Russian Grandmaster Sergey Karjakin played a game of chess against cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner on Tuesday 9th June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1st ever Space-Earth game. The cosmonauts were 400 km above the Earth on the International Space Station, which recently welcomed NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley and their SpaceX spacecraft, while Sergey played from the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics, exactly 50 years after the first game was played in 1970.
The game was organised by the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics, the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the Russian Chess Federation and broadcast live from 11:00 CEST, in English.
And in Russian:
The game ended in a fast and sharp draw, where almost all of the moves were perfectly played:
1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 a6 4. ♗xc6 dxc6 5. O-O ♗e6 6. b3 c5 7. ♘xe5 ♕d4 8. ♘c4 ♗xc4 9. bxc4 ♕xa1 10. ♘c3 b5 11. ♕h5 ♘f6 12. ♕f3 b4 13. e5 O-O-O 14. ♗a3 ♕xf1+ 15. ♔xf1 bxc3 16. exf6 cxd2 17. ♕a8+ ♔d7 18. ♕d5+ ♔c8 19. ♕a8+ ♔d7 20. ♕d5+ ♔e8 21. ♕e4+ ♔d7
2016 World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin needs no
introduction on a chess website. Cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner
have been on the International Space Station since April 9th, when they arrived
together with NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy.
They were recently joined by astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, whose SpaceX vehicle was the first to be launched from US soil since the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011 and the first ever crewed commercial orbiting spacecraft. NASA estimated 10 million people watched the launch, with their arrival on the ISS also streamed across the world:
There are few details about the game to be played against Sergey Karjakin, except that Space plays White, but its value is symbolic, marking 50 years since the first such game.
Cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev (1929-2004) and Vitaly Sevastyanov (1935-2010) were the first humans to spend two weeks in space (Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 flight to the moon and back a year earlier took just over 8 days), with their Soyuz 9 flight ultimately lasting almost 18 days, or exactly “424 hours of weightlessness”, as recorded on commemorative stamps.
The mission was in preparation for the Soviet Union’s early space station, with Vitaly Sevastyanov in 1986 telling the Russian chess journal 64:
When Nikolaev and I were preparing for our flight they told us: “You’re going to be flying for a long time. You need to think of how to meaningfully spend your rest time during the hard work of the flight. What do you want to take onto the spaceship?” Andrian and I were great chess enthusiasts and answered together: “Chess!” Unexpectedly the psychologists were wary. “There are two of you on the flight. It’ll turn out that one of you always beats the other and there can be unnecessary negative emotions for the loser. That’s no good”. “Come on,” we objected with one voice. “On earth we play at the same level. Why should one of us always win in Space?”
The psychologists gave in and chess went into space, though it was a special chess set designed for zero gravity by a young engineer called Mikhail Klevtsov. Magnets weren’t allowed (and still aren’t today on the ISS) due to their potential to interfere with instruments, and the pieces were instead kept in place but movable by a series of grooves, “so they didn’t accidentally fly into the mouth of a sleeping cosmonaut” (Sevastyanov).
The players on the ground were General Nikolai Kamanin (1908-1982), the head of the cosmonaut training program, and cosmonaut Viktor Gorbatko (1934-2017), with another cosmonaut, Valery Bykovsky (1934-2019) hosting the broadcast:
The game lasted 6 hours, or 4 orbits of the Earth, with the players only able to transmit their moves while the spaceship was above the Soviet Union. You can catch some glimpses of the game in this video focussed on Vitaly Sevastyanov:
The game ended in a draw, which you can replay below:
1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e3 e5 4. ♗xc4 exd4 5. exd4 ♘c6 6. ♗e3 ♗d6 7. ♘c3 ♘f6 8. ♘f3 O-O 9. O-O ♗g4 10. h3 ♗f5 11. ♘h4 ♕d7 12. ♕f3 ♘e7 13. g4 ♗g6 14. ♖ae1 ♔h8 15. ♗g5 ♘eg8 16. ♘g2 ♖ae8 17. ♗e3 ♗b4 18. a3 ♗xc3 19. bxc3 ♗e4 20. ♕g3 c6 21. f3 ♗d5 22. ♗d3 b5 23. ♕h4 g6 24. ♘f4 ♗c4 25. ♗xc4 bxc4 26. ♗d2 ♖xe1 27. ♖xe1 ♘d5 28. g5 ♕d6 29. ♘xd5 cxd5 30. ♗f4 ♕d8 31. ♗e5+ f6 32. gxf6 ♘xf6 33. ♗xf6+ ♖xf6 34. ♖e8+ ♕xe8 35. ♕xf6+ ♔g8 1/2-1/2
“Space” missed the best chance to conquer the Earth on move 23:
23.g5! wins a piece, since the only move for the knight is 23…Nh5, but then 24.Qg4! forces 24…Qxg4 25.hxg4 and after the again forced 25…Ng3 26.Rf2 there are various ways for White to pick up the trapped knight.
