Here, anybody can outplay you…
Ivana: Do you know how we keep warm in Russia?
Austin: I can guess, baby.
Ivana: We play chess.
Austin: I guessed wrong.
(From Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me)
Like just about everywhere else in the world, Russian people love football. But nobody loves chess the way Russians do. Almost everybody plays chess here. For Russians, chess is not a sport. It is life itself: battles, excitement, risk.
Chess became an element of Russian culture in the 11th – 13th centuries. In spite of the fact that the Orthodox Church condemned chess until the middle of the 16th century, the game was popular among just about everyone – artisans, traders, servicemen, boyars. But Russia’s leaders have always taken an interest in chess is well. For example, some historians insist that Ivan the Terrible passed away while playing chess. Foreign guests who came to Russia often noted the strange fascination with chess. “Chess is very popular here, and almost everybody can play it. They’re so good at it because they get a lot of practice,” one foreign traveler who came to Russia in the middle of the 16th century wrote. In the beginning of the 18th century, Peter the Great, who was a big fan of chess, helped promote the game by incorporating it into balls for nobility. The legendary military commander Alexander Suvorov and Catherine the Great also played chess.
Chess was loved by almost all great Russian scientists, musicians, and writers – Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev. The famous chess game between Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev resulted in a 2-1 win in favor of the latter. Tolstoy was understandably upset, saying that he just wasn’t in great shape that evening. Also, Leo Tolstoy met his wife Sophia at a chess salon in a noble family’s house. The Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, who authored the periodic table, proposed to his wife during a chess game as well. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was probably the only one to prefer the roulette to chess. For example, here is what poet Alexander Pushkin wrote to his wife Nataly after he found out she decided to learn how to play chess: “Thank you, darling, for learning to play chess. It is an absolute necessity for any well organized family.”
But the real obsession with chess started in the beginning of the 20th century, when Russia began to outpace many European countries in terms of the number of great chess players. The Revolution in 1917 sped up the development of this trend. There were about 3,000 chess players in the country in the beginning of the 1920’s. By the 1930’s, the number jumped to 500,000! Chess clubs started opening all over the country, but people played chess on the street as well, in parks and squares all over the city. People say that popularity gives birth to mastery, and it’s often true. Starting in 1948, Russians began winning almost every world chess championship. After WWII, chess became so huge in the Soviet Union that no other country was able to reach the same level for the next 50 years. In a way, chess became a symbol of Moscow’s intellectual superiority over the rest of the world.
It’s no wonder that the chess board was turned into a battlefield between the Kremlin and the West during the Cold War. In 1984, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, former members of the Swedish pop band ABBA , worked with Tim Rice to make a popular musical about chess. Russian world champion Anatoly Karpov was the inspiration for the main character in the story. According to him, his 1978 match with Viktor Korchnoi, who had immigrated from the USSR and was considered to be an enemy, served as the foundation of the musical’s plot.
A lot of time has gone by since then, but chess is no less popular in Russia now than it used to be. Russian chess players are still some of the best in the world. The most famous player is Sergey Karjakin, who became a chess grandmaster at age 12. In fact, Sergey’s accomplishment landed him in the Guinness World Records.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Chess Federation was established in 1992. It has always been headed up by influential Russians. Suffice it to say that, in May of 2014, Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov became Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Russian Chess Federation. Two year ago, during the opening of the Central Chess House, Dmitry Peskov was asked if he has ever played chess with Vladimir Putin.
“Unfortunately no,” he said. Then, someone asked him whether or not the Russian President plays chess at all.
His answer: “He can, yes. I don’t know how well, but I think he’s pretty good. he plays a different kind of chess, the geopolitical kind. This is probably a lot harder.”