Understanding Russian dominance in competitive chess

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I am going to a turn away from computers and chess and just talk about chess itself and its history in this blog entry. If you are a chess aficionado, it cannot have escaped your notice that the Russians (for the sake of this article I will use this term to include all members of the former Soviet Union as well) were dominant in chess in the second half of the 20th century. Even if you were not a chess fan this was probably obvious.  The first “official” world chess champion was Mikhail Botvinnik (Russian) in 1948.  For the next 60 years the top players in the world were from Russia with one exception, who I will talk about shortly.  The procession of world champions coming from the USSR/Russia were:

  • Vasily Smyslovrussianflag
  • Mikhail Tal
  • Tigran Petrosian
  • Boris Spassky
  • Anatoly Karpov
  • Garry Kasparov
  • Vladimir Kramnik

This is not a complete list of outstanding players coming from Russia. Notables among the non-champions are Viktor Korchnoi, Alexei Shirov, and Sergey Karjakin.  The only non-Russian player to disrupt the Russian hegemony was Bobby Fischer (USA) who beat Boris Spassky in 1973 and held the title for 3 years.

So I ask you the question, how is it that the USSR/Russians dominated the world chess scene so far above the other countries who had a deep heritage in playing chess?  Even today, Russians represent 25 of the top 100, though no longer possessing the world champion.  So how could this be?  The answer lies in the infrastructure that was built in the Soviet Union to help the students and talented juniors of the game from a very early age.

Aptitude for the game was quickly identified and these individuals were coached and nurtured, helping their skill and experience to grow in a very conducive environment.  Chess schools and coaches abounded in a country that already had a strong affinity for the game since the beginning of the 20th century. Chess was treated less like a game, and more like an actual academic subject that had to be studied and learned. No other country had such a serious commitment to chess and the Russians were rewarded with some of the brightest chess talent that ever lived, which otherwise may have remained dormant.  There are those who will postulate that this was some kind one-upmanship on the part of Russia.  I can’t confirm or deny that, but I do believe that the emphasis put on chess in Russia has furthered the game tremendously.

This largely academic and intellectual approach for learning chess pervades the Russian culture in other domains such as computer technology. It manifests in the fact that there are a large number of highly technical computer labs in Russia but no really large computer companies.  The academic approach for learning and understanding appears more important and interesting than the drive to make a successful business out of it.

Lastly a word about Russian computer programming and chess (I guess I couldn’t keep away from the computing side of this subject after all). The Russian chess heritage has leaked into the computer world.  If you want to download a “chess engine” from the web you will find that 75% of the engines are being coded in Russia, and I do not believe this is a coincidence.  Check out http://en.chessok.net/download-chess-engines.html.

I will be going to Russia in June, and I am hoping to find suitable opponents who can give me a run for my money. Grandmasters keep away–I am not that good!!

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One Response to Understanding Russian dominance in competitive chess

  1. w8m1rrr@gmail.com'
    Ivan February 8, 2016 at 2:56 am #

    I am Russian and i played chess in 4th grade in school. You can imagine the level you’ll get if you play from 6 years old and you surrounded by all these great chess players and chess culture. My Russian girlfriends (just casual pretty girls) had rating 1400-1600. All i am saying is: if anywhere in the world you ask somebody “can you play chess?” it means – do you know how to move pieces. If you ask “can you play chess?” in Russian it means – is your ELO rating higher then 1500? Cheers!

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