Americans vs Soviets, 1954

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     In 1945, right after WWII,  a team of United States players competed against a team of Soviet players in a chess match via radio.  While the U.S. team expected stiff competition, there was little doubt in the minds of most Americans that they would win.  The unpleasant surprise was that not only did they not win, but they were massacred. Only then was the concealed power of Soviet Chess fully realized in the West.
     In 1954 a team of Soviet players, what was then thought to be the strongest chess team ever assembled, crippled only by the absence of Mikhail Botvinnik, came to New York City for a week-long match against the best America could offer.
     It was a splendid affair for chess. The visiting team was treated like royalty and the news media - "For one glorious week chess was front-page news in the United States!  Newsreel, TV, newspaper, newsmagazine cameramen and reporters covered the arrival of the Soviet team, the opening and closing rounds of the match. Editors of the metropolitan press  recognized the news value of the presence of a Soviet chess team, opened their columns to wide coverage of the contest.  Feature stories and round-round results, with game scores and big pictures appeared in the New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune and other papers."
     Sadly, today the match is largely forgotten.

      Between June 16 and June 24 of 1954 visiting Soviet chess players contested with players of the United States in an 8 board, 4 round match that ended with a decisive 20-12 Soviet victory.   The match took place in the Grand Ballroom of Hotel Roosevelt in New York City.

Grand Ballroom - Hotel Roosevelt

       Smyslov had just finished an exhausting World Championship match against Botvinnik which had extended from March 16 to May 13 and which ended in a 12-12 tie leaving Botvinnik the title but too tired to attend this international match.  The U.S. Championship ( May 29- June 13) was wrapping up when the Soviets arrived in New York on June 11. The Soviet team visited the Marshall Chess Club where it was taking place. Arthur Bisguier won it undefeated with a score 10-5.  Larry Evans, who was the defending champion, came in second with a score of 9-4.

      The Grand Ballroom held about 1000 seats, but the match was standing-room-only.  In adjoining rooms, the overflow crowd was treated to analysis and discussion by George Koltanowsky, Eliot Hearst and Nate Halper.
U.S. Team Captain: Alexander Bisno
USSR Team Captain: Igor Bondarevsky
USSR Chess Chief: Dmitri Postnikov
Referee:  Hans Kmoch

      The American team comprised of Samuel Reshevsky, Albert Denker, Max Pavey Donald and Robert Byrne, Israel Horowitz, Arthus Bisguier and Larry Evans with Alexander Kevitz and Arthur Dake as alternates.
The Soviet Team comprised of Vassily Smyslov, David Bronstein, Paul Keres, Yuri Averbach, Ewfin Geller, Alexander Kotov, Tigran Petrosian, Mark Taimanov

The results (from the American side) were:

Bd. 1   Reshevsky - Smyslov   =4
Bd. 2   Denker - Bronstein  -3
            Dake - Bronstein  -1
            (Dake replace Denker who came down with a viral infection)
Bd. 3   Pavey - Keres  +1-2
           Kevitz - Keres  -1
           (Krevitz was substitued for Pavey by the decision of the team captain)
Bd. 4   D. Byrne - Averbach  +3-1
Bd. 5   Horowitz - Geller  =2-2
           (Horowitz had a side-bet of $100 against $250 that he would have a plus score.
            He lost the bet)
Bd. 6   R. Byrne - Kotov  +3-1
Bd. 7   Bisguier - Petrosian  =2-2
Bd. 8   Evans - Taimanov  +2=1-1

During a reception after the match, Eliot Hearst made the following colorful observations:

       Petrosian is described a "the baby of the Russian team, at 24, and who, though a native of Armenia, is described as Russia's Capablanca."

       Geller: ". . .served as an aviator in the war and is now a Professor of Agriculture at the Univesity of Odessa besides boasting the muscles of a strong amateur athlete."

      Keres: ". . .whom several women of the Marshall have commented on as resembling a movie star, does not look his 38 years, and in fact cold pass for under 30; he speaks English well. . ."

      Averbakh: ". . .a tall, blond and quiet fellow stands nearby and comments modestly to a query that the only reason he won the recent USSR championship was because 'all the good players did not play.'"

      "Syslov, a redhead, is somewhat heavier than we expected and his dignified but friendly air is apparent even amidst the confusion of the crowd.

     Bronstein is a short, slight fellow whose baldness is restricted to the center of his head - rather than to its peripheries where his black hair is by no means absent; despite the fact that we have heard he speaks good English, he exhibits no inclination to converse in that language with anyone.

     Boleslavsky looks more typically 'Russian' to us than any of the other team members; his heavy built may or may not be the characteristic that gives us that impression. We regret to hear that he is slowly going blind and has only a few years of possible tournament competition remaining"

      There was a ping-pong match between Reshevsky and Kere.   Kotov and Bisno had a $.25   (1 ruple)  side bet on the match. Keres won 21-19.  Then Bisguier and Amos Kaminsky took on Keres and Geller in doubles, losing both games.  Tainanov defeated Evans, and Kotov, who claimed not to play ping-pong, beat Abe Turner.
Bronstein played skittles with Bisguier, drawing the first 4 and then winning 6 straight before drawing 3 more.

