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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The First Soviet Championship

     In 1874, Emanuel Schiffers defeated Andrey Chardin in a match held in St. Petersburg and so was considered the first Russian champion until his student, Mikhail Chigorin, defeated him in a match held in St. Petersburg in 1879. In 1899 the format of the championship was changed to a round-robin tournament known as the All-Russian Masters' Tournament. 
     In 1920 a tournament designated All-Russian Chess Olympiad was held and only later was it recognized as the first official Soviet championship. The event, probably the strongest in history up to that time, was important because it was the beginning of state support for chess and authorities also realized that chess could be used as a tool for political and cultural reasons. 
     Odd sidelights were that the participants were forced to play, the tournament was marked by a strike protesting the meager food rations and it was not long afterwards that the winner would be proclaimed by the government to be a traitor. 
     The idea for the tournament began in early 1920 and discussions were headed up by the military organization overseeing military training. Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky, a strong master, headed up the Russian Sports Olympiad committee and it was he who suggested chess be included. The actual program for the tournament was put together by Alexander Alekhine and prominent masters Nikolai Grekov and Nikolai Grigoriev. 
     As a result of World War One (July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) and with Russia in the middle of a revolution and the economy in a mess, it was not even known with any certainty which players were alive or dead, let alone could play. So a call went out using the Red Army to locate players who were then shanghaied for the tournament. Ilyin-Zhenevsky denied that players were forced to play. Supposedly the military's involvement meant the players would get special treatment and after the tournament they could return to their jobs. But, that was not always the case. Dr. Abram Rabinovich, who lived in in Kiev, was walking home from work when he came across an announcement that he and two other players believed to be in Kiev had been ordered to Moscow. He was advised to report to the local military authorities. Rabinovich was recovering from typhus and did not want to make the trip, but was forced to go anyway. Peter Romanovsky, a bank employee from Petrograd, was conscripted into the Army to insure he made it to Moscow. In addition to the main event, a simultaneous amateur event was planned and the military was also used to assure players for that event were “available.” 
     The strongest players included Alexander Alekhine, Peter Romanovsky, Nikolai Grigoriev, Abram Rabinovich, Ilya Rabinovich, G.Y. Levenfish, Benjamin Blumenfeld and Ilyin-Zhenevsky himself. Players not from Moscow were housed in a military barracks and ate in the mess hall. Players were unhappy with the arrangement: the barracks was cold and unheated and the beds were hard and the food poor. 
     Food quickly became an issue. The rations for both the recruits and the players consisted of about 7 ounces (slightly more than half a loaf of bread today) plus and evening meal of thin herring head soup and fried herring tails. As a result the players had to buy food on the black market, often trading cigarettes for food. Players also began to suspect that the offered prizes which had never been specifically spelled out would not be available. 
     Halfway through the tournament a number of the stronger players refused to play the fifth round unless their demands were met: they wanted an advance cash allowance, cheese issued to the players, an increase in their bread ration and cigarettes. Alekhine, who was living at home in Moscow with his parents, did not sign the protest, but said he would act in solidarity with the strikers because did not think it right to play against hungry opponents. In order to save the tournament, Ilyin-Zhinevsky acquiesced to the demands except for the cheese; there wasn't any in Moscow. 
    The winner was Alekhine with Romanovsky second and Levenfish third. However, there was another nasty surprise in store for the players...the promised prizes were missing! Instead the organizers handed out various items that had been confiscated from emigres who were considered “enemies.”  As the winner Alekhine got first choice and chose a huge vase. The top three were also awarded handwritten certificates on cheap paper. 
     Ilyin-Zhenevsky, who had an old war injury, played the final games lying in bed and the players' rebellion damaged his political reputation and placed him in a compromised position. 

1) Alekhine 12.0 
2) Romanovsky 11.0 
3) Levenfish 10.0 
4) I. Rabinovich 9.5 
5-7) Grigoriev, A. Rabinovich, Kubbel 8.5 
8) Blumenfeld 8.0 
9-10) Ilyin-Zhenevsky and Daniuszewski 7.0 
11-12) Zubarev and Pianov 6.5 
13) Tselikov 5.5 
14) Mundt 4.5 
15) Pavlov 4.0 
16) Golubev 3.0 

     Peter Romanovsky (July 29, 1892, Saint Petersburg – March 1, 1964, Moscow) was an IM, International Arbiter and chess author. During the Siege of Leningrad in winter of 1941–42, a rescue party reached his home and found him half-conscious from starvation and cold. The rest of his family, his wife and four daughters, had frozen to death. All the furniture in the house had been used for firewood. 
     Romanovsky was considered one of Russia's greatest chess luminaries and taught several generations of Leningrad and Moscow players. A very hospitable man, many young chess players would visit him and he would read them lectures about chess history, development of chess ideas, chess schools and great masters of the past. An accomplished balalaika (a Russian three-stringed musical instrument with a triangular body) player, Romanovsky sometimes performed classical music for his students on it. He also wrote poetry. 
     He was awarded the IM title in 1950 and the International Arbiter title in 1951 and in 1954 the Soviets withdrew their application for him to receive the GM title for political reasons. The application was based on his first place in the 1927 USSR championship. But, because anti-Stalinist Fedor Bohatirchuk had shared the title in 1927 and he was no longer recognized in the USSR as the result of his having defected to Canada, the USSR Chess Federation did not want to give the GM title to Bohatirchuk, so they withdrew the application for Romanovsky as well. Romanovsky published two books on the middlegame which were translated into English in 1990. 
     Abram Rabinovich was born in Vilnius, Lithuania and had several success in international tournaments. During World War I, he moved to Moscow where he also enjoyed considerable success. According to Yuri Averbach, Rabinovich was a short man who wore pince-nez on his big red nose. In summer, he would wear a canvas blouse. Before the war, he was the editor of chess column for a newspaper. In his last years, he would study theory extensively. In 1941-42 he was living in poverty and hunger Moscow where he died of starvation in 1943. 

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