When Chess was More Than a Game
This is the second part of the 2003 interview with legendary David Bronstein (you can read the part I here).
STAKHOV: So where did the art of chess go?
BRONSTEIN: The art apparently existed before Botvinnik introduced the system for preparation in chess in his 1936 article. The Soviet chess school was, after Botvinnik, based on research. What did they research? The opening. They were doing very much what Lobanovsky was doing before his soccer matches. However, in soccer they can change their original plan at any moment while chess players can’t — they are hostages of choice.
STAKHOV: But Botvinnik’s training system brought a certain professionalism and its methods of preparation to Soviet chess. Perhaps we shouldn’t grieve about the past?
BRONSTEIN: True, yet those who are in better health win today. The fact that a 12-year old boy can become a Grandmaster, is there a better proof for my words? He has acquired some minimal knowledge; for example, he knows that if he puts his knight in the center, his opponent will be left with tied hands – the rest is just a matter of habit. Then the newly-born champion, like Ruslan Ponomarev, speaks of Kasparov like, “Who is that guy? Why should I play him. He’s just one of many Grandmasters out there…”
STAKHOV: I suppose that’s because of his youth?
BRONSTEIN: No, it’s a trend.
STAKHOV: Okay, so the knight can’t be pushed away?
BRONSTEIN: How, by a pawn push?! Well, when the knight moves, the pawn is unable go backwards and the opponent’s position will become worse, with newly created weak squares.
STAKHOV: But Ponomarev’s strategy was designed to win!
BRONSTEIN: Yes, but that was uninteresting to the audience! In chess, like in the theater, there should be lively play, not clash of strategies. Actors do not go on stage to do the drill. The audience will chase them out. They should perform a play. Likewise, the chess players should be playing, not going over the same lines over and over again.
In the past, there was something in chess we might call “responsibility.” For example, when they sent me abroad, I was responsible to the State. You were expected to always win the first prize! And I knew nothing about my competition. No computer, no reference materials were available back then.
In 1954 they called me to the Central Committee, I had to go to a tournament in Belgrade and win the first prize. It sounded like an order. “Who is coming along,” I asked. “Petrosian.” Had I hesitated or refused, I would have lost my job. “Okay,” I replied. When we arrived in Belgrade, I read in the papers, “We thought Keres and Kotov would come, but to our disappointment it was Bronstein and Petrosian, although we must remember that the Soviet federation never sends anyone who does not take the first place.” Well, I took the first place. At the time, diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia were broken off. The Russian ambassador planned a reception on my behalf. Before the last round, he called and asked me if I was going to win? “With white pieces? Against Matanovich? I should.” “Okay then, you will inform me how the game finished.” “But I will win.” “No, no, if it is a draw, there will be no reception.” At the reception, our Ambassador asked the Yugoslav Minister of Foreign Affairs, “You haven’t come to see us for a long time!” “We haven’t had an invitation for a long time,” the other replied. After the tournament, Khrushchev did go to visit Tito.
STAKHOV: So you were an unofficial ambassador of the USSR?
BRONSTEIN: In the same way as the American ping-pong team went to China. I witnessed the start of renovations of the Hotel Moscow in downtown Belgrade, its doors and windows nailed with boards before. The tournament marked the change of course in relations between the two countries. The players were not only responsible for playing well – they were also part of the system that stood behind them.
STAKHOV: The chess system?
BRONSTEIN: The political in the first place! “Soviet chess is the best!” In the twenties, it was decided that every library should offer chess and checkers to the public, for people to play for fun and to develop their intelligence. It is true, there was a great chess school in Russia before, the one of Chigorin. But there were no champions. Steinitz suggested the idea of a world chess championship and later Dr. Lasker famously said that chess is played by people, not pieces. Thus chess in the Soviet Union became one of the means of educating people, inexpensive one but serving the purpose.
1. See a story on responsibility from the Stalin era.