Russian roulette and English Chess Federation


The winner of the English Chess Federation’s Book of the Year Award 2021 is Sergey Voronkov’s initial volume in a planned series, Masterpieces and Dramas of the Soviet Championships, relating the story of the first wave of Soviet Championships, from 1920 to 1937. The publishers are Elk and Ruby, who specialize in neglected areas of the history of the massive Soviet Chess Imperium. Writes Raymond Keene

Apart from taking the English Chess Federation (ECF) laurels, the book has also earned high praise from New in Chess (NIC), one of the world’s most respected chess periodicals. According to NIC, it reads like a novel, describing how the championships were organized and played in the appalling conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. It is an extraordinary story of keeping chess alive against very considerable odds.

Voronkov states that “he is interested in the people” and his approach is closer to a documentary movie than a dry chronicle of events. Thus, the focus is on individual anecdotes and twists of fate, involving many colorful characters, such as Alexander Alekhine and Efim Bogoljubov, who both defected from the fledgling USSR. Their flight contrasts vividly with Botvinnik’s staunchly pro-Soviet early years. Many contemporary cartoons, photographs, press reports, and even hearsay, make you feel that you are actually present in time when reading the book.

The chess is outstanding too. Garry Kasparov, in his foreword, praises “the great game selection… showing chess in the context of the time”. Voronkov also evinces a sharp eye for dramatic moments in the tournaments, positions of chess interest, and historically valuable games. Overall, a most remarkable, absorbing, and entertaining chess history which, as both the ECF and NIC enthusiastically aver, fully lives up to its title, Masterpieces and Dramas, both on and off the board.

Why, we might ask, did chess become so popular, both in Czarist Russia and, even more pronouncedly, in the USSR? The game penetrated Russia through commercial routes about 1,000 years ago, and, as the late Bob Wade OBE points out in his book on Soviet Chess (published by Hardinge/Simpole) the story acquired substance with the advent of Alexander Petroff (1794–1867). Petroff (after whom a well-known opening is named) added his own thoughts to the works of André Danican Philidor (1726–95) the great French player, in order to  produce the first Russian language chess book. Petroff was followed by Karl Jaenisch (1813–72), who prepared original works on the openings that enriched and greatly widened 19th-century repertoires, while the first great modern Russian grandmaster was Mikhail Tchigorin, who twice proved himself a worthy Challenger for Steinitz’s world title.

At the collapse of the Czarist empire in 1917, its chess players were already among the world’s best: Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Znosko-Borowsky, Bernstein, not to mention those former Russian citizens displaced by new land borders – Rubinstein, Janowski, Tartakower, Nimzowitsch… Fortunately for the future “Soviet school of chess”, Alekhine and Bogoljubov remained as a nucleus in the early days of the USSR. By the time that they defected, the seeds of the new Soviet school had already been planted.

Around a determined band of chess organisers, teachers and players like the Bolshevik minister Nikolai Krilenko, the masters Grigoriyev, Romanovsky, Riumin, Levenfish, Ilyin-Zhenevsky, Dus-Hotimirsky… There was built the most successful national sporting machine the world had ever seen. Behind these were two of the original leaders of the revolution, Lenin and — as Wade points out, though still unacknowledged by present-day Russian circles — Trotsky. Both of these revolutionary firebrands had been keen, chess players in the days before the October Revolution of 1917, when they had more leisure, discussing politics, revolution and chess in the coffee bars of Zurich.

It was a new concept for a modern country to have a sport organized by the state with its access to money and its power as employer. In the early days the band of organizers overcame many difficulties by their sheer dedication. Gradually the organization grew. It hurt at first. There was a nagging conflict between those who wanted to play chess for enjoyment or as an escape from reality and those who wanted chess developed within the new educational and sporting framework and this entailed constant drive. The state, in return for that money, wanted evidence of new or more massive events and of growth every year. The state also developed the mass media, such as the young pioneer’s movement, whereby the young between 9 and 16 could attend specialist centres and receive tuition in chess and dozens of other recreational or vocational activities. The chess organizations provided the teachers.

Alekhine had an enormous influence on Soviet players, both by his dynamic play, when his home was in Russia, and by the sneaking regard still retained for him in exile when he became world champion in 1927.

The first great Soviet player was the scientific Mikhail Botvinnik (see last week’s column “The Red Czar of Moscow and the Hall of the Mountain King”). Botvinnik won the World Championship in 1948 and held it off and on until 1963. Over the period from 1938 till the 1960s one of his great rivals was the Estonian, Paul Keres. Another great rival from 1940 onwards had been Vasily Smyslov, who in fact held the World Title for one year, 1957–1958, and contested three World Championship matches with Botvinnik.

When one looks into the games of the great players Botvinnik, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Keres, Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov, nurtured by the monolithic Soviet organization, one is struck by their differences of style. Similar methods of training did not have the effect of importing a sameness to their play. It brought them to the stage where they could be individuals.

The Soviet Union/Russia was manifestly the world’s strongest chess citadel, from 1948 until Fischer’s all too brief insurgence 1972–1975, and again from 1975, when Fischer defaulted the title, until Vladimir Kramnik yielded the Championship to the Indian Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand in 2007.

It is one thing to be popular, but why was the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, so overwhelmingly successful at chess? From 1948 to 1972 the USSR dominated the World Championship, and thereafter still provided the vast majority of the world’s elite grandmasters. This has much to do with the gigantic material resources that the USSR ploughed into achieving victory in virtually every international sport. Clearly, in the collective mind of the Soviet regime, chess was not merely a sport; it also conferred intellectual respectability. Hence the game was worth substantial financial investment, in order to seize the World Championship and, by systematic nurturing of young players, consolidate and retain it.

