In the 80 years since Alexander Alekhine became World Chess Champion in 1927 until Vishy Anand took the title from Vladimir Kramnik in 2007, Russian or Soviet players held the title for all but five years - Max Euwe (1935-37) and Bobby Fischer (1972-75) were the only players to disturb the dominance. In his latest article FM Andrey Terekhov looks at those years, but also the longer 1000-year history of chess in Russia. This is the sixth installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.
The goal of this essay is to introduce you to the history of chess in Russia, starting from ancient times, through the centuries of the Russian Tsars, to the Soviet era, and finally to the events of the last 30 years. With so much ground to cover, we will touch only on the most important events and players. I hope that even such a quick and whirlwind tour will provide the reader with an appreciation of the rich heritage of Russian chess.
The history of chess in Russia spans more than a thousand years. According to the Russian historian Isaak Linder, chess arrived in Kievan Rus’ (the land of the Eastern Slavic tribes and the earliest precursor to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine), no later than the 9th or 10th century.
It is presumed that chess arrived in Russia directly from Asia, via the Caspian Sea and Volga trading routes, in contrast to the other European countries that were introduced to chess via Arabs and their Spanish conquest. This theory is partially based on philological analysis of the Russian names for chess pieces, which are quite different from those used in most other European languages.
The Russian name for queen, ферзь (pronounced ferz’), sounds very similar to the original ferzin and seems to be a direct import from Hindi, Arabic or Persian. The word for the bishop is слон (meaning elephant), the same meaning as fil in Hindi, Arabic and Persian. Finally, the Russian word for the rook, ладья (pronounced ladya), is unique and points to the type of boat that the Slavic tribes used to navigate rivers as well as the Black and Caspian Seas. These boats, similar to the Scandinavian longships, fell out of use by the 18th century and today the word ladya can only refer either to ancient history, or to chess.
Over the next centuries chess quickly
spread all over Russia. Archeologists have found chess pieces in
excavations dating from as early as the 11th century. In Novgorod, one of the
oldest cities in the north of Russia, archeologists have discovered several
dozen chess pieces and chess sets, dating from the 12th to the 15th century.
The popularity of chess in Russia has seen many ups and downs. For most of the Middle Ages, chess was suppressed because the Russian Orthodox Church considered playing it a sin, together with dice and other forms of gambling. Most references to chess that survive in the manuscripts from early medieval times are negative or forbid it outright. The punishments were especially severe for priests, who could face excommunication for playing chess.
However, by the 16th century this started to change, as the royal game acquired royal allies.
Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), the first Russian ruler who assumed the royal title of Tsar, was an avid chess player. In fact, he was reported to have died while sitting at the chessboard.
An English poet George Turberville, who
travelled to Moscow in 1568, was deeply impressed with the chess skills of the
Russians. The following quote comes from Turberville’s book “Poems, describing
the Place and Manners of the Country and People of Russia”:
game is chess,
almost the simplest will
Both give a check and eke a mate:
by practice comes this skill.
Ivan the Terrible’s successors on the throne were just as fond of chess. Peter the Great (1672-1725) played chess even during military campaigns and introduced the game to the Assemblies, ball-cum-social-gatherings that were introduced by his decree in 1718.
Chess continued to be popular with Peter
the Great’s successors. Catherine the Great (1729-1796), the main
protagonist of a recent mini-series
with Helen Mirren in the main role, also played chess, although she
preferred the unusual 4-player variant called Fortress chess.
The first book (or, rather, brochure) about chess in Russian was published in St. Petersburg in 1791, at the end of Catherine the Great’s reign. It was a translation of the essay “The Morals of Chess”, written by Benjamin Franklin. That’s right – the first publication about chess in Russian was penned by one of the Founding Fathers of the United States!
The greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), was born a few years after the publication of the first chess book in Russian. Pushkin played chess, owned chess books and journals, and even included a small chess scene in his most famous poem “Eugene Onegin”, in which one of the main protagonists, a young poet by the name of Vladimir Lensky, is playing chess with his fiancée, Olga Larina (the following fragment is given in the translation by Charles H. Johnston):
removed as they were able
from all the world, they sat and pored
in deepest thought at the chess-board
for hours, with elbows on the table --
then Lensky moved his pawn, and took,
deep in distraction, his own rook.
In 1832 Pushkin wrote a letter to his wife with the following sentences:
Thank you, my soulmate, that you are learning to play chess. It is a must for any well-organized family. I will prove it to you later.
