The 'sanctum sanctorum" of Russian chess

From Bobby Fischer and current world champion Anatoly Karpov to Tolstoi, voltaire, Napoleon, and V. I. Lenin himself, the world's most famous chess aficionados -- both amateur and professional -- have their places of honor here in a large multi-story building in the center of Moscow.

It is the Central Chess Club of the Soviet Union, which serves not only as a base of operations for many great players but a repository filled with trophies, paintings, antique sets, and other memorabilia depicting both past and present eras of the "royal game."

A visiting American is struck by the picture of Fischer included in a gallery of world champions -- then learns that Bobby even visited the club in 1958 when he was a 15-year-old prodigy just in the process of exploding on the international chess scene.

"He was in this very room," said Viktor Baturinsky, director of the club. "I remember it well. All he wanted to do was play blitz matches.

"I said, 'Come on, Bobby, let me take you sightseeing,' but he refused to leave. 'Let's go see the Exhibition of Economic Development,' I suggested, but he said, 'No, that's just propaganda.' 'OK, how about the Bolshoi Theater -- we can go to the opera or the ballet?' 'No, that's propaganda, too!' And he just kept playing fast chess the whole time he was here."

Baturinsky was mystified at why Fischer has gone into seclusion and not played a single game of competitive chess since winning the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 -- eventually forfeiting the title in 1975 and making no attempt to regain it since. The Soviet official, who is also vice-president of the USSR Chess Federation, was interested to learn that most Americans have no more clue to the mystery than he has.

"bobby is a genius," Baturinsky said. "His absence is a real tragedy. The people here are very sorry that he has stopped playing chess. Karpov had hope to meet him for the championship. It would have been a great match."

Instead, of course, Karpov gained the title in '75 by virtue of a match victory over then-compatriot Viktor Korchnoi.He defended it successfully in 1978 against the same rival, who by then had defected and become persona non grata in the USSR. In fact, the only chill in my talk with Baturinsky came when I suggested that perhaps the Soviet people were hoping a different opponent would emerge from the matches currently taking place to determine the next challenger.

"Ah, now we are talking politics instead of chess!" said the director, and his words were followed by an awkward silence.

"Nevertheless, I will answer your question," he said at last. "We know Korchnoi is a very strong player. That is not a secret. But we don't like his behavior. Still, if he wins the Candidates' matches, he has the right to be the challenger again."

Perhaps the most impressive part of my visit came when we toured the room set aside as a sort of museum for chess memorabilia. Here were glass-enclosed cases filled with magnificent chess sets of all descriptions, many of them delicately carved from ivory and other such materials. Here also were trophies won by Soviet teams in various major events such as the chess Olympics, world team championships, etc. There were busts of Voltaire, Pushkin, and other famous personages reputed to have played the game as recreation, while the wall was lined with all sorts of paintings, drawings, and cartoons depicting a variety of chess scenes.

One of the more prominently displayed pictures was of Lenin himself at the board, and I learned that the father of the Soviet revolution, in addition to his other qualities, "was a very strong player." Somehow, I would hardly have expected to hear otherwise. But probably he really was; certainly the tradition of this country as a chess power goes back even further than revolutionary times.

Indeed, tradition was the factor cited most emphatically by Baturinsky when I quizzed him as to why he felt the Soviet Union has so completely dominated the world chess scene in recent years (only Fischer's brief reign has broken the Soviet monopoly of world champions since World War II, while a majority of the other great players in that time also has been from the USSR).

"We have a long history," he said, citing particularly the contributions of Mikhail Tchigorin, the great Russian master of the late 19th century who lost two close matches for the world championship and is generally considered to be the father of the Russian school of chess.

As for the postwar domination, it is shown clearly on a large wall chart depicting every major international championship event since 1948, with a red flag affixed to every square in which the Soviet competitor or competitors were victorious. Needless to say, there are many red flags -- so many that even though one is aware in general how well the USSR has done vis-a-vis the rest of the world, he still cannot help but be impressed by this graphic demonstration.

History and tradition aren't the only reasons for this success, of course, for as in other areas of competition, the Soviets are experts at identifying talent at a young age and then nurturing it through to adult mastery. According to Baturinsky, though, this isn't quite so formalized in chess as in some of the more athletic competitions such as Olympic sports. He says, for instance, that contrary to popular Western myths, chess isn't taught as a regular subject in Soviet schools but is just an extracurricular activity as it is in many schools in the United States and other Western countries.

"We do have some organized competitions at the school level, though," he said. "And most schools do have chess teams. Altogether about 500,000 children from the ages of eight through 14 participate in competitions throughout the country. And the ones who show exceptional ability can get special instruction. As you know, we have some special children's sports schools -- and some of these have chess programs."

Whatever the reason, the results speak for themselves. And chess in the Soviet Union isn't just for the top competitors. Baturinsky said there are some 4 million players of varying skills throughout the country, with many chess clubs to accommodate them.

The Central Chess Club, he said, is not the largest of these, but is by far the strongest, with a 1,500-person membership consisting only of "high quality players" up to and including grandmasters. Among the latter are former world champions Tigran Petrosian and Mikhail Tal, current contender Lev Polugaevsky, and of course Karpov.

Rimma Bilarova is another member who also happens to work there, keeping up a huge collection fo cross-referenced index cards dealing with chess theory and the games of all top foreign masters. When I indicated that I wouldn't mind playing a game or two while at the club, just to be able to say I had done so, Baturinsky said Rimma would be glad to accommodate me -- and then mentioned in passing that she happened to be an international woman master.

Well, forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and in fact I did play much more strongly than I had expected to, given my current rustiness and lack of practice. I took a bit too long with my moves, though (we were playing with our clocks set at a very past speed, since there wasn't much time), and in the end she was a bit too tough -- and too quick. We tried once more, with the same result, then I beat a hasty retreat before the odl ego was completely shattered.

It was a fun ending, though, to a fascinating overall experience -- and one that helped in many ways to explain the Soviet domination of the rest of the world in this ancient game.

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