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Hans Berliner (1929-2017)

Hans Jack Berliner, former World Correspondence Chess Champion, FIDE international master and chess author, died on Friday 13 January in Riviera Beach, Florida. This obituary (by Tim Harding) will concentrate on his career as a correspondence chess player.

Berliner, who was also a distinguished computer scientist, was born in Berlin on 27 January 1929 but his family moved to the United States when he was eight years old. More details of his life, over-the-board chess performances, and professional career can be found online, in articles published at worldchess.com, chessbase.com, and elsewhere.

Berliner apparently began taking postal chess seriously in 1955 when he entered the multi-stage Golden Knights tournament, a major annual event in America at that time, and won it (in 1956). He then qualified for a world championship semi-final at the first attempt by winning an ICCF master class group (his first) with a 6-0 score. He also played first board for the United States in the preliminaries of the 5th Correspondence Olympiad, scoring 5/6, but after that he concentrated on the world championship.

Berliner qualified for the final by winning his Candidates section (played 1962-1965) with a score of 11.5 points from 13 games, conceding just one draw and losing to Klompus of the Soviet Union who, fortunately for Berliner, dropped points to other rivals. Berliner attributed the loss to over-optimism in a clearly drawn position “which taught me a valuable lesson.” Nowadays, chiefly because of the use of computer engines, a high percentage of top-level correspondence games are drawn but in the postal era it was essential to play for a win with both colours because very high scores were typically achieved by tournament winners and runners-up. Berliner generally employed the King’s Indian Defence which he had studied deeply, as with all the openings he employed.

In the 17-man final, played from 1965 to 1968, Berliner went through undefeated, conceding just four draws. His winning margin of three points has never since been equalled in any ICCF world championship final, nor is it likely to be. He defeated all but one of the Soviet contingent, several of whom were chess professionals, and drew with Professor V. Zagorovsky, who was the defending champion. Later, Berliner co-edited with English master Ken Messere (another of the finalists) a tournament book (published by B.C.M. in 1971) which remains one of the best books ever written on correspondence chess.

Especially noteworthy was that Berliner was very successful in this tournament with Alekhine’s Defence (1 e4 Nf6), but for his game with the noted theoretician Yakov Estrin he chose to play “away” on his opponent’s territory, the Two Knights Defence, and scored a famous and spectacular victory in this opening on which Estrin wrote several books. The Estrin-Berliner game has been included in some anthologies of the best games of chess ever played, with considerable justification. Back in the pre-computer era, Estrin (who probably had helpers) had not succeeded in refuting Berliner’s attack but did not altogether succumb either, reaching a rook endgame with level pawns which to most eyes would appear to be drawn. Perhaps the most impressive part of Berliner’s victory was his delicate play in the final phase after such very complicated opening and middle game play.

Soon after the championship ended, Berliner married and he returned to university to undertake doctoral research in computer science, after which he became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University until his retirement to Florida. He was involved in an early chess computer program, Hi-Tech, and in the development of the first successful program for playing the game of backgammon.

After retirement Berliner renewed his interest in chess analysis and around 1998 he issued a small self-published stapled booklet entitled From the Deathbed of 4 Ng5 in the Two Knights Defense, with analysis on the Fritz Variation (4…d5 5 exd5 b5 6 Bf1 Nd4) which he had employed in his game against Estrin. My copy is of the second edition and included a loose correction sheet. Berliner still believed in the soundness of the sacrificial attack he had used in his Estrin game, although today’s computer engines are sceptical.

In 1999 Berliner’s last book, The System: a World Champion’s Approach to Chess, was published in London by Gambit, arousing considerable controversy among reviewers. In this book, Berliner started off by saying things like: “The System is a theory of how to integrate board control and development into a unified whole… White must do something to wring concessions from Black even as they are both trying to complete their development… The fact that Black has a very bad position after 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 cxd5 exd5 and after 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 certainly does not instil much faith in Black’s ability to find a satisfactory defensive set-up.”

Berliner sought to demonstrate that White’s half-move opening advantage could be enhanced to almost a forced win by following up 1 d4 with a pattern of early development that he illustrated with several examples, some more convincing than others. In particular, he demonstrated how he thought White should play against the Queen’s Gambit Accepted (with 3 e4), the Queen’s Gambit Declined (exchange variation with Nge2), the Benko Gambit and the Grünfeld Defence. What was clear, though, is that Berliner’s book does not provide White with an algorithm for finding the right move in any situation, or even in many situations, and in general the book is a failure which arguably damaged his reputation to some degree.

Some of Berliner’s dogmatic claims met with incredulity, if not ridicule in certain quarters, notably IM Jeremy Silman’s review of the book which is still available online. (That web page, when I last looked at it, had a picture of the book cover My System by Nimzowitsch rather than Berliner’s book, which tends to undermine the critic’s credentials!) Not only was Silman extremely rude about correspondence chess in general, remarks such as “the sheer insanity of his claims made me laugh out loud” do not impress.