Alas, we never got to know how Pushkin was planning to prove the necessity of chess, which puts this letter into the same category as Fermat’s Last Theorem and the famous words of the genius mathematician:
I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this theorem, which this margin is too narrow to contain.
The 19th century saw the emergence of the first Russian chess masters. The most influential of them was Alexander Petrov (1794-1867), best known as the inventor of Petrov’s Defense (sometimes spelled as Petroff’s Defense, and also known as the Russian Game). Petrov wrote one of the first chess manuals in Russian, “Chess Game, arranged in a systematic order, with the addition of Philidor’s games and annotations to those”. The book was published in five volumes and remained a standard text for almost a century. Alexander Pushkin had two copies of this book in his library, including one with an inscription by the author (apparently Pushkin bought a copy before Petrov presented it to the poet himself).
It is a good time to note that many of the chess masters in Russia were not ethnic Russians. The Russian Empire was built on conquest and acquisition, and by the 19th century encompassed hundreds of different nations and ethnicities within its borders. Of course, this also translated to chess. For example, Carl Jänisch (1813-1872), Petrov’s sparring partner and a major theoretician, was born in Finland and was German-speaking. Some of the strongest players in Russia in the second half of the 19th century included Szymon Winawer, a Polish Jew, and Emanuel Schiffers (1850-1904), another German whose parents emigrated from Prussia. This would be a recurring pattern for the next two centuries, and indeed continues to this day, as Russia is still highly diverse ethnically.
Szymon Winawer (1838-1919) was the first player of the Russian Empire to make a
splash on the international scene. The story goes that he was invited to play
in the 1867 Paris Tournament when he dropped into the Café de la Régence for a
few offhand games and impressed everyone with his play. His result in the first
international tournament was sensational – 2nd place with 19 points out of 24,
a full point ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz. Alas, Winawer played only sparingly and
essentially remained an amateur for the rest of his life. However, he did make
a major contribution to chess theory, with one of the main variations of the French
Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4) named after him.
The honor of becoming the first Russian to challenge for the World Championship would fall to Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), who was twelve years younger than Winawer.The highlights of Chigorin’s career include four matches against the top players of the time – two World Championship matches that he lost to Wilhelm Steinitz (1889 and 1891/92) and two matches that he drew with almost identical scores (+9 -9, differing only in the number of draws) with Isidor Gunsberg (1889/90) and Siegbert Tarrasch (1893). In my opinion, the games of these matches deserve to be better known. They still make for great entertainment, thanks to uncompromising play that led to a lot of decisive games. In the first match between Chigorin and Steinitz there was only one draw in 17 games – the last one!
I believe that one of the chief reasons why Chigorin is not that popular today is his terrible over-promotion in the early days of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that Chigorin was a towering figure and the true founding father of Russian chess, but at some point, the Russian players were almost force-fed Chigorin. From 1920 until the late 1950s Chigorin was to Soviet chess what Vladimir Lenin was to the Soviet Union – a figure of mythical proportions, an infallible authority, the answer to all questions. Whenever Soviet players won it was supposed to have happened because of their “Chigorin-like creativity”. Whenever they slipped up, it was because there were succumbing to the “routine ways of the Tarrasch school.” Tarrasch was always portrayed as an antipode to Chigorin.
The Chigorin craze started to subside only after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the subsequent “Khrushchev Thaw”, which relaxed some of the more repressive and nationalistic policies of the Soviet Union. Gradually, the focus of Soviet chess shifted from Chigorin to his spiritual successor, the first Russian World Champion, Alexander Alekhine.
Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) was born in Moscow into a noble and wealthy family. He was still in his teens when he played his first international tournament (Düsseldorf 1908) and became a master in 1909 by winning the All-Russian Amateur Tournament. His chess career spanned almost four decades, countless tournament victories and several victories in World Championship matches. There are many great books discussing his chess legacy, and Alekhine’s attacking games still serve as an inspiration to grandmasters and amateurs.
However, we will mostly focus on an event that played a pivotal role in the history of Russia but had nothing to do with chess. In 1917 Russia went through two revolutions in a row – one in February and another in October – which brought to power the Bolsheviks, a faction of the Communist party that would rule the country for the next 75 years. They were led by a charismatic professional revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, who (as you probably already guessed) also enjoyed chess.
The 1917 Revolution was followed by a lengthy Civil War, and there was no place for chess in those years. Alexander Alekhine decided to escape Russia and eventually managed to do it by marrying a Swiss journalist in 1921 and leaving Russia a few weeks after the wedding, never to return.
