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MACA Chess Horizons Magazine Article
 Kingshakers Ulf Andersson: Embrace the Nothing
 Nathan Smolensky
  August 2014
Kingshakers is a new series here at Chess Horizons where local players highlight past titans of the game, their influence, and just what made them so special. We begin with my own tribute to Ulf Andersson (1951- ) and the power of his quiet play.  
When I cite Ulf Andersson as my favorite chess player, people think I’m joking. The Swedish Grandmaster is remembered primarily for his high draw rate, cagey and unambitious openings, and incredibly long and frequently dull games. His lack of notoriety is infamous.
But beneath that exterior of a dull positional player is the fittingly quiet genius of Ulf Andersson. Decades before computers began tearing at the soul of the tactical Romantics and Classical theory wonks, he offered a far bleaker view of the game’s nature: a mostly barren field where one must claw for every scrap of positional advantage available in the pursuit of victory.
Andersson’s best games were often his longest, those in which that talent of finding the slight positional edge and sharpening it into a lethal blade shone brightest. Victories over William Hartsson in 1974 and Nikola Padevsky the next year went over 120 moves each. But the length of these struggles may have exacerbated his drawing problem, leaving him little energy for his other games. Running marathons was not a sustainable winning strategy. 
And so it was that GM Andersson became a poster boy for every spectator’s least favorite result. Against the great Tigran Petrosian, it would take nineteen games before a single decisive outcome was achieved – which, it should be noted, came in Andersson’s favor. Ignominious Grandmaster draws and quiet positions fizzling into silence comprised the bulk of more than 70% of the Swede’s games against top competition. But even among this largest and most unremarkable segment of his scores, there are triumphs:

Garry Kasparov - Ulf Andersson 1/2 - 1/2
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Huebner [E42]

1981 was a breakout year for Garry Kasparov. Only a year removed from winning the World Junior Championship, the Soviet, who turned 18 that April, had quickly begun his ascent to the very top of the chess world. 

He and Andersson would have their first encounter earlier in the year. Kasparov, with the white pieces, won a splendid attacking game, prompting Ulf to famously declare “I will never play Kasparov again!” But it was not to be. A few months later, Andersson was again faced with the prospect of defending against the rising star, who would surely be trying for a win.

Ulf Andersson 2590 - Walter Browne 2540 1-0
Wijk aan Zee
English, Symmetrical [A30]

Relatively unambitious opening play and the relentless pursuit of positional edge are stylistic staples of another Scandinavian player, current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. With greater tactical skill and better endurance than Andersson, as well as the power of modern computing, Magnus has shattered records and shown just how far this recipe for success can go.

Even for amateurs like myself, Ulf’s play, for all its perceived dullness, can inspire a dream: to make something out of the nothing. Because we can always have nothing in chess – while those who seek dynamism find themselves stifled or in positions beyond the scope of human understanding, one can seize minute positional prospects against even the stingiest opposition.

It is a daunting task, which demands enormous patience and concentration. But if we take that road that Ulf has paved for us, if we embrace the game for what it is and seek success through innate understanding, there is no limit to how far we can go.