The Interplanetary Chess Congress
Authors: Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov
Translator: Anne O. Fisher
Chtenia: Winter 2012
[For all those interested in chess in literature, or who appreciate the way life imitates art, or ever wondered what color socks Lasker wore, here is an excerpt from a well known Russian novel, published in 1928.]
In an excerpt from "The 12 Chairs", con man Ostap Bender transforms a backwaters Volga River town into the chess capital of the universe.
"Chess!" Ostap said. "Do you know what chess is? It advances not only culture, but the economy, too! Do you know that your Four Knights Chess Club, under the right circumstances, could completely transform the city of Vasiuki?"
Ostap had eaten nothing since yesterday. Therefore, the elegance of his speech was extraordinary.
"Yes!" he shouted. "Chess enriches the nation! If you agree to my proposal, you'll have a marble staircase descending from the city to the pier! Vasiuki will become the center of ten provinces! What had you previously heard about the town of Zimmering? Nothing! But now, this little burg is rich and famous only because it hosted an international tournament. Therefore, I say: we must organize an international chess tournament in Vasiuki."
"How?" everyone shouted.
"It's a completely realistic idea," answered the grandmaster. "My personal connections and your initiative are all that's needed to ensure the organization of the international Vasiuki tournament. Think how beautiful it will sound: "The International Vasiuki Tournament for 1927". The attendance of Jose Raul Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker, Alekhine, Nimtzovitz, Reti, Rubenstein, Marotsi, Tarrasch, Widmar, and Doctor Grigoriev is assured. Moreover, my participation is assured."
"But, money," the locals groaned. "You have to pay all of them money. Thousands of rubles. Where can we get it?"
"Everything will be taken care of, like in a great hurricane," said O. Bender. "We'll take up a collection."
"Who in Vasiuki is gonna give you such insane amounts of money?"
"What do you mean Vasiuki? The people of Vasiuki won't give any money. They will collect the money. It's really very simple. A tournament with the participation of such world-class masters is sure to attract chess lovers from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people--wealthy people--will rush to Vasiuki. In the first place, river transport will not be able to carry such a large number of passengers. Therefore, the Transportation Ministry will build a railroad line between Moscow and Vasiuki. That's number one. Two: hotels and skyscrapers to house all these guests. Three: improvement of agriculture in a 1,000- kilometer radius. The guests will have to be provided with vegetables, fruits, caviar, chocolates. The palace in which the tournament will be played, that's number four. Five: construction of garages for the guests' cars. In order to broadcast the results of such a sensational tournament, they'll have to build a superpowerful radio station--that's number six. Now, concerning the Moscow-Vasiuki railroad line. Undoubtedly, such a line will not have the capacity to convey to Vasiuki all those desiring to come. From this will result the "Greater Vasiuki" airport--regular flights of airplanes and dirigibles to all corners of the world, including Los Angeles and Melbourne."
Dazzling prospectives opened up in front of the Vasiuki amateurs.
The size of the room widened. The rotten walls of the stud farm building fell away, and in its place arose a glass, 33-story palace of chess thought, towering into the blue sky. In each of its halls, in every room, even in the elevators, speeding by like bullets, people, deep in thought, sat playing chess on instructional gameboards made of malachite.
Marble staircases descended to the blue Volga. Ocean liners sat on the river. Cable cars carried up into the city fat-faced foreigners, chess ladies, Australian adherents of the Indian Defense, Indians in white turbans, supporters of the Ruy Lopez game, Germans, Frenchmen, New Zealanders, inhabitants of the Amazon River basin, and--envying the Vasiukites--people from Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Siberia, and Odessa.
An endless stream of cars flowed past the marble hotels. And then, everything stopped. From the fashionable hotel "Passed Pawn" emerged the world champion, Jose Raul Capablanca. Women surrounded him. A policeman dressed in a special chess uniform (checked riding breeches and bishops on the lapels) politely saluted. With great dignity, the one-eyed chairman of the Vasiuki "Four Knights Club" stepped up to the world champion.
The conversation of these two luminaries, conducted in English, was interrupted by the arrival of a plane bearing Dr. Grigoriev and the future world champion, Alekhine.
Shouts of greeting shook the city. Jose Raul Capablanca frowned. The one-eyed one, with a wave of his hand, caused a marble staircase to be rolled up to the airplane. Dr. Grigoriev ran down the steps, waving his new hat in greeting and commenting on a possible error by Capablanca in his upcoming match with Alekhine.
Suddenly, on the horizon appeared a black dot. It quickly approached and grew in size, turning into a large, emerald-green parachute. Like a large radish, a man with a suitcase was dangling from the parachute.
"It's him!" shouted the one-eyed one. "Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah! I recognize the great chess philosopher Lasker. He's the only one in the whole world who wears such green socks."
Jose Raul Capablanca again frowned.
The marble staircase was quickly put under Lasker and the bold ex-champion, blowing away some dust which had settled on his left sleeve during his flight over Silesia, fell into the embrace of the one-eyed one. The one-eyed one took Lasker by the waist, lead him up to the champion, and said:
"Make peace with one another! I beg you, in the name of the great Vasiuki masses! Make peace!"
Jose Raul audibly sighed and, shaking the hand of the old veteran, said:
"I have always admired your idea in the Ruy Lopez game of moving the bishop from b5 to c4."
"Hoorah!" exclaimed the one-eyed one. "Simple and decisive, in the style of a champion!"
The large, unimaginable crowd took up the cheer.
"Hoorah! Vivat! Banzai! Simple and decisive, in the style of a champion!!!"
Express trains rolled up to the 12 Vasiuki train stations, disgorging more and more crowds of chess lovers.
The sky was starting to blaze with flashing advertisements when a white horse was led along the streets of the city. This was the only horse remaining after the mechanization of Vasiuki's transport. By special declaration it was renamed a knight, even though for its whole life it had been called a filly. Chess worshippers greeted the horse, waving palm branches and chess boards.
"Don't worry," said Ostap, "my plan guarantees your city an unheard of blossoming of industrial strength. Think of what it will be like when the tournament is over and all the guests leave. The residents of Moscow, squeezed by the housing crisis, will rush to your excellent town. The capital will automatically be transferred to Vasiuki. The government will come here. Vasiuki will be renamed New Moscow, and Moscow will be renamed Old Vasiuki. People from Leningrad and Kharkov will grind their teeth, but there's nothing they can do about it. New Moscow will become the most elegant center of Europe, and soon, of the entire world."
"Of the entire world!!!" the stunned Vasiukites started to stammer.
"Yes! And then, of the universe. Chess thought, turning a provincial town into the capital of the planet, shall turn into applied science and create the methods of interplanetary communication. From Vasiuki signals will be sent to Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune. Communication with Venus will become as simple as a trip from Rybinsk to Yaroslav. And then, who knows, maybe, after eight years, Vasiuki will host the first-in-the- history-of-the-universe interplanetary chess congress!"