The Soviet school of chess

With interest in the game of chess growing recently, JOE FATHALLAH looks at the role chess played in the Soviet Union in the period immediately after the Russian revolution and during the Stalinist counter-revolution.

The hit Netflix-broadcast TV series, the Queen’s Gambit, alongside the more recent cheating allegations aimed at the American grandmaster Hans Niemann, have hugely boosted the profile of the game of chess. Add to this the impact of the Covid lockdowns, during which table-top games in general underwent a revival in popularity, millions of people previously unfamiliar with chess have now discovered and started playing it. At the top level, the game is now big business, with corporate sponsors and prize funds running into the millions, although still without anywhere near the level of capitalist commercialisation of the most popular spectator sports such as football.

Less well known, however, is the role which the game played in the Soviet Union, especially in the period after the Russian revolution in 1917. The Bolshevik Party, under the political guidance of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky – both keen chess players – led the revolution which overthrew feudalism and capitalism in Russia, established the world’s first workers’ state, and set about attempting to construct a socialist society.

One of the results of the revolution was the opening up of multiple activities to the mass of the population, which were formerly the preserve of the ruling classes. This included chess, as well as ballet, gymnastics, and several other pursuits. Prior to the revolution, chess already had a certain base in Russian society, amongst the nobility and the upper classes in the old Tsarist system. The Bolsheviks inherited a semi-feudal society from the Tsars, in which large layers of the population were illiterate and lacking in exposure to much in terms of culture. Many within the party believed that chess could play a role in helping overcome this obstacle to creating a socialist society run by and for the workers.

In the immediate period after the revolution, the USSR faced the horrific prospect of imperialist invasion, with countries including Britain, the USA, France, and Germany sending troops to support the reactionary ‘White’ armies attempting to overthrow the government. The Bolsheviks set about training the Red Army to fight the invasion. Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky was appointed Chief Commissar of the Vsevobuch, which oversaw this operation. As well as being a committed revolutionary, Ilyin-Zhenevsky was also a strong chess player, perhaps on a similar level to a modern-day FIDE master (1). He introduced chess as a feature of military training, reasoning that the tactical and strategic thinking required in the game is applicable on the battlefield, developing important skills for army personnel.

Ilyin-Zhenevsky was severely wounded and shell-shocked in his role as an army officer in the first world war. He never fully recovered from these injuries, suffering physical symptoms for the rest of his life, including significant memory loss. This resulted in him having to relearn many things from scratch, including how to play chess. Yet even as early as 1918, Ilyin-Zhenevsky participated as a player in a tournament organised by the Petrograd chess assembly. In 1920, he helped organise a tournament which is retrospectively recognised as the first Soviet chess championships. This was very much part of the war effort. Chess players were conscripted into the Red Army to participate, and military rations were served at the venue. Alexander Alekhin, who was later to defect from the USSR before becoming world champion in 1927, won the tournament.

Soviet isolation

The Bolsheviks recognised that socialism could not be built in isolation in an economically underdeveloped country like Russia. Part of their perspective was the working class coming to power in the more industrially developed economies of Europe. But the failure of the revolutions that broke out in the period immediately after the Russian revolution, such as in Germany and Hungary, reinforced Russia’s isolation. Although by 1921 the Red Army had achieved victory over the Whites and the invaders, war, civil war and imperialist invasion had devastated and dislocated the economy, causing massive shortages. It was in this context that the Soviet government implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP). This introduced some market-oriented economic policies, intended by Lenin as a short-term fix until a workers’ revolution could be successfully achieved in Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

In this period, the old pre-revolutionary All-Russian Chess Federation re-emerged, funded by ‘NEPmen’ – businessmen who were making profits from the NEP policies. This took place mainly in Petrograd, whilst Ilyin-Zhenevsky’s overtly political chess organisation had its roots in Moscow, the political capital. In 1922, a match between the two federations took place in Petrograd – won by the Moscow team – followed by a conference aimed at establishing a single federation. Petrograd had the infrastructure and the organisers from the days before the revolution, so a compromise constitution was passed and approved by the Soviet government. This contained elements of Ilyin-Zhenevsky’s chess training programme but was essentially a standard chess organisation. Nonetheless, Ilyin-Zhenevsky continued his work in employing chess as an element of military training. The new federation organised a major tournament in 1923, which is now recognised as the second Soviet championships.

