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Milan Vukcevich, Ph.D. (1937-2003)

Milan Vukcevich, Ph.D.

The chess world has lost one of its most talented and dedicated devotees with the passing of Milan Vukcevich on May 10 in Cleveland after a long bout with cancer. Chess players tend to be divided into over-the-board and correspondence players, problemists, and endgame composers. Milan was the rare individual who excelled in all forms of the game.

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on March 11, 1937 Milan did not have it easy in his youth. He grew up without his father Radoje, who was a liaison officer between the royal army of Yugoslavia and U.S. Forces, and was forced to flee to the United States after incurring the enmity of Marshall Tito. In his book, Chess by Milan (1981), Vukcevich credits his uncle Milan Trivanovic, his brother Ivan Sprung and family friend (and future IM) Triantafyllos Siaperas for installing in him a lifelong love of playing chess and composing problems. Also close to Milan were the members of the Belgrade chess club Slavia, which numbered among its members Milan Matulovic, Dragoljub Janosevic, Rudolf Maric, and Slobodan Lazarevic. This was a golden time for chess in Yugoslavia and Milan blossomed in the supportive environment.

He earned his candidate master title in 1953 and by 1955 was strong enough to win the Yugoslav Junior Championship and draw a match with a young Bent Larsen 3-3. That year he also began his studies at the University of Belgrade where he was affiliated until 1963. During this decade his chess and academic career blossomed. He received the very difficult-to-obtain Yugoslav Master title by scoring 50 percent in the 1958 Yugoslav Championship (he had missed by a half point in 1957), but it was in 1960 that he attracted the attention of the chess world.

Everyone remembers Leningrad 1960 as the scene of the great triumph for the U.S. Student Olympiad team (Lombardy, Kalme, Weinstein, Saidy, Mednis and Hearst) over the Soviets, but not too many will recall that Yugoslavia was third and Milan was the key factor. He tied for the best result on second board with the late Charles Kalme with 11˝-1˝. Only U.S. first-board William Lombardy had a better overall result in the competition with an amazing 12 out of 13. Milan’s victories over Tringov and Drimer won the best game and best endgame prizes. Later in the year he received a second team bronze medal when he was a member of the Yugoslav team that finished third in the Olympiad in Leipzig.

Milan moved to the United States in 1963 to enter the doctorate program in metallurgy at MIT. He graduated in 1967 and shortly thereafter moved to Cleveland where he taught at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for six years. When the university pressured him to engage in research not congenial to his nature, Milan refused and left to work in industry, primarily at the General Electric Company (GE) in Cleveland.

He played league chess in Boston and Cleveland in the 1960s but, it was his first-place tie with GMs Pal Benko and Robert Byrne at the 1969 U.S. Open that brought him to the attention of the American chess public. In the 1975 U.S. Closed championship, he had his best-ever result, narrowly missing qualification for the Interzonal, when he finished third. The following year he found the perfect vehicle to renew his love for team chess in the newly formed National Telephone League. Competing for the Cleveland Kinghunters, he performed exceptionally well year after year. In 1976 he led Cleveland to a third-place finish, tying with GM Kavalek for best result on Board 1 with 6˝-1˝. His sole loss was to Richard Verber when he lost on time on Move 40 after failing to punch his clock in a winning position. His score in 22 games in the NTL from 1976-1979 was a fantastic 16˝ points against almost entirely GM and IM opposition.

The demise of the National Telephone League marked the departure of Milan from the national chess scene, though he continued to play locally in Cleveland and in major events in Ohio, helping to raise the standard of chess in the Buckeye State. Among the Cleveland players who benefited from playing him in the late 1960s through 1980s were IMs Calvin Blocker and Dmitru Ghizdavu and NMs Ross Sprague, Tom Wozney, Robert Burns, James Schroeder, James Harkins and Richard Noel.

