This is a magnificent book. I recall an actor once saying that although winning an Oscar meant something in the business what mattered was who garnered the most nominations. This book will surely be on every voters short list for the best book of the year award.
The book begins: Foreword to the English Edition: Chess in the Context of Time
Sergey Voronkov edited the Russian edition of My Great Predecessors; maybe that’s what gave him the idea of creating his own huge project, Masterpieces and Dramas of the Soviet Championships. I wanted to show the historical development of modern chess through analyzing the games of world champions and those who got close the their level. He is trying to write the history of the Soviet chess school through the prism of the Soviet championships.
Over the years that have passed since his first book, David Janowski (with Dimitry Plisetsky, published in Russian in 1987), Sergey has grown into a top Russian chess historian. Small wonder” he worked with Yuri Lvovich Averbakh
for a number of years and classes him as his teacher. And then Sergey gained experience of chess analysis when working with David Bronstein on their book Secret Notes.
As in his other books, Masterpieces and Dramas of the Soviet Championships is based on documents” periodicals, tournament bulletins, games collections, eyewitness accounts… And, as a classic said, “analysis of what’s happening in the world based on documentary evidence is a thousand times more demonstrative than any dramatization of this world.”
Another attractive feature of this book is the great game selection. I know from experience how difficult and laborious this task is: to choose, out of hundreds of worthy games, the most wholesome and beautiful, the most important for each championship, and to demonstrate the development of chess as a whole. In this sense, the idea of combining “masterpieces” with “dramas” was very clever, allowing him to include a number of historically valuable games that influenced the course of tournaments in crucial ways.
Most of the games were annotated by the players themselves. On the one hand, this makes the author’s job easier, but on the other hand, it becomes more challenging ethically. There are quite a few erroneous lines and evaluations in the original annotations, which necessitates computer evaluation. But if we point out all the errors and inaccuracies, this might ruin the notes themselves, and give readers the wrong idea about the master’ playing strength and analytical skills. These days, you immediately get to see any error on the screen, but back then the analysis of a game required blood, sweat and tears… And what to do with the opening recommendations, oftentimes very obsolete? To throw them away entirely is to break the linkage of time, to dilute the development of opening thought, deprive it of its roots, and devalue the work of our predecessors. But if we don’t challenge the archaic recommendations at all, the opening part of the games will become essentially useless for modern players…
It’s hard to find the right balance between the analytical facts and historical truth. The author was helped by chess master Dmitry Plisetsky, who helped me to write My Great Predecessors. So, you can be sure that the chess part of Sergey’s book is high-quality as well.
Trying to shoulder alone such a burden as the history of the Soviet chess school is a heroic act. Sergey has already published three volumes in Russian that encompass 20 championships (1920-1953). 38 more are ahead… Will he manage to complete his project? Each championship requires meticulous work. I can only imagine how many tons of chess and literary “ore” the author had to dig through, how much information he had to interpret and structure to create a seamless picture of the first ten championships! Despite its academic adherence to documents, this book virtually resembles a novel: with a mystery plot, protagonists and supporting cast, sudden denouements and even “author’s digressions” – or, to be exact, introductions to the championships themselves, which constitute important parts of this book as well. These introductions, with wide and precise strokes, paint the portrait of the initial post-revolutionary era, heroic and horrific at the same time. I’ve always said that chess is a microcosm of society. Showing chess in the context of time is what makes this book valuable even beyond the purely analytical point of view.
New York, July 2020
Where does a reviewer begin after the forward by former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov? This was a major problem when trying to write this review. After the forward almost everything I added seemed superfluous. The author seemed to be in a quandary as well as he writes, “I hope that David Ionovich would have liked this book,” followed by, “I think the only thing Bronstein wouldn’t have approved of is computer analysis of the games.” Gone are the days when we mortals would spend time analyzing and dissecting our own games and the games of the Grandmasters. The top players were human and made mistakes. How wonderful it seemed when one found a better move, and others agreed! That does not happen today because players resort to the oracle called Stockfish, which has become the be all and possibly the end all of Chess. Something has been gained, but something greater has been lost…As the author writes in the following introduction, the book is, “…first and foremost about people.” Unfortunately, the computer Chess programs have eliminated the human element from the game.
Introduction: Through the Lava of Time
“In Russia, when you talk about history, you are always alluding to current times, while a historian is a prophet who predicts retrospectively.” – Dmitry Bykov, Boris Pasternak
It’s such a pity that David Ionovich Bronstein
won’t see this book. His ideas demonstrated an amazing ability to grow through the lava of time. I hope that David Ionovich would have liked this book. It’s first and foremost about people, whereas the “Soviet Chess School” is a secondary topic: this wasn’t a conscious decision – it’s simply because in chess, as in life, I was always more interested in individual people that in abstract chimeras of “schools” or trends”. My articles, fully based on documentary sources, were criticized because I dared to state my won opinion, even though “a chronicler should be above the fray.” Please don’t get confused: I’m not a chronicler, my genre is closer to a documentary movie. And as Mikhail Romm, creator of Triumph Over Violence, once said, “A documentary is a peculiar form of auteur cinema.”
