BCM: Reshevsky on Russian chess

by ChessBase
4/12/2022 – Between 16 and 24 June 1954 a match was held in New York’s Hotel Roosevelt between the Soviet and the US chess teams. The eight-board, four-round match ended with a decisive 20-12 victory for the Soviets. In an article for the New York Times ahead of the match, US chess champion Samuel Reshevsky shared his thoughts on how the Soviets (whom he kept calling ‘the Russians’) became so good at chess and why this was so important to them. The Britisch Chess Magazine have reproduced this article, which shares a view on the role chess had, both as an internal and external weapon, for the Soviets.

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This article was published on June 13, 1954 in the New York Times.
It was written by Samuel Reshevsky, eight-times US champion.

Chess is another Soviet Gambit

Russian players are the world’s best. They have to be. To the Kremilin, every pawn and rook is a cold-war fighter

The Russian chess team, possibly the greatest collection of chess talent in the history of the game, is scheduled to play the American team in New York this week. Although our players are first rate by all chess standards, the Russians are favored to win; they haven't lost a match in postwar international competition. In 1952, at the last chess Olympics [held in Helsinki, Finland – note BCM], the Russians were first among twenty-five national teams. This year [the 1954 Chess Olympiad, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands – note BCM], they licked the crack Argentine team, the best in Latin America. And the last time Russia played the Americans, in Moscow in 1945, they won.

What makes the Russians so tough? Why have they so consistently beaten some of the world’s best teams and players?

Essentially, the answer is simple. The American monthly, Chess Review, summed it up in a few words. In the Soviet Union, a recent editorial said, chess is “an instrument of national policy.” Russian chess players perform “like soldiers in a war... they are standard bearers of Soviet culture”. It has become painfully obvious to their opponents that the Russians bring to the chess board all the fervor, skill and manifest devotion to their cause that Molotov [Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet minister of foreign affairs in the 1940s and from 1953 – 1956 – note BCM] brings to a diplomatic conference. They are out to win for the greater glory of the Soviet Union. To do so means public acclaim at home, propaganda victories abroad.

This approach to what is, after all, a game, has not come about by chance. There were some good players in Czarist days, although relatively few had international reputations, with the brilliant exception of Dr. Alexander Alekhine. But the game itself was popular in pre-Revolution Russia and maintained its popularity during the Twenties and early Thirties. During the Thirties, the Government, aware of the game’s appeal, started a vast program of developing good young players.

Through the Ministry of Sport, encouragement of mass interest in chess was made official Government policy. The best players were sent on lecture and exhibition tours and taught chess classes. Clubs were formed in army and navy units, small towns, schools and universities. Chess libraries were opened. Children down to the age of 6 were taught the rules and intricacies of the game. Because the base was already broad, the program caught on. Now, Russia generously rewards its best players. (And criticizes them publicly and severely if they do not measure up in international competitions.)

Most professional Russian players need do nothing but play chess to earn a good living, unlike players elsewhere in the world. The top players in Russia are accorded the social eminence of a major movies star or basketball player in this country. When World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik enters the Moscow Opera House he is loudly applauded. When he leaves, he is surrounded by autograph hounds.

Although Malenkov [Georgy Malenkov was a Soviet politician who briefly succeeded Joseph Stalin as the leader of the Soviet Union, from 1953 to 1955 – note BCM] does not play chess, nor did Stalin before him, the Russian leaders cultivated this state of affairs at home for a very important reason: chess victories abroad carry tremendous international propaganda value in terms of Russian prestige. Americans cannot calculate the results abroad of Russian chess victories because the game does not have anywhere near the popularity or cultural role in this country that it does in Europe and in Latin America.

Last year at Hastings, England, a breathtaking match between the Russians and the British was page one news in England and on the Continent [this is a reference to the 1953/54 Hastings tournament where Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander finished first ahead of Bronstein, which was seen as an embarrassment for the Soviets – note, BCM]. Many papers published all the moves of several key games. Britain has hundreds of chess clubs of all sizes. Chess publications flourish throughout the world: countries as small as Holland support many.

