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A Century of Chess: Moscow 1925
Moscow 1925 participants

A Century of Chess: Moscow 1925

kahns
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There is a case to be made that this is the single most significant tournament ever held. 

The logic for that argument would run that the defining story of 20th century chess was the creation of the Soviet chess machine, and the Soviet chess machine didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from Nikolai Krylenko, an important Soviet functionary, who was trying to make the case that chess could be a form of Communist education and that competitive chess represented a cost-effective way for the Soviet Union to best Western imperialists. 

For all of that, proof of concept was required — which was more than fulfilled by the Moscow tournament. In a long reminiscence of the tournament, Alexander Ilyin-Zhenvsky explained that it was a close-run thing. A few years earlier Soviet chess had seemed like some “primordial chaos” and the “massive project of an international tournament" taxed the abilities of Soviet chess organization. But they had succeeded in luring no less than eleven international masters, including Capablanca and Lasker, to the USSR and there ... the masters found chess paradise. 

Marshall recalled that traffic was “paralyzed” in the area of Moscow near to the playing hall. Ilyin-Zhenevsky wrote:

"The interest towards the tournament was colossal. When I and several other players approached the House of the Unions, where the opening ceremony was to take place, there was a huge crowd on the street trying to get in. Working our way inside, we saw an even denser crowd, and it took a lot of effort to leave our coats in the cloakroom and get to the Blue Hall." 

Capablanca-Bogoljubow

The lines were so vast that the majority of spectators were unable to enter the playing hall, and a crowd of thousands simply waited at the entrance, eager to listen to every bit of information and rumor about the games in progress. Throughout the tournament, organizers battled with the crowd, which stood on chairs to get a better view of the games and broke periodically into applause. As Ilyin-Zhenevsky wrote of the tournament's opening:

"Suddenly, applause began. It got louder and louder and transitioned into a full-blown ovation. The applause was for the world champion Jose Raul Capablanca. Smiling and bowing, he got into the first rows and sat in his place….When he made his first move, which of course was nothing special, it was greeted with loud applause. Similar applause greeted Lasker's return move." 

Bogoljubow-Lasker, with Krylenko in background

For the Soviets, the cherry on the top of the tournament was Efim Bogoljubow’s triumph, the apex of his career. Bogoljubow, born near Kyiv, had been interned in Mannheim in 1914 and settled in Germany. Krylenko persuaded him to return to the Soviet Union and his clear victory — a point-and-a-half ahead of Lasker — went a long way towards establishing the USSR as an international powerhouse, even if that would be somewhat obviated by Bogoljubow’s defection the next year. 

His startling triumph — well ahead of anything expected of him — is usually attributed to his having already spent time in the Soviet Union and being familiar with the other Soviet players, whom the Western masters tended to underestimate. That’s a bit unconvincing — since that would also have given them a chance to become familiar with him — and I can’t help but wonder if that’s code for the Soviet masters being persuaded to throw their games to Bogoljubow and help him win the tournament. But even if that were the case, Bogoljubow still had to play against the cream of international chess, and he won against Tartakower, Torre, Grunfeld, Spielmann, Yates, and Samisch.  The truth was that, with his relentless aggression, Bogoljubow was very nearly unstoppable so long as he didn’t get lose his sense of proportion in games. 

Lasker was now well into the aging lion phase of his career where he constantly put up results that exceeded expectations — and for the second time in two years he finished ahead of Capablanca at a tournament. Lasker’s play at this stage is reminiscent of a pool master who knows exactly how the felt bends on his table and, without apparently doing very much, can tilt the play to ‘his’ types of positions — queenless middlegames, complex endgames, games with peculiar strategic imbalances. 

The tournament was a very significant disappointment for Capablanca. He seemed to seriously underestimate the strength of the competition — disappearing to Leningrad for a full day to play in a simultaneous exhibition, for instance, and then on his return losing to Boris Verlinsky — and at the halfway mark was in tenth place. But Capablanca rallied, scored 8 out of 9 the rest of the way, won his game against Bogoljubow, and finished in third. 

