An Unknown/Forgotten Interview with GM David Bronstein

An Unknown/Forgotten Interview with GM David Bronstein

RoaringPawn
RoaringPawn
Nov 4, 2018, 4:41 PM |
49

CHESS IS NO MORE A GAME

Several years ago, I ran across an interview with GM David Bronstein (1924-2006) that he gave to Dmitry Stakhov on the Russian ogoniok.com site in 2003. I Googled to see if there was any reference to it online. Amazingly, I couldn’t find anything more than few sentences about it in French.

I translated it and published on my (now defunct) site for the first time in English. Later it also appeared in The Chess Journalist of America, Vol XLII, Nos 2-4, Fall 2013. Here I want to thank and show my profound gratitude to the then CJA editor, Professor Mark Taylor in the English Rhetoric and Writing department of Berry College for his tremendous support in publishing the Bronstein's interview.

David Bronstein caricature in Evgeny Ilin's Pegasus Gambit

David Bronstein's caricature in Evgeny Ilin's Pegasus Gambit

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Today I am pleased to share it with you, the readers of this site, as the interview is still relatively unknown to the broader public and it gives some intriguing inside views on the game of chess during the transformation it has been undergoing in the digital era with the presence of chess engines and artificial "intelligence."

Bronstein was one of most brilliant chess minds. He narrowly missed becoming World Chess Champion as he drew the 1951 challenge match with Mikhail Botvinnik.

By his peers he was described as a creative genius. An intuitive player, he often sought complications and played wild, imaginative games; in his own words, “I always try to vary my openings as much as possible, to invent new plans in attack and defense, to make experimental moves which are dangerous and exciting for both players and also for the audience.”[1]

He wrote one of the all-time classics in chess literature[2] and was a giant of moral integrity – his photos were grabbing headlines in the Western media in the 50s and 60s as he defied Soviet authorities.

You will find his thoughts on chess in this fascinating and emotional interview. Hope you will be enjoying it!

16-SQUARE FRAUD

STAKHOV: What is the meaning of modern chess?

BRONSTEIN: Just to take control over sixteen unoccupied central squares, the two central horizontals.[3] Art of chess has long ago been reduced to a struggle for space. So following that logic, he who knows how to take up and use space is a chess pro, while he who doesn’t is an amateur.

STAKHOV: Chess players are so smart, with a stunning intellect and you think the meaning of chess lies only in these squares?

BRONSTEIN: Chess has lost its creative component. It is no more the game it used to be fifty years ago. The primacy of the struggle for space has led to the fact that chess ceased to be a game. Formerly, chess was entertainment to people of culture who played it in their free time. After chess has been reduced to a mere struggle for space, culture is no more relevant.

David Bronstein

Moving pawns, the King's way

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STAKHOV: But how about the “theater” of chess pieces?

BRONSTEIN: You may watch an interesting theatrical performance, or perhaps you leave the theater after a few minutes. In the past chess was sort of intriguing, pieces somehow get engaged and performance begins. Each actor puts forward his plan, mounts challenge, shows boldness. But only the result is important now. The relationship between chess players have turned into a relationship between boxers before a fight. They both stage various acts of psychological intimidation. Most importantly, everything the leading chess players have to study to get there has long been known in the special literature.

STAKHOV: And what about an amateur…

BRONSTEIN: The amateur is under illusion that there are many possibilities in chess. He looks at the board and it seems to him there are so many moves to make. But there are no moves. The pawn goes only forward, all other pieces are also restricted. It looks that there are billions of possible combinations, but these are mostly meaningless ones! Chess is a way of choosing one move from a pool of billions useless ones, some kind of a model for problem-solving. You have several ways out of a situation, but you can only choose one and each one has drawbacks. In real life, you can stall for time, but in chess you have to make a move, normally by taking into account how your opponents sees the situation. When computers arrived, it finally killed everything.

Exhaustive search for move selection rules chess out as a game of intelligence. Well, all solutions out of a situation have long been known and we know how to play various positions. If I say play e2-e4 and my opponent responds with e7-e6, that is the French defense, I already know well in advance how the situation will develop. Standard positions arise. It’s like a little tug of war. I find it funny when the chief engineer of a large plant says he does not know how to play the French game. He has ten thousand people under him, and he doesn’t know of such nonsense! It is ridiculous!

WHERE DID THE ART OF CHESS GO?

STAKHOV: So where did the art of chess go?

BRONSTEIN: The art apparently existed before Botvinnik introduced the system for preparation in chess in his 1936 article. The Soviet chess school was, after Botvinnik, based on research. What did they research? The opening. They were doing very much what Lobanovsky was doing before his soccer matches. However, in soccer they can change their original plan at any moment while chess players can’t — they are hostages of choice.

