Searching for Slavkas: The Tenuous Future of Russian Chess

Article excerpt

Russian chess is in crisis. In August, after the men's national team finished 14th at the European chess championships in Goteborg, Sweden, even the most generous observers agreed that the situation was dire. There was some consolation that the women's team took home the bronze medal, but it was hardly sufficient. The men's gold medal went to undefeated Holland. And, much to the humiliation of Russian chess fans, the Russian team lost its head-to-head match to France 1.5:2.5.

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Why the hand-wringing? Simply because a few decades ago any Soviet team would have beaten the French hands down. And both the Soviet and Russian men's chess teams have only very rarely not come home with a medal, usually the gold. "In 1978, in the heyday of Soviet chess," said renowned chess observer Yury Vasiliev, "when the then young Anatoly Karpov was calling the tune in world chess, the Soviet team unexpectedly lost the Chess Olympiad to the Hungarians. It triggered such a wave of criticism, both within the chess community and among the top levels of the Soviet leadership, that some chess VIP apparatchiks were ready 'to put their party membership card on the table' as they used to say in those days."

Those were the glory days for Russian chess. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev himself made a point to personally award the freshly-baked World Champion Anatoly Karpov with the champion's laurels, saying: "Vzyal koronu, derzhi--nikomu ne otdavay!" ("You took the crown--hold on to it, don't give it up to anyone!")

Not so today. Last year, when Vladimir Kramnik defended his world title against Peter Lekko in a breathtaking match, Russian political VIPs were quite low key. After his win, Kramnik did not even receive the formerly much-publicized congratulatory telegram from the Kremlin. And for good reason: chess is no longer promoted on the state level.

Paradoxically, the Politburo understood the public relations value of chess better than do current leaders. In a public lecture delivered in May at the Moscow literary cafe Bilingua, former world chess champion, and now chairman of the political organization Committee-2008, Garry Kasparov was asked to draw an analogy with chess when evaluating the "type of political leader Vladimir Putin is." "Well," Kasparov replied, "Russia's leader is a judo master. It has no relation to chess, as it is beyond the realm of intellect." Simply put, Russia's current leadership rests its prestige on sheer force rather than on the force of intellect.

If state leaders do not care about chess, chess officials couldn't care less. Last year, when the Russian team did rather poorly at the World Olympiad in Spain (the men's team finished second and the women took third), functionaries tried to put the best face on things, saying that winning medals was a "sufficiently decent" result, because, in terms of total points scored, Russia was far ahead of any other country thanks to the men's silver and women bronze. No one was ready yet to raise the specter of crisis.

But there is no more putting a good face on things. Alexander Bach, executive director of the Russian Chess Federation, admitted that he cannot fathom what happened in Sweden. "We will need to painstakingly examine it all," he said. "For even a third place for the women's team, no matter how young they are, can hardly be considered a success ... For now, all I can say is that we are not talking about some coaching miscalculations or blunder in preparations. You can call it a coaching miscalculation when, say, your team narrowly misses first place. But when you finish 14th--that's a different story altogether."

The soonest opportunity for the Russian team to redeem itself is at the World Chess Championships, starting October 31 in Israel. According to preliminary information, the lineup of the Russian men's team will be much stronger. Grandmasters Alexander Grischuk and Alexander Morozevich, who skipped Goteborg, have agreed to participate. …