One of the most interesting things about the game is that it was commentated on widely by the best Soviet chess players. David Bronstein wrote in the Izvestia newspaper:
That game will undoubtedly go down in the annals of the 1000 year long history of chess as the game that spread the sphere of influence of this wise game beyond our planet. Everyone can understand the emotion with which I look over the moves sent from space. The first “Space – Earth” game is very interesting to play over on a board. From the moves it’s easy to see that both sides love sharp, puzzling situations and show no lack of courage and invention in creating them. And the fact that neither side managed to win bears witness to the skill of the players not only in attack but also in defence.
Later that year on the 24th November 1970 the cosmonauts visited Moscow’s Central Chess Club for an evening featuring World Champion Boris Spassky, former World Champions Mikhail Botvinnik and Tigran Petrosian as well as other top players.
It was right in the middle of the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal that would mark a sea change in chess, with Bobby Fischer going on to win by a huge 3.5 point margin. Of the six players who qualified for World Championship Candidates Matches only Efim Geller and Mark Taimanov represented the USSR, with Fischer, Bent Larsen, Robert Huebner and Wolfgang Uhlmann taking the remaining places. Alexander Kotov, best known now for his Think Like a Grandmaster book, referred to that as he tried to look 40 years ahead, i.e. to 2010, that evening:
I’m sure that then we’ll have not an Interzonal but an Interplanetary Tournament. And the grey-haired, now ex-World Champion, Boris Spassky, will come out with a big article where as a journalist he’ll criticise the organisers that for some reason they allocated two places to weak players from Jupiter, reducing by two the representation of the lunar base… And chess fans, gathering in an even more luxurious club to assess the outcome of the Interplanetary Tournament will of course recall the first game played in space that opened a new era for the ancient game.
Back then it was hard to imagine that the last men to travel to the Moon would have done so just two years later in 1972, with no Soviet cosmonaut ever standing on the Moon.
3-time World Chess Champion Mikhail Botvinnik also referred to the Interzonal Tournament while talking about the head of the cosmonaut training program:
36 years ago I saw Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, in the Grand Peterhof Palace not far from Leningrad, when the Chelyuskin Heroes were being honoured there. Back then we were both very young and both could have become cosmonauts. Now, of course, I’m no longer fit for that.
I look on General Kamanin with great envy. Although we’re the same age he’s taken great care of himself and is in charge of our cosmonauts. Besides that, I’ve already stopped playing chess myself, while Kamanin, as we just got to see, still continues to perform well in events.
From the stories of Andrian Nikolaev and Vitaly Sevastyanov it became clear to us what difficulties a man faces in space. The first is physical weightlessness, which can be compared to what the participants in the Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca feel, when there’s only a rest day once in every 9 days. The second difficulty is, if we can put it like this, intellectual weightlessness.
When a man finds himself on the Earth in everyday life he’s constantly confronted by the solution of complex problems or, to put it another way, “inexact problems”. It’s not so simple to cross a street, to decide how to spend an evening – to go to the cinema, theatre or find a more frivolous activity. But on a spaceship a man has none of that and he can forget how to solve complex, inexact problems. And here chess comes to the rescue because chess is a typical complex, inexact problem. After all, it’s long been known that people playing chess “drift” and find the correct decisions with difficulty.
I by no means want to suggest that cosmonauts should be picked from among chess players. On the contrary, I think that if our grandmasters will play the way they’ve played at the start of the Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca (not counting, of course, Geller), then we’ll need to find chess reserves from among the cosmonauts…
Of course since 1970 chess has been played in space, with some astronauts having had plenty of time as they spent hundreds of days on Mir and now the International Space Station. The US Chess Federation in particular organised an Earth vs. Space match giving the chance for kids to take on astronauts. Chess always makes for good photo opportunities!
Tuesday's game will be a memorable celebration of some of the early pioneers of space flight.
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