The Russians are aware of the game’s popularity: their officially sponsored development of chess is designed to exploit it. Out of this development have come the superb Russian masters and grandmasters, eight of whom we will see in action this week.

This team brings great Russian skill with it, but not anything which could be called a Russian style. There are no national styles as such. Chess players vary as their personalities vary. Some are bold and daring; some conservative, methodical and precise. Some are moody and introspective; some have an infectious sense of humor. The best known players in the Soviet Union are Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov and David Bronstein – and each of their styles is different.

Botvinnik, 43, is the scientist; he leaves little to chance and attempt to foresee every detail that might have a bearing on the outcome of the game. He evaluates diet, rest, climate, the size and sympathies of the audience, the probable mental state of his opponents. And when he gets into the game itself, the same kind of mind is evident. His play is precise, logical and scientific and it is backed by tremendous self-confidence. He rarely shrinks from difficult positions. He has decided, rightly enough, that he is equipped to grasp their essentials within the time at his disposal.

Smyslov, who at 33 is pushing Botvinnik for top Russian honors, is reserved and taciturn. He regards Gorki and Tolstoi as his favorite authors and, unlike many chess players, he also enjoys music, swimming and skiing. He maintains his reserve at the chessboard and is usually the calmest man in the room when he himself is being pushed hard by an opponent.

One of Russia’s bright young men, 30-year-old Bronstein, is a cheerful, gregarious type. He smiles readily and jokes with members of his own and of the opposition team. Once in a game, through, Bronstein drops the comic role and brings a driving energy into play. He is always on the watch for a bold, challenging conception. Larry Evans, United States chess champion, says Bronstein likes to aim at “risky positions, where everything hangs by a hair.”

The other members of the Russian team, although less well known, also have their distinctive manner of play. The styles of all eight Russians vary, their quality does not it is uniformly good.

Before the big match begins: Samuel Reshevsky (left) shakes hands with Vassily Smyslov, No. 1 man on the Soviet Team. Behind Reshevsky (left to right) are Drake, Bisguier, Evans, Pavcy (rear), Don Byrne, Horowitz, Robert Byrne. Behind Smyslov are Bronstein, Geller, a Soviet official, Petrosian, U.S. Team Captain Alexander Bisno (holding microphone), Keres (behind Bisno), and USCF President H.M. Phillips.

But good chess players exist throughout the world, in democracies as well as in dictatorships. What makes good chess players? They are men who have a basic and intimate knowledge of the game: they know the possibilities and limitations of every piece on the board. They understand human psychology so they can look early for an opponent’s weakness and be ready to exploit it. They can handle abstract concepts because the potential variations in play runs into the millions (mathematicians and composers frequently play well). They keep in good physical condition because a championship match can take as much out of a player as fifteen rounds of boxing.

And when they have all this, they must study, study, study and play, play, play. This, the Russians understand. Which is why their players, although they certainly do not have any more of the natural qualifications than the American players, enter this week’s tournament so heavily favored to win. The Soviet regime, by giving its players professional status, by providing the climate in which chess players get paid well and enjoy social prestige also makes it possible for the to devote all their time to study and play.

But the motives behind the Russian system would not be acceptable to the American chess player. We play it as a challenging, exciting, frequently beautiful game, and not as the Russians would have it, as a diplomatic game.

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The April issue of BCM brings you exclusive interviews and detailed analysis of how the war in Ukraine is affecting the chess world. The central focus of the issue is the question of banning Russian players from international events, with Alexandr Grischuk and Alexander Beliavsky sharing their thoughts. Richard Rapport talks about his success in the Grand Prix and about how chess has changed over time. The issue analyses the best games from the Belgrade Grand Prix.

BCM Editor Milan Dinic writes how the first major international tournament has been affected by the war in Ukraine.

The April issue of BCM also brings you problem studies, endgames, openings advice and much more! You can subscribe to the British Chess Magazine here.

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