I think the only thing Bronstein wouldn’t have approved of is computer analysis of the games. But what else could I do: Of course, if he was still around, as in the wonderful times when working on David Versus Goliath (The Russian name of our book, Secret Notes), I wouldn’t have even thought about it. Back then, we decided to calculate all lines purely with our human brains, but.. David was the only one who could do that! The modern Goliaths of machine analysis have probably already forgotten the delights of that multiple – hour search for the truth, and just how exciting it is to slowly push around the ordinary wooden pieces on an ordinary wooden board…
So begins the introduction by Sergey Voronkov, written in Moscow in March of 2007.
Now that you have been introduced, the book consists of ten chapters, one for each of the first ten Soviet Chess Championships. This review will focus only on the first.
A Chess feast During the Plague: All-Russian Chess Olympiad: Moscow, 4th – 24th October 1920:
“Let’s light the lamps, let’s pour the drinks,
Let’s drown our sorrows in the kegs,
Let’s feast, and dance, and do all things,
To praise the kingdom of the Plague”
Alexander Pushkin, Feast During the Plague
Just like any truly great undertaking – and the Soviet Chess Championships are a phenomenon of planetary scale – this one owes its existence to a random, almost trifling coincidence. Had the Leninist revolutionary Ilyin-Shenevsky not been a passionate chess fan, who know how many years would have passed before the Bolsheviks took note of the “royal game”. Really, can you call that anything but a miracle? The Russian Civil War is still raging in the outskirts of the country, devastation and hunger are rampant, conspiracies abound, the Red Terror is in full swing – and then, suddenly, there’s an All-Russian Chess Olympiad! How could such a thing have happened in 1920?
Oh, this was such an unbelievable chain of coincidences that it might really make you believe in an old adage: any random occurrence is actually a manifestation of some unknown pattern. It all began when Alexander Fyodorovich Ilyin-Zhenevsky… well, we can let him speak for himself.
Ilyin-Zhenevsky: “In early 1920, I got a job in the head office of the Vsevobuch (Universal Military Training) and was soon promoted to commissar. I worked together with great physical education specialist to develop pre-conscription training programs for workers, and I suggested including chess training in these programs… The main value of sports, they said, was that it developed qualities that were very important for a soldier. I thought that this was true for chess as well. Chess training often develops the same qualities in people as any other sport training – bravery, resourcefulness, composure, willpower – and also, unlike sport, it develops strategic skills. My suggestion was accepted and approved by the chairman of Vsevobuch, Comrade N. I. Podvoisky. Soon after, all regional Vsevobuch heads received a decree to cultivate chess and organize chess circles…” (From the book Memoirs of a Soviet Master) There is a note here: The full bibliography is included at the end of the book.
Future World Chess Champion Alexander Alekhine had this to say about how the Soviet era in Chess came about: “The Moscow chess players, moving from place to place, despite the fuel crisis and many other insurmountable obstacles, managed to survive until 1919, and the, one of the most influential members of the Soviet government appeared on the horizon. And even thought he was the brother of the even more famous Raskolnikov, the leader of the sailors, he had a different pseudonym, Ilyin-Zhenevsky (from the city of Geneva). He was a decent player and a fervent chess enthusiast, and his authority, both as Raskolnikov’s brother and his position as the Vsevobuch head commissar, was instrumental in making the Red government drastically change its attitude towards the ‘royal game’. In their eyes, chess turned from “bourgeois leisure” into a “high and useful art that develops the intellectual strength of the growing generation” (a quote from the resolution of the Moscow region Vsevobuch officials’ convention, which took place in April 1920). Because of this change of stance, Moscow chess players were suddenly treated to a real cornucopia. Above all, they were allocated excellent six-room premises in the Vsevobuch Central Military Sport Club; the Moscow Chess Club was officially turned into a “department” of that institution. Also, they received funding of 100,000 rubles (which had a purchasing power of 1 million rubles now!) to organize serious tournaments. And, finally and most importantly, they got to organize the “All-Russian Chess Olympiad”, which was held in October 1920.” (from the book Chess in the Soviet Union by A. von Alekhine, originally published in the German language in Berlin, 1921.)
Who was Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky, the man responsible for your reading this review, and hopefully, the book?
