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Interview with a Hall of Famer: GM John Fedorowicz Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
October 1, 2009
GM John Fedorowicz, Photo Betsy Dynako
GM John Fedorowicz, along with author & magazine editor Burt Hochberg (1933-2006), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, a year after his rivals and friends, GM Nick DeFirmian, GM Larry Christiansen and GM Joel Benjamin were inducted. John has a long and illustrious career, winning numerous tournaments all over the world. He earned the grandmaster title at the 1986 Dubai Olympiad, won the super-strong 1989 New York Open and played in 20 U.S. championships. John is also an accomplished coach and writer. One of his most distinguished students is 16-year-old IM Marc Arnold. John also authored The Complete Benko Gambit and co-authored the English Attack with GM Nick DeFirmian. The New Yorker talked to CLO about why he enjoys playing more than ever and how much fun it is to tell his students about beating GM Viswanathan Anand. At the end of the interview, enjoy IM Mark Ginsburg's annotations of two key victories by "The Fed."

Jennifer Shahade (JS): How did it feel to be inducted to the Hall of Fame? Did you expect it?

John Fedorowicz (JF): Well,  I never won a U.S. Championship despite playing in a lot of them. But I figured by playing in 20 U.S. championships, winning national high schools and the U.S. Junior, and just the overall package, I had a chance.

I turned 51 last Sunday. I don't feel bad, but it's kind of weird that we're all so old. I remember at the Waldorf-Astoria watching the Karpov-Kasparov match, Nick and I were watching Najdorf and Reshevsky analyze, and my girlfriend at the time, Paige, said, "You and Larry and Nick are going to be old like that one day." And it's funny, "one day" went by fast.

JS: How was the induction ceremony?
JF: It was great. The first people I thanked were Denis Barry and Glenn Petersen. And people like Joel and Nick who when we were growing up together, we helped each other. I felt that I was grateful to have people give me good advice; Mike Valvo and others. I sort of just hoped that I didn't forget anyone. I wouldn't be anywhere without any of them. Of course, I had to thank Goichberg –  where would East Coast chess be without Goichberg? I also thanked the Russian immigrants … Alburt, Dzindzi, Shamkovich.

JS: Why did you thank the Russian immigrants?
JF: Well, let's take Shamkovich, I felt like I played with him 135 times. And if you keep playing guys like that in tough endings and long games, you have to learn — that's just the way it is. 

What is your most memorable tournament victory?
JF: There were a lot of great tournaments, Wijk aan Zee or the Olympiad in Dubai (8-2) and Novi Sad (7½-2½) but the number one most memorable would have to be New York Open 1989, cause it was here in New York and I was ranked 41st. I got 7/9, with eight of those nine players being much higher rated than me.

JS: Why do you think you had that landmark victory in that time?
JF: I felt very relaxed, because I just finished writing the book on the Benko Gambit. It was a huge weight off me,  which I think sent me off to that tournament with a relaxed attitude. I also had decent prep, I had ideas, especially in the Benko. Chess is sometimes luck, you know how sometimes you play a tournament and out of nine rounds you get six or seven openings that you don't feel good about – and sometimes you play in a tournament where you've just been working on all the openings you get.

JS: How much did you win at the New York Open?
JF: About 18,000 in 1989, which is worth about double that now. I'm very safe though – I just let it hang out in the bank, took some people out to dinner, the usual stuff.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable game in your career?
JF: I kind of like my draw with Tigran Petrosian, because I got lucky to get into Hastings, because my first FIDE rating was 2480. I was supposed to play in the Challengers, and someone had visa problems, so I had the highest rating and got in. At the time I was playing chess for four years, and I almost beat Petrosian. It was one of my most memorable games but I'm not sure I can say favorite, because I'm still pissed off I didn't win it.


And then in 1990, I beat Anand. I like this because when I tell kids about the World Champion Anand, I also tell them that I once beat him and they ask, "In a simul?", and I say, "no a real game."


JS: How about recently? Are there any recent efforts you're proud of?
JF: I recently drew against [Gata] Kamsky in the World Open. I was Black and played a good defense. After the game I told him, "Even if I lost to you, I would have had a good time."


