Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Averbakh 25: Economists, arbiters and chess.

On pages 232-3 of his memoirs, Averbakh discusses the drawn game Hübner-Rogoff from the World Students Team Olympiad of 1972. The event was hosted by the Austrian city of Graz, which is in the province of Styria. This quick draw is the sort of thing that might attract the adverse attention of the educated reader who doesn't play chess in competitions. In the eyes of such an individual, the result, as described by Averbakh, can seem disappointing. However, chess can be very tiring. In his biography of Wilhem Steinitz, the first world champion, Kurt Landsberger touches on how difficult it was for Steinitz to obtain a good night's sleep during a chess match (i.e. an entire series of games, not just one). At my own, rather modest level, I find I can't sleep much when playing at the London Chess Classic. I stay up at night and watch television (no matter how mindless) until exhaustion guarantees some relief: that is better than retiring to bed at my usual hour. One could surmise that Rogoff, who later became a world class economist, to add to his chess grandmaster title, might also have been exhausted. In such circumstances, a draw offer from Hübner, a world title candidate, would have been very enticing.

When the arbiter refused to accept the first draw, the players had to return to the board. It is this game that Averbakh, rightly, takes exception to. At the bottom of the page is a translator's note giving the score of this splendid game. 

Here it is:
It's a pity that a more conventional drawn game, say twenty moves of a well known line, was not played. Some players can take exception to arbiter interference. But it would not be justified in this instance. More objectionable are some of the changes to the laws of recent years, such as forbidding a player from recording his move before playing it. One can find this approach recommended in Kotov's Think Like A Grandmaster; it's a device designed to avoid blunders. Some arbiters consider this note taking. A few years ago at an Olympiad, and before this law was introduced, an arbiter intervened to stop a player writing his moves first. The player concerned ignored this nonsensical demand, which could only have come from someone who hadn't played a game for decades …

However, my theme is chess and economics. Some months ago, in July, I read the following in the Financial Times:

… strategy was applied to chess in the Soviet Union. From 1937 until the country itself collapsed, and excluding the brief and farcical reign of Bobby Fischer, the world chess champion was a Soviet citizen. Excellence in chess gave prestige and diverted potentially troublesome intellectuals from thinking about other things. For East Germany, even chess was too dangerous: athletics and gymnastics were the favoured activities.

It can be found online at the website of the distinguished economist John Kay. Professor Kay writes a regular column for the paper, one I enjoy reading. In the realm of chess, though, I surmise that he plays casually, if at all.

In 1937, Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine won back his title from Max Euwe, having previously lost it in 1935. Alekhine, of course, having first become world champion in 1927. He was an émigré, one, moreover, who had attended White Guard banquets. And I haven't even discussed his track record during WWII. He may have been Russian, nonetheless, I consider it a stretch to say he was a Soviet citizen from 1937. I speculate that a list of world champions with Russian (sic) names caused this unimportant slip.

The penultimate sentence I have quoted from Professor Kay reflects an attitude that has been expressed before. In a well known letter to CHESS magazine, Fyodor Bohatirchuk wrote:

The declarations of red propagandists about the contribution of chess to the cultural development of the young generation are only a camouflage, under cover of which red propaganda pursues other aims. Soviet leaders are guided by a wise thought of a most reactionary Tsarist minister, Kasso. This minister was the first who permitted students to play chess because, he said, “Chess will divert them from politics”.

Lev Aristidovich Kasso (1865-1914) was the Minister of Education from 1910 until his death in 1914. An arch conservative of Romanian origin (from Bessarabia), he had a judicial background and was a law professor.

By way of contrast, Tsarist Russia witnessed the closure of St. Petersburg Chess Club because of alleged nihilism! This can be found in Adam Ulam's Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Fontana library, ISBN 0 00 631807), it's on page 83.

Playing chess at a high level requires a considerable investment of time; notwithstanding which, I've always doubted that that would keep a player politically inert. Nikolay Vasilyevich Krylenko (touched upon here and here) was genuinely interested in the game, the same was true of Lenin and Trotsky. In the 1920s the Soviets (Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky in particular springs to mind) made great strides to bring education to the masses, of which chess would have been a part. I suggest that chess is far from the ideal choice to stop a population from thinking. Throughout the Soviet period, powerful figures have been genuinely intrigued by the game. The same is true of today's Kremlin.