There is a deeper reason, in that the Soviet state was notable for its lack of opportunity for free thought. Any book, article, pamphlet, idea, piece of music, or even poem might be considered ideologically unsound. The consequence for the writer, composer or thinker who offended state orthodoxy ranged from ostracism to imprisonment in Arctic Circle labor camps and the ultimate sanction: summary execution.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the dissident Soviet writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Earlier he had written: “evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.“ For expressing such sentiments he was sentenced to 5 years in a prison camp in Siberia. Brodsky also argued that “the surest defense against evil is extreme individualism and originality of thinking”.

Here lies the true reason, aside from any state sponsorship, for the extraordinary popularity of chess in Soviet Russia. Chess offered a wide field for individual thought, in which the state had no remit to interfere. Even in music, top Soviet composers, Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev, were ridiculed by that well-known music critic, Joseph Stalin, and both lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation to a labor camp. Playing chess allowed Soviet citizens, the metaphorical sons and daughters of Lenin, to free their minds from the shackles of state dogma. Not even a Soviet commissar would have dared to utter the words, “comrade, that move is ideologically unsound.“ In the realm of the 64 squares, the sole criterion is whether the move is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. By playing chess, ordinary Russians re-conquered for themselves a measure of personal liberty in their everyday lives, over which the state had no control; in chess they could pursue freedom and self-expression, hardly possible in any other way, not business, not poetry, not music and certainly not in the daily conduct of the Polis.

Children need to be encouraged to think rather than to follow blindly. Not thinking for themselves leads to horrendous consequences. The nation is engaged in a process of reduction of values and principles. Thinking almost seems to be out of the equation.”

Frances Lawrence, widow of London headmaster Philip Lawrence stabbed to death by a 16-year-old gang member outside his school in December 1995.

The Times, 19th October 1996.

But hegemony does not last forever. In 1988 Professor Paul Kennedy published his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he argued that over-reliance on military strength and state security creates an imbalance with economic viability and can lead to the collapse of even the seemingly most impressive nation or empire. This was widely, but wrongly, interpreted as a dire prediction concerning the future of the USA. Kennedy’s book far more accurately prophesied the imminent demise of the USSR. Indeed, within a further four years the USSR, as it had been constituted since the Revolution of 1917, was no longer to exist.

A critical factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of its communist masters, was the regime’s dependence on restricting information and ideas. This was at the precise moment when the economies of the western world, and many in Asia, were on the brink of an information explosion, driven by new information-based technologies and reliant to an unprecedented degree on intellectual capital.

This message became apparent to me personally, during the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The match was held in two equal halves, twelve games in London (which I had the honor of organizing, jointly with my good friend and colleague Stewart Reuben), twelve in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then still known. As a standard facility for the International Press Corps, within five minutes of the end of each game the London logistics team printed a complete record of the moves and the times taken by each player, together with key comments by Grandmasters and printed diagrams of important situations in the game. Not only was this blitz report instantly available, it was also faxed to interested journalists around the world within a further five minutes.

In Leningrad, the contrast could not have been more marked. Three elderly babushkas typed up the moves as the game progressed. However, there was no photocopier at the Championship site in the Hotel Leningrad. The match Director, Secretary and Press Chief had to sign a document in triplicate allowing the press assistant to take a cab to Communist Party Headquarters several miles away, the location of the only official photocopier in the city. Only on the press assistant’s return after about 45 minutes could the assembled international press corps discover what the official moves had been.

From this experience, it became obvious to me, that, for the USSR, the game would soon be over. What chess prowess remained would be inherited by Russia itself and the splintered disparate republics, such as Armenia, home of Tigran Petrosian, and, post-USSR, three times winner of the Chess Olympiad Team Gold Medals.

Empires rise and empires fall. Some civilizations throw the dice and win, while others lose. Games, such as Shatranj, the forerunner of chess, come into fashion, then vanish.

Although totalitarian states, such as the USSR, could not dictate which chess moves to make, some particularly oppressive regimes, usually led by Ayatollahs, have tried to solve the problem of free thought by banning chess completely.

Perhaps with cancel culture, woke activists and some of the more extreme BLM fanatics rampant in our contemporary society, the days of chess, as we know it, with our clear and oft cited distinctions between Black and White, are numbered!

This week’s games are by great masters to come, and were all played in that star studded All Russian Championship, which functioned as a qualifier for the St Petersburg 1914 super tournament, won by Emanuel Lasker, ahead of Capablanca, with Alekhine in third place.

The first game: Efim Bogoljubov vs Aron Nimzowitsch, sees the great strategist Nimzowitsch, beating off his rival’s tactics. Nimzowitsch qualified for St Petersburg, along with Alekhine, after sharing gold in the All Russian, but failed to perform well when faced with the galaxy of international superstars.

The second game: Alexander Alekhine vs Efim Bogoljubov, shows just how brilliantly dangerous Bogoljubov, the non-qualifier from the trio, could be in his most inspired moments.

And the third game: Aron Nimzowitsch vs Alexander Alekhine. In their early encounters, Nimzowitsch held his own against Alekhine by the score of three wins to Alekhine’s five (1913–1927) but once Alekhine achieved the full efflorescence of his powers as world champion, he bowled Nimzo over by four wins to zero (1930–1934). This concluding game is from the days when things were still close.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Amazon, and Blackwell’s.


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