 I trained Gata for his match against Karpov, but he got mad at me due to a quote I gave years ago to Chess Life magazine that Elista "wasn't a chess match but a family reunion," since it was so distracting with all his family coming in and out. I also think the house was bugged. I think he would have won if it wasn't in Elista. Anyway, I think he was mad at me. But I like Gata and I root for him when he's playing in all these tournaments. I think he's a very hard worker at the board, but when it comes to preparing, he's not top-notch. So when you compare him to someone like Magnus Carlsen, who is working with Garry Kasparov, it's hard to keep up with that.

The 1978 US Junior Championship lineup. GM John Fedorowicz, far right.

JS: Why have you been called the "Rocky Balboa" of chess?
JF: Come on, didn't you ever see pictures of me when I was younger? I looked a lot like him and my voice also. Rocky doesn't happen as often as "The Fed" anymore as I'm not as good-looking as I once was. I loved that movie though; I think sports movies like that are great for chessplayers; nice inspiration.

JS: How do you divide your time up these days between teaching and writing, etc.?
JF: I teach more than I play now. I should probably practice more and go to the Marshall now, because the way I play I'm always rusty. When I teach kids openings, then my openings suffer. Joel Benjamin tells me I should just play the kids' openings cause I'll know them better, but when you play the Sicilian all your life, it feels weird to play a Ruy Lopez. I can't complain about teaching. I'm making more money teaching than being a French chef. In New York, there are masters who charge more than I do, so I guess people figure they're getting a pretty good deal with me.

JS: When did you get started teaching?
JF: I've only been teaching for about 10 years. I went with Irina Krush and Elina Groberman in 1998 to the Pan-Am Youth in Brazil. And that was the first time I ever taught. I didn't really start teaching a lot till 1999 or 2000. I think most kids like me more than some of the other grandmasters.

JS: What's your philosophy of teaching?
JF: I have worked with Kamsky, Benjamin, de Firmian, preparing them for matches. I try to do exactly the same thing with these kids on a different level. I tell them, "Maybe I'm preparing you like you're a 2600 player," but that's the way I do it.

So you spend most of your time as a teacher on openings?
JF: We do openings, go over games, some endgames. While working with Marc Arnold,  I had just started studying Yuri Averbakh endgames, so we worked on that a lot. When lower rated players get to rook endgames ... they love to offer draws. But maybe someone was winning, you know what I mean? Kids love offering draws.

JS: Yes, I totally agree. So how do you combat that tendency?
JF: I try to tell them they should be suspicious when a higher rated player offers them a draw. When a 2700 offers me a draw, I think I must be winning. If you're too scared of losing, you're not going to win any games.

JS: Have you ever used to your advantage the fact that lower rated players like to accept draws?
JF: Well, I once went six years without losing with the white pieces. It was a combination of me being good, and stupidity. I would get losing positions versus 2200 players and just offer draws before it got too bad. Joel (Benjamin) now has a no-draw policy. Because if you have the draw in the back of your mind, it can be a good way to get into trouble against higher rated players.

JS:  I want to hear more about your work with Marc Arnold. Because of all the other young stars coming up these days, Marc doesn't always get so much attention – I remember looking at the Miami Open crosstable earlier this month and I was like, "Wow, Marc Arnold is headed over 2500!" When did you start working with him and how do you account for his recent success?
JF: I started work with him about four years ago. Marc is a little under the radar because he doesn't play that much and he doesn't get a lot of invitations. But he's a real good player. He's very confident; he likes chess. He doesn't work hard enough. That's my only criticism. Like any other person, he likes having fun. That's why I feel he may have lost some ground compared to someone like Ray Robson – who is really serious. The hardest jump is from IM to GM. You need more points than in some of the IM tournaments, and against much harder competition.

JS: How did Marc get the IM title?
JF: He made the IM title with 6½/9; three tournaments in a row in Chicago; all "Sevan tournaments." Sevan has done a lot for American chess with these events...Those were hard tournaments, and a lot of people think that I did a good job with Marc (based in his results there). The way that tournament worked, it started two rounds a day on Saturday and Sunday and then one round a day for the next five. I told Marc, "If you can survive the first two days, it will be easy ‘cause we can kill people by preparing." 

