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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Chess Under Stalin

Stalin's chess set
     Josef Stalin wrote: "Chess players should be in the front ranks of the fighters for the building of socialism for technical mastery and for the rapid and successful fulfillment of the five-year plan." 
     The picture of Stalin's chess set came from the article Visiting Stalin's Sochi Retreat which you can visit HERE.
     Soviet chess has a long history starting with Ivan the Terrible who, according to some accounts, died at the chess board. Peter the Great used to force his guests to play and Lenin was reputed to be an expert. Under Stalin chess became a matter of national prestige. It became a form of of propaganda to show that the Soviet system could accomplish great things. If you ever read The Soviet School of Chess by Kotov and Yudovich, you will remember it’s filled with laudatory remarks about Socialism and the wonderful traits of the Soviet man.
     The Third Moscow International Tournament was held in the summer of 1936. The foreign contingent consisted of Lasker, Capablanca, Flohr, Lilienthal and Eliskases. Of the Soviet players Levenfish represented the old guard with Botvinnik, Ragozin, Riumin and Kan representing the younger generation. 
     The tournament quickly became a race between Botvinnik and Capablanca. This was even though during the tournament Botvinnik claimed to have suffered from the heat and insomnia while Capablanca was bitten by the love bug...he had met the woman who would become his second wife. See Edward Winter's greta article on Capa and his second wife HERE.
     The tournament was a double round affair and Botvinnik lost one of his games against Capablanca (the other being a draw) and that point was Capablanca’s margin of victory. Flohr finished a distant third two and a half points back. The rest of the Soviet contingent fared rather badly. 
     Nikolai Krylenko (May 2, 1885 – July 29, 1938) was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and a Soviet politician who served in a variety of posts in the Soviet legal system, rising to become People's Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General. He was also an ardent chess promoter. 
     He was an exponent of the socialist legal theory that said political considerations, rather than guilt or innocence, should guide the application of punishment. Although a participant in the Show Trials and political repression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Krylenko himself was ultimately arrested during the Great Purge. Following interrogation and torture by the NKVD, Krylenko confessed to extensive involvement in “wrecking” and anti-Soviet agitation. He was sentenced to death by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court in a trial lasting 20 minutes and shot immediately afterward. 
     At the time of the Moscow tournament Krylenko wasn’t especially satisfied with Botvinnik’s play and was even less pleased with the other players. In his foreword to the tournament book, he ripped the Soviet players and insisted that the lessons to be learned were Soviet players needed to drop their conceit, study their games and learn from their numerous mistakes. 
     There is an anecdote about Moscow 1936 that was related years later by Capablanca’s widow. Stalin showed up to watch Capablanca play but hid behind a drapery. Later during the tournament Capa met Stalin and told him that the Soviet players were cheating by losing games on purpose so Botvinnik could keep up. Supposedly Stalin took it good naturedly and promised to take care of the situation; from then on the cheating stopped. Capablanca’s charges of collusion were confirmed in 1946 by Ragozin who participated in both Moscow 1935 and 1936. 
     Lasker, at the age of 67, emerged from retirement to play in this tournament because the Nazis in his native Germany had stolen his home and all his possessions leaving him and his wife destitute. He placed a very respectable sixth. 
     Lasker had always been a friend of Soviet chess, visiting the country four times and was always full of praise for Soviet chess and the Soviet state. So, after the tournament Krylenko invited him to remain in the Soviet Union and secured work for him in the Moscow Academy of Science. To make things appear legitimate Lasker did a little research, but mostly his job was to mentor young Soviet players. 
     Lasker and his wife began the process of acquiring Soviet citizenship. However, in August 1937, Martha and Emanuel Lasker decided to leave the Soviet Union and moved, via the Netherlands, to the United States, first Chicago, then to New York in October 1937. It was the following year that Krylenko got shot. In the United States Lasker tried to support himself by giving chess and bridge lectures and exhibitions. He published one more book in 1940, The Community of the Future, in which he proposed solutions for political problems, including anti-Semitism and unemployment. You can still find the book on the internet if you’re willing to pay $3,250.  
     He died of a kidney infection in New York on January 11, 1941, at the age of 72, as a charity patient at Mount Sinai Hospital and was buried at historic Beth Olom Cemetery, Queens, New York. Further reading...The Last Part of Lasker’s Legacy 
     Also, in 1936 Botvinnik tied with Capablanca at Nottingham. It was a very important victory for the Soviet Union because during the tournament, from August 19 to August 24, in the House of Unions the great show trials of 1936 were taking place. Defendants were tried and found guilty of plotting with Leon Trotsky, murdering Stalin’s personal friend Sergey Kirov and plotting to kill Stalin. They “confessed” and were shot. 
     The British press had been skeptical of the trials and an official at the Soviet embassy told Botvinnik that it was good he finished so well because they could have a reception for the players so something favorable could be written about the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for the Soviets it backfired because the British press only wanted to talk only about the trials. 
     In 1936, with advent of the new Stalin Constitution, socialism officially arrived and the culture, including music, literature, art and chess were expected to properly reflect the changes in a positive light. 

Final standings Moscow 1936
1) Capablanca 13.0 
2) Botvinnik 12.0 
3) Flohr 9.5 
4) Lilienthal 9.0 
5) Ragozin 8.5 
6) Lasker 8.0 
7-10) Levenfish, Eliskases, Kan, Riumin 7.5 

     When analyzing the Lasker-Levenfish game the following position was reached after 32.Kh1: 

     Levenfish started down the wrong path when he played 32...Ba4. The best move was 32...Bxc3! and it’s really worthwhile to set up this position and look at all the possibilities with an engine. In fact, the entire remainder of the game is worth examining with an engine in order to bring out all the latent possibilities. 

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