GM Lubosh Kavalek, in a 1973 interview, opined that Vukcevich, had he chosen to pursue chess professionally, possessed all the qualities to eventually become one of the world's top 30. His chess style was characterized by extensive and original opening knowledge, the ability to calculate deeply and accurately, and a penchant for problem-like solutions (exemplified by his stunning 16. ... Ng3!! against Shamkovich). This level of competitive success never came to be, partly because he loved his career as a scientist. As Vukcevich prepared for the 1975 U.S. Championship, he told The Plain Dealer that he did not consider going the route of most chess champions: eking out a living by playing in tournaments, teaching and writing about the subject. “I cannot be just a chess player or just a scientist. I have to be both. I have to get to my lab next week, even though I will be playing in the tournament ... I have a very happy life, happier than many others.”

Another reason that Milan never realized his full potential was that he preferred beauty in chess above all else. In his book Milan on Chess he mentions having come to prefer the noncompetitive world of composition to that of tournament chess, and the last 20 years of his life he composed many chess problems. He became the first American to hold the FIDE International Grandmaster of Chess Composition title in 1988. Just before his death, he published a second book of his best problems that is available for $35 from Mike Prcic, 2613 Northshore Lane, Westlake Village, CA 91361-3318. For his career achievements as a chess player and problem composer Milan was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 1998.

Milan’s accomplishments as a scientist were considerable. A Nobel Prize nominee for chemistry, he authored two books and for many years held the title of Chief Scientist at General Electric. He was a professor at the University of Arizona when he passed away.

As much as Milan accomplished as a player, composer and scientist, he will best be remembered for his love of life and friendly manner. James Schroeder, writing in the Cleveland Chess Bulletin, relates how Milan never asked for any special treatment despite being the best player in Cleveland in the 1960s and 70s. While playing in the 1975 Ohio Chess Congress, I had a chance to see first hand what a standup guy Milan was. The overwhelming favorite to win, he was upset early by an A player from Cincinnati by the name of Perry Sill, who beat him with a book trap in the Schliemann Variation of the Ruy Lopez in 19 moves. Many players in this situation would have been very angry and stomped out, but Milan congratulated his young opponent and stayed in the tournament for the remaining rounds despite no longer having any chance to win the event.

KING’S GAMBIT ACCEPTED [C34]
W:Georgy Tringov
B:Milan Vukcevich
Leningrad, 1960

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 h6 4. d4 g5 5. Bc4 d6 6. c3 Nc6 7. 0-0 Bg7 8. g3 Bh3 9. Rf2 Nf6! 10. Qc2 Qd7 11. gxf4 gxf4 12. Kh1 0-0-0 13. Bd3 d5! 14. e5 Ne4 15. Bxe4 dxe4 16. Qxe4 Bxe5! 17. Bxf4 Qg4! 18. Ng1 Bxf4 19. Nxh3 Qd1+ 20. Ng1 Rhg8 21. Rg2 Rxg2 22. Qxg2 Ne7! 23. Qe2 Qc1 24. Nd2 Qxd2 25. Qxd2 Bxd2 26. Rf1 f5 27. Nf3 Be3 28. Re1 f4, White resigns.

RUY LOPEZ [C78]
W: Milan Vukcevich (2375)
B: GM Arthur Bisguier
U.S. Open, Lincoln, 1969

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. 0-0 b5 6. Bb3 Bb7 7. Re1 Bc5 8. c3 d6 9. d4 Bb6 10. a4 Qe7 11. axb5 axb5 12. Rxa8+ Bxa8 13. Na3 Na7 14. Bg5 0-0 15. Nh4 Bb7 16. Nf5 Qd8 17. dxe5 dxe5 18. Qf3 Bc5 19. Rd1 Bd6 20. Nh6+ Kh8 21. Nxf7+ Rxf7 22. Bxf7 Qa8 23. Qxf6, Black resigns.