It can be said that at this point the history of Russian chess split into two branches – the Soviets and the Emigrants. In the beginning the Emigrants clearly had the upper hand, as Alexander Alekhine was not the only strong master who fled Russia in those turbulent years.
The case of Efim Bogolyubov (1889-1952), who would later play two World Championship matches with Alekhine, was even more convoluted. In 1914 Alekhine, Bogolyubov and a few other Russian players were participating in a tournament in Mannheim when World War I broke out. They were interned and released only a few months later. Shortly afterwards, Bogolyubov married a local woman and settled in Germany. In the 1920s he briefly returned to the Soviet Union, easily won two Soviet Championships (1924 and 1925), as well as the First Moscow International Tournament (ahead of Lasker, Capablanca, Marshall and other great players). However, when he was denied a visa for a tournament abroad, Bogolyubov packed his bags and returned to Germany. Of course, the Soviet authorities immediately declared him a traitor, just as they had Alekhine.
It was during the 1925 Moscow Tournament that the term “Chess Fever” was coined, after the eponymous silent movie, which weaved the chess tournament into the plot and even had Jose Raul Capablanca playing a short but important role.
The Soviet Union was indeed going through a chess fever that started in the early 1920s and continued until the very last days of the Communist regime.
The person who kick-started the Soviet chess movement was Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky (1891-1941), a chess master who famously defeated Capablanca in the 1925 Moscow Tournament. More importantly, he was a high-ranking Bolshevik who oversaw military education in the early 1920s. His decision to include chess into this program laid the foundations of the famous Soviet Chess School.
Over the next twenty years, the Soviet Union built an end-to-end system that would make it a powerhouse in chess for decades to come. It was a giant pyramid, with millions of active chess players at the bottom and world-class grandmasters at the top. There was ample state funding at all levels, which ensured that there were chess clubs all over the country, from Moscow to small villages in Siberia, in army divisions and in factories. On top of that, there was a whole system of chess sections at the “Houses of Pioneers”, which helped to identify and nurture young talents. Finally, in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a revival of chess publications, first in Russian and later also in other national languages (Georgian, Uzbek, Tatar etc.) There were books and periodical publications, such as the “64” newspaper that was launched back then and continues in the form of a monthly journal to the present day.In the early years the emphasis was on a mass chess movement, but of course it was always fueled by the ambition that world-class players would eventually emerge from this crucible. It took 10-15 years for that to happen, but then the investment started to pay off. If the First Moscow International Tournament in 1925 had been heavily dominated by the foreign masters, the Second Moscow International Tournament, held ten years later, saw the “new hope” of Soviet chess, 23-year old Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995), at the top of the tournament table.
By that time Botvinnik was already the undisputed leader of Soviet chess, and over the next 10-15 years he would establish himself as the primary challenger for the World Championship. His plans for a match with Alexander Alekhine fell through when the World Champion died in 1946, but Botvinnik still achieved his dream by winning the World Championship match tournament in 1948.
Botvinnik would yield the title twice – to Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010) in 1957 and to Mikhail Tal in 1960 – but both times he won it back in the return matches. In the end, Botvinnik’s reign would last for 15 years, with two one-year breaks in the middle.
Botvinnik’s victory ushered in the Golden Age of Soviet Chess. For the next 60 years the chess crown would belong to the Soviet and later Russian players, with only one three-year break.
The eighth World Champion spent less than a year on the throne, and yet he remains one of the most beloved chess personalities. The rise of Mikhail Tal (1936-1992) was nothing short of extraordinary. He gained the grandmaster title by winning the Soviet Championship at the age of 20, and then he won it again a year later. This victory qualified him to the 1958 Interzonal, which he won, and from there to the 1959 Candidates, which he also won. In 1960 he beat Botvinnik in the World Championship match and thus became the youngest World Chess Champion to that point.
More importantly, Tal did it by playing a brand new style of chess, one that seemed to defy all logic. Time after time, his incredible combinational gift proved too much to handle for his opponents. In the return match Botvinnik finally managed to put a halt to Tal’s run, but it did not stop the millions of chess fans worldwide from worshipping Mikhail Tal and the magic that he brought to the game. I know many chess players who have a special place in their libraries for Tal books and his games collections. To this day, Tal remains one of the most popular World Champions ever and the beauty of his combinations continues to mesmerize new generations of chess players.
