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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Era of Russian Hegemony

     It began with contributions by Mikhail Chigorin in 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. But, it was dating from about the early 1930's the Russian players (as they used to be called) began venturing into international tournaments and the USSR began to be recognized as a leading chess power. 
     However, as late as 1940 there were only five international GMs in the Soviet Union. In most countries talented players were employed in regular occupations, but it was not so in Russia. With the Russian government as a sponsor, a vast program of chess activity began and top talent was subsidized and professionalized. 
     Because no other country did this on a comparable basis the Russians players reached a peak of technical perfection. As in other areas of competition, the Russians identified talent at a young age and then nurtured it. Success was important politically because they believed they were proving themselves to be superior intellectually. 
     Chess in the Soviet Union wasn't just for the top competitors. With millions of players of varying skills throughout the country and many chess clubs to accommodate them, there were political, cultural, economic, and other reasons for the Soviet ascent and their continued dominance. 
     One feature of this period was the great emphasis on openings. Hordes of analysts fine combed opening theory to produce interesting innovations. This changed the way chess was played. With a lot of people researching openings and conducting analysis of the positions resulting from them, play became a lot of more theoretical. Without the internet it was harder for players in other countries to keep up and Soviet literature was as valuable as gold. The Soviet style of play was characterized by its creative scope, boldness, attacking energy, tenacity and resourcefulness. 
     Top GMs had a team working for them, analyzing and helping them train. In international tournament play they also helped each other by “teamwork.” They either threw or drew games with each other to prevent outsiders from winning tournaments. 
     It must be pointed out that less that one percent of chess players become masters and much of their preeminence no doubt came from the fact that it was the great numbers of players in the Soviet Union accounted for their large number of masters. With over one million registered players, as opposed to the 5000-7000 USCF members when I began play in the early 1960s and even fewer in the 1930s to 1950s, the claim by Kotov and Yudovich in The Soviet School of Chess that “the rise of the Soviet school to the summit of world chess is a logical result of socialistic cultural development” is nothing more than propaganda. For some interesting insights on Soviet training methods see my post Strategy and Tactics where I posted about GM Alex Yermolinsky's insights on the Soviet training methods. 

     According to Kotov and Yudovich, Soviet chess can be divided into four periods. From 1917-1925 the Revolution “brought cultural activities” to the masses as a result of efforts by trade unions, the Young Communist League and the military. And, in the early 1920s chess began springing up in workers' clubs in factories and the cultural education department of the Moscow Trade Union Council called a chess council which established the Chess and Checkers Section of the Higher Council of Physical Culture. 
     The second period, from 1925 to 1931 saw extensive activity during which chess at workers' clubs and rural libraries was greatly expanded and chess was encouraged among school children. Also, the rating system was developed and trade unions sponsored tournaments. 
     The third period, from 1931 to 1941 saw the rise of a new group of superstars, Botvinnik being chief. Other masters such as Alatortsev, Belavenets, Chekhover, Kan, Konstaninolpolsky, Lisitsyn, Makogonov, Panov, Ragozin, Rauzer and Ryumin became prominent and the level of play was on the upswing.
     Botvinnik played a big part in the rise of the level of play with his approach which involved deep research. His opening discoveries and analysis became models of how strategy and tactics should be studied and his method of preparation became the standard. 
     The fourth period came after World War II resulted in explosive growth and a new generation of Soviet masters dominated international chess. One of my favorite books is The Russians Play Chess by Irving Chernev first published in 1947; it contained 50 games. My edition is the 1963 edition with 56 games. Additional games were those of Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal and Petrosian. 
     In the book, Chernev said he examined hundreds of games by Soviet players and picked the cream of the crop. His criteria for choosing the games were variety. They had to illustrate the styles of the 36 players, they had to be reasonably short (average 30 moves) and they had to be enjoyable with the accent on brilliancy. The book has light comments every couple of moves that aren't very enlightening for stronger players and there are plenty of diagrams. And, of course, since Chernev was not a GM and engines didn't exist, the notes aren't always accurate, but that takes nothing away from enjoying the games. What I also like it that many of the games were played by lesser known, or unknown, masters and unlike many published games or best games collections, the warts show you that even strong masters are not immune from errors. 
     Of the following game, Chernev introduced it by saying that the winner created a masterpiece with attractive elegance and that as pretty as the game itself were variations that never occurred. In the game a virtually unknown player destroys Vasily Panov in a tactical gem. I have no information on Panov's opponent and assume that the game may have been played in a match for the Soviet Master title. However, his name does show up in a number of Moscow championships and USSR championship semi-finals. He also competed in the 1961 Chigorin Memorial. 
     Panov (November 1, 1906 – January 13, 1973) was born in the small Russian town of Kozclsk and began playing as a schoolboy. He originally competed in second (1875-2000 Elo) and first category (2000-2125 Elo) tournaments in Moscow and from 1928 on he was good enough to play in the Moscow City championships, winning it in 1929. 
    He was awarded the coveted Soviet Master title in 1934. In those days the only way you could get the Master title was by defeating a recognized Master in match play. 
     Awarded the IM title in 1950, Panov was a player with a very sharp, aggressive style known for his tactical ability. He is best known as a prominent theorist in all phases of the game, especially openings. His is many books include a beginners' guide, biographies of Alekhine, who he spent many years studying, and Capablanca, and Kurs Debyutov, Russia's best-selling opening book.
     Panov contributed greatly to the theory of the Caro-Kann Defence and the Ruy Lopez. He is also credited with a sound variation of Alekhine's Defense as white, known as the Panov variation. 

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