FM Orest Popovych (1933-2023)

Image Caption
FM Orest Popovych (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


American chess has lost a leading player of the latter 20th century. And this writer has lost one of his oldest friends.

FIDE Master Orest Popovych passed away at home in Howell, New Jersey, on March 15, 2023 at the age of 90. He had a known heart disorder.

Orest was born in Lviv, now Ukraine, in 1933. He was in the path of the Nazi army, but his father spirited him away during the war and headed for the USA. He spent about three years in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, where he learned a bit of chess, before landing in New Jersey around age 14. There he added flawless English to his linguistic knowledge, but after graduating from Rutgers in 1955, his slight accent thwarted his ambition to be a journalist.

Professional chess in those days in the U.S. hardly existed. So, what else was a chess-lover to do than go to MIT for a doctorate in chemistry awarded in 1959? After a few years in the private sector, Popovych entered academia. He taught at Brooklyn College from 1963, was named full professor in 1971, and retired in 1993. 

In those days, the vast majority of American masters were uncoached and self-taught, holding down regular jobs around which they sandwiched weekend Swiss-system events, as leisurely once-a-week club championships went out of style. We used vacations for longer, more civilized tournaments like the U.S. Open, and an occasional foray to Europe or Canada. The easier role of a salaried professional was for our rivals “over there.”  

In this way Orest managed to fill most of his spare time with chess. He was a relentless attacker with a bias for double-edged positions, eschewing draws. He studied how to attack the Dragon Variation, while making a sharp weapon of both sides of the Najdorf. And you had to watch out for his King’s Gambit too — he even risked it against Spassky. The queen’s pawn openings were never to be played with White; with Black, they were met by a sharp King’s Indian.

Popovych won the New Jersey Open four times in 23 attempts, and the New England title twice, including a 7-0 sweep in 1958. His warlike stance was shown in 1986, when accepting Senior Master Asa Hoffman’s draw offer would have guaranteed his fourth New Jersey title. He declined and lost. The same rebuff befell him at the 1956 U.S. Open. Why take a draw from a mere 13-year-old from Brooklyn named Bobby something? 

His chief literary productions were books in his native Ukrainian: one on his best games, including a few GM victims, and one on players of the diaspora (with chief author Bezpalko). But his greatest literary honor was for the highest skill in writing — translation of the poet Vasil Makhno into English. 

In the 21st century Orest turned away from chess, to the great benefit of the Ukrainian community. He served as president of the prestigious Shevchenko Scientific Society, and edited an encyclopedia of the diaspora. We had a long correspondence which started with his critiques of my games and ended with my education in Ukrainian history.

While he was more conservative than I in domestic politics, we fully agreed on the dangers of Russian imperialism. In his honor I sent a donation to the St. Volodymir Foundation, started by a cousin in his native Lviv. It is now devoted to humanitarian aid of Ukrainian soldiers and their families. Channeled thru another cousin, checks can be sent to Maria Kvit-Flynn, P.O. Box 4503, Metuchen, NJ, 08840.

In Popovych, an affable and courteous person, breathed the Spirit of Attack. Here are two of his most memorable efforts, annotated by IM Jack Peters. For more moments from Popovych's career, please check out today's accompanying Wednesday Workout as well.




After one of his games at the World Open, we sat down to analyze. This quaint search for truth before computers — far more enjoyable than a serious game — was called a post-mortem. Below is an English translation of the movements, expletives in several languages and elliptical comments.


OP: I should have won the game!

AFS: OK, show me where.

OP: Here! I sac a horse.

AFS: He swallows it and sidesteps.

OP: The devil! I must attack.

AFS: Steinitz said an attack is justified only if you have an advantage.

OP: Alekhine did not. The attack IS my advantage.

AFS: So, whaddya got?

OP: I push pawns toward his king.

AFS: Hey, your king is on same side. It may feel drafty.

OP: Why are you always defending?

AFS: Not always. I attack when I am up a rook. Patience. Why don’t you just build up your position?

OP: No time to waste on that.


We all needed time. We wasted a lot of time. And now our time is running out.

We have collected 411 of Popovych's games to accompany this obituary. In them we find confirmation of Saidy's comments about Popovych's take-no-prisoners style, and fans of attacking chess will enjoy them immensely. Thanks to Andy Ansel for his invaluable assistance in providing dozens of previously unpublished Popovych games.