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Chess Takes World

By Matthew Hennessey | February 21, 2008

Facing off against Ivana Furtado in Goa.
Photo by Eustaquio Santimano (CC).

When people think of chess, they usually think of Russia. But chess excellence has now gone global: The current World Champion is from India, and the current World Junior Champion is an Egyptian. Since 1991, Russian players and teachers have fanned out in a chess diaspora, gradually affecting how, and where, the game is played.

For all but three years between 1948 and 2000, Russian players laid exclusive claim to the title of World Chess Champion. The lone exception came in 1972 when the American maverick Bobby Fischer, who died last month in Iceland at the age of 64, wrested the title from Russian Boris Spassky. While his victory would become a defining cultural moment of the Cold War, Fischer's tenure at the top was merely an interlude. He relinquished the title in 1975 to Anatoly Karpov, and Russians held the top spot for the remainder of the century.

That winning streak was no accident. To the Soviets, chess was political.

"The Soviets set out to dominate world chess," said New York–based chess teacher and historian Christopher Maksymowicz in an interview with Policy Innovations. "It was a decree from Joseph Stalin. It was an expression of the superiority of the Soviet Union over the West, over capitalism."

Chess training academies were lavishly funded in the Soviet Union, and promising players were groomed from a young age. The resources of the Soviet state were mobilized in support of champions like Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, and Garry Kasparov. "If you were any good as a chess player, you didn't live like an average Soviet," said Maksymowicz.

The end of the Cold War had a withering effect on Russia's state-sponsored chess dominance. During the 1990s, funding for the chess academies dried up; many closed.

"The political changes in Russia have had a wide impact [on chess]. A lot of that talent and expertise has been diffused across the globe in recent years," according to Bill Hall, Executive Director of the U.S. Chess Federation. "They didn't used to produce big names in places like Africa and India. But there is a real opportunity now to play and to learn."

Current World Champion Viswanathan Anand, a native of India, succeeded Russian Alexander Khalifman in 2000. He surrendered the top spot shortly thereafter, only to win it back from Russian Vladimir Kramnik in 2007. Another Indian player, Krishnan Sasikiran, is currently ranked 39th by the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

"By non-Russian standards, India is pretty good," Anand told the Financial Times in January.

Thanks to Anand, India may have a future in chess. Arvind Aaron of the All India Chess Federation recently told Policy Innovations that prior to Anand's win at the December 2000 World Championships in Tehran, Iran, chess was "non-noticeable" on the Indian sporting scene. "In the summer of 2001 all chess academies and age group chess tournament organizers had huge responses from Indians," said Aaron. "This was due to Anand's win." In the months after Anand's victory, Indian chess academies found themselves turning away young students for lack of space.

In 2007, 19-year-old Ahmed Adly of Egypt became the first African player to win a major chess title when he became World Junior Champion. "Chess isn't very popular in Egypt. My duty as champion is to help my society, and help them understand how good chess is," Adly told ChessBase News. "My dream is that I will be able to popularize chess in Egypt."

In recent years, China has produced some of the most promising young chess players. Wang Yue, the top-ranked Chinese player, became a Grandmaster at the age of 17. Now 21, he is ranked 25th in the world by FIDE. The rise of another young player, 19-year-old Wang Hao, has been particularly rapid. He bypassed the ranking of international master entirely, going straight from master to Grandmaster. Hao is now the third-ranked junior player in the world.

Like the Soviets, the Chinese have adopted a decidedly political approach to developing chess talent. The Chinese often sponsor tournaments, including travel stipends for Russian grandmasters and lucrative prize purses, simply to afford young players the opportunity for international experience.

Chess is undergoing a globalization of sorts, but Russia is still the figurative, if not the literal, center of the chess world. Eight of the top 10 players in FIDE's world rankings are from Russia or former Soviet states. The vast majority of the top 100 players have Russian names, if not Russian citizenship. Gata Kamsky, the top-ranked U.S. chess player, is a native of Siberia. The Spanish Grandmaster Alexei Shirov, ranked 7th in the world according to FIDE, was born in Soviet-era Latvia.

"Let us not forget that Russians are still dominating chess," said Aaron.

The migration of top Russian players during the 1990s and early 2000s coincided with another landscape-changing development in the chess world: powerful chess software for use on home computers. So-called "chess engines" with fanciful names like Fritz and Rybka allow users to rehearse difficult openings, analyze complex positions, and consider strategic options at lightning speed. Some expect the impact of these programs to equal if not exceed that of the new Russian chess diaspora.

"The databases have had a huge effect. You can learn new openings and analyze your games afterwards. The [program] will actually point out your mistakes." said Hall. "This technology is available to everyone. It levels the playing field."

"That's why you have 12-year-old Grandmasters now. Bobby Fischer did it at age 15, which was stunning. But he did it reading old Soviet magazines," said Maksymowicz. "Fritz is to chess what NASCAR was to foot racing."

Soon, it seems, when people think of chess, they'll think of India or China before Russia. Then again, maybe they'll think of Fritz.


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