GM John Fedorowicz, seconding IM Marc Arnold, talks training concepts with top Chicago area chess coach Shiva Majaraj
JS: What about you? How did you balance having fun and going out with your chess career, especially when you were most serious?
JF: Oh, I think that I worked very hard, Jen. I talked to de Firmian; I think there was a two-year period, where there were a lot of good looking girls around and I didn't do anything about it, and Nick said, "When we were trying to get good at chess, we didn't do normal things." I worked the hardest in the ‘70s and then again in the ‘80s. There was so much studying ‘cause we didn't have computers so we had to work everything out by ourselves. Now, it's all just staring you in the face in ChessBase.

JS: But don't you think it's also harder now in some way cause there's so much data to go through?
JF: I guess it's whoever prepares better.  

JS: How much did you work on chess back in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
JF: Between tournaments, usually about two hours a day.

JS: That's all?
JF: Two hours a day is a lot in between tournaments. They say Portisch prepared for eight hours a day between tournaments, that sounds crazy. You can do a lot in two hours. 

So I don't quite get it, you say you didn't have time for girls and going out because you were studying chess two hours a day?
JF: Well, if it was before a big tournament, it would probably be more than two hours. And I was also extremely healthy; did a lot of running and basketball. And you know how chessplayers are – we think about chess even when not actually playing. Chessplayers are always walking around the street or the hallways at the World Open, looking at the sky, worried about some opening line.

IM Marc Arnold
JS: So you're saying Marc Arnold doesn't study two hours a day?
JF: Probably not. I tell him, "We're losing ground here." And he says, "I'm normal. I'm a kid – I have a good time."

JS: So how does someone get to 2500 without studying at least two hours a day? There must be a lot of people who study that much and don't get to 2000, let alone 2500.
 JF: You know, I think a lot of people get good because of the ICC [Internet Chess Club]. In addition to Marc, Daniel Ludwig, Cindy Tsai, Ray Robson – because they're kind of in the middle of nowhere (geographically).
JS: Still, there are a lot of people who play on ICC and don't get better.
JF: Maybe they don't analyze their blitz games. You gotta figure out what positions you shouldn't go near. Those practice games, whatever speed, are very important.

Which speed do you think is ideal?
JF: I told my kids, "Play faster time controls for practice!" and one of them responded, "What kind of coach are you? All the other coaches tell us to play slower." Tournaments at the Marshall, like 30 minutes tournaments are so hard, and it's really useful to play those fast time controls so you're strong at the end. When the increment came out, I got pissed off, cause I love calling people's flags.

JS: What are your ambitions in chess now?
JF: I still like playing. I want to get my FIDE up to a normal rating, to 2525 instead of what it is now. It's actually more fun playing these days cause there's no pressure. I do well with teaching so it's not like I have to win the New York Open or something to have money.

On Suffering at the hands of "The Fed."

by Mark Ginsburg, 

Here is the only loss I sustained in the exotic invitational Trinidad 1991 (Ilya Gurevich also played there) versus the tournament winner.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 Nc6 7. g5 Nd7 8. Be3 a6 9. h4 Nde5 10. f4 Nxd4 11. Bxd4 Nc6 12. Be3 b5 13. Qd2 Bd7?

Black did well to get a pair of knights off.  I had just tried this successfully 'on the mainland' versus Patrick Wolff. 13. ... Qa5! holding up queenside castling is OK for Black.
14. 0-0-0 Rc8 15. Qf2 Qc7 16. Kb1 Qb7 17. h5 Na5 18. Bd3 Bc6 19. Qe2 Be7 20. Bd4 0-0 21. g6 fxg6 22. hxg6 h6 23. Qg4 Qd7 24. Rhf1 b4 25. Ne2 Bb5 26. Bxb5 axb5 27. b3! Nc6 28. Bb2 Ra8
29. Nc1!
Very nice.  Black cannot oppose White's initiative now.
29. … Ra7 30. f5 exf5 31. Rxf5 Bf6 32. Qf4 Ne7 33. Rxd6 Qc7 34.Rfxf6 gxf6 35. Qxh6 Nf5 36. Qh7+ 1-0

Here is the only loss I sustained at the 1978 U.S. Junior Invitational, Memphis, Tennessee, a wild and competitively important encounter.