With the civil war won, Ilyin-Zhenevsky’s organisation was deeply imbedded in the military, and proceeded to establish workers’ clubs, aimed at bringing the benefits of the game to the mass of the working class. In 1924, the German master and former world champion Emmanuel Lasker was invited to the Soviet Union. Lasker visited both Moscow and Petrograd, played simultaneous exhibitions (2), and held public training sessions. The new workers’ clubs hosted events with him. Seizing this momentum, the Moscow Trades Union Congress declared a new federation, and clubs defected from the old compromise organisation en masse, causing it to crumble. The new federation was formally recognised by the government, and chess as a tool of developing a ‘socialist’ society had been firmly established. ‘Take chess to the workers!’ was one of its slogans.

According to Daniel King, a current English grandmaster, “the Bolsheviks’ motives for promoting chess were both ideological and political. They hoped that this logical and rational game might wean the masses away from belief in the Russian Orthodox Church; but they also wanted to prove the intellectual superiority of the Soviet people over the capitalist nations. Put simply, it was part of world domination. With chess, they hit upon a winner: equipment was cheap to produce; tournaments relatively easy to organise; and they were already building on an existing tradition. Soon there were chess clubs in factories, on farms, in the army… This vast social experiment quickly bore fruit”.


While there is some truth in this assessment, King doesn’t clearly distinguish between the pre- and post-Lenin eras. Many of the most committed and self-sacrificing revolutionaries were killed or wounded during the civil war, and society was under severe strain from hunger, damaged infrastructure, and a long period of martial law. Economic underdevelopment and international isolation lay the groundwork for the rise of a bureaucratic elite, personified by Josef Stalin. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky, although attempting to fight back against the bureaucracy, became increasingly isolated as the Stalin-led faction consolidated its bureaucratic control and moved in the direction of abandoning the world revolution in favour of the utopian idea of ‘socialism in one country’.

Nevertheless, the task of rebuilding Russian society remained, and to this end chess could play a similar role to that in the military. Nikolai Krylenko was an ‘old Bolshevik’ military leader who succeeded Ilyin-Zhenevsky as head of the Soviet chess federation in 1924. Krylenko was the driving force behind the creation of the Soviet ‘chess machine’ that King describes. The USSR went on to produce most of the world champions of the twentieth century, including Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov. The primary feature of the ‘Soviet school of chess’ was the importance placed on relentless study and training – treating chess more as a sport than as an art or a science. This new emphasis on creating an elite group of chess players, as opposed to Ilyin-Zhenevsky’s ‘chess for the masses’ approach, went hand in hand with the ossification of the ruling bureaucracy, and Krylenko went along with this. He also headed up the Soviet checkers and mountain climbing associations. None of this saved him from execution in Stalin’s show trials in 1938.

In 1925, Krylenko organised an international tournament in Moscow, inviting top players and coaches from around the world, alongside the best Soviet players. This generated huge public interest, with spectator tickets constantly sold out, and demonstration boards placed on the crammed streets outside. Several of the creative and theoretically important games from Moscow 1925 are still used in chess training today. Ilyin-Zhenevsky produced a superb upset in this tournament, beating the world champion Jose Raul Capablanca, a Cuban master who was world champion between 1921 and 1927. Efim Bogoljubow, a Ukrainian master, won the tournament, becoming the first Soviet chess celebrity overnight. This was in the period after Lenin’s death, when Trotsky – the leading voice arguing for socialist internationalism and world revolution – had been ostracised, and the pursuit of ‘socialism in one country’ led to the state attempting to use the event of the Moscow tournament to normalise foreign relations and ingratiate the Soviet government with the world capitalist powers.

Krylenko employed several veteran Russian masters to tour the USSR and conduct chess training in the outer reaches of the state, where enthusiasm for the game had also caught on. Mikhail Botvinnik was the first world-class player produced by this regime and was awarded the Order of Lenin. He rose to prominence after beating Capablanca in a simultaneous in 1925, at the age of 14. Botvinnik eventually became world champion in 1948, starting off the Soviet Union’s dominance of that title. He was also a computer engineer, contributing to research on the potential role of artificial intelligence in planning the Soviet Union’s economy – although the highly bureaucratised nature of the state meant that this work remained in the realm of the theoretical.

