The Biggest Secret Of The Soviet Chess School
The famed Soviet school of chess has produced hundreds of grandmasters and dozens of world champions. Thousands of chess coaches teach their students using "the Soviet training method."
But who can really describe what exactly was/is the Soviet chess school?
Wikipedia gives it a try: "chess experts in the USSR described the Soviet School of Chess as a fast-paced, daring style of play best exemplified by the young generation of postwar players."
Hmm, then either Tigran Petrosian was a mad attacker or he wasn't a product of the Soviet chess school.
The same article in Wikipedia gives a better explanation:
"The main contribution of the Soviet School of Chess was not the style of players but their emphasis on rigorous training and study of the game, i.e. considering chess a sport rather than an art or science."
Now it makes more sense and most chess players generally agree with this definition.
Here is what Vladimir Kramnik has to say:
"Botvinnik’s example and teaching established the modern approach to preparing for competitive chess: regular but moderate physical exercise; analysing very thoroughly a relatively narrow repertoire of openings; annotating one’s own games, those of past great players and those of competitors; publishing one’s annotations so that others can point out any errors; studying strong opponents to discover their strengths and weaknesses; ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses."
Since I was a student of the famous Botvinnik-Kasparov school (just like Vladimir Kramnik himself), I absolutely agree with this statement.
Now let me ask you a simple question. It is a well-known fact that the Soviet team won practically every single event it played. I am talking about chess olympiads, European and world championships, etc.
However, in the last decade, the Russian team (which consists of the players who were raised and trained by the same Soviet chess machine) hardly won any Olympiads, despite of being heavy favorite in every single one of them.
Also, the last time I checked, the current world champion hails from Norway and (gasp!) doesn't even speak Russian! So, what happened here? Did the famous methods of the Soviet chess school stop working after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Many chess authors promise to reveal "the hidden secrets of the Soviet chess school," and yet, somehow I haven't seen the biggest secret revealed.
But today I am going to tell this big bad secret only to the readers of Chess.com. The story from my youth will be the best explanation of this secret.
At the end of 1980s, I was drafted to the Soviet army and sent to the city of Novosibirsk, which was located in the Siberian Military District. Taking the opportunty, let me assure you my dear readers that contrary to popular belief, there are no bears on the streets of Siberian cities.
But it is still a very cold, cold place, especially in the winter.
Fortunately, the sport division where I served had nothing to do with what we think when we hear the word "army."
In more than two years of my army service I had to fire the famous AK-47 only once during the training. Instead I was supposed to beat my opponents over the chessboard for the glory of the mighty Soviet army.
One day I was informed that our colonel called for me. When I entered his office he warmly greeted me. Here I have to mention that he was a good man. Once he really saved me when I fell asleep during our morning "politinformation" (which was basically a lecture about advantages of communism over capitalism).
Not only did I sleep; I snored too! Don't laugh, my nose was congested since I had a cold (did I mention that Siberia is not exactly Hawaii?). My sleep deprivation could have easily been interpreted as national treason and yet, thanks to our colonel, it all ended with just a good laugh. But I digress here.
After our colonel greeted me, he asked where I would prefer to play: in the World Junior Championship, which was supposed to take place in Adelaide, Australia in about a month, or in the team Army Championship, which was scheduled at exactly the same time in Riga.
After my expected answer, he explained that if I played in the Army Championship, I would win my junior (under 20 years old) board for sure and therefore bring our Siberian Military District many points in the competition between all the military districts of the Soviet army.
I thanked him for his trust into my abilities. To be fair, I indeed won the junior board ahead of Ivanchuk the year before (1987) as well as the year later (1989), where I scored 12.5 out of 13 games. Still I insisted that I would prefer to play in the World Junior Championship.
Then he asked me if I could guarantee that I would win a medal in the World Junior Championship. I immediately remembered a similar situation that happened before the final Candidate match of 1974 between Karpov and Korchnoi. The winner was going to play the world championship match vs. Fischer.
Both opponents were asked if they would be able to beat Fischer. Karpov didn't have any doubts about victory over Fischer, while Korchnoi said that at this point no one can beat Fischer. In that exact minute, the fate of these two great players were sealed. Karpov became a favorite of the ruling system and Korchnoi...well, you all know what happened to Korchoi after that fated match of 1974.
Nevertheless, I followed Korchnoi's footsteps and answered that I could not guarantee that I would win a medal in the World Junior Championship. The colonel asked me again why I preferred a tournament with an unclear outcome over the tournament I was going to win for sure (at least according to him).
I explained that a win in the World Junior Championship gives a GM norm and in the past always gave young promising players a huge jumpstart to the top level of chess (for example Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov won their World Junior Championships).
Now you can see that our colonel was indeed a good man. He could've simply ordered me to play in the Army Championship; instead he asked me to come close to the wall with a big map of the Soviet Union.
"Look, private Serper, this is a map of our beautiful motherland," he said as he pointed his finger at the wall.
"Yes, sir", I nodded readily.
"And this, private Serper, is the Siberian Military District." He made a huge circle with his finger over a big chunk of the map.
"Yes, sir," I again nodded.
"This little island, private Serper," the colonel tapped his finger somewhere over the Arctic Ocean, "also belongs to the Siberian Military District."
"Yes, sir," I kept repeating like a parrot, while looking for a connection between the little island in the Arctic Ocean and the World Junior Championship in Australia.
"So, here is the deal, private Serper", the colonel smiled. "If you win a medal in the World Junior Championship, then as you know, success is never blamed," invoking a well-known Russian proverb. "But if you finish the tournament below third place, then the rest of your army service will take place on this little island," he finished with even bigger smile.
At the first moment I couldn't say a word. Each of those tiny islands in the Arctic Ocean were known as Chateau d'If of the Siberian Military District. People seldom came back unscathed from there. Since I didn't have my Abbe Faria, the chances of a chess geek like myself to return back from one of those islands in one piece were dangerously close to zero!
From the other side I knew that if I miss what could have been the opportunity of my whole life, I would never forgive myself for being a coward. So, trying to compose myself I said: "Thank you sir!" -- hoping that my trembling voice didn't give up my emotional state.
Fast forward a couple of month, and I was fighting the best young chess players from around the world. Some of my games were good, like the next one, where I played Michael Adams, the future super-GM. Years later Michael got the nickname "spider" for his ability to weave a web around his opponent's pieces.
In the following game it wasn't clear who was the spider, me or my opponent.
Some of my games were not that great, like the following disaster vs. GM Susan Polgar (at that time she represented Hungary and her first name was actually Zsuzsa). It was always difficult for me to play against girls (see this story for example), but in this particular game I have no excuses: Susan played very well and I played badly, hence the result of the game:
Fortunately, it was my only loss in the tournament and the moment of truth came in the last-round game vs. GM Jeroen Piket from the Netherlands. I was very nervous since it was the game that quite literally was supposed to determine my future life. People who smoke use cigarettes to deal with their anxiety, but I never smoked in my life.
So, instead of a cigarette, I drank no fewer than 10 cups of very strong coffee throughout the game. I don't know how I managed to survive that game (especially the mutual time trouble) as my heart was pounding the whole time. Anyway, here is the result:
Now tell me, who had a better motivation in this game: a guy who was going to spend a couple more weeks in Australia together with his coach GM Sosonko, visit the Great Barrier Reef and play many more chess tournaments regardless of the result of the World Junior Championship, or his opponent fighting for sheer survival, for a chance to not freeze to death on the remote island in the Arctic Ocean?
That's what I call the Soviet chess school!
As the result of this game, I tied for first place and got a very warm reception when I got back to my barracks.