The Double Life of Susanna Mar, Poet and Chess Player

The Double Life of Susanna Mar, Poet and Chess Player

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Susanna Mar (real last name Chalkhushyan, 1900-1965) was an Armenian-Russian poet and translator who translated, among others, the poems of Kipling, Chesterton, Yeats and de la Mare into Russian. She was born in Nakhichevan-on-Don (a suburb of Rostov). In her youth, she belonged to the Russian Silver Age poetic movement of Nichevoki ("Nothingers", a Russian take on Dadaism) and was married to its leader Ryurik Rok (real name Emil-Eduard Gering, brother of director Marion Gering), before divorcing him and "defecting" to the Imaginists. Soon afterwards, she left Rostov and moved to Moscow, where she lived until her death.

What her literary biographies never mention is the fact that she was also a strong chess player. I first came across Mar's name in chess context when I saw a cartoon by Yuri Yuzepchuk depicting the 1931 USSR championship.

Standing left to right: Kan, Yudovich, Kots (participant the preliminary tournament) on his knee, Alatortsev, Golts (64’s executive secretary), S. Vainstein, Botvinnik, Mazel, Rauzer, Riumin, Mar, Chudova, Girvidz (participants of the USSR Women’s Championship), Krylenko, Zubarev, Eremeyev (tournament committee members), Kasparyan (crying at Eremeyev’s feet). In the left corner – Verlinsky and Bogatyrchuk. In the right corner – Romanovsky and A. Rabinovich, Vechernaya Moskva reporter.

I knew of a Susanna Mar who wrote poems for a USSR championship bulletin, and I thought - maybe there was a mistake in the caption? When I checked the 1931 USSR Women's Championship table, there was no Mar among the participants...

But then I found her name in the 64 magazine championship report. She even got a personal cartoon from Yuzepchuk!

The 64 report said that Mar was "a strong Moscow player", and her shared 7th-8th place in the semi-final was called an underperformance: "We could expect more from Mar, but her results were affected by an operation she recently underwent."

It seems that Susanna Mar led a "double life" of sorts. I already mentioned that no literary biographies of hers mentioned her chess exploits, but the reverse was also true: the chess publications never mentioned that she was a poet! Basically, the only "evidence" that links the poet "S. Mar" to chess player "S. Mar" was this cartoon by Yuri Yuzepchuk and her chess-themed poems. I don't know why it was so - maybe Mar herself wanted it that way? Interest in chess was certainly not discouraged in any walks of life.

Alternatively, she might have been enough of a household name back then that there was just no need to clarify that it was "S. Mar, the poet" who played chess.

At any rate, even Elizaveta Bykova's fundamental work Sovetskie Shakhmatistki went out of its way not to mention Mar's occupation or even full name. The book does give us some glimpse into Mar's chess career, however: she played in five Moscow women's championships in a row (from 2nd to 6th).

1928: 3.5/12, shared 10th-11th
1931: 6.5/11, shared 5th-6th and qualified for the aforementioned USSR championship semi-final
1935: 4.5/13, 11th place. Mar's husband died that year, which surely affected her form.
1937: 4.5/9, shared 4th-5th
1938: 8.5/14, shared 5th-6th

After that, she didn't play in the city championships again. Maybe she retired from chess for good, or just couldn't compete with the younger generation at the age of 38, I don't know. The last tournament table that featured her was the 1938 VTsSPS championship, where she played for the team of Prosecution and Court Workers' Union. She scored just 0.5/5 at the first board, losing to Rubtsova, Morachevskaya, Ageeva and Goldberg and only drawing Daibo.

Bykova published one game of Susanna Mar in her book, a win against first-category male player Smyshlyaev in a 1937 team match.

(As a side note, computer analysis showed that Mar generally played very well, but in the last position, she missed an even easier win - a mate in three: 22... Bxg2+ 23. Nxg2 Nf3 and 24... Rxh2#.

Another side note - both Bykova's recommendations are very sound. 7. Nge2 can even be called a "main line" of sorts in this obscure line of Queen's Indian.)

Mar's last involvement with chess I know of was in 1942, when she wrote a poem about the Moscow championship (a very strong wartime event, by the way). She even correctly predicted the winner!

I'm not much of a poet, so I'll just give an interlinear translation.

The Moscow Tournament

In the cold Moscow autumn,
The tournament unites us.
The capital city of the free Motherland,
We were there for you in the darkest hour!

We strengthened your defence,
Dug trenches and mounds,
Our will to win was unyielding,
And the enemy escaped from the Moscow walls.

The flow of life is unbreakable,
What can a Nazi horde do to it? -
And so, in the days of war heroics,
A tournament is held, as always.

The participants of the championship -
There are sixteen of them, a great selection,
And Dus, like Uncle Chernomor,
Filled with youthful excitement.

Remember the poet's word:
Smyslov will win.
His skill will help him,
As well as his youth...

Mazel and Chistiakov are absent!
They forgot their old trade
And went to the horrible war,
Trading chessboards for guns.

We love and value our Motherland,
And at our country's first call
We shall trade the chess field
For the fields of war glory.