Soviet and Russian chess

Why was the Soviet: Union, and subsequently Russia, so overwhelmingly successful at chess? From 194S to 1972 the USSR

Bobby Fischer

Boris Spassky

Bobby Fischer

WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONS

1886-94

Wilhelm Steinitz

Austria

1894-1921

Emanuel Lasker

Germany

1921-27

Jose Raoul Capablanca

Cuba

1927-35

Alexander Alekhine

Russia

1935-37

Max Euwe

Netherlands

1937-46

Alexander Alekliine

Russia

1948-57

Mikhail Botvinnik

USSR

1957-58

Vassilv Smyslov

USSR

1958-60

Mikhail Botvinnik

USSR

1960-61

Mikhail Tal

USSR

1961-63

Mikhail Botvinnik

USSR

1963-69

Tigran Petrosian

USSR

1969-72

Boris Spassky

USSR

1972-75

Bobby Fischer

USA

1975-85

Anatoly Karpov

USSR

1985—

Garry Kasparov

USSR/Russia

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 plowed into achieving victory in virtually every international sport. 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. 'Use 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 19S7, 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 five 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 offers a wide field for individual thought, in which the state has no right to interfere. Even in music, the top Soviet: composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, was ridiculed by that well-known music critic Joseph Stalin, and lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation to a labor camp. Playing chess allowed Russians 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 chess the sole criterion is whether the move is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. By playing chess, ordinary-Russians reconquered 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-determination.

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, Mrs. Lawrence was launching her manifesto for nationwide moral revival, (From

The Times, October 19,1996) -

In 1988, Professor Paul Kennedy published his book The Rise and FedI 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 of 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, no longer existed. 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 arid reliant to an unprecedented degree on intellectual capital.

This message became apparent during the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The match was held in two equal halves, twelve games in London (organized by Raymond Keene), 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

Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov 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 forty-five minutes could the assembled international press corps discover what the official moves had been. It was obvious that for the USSR the game would soon be over.

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