For many years there seemed to be no end in sight to the Soviet domination of chess. In 1963 Botvinnik relinquished the title for good, as he was defeated in a World Championship match by Tigran Petrosian (1929-1984), and return matches had been abolished. Six years later Petrosian lost the crown, to Boris Spassky (b. 1937), but from the Soviet point of view it was all good, as it was all “within the family”.
By then chess was firmly established as one of the areas in which the Soviet Union excelled (along with ballet, ice hockey and space flights). Inevitably, chess became a tool for political propaganda. The success of the Soviet chess players was equated to the advantage of the Communist system over the “world of rotting Capitalism”.
With so much on the line, one can imagine the shock and horror when in 1972 Spassky lost a World Championship match to Robert James Fischer – an American, of all nations! There could not be a harder blow to the Soviet system. The famous Soviet poet/singer, Vladimir Vysotsky, reacted to this calamity by writing a famous song, “The Honor of the Chess Crown”, which parodied that fateful match.
Fortunately, the balance of power was
restored only three years later, when a 24-year-old Soviet challenger, Anatoly
Karpov (b. 1951), successfully made it through a series of Candidates Matches,
defeating Lev Polugaevsky, Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, and thus qualified
for a match with Fischer. Alas, this highly anticipated match never took place.
Fischer declined to play and quit chess. In 1975 Karpov was declared World Champion
and quickly proved his superiority over all the other players by compiling a
phenomenal streak of tournament victories in the late 1970s.
However, a tough test awaited him in the 1978 World Championship match. Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016) was 20 years older than Karpov and one would have thought that he did not stand a chance for that reason alone. However, whatever Korchnoi lacked, he more than compensated with motivation and sheer anger. A few years earlier Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union, leaving his family and sacrificing everything to realize his dream of becoming World Champion.
The match in Baguio (Philippines), which was played to six victories, went down to the wire, but in the end Karpov managed to win a dramatic 32nd game and retain the title with the score +6 -5 =21. A second match with Korchnoi in 1982 went much more smoothly for Karpov, who won +6 -2 =10.
In 1984 Karpov finally faced a challenger who was younger than himself. Garry Kasparov (b. 1963) was only 21 years old at the time and his ascent to the top was even faster than that of Karpov or Tal. It was the beginning of a bitter rivalry of a magnitude that the chess world had never seen before and is unlikely to see again.
Over the course of the next few years Karpov and Kasparov played five World Championship matches, and each of them was closely contested. I learned the rules of chess in 1983 and literally grew up with these matches. During the first match I could barely understand anything; by the time the epic rivalry had ended I was already a Candidate Master. It would be fair to say that these matches were a life-defining experience for most chess players of my generation.
However, Karpov-Kasparov was bigger than chess. Somehow Karpov and Kasparov came to personify different currents in the politics of the time. Karpov represented The System (or one might say, Conservatives), while Kasparov represented Change (or Liberals, in the terminology of other countries). Because of that everyone in the Soviet Union – even those who could not tell a rook from a knight – rooted either for Karpov or Kasparov. I can’t recall any examples of people switching allegiances in this rivalry; it was too personal for that.
As we all know, Kasparov prevailed in the end. He did not lose a single match in the series, although he was down -3 +5 =40 in the first match when it was abandoned with Karpov still within one victory of clinching the match. Kasparov narrowly won three matches and drew the most dramatic of them all, Seville 1987, by famously winning the last game on demand.
Karpov had one last hurrah at Linares 1994, where he simply smashed the super-tournament by scoring 11/13 and finishing 2.5 points ahead of Kasparov and Shirov. However, on aggregate, the 1990s belonged to Kasparov, who won most of the tournaments that he participated in and reached a then-record rating of 2851 on the July 1999 list.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, it was an incredible shock to its approximately 300 million inhabitants. Despite all the shortcomings and absurdity of daily life in the Soviet Union, few people could imagine that one day it would simply cease to exist. I remember that as a kid I used to think that it would be cool to live to 2017 to see the massive celebration of the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution. I know it sounds odd today, but it made perfect sense at the time. Many years later I came across a book with a title that perfectly summarized the sentiment of the last Soviet generation: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.
When it came to chess, the fall of the Soviet Union led to many unexpected consequences. Who could have predicted before the start of the 1992 Chess Olympiad that Uzbekistan would win silver medals, or that Armenian team would finish third? It was only the first sign of dramatic changes that were yet to come.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain the players from the former Soviet countries rushed abroad. They were strong, they were hungry (sometimes literally), and for another decade they continued to dominate the chess world.