STAKHOV: But Botvinnik’s training system brought a certain professionalism and its methods of preparation to Soviet chess. Perhaps we shouldn’t grieve about the past?

BRONSTEIN: True, yet those who are in better health win today. The fact that a 12-year old boy can become a Grandmaster, is there a better proof for my words? He has acquired some minimal knowledge; for example, he knows that if he puts his knight in the center, his opponent will be left with tied hands – the rest is just a matter of habit. Then the newly-born champion, like Ruslan Ponomarev, speaks of Kasparov like, “Who is that guy? Why should I play him. He’s just one of many Grandmasters out there…”

STAKHOV: I suppose that’s because of his youth?

BRONSTEIN: No, it’s a trend.

Bronstein, Self-Tutor

Covers of the 1980 Russian edition of Bronstein's Modern Chess Self-Tutor

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STAKHOV: Okay, so the knight can’t be pushed away?

BRONSTEIN: How, by a pawn push?! Well, when the knight moves, the pawn is unable go backwards and the opponent’s position will become worse, with newly created weak squares.

STAKHOV: But Ponomarev’s strategy was designed to win!

BRONSTEIN: Yes, but that was uninteresting to the audience! In chess, like in the theater, there should be lively play, not clash of strategies. Actors do not go on stage to do the drill. The audience will chase them out. They should perform a play. Likewise, the chess players should be playing, not going over the same lines over and over again.

In the past, there was something in chess we might call “responsibility.” For example, when they sent me abroad, I was responsible to the State. You were expected to always win the first prize! And I knew nothing about my competition. No computer, no reference materials were available back then.

In 1954 they called me to the Central Committee, I had to go to a tournament in Belgrade and win the first prize. It sounded like an order. “Who is coming along,” I asked. “Petrosian.” Had I hesitated or refused, I would have lost my job. “Okay,” I replied. When we arrived in Belgrade, I read in the papers, “We thought Keres and Kotov would come, but to our disappointment it was Bronstein and Petrosian, although we must remember that the Soviet federation never sends anyone who does not take the first place.” Well, I took the first place. At the time, diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia were broken off. The Russian ambassador planned a reception on my behalf. Before the last round, he called and asked me if I was going to win? “With white pieces? Against Matanovich? I should.” “Okay then, you will inform me how the game finished.” “But I will win.” “No, no, if it is a draw, there will be no reception.” At the reception, our Ambassador asked the Yugoslav Minister of Foreign Affairs, ”You haven’t come to see us for a long time!” ”We haven’t had an invitation for a long time,” the other replied. After the tournament, Khrushchev did go to visit Tito.

STAKHOV: So you were an unofficial ambassador of the USSR?

BRONSTEIN: In the same way as the American ping-pong team went to China. I witnessed the start of renovations of the Hotel Moscow in downtown Belgrade, its doors and windows nailed with boards before. The tournament marked the change of course in relations between the two countries. The players were not only responsible for playing well – they were also part of the system that stood behind them.

STAKHOV: The chess system?

BRONSTEIN: The political in the first place! “Soviet chess is the best!” In the twenties, it was decided that every library should offer chess and checkers to the public, for people to play for fun and to develop their intelligence. It is true, there was a great chess school in Russia before, the one of Chigorin. But there were no champions. Steinitz suggested the idea of a world chess championship and later Dr. Lasker famously said that chess is played by people, not pieces. Thus chess in the Soviet Union became one of the means of educating people, inexpensive one but serving the purpose.

SOVIET CHESS SCHOOL - SHOULD WE ADMIRE OR PITY IT?

BRONSTEIN: They say that Soviet school of chess is the best, but I don’t think so.

STAKHOV: But it is still true, if you look at results…

BRONSTEIN: Well it all began in 1945 when we played the match with the US. And won it. Do you know how come that we won? We studied the openings. And we didn’t give them the chance to get out of the opening. We beat them on their half of the board. They didn’t get off the ground. The entire opening theory is about not letting Black get off the ground. In contrast, for Black it is all about how to take off the ground.

USA-USSR Radio match 1945, Henry Hudson Hotel Ballroom

"Firm friendship and cooperation between USA and USSR for World peace"

(the Ballroom of the Henry Hudson New York Hotel during the 1945 USA-USSR Radio match)

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STAKHOV: The State also contributed with its resources?

BRONSTEIN: The state was helping chess players by providing benefits, like extra food and scholarships which attracted young people.