Ilyin-Zhenevsky’s authority was so great that chess players referred to him as “our president”. The Leningrad master Andrei Batuev was a schoolboy back then and first saw Alexander Fyodorovich later, but he may as well have been referring to the 26 year-old Vsevobuch commissar: “He was incredibly handsome and unique man, with blue eyes, delicate, a girl-like blush and curly auburn hair. He was shell-shocked in the war and made funny grimaces, turning his head to the side and smacking his trembling lips. Interestingly enough, Ilyin-Zhenevsky lost his memory after a contusion, and he had to relearn chess from scratch,” (Neva No. 9, 1984)
The Winners and the Prizes
From the press: “Most of the participants of the main event played after a long hiatus, and so couldn’t fully demonstrate their skills on the chess battlefield. Without a doubt, Alekhine didn’t play his best, and managed to win only with a great effort and good shard of luck. By contrast, Levenfish, who played better than everyone else, took only third place because at the very beginning of the tournament, when he hadn’t hit his stride yet, he drew and even lost some games despite having completely won positions…Romanovsky played unexpectedly well, taking second place, ahead of three maestros.” (Listok Petrogubkommuny, 8th May 1921.
The comment about Alekhine is quite remarkable! As you might see, the opinion that he “effortlessly” and “brilliantly” won first prize only took hold years later, not immediately. I initially blamed his biographers, Vasily Panov
and Alexander Kotov,
but then I found the original source – Levenfish’s words in 1925: “Alekhine won the 1920 Olympiad without any effort.” Yes, if we look into the table, such an evaluation looks pretty convincing. But an analysis of Alekhine’s games (even though only ten of them survived) shows that the victory indeed didn’t come easy to him. Years later, Zubarev wrote about that, too: “The tournament ended with Alekhine’s victory, however, this win wasn’t completely overwhelming. Alekhine played with great strain, but despite that, he still had lost positions in several games, and Blumenfeld agreed to a draw with him despite having an obvious win.” (Shakhmaty v SSSR(itl), No. 11-12, 1937.)
However, we shouldn’t take the Listok’s words at face value, either: as it soon (in No. 9) became known, there was a conflict of interest, since the magazine’s editorial board included both Levenfish and Romanovsky. In this context, the remark about “Levenfish, who played better than everyone else” look kind of improper…
I’ll finish the introduction of the winner with a quote from a humorous poem about the Olympiad, written by a Moscow chess player Boris Grigoriev, well-known in his time. The poem is certainly not a masterpiece, but Alekhine’s image is so different from the generally accepted one (“even though he doesn’t create his own plan…”) that this alone redeems all technical flaws. As the years go by, accounts about people written before they became famous geniuses and everyone started writing about them with reverence, become increasingly valuable.
Alekhine is our grandmaster.
Want to introduce him? What for?
The fame is like glue.
If it sticks to you, you can’t get it off.
He doesn’t need recommendations
From anyone,And the prize – a bundle of money –
He said himself, “I’ll take it!”
So, what’s your opinion
About his creativity?
The general consensus
Is currently this:
Even though he doesn’t create
His own plan,
And only searches for flaws,
You should beware if he finds one…
He drills into your weakness,
He hits you like a hammer!
He’ll beat your pieces into a pulp,
Nobody can survive that!
He is also able
To catch the thread of play
And then think intently
On further developments…
He’s a demon of destruction,
A very dangerous microbe
Of decay and dissolution,
And this is not slander!
His openings are shaky
(The theory is strict!),
But as soon as you make a smallest mistake,
Woe is you!
There is a footnote here: The original rhymed
Let’s begin with the most dramatic game of the entire Olympiad. It was played at the very start, but its result ultimately determined the final standings and brought the master’s title to Peter Romanovsky. Still, years later, he would write, “This accidental victory did not make me happy. I realized that this tournament would be a hard test for me.”
vs Grigory Levenfish
Moscow 1920, round 1
Annotated by G. Levenfish
33…Qxa2. 33…Qd8 34.Qa6! Qg8 35.e5 (35.Qxc6+ Kd8!) 35…Qg4+ 36.Ke4 Qg6+ 37.Kf3 Rxh2 or 37…Qxb1 won as well.
While my opponent thought over his move, I took a walk. Alekhine walked around the hall, too. He looked at my game, and then, walking beside me, said, “Aha, so you’re preparing mate on g2!”
34.e4 Romanovsky clearly saw the rook sacrifice. For instance, 34.Ra3 is met with 34…Rg3+ 35.hxge Qg2+ 36.Kg4 Rd8 37.Bg1 Rh8 38.Rxa7 Rh4# (37.f5 Rg8+ 38.Bg5 Bxg5 39.Qf3 Be3+ would only prolong the struggle). The game move prevents this combination.
Black could win in numerous ways not. The simplest one was 34…Rd8, again threatening Rg3+, or 34…Bh4, or 34…Rxh2, without any fancy stuff. But, hypnotized by Alekhine’s words, I came to the board and immediately sacrificed the rook, without even writing the move down!
34…Rg3+?? 35.hxg3 (35.Kxg3?? Qg2#) 35…Qg2+ 36.Kg4. I didn’t expect this move at all. 36…Rd8 37.Kh7! (That’s why white played 34.e5) 37…Rh8 38.Qxh8+ Bxh8 39.Rxb7 Qe2+ 40 Kh4 Qa6 41 Rb8+ Kc7 42.Bd2. Black resigned.
I was punished for my complacency. Because of this game I finished third in the tournament, while Romanovsky took second place.