The 1937 Prokofiev-Oistrakh match

by Albert Silver
2/18/2013 – The year was 1937 and the match had been officially announced. Ten classical games were to be played at the Master of Art Club in Moscow, with grandmaster Vladimir Alatortsev and the famed theoretician Ilya Kan overseeing it. The players were the great composer, Sergey Prokofiev, and legendary violinist, David Oistrakh. It was the peak of the chess rivalry between the two music giants.

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The 1937 Prokofiev-Oistrakh match

The year was 1937 and the match had been officially announced. Ten classical games were to be played at the Master of Art Club in Moscow, played at a rate of three games per week, with Russian grandmaster Vladimir Alatortsev and the famed theoretician Ilya Kan overseeing it. The players were the renowned Sergey Prokofiev and David Oistrakh. Though a cup was announced as the prize, there was more at stake here.

The official announcement of the match between Sergei Prokofiev and David Oistrakh

Indeed the name Prokofiev needs little introduction, as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. However his connection to chess might be a little less obvious, even to the musically enlightened.  As to David Oistrakh, he was one of the very greatest violinists, whose virtuosity ranked alongside Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. Both of them were passionate chess players, though Prokofiev more than one would believe.

Prokofiev at the age of seven

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev, born April 23, 1891, died March 5, 1953, was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor who mastered numerous musical genres and is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century, which include Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Among his best-known works are the 3rd Piano Concerto, the third and fifth symphonies, as well as composed family favourites, such as the ballet Romeo and Juliet – from which "Dance of the Knights" is taken – and Peter and the Wolf.

Boris Karloff narrates this 1940s-era recording of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf,"
Op. 67. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra is conducted by Mario Rossi. While I
appreciate the Disney effort, it is far more enjoyable when you imagine it all in your
mind as you listen. Boris Karloff is unique as always.

The beautiful and infinitely talented Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto with the
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti

No less significant were his famous collaborations with the great movie director Sergei Eisenstein, for whom he produced the full musical scores for the films Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible.

This is the "Battle on the Ice" by Prokofiev for Sergei Eisenstein's epic film
"Alexander Nevsky". It shows the battle between Nevsky's troops and the knights
of the Teutonic Order on Lake Peipus. The full film is here.

Sergei Prokofiev fell in love with chess at an early age, and during his lifetime never lost his passion for the royal game, befriending chess greats such as Capablanca and Alekhine.

A young Sergey Prokofiev with his inseparable board and chess books

The composer met Alekhine in his native Russia in 1900 during an international tournament held there. Alekhine was a member of the organizing committee and Prokofiev had volunteered to accommodate the guests and the players. As the years passed, their friendship solidified. He met Capablanca in January 1914 in Petersburg where the Cuban champion was playing a series of simultaneous games. Prokofiev tried his luck and even managed to win a game!

[Event "St Petersburg casual"] [Site "St Petersburg"] [Date "1914.05.20"] [Round "?"] [White "Capablanca, Jose Raul"] [Black "Prokofiev, Sergey"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D02"] [PlyCount "86"] [EventDate "1914.01.??"] [EventType "game"] [EventRounds "1"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2002.11.25"] 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 Bf5 4. Qb3 Nc6 5. Qxb7 Na5 6. Qa6 Nxc4 7. Nc3 e6 8. e4 dxe4 9. Bxc4 exf3 10. Qc6+ Nd7 11. g4 Bg6 12. Bg5 Be7 13. Bxe7 Kxe7 14. O-O-O Re8 15. h4 h5 16. gxh5 Bxh5 17. Nb5 Kf8 18. d5 Qf6 19. dxe6 Ne5 20. Qc5+ Kg8 21. exf7+ Bxf7 22. Bxf7+ Qxf7 23. Kb1 Rab8 24. Nxc7 Rbc8 25. Rc1 Re7 26. Qd6 Rexc7 27. Rxc7 Qxc7 28. Qe6+ Kh8 29. a3 Qc2+ 30. Ka1 Nd3 31. Rb1 Nxf2 32. h5 Qc6 33. Qf5 Ne4 34. Qxf3 Nd2 35. Qxc6 Rxc6 36. Rd1 Rc2 37. Rg1 Rc5 38. Rg6 Rxh5 39. Ra6 Nb3+ 40. Ka2 Ra5 41. Rxa5 Nxa5 42. b4 g5 43. Kb2 g4 0-1

Prokofiev submitted both to his famous Sun Autograph book. In it, he would ask the person signing to give their impressions of the sun. Jose Raul Capablanca, translated to English, wrote, “The sun is life. We are happy when we see it and feel blue when it disappears behind the clouds.” 

