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Valedictorians of the Soviet School: Professionalization and the Impact of War in Soviet Chess
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Valedictorians of the Soviet School:
Professionalization and the Impact of War in Soviet Chess

September 2, 1945, is best remembered as the day World War II officially ended. But on this day the United States and the Soviet Union also formally resumed international sports competition—with a chess match. The match occurred over 1-4 September via radio receivers in New York and Moscow and was the first ever chess competition between the countries. Except for leading grandmasters Mikhail Botvinnik and Czech-born Salo Flohr, Soviet players were relatively unknown in the United States and had little international experience compared to the American team. Just days before the match, the New York Times proclaimed that a competition among 100 players might end in the Soviets' favor because of the massive popularity of the game in the USSR. In a two-game contest of ten American masters versus their Soviet counterparts, however, the Times had "no reason for misgivings as to the outcome of the forthcoming match."1

The Times could not have been more mistaken. The Soviet team won by an overwhelming margin, 15½-4½.2 Moreover, on the first and second [End Page 395] boards in both games, Botvinnik and Vasilii Smyslov (the next two world champions) devastated the two best American masters, Arnold Denker and Samuel Reshevsky.3 The Soviet chess journal Shakhmaty v SSSR called the victory the "match of the 20th century."4 Soviet commentators claimed that a style of play unique to the Soviet Union—the Soviet school of chess—accounted for the victory. This style was essentially romantic, meaning that Soviet players attempted to find hidden combinations or sacrifices that would lead to a dramatic and decisive checkmate. Soviet chess literature contrasted it with an outdated positional style supposedly used by players in the West. Players who adopted a positional strategy stressed incremental gains over the course of the game, favoring careful pawn structure over bold sacrifices. For Soviet chess experts, the obvious conclusion was that the difference between these styles represented the ideological divide between the dynamic East and the declining West; the overwhelming victories of Soviet chess masters represented the inevitable triumph of socialism.

How did Soviet chess masters, virtual unknowns before the war, come to dominate international play by 1945? The answer begins with the founding of the state-run Chess Section in 1924. The Soviet state did not, of course, invent chess. The game appeared in the Russian lands before the 10th century and it was well-known among intellectuals in urban centers during the 19th century. The country's first chess society, the All-Russia Chess Association, was founded in 1914 and had approximately 5,000 members before it discontinued its activities after the outbreak of World War I. Chess, like other forms of bourgeois entertainment, was an activity the new Soviet state co-opted and shaped. Yet party-state officials did not favor all forms of recreation but rather those with a didactic bent, like mountain climbing or tourism. Chess was similar in that initially it was supposed to teach the population skills and qualities that would prove valuable outside the game. However, the goals for chess shifted over time. In the Great Turn, the aims of chess changed in a way that corresponded to what Matthew Lenoe calls the shift from "mass enlightenment project" to mobilization. Nonetheless, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s the Chess Section's main purpose was to spread chess, and whatever good might come with it, among the populace.5 [End Page 396]

Unlike exponents of other didactic forms of entertainment, though, the best Soviet players were at once organizers and high-level competitors in a time of blossoming international sports competition. Barbara Keys writes that the interwar period saw a burgeoning of "internationalist nationalism"—a desire to prove one's country's worth through international sport. Stalin's Soviet Union was no exception. Soviet competitors in the 1920s played mostly in workers' tournaments, but by the mid-1930s authorities began to allow competition against foreign professionals. If Soviet athletes could "catch up and overtake bourgeois records in sport"—a slogan introduced in 1933—they would prove that the Soviet...