SICILIAN DEFENSE [B79]
W: GM Leonid Shamkovich
B: Milan Vukcevich (2476)
National Telephone League, 1976

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Be3 Bg7 7. f3 0-0 8. Qd2 Nc6 9. Bc4 Bd7 10. Bb3 Qa5 11. 0-0-0 Rfc8 12. h4 Ne5 13. Nde2 Nc4 14. Bxc4 Rxc4 15. h5 Nxh5 16. g4 Ng3!! 17. Nxg3 Bxc3 18. bxc3 Qa3+ 19. Kb1 Be6 20. Qh2 Kf8 21. Rd5 Bxd5 22. exd5 Qxc3 23. Bh6+ Ke8 24. Ne4 Rb4+ 25. Kc1 Qa3+ 26. Kd2 Rc8 27. Ke2 Rxc2+ 28. Nd2 Qa6+ 29. Kf2 Qxa2 30. Kg3 Qxd5 31. Re1 e6 32. Re2 Rbb2 33. Be3 h5 34. gxh5 gxh5 35. Qg2 Kd7 36. Kh2 Qe5+ 37. Kg1 h4 38. Qg8 Qg3+ 39. Qxg3 hxg3 40. Kg2 a5, White resigns. --IM John Donaldson

REMEMBERING MILAN VUKCEVICH

When I met Milan (in 1967), he looked a lot like a young Sean Connery, with a little less muscle mass but much better hair. He sounded like Bela Lagosi, after developing an impish sense of humor (and switching to coffee). Milan never completely lost (and was proud of) his heavy Slavic accent.

It must have been something special to hear during the fall of 1963. Milan had come to study at M.I.T. on a fellowship from the U.S. Navy. On a spectacular fall Saturday, he and his first wife wanted to explore the New England foliage. They packed a picnic basket and stopped at their local gasoline vendor to fill up and ask for directions. (Keep in mind that Milan periodically lapsed into phonics, to aid his English-speaking interlocutors, well into the ’70s.)

Milan said he asked, “How do I get to VOR-KES-TER?” Milan said the fellow looked at him as if he had just stepped off a flying saucer, and asked, “Where?” “VOR-KES-TER.” “How do you spell it?” “W-O-R-C-E-S-T-E-R.” “Oh, you mean WOOR-STER.” “No, VOR-KES-TER.” “Sir, it’s pronounced WOOR-STER, honest.” “VOOO-STER?” “Close enough.”

Milan said the fellow’s directions were perfect (after he was able to catch his breath).

My friend Larry and I visited Milan Vukcevich one Saturday afternoon, while Michelle — his widow and third wife — did some Christmas shopping.

Milan wanted to show us his latest invention (he worked for General Electric at the time) — a string of Christmas tree lights. He was explaining how the strand of 25 lights was guaranteed for five years against arcing, getting hot, or defects in workmanship.

During his explanation of the latest technology with regard to Christmas lamp design, Larry noticed something. Larry asked, “Milan, where are the tree fasteners?”

Immediately, Milan looked like a man standing in line to board an overseas flight who had just realized that he left his passport on the kitchen table. He cleared his throat, and asked, “The what?” “The fasteners that you use to put the lights on the Christmas tree.” “Oh, vell. You realize that this is just a prototype. The production model will have fasteners.”

My friends Larry, Steve, and I were all very involved in Cleveland chess in the late 70s or early 80s. Larry says that he and Steve had repaired to a favorite watering hole, after work on a Friday. (He, Steve, and I had visited Milan Vukcevich, the Saturday before.) At about the middle of the second round, the conversation turned to chess and Milan. Larry says that at one point Steve became quiet and pensive for about 45 seconds. Larry was about to ask, “Okay, which one is she?” when Steve spoke first, “You know, Lar, I’m a little envious of Vuky.” “Why? What do you mean?” “Well, you know how some guys spend years — sometimes, a lifetime — looking for that one great idea. The idea that will make them rich or famous or both.” “Sure ...” “Vuky has an idea like that every couple of weeks.” --by Robert H. Burns, Jr.

Photos by Jami L. Anson were taken for Chess Life cover at the 1998 Hall of Fame award ceremony in Kona, Hawaii.