Moscow Patzer: Ideology and the Art of Chess ProblemsApr 18, 2003
The Moscow Times
By Carl Schreck
Patzer n. [Slang] an amateur or inferior chess player
It's difficult to imagine an activity more benign and self-contained than composing chess problems. What harm, after all, could come from creating a position on the chessboard that requires the observer to find the correct move?
But chess and politics went hand in hand in the Soviet Union, and even chess composition -- which former Soviet world champion Vassily Smyslov calls the "true poetry of chess" -- took on an ideological character.
In the early 1920s, Alexander Herbstman, a chief chess kompositor, or problemist, divided composers into three groups: realists, romantics and abstractionists.
According to former Soviet grandmaster Yury Averbach, realists were those who composed positions that closely resembled positions from actual games. Romantics attempted to execute unusual ideas, but still adhered to realistic positions, while abstractionists were concerned only with unusual ideas and felt no need to limit their art to practical positions.
When realism started to become the only acceptable form of Soviet art, abstractionist chess composers began to suffer.
"Things like chess composition, which were so far from anything relating to everyday life, started to become the center of political discussion," Averbakh says.
In 1936, the magazine Chess in the USSR ran an article written by former world champion Mikhail Botvinik and the journal's editor Lev Spokoiny called "Confusion in Composition." The article asserted that "the basis of chess is practical play" and that there should be a "merciless" fight against abstract composition, comparable to the Soviet crusade against such forms of art.
Several problemists were victims of persecution, "but not necessarily because of their composing activities," Averbach says. One of the most well-known cases was that of problemist Lazar Salkind, who was tried and sentenced to eight years in a gulag for having been a Menshevik.
But there were also consequences for ideologically unsound problemists directly related to composition.
In the late 1930s, problemists Rostislav Alexandrov and Alexander Rotinyan were expelled from the Soviet chess federation because their compositions were published in fascist Germany in the chess journal Die Schwalbe. After that, all chess problems sent to be published abroad had to be approved by the proper chess authorities.
Problemists in Russia have it easier these days, and problemist groups meet in chess clubs all over the country to discuss, solve and refute their latest masterpieces.
I stumbled upon such a meeting at the Central Chess Club on Gogolevsky Bulvar late last year. To the untrained eye, it's a rather perplexing scene: pensioners, with a smattering of younger fellows, quickly shuffling around on the parquet from table to table, jotting down notes, yelling over one another, and gesticulating aggressively. It's as if striking traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange had been replaced by scrubs drawn from a Communist Party rally.
I stopped by again last Monday to see what was going on with the group, but only a few people had shown up and were waiting around nervously or playing games to pass the time. Some of the older gentlemen were munching on hot dogs out of plastic bags and slurping bottled beer. One clearly inebriated man bounced around like a pinball from person to person trying to goad someone into drinking with him "to Kasparov!" Garry Kimovich celebrated his 40th birthday last week.
The group director, and head of the Russian Chess Federation's commission on composition, Yakov Vladimirov, was out of town. I called him when he returned, and he assured me that the group would be going strong again as of next week, with meetings every Monday at 6 p.m.
Vladimirov is a 14-time world champion in chess composition and has won 14 Soviet and Russian national titles. I asked him if he would show me one of his compositions, and he suggested the following, which he composed 40 years ago.
White to move, mate in three.