      Afterwards the US team played a mixture of Argentine players and two Russians, Bronstein and Boleslavsky, winning all four rounds.

      It was noted several times that the Soviet team comprised of 8 professionals, while the US team, with the exception of Reshevshy, was made up of all amateurs.


       "The most exciting game of the match.  Geller thought about 40 minutes considering the possibilities of 21. Q-R6,  a Queen-sacrifice which comes close to winning - but probably loses.  Finally, the Russian decided just to win a pawn and the resulting position gave Horowitz good chances.  In time-pressure Geller played for a win and allowed Horowitz to sacrifice the exchange which led to a win but Horowitz missed it in time pressure.  The American missed several winning lines, including a gain of a Rook. At resumption after adjournment Horowitz still had a slight advantage but agreed to a draw without continuing."



     "The best game of the round, Robert played well against the King's Indian Defense set up by Kotov and had a distance advantage going into the middle game.  Kotov tried P-QR6 at a crucial stage, a move which involved the sacrifice of a piece which Byrne should not had accepted.  After a Knight sacrifice had been taken, Kotov continued neatly and regained the piece with a Pawn to boot in a combination based on a queening possibility.  Bishops of opposite color left Byrne with some drawing opportunities but the Russian Grandmaster's careful handling of the ending eventually scored him the point after an adjournment had been taken."


        In a postscript called "Odds and Ends," Eliot Hearst wrote:
       The Russians spent a good part of the days preceding the initiation of the first round of play listening to the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV in their suite of rooms at the Hotel Roosevelt.  Outside of saying they 'enjoyed it,' no further comment was forthcoming
      . . . . George Koltanowsky treated the Russian aggregation to a visit to Radio City Music Hall where 'Exectutive Suite' and the usual top-notch stage show were on the program.   The Soviet masters applauded and cheered profusely as the Rockette chorus line performed, and otherwise took great pleasure in the rest of the stage show, even though the movie, based as it was on a battle for control of an industry, is said to have moved them little
. . . .David Bronstein was the 'hero' of a couple of the best stories to be related about the international gathering.  Bronstein went to see 'How to Marry a Millionaire' on the first two off-days of the tourney and, after seeing it twice, came over to a group of us Americans and asked us if we knew of any other pictures starring Marilyn Monroe that were playing in New York ! !  Now we know what he liked best about America!
       . . . Bronstein's desire for lemon juice served to confuse many of the stewards at the hotel.  Once he ordered a glass during his game and was queried whether he meant 'lemonade' - with lemons, sugar and water.  'No!' said the Russian, 'I want pure lemon juice.'   It took nine lemons to fill his glass and, after drinking it down, Bronstein swiftly developed a winning position! . . . A visitor to the tournament rooms insisted on seeing the U. S. team capain, claiming that he could supply the U. S. with a player who would surely smash his Soviet opponent to its.  Further questioning revealed that this player, who shall remain nameless, was formerly a N. Y. club member of average strength who is now confined to an insane asylum!  After thanking the visitor for his patriotism, U.S. team officials expressed regrets that the team could no longer be changed and that the unknown grandmaster would be ineligible to play. (But maybe we could have used a few crazy moves against the Russians!?)
      . . . Don Byrne relates that he was very nervous before the start of the match games and to alleviate his nervousness he sat at home all day reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's best works rather than studying recent games.  After the fine score he built up against Averbakh we might recommend Hawthorne as apt preparation for future members of the U. S. team, too!
       . . . When Al Bisno asked his young son, Paul Morphy Bisno, whom he want to win, he got an answer he least expected:  'My friend Kotov;'  it seems the Russian grandmaster and the junior Bisno had become real pals during the course of the match!
      . . . The banquet at the conclusion of the match revealed Taimanov and Smyslov as real masters in other fields.  Taimanov, a concert pianist, played several selections from Chopin and got excellent 'notices' from even the most caustic of the musical cognscenti in the audience, while Smyslov's rich baritone voice (accompanied by Taimanov) got bravos from the audience also.  It is said that Smslov would have been a professional opera singer if it didn't take so much time from his chessic endeavors!
       . . . Mary Bain, dining with Postnikoff, Keres and Bronstein, won plaudits from this trio for her exhibition of the knight's tour blindfolded
       . . .   Forry Laucks of the Log Cabin C. C. arranged a banquet celebrating fellow member Don Byrne's final score against Averbakh;  at the diner Byrne was boomed for a grandmaster rating!
       . . . The Russian players at all times revealed themselves to be gentlemen and we hope that this attitude toward their American opponents will continue in the reports of the match which they'll give on their return to Russia (although one doubts whether the Soviet players themselves will be the ones to discuss the match!)


      Chess Life reported in the July 20, 1954 issue that the same Soviet team (with the addition of Kira Zvorykina and Isaac Boleslavsky and with Elisaveta Bykova replacing Alexander Kotov) had just beaten the 10 board British team  18.5-1.5  (+16=3) in early July.
     The British team comprised of Alexander, Golombek, Wade, Penrose, Broadbent, Milner-Barry, Barden, Fairhurst, Miss (Eileen) Tranmer and Miss (Patricia Anne) Sunnucks.


Quotes and games from "Chess Life," July 5 and 20, 1954