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.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package ChessBase 17 - Mega package

ChessBase is a personal, stand-alone chess database that has become the standard throughout the world. Everyone uses ChessBase, from the World Champion to the amateur next door. It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it.


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.

You can buy a subscription (£55 per year, £4.58 per issue) or download a sample copy free.

Twitter tag:

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.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

adbennet adbennet 4/15/2022 05:37
@ChessBase - I clicked Submit on my previous comment and now the page is even worse! The flashing artifacts happen all the time even when I don't interact with the page.
adbennet adbennet 4/15/2022 05:35
@ChessBase - The new website is extremely unpleasant on Firefox(91.2.0esr)/Windows. When scrolling all the frames redraw randomly in broken positions, and even typing here in this textbox the frames popup strange artifacts.
arzi arzi 4/15/2022 05:05
To ChessTalk, you had much better joke than my Putin-jokes. It is easier to make joke about arzi than Putin. I won't kill you but he may try, after this Ukrainien business. Peace!
ChessTalk ChessTalk 4/15/2022 02:24
Arzi, I like the one I heard on the Bill Maher show from a woman guest: What's something that doesn't fit in your arzi and doesn't buzz?

.A soviet-made arzi buzzer.

Sorry, I had to change it from azz to arzi for censor effect. And I'm totally joking ... plz know I'm joking.
arzi arzi 4/14/2022 01:12
The last one:

“Vladimir Vladimirovits, what was the result of the analysis of opposition activities?

"It turned out that some opposition leaders had no lead or polonium in their bodies."

Putin: “What dialogue can there be with the opposition? They're just blabbering on. ”

"Vladimir Vladimirovits, you should take a gag out of their mouths."
arzi arzi 4/14/2022 01:06
From real life:

“In seven billion years, the sun will go out and turn into a white dwarf, which worries me a lot,” Vladimir Putin said.

"I am particularly concerned that this will happen before the end of my presidency."
arzi arzi 4/14/2022 01:04
Another stupid joke:

"Putin and Obama go to hell. Obama is asking to be called to Washington. The call will cost $ 5 million and will come in an hour. Putin asks to be allowed to call Moscow. The call costs ten rubles and is successful immediately.

Putin asks the devil, "Why is it so cheap?"

"Local calls are."
arzi arzi 4/14/2022 12:36
Choose from here. All life is one policy. For some, politics is life.
flachspieler flachspieler 4/14/2022 11:58
please, stop political discussions.
arzi arzi 4/13/2022 07:49
To chessbibliophile, is it possible that Keres was NOT so good as a communist in Soviet Union as was Botvinnik?
arzi arzi 4/13/2022 07:24
Yes, it is NOT about Estonia and WW2 but your word: ODD. Estonia was NOT a Russian or Soviet Union country but ESTONIAN country in SOVIET UNION. Estonian did NOT want to be a part of Russian or Soviet Union. Is it possible that in a great and beautiful Soviet Union some people had better prospects compared to others even though they all lived in a communist country? Maybe being an Estonian was not so great thing as being Russian? Some kind of racism? What do you think? Do you really believe that living in Soviet Union was a dream come true for everybody?
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 4/13/2022 04:57
On Paul Keres: Way back in 1977 Walter Heuer wrote a book on him in Estonian and it was translated into Russian in 2004.
The book is a classic. But it did not include his discoveries on the life of Keres during the critical period 1944-1948.
They appeared in Шахматы в России ("Chess in Russia") No. 1 and 2 Issues 1996. Sergey Voronkov summed them up in an article that he called “The Mystery of Paul Keres”:
Those who don’t know Russian can try the Google Translation here:

Estonia changed hands more than once during the Second World War. The life of Keres during those years and thereafter has to be studied under the backdrop of history.
I suppose, my fellow reader here might like to say something on the subject. I shall be glad if he does a lot more reading before he posts a comment here. Unfortunately, I cannot come and look.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 4/13/2022 04:55
I have to draw the attention of my fellow reader here to the Rules for Comments:

Here is one of them:
“Any and all comments and contributions must be legitimately related to the article in question.”
Now the article is NOT about Estonia and the Second World War.
Also, it’s pointless to harp on Keres being an Estonian and against his will, a Soviet.
In my comment I drew attention to the following line:
The best known players in the Soviet Union are Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov and David Bronstein…” This left out Keres who was both famous and popular.
Chess fans in the USSR did not think of this legendary player as an Estonian or Soviet.
They saw him as Paul Keres and loved his play.
Testimony for this fact can be had from any number of authentic sources, the latest being “Masterpieces and dramas of the Soviet Championships” series by Sergey Voronkov:

In this article Reshevsky keeps calling all “Soviet” grandmasters “Russians”. So did Fischer and most of the chess world then. Today with hindsight we know, both are inaccurate descriptions. Keres was first an Estonian, Tal, a Latvian and so on.
arzi arzi 4/13/2022 11:43
chessbibliophile:". It leaves out Keres who was immensely popular. That is odd."

