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Rise of the Soviet Chess Hegemony
Was the fantastic success of 20th century Soviet chess a school or a hegemony?

The Soviet School of Chess?: Despite the title of the classic book 'The Soviet School of Chess' by Kotov and Yudovich, and the use of the phrase 'Soviet School' in chess literature, there never was such a school. The chess historians Hooper and Whyld defined school as 'players who share a common view regarding the strategy of the game'. They rejected the notion of a Soviet School and proposed Soviet hegemony. • Answers.com: 'hegemony : The predominant influence, as of a state, region, or group, over another or others'.

Origins of Chess in Russia: The chess historian H.J.R. Murray concluded that chess reached Russia before 1150 A.D. via the Volga trade route to Baghdad. 'Neither the Russian name for chess, nor the pieces of the Russian game, show any trace of European origin. [...] Hardly anything struck the early travellers and traders more about Russia than the extraordinary prevalence of chess, and the high average of skill shown by the players.' Not until the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725), did European influences take hold.

19th Century: The first great Russian players of the modern era were Alexander Petrov [Petroff] (1794-1867), Karl Jaenisch (1813-1872), and Emanuel Schiffers (1850-1904). Petrov wrote the first Russian manual 'The Game of Chess' (1824), and Jaenisch published 'A New Analysis of Chess Openings' (1842-43). When Schiffers, who was Russia's best player and had a reputation as a teacher, met Mikhail Chigorin in 1873, he was able to give him Knight odds.

Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908): Russia's first world class player beat his teacher in 1880, becoming the de facto champion of Russia. In 1889, he played Wilhelm Steinitz for the World Championship in Havana, but lost +6-10=1. In 1892, he lost again to Steinitz in Havana, +8-10=5. In 1895, he finished 2nd to Pillsbury at the Hastings Tournament, placing ahead of the new World Champion Emanuel Lasker and Steinitz. He also founded the St. Petersburg Chess Club.

Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946): Native Russian Alekhine became a master at St.Petersburg 1909 and a grandmaster at St.Petersburg 1914. Along with Ewfim Bogoljubow (Ukraine; 1889-1952) and other foreigners, he was interned while playing at Mannheim 1914, when World War I started. He later returned to Russia and joined the Communist Party, but left again. He became a French citizen in 1925 and renounced the Soviets in 1928. Like Bogoljubow, who was branded a traitor in the 1920s, he was rehabilitated after his death.

Birth of the Soviet Chess Federation: WWI -> Lenin & Revolution (1917) -> Stalin (1924) • In 1924, Nikolai Krylenko (1885-1938), commander in chief of the Russian forces 1917-18, was appointed chairman of the chess section of the All-Union Committee on Physical Culture. He used funds from the New Economic Policy (NEP) to hold the 1925 Moscow International tournament, won by Bogolyubov ahead of Lasker and Capablanca. Krylenko was later appointed Commissar of Justice by Stalin, but was executed in 1938 during the party purge trials.

Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995): During the Moscow 1925 event, immortalized in the silent film 'Chess Fever', World Champion Capablanca conducted a simultaneous exhibition in Leningrad and lost a game to 14-year old Botvinnik. In 1931 Botvinnik won the Leningrad Championship and the 7th Soviet Championship. A year later he repeated his success in the Leningrad Championship and in 1933 won the 8th Soviet Championship. Later that year he drew a match (+2-2=8) with Salo Flohr, one of the world's top-5 players.

Botvinnik Emerges as a Leading Challenger for World Champion Alekhine (1930s): Alekhine had won the title from Capablanca in 1927, defending it against Bogoljubow in 1929 and 1934. Botvinnik tied for 1st/2nd with Flohr (1908-1983) at the 2nd Moscow International 1935; finished 2nd behind Capablanca at the 3rd Moscow International 1936; tied for 1st/2nd at Nottingham 1936, becoming the first Soviet to win a strong event abroad; and finished 3rd at Amsterdam 1938 (AVRO), behind Paul Keres (Estonia) and Reuben Fine (USA).

The Soviets Capture the World Championship (1940s): In early 1946, less than a year after WWII ended, Botvinnik issued a World Championship title challenge to Alekhine. He accepted, but died before the match could be held. FIDE took control of the World Championship and arranged a 5-player match tournament which was held in 1948. Botvinnik won the event three points ahead of Vasily Smyslov (USSR). Finishing 3rd/4th were Samuel Reshevsky (USA) and Keres (now also USSR). Max Euwe (Holland) finished last. The Soviet hegemony had been established.

Unprecedented Successes: The Soviet grip on the world chess title remained firm as a series of their grandmasters handed the title from one to another. The chairs for title matches were the exclusive domain of Soviet players -- Smyslov, David Bronstein, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, and Boris Spassky -- until Robert Fischer (USA) blasted through to a title match against Spassky in 1972. Fischer won, but he immediately abandoned professional chess and the stage was set for the next generation of Soviet stars -- Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov -- to continue the hegemony.

Soviet teams were equally dominant. They won exhibition radio matches against the USA and Britain in 1945-46, followed by face-to-face matches against the same teams in 1946-47 and 1954-55. The Soviet men's team competed in the Olympiads for the first time at Helsinki 1952, and won. They won every other Olympiad through 1990, except Haifa (Israel) 1976, which they boycotted, and Buenos Aires 1978, where they finished one point behind first place Hungary. After 1990, Russian teams continued the series of victories until the Ukraine won the 2004 event.

No account of Soviet chess would be complete without mentioning the Soviet individual championships. The 1st championship, formally known as the 'All Union Championship', was won by Alekhine at Moscow 1920. Peter Romanovsky (1892-1964) won the 2nd at Petrograd 1923, followed by Bogoljubow at Moscow 1924 (3rd) and Leningrad 1925 (4th). Botvinnik won the title six times. The full list of winners is a Who's Who of 20th century chess. The tournament was often the strongest chess event in the world in a single year.

One final note: Botvinnik believed in the existence of a 'Soviet School of Chess' and wrote, 'What are the inherent qualities of our native school; what differentiates it in principle from the foreign school? In my opinion, it is the social status of the game in our country' : not just a pastime, not just a table game. ('100 Selected Games')