I learned chess from my Grandfather. In 1937 my father was arrested and given seven years in prison. Somehow I got into chess because of this situation. I played in tournaments at the Kiev Palace of Pioneers. And in 1945 they got me into Dynamo Kiev Chess Club. Probably, for my combinative abilities in chess. Chess doesn’t require any special talent. Good memory and ability to repeat many variations. And that’s all. It’s also true that chess reflects the skill of problem-solving.

I became a Master when I was still in school. Tournament after tournament. They paid me. Not much, but they did pay something. And trips abroad. Ballet dancers, diplomats and chess players were those who traveled abroad. Chess players more often than other athletes. In the 50s, before you go abroad, they would take you to the special section of the GUM (the State Department Store in Soviet times, –mr), and give you 1,500 rubles, which was enough for a suit, white shirt, gabardine raincoat, boots, hat. You would get 500 rubles for playing at chess Olympiads, and for tournaments won, including Hastings, you would get 500 rubles too. And when abroad you had to live up to reputation, to say that you lived in a five-room apartment, while I lived in a public housing. The main thing was to win the first prize.

And how they followed us down! For example, at one of chess Olympiads after I had exchanged a few words with the American Grandmaster Reshevsky, Postnikov, the head of delegation, approached me: “You are rubbing shoulders with the Americans?” “Actually I’m distracting him so he wouldn’t give hints to other American players.” Postnikov, “Well then, why are you standing here. Go distracting him!” Such were the characters.

The same Reshevsky wanted to play a match with Botvinnik, but the latter refused. They proposed Smyslov to play, but he refused too. Then they called me and asked, “Can you guarantee the win?” “How can I give any guarantees?” “No, you must sign a paper that you will win.” Reshevsky wanted to come to Moscow to play 12 games, and then another 12 games in the US. The prize money was $6,000. And now some paper with a guarantee! I refused to sign. Then I was summoned to the Central Committee of the Party where they asked me again to sign a paper. “I can’t do that.” “There won’t be a match then.” “Well, how can I give you a guarantee like that? What if I dropped a knight in a game?” “You can’t drop a knight,” they told me, “You are a Soviet citizen. We’d better let Reshevsky drop a piece.” After these words I said, “OK, just give me the paper and I will sign it.” The match didn’t take place because of the 1956 events in Hungary.

STAKHOV: But the respect they always showed you in the West…

BRONSTEIN: In the West they envied us, while I envied them, as they lived in freedom. During tournaments abroad, I would go to a bookstore when I got a chance, reading between the shelves. I couldn’t afford to buy something – if only the comrades could have seen what I was reading. “The Government is supporting you,” they would all tell us in the West. They wanted to practice chess an hour a day and then play Botvinnik, or Keres. Well, the same does not happen.

MODERN CHESS, JUST ANOTHER BIG SCAM?

STAKHOV: So the idea that Soviet chess is the best…

BRONSTEIN: …is a myth. Well, we simply didn’t want to see that foreign players had been winning most tournaments. We had written only about the tournaments where we had taken the first place. And there were some great chess players out there. Larsen, for example.

Bronstein's caricature

Friendly caricature by I. Sokolov

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STAKHOV: But he wasn’t getting in the top three!

BRONSTEIN: What kind of nonsense is that?! Why one should be getting in the top three?

STAKHOV: You yourself were getting in the top three. That is why it is so easy for you to say.

BRONSTEIN: I too was praised for the results, and not for the beauty of my games. It is a shame! One is playing in tournaments and is invited all over the world, not only for points and victories; however, a principle has been established: you should play for win, the main thing is the points and victories. And there has been created an aura that chess players are geniuses. But what they really do? They are moving pawns from one square to another.

STAKHOV: But you too have been moving pawns!

BRONSTEIN: But what I want is that they praise me for imagination, for original creations, and not for how I play openings or standard positions.

STAKHOV: If you want to become a pro in soccer, you have to practice, you have to shoot at the gate. In order to demonstrate the beauty of an attack, you need to know openings, that is, the basics.

BRONSTEIN: The majority of chess players today know only that and it stops there. They know how to set groups of pieces. They don’t think in a combinatorial way any more. Groups of pieces fight for some square on the board. And that’s all! That is what sponsors pay for, that is what is interesting to the public which has no idea of what is going on inside the inner world of chess. Chess players have known that since long time ago and they want to keep that perception up.

STAKHOV: In other words chess as art and culture turned to a sort of commercial show and the most important thing in the show is fooling the public that buys into what they don’t understand? Okay, but if you want to trick them, one has to do it professionally. If I read one book on openings I would still have no chance against Masters.

