IM Ilye Figler (1947–2018)

Ilye and his grandson, Gabriel, the future generation of chess in his family. Photo: Cecilia Figler
If you are a regular to the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, you will certainly come across his name on numerous wall charts or recognize his face at one of the top boards during their weekly or weekend tournaments over the last 15 years or so. I was not one of those lucky people. Tied down with my own career and family, my first encounter with Ilye was only this past summer in 2017 while casually stopping by one of Marshall’s weekend tournaments. Casually perusing some of the top boards, I came across an elderly gentleman slightly hunched over in deep thought among a sea of young chess players averaging an age of around 30 years old. Despite his opponent’s outwardly confidence and energy, Ilye never once looked up or displayed any emotion at the table as he steadily beat his opponent. The next round once again brought him face-to-face with another brazen young player. And once again, like a stone-cold poker player, Ilye forced his opponent’s resignation after an hour of play without leaking a hint of emotion along in the process. He eventually won the tournament that day undefeated. I briefly introduced myself to him before asking him how he was able to navigate through some of the positions I saw him in earlier. It was here that he suddenly smiled and opened up. That initial stoic game-face all but disappeared as he described various continuations that he thought his opponents should have taken or overlooked and even asking me sincerely what my feelings were about certain positions he had been in. It suddenly felt as if we were on equal planes. Being a humble class-level player, my conversations had with many titled players regarding their games have never reciprocated anything beyond more than a sentence or two. Let alone from an international master who had never met me before. From then on whenever I ran into Ilye at the Marshal,  we would catch up every time, whether it was between rounds or simply lounging in the skittles room. He eventually learned that I had a 4-year old son who had just started playing chess and would often ask how my son’s progress was. I just as quickly learned that Ilye was a formidable local NYC chess coach instructing grade school aged children. He coached at Hunter College Elementary School (a premiere gifted & talented elementary school in NYC) for over ten years. So, my picking his brain on pointers for starting my son off in the game was always a hot topic of conversation that never got old. And, he never seemed to get tired of feeding me fresh advice. Several months later when our paths crossed again it via a more unexpected route. Ilye became ill one day and was admitted to the hospital. His family knew I was a physician and contacted me instantly, and I hastily made my way over to visit him. He and his family (wife Cecilia and daughter Elina, one of them was always at his bedside) seemed quite relieved to be able to have another familiar face at his bedside – and ironically not so much for professional background but more so for the mere company. I visited him in his hospital room almost daily after I got off from work, and, as with most hospitals, there is not much for two chess players to do, other than play chess. Soon, I started bringing in score sheets of my old games, my proudest games, and my most disappointing losses. He seemed to love combing through every single game without any condescension to me despite how blunderous some of the games were. It was during these game analysis sessions with Ilye that I was again reminded about how he we first met – he never looked at me or treated me like a class-player despite the tremendous rating gap between us. We initially talked endlessly during our games whenever I visited him. He told me his life story about how and when he got into chess. Ilye was born in Moldova and started playing chess around the age of 7 or 8. He did not pick up the game from his parents nor any inspiring family member. Rather, he learned chess through a circle of friends that he hung out with at that young age. He played it rather casually at first and he felt he did not start taking chess seriously though until around the age of 17. Here is a game Ilye played while even before attaining his IM status and he defeats a young GM Maurice Ashley.
[pgn][Event "NY Masters 2002"]
[Date "????.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "FM Figler, Ilye"]
[Black "GM Ashley, Maurice "]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "E07"]
[PlyCount "57"]
[EventDate "2017.04.18"]1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 d5 4. Bg2 Be7 5. Nf3 O-O 6. O-O c6 7. Qc2 b6 8. Nc3
Nbd7 9. e4 Ba6 10. b3 Rc8 11. Rd1 Bb7 12. e5 Ne8 13. h4 Nc7 14. Ng5 Bxg5 15.
hxg5 c5 16. dxc5 Nxc5 17. f4 Qe7 18. Ba3 Rfd8 19. Bf3 Ba8 20. Rd2 dxc4 21. Rh2
g6 22. Bxa8 cxb3 23. axb3 Nxa8 24. Ne4 Qb7 25. Nf6+ Kf8 26. Rxh7 Qf3 27. Kh2
Qe3 28. Rd1 Qf3 29. Bxc5+ 1-0[/pgn]
Later on, while studying physics at a graduate university in Moldova, he started teaching chess part-time to young players in his city, and this was when he began to really love the game. He was the chess champion of Moldova twice. After immigrating to the USA he took up residence in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. He became a full-time chess instructor, playing actively at the Marshall Chess Club as well as attending numerous large east coast tournaments over the last 20 years.
[pgn][Event "Pan-American Continental 2008"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "????.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "GM Shabalov, Alexander"]
[Black "FM Figler, Ilye"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "D15"]
[PlyCount "69"]1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 a6 5. a4 e6 6. Bg5 a5 7. e3 Be7 8. Be2 O-O
9. O-O Na6 10. Qb3 Nb4 11. Rfd1 Nh5 12. Bxe7 Qxe7 13. e4 dxe4 14. Nxe4 Nf6 15.
Nxf6+ Qxf6 16. c5 b6 17. cxb6 Qd8 18. Rac1 Rb8 19. Rc5 Rxb6 20. Ne5 Ba6 21. Bf3
Nd3 22. Qa3 Nxe5 23. dxe5 Qb8 24. Rxc6 Rxc6 25. Bxc6 Qxe5 26. h3 Qe2 27. Bf3
Qc2 28. b4 axb4 29. Qxb4 Be2 30. Bxe2 Qxe2 31. Rd6 h5 32. a5 Rc8 33. Qf4 Qe1+
34. Kh2 Qxa5 35. Rd7 1/2-1/2[/pgn]
He obtained his International Master title only about 8-years ago (he was approximately 62 years old at that time), which all things considered is quite an accomplishment given the age alone. He never proudly spoke about his IM title as an accolade, I noticed he seemed to acknowledge it as the mere result him playing persistently despite his age. He did not mind reminiscing about the past, but I noticed he would rather discuss what was on the board in front of him – and he always found a way to direct my attention to something that he could impart instruction to me. Openings were a subject we spent a lot of time discussing. He asked me what openings I used, and, no matter which opening I named, he would take me 15-20 moves deep into a few lines and show me what he thought were the best variations. On several occasions, while looking deep into an opening, he would suddenly recall games he had used that particular opening and spit out names of grandmasters who had played it against him. I quickly noticed he had a preference for the French Defense. On every visit I paid him, he would take me through variations of the French Defense. He told me that I should learn this defense because he felt like it resulted in interesting and dynamic positions that were similar to games of mine we went over. The Winawer line of the French Defense seemed to be his pet line, and he was particularly knowledgeable about it, even showing me continuations that he thought were novel and not seen in games yet. Ilye was ultimately discharged from the hospital over to a hospice facility. With each of my subsequent visits to him at his hospice room it was clear his energy level and endurance was fading. I received regular voice messages from him on my cell phone asking me if I wanted to come by so he could teach me more chess. His wife, Cecilia, began contacting me more frequently to visit him to play chess, describing that he seemed to become unengaged and confused unless he was playing chess. Indeed, while in hospice, whenever I walked into his room our greetings became more and more distant. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if he even remembered my face. But one thing was always consistent: whenever I began to unroll my chessboard and stand up the pieces - his eyes dilated, and he would quickly find strength to pull himself up. His wife told me when he is not playing chess, she was always more scared his life might slip away during this time. By now, Ilye did not care to talk much during my last few games with him. He always simply wanted to play or analyze. Even after my prompting or asking him more questions about his chess history, he would always shake his head and signal me to focus back on the board. His room became quite silent during these last games we played, not unlike that of a tournament hall. I always took down notation down during our games just because he was the first player of an international master status that I have had the chance to play. Sadly, as I noticed his health begin to deteriorate even quicker, I began looking back at all of our games and look for subtle changes in his accuracy (even plugging them into my Deep Fritz for help). I noticed regardless of the trajectory Ilye’s health was heading down, no matter how weak or compromised his mental status became, his clarity over the chess board was always on-point, and the accuracy of his chess moves unwavering. I realized on the outside I was seeing an aging physical being whose chess moves (no matter how slow or tremulous his hand became) never aged at all.

