Soviet Chess School – Should We Admire or Pity it?
Bronstein chess interview, Part 3
“After World War II, a generation of Soviet chess players, led by soon-to-be world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, began a string of victories over international competitors that surprised the world,” Wikipedia, on Soviet chess school.
What was the secret of the rise of the Soviet school to the summit of world chess? The State support for the game to have become a national past time, or perhaps “scientific” methods of studying theory and training for competitions devised by the School’s patriarch? see more in the Part 2.
While the famous Soviet chess school raised the game to a new higher “scientific” level, it also killed the game in the words of David Bronstein.
Read what he says about the School’s success after WWII in the next part of the 2003 interview, unknown for the Western readership so far, given to the Russian magazine site Ogonek.com.
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BRONSTEIN: They say that Soviet school of chess is the best, but I don’t think so.
STAKHOV: But it is still true, if you look at results…
BRONSTEIN: Well it all began in 1945 when we played the match with the US. And won it. Do you know how come that we won? We studied the openings. And we didn’t give them the chance to get out of the opening. We beat them on their half of the board. They didn’t get off the ground. The entire opening theory is about not letting Black get off the ground. In contrast, for Black it is all about how to take off the ground.
STAKHOV: The State also contributed with its resources?
BRONSTEIN: The state was helping chess players by providing benefits, like extra food and scholarships which attracted young people.
I learned chess from my Grandfather. In 1937 my father was arrested and given seven years in prison. Somehow I got into chess because of this situation. I played in tournaments at the Kiev Palace of Pioneers. And in 1945 they got me into Dynamo Kiev Chess Club. Probably, for my combinative abilities in chess. Chess doesn’t require any special talent. Good memory and ability to repeat many variations. And that’s all. It’s also true that chess reflects the skill of problem-solving.
I became a Master when I was still in school. Tournament after tournament. They paid me. Not much, but they did pay something. And trips abroad. Ballet dancers, diplomats and chess players were those who traveled abroad. Chess players more often than other athletes. In the 50s, before you go abroad, they would take you to the special section of the GUM (the State Department Store in Soviet times, –mr), and give you 1,500 rubles, which was enough for a suit, white shirt, gabardine raincoat, boots, hat. You would get 500 rubles for playing at chess Olympiads, and for tournaments won, including Hastings, you would get 500 rubles too. And when abroad you had to live up to reputation, to say that you lived in a five-room apartment, while I lived in a public housing. The main thing was to win the first prize.
And how they followed us down! For example, at one of chess Olympiads after I had exchanged a few words with the American grandmaster Reshevsky, Postnikov, the head of delegation, approached me: “You are rubbing shoulders with the Americans?” “Actually I’m distracting him so he wouldn’t give hints to other American players.” Postnikov, “Well then, why are you standing here. Go distracting him!” Such were the characters.
The same Reshevsky wanted to play a match with Botvinnik, but the latter refused. They proposed Smyslov to play, but he refused too. Then they called me and asked, “Can you guarantee the win?” “How can I give any guarantees?” “No, you must sign a paper that you will win.” Reshevsky wanted to come to Moscow to play 12 games, and then another 12 games in the US. The prize money was $6,000. And now some paper with a guarantee! I refused to sign. Then I was summoned to the Central Committee of the Party where they asked me again to sign a paper. “I can’t do that.” “There won’t be a match then.” “Well, how can I give you a guarantee like that? What if I dropped a knight in a game?” “You can’t drop a knight,” they told me, “You are a Soviet citizen. We’d better let Reshevsky drop a piece.” After these words I said, “OK, just give me the paper and I will sign it.” The match didn’t take place because of the 1956 events in Hungary.
STAKHOV: But the respect they always showed you in the West…
BRONSTEIN: In the West they envied us, while I envied them, as they lived in freedom. During tournaments abroad, I would go to a bookstore when I got a chance, reading between the shelves. I couldn’t afford to buy something – if only the comrades could have seen what I was reading. “The Government is supporting you,” they would all tell us in the West. They wanted to practice chess an hour a day and then play Botvinnik, or Keres. Well, the same does not happen.