More Secrets Of The Soviet Chess School

More Secrets Of The Soviet Chess School

| 62 | Strategy

In the first part of this article I demonstrated by my own example that the biggest secret of the Soviet school of chess was the utmost motivation of the Soviet players.  We simply had no right to do wrong since the consequence could be bad, really bad.

One of the biggest tragedies in the Soviet chess happened after the World Junior Championship of 1957.  The American youngster William Lombardy (the future grandmaster and Fischer's second) had the tournament of his life, scoring the perfect 11 out of 11. The Soviet representative in the tournament was a stepson of World Champion Vassily Smyslov, a talented lad, Vladimir Selimanov. While his result -- fourth place -- could be considered a great accomplishment for many chess players, it was unacceptable for a Soviet citizen.  The poor kid suffered so much that shortly after the tournament he took his own life. Here is the game from the first round that determined the whole tournament and eventually cost Selimanov his life.

As GM Andy Soltis correctly pointed out: "At that time, such a performance was viewed almost as treason to the motherland!" 

While this is probably the most dramatic example, there are numerous cases when chess players passed out during their games. Once GM Semyon Furman (who was Karpov's second for many years) played a very important game and due to the enormous tension. his nose started bleeding.

The worst possible offense for a Soviet chess player was a loss to a player from a capitalist country, especially the USA. When Taimanov famously lost his match to Fischer 0:6, the highest committee had an urgent meeting where they decided that a Soviet chess player couldn't possibly lose like that to an American, unless he did it on purpose. Poor Taimanov was stripped of all his honorary titles; he lost his stipend from the sports department as well as his privilege to travel abroad. Taimanov described his experience in the brochure "How I Became Fischer's Victim."

There is a term "O'Hare hedge" used on the trading floor. It happens when a trader opens a humongous position, way beyond the limit set by his brokerage house (a good example is Nick Leeson whose unauthorized trades bankrupted Barings Bank). So a trader initiates such a trade and buys a one-way ticket from O'Hare airport to a country that has no extradition treaty with the US.  If the trade goes well, the trader gets filthy rich, if the trade goes bust, he leaves the country. According to a well-known story, once the world champion Anatoly Karpov used such a hedge himself.  At a very tense moment of his world championship match vs. Viktor Korchnoi, when the score was 5:5 and every game could become decisive, he bought a one-way ticket to the US.

Here is the game that was supposed to demonstrate if Karpov was a traitor or the national hero:

Fortunately for Karpov, he didn't need his "Ninoy Aquino hedge" as he won the game and the match. The world champion returned home as a national hero, got a hug and kiss from Leonid Brezhnev and received a government award! 

Now my dear readers you can understand that a win in a game or a tournament was literally a matter of life and death for the Soviet chess players. Just play through the next game if you have patience:


By move 20 the position got pretty closed and many chess players would be tempted to agree for a draw. But the game was played in the Chess Olympiad and even though the ties between GM Alexander Kotov and a certain Soviet secret organization are well known, he wouldn't be spared if the Soviet team didn't win the tournament. As the result, when you replay the game, you get the impression that Kotov is saying to his opponent "I am going to torture you for as long as it takes. I won't eat, won't sleep, but I'll get you at the end!" It is difficult to play against chess players motivated like this!

Now compare this attitude to the Russian team of today. Better yet, just compare the photos of the Soviet team members of yesteryear and of today. The Soviet team members of the past looked like a lean mean chess machine hungry for chess and maybe for food too. World Champion Tigran Petrosian revealed in his book that very frequently he was hungry when he was young as he spent his lunch money for chess books. As he joked "I had Nimzowitsch for my lunch."  

Now look at the happy faces of the Russian team members of today. Some of them are dollar millionaires! They've had everything in their lives and therefore you cannot see chess hunger in their eyes.

So, the Soviet chess school is dead then, as the utmost motivation of the Soviet players is gone, right? I wouldn't rush with the conclusion. As a matter of fact, just the opposite could be true. Just listen to the speech by the prominent Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Russian Parliament (Duma), where he shares his recipe how to motivate people. There is a video of this speech on YouTube. It has English subtitles, and you can watch it starting from 4:50, but here is an abridged version of his speech:

First Mr. Zhirinovsky states that Russia has no great writers these days. He asks why Dostoevsky was such a great writer and then he immediately provides an answer: because Dostoevsky had 10 years of labor camp! So, what's Zhirinovsky's conclusion? "We must put our writers behind bars! If people spend three, four, five years in prison, we'll have new Dostoevskys, Tchaikovskys!"

While only time will tell if Mr.Zhirinovsky's creative approach to inspire people will be implemented in Russia, they already have their heroes! Look at the two finalists of the World Cup; they are both from Russia! The chess world is amazed by the incredible willpower of Sergey Karjakin, who managed to win many "must win" games on the way to his victory in the World Cup. He even managed to win the final match vs. Svidler after the disastrous start 0:2!  

What gave Karjakin the strength to continue the fight in a seemingly hopeless situation? What was his motivation? Was it the fact that together with his wife Galia they are expecting their first child?

We will probably never know for sure. By the way, when you read this article, Karjakin is probably a father already, so, congratulations, Sergey!

Anyway, Karjakin triumphantly returned home from the World Cup, just like Karpov 37 years ago. And just like Karpov, Sergey is very popular in Russia and has an enormous support there. Here he sports his favorite T-shirt and shares the picture with the whole world in his Twitter:



The Soviet school of chess is back!

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