Chess talents of the soviet union (1): The rise of a superpower

The Soviet Union was a superpower in chess. From 1948, when the Soviet grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik became the World Champion, to its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union enjoyed hegemony in chess all the time, except for the three years when the World Champion title was in the hand of the American genius Bobby Fischer.

Though it is undeniable that in terms of politics and military, the Soviet Union was powerful enough to combat the United States, many people in the Soviet Union lived in poverty, especially compared to the contemporary United States, where there was an economic boom after the Second World War. However, while a large number of prominent players emerged in the Soviet Union, chess in the United States had not been so prosperous.


What factors contributed to the success of Soviet chess? One crucial factor is that the Soviet government began to take chess seriously. The government granted outstanding chess players, especially World Champions, abundant prize and privilege in the society, which motivated more people, especially the poor, to invest in chess. Plus, the Soviet Union had a centralized political system, which means that the country could gather all its best resources and devote itself to cultivate World Chess Champions. This was something some democratic and wealthy countries such as the United States could not manage to do. Political parties would argue for whether the country should invest in chess or other business, and wealthy people would not play chess for money.

Soviet power

But, in fact, the Soviet Union did not make any remarkable achievements in chess until the end of the Second World War. Though the 4th World Champion Alexander Alekhine was a Russian, he fled from the Soviet Union and settled in France long before he became the World Champion, and thus he should not be counted as a World Champion produced by the Soviet Union. Obviously, in the 1920s, the newly established Soviet Union suffered from political turmoil. Civil wars, great famines, and even genocide under the reign of Josef Stalin were commonplace. It was apparent that hungry and homeless people had no leisure to play chess, not to mention looking for trainers and participating in tournaments. But things changed after the Second World War. The political situation within the Soviet Union became more stable. Although there were strong tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, and wars between the two superpowers constantly broke out in many third world countries, most Soviet citizens were hardly affected and lived relatively peaceful lives.

1930s Great Famine in Ukraine

Plus, it is undeniable that Jewish Soviet chess players began to appear on the stage after the Second World War. More than half of the Soviet World Champions are Jewish people, including Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, and Kasparov. Before the war, during the reign of Stalin, the Jewish people were considered as inferior and were constantly under political attack, as a lot of other minority ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. But after the death of Stalin, such racism no longer existed. Without the threat of political criticism and racial prejudice, talented Jewish players could finally distinguish themselves.

Jewish Soviet World Champion Botvinnik

Another reason for the prosperity of Soviet chess is the establishment of Soviet chess school, initiated by the 5th World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Botvinnik made chess a formal curriculum in schools, and assigned his pupils homework which reflected his own playing styles. He developed systematic training approaches, including studying a relatively narrow repertoire of openings thoroughly, analyzing one’s own games, those of great players and those of opponents, and discovering one’s strengths and weaknesses, with an emphasis on preparation, research and innovation. Most of these approaches were innovative at that time. Botvinnik contributed a lot to the cultivation of many great players such as Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik, and was honored as the father of the Soviet chess.


Kramnik, V. (2005). “Kramnik Interview: From Steinitz to Kasparov”. Vladimir Kramnik.

Russell, H.W. “Interview with Garry Kasparov – Part 1”



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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