It seemed that Capablanca’s mind was elsewhere. Bohartichuk recalled that he was “very greedy for female beauty" and wrote of a somewhat embarrassing incident where a Mosselprom salesgirl had stayed in Capablanca's hotel room too long to plausibly be selling goods, prompting a call from the hotel to the tournament committee, which in turn made Capablanca very bitter against the Soviet authorities. Maybe more significantly, though, Capablanca seemed to be tiring of chess itself. After the tournament, he claimed that the game had lost its appeal since players above a certain strength could draw at will and proposed a variant for masters of a 10x10 board, with pieces added combining the strength of rook and bishop and of rook and knight. 

Capablanca in Chess Fever

The tournament was also the peak of Carlos Torre’s short career. A sort of Torre mania had hit the chess world. At 19 years old, he already was playing like a mature master and seemed to be bringing something new to the game. He had impressed at Baden-Baden, finished third at Marienbad, and was tipped by many of the cognoscenti as a potential winner at Moscow. And he did tear through the field in the early part of the competition, winning six of his first seven, scoring his most famous victory over Lasker, and leading the tournament for one day. But he couldn’t keep up with the torrid pace and eventually sank to fifth. It would be Torre’s last international tournament. 

In a sense, though, the most significant competitive event at Moscow 1925 occurred at the bottom of the crosstable. This was the emergence of a solid cadre of Soviet masters who might not be world-championship level themselves but could hold their own against the very best in the world. As Ilyin-Zhenevsky wrote: "Our Soviet championships were on par with any international tournaments both in line-up strength and quality of played games. Because of our isolation from the Western chess life, our masters couldn't show their real strength to the foreign players, but we knew everything, and this tournament should have confirmed that they could successfully compete with the Western European stars." 

Ilyin-Zhenevsky

Of the Soviet players, Grigory Levenfish was the only one with anything like an international reputation. But Pyotr Romanovsky, Fedor Bohartichuk, Boris Verlinsky, Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky were all at close to international grandmaster level. Ilyin-Zhenevsky and Verlinsky defeated Capablanca. Levenfish defeated Lasker. 

None of this group would ever have international opportunities, and the Soviets wouldn’t have a truly elite player until Mikhail Botvinnik a decade later, but the point had been made: that the Soviet Union was capable of producing not only strong players but a quantity of them and that they would be able to play as a team. 

The tournament also produced a curious legacy in the film Chess Fever, which would, for a long time, be, really, the only cinematic rendition of chess. I had known of Chess Fever as a silly farce that had its value for documentary footage of the grandmasters at the Moscow event, but I have to say it's actually a really funny movie. The premise is that the hero (played by Vladimir Fogel, considered the great Soviet actor of his generation) is very much in love with his fiancée Vera but, unfortunately, gets caught up in solitaire chess and forgets about the wedding. As Vera's friend sagely observes, "Never forget that the greatest threat to a marriage is chess." The rest of the film, pretty much, is the hero trying to make it up to Vera but losing his mind once again whenever he sees anything remotely chess-patterned. You'll get tired of the joke before the end of the film, but the conclusion is hard-to-beat — José Capablanca sets Vera straight, she visits the tournament and realizes what a "fascinating game" chess is and the two are happy forever. 

Still from Chess Fever

Bohartichuk wrote: 

"When ten years later, this film was again shown to the participants of the Second International Tournament, I heard sobbing not far from me — Capablanca was crying about his youth, which is disappearing into eternity every day. He was not a philosopher and could not reconcile himself to the inevitable." 

Sources: Of course a great deal has been written about this tournament. Ilyin-Zhenevsky's account is a great place to start, as are the reminiscences of Bohartichuk. Edward Winter writes on the tournament here and on the Capablanca-Bogoljubow game here. Torre's vantage-point on the tournament is in Gabriel Velasco's The Life and Games of Carlos Torre