A portrait of Prokofiev by Henri Matisse

On April 27, 1917, Prokofiev gave Alekhine his notebook and asked him to write something about the sun. After a moment’s deliberation, the future world champion scribbled down the following…“On gray, cloudy days, I dream about it, but when I see it, I start looking for dark spots on its surface… During eclipses I painfully enjoy waiting for it to come out…” The unusual statement says a great deal about Alekhine at the time.

Always seeking a chess partner, here he is playing Vasily Morolev, a veterinarian and friend

After the Revolution in 1917, Prokofiev left Russia with the official blessing of the Soviet minister Anatoly Lunacharsky, and he lived in the United States, then Germany, then Paris, during which time he married a Spanish singer, Carolina Codina, with whom he had two sons. Because of the increasing economic deprivation of Europe, Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1936.

Prokofiev in his later years remained faithful to his true love

Back home, Prokofiev found a good chess partner in the master violinist David Oistrakh. “Prokofiev was an avid player, he could spend hours on end thinking over his moves,” Oistrakh later recalled. “Living next door to each other, we often played blitz-contests and I wish you could see how excited he was drawing all kinds of colorful diagrams of his wins and losses, and how happy he was with each victory, as well as how devastated each time he lost…”

David Oistrakh (violin) plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto No.1 with Gennady
Roshdestvensky conducting at the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1963.

David Oistrakh and Sergei Prokofiev in a game, with 18-year-old violinist Elizabeta
Gilels, daughter of piano great Emil Gilels, watching the game. Judging from Prokofiev's
attire, he was on his way to a concert...
(thanks to R. Krishnan, Kuala Lumpur for
identifying the young lady)

Their rivalry over the board was such that in 1937 the Master of Art Club organized an official chess match between Sergei Prokofiev and David Oistrakh. Everything was for real, chess clocks, referees and, of course, the audience… The players were dead serious about the whole thing, staying awake nights, and feeling as nervous as if the world title were the object of the match. As a matter of fact, a wager was behind the affair, though nothing that might be reported in offical channels of course. Both great musicians were engaged for a concert tour, though only one was actually needed. Therefore it was decided that the loser of the match would be the one to do it (thanks to David Levy for this behind the scenes tidbit). The match was reported in the December 1937 issue of the notable Russian chess periodical '64', and one game survives to this day.

[Event "Moscow"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "1937.??.??"] [EventDate "1937.??.??"] [Round "?"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [White "Sergei Prokofiev"] [Black "David Oistrakh"] [ECO "B72"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "144"] 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.Be2 a6 8.Qd2 Ng4 9.Bxg4 Bxg4 10.f3 Bd7 11.Bh6 Rg8 12.Bxg7 Rxg7 13.Qh6 Kf8 14.O-O-O Nc6 15.Nxc6 bxc6 16.Rhe1 Rb8 17.e5 d5 18.Qf4 Kg8 19.Rd4 e6 20.Red1 Qb6 21.b3 Be8 22.R4d2 Qc7 23.Qe3 Qe7 24.Re1 Kh8 25.Kb2 Rg8 26.Qf4 Bd7 27.Qf6+ Qxf6 28.exf6 Rb7 29.g4 g5 30.h4 gxh4 31.Rh2 Rg6 32.Rxh4 Rxf6 33.Reh1 Kg8 34.R1h3 Kf8 35.Rxh7 Rb4 36.Ne2 e5 37.Kc3 c5 38.R7h6 d4+ 39.Kd2 Rbb6 40.Rxf6 Rxf6 41.Rh5 e4 42.fxe4 Bxg4 43.Rg5 Bf3 44.Rxc5 Bxe4 45.Nxd4 Bg2 46.a4 Ke7 47.b4 Kd7 48.Ke3 Rd6 49.b5 Rd5 50.Rxd5+ Bxd5 51.bxa6 Kc7 52.Nb5+ Kb6 53.Kd4 Bg2 54.a7 Kb7 55.Kc5 Bf3 56.c3 f6 57.Kd6 Bd1 58.a5 Be2 59.Nd4 Bf1 60.Nc6 f5 61.Ke5 Bd3 62.Kd4 Be4 63.a6+ Ka8 64.Nb4 Kxa7 65.c4 Kb6 66.c5+ Ka7 67.Ke5 Kb8 68.Nd5 Bd3 69.Nb4 Be4 70.c6 Kc7 71.a7 Bxc6 72.Nxc6 Kb7 1/2-1/2

Of the ten games announced, only seven were actually played.Rumor had it that, sensing the imminent defeat, Oistrakh chose not to prolong the clear outcome, and went on the concert tour away from Moscow… The two musicians and rivals remained close friends until the end, and when Sergei Prokofiev died the same day Stalin’s death was announced, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, who were both engaged to play at the wake of the fallen autocrat, also played at their friend’s wake in his honor.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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