How the game of chess became so popular in Russia

11 world champions consider our country as their home! Although it is an interesting question – how did the game of chess come to be so popular?

Chess figure names have Persian and Arabic roots. A popular myth about chess coming to Russia during the Mongol occupation was ruined after Archaeologists found a confirmation of chess existing on our land way before – unique chess made in Novgorod during 14th century.

Historical facts say that the Royal Family was always into chess – Peter l had a set of chess carried with him while on any campaign, moreover, he was always followed by his chess opponents, so he had someone to play with all the time. Empress Catherine the Second was fond of chess – Earl Stroganoff made a human chess game between the Empress and Gustav lV, the Kings of Sweden. There is a story which says, that Ivan Grozny died while Konstantin Makovsky was illustrating him playing chess. Although the picture is lost and it is a legend now. 

Such a famous Russian intelligent as Pushkin liked playing chess a lot, and “The game of chess, put in a systematic order”, the book  written by A. Petrov – arguably the best player of that period – was found in Alexander’s personal library, as well as “Le Palamede” – the first chess dedicated journal in the world (published in 1836 in Paris).

Chess players who lived in Moscow started off their circle in various cafes, where they usually gathered. However, only 12 years later a site for the rematch between Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker for the World`s Championship was given exactly by Moscow and its chess community. English travelling writer William Cox contributed a considerable part of his works to describing Russia’s growing popularity of chess. He said: “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”

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Another important person to highlight the game of chess in Russia was Mikhail Chigorin – the best Russian player of the end of 19th – beginning of 20th centuries time frames. He was close to becoming the champion of the world, as Wilhelm Steinitz, the champion at the time, took his challenge. Unfortunately, both: the first game and the re-match Chigorin lost, though had an incredible chance to win. Having an advantage in his 23rd game he made a careless mistake and had to give up. 

The USSR had the game of chess as a part of the military preparation since 1920. The fact above stimulated establishing of the Central Chess Club, and shortly Moscow held the first national chess Olympiad, which was won by Aleksandr Alekhin, a person who became a world champion soon as well.

Next chess event held in Moscow in 1925 made literally everyone into a fan of the game: it was the first international chess tournament where well-known players, for instance Capablanca, Lasker, Tartakower ect, competed. Every game was watched by tons of fans and just fellow spectators, even new “chess fashion” appeared – ties à la Capablanca and checked ornaments could be seen all over the place. First place on this tournament was taken by Bogolubov from USSR. Moreover, the second international championship was won by MIkhail Botvinnik in 1935. Two first places taken by Soviet players made even bigger resonance of the events.

 The game had its touch on Soviet cinematography, after Famous Soviet film director Pudovkin made a movie called “Chess Fever”. He even managed to get Capablanca as an actor in it!

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World War 2 never stopped enthusiasts from the game. Chess competitions were held in Moscow all the time, as well as the time when the Battle of Moscow took place. So-called “hospital tournaments” were organized to help and support the wounded.

1956 was a huge year for Moscow’s chess community: FIDE Congress and Chess Olympiad took place in the city, and then a Central Chess Club of the USSR was established on Gogolevsky Boulevard. The club has been a home for a great number of great players. Locals still love it and organize various tournaments, so you can still see players in game.

The club became home not only for some players but for the Chess Museum, which was officially established in 1980. First exhibitions were either a part of the collection of Vyacheslav Dombrovsky or the awards of Soviet and Russian chess players. The museum was growing by adding multiple trophies, books and things related to the history of chess.

Nowadays it grew into the number of 4000 items. Unique pieces, like ancient sandalwood, silver or crystal chess boards or depicts of such eminent people playing chess as: Voltaire, Rousseau, Emperor Peter I, Lermontov, Pushkin and so on. Also some breathtaking pieces are shown to visitors: chess from GULAG, which were made from wire, from the Siege of Leningrad, ect. – items that make you think of how much did the game mean to people. Another example is a poster drawn back in 1942 during the World War 2. A simple placard announces an upcoming tournament, while the Battle of Crimea had been just lost and the Battle of Stalingrad was around the corner.

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Visitors nearly dive in history and their imagination when they see rare exhibitions like chess pieces made from mother of pearl, or some chess made of malachite and jasper deep in Ural Mountains.

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