6 comments:

Bernard Cafferty said...

One could mention Ilyin, the brother of Raskolnikov, who added Geneva to his name. He was influential in urging the place of chess in the literacy campaign, especially amongst the Red Army, in the first years of the Soviet period, before Krylenko took over the leading role.

Simon Spivack said...

There are several excellent links about Raskolnikov (real name Fyodor Fyodorovich Ilyin) available at
http://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/red-army/1918/raskolnikov/ilyin/ . Of particular interest is his Open Letter to Stalin, which can be accessed at http://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/red-army/1918/raskolnikov/ilyin/ch08.htm . On page 484 of Let History Judge (second edition, ISBN 0-29-215362-5), Roy Medvedev quotes extracts from this letter, as well as relating the suspicion that Raskolnikov was murdered on Stalin's orders.

On page 592 of the book, Medvedev tells his readers of a 1939 diary entry written by Raskolnikov:

The fundamental psychological trait of Stalin ... is his unusual superhuman strength of will... "Inasmuch as power is in my hands," he once said to me, "I am a gradualist." ... in deep solitude, he carefully figures out a plan of action and with fine calculation strikes sudden and true. Stalin's strength of will suffocates, destroys the individuality of people ... he demands from his closest aides complete submission, ... He does not like people who have their own opinion, ...

He is poorly educated ... He is not far-sighted ... He does not foresee events ... Like all semi-intellectuals who have picked up scraps of knowledge, Stalin hates the genuine cultured intelligentsia, ... Stalin lacks the flexibility of a man of state ... Scorning people, he considers himself complete master over their life and death. A narrow sectarian, he proceeds from a pre-conceived scheme ... he is unusually tricky ... No one can compete with Stalin in the art of trickery ... he is sneaky, treacherous, and vengeful. "Friendship" is an empty word for him ...


A book that attracted a lot of negative criticism from Soviet historians when it came out is the well-written The 900 Days, the Story of the Siege of Leningrad (ISBN 0-330-02755-7). Some of the stories contained therein are now considered fanciful. Bearing this in mind, of note to chess players is what Harrison Salisbury had to say about the death of Ilyin-Zhenevsky, it's on pages 333-4:

V.M. Gankevich, the officer and former athlete ... was returning to Leningrad ...

... at dusk he overtook another man, a naval lieutenant named Aleksandr Rachenko. ... they joined forces ... When they got to the river station at Staraya Ladoga, they heard a woman crying and in the corner of a waiting room they found the body of a man, covered with a rug. The woman was sobbing beside him. The body was that of Aleksandr Ilyin-Zhenevsky, a leader in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a Party propagandist, a one-time Soviet diplomat and a leading chess player. The woman was his wife. They had been on a barge being towed across the Volkhov River. A German flier dropped a bomb on the craft. Ilyin-Zhenevsky was killed, but the other passengers miraculously escaped.

The two men arranged for the burial of Ilyin-Zhenevsky, and in the morning he was entombed in the Staraya Ladoga cemetery beside the Volkhov River.

Alan OBrien said...

Simon, on page 93 of Centre-stage what is the story behind the creep crepuscular reference to "Sovietsk"?

Alan OBrien said...

Did you also see my comments on g+?

Simon Spivack said...

... on page 93 of Centre-stage what is the story behind the creep crepuscular reference to "Sovietsk"?

Part of the paragraph in question reads:

I was called up for three months' military service outside Leningrad. And I was even lucky, because had I arrived a day earlier, I would have ended up on a ship to the city of Sovietsk.

I briefly discussed this in my post available at http://otiosechessnotes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/averbakh-18-russian-geography.html .

My reading of Averbakh's words is that he was hinting at the remoteness of Sovetsk, on the Baltic coast. The former East Prussia was some distance from the major centres of population inside the former Soviet Union. An important consideration for a player of Averbakh's standing, Additionally, he would have been far from his family and friends.

The Kaliningrad enclave was created by Stalin as part of the post-WWII settlement, it had never previously been part of Russia. It sticks out like a sore thumb in today's geography.

Simon Spivack said...

Did you also see my comments on g+?

No, I presume this is Google plus. I've never joined. I try to cut back on what I do on the Internet.