BRONSTEIN: You can! Let us form a team, find a sponsor and play. I will be coaching you. For free. What is more, I will play for your team. And I guarantee you, you can stand up to big-name players! I guarantee you, one could hold off even Kasparov. A Candidate Master playing white pieces will withstand against the World champion. I assure you! The main thing is to find a sponsor who will pay for your inadequate – no offense! — preparation. Then we will buy some players who play for several teams already and then – hold on. Think the German Bundes Liga. There are only five-six German players, the rest is legionaries. It’s all in the hands of sponsors. For example, Kasparov played computer for a million dollars. A million for what? Absolutely no justification for that. Kramnik got $700,000. Not for creativity, but for a grueling match in which there is no art at all. The chess player has turned into a racehorse that mustn’t stop running. He has coaches to whom he provides jobs. The horse is running, but there is no riddle in it anymore.

STAKHOV: How about we get back to the era of Sturm und Drang? [the era of Tal and Botvinnik, mr]

BRONSTEIN: It is possible. I have made a suggestion on rapid chess – it is my contribution. It is an attempt to get back to the province of problem-solving in chess.

STAKHOV: So, the Big Chess is a – scam?

Bronstein and Tal

Devik and Misha. Who moved my chess?

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BRONSTEIN: Chess Masters are praised for highly intellectual work. In fact, it is only about calculation and memory abilities. And good health. And money. Chess doesn’t excite anyone anymore. The system does work without chess. They won’t let anyone into their world, but those who are welcome from a business perspective. Kasparov has once said he is generations apart from me, so he did not want to play me. What generations? I’m still alive and I understand a lot about the game. If they had invited me I would have gone and played. But I don’t have a rating! Therefore, I don’t exist anymore as a chess player. It is now all about rating which is calculated using the probability of winning. They stopped inviting me to tournaments when my rating was still good. (True, I had FIDE give players of my rank the right to play any tournament however strong, thus sidestepping rating.) Chess players are not interesting to anyone anymore, now it is about “who will beat whom.” Even the idea of the World Championship humiliates chess.

The points decide everything. Yet, creative tension cannot be simulated. The only way out is return to rapid chess.

STAKHOV: But your idea is not compatible with how much money is now spinning in chess. No one will give money for rapid chess. If you had played a rapid chess match with Botvinnik, then…

BRONSTEIN: In a way there was no reason to win the match against Botvinnik. My Father returned from prison, he was sitting in the audience, even though he wasn’t supposed to be in Moscow. In the audience was also Abakumov; although he was a great supporter of my Dynamo Club, the highest establishment wanted to see Botvinnik as a champion. He had an image of amateur, an engineer who is moving pieces only in his free time. As a matter of fact he killed Soviet chess. He looked his opponents with such hatred! It is an entire school of hatred stirrers: Lasker, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov. Kasparov, even if a computer beat him, he would lose anything now. Let us get intrigue back in chess. If you lose, give the money back. Only then will people come back to chess. And if both art of chess and results are there, it will then bring about chess revival. As long as there is only one outcome, chess is not interesting to anyone, except to those who are accepting and those who are making bets.

STAKHOV: Nabokov was a good chess player? He thought very highly of himself.

BRONSTEIN: I don’t think so. He had intellect, and it is harmful to chess. Intelligence actually opposes the primitive principles of chess such as winning a tempo and gaining space. Nabokov, however, believed that if he was composing chess problems, that he’s smarter than everyone else. Chess studies is just combinatorics. Chess creates an illusion of belonging to a high intellect. Just an illusion. Believe me, I know what I am talking about…

Damilola Odusote art

Chess ceased to be a game—Bronstein. Damilola Odusote art

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NOTES:

1. David Bronstein, 82, Chess Champion, Dies, New York Times, 2006

2. Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953, is regarded among the very best chess books ever written (the printing quality of the English edition is pretty low, so don’t judge it by its appearance). What makes this book special is how Bronstein focuses on the ideas behind the moves and deep strategic explanations rather than burdening you with tons of lines of analysis. Humans think in a different way from machines. This book shows a unique insight into how (creative) grandmasters really think as opposed to cheap chips’ brute calculation power. Here’s IM Jeremy Silman, “if you don’t buy and read this fantastic book you will be doing yourself a great injustice. Get it, hold it, sniff it, rub it on top of your head, place it under your pillow; this is simply the greatest tournament book ever written and it deserves to be in every self-respecting chess library.”

3. In The modern Chess Tutor, Bronstein names the two central horizontals as the zone of important squares.