However, when we consider that the Grünfeld Defence has been employed by Magnus Carlsen and many other current top grandmasters it is clear that there is something wrong with what Berliner wrote about that opening. Some reviewers (notably in British Chess Magazine and Inside Chess) claimed that one of his recommendations had already been refuted before the book appeared. I invited Berliner to respond and in my magazine Chess Mail, issue 7 of 1999, we published his article “The Grünfeld is quite ill.”

Let us take a look at this line, which begins 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 e4 Nxc3 6 bxc3 Bg7 7 Bc4 0–0 8 Ne2 c5 9 Be3 Nc6 10 Rc1 Qa5 (10...cxd4 11 cxd4 Qa5+ leads to the same position.) 12 Kf1 and Now GM John Nunn and others recommended for Black the move 12...Qa3 which had not been discussed in Berliner’s book although it had led to a win for Black in Ftacnik-I. Gurevich at the 1993 Biel interzonal tournament and to a draw in Kamsky-Anand in the 10th game of their 1995 match. See the diagram.

Berliner wrote in his article that “the sole point” of 12...Qa3 is to prevent the move White wants to make, 13 h2-h4, because after 13...Bg4 the reply 14 f3 is unavailable since the e3-bishop hangs to the queen. So he recommended 13 Rc3 Qd6 and now he suggested 14 h4! to improve on the 1992 game Browne-Kudrin in which White had played 14 f3.

I tried to test Berliner’s idea in a correspondence game that began soon afterwards. My opponent, Jon B. Mutton, must have been quite strong as he had been a finalist in the 1998 British (OTB) Championship though he didn’t score very well. Mutton played the critical line (with the slight variation 10...cxd4 mentioned above) so after 12...Qa3 13 Rc3 Qd6 I played Berliner’s new move 14 h4. In his article he said Black had five possible replies. One of these is the sharp line 14...Nxd4 15 e5 Bxe5 16 Bxd4 but Berliner gave no moves beyond that point and deeper analysis is needed.

Stockfish 8 considers the position is equal after several other 14th moves. These include 14...Be6 (which Berliner did not consider), 14...Rd8 meeting his 15 h5 by 15...Be6, or 14...h5 (which he thought best) 15 Rc1. Against 14...h5 Berliner actually wanted to continue 15 f3 but the engine slightly prefers Black then. My opponent instead chose 14...Bg4 15 f3 Be6. I now continued 16 h5?! and eventually won but the engine shows my opponent should have replied 16...Nxd4. After the game was over, I showed it to Berliner who said I should have played 16 Bxe6 Qxe6 17 d5 Qd7 18 Rc1 or maybe18 Qc1!? which does seem to offer White an edge. It would seem that this whole line is not yet played out. For example, Morozevich beat Svidler with 14 h4 in the 2012 World Blitz Championship, but 10 Rc1 is no longer seen much in high-level chess.

Berliner at DaytonaI met Berliner at the 2000 ICCF Congress in Daytona Beach, Florida, when I took the photograph on the right.

At that time he had not played a serious postal game since his overwhelming victory more than 30 years previously.

However he was persuaded to come out of retirement and play a round-robin “champion of champions” email tournament in which all the nine then living CC world champions competed.

It was indeed rather brave of him to accept this challenge given that he was by far the oldest competitor and was long out of practice whereas most of the others still played chess fairly regularly.

Berliner’s last tournament began in 2001 and continued until about 2005. In this hard-fought event he eventually finished sixth, winning one game (against FM Jørn Sloth of Denmark, the eighth champion, who had also long since given up correspondence play).

Berliner lost two games with Black. One was a fantastically complicated King’s Indian against the late Mikhail Umansky, who won the tournament, and he also lost to Vytas Palciauskas employing the Riga Variation of the Open Spanish, but drew his other five games. So, everything considered, it was a very creditable performance to score 3.5 points out of 8 in that company after such a long lay-off.

Berliner annotated several of his games from that tournament for Chess Mail and the tournament book. In that book he estimated that every move in the final took three or four hours and recognized that it was even more important to put in the work in less favourable positions, rather than enjoy analysing the good ones.

He also revealed that his method was to take notes about every move, but not to look at them initially when the reply came. He would re-analyse the position and then compare the new notes with the old. If the analysis matched, then he would go deeper. If the old and new variations were not congruent, this was a warning to really put in the hard yards.

To sum up, in my dealings with Hans Berliner I always found him pleasant and helpful. He had a large physical presence when you met him, and it is possible that he could be extremely formidable if you crossed him. Berliner's greatest strength was his self-confidence and capacity for hard work, without which he would never have become world champion.

His weakness was his dogmatism which was most apparent in The System, although his actual play showed he could be flexible. For example, in the aforementioned Champions tournament he followed some of his System recommendations (one of these enabled Gert Jan Timmerman to make an easy draw with Black) but in the game he won he actually switched to a different fourth move (Bg5) against Sloth’s Nimzo-Indian because he recognized that 4 a3 had not been achieving good results lately.