Soviet breakup threatens chess prowess Russians seek ways to keep dominance

May 24, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- They used to say here that the qualities that make a good chess player are the same qualities that make a good Communist.

Perseverance, a belief in the power of logic to overcome obstacles, strategic thinking, patience, aggressiveness: All these were held up as Soviet ideals.

So for 70 years the nation actively promoted chess as a symbol of Soviet prowess -- "Take chess to the workers!" was a slogan coined in 1923 -- although after the debacle of August it could be argued that the Soviet Union produced more good chess players than it did good Communists.

The domination of the chess world by Soviet players verged on the absolute. After World War II the Soviet men's team won every championship competition that it entered. Since 1948, the world individual championship has been held exclusively by Soviet players, except for the years 1972-1975, when an American, Bobby Fischer, wore the crown. Half the world's registered chess players -- that is, those who play at a recognized serious level -- live in the 15 republics of what used to be the Soviet Union.

What used to be -- those words are haunting chess in this part of the world today.

This is a nation where every city has dozens of chess clubs, where scouts beat the bushes looking for promising players, where the best of the young recruits, as young as 10 years old, are brought to Moscow for training by the grandmasters.

What will happen to all that?

The answer is that the monolithic machine of Soviet chess is doomed. As with the Olympic sports, there was a great engine here turning out world-class players, entirely financed by the government; but now, with the collapse of the old system, the resources and even the will for such an effort are disappearing.

The old socialist system of player development is simply not compatible with the dawning market reality -- particularly in a nation as poor as this one.

But the world's best players are here, and, coupled with widespread interest in the game, that means that Russia and its immediate neighbors stand a good chance of remaining important chess powers for years to come.

"The position of Soviet chess is critical," said Mikhail Botvennik, who became national champion in 1931, at the age of 20, was named a grandmaster in 1935, and was world champion between 1948 and 1963 (with two brief interruptions).

Today Mr. Botvennik, at the age of 81, is leading a drive to create the world's most advanced computer chess program and is also working to try to hold chess together in his own nation.

"We have the problem of saving what we have, and waiting for better economic times," he said. "To form a chess player requires 10 or 15 years. But, really, chess is very cheap. All it requires is a board and 16 pieces. I think we can be dominant."

Mr. Botvennik and other chess players recently established the Association of Chess Federations to replace what had been the Chess Federation of the Soviet Union.

They want to take control of the Moscow Chess Club, an ornate former mansion on the city's Boulevard Ring Road, lease out the top floor to a joint venture based in Hong Kong and use the proceeds to support chess throughout the country.

Naturally, in this nation of factions and splinters, they are opposed by the new Russian Chess Federation, but they hope to prevail.

Ragged little clubs

The Chess Club would become the site of important international matches under their plan. But if Russia is to remain pre-eminent in chess, it will be because of the hundreds of nondescript ragged little clubs like the one up a flight of narrow stairs in a crumbling old building off Moscow's Petrovka Street.

Here, every night of the week, almost 200 players show up for chess. Retirees are here, and 6-year-old boys. Seven coaches teach classes at all levels, for which players (or their parents) pay a nominal fee.

This is not a place for casual good-natured relaxation. Every night a tournament is going on. Each tournament lasts 12 weeks, and players who do well enough can hope to advance to the next level of play.

Yuri Leonov, who plays at the first level (the top of what might loosely be called the amateur scale), comes here for what the Communists might have considered good reasons, even though himself is director of one of the new commercial firms:

"The people are totally different here. Workers, engineers, journalists, students -- I like them. We know each other."

But some of the other players bring a distinctly non-socialist bent their pastime. They suggest they may be good chess players precisely because they are not good Communists.

"People come here so they can gain some control of their environment," said Vladimir Lukyanov, one of the coaches. "Instead of the daily routine, this gives them some sport, some competition, some struggle."

"I want to be a success," Karen Gevorgian said bluntly. He's 15, and being a success means making a good living playing the game. He's a top player. The attraction to him?

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