How did Russians get so good at chess?

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Sept. 25 2009 6:40 PM

Red Squares

Why are the Russians so good at chess?

Garry Kasparov and Anatoli Karpov face off. Click image to expand.
Garry Kasparov and Anatoli Karpov face off

Two Russian chess grandmasters, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, faced off this week in a 12-game tournament in Valencia, Spain. As of this month, more than half of the Top 20 players in the world come from Russia or another former Soviet Republic. (The top-ranked player is Bulgarian.) Why are the Russians and their neighbors so good at chess?

Because the Soviets subsidized the game. Chess has long been popular in Russia—Czar Ivan IV is thought to have died while playing a match in 1584. After the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, it became a national pastime. Soon after the revolution, Vladimir Lenin's supreme commander of the Soviet army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state-sponsored chess: He opened chess schools, hosted tournaments, and promoted the game as a vehicle for international dominance. The first state-sponsored chess tournament was held in Moscow in 1921. Six years later, chess prodigy Alexander Alekhine became the first Russian to win a world tournament. By 1934, 500,000 amateur players had registered with the state chess program. When Mikhail Botvinnik won the international title in 1948, he kicked off an era of Soviet domination that extended unbroken—except for a four-year streak by American Bobby Fischer—until the fall of the USSR.

Chess was a natural fit for the Soviet Union. For one thing, many of its thinkers and leaders were avid chess players. Lenin was a serious player, but Russian author Maxim Gorky claimed Lenin got angry when he lost. Leon Trotsky reportedly played in Vienna and Paris. Stalin cared so much about his reputation as a chess master that he publicized a fake game in which he claimed to defeat party loyalist and future chief of the secret police Nikolai Yezhov. (Stalin later had him executed.)

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The Soviets also saw chess as embodying their revolutionary ideals. It was a game of skill, and the USSR prided itself on its intellectual talents. It was cheap, and anyone could play it. And to Soviet leaders, its back-and-forth dynamic reflected the dialectical concept of history espoused by Marxism. (Never mind the irony of playing with imperialist symbols like kings and queens.) The Russians developed a reputation for collective thinking when it came to chess. Soviet competitors were sometimes told to lose on purpose in tournaments in order to clear the way for better players. At the famous match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972, dozens of Soviet grandmasters would huddle during breaks and debate Spassky's next move. Fischer, by contrast, brought one assistant.

Chess first came to Russia along trade routes from Persia and India around the seventh century. As the game evolved, Russia developed some of its own rules: In the 18th century, for example, the queen could jump in an L-shape (like a knight) in addition to its usual sideways and diagonal movements. It wasn't until the mid-19th century, when the first world tournaments were held, that the modern version of the game solidified and spread. Chess remains popular in Russia but does not receive the same state support it once did. Case in point: Garry Kasparov, the former world champion, is now a leader of the political opposition.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bill Hall of the United States Chess Federation and David Shenk, author of The Immortal Game: A History of Chess.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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