Tim's Tournament Book Blog XV: Moscow 1936

Aug 8, 2016, 7:58 AM |

Moscow 1936 International Chess Tournament
Edited by G. Levenfish
Translated by Jimmy Adams
Caissa Editions, 1988
245 pages

The Moscow 1936 tournament was the second serious test of Soviet players against top western players in tournament competition (the first being Moscow 1935).   The field consisted of five Soviet and five non-Soviet grandmasters including Botvinnik, Capablanca, Lasker, and Levenfish.  When the dust settled on the double round robin event, the 3rd world chess champion Capablanca came out on top by a clear point ahead of Botvinnik.   The result must have been vexing (to put it mildly) for the Soviet leadership as standard bearer Botvinnik was the only Soviet to finish in the top four places, a result that mirrored the finish from a year before when the future sixth champion of the world was the only Soviet to place in the top five when he tied Salo Flohr of Czechoslovakia for first place. 

The heavy emphasis placed on the tournament for propaganda purposes (as evidenced by the florid language used to describe the Soviet Union) must have made this a bitter disappointment for the Soviet leadership.  That being said, they clearly learned from these games and they would take the knowledge gained to build a better Soviet chess machine, one which would come to dominate the post World War II era (along with some help from powerful grandmasters they “acquired” as a result of that turbulent time period).

For this tournament I mainly focused on Capablanca and Botvinnik but skimmed each round to look for interesting games.

Games of Note
To be honest, I found the games mostly very boring.  There were hardly any attacking gems and a lot of the games felt very technical and dry.  Nearly 60% of the games were drawn and a fair amount of those before move 30.  So the only game I truly found interesting I have highlighted below.

The only game I really enjoyed was the round 14 clash between Kan and Botvinnik.  This game is a great game to study if you play the Sicilian as black.  Notes are mine


Story of the Tournament
The opening article on the tournament is very technical and dry.  Although it gives a good overview of what happened round by round, it feels like reading a computer manual.  On top of that, the propaganda about the glorious Soviet Union is nauseating and repetitive which is very distracting when the reader is trying to find out just what went on.  There is clear bias here regarding a lot of detail about the Soviet players especially when it comes to how they stack up agains the Western players.  This heavy dosage of ram my philosophy down your throat could’ve been ameliorated by some nice round by round notes but this book has none.  So if you want to get some background on the tournament and not just play through the games you need to either:
Do some research on your own or
 Get some good high boots to go wading with


The annotations for the tournament are a mix of variations and words with heavier emphasis on the variations. Most of the annotations were done by the players and the annotator is clearly noted in each game.
  The word analysis is adequate but one does get the feeling that some of the Soviet players were holding back in their analysis (state secrets!).  One just need to take the time to compare Soviet player notes with say Capablanca and the difference is obvious.  The annotations are further hampered by a lot of the common “cop out” phrases that we’ve all seen before in chess books.  Statement like, “black is better” “White has the better game” further devalue lessons that students of the game will be searching for.

Biographical Information

There is not much here at all just some tidbits here and there and unfortunately most of them are found in the translators preface so kudos to Mr. Adams for trying to help the original text.  The only pictures, oddly enough, are of Lasker and Capablanca. There is one lone picture of a game between Botvinnik and Flohr but that is all she wrote. 

Coverage of Games
All 90 of the games are included in the book.  The games have no ECO identification only the actual name.  However, one impressive part of the book is found at the end where there is an index of openings that lists the move orders for each opening and then gives the game number where that line can be found.  So for example if you were looking for some ideas on the Nimzo-Indian after the moves 1. d4 Nf6  2. c4 e6  3. Nc3  Bb4  4. Qb3  c5  5. dxc5  Bxc5  6. Nf3 b6  7. Bg5 Bb7 you would discover that game 15 features a battle from this starting position.  Quite frankly, this is the best part of the book.

The book also has another unique index that features the endgames found throughout the tournament.  So you want to brush up on your knowledge of rook and 4 pawns vs. rook and 5 pawns?  No problem go check out games 10, 24 and 58. 

Production Value

This another high quality red hard backed book from Caissa Editions.  The print is crisp and clean and diagrams are sharp. I can attest to the high quality of the book as I had this volume in storage for a few years and the pages are still crisp and clean with no hint of discoloration.  Too bad such a beautiful volume has such boring chess contained within. 

Final Evaluation:

Die Hard

Moscow 1936 earns the Die Hard rating for several reasons.

First, most of the games are very bland.  If you love positional chess (or the games of Anish Giri) then you will enjoy this book a lot.  Now, I have nothing against positional chess and I enjoy a good battle of elegant maneuvering (a la Nimzovich) but many of these games see little if any risk as evidenced by 53 of the 90 games ending in draws.

Second, the book is clearly agenda driven which takes away from the enjoyment.  The touting of Soviet players wears thin and is harder to take when you think about the foreign players who actually participated.  It’s not like the Soviet players crushed a field of say Alekhine, Euwe, Fine, Reshevsky, and Kashdan.  Worse yet, the Soviet players couldn’t even capture the top three spots.  Yes, I know that would all change one day, but tooting your own horn so loudly when you can’t carry a tune is annoying to everyone.


Third, the annotations are okay overall, but it does feel like the Soviet players were holding back which hurts the value of the notes for the student. 

Finally, the book overall has a very technical and dry feel to it.  Picture asking someone to tell you what the movie Star Wars is about and imagine the person responding with a sentence by sentence description of each and every scene and you’ll know what it feels like to read this book.

Bottom Line: You only need this book is if you like Botvinnik or Capablanca, enjoy studying endgames, or are interested in the history of Soviet Chess.  If you don’t fit that profile, then move along as there is nothing to see here.