Moreover, Russia continued to produce new talents. At the 1992 Chess Olympiad the Russian team featured a young FIDE Master who only turned 17 on the day of the closing ceremony. It was Vladimir Kramnik (b. 1975), who scored a crushing 8½ out of 9 on the reserve board. Two years later, at the 1994 Moscow Chess Olympiad, Kramnik was already playing on 2nd board, behind only Kasparov. The Russian team once again won the Olympiad, but more amazingly, the Russian “B” team, led by Alexander Morozevich (b. 1977) and comprised entirely of junior players, won bronze. The future seemed bright and indeed, Russia’s hegemony continued for a full decade, with the Russian team winning all the Olympiads from 1992 to 2002.
However, since 2004 Russia has failed to score another gold, despite regularly sporting teams that are the rating favorites. The odds for that are so improbable that they defy any reasonable explanation.
Personally, I blame... Boston Red Sox. I know, I know, it’s crazy, but hear me out. There was a famous curse hanging over this American baseball team for 86 years, from 1918 to 2004. There is even a Wikipedia article about it, so it must have been a real thing. Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, but the curse could not just disappear, right? It must be that it was somehow passed to the Russian chess team instead.
I just hope that it won’t take the Russian team another 70 years to win their next Olympic gold!
This set Kasparov and Kramnik on a collision course, and in 2000 it resulted in a World Championship match, which Kramnik sensationally won with the score +2 =13. Kasparov never managed to find an antidote to Kramnik’s secret weapon, the Berlin Defense. No wonder – White players cannot find it to this day!
Vladimir Kramnik’s other contributions to world peace include analyzing the Russian Defense and the Slav Defense to forced draws. With the white pieces Kramnik breathed new life into the Catalan Opening. Exciting stuff!
In 2004 Kramnik narrowly drew a World Championship match with Peter Leko by winning the last game on demand. In 2007 he won a tie-break in a match with Veselin Topalov that was marred by scandals and accusations of foul play.
Finally, in 2007/2008, after a cumbersome procedure that involved a World Championship tournament followed by the World Championship match, Kramnik officially lost the title to Viswanathan Anand. It marked an end of an era – Kramnik became the last Russian World Champion. The tradition that traced its lineage all the way back to 1927 had finally been broken.
From 2004 onwards the Russian Championship has
switched to a round-robin Superfinal format. By that time Svidler had
accumulated vast experience of playing in super-tournaments and he put it to
good use, winning four more titles in this format as well (in 2008, 2011, 2013
With his eighth victory Svidler overtook Botvinnik in the informal competition for the highest number of national titles (Botvinnik won the Soviet Championship seven times). No one else has won the Russian Championship more than twice, so Svidler’s record is safe for many years to come.
Of course, Svidler also has many other tournament victories to his name, including Biel, Dortmund, Gibraltar, Tilburg and the 2011 World Cup. He is also known as a leading world expert on the Grünfeld Defense and one of the best chess commentators around.
Three of the five players at the top of the latest Russian rating list belong to the “1990s generation”. Ian Nepomniachtchi, Sergey Karjakin and Dmitry Andreikin were all born in the same year, 1990 (incidentally, the same birth year as the reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen).
The other two players in the Top 5 are “the last of the Mohicans” – Alexander Grischuk (b. 1983) and Peter Svidler. Grischuk still has a shot at qualifying for the World Championship match, but this might be his last chance.
The young Russian who has come closest to the throne so far was Sergey Karjakin, who played Magnus Carlsen in the 2016 World Championship match and drew the classical part 6:6 before losing on tie-breaks.
Dmitry Andreikin, a two-time Russian Champion, made it to the Candidates in 2014 but has been relatively quiet since.
Of the three 1990 players, it is Nepomniachtchi who has the best chances to qualify for the next match with Carlsen. When the 2020 Candidates Tournament was suspended, Nepomniachtchi was sharing first place with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a point ahead of the rest of the pack. He must be eagerly awaiting the resumption of the Candidates, as he is one of the clear favorites to book a meeting with Carlsen.
The younger half of the “1990s generation” – Vladislav Artemiev, Daniil Dubov and Kirill Alekseenko – are also quickly making a name for themselves. Kirill Alekseenko received a wild card nomination to the 2020 Candidates thanks to finishing third at the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss.
Daniil Dubov has already become a World Champion, albeit so far only in rapid.
Artemiev had a great 2019, when he won Gibraltar Masters and the European Individual Championship.
They are probably still a few steps away from challenging Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and other leaders of world chess, but they and some of the younger players have the potential to get there.
Russian chess marches on!
How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!
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