Why is it odd? He was, after all, an Estonian, against his will, a Soviet.

"At the outbreak of World War II, Estonia wished to remain neutral, but felt compelled to conclude a cooperation and base agreement with the Soviet Union on September 28, 1939. As of October 18, 1939, 25,000 Soviet soldiers were transferred to Estonia from closed bases. At that time, 15,000 soldiers were constantly employed by Estonia itself as a peacetime strength. In August 1940, Estonia became one of the Soviet republics."

Do you think that Estonia was Russified in 14 years?
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 4/13/2022 11:15
The article mentions Botvinnik, Bronstein and Smyslov as the most well-known in the Soviet Union. It leaves out Keres who was immensely popular. That is odd. Reshevsky would not leave out his important rival for 15 years. Any way, the Soviets always had grudging respect for Reshevsky. Way back in 1948 and 1953, only one question was asked in Moscow, “What about the American?” “He has to be stopped.” They did. But not always.
To their chagrin Reshevsky beat Botvinnik in the USA-USSR Match 1955 with the score of one win and three draws. More on that match is here:

chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 4/13/2022 10:52
Reshevsky did share his thoughts with New York Times. But it does not mean that every line here was written by him. Most of the chess content is his and the political content that of the newspaper.
The title,“Chess is another Soviet Gambit ” and introductory lines like
“Russian players are the world’s best. They have to be. To the Kremilin, (sic) every pawn and rook is a cold-war fighter.” are journalistic stuff.
What is surprising is the following claim,
“There were some good players in Czarist days, although relatively few had international reputations, with the brilliant exception of Dr. Alexander Alekhine.”
Now that leaves out Petrov, Alapin, Schiffers and Chigorin. The last named played two world championship matches with Steinitz and one friendly match with Tarrasch. He was also among the quartet, Steinitz, Lasker, Pillsubry who played in the St.Petersburg International Tournament 1895-1896. It was to honour his memory that the 1909 St.Petersburg International Tournament was held.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 4/12/2022 05:28
@chessgod0. They do? In the pit of hell perhaps!

Looking at history, the trend has been AWAY from dictatorships and toward freedom and the democracies/representative Republics, etc it engenders. Has been for some time now - the freer and more rapid dissemination of information has helped increase the rate one could argue. Of course, one may not always like the way they look from time to time, but the trend is clear. Dictatorships have been falling wayside. You can say otherwise, but that does not make it so.

I am sure someone will be sure to pencil you in as another in the long line of 'would be' Nostradamus's though...
paulmurphy paulmurphy 4/12/2022 02:03
In the first paragraph Sammy writes "they licked the crack".
Theochessman Theochessman 4/12/2022 10:15
Fischer was obviously afraid of Karpov.
arzi arzi 4/12/2022 07:16
In fact, Reshevsky could have won the match, when Fischer would hand over the games. Reshevsky was not the same kind of personality like Spassky. He would not have agreed to Fischer's whims. Before WC 1972 Fischer said that he would defend his title many times ... and what happened ... none. He started to fear more about losing the title than winning the second match.
Keshava Keshava 4/12/2022 06:33
Would Fischer have abandoned his match with Reshevsky if he was leading in the match? I don't think so. As great as Fischer was he sometimes lacked confidence against certain players. The match with Reshevsky was abandoned. The match against Spassky was only saved because of Spassky's forbearance (Fischer had never beaten Spassky before their 1972 match). And Fischer chose to relinquish the World Championship title because FIDE would not agree with his absurd match conditions (requiring Karpov to win by 2 points). Of course Fischer would claim that all these actions were based upon 'principle'.
chessgod0 chessgod0 4/12/2022 02:30

Autocracies and dictatorships have their time and place---history is a cyclical process, not a linear one. The time of democracies is coming to a close---the US will be an autocracy by 2050 and will disintegrate by 2075.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 4/12/2022 12:25
Very nice.

"But good chess players exist throughout the world, in democracies as well as in dictatorships."

And so it remains today. Lets hope the latter goes the way of the dinosaur...human beings deserve better.
Boisgilbert Boisgilbert 4/11/2022 10:47
Substitute “Dake” for Drake, “Pavey” for Pavcy.