Reactions to Soviet Defection Mixed

by Ismail Sloan

SALONIKA - NOVEMBER 1988 - The Chess Olympiad was thrown into a state of shock and disbelief at the sudden defection of Elena Akhmilovskaya, the number two Soviet woman player.

At first this news was dismissed as just another bad joke by Larry Christiansen. However, later, as details emerged, it was learned that Akhmilovskaya had been married to the U.S. team captain John Donaldson at the U.S. Consulate on Friday and that Grandmaster Gulko and other U.S. team members had accompanied the couple to the airport at 7:00 A.M. Saturday morning and helped them get on a flight to Frankfurt.

Grandmaster Shamkovich of the USA and formerly of the Soviet Union, who had just himself arrived in Thessaloniki, said that this was "wonderful news". He mentioned that Akhmilovskaya had left her hotel room Saturday morning without taking her suitcase or even one article of extra clothing.

Grandmaster Gufeld of the Soviet Union, who has often been both trainer and spokesman for the leading Soviet women player, Maya Chiburdanidze, said that he understands that she loved a man but that she should also love her country and do something for her team. He and other Soviets implied that Akhmilovskaya should have played all her games and finished the tournament before running away. Gufeld, originally a Ukrainian, now lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, which is also the home of both Akhmilovskaya and Chiburdanidze. Gufeld says that he is also good friends with the former husband of Akhmilovskaya and their young child, whom she left behind.

The three Polgar sisters of Hungary had obvious reason to be pleased but were careful not to gloat publicly about this development. Akhmilovskaya had scored 8 1/2 out of 9 and was the mainstay of the Soviet team. All of the other three Soviet players were having bad results, including Chiburdanidze, who was drawing most of her games. The defection of Akhmilovskaya at a time when the Polgar sisters were trailing the Russians by only half a point gave the Hungarian sisters a good chance to win the world championship.

All day long, there was speculation that U.S. Zone President Arnold Denker had somehow engineered the defection. The reason for this was that during the entire time Denker was nowhere to be seen. However, Denker emerged on Sunday. He stated that he had been sick and in bed all day Saturday with a bad cold. More than that, he said that if he had known about the defection, he would have done everything in his power to stop it. He said that John Donaldson had made a big mistake. Donaldson had been paid three thousand dollars plus expenses and chess books to be the U.S. team captain and then had run out on his duties before the Olympiad was over. Denker was severely critical at Donaldson for doing this. Denker said that Donaldson was such a boy scout that it was doubtful whether he had ever been with a woman before in his entire life.

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