked someone as an exceptionally able player.
Vitaly Tseshkovsky won it twice. In addition to those titles, gained in 1978 (with Tal, ahead of Polugaevsky, Beliavsky, Geller, Kasparov and others) and 1986 (ahead of a more contemporary crew including Evgeny Bareev, Leonid Yudasin, Mikhail Gurevich, Sergei Dolmatov, Alexander Khalifman, Beliavsky and others).
In addition, he was nearly a Candidate, coming in fourth in the 1976 Interzonal in Manila. Three players qualified for the next stage, but Tseshkovsky finished half a point behind Polugaevsky and Vlastimil Hort (and a point behind winner Henrique Mecking). Nevertheless, he showed his class by coming ahead of Boris Spassky, Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Zoltan Ribli and many other very strong players.
The man clearly has a resume. So why was he a relative unknown? For one thing, he doesn't seem to have done anything terribly flamboyant, so there aren't any amusing stories about him - at least none that seem to have escaped his homeland. As noted earlier, he rarely played outside the USSR in his heyday, so he didn't get the chance to make an impression on the Western press. Perhaps the biggest reason for his anonymity is that his results were extremely volatile. I mentioned that he won the Soviet Championship in 1978 and 1986, but guess who tied for dead last in 1979 and 1987? You guessed it: Tseshkovsky! (I told you they were strong tournaments!)
That volatility went in the opposite direction as well. For much of the 1990s his rating fluctuated between the high 2400s and low 2500s - not bad for a player who entered the decade in his mid-40s and left it in his mid-50s. But then in 2004-5 he had a series of good results that pushed his rating to 2600, achieved at the age of 61! In an amazing accomplishment, he qualified for the finals of the 2004 Russian Championship, where he participated against Kasparov, Alexander Grischuk, Alexey Dreev, Alexander Morozevich, Peter Svidler, Evgeny Bareev and three other strong, significantly younger players. That the 60-year-old Tseshkovsky, the lowest seed, came in last wasn't too surprising, but getting there was impressive. And so was his win over Morozevich, whom he defeated in a positional masterpiece. The man could play some great chess.
Tseshkovsky has passed, but apparently he did some work as a trainer too. Among the players who worked with him (to what degree and for how long, I do not know) were Boris Savchenko, Bartlomiej Macieja, and a player some of us have probably heard of - Vladimir Kramnik.
Rest in peace, Vitaly Tseshkovsky.