Chess cold war

The ‘Soviet school of chess’ was completely intertwined with the Stalinist bureaucracy. Russian players were frequently suspected of collaboration against non-Russian opponents in international competitions. In 1951, David Bronstein – a Ukrainian grandmaster – insinuated that Soviet officials pressured him to lose the world championship match so that Botvinnik would keep the title, although Botvinnik’s own annotations suggest he wasn’t aware of this.

Botvinnik eventually lost the title in 1960 to Mikhail Tal, a Latvian grandmaster and an outsider to the machine. Botvinnik regained it the following year in a match where Tal, who suffered from poor health, had kidney problems and was in no real state to play. But he decided to go ahead after finding out that he would have to be certified unfit by Moscow doctors to get the game postponed, which he knew wouldn’t happen. Professional chess players received wages and privileges from the state far above those of an average worker and had all their travel expenses covered. The political development of some of these characters after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 is not entirely surprising, therefore. Anatoly Karpov, for example, world champion from 1975 to 1985 and poster boy of the Soviet machine, is now a member of the State Duma in Russia representing Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party!

In 1972, the Soviet school received a huge blow on the international stage. Bobby Fischer, the 29-year-old American upstart, defeated the world champion Boris Spassky in the championship match in Iceland, to take the title away from the USSR. The USA hadn’t produced a world champion since Wilheim Steinitz in the nineteenth century, and Fischer was very much an outsider. Raised in a single-parent family in New York, he taught himself Russian to study Soviet chess literature. His mother, Regina Fischer, was a Polish Jew born in Switzerland who studied in the USSR and was engaged in left-wing political activism. Bobby himself, probably connected to his troubled upbringing, had a long history of making vicious anti-Semitic statements, and even publicly applauded the terrorist attacks in New York in September 2001. Spassky, ironically, has described himself as a monarchist, and defected to France in 1976!

The legacy of the Soviet school of chess remains to this day in Russia and many of the former Stalinist states, although perhaps not at quite the same level. Armenia, for example, has chess as a subject on its national school curriculum, with the same idea of training thinking skills which are useful in other fields. After the Cuban revolution of 1959, which established a bureaucratically controlled, nationalised planned economy along similar lines to the USSR, Cuba also attempted to mimic Soviet chess culture. Che Guevara was extremely enthusiastic about the benefits of chess, and Havana hosted the Chess Olympiad in 1966. To this day, people playing chess on the streets of the Cuban capital is a common sight, and the country has produced many strong grandmasters, especially relative to its comparatively small size.

There have been some attempts to teach chess to schoolchildren in the UK, driven mainly through the third-sector organisation Chess in Schools, according to whom, 97% of school staff report improved thinking skills because of students playing chess. However, this currently has a reach of less than 50,000 children. Clearly, chess is not a core learning area like language or mathematics, and sporting and recreational activities cannot occupy a central role in formal education, nor in the building of a socialist society. However, a genuine socialist programme for education would be aimed at broadening students’ horizons, giving them the chance to try new activities and learn new skills, rather than those most required by the capitalist class for profit extraction, as is the case today. This could include activities such as chess finding a place in the curriculum of state schools, at least as an option for students to try out, employing fully qualified tutors as part of an overall plan for broadening and enhancing the quality of education.

The Soviet school of chess existed against the backdrop of the brutal Stalinist regime, and was inseparable from it. But despite that, it created a national pastime, which millions enjoyed and gained the benefit of. In a genuine socialist society, with a nationalised economy democratically planned from the bottom up by ordinary working people, such initiatives could really flourish and help develop human potential to new levels, unimaginable under the restrictions of both capitalism and Stalinism.


(1) The third-highest ranking title awarded by the governing body of world chess, FIDE, behind grandmaster and international master. FIDE titles were not issued until 1950.

(2) An event where a single strong master plays against many lesser players simultaneously, on separate boards.