Interview Questions

What historic chess player inspired you the most? Ilye: "Emanuel Lasker. You should read his books! I highly recommend it." What great player of the past do you wish you could have played against? Ilye: “Anatoly Lutikov. He was a great player in my country, Moldova.” Do you consider yourself more of a tactician or a positional player? Ilye: “The greatest players are both tactical and positional. I was definitely more of a tactician in my games. This was how I started off my games when I was young and so I was always seeing more tactics than positions. But then as I slowly got older my games became much less tactical than when I was younger, I think that because I am older now I can not see the tactics that I use to see as a younger player. I went through many of your games on the databases. And I’ve noticed you’ve played against a lot of grandmasters multiple times before. Surely you must have a winning record against some? Ilye: “Well, I don’t know which ones for sure. But that’s funny you mention this question because one time Boris Gulko came up to me and told me I had a winning record against him. I told him that I didn’t even remember playing against him before, then later I realized we had played way back when we were both youths…a long time ago. Who do you feel has the best change at beating Magnus Carlsen next for the World Chess Championship? Ilye: (shakes his head as he looks down and thinks) “No one. I think Sergei Karjakin had the best chance before. But, that is over.” --- Ilye passed away quietly in the afternoon on February 12, 2018. He will be survived by his wife Cecilia, daughter Elina, and 2-year-old grandson Gabriel. Thank you for the chess lessons, thank you for being the stepping stone for so many chess players in New York City (including myself), and thank you for all of your leisure time spent with me at the Marshall Chess Club. Rest in peace Ilye, your games will not be forgotten and I will tell Gabriel all about your legacy one day.

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