How Did Chess Become So Popular in Russia?

Photo of the traditional chess board
The traditional chessboard

Russia is home to 11 world chess champions! But how did chess become so popular in our country?

Archaeological finds in Novgorod confirm that chess came to Russia from the Middle East, not during the Mongol invasion of the Rus’. The names of chess pieces have Persian and Arabian roots. Unique chess pieces made by Novgorod masters in the 14th century make unique finds.

Most Russian rulers were fond of chess. There’s a legend that Ivan IV (the Terrible) died while playing chess, as depicted in a painting by Konstantin Makovsky. Unfortunately, this painting has since disappeared. Peter the Great always took a chessboard with him on his campaigns and was always accompanied by those he played against. Catherine II dabbled at chess: in 1796, Earl Stroganoff organized a human chess game between herself and Swedish King Gustav IV.

Photo of Catherine II
Catherine II as a ruler in Russia
Photo of Swedish King Gustav IV
Swedish King Gustav IV

Russian intelligentsia also showed great interest in chess. Pushkin loved to play, and in his library had a book by A. Petrov – one of the best Russian chess players of that time – “The game of chess, put in a systematic order”, with a dedicatory inscription by the author. He also subscribed to “Le Palamede”, the world’s first periodical totally devoted to the game of chess, which was published in 1836 in Paris. The popularity of chess in Russia was highlighted by English traveler William Cox: “The game of chess was so popular in Russia that, during my stay in Moscow, I could hardly find a place where people were not playing chess”. In 19th-century Moscow, chess players usually gathered in cafes and restaurants to play. In 1877, the Moscow Chess Circle was founded. Twenty years later, in 1896-97, Moscow provided the venue for the World Championship rematch between Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker.

Photo of playing chess in Russia
Playing chess in Russia

Mikhail Chigorin played a key role in popularising chess in Russia – he was the best Russian chess player in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. He also initiated the publication of the following chess periodicals: “Chess listok”, “Chess Vestnik” and “Chess”. Chigorin came close to becoming a world champion. Wilhelm Steinitz, the world chess champion at that time, accepted Chigorin’s challenge. In his first match, Chigorin lost 6.5:10.5, although three years later there was another rematch, again in Havana, and Chigorin had a great chance to win, although ultimately this did not happen. Chigorin lost because of a tragic chain of events – in the 23rd game, enjoying a definite winning position, he made a blunder and had to resign.

Photo of Mikhail Chigorin
Mikhail Chigorin

In the Soviet era, from 1920, chess was included in the courses for military pre-draft preparation. This stipulated the foundation of the Central Chess Club. And in the autumn of 1920, Moscow took the first All-Union Chess Olympiad, as the future world chess champion Aleksandr Alekhin won this tournament.

In 1925, the first international chess tournament took place in Moscow, with participation by such stars as Lasker, Capablanca, Tartakover, and many others. This tournament sparked a real chess boom. Lots of spectators every game, new “chess” fashion – ties à la Capablanca and checked ornaments. Famous Soviet film director Pudovkin produced the film “Chess Fever” starring Capablanca. The soviet grandmaster Efim Bogoliubov ended up winning the tournament, Lasker was second, and Capablanca third. The second International Chess Tournament took place in 1935. The winner was the young Mikhail Botvinnik.

Photo of Efim Bogoliubov
Efim Bogoliubov as a prime chess master

During World War II, chess life in the capital never stopped. Even at the very high point of the Battle of Moscow, chess tournaments took place. To support the wounded, a group of chess players organized chess “tournaments” in hospitals.

In 1956, Moscow provided the venue for the FIDE Congress and Chess Olympiad. In the same year, a Central Chess Club of the USSR was opened on Gogolevsky Boulevard, which became home to a number of generations of Moscow chess players. The boulevard itself is still the favorite place for Moscow chess players. In good weather, you can see players thinking over their next move there. From time to time, the boulevard provides the venue for local tournaments.

Nowadays, the Central Chess Club provides the location for the Chess Museum. Its collection was initially based on the collection of St Petersburg collector Vyacheslav Dombrovsky and consisted mainly of chess rarities and things related to chess. Afterwards, the collection was enlarged by the awards of Soviet and Russian chess players, and gifts – books and trophies. Officially, the museum was opened in 1980.

Photo of the Chess Museum
The Chess Museum in St Petersburg includes porcelain chess from the largest porcelain factories and private workshops in Russia and the world, created from the 18th century to the present day

The museum collection includes more than 4000 items. It can be divided into two categories: things related to the history of chess, and trophies won by Soviet and Russian players.

In the museum, visitors can see a great variety of chessboards made from unique materials: sandalwood, crystal, silver, wood, and even birch bark and cardboard. The museum contains unique artifacts such as sculptures and canvases that depict famous people playing chess: French philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire, the first Russian Emperor Peter I, Russian poets Lermontov and Pushkin, and many more. Among the exhibits, 20th-century chessboards made from a wire in the GULAGs and during the Siege of Leningrad strike the imagination.

One poster bewitches – it announces the chess tournament of summer 1942. The poster itself is very simple, but that was a period when Crimea was lost, the Battle of Stalingrad was about to begin, and yet people were still able to organize chess tournaments.

There are literally priceless exhibits in the museum – unique chess pieces made from malachite and jasper from the Ural mountains, pieces made from ivory and mother-of-pearl. When you look at these collections, time stands still…