The Spirit of (Re-)Discovery: Soviet Chess of 1930s

The Spirit of (Re-)Discovery: Soviet Chess of 1930s

Jan 14, 2019, 1:21 PM |

Been reading through the old issues of 64 (many of them are available for free at the Russian Chess Federation website) and other Soviet chess publications recently. This gave me, among other things, two excellent pieces on women's chess that look modern and relevant even 90 years later ("Why We Got Flogged?" by Alexandra Klimenko and "On Women's Tournaments and Championships" by Olga Morachevskaya), but, most strikingly, I found out that the methodology that I used to construct my Player Dominance Index (percentage of points scored by elite-level grandmasters against each other) was also used back then!

Statistician V. Bestuzhev compiled a big table to compare the results of the strongest Moscow-based players for the period from January 1926 to August 1931. In the pre-Elo days, it was probably the most expedient way to evaluate the long-term strength of players. The table showed that Nikolai Riumin was by far the strongest Moscow-based player of the late 1920s, scoring 62.7% points against his master peers. (Amazingly, he learned chess only in 1924, at the age of 16.)

"Comparative table of head-to-head results for the best Moscow players". Screenshot from 64 magazine, 1931. Table by V. Bestuzhev

In August 1931, Riumin was just 23 years old, and it wasn't even his peak yet, even though he won the Moscow championship that year with an undefeated 10.5/12 score (according to Bestuzhev, he was the first Moscow champion since 1922 to achieve that), and then, in October-November 1931, Ryumin finished second in the Soviet Championship, 2 points behind Botvinnik. In 1934, in the Leningrad tournament, he destroyed Max Euwe, who, just a year later, defeated Alekhine in the World Championship. Riumin shared 2nd-3rd at the tournament, just half a point behind... Botvinnik (Botvinnik was a real nemesis to Riumin, with score +4-0=3 in his favour).

And in 1935, in the first round of the second Moscow International, he scored probably the biggest win of his entire career, defeating Capablanca.

Sadly, Nikolai Riumin's career didn't last long. He contracted tuberculosis in 1936, and, since it was still pre-antibiotic days, he essentially retired from tournament play and ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1942, aged just 34.

By contrast, Abram Rabinovich was already in his fifties, and played much fewer games than most other members of Bestuzhev's table, but his results included wins in the 1926 Moscow Championship and in a 1930 "Moscow Masters' Tournament". He played in international tournaments before the Russian Revolution, scoring wins against young Rubinstein and Alekhine. Rabinovich died in 1943, aged 65.

The top three is rounded by Sergei Belavenets, another up-and-coming talent that was admittedly included by Bestuzhev in violation of his own established rules (the table included all Moscow masters and those 1st-category players who took part in at least two Moscow championship, while Belavenets played only in one). Bestuzhev's foresight paid off: Belavenets, who was even younger than Ryumin (just 21 years old at the time of calculations), went on to win three further Moscow championships in the 1930s. In 1939, he defeated Salomon Flohr in another Leningrad international tournament.

Sadly, like Riumin, Belavenets died way too soon. After the Nazi invasion of Soviet Union, he volunteered into the army and was killed in action in 1942, aged just 31.

Here's Bestuzhev's small article that accompanied his tables in the newspapers.

Individual Results of the Best Moscow Players

The purpose of the tables I'm publishing here is to inform the wide chess-playing circles about the individual achievements of Moscow's best players, and the best way to do that is to calculate their scores against each other. The table encompasses last 5.5 years (from January 1st 1926 to August 1st 1931), the period marked by appearance of many young talented players, many of whom (e.g. Riumin, Panov, Yudovich, Belavenets, Kots) have already become quite prominent.

The table encompasses all the masters and those 1st-category players who were most successful in the Moscow championship and took part in at least 2 of them (the only exception is Belavenets, who only played in the 1930 Moscow championship). The table does not include masters Dus-Chotimirsky and Nenarokov and 1st-category players Bernstein, Kholodkevich and Pavlov-Pianov. The first four don't currently reside in Moscow, and the fifth plays in Moscow tournaments only very sporadically. The face-to-face results of Moscow-based masters are included in a separate table.

The tables are compiled like simple tournament tables. In each column, the first number indicates the number of wins, the second one - the number of losses, and the third one - the number of draws. Then the summary points, the number of games and the percentage of points are calculated.

Dashes and zeroes in the tables indicate that these players haven't met at the board.

The stats for the tables were taken from all significant tournaments and matches where the participants played each other. All official tables of Moscow tournaments since 1926 were used. I also re-checked the results by interviewing the players themselves.

To conclude, I hope that this meticulous work will attract the readers' attention. It's difficult to avoid mistakes in compiling such tables, so I would be very grateful for pointing out any errors.

"Head-to-head scores of Moscow-based masters". Screenshot from the 64 magazine, 1931. Table by V. Bestuzhev.

This table is even more lopsided in Riumin's favour, even though it was heavily influenced by his 1930 qualification match against Grigoriev. Riumin won 6.5-1.5 (+6-1=1) and got his master's title.

And what about "V. Bestuzhev" himself? Most probably, but I can't be sure, it was Vladimir Bestuzhev-Riumin (no known relation to Nikolai Riumin, but maybe they were distant cousins), first-category player and journalist who perished in the infamous Solovki labour camp in 1937. Be that as it may, I'm seriously considering renaming the "Player Dominance Index" into "Bestuzhev Index" as a tribute to the 64 statistician.