The winner wound up tied for first.  I missed chances in this game and also in failing to win an ironclad Zugzwang rook and pawn ending versus young Yasser Seirawan.


1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 d6 4. Nc3 g6 5. e4 Bg7 6. Nf3 0-0 7. h3 e6 8. Bd3 Re8

The "delayed Modern Benoni" has always interested me.
9. 0-0 Na6 10. Bg5 h6 11. Be3 Nc7 12. Qd2 exd5 13. exd5 Kh7 14. a4 b6 15. Bf4 a6 16. Rab1 b5!?

Generating reasonable play.
17. axb5 axb5 18. cxb5 Bb7 19. Bc4 Ne4 20. Nxe4 Rxe4 21. b3 Qd7 22. b6 Nb5 23. Rbe1 f5 24. Bd3 Rae8 25. Bxe4 fxe4 26. Nh2 Nc3?

A lemon.  We were both descending into time trouble. Necessary was 26. … g5! 27. Be3 Nc3 28. f3 Qb5 with murky play.
27. Ng4? 
This game was a very nervous affair. White misses 27. Bxh6 winning.
27. … g5 28. Bh2 Nxd5 29. Ne3 Bd4 30. Nc4 Re6 31. Qa2 Nf4 32. Qa7 e3?

Too soon. Correct was 32. … Kg6! which at the time I notated as an amazing resource very good for me, threatening … e3 but White has 33. Bxf4 gxf4 34. Na5 Re7 35. Nxb7 Qxb7 36. Qxb7 Rxb7 37. Rxe4 Rxb6 38. Rxf4 Rxb3 39. Re1 Be5 40. Rg4+ Kf5 41. g3 and he's better. Typical youth to believe that 32. … Kg6 would somehow win.
33. fxe3 Qc6 34. Rf3 Nxh3+ 35. Kh1 Kg6 36. Ref1 Rf6 37. Rxf6+ Bxf6 38. Qa2 g4 39. Na5 Qb5 40. Qb1+ Kg7 41. Nxb7 g3 42. Bxg3 1-0

After I disappointedly resigned, a breathless Yasser Seirawan rushed the stage actually knocking over a velvet rope to point out to us that I missed 35...Qxf3 36. gxf3 Bxf3 'mate'. 
Fedorowicz and I both snapped at the upstart kibitzer, "It's PINNED." 

See Mark's blog, A Personal Chess History for more analysis and memories.


October - Chess Life Online 2009

Josh Friedel on a Stylish Win but a Mediocre Result Jerry Hanken Games Wanted Lenderman and Robson Climbing at the World Junior Kaufman on the Early Rounds of the World Senior GM Joel on Steinitz's 4th Rule USCF News: USCF Fees for FIDE ChangeWorld Team Championship Squad Set Dying With Your Boots On9Queens Presents the Best Games at the U.S. Women's Khachiyan Tops Western States A Defending Champ on Arriving in Italy Championship Secrets: Sudoku & No Computer Shabalov Wins Cleveland Open Two GMs Lead While Upsets Reign in Reno Week 8 US Chess League Recap Help America's Most Wanted Find Robert Snyder Ray Robson on His Road to GM Robson and Lenderman off to World Junior in Argentina Jennifer on Women's TitlesUS Titles Approved at FIDE CongressThree Share Honors at Midwest Class World Championship Set for Sofia, April 2010US Chess League Nears Playoffs Enkhbat and Barnett Top Maryland Open Chess Without Borders Finalist for 2009 Chicago Innovation Award Glamour and Big Bucks Close the U.S. Women's Anna Zatonskih Wins US Women's: Video Recap Anna Zatonskih Clinches Decisive Championship Memorial Service for Jerry HankenRay Robson Earns Final GM Norm! Zatonskih Climbs to 5.5/6: Video RecapZatonskih Increases Lead at the US Women's Irina vs. Iryna in Round Five of the Women's Letter to USCF Life Members Zatonskih Topples Krush Krush-Zatonskih Battle Nears Six Medals for USA in MexicoFour Decisive Games in Round 1 of the US Women's U.S. Women's Opens With Jazz, Hooping and Blindfold Americans Hunt for Medals in Mexico Jerry Hanken Passes Away at 74Interview with a Hall of Famer: GM John Fedorowicz