Soviet Union

Chess: Secret of Soviet chess supremacy
on February 6, 2016 – 12:01 AM
Shelby Lyman

The secret of Soviet chess supremacy was in numbers, particularly of schoolchildren actively engaged in chess groups and competition.

Pioneer Palaces, venues for various hobby and cultural groups, produced such graduates as Boris Spassky, Tigran Petrosian and Vassily Smyslov, each a future world champion.

But these were often facilities for the specially focused and talented.

Overall youth competition was much larger.

By the mid-’80s, White Rook tournaments – held on a national scale – reached as many as a million children in a yearly competition.

The Pioneer Palaces were graveyards for visiting grandmasters who happily, they thought, were giving traditional simultaneous exhibitions to a bunch of kids. But victories did not come easily. To their astonishment they piled loss upon loss.

Robert Wade of England was a typical victim. He suffered 20 defeats without a single victory when he took on a group of young Pioneers.

An exception to this syndrome of grandmaster defeat was America’s Sammy Reshevsky for whom losing was anathema.

In a 1956 simultaneous, he managed a slight plus score by prolonging play as late as midnight. The unfinished games of children taken home by their desperate mothers were counted as wins for the “wily American,” as he was humorously described by the Soviet grandmaster Alexander Kotov.

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