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The Soviet Chess School .- Part 1

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(Note: The topic I am writing about presents a lot of problems. For practical purposes I understand as “Soviet era/period”  the one from 1917 to 1989. Some readers may find it confusing the terms “Russian School of Chess” and “Soviet School of Chess”. The former refers to the period before the Soviet Revolution and was the seed of the latter.)

Every chessplayer has heard of the so-called “Soviet School of Chess”. After the 1917 Revolution ,Chess became a matter of paramount importance for the new Soviet authorities. Lenin (himself a chessplayer) ordered that Chess should be taken to every corner of the country, and designed N. Krylenko -People’s Commissar of Justice- to organize the matter.When Stalin (also a player himself) succeeded Vladimir Ilich Ulianov, he followed suit and Chess continued being spreaded throughout the whole country: schools and factories, farms and the armed forces, big cities and remote places. Chess was a cultural symbol and was treated accordingly.

In 1948 Mikhail Botvinnik (1911 – 1995) became the first Chess World Champion of the Soviet era. The enormous Soviet machinery devised to produce Chess champions began to work supported by the state. Schools of Chess for the youth, trainers, players, analysts began to flourish all over the country. They worked as a whole “team” and hence the name of “Soviet School of Chess”. In any case, this should not be understood as referred to a certain ,peculiar, privative  stylistic approach, but to the way they faced and carried away the task.

In the West ,chessplayers began to speak of the Soviets as “professional chessplayers”, though it is very curious to know the ideas of the Soviet players themselves…

Be that as it may, the Soviet players could live -better or worse- on Chess: by playing, teaching, writing or training. Chess was under the control of the state (even the KGB was involved), and it became a matter of state too (if you do not believe it a single book will be enough:  “Russians versus Fischer”. Chessplayers were compelled to obtain university degrees to be allowed to play abroad, for instance…

The outcome of all this was that from 1948 to 1972 all the World Champions and the challengers were Soviets (Botvinnik, Bronstein,Smyslov,Tal,Petrosian,Spassky). The Soviet Union won nearly every team event too. In 1972 Spassky lost to the American Fischer but in 1975 A.Karpov recovered the title back once Fischer decided not to play. Karpov was succeded in 1985 by Kasparov.There was a time when FIDE had to put a limit to the number of Soviet players able to compete in qualification events. The Soviet chessplayers dominated the world’s Chess scene for many decades and the influence of such period can still be seen. In the West, professionals and amateurs eagerly tried to obtain Chess literature from the Soviet Union. Bobby Fischer studied Russian to be able to read in the original ( he also pleased himself in pointing out mistakes and errors he believed were made on purpose to mislead unaware Western opponents, and ,of course, to mislead himself so as to prevent him to defeat “the Reds”…) The special characteristic of a country like the USSR made it possible to publish anything without caring about editorial profits, from collection of games by any chessplayer alive or dead to treatises on the different aspects of the game.

In the meanwhile, Soviet leading chessplayers were “forced” to win on any occasion, at any place, at any personal cost. The state support was not there for the professional player  to live comfortably. The goal was , from the very beginning, winning to show the world the cultural superiority of the Soviet system . And they really did it: they won and won. No matter if in the West their colleagues bitterly complained about money/personal conditions, or accused the Soviets of having a big advantage : the Soviets were there to conquer, and at the same time, they never tried to keep any sort of secret and -with the inherent  problems created by the political situation between the Soviet Union and “the rest of the world”- that rest of the world had access to an immense Chess lore.  This is why I have always thought that most of us are in fact children of the Soviet Chess School. Even Fischer was…(Of course different people have different opinions. These are mine and if someone thinks different I will respect his/hers too). But I learnt how Chess was played on my own, by reading translations/originals of Russians books, getting Russian magazines and studying the games of those great chessplayers… Today, I still take great pride in it.

In 1970 a match between the Soviets and the “Rest of the World” was held in Belgrade. The Chess world was about to reach boiling point since Fischer was becoming a real threat and the press -not only the specialized one, remember the world was in the so-called ” Cold War”. After years speaking of the Soviet Chess supremacy, with Chess blossoming all over the world , it seemed the time was ripe for such an event. Former World Champion Max Euwe chose Larsen , Fischer, Portisch,Hort,Gligoric,Reshevsky,Uhlmann,Matulovic,Najdorf and Ivkov with Olafsson and Darga as reserves.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The Soviet line-up was impressive, with the World Champion and three ex-World Champions: Spassky,Petrosian,Korchnoi,Polugaevsky,Geller,Smyslov,Taimanov,Botvinnik,Tal,Keres with Stein and Bronstein as reserves. The final result was a narrow 20.5 to 19.5 for the Soviet team, with Fischer railing against Portisch for agreeing a draw against Korchnoi in a position the American thought worth being played on and with a  poor result for the Soviets on the first board… (This is a personal observation: after beating Petrosian in 1969, Spassky’s result left much to be desired, but this is a different story…)

(In 1984 the a similar event was held. In that year the Soviet Union also won : 21-19 with Karpov and Kasparov leading the Soviet team and Korchnoi playing in the RoW team as he was a Swiss citizen.)

To be continued .


(In the next post we will travel back in time to understand the genesis of the Soviet School of Chess and some games will be included. To me, this is a captivating topic because of my admiration for the Soviet/Russian chessplayers.They have been there, by my side, all my Chess life.Their lives and feats inspired me, taught me, dragged me to distant times and helped me to keep on living and fighting even when I was feeling the deepest of loneliness …)

Written by QChess

March 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm

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