New Champions Check Russia’s Hegemony in Chess
Now India and Norway have powerhouse players, and in the United States, St. Louis is turning into a hotbed.
By YASSER SEIRAWAN
April 27, 2014 6:46 p.m. ET
While he has taken over Crimea with relative ease, Vladimir Putin is presiding over the loss of an asset no doubt far dearer to the Russian people: hegemony in chess. To see the evidence, drop by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis any Sunday afternoon—if you can squeeze in, that is.
For the better part of the 20th century, the Soviet Union dominated chess. Viewing superiority in the game as proof of the superiority of their communist system, the Soviets invested prodigious sums in chess academies, camps and archives. They made prowess in the centuries-old board game far more lucrative than anything a mere medical doctor, for example, could earn.
Between 1948 and 2007, nine different undisputed world champions reigned over the game, eight from Russia or the Soviet bloc. The exception was the American Bobby Fischer, whose astonishing ascendancy to the championship in 1972 sent shock waves through the U.S.S.R. But Fischer relinquished the crown after three years, and the Russians resumed their run.
In 2007, however, the chess crown was grabbed by an Indian, Viswanathan Anand. He held it for six years until he was unseated by Norwegian Magnus Carlsen.
India and Norway: two countries well outside the Russian orbit, whose prospects for producing world chess champions would long have seemed akin to Mongolia’s producing the Most Valuable Player in baseball. What in the world has happened?
Computers, in a word. Both men are unquestionably geniuses, and both had access to good teachers, but Mr. Anand had traveled to Europe as a teenager and been exposed to ChessBase, one of the game’s leading databases, by a German friend who co-founded it in 1986. ChessBase gives its users access to thousands of games, historical and modern, enabling them to hone their skills and analyze opponents’ tendencies. Mr. Carlsen, who was born in 1990, the year the Internet as we know it began to take shape, has been able to hone his skills at home by playing online against opponents all over the world—including many outstanding ones.
Mr. Putin can do nothing to put the genie back in the chess bottle that was the Soviet empire. When that empire collapsed in 1989, the intelligentsia of Russia and its satellites began to disperse to Western Europe, Israel and the U.S. Now these people have fanned chess enthusiasm in cities ranging from New York to Brussels, London to Tel Aviv, Istanbul to Sydney, and Hamburg to St. Louis.
The most prominent expatriate is Garry Kasparov, the former world champion and foe of Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism. The Kasparov Chess Foundation he founded now does in the U.S. and abroad what the Russians do at home: It grooms tomorrow’s champions by offering scholastic chess initiatives and handpicking the best and brightest pupils for personalized instruction.
Another émigré who has made a major mark in the U.S. is Susan Polgar, a member of the Hungarian family of famous chess stars, including sisters Judith and Sofia. Ms. Polgar has jump-started the game at the collegiate level by building championship teams through generous scholarships she has persuaded universities to give to players from around the globe. Her success, first at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and now in St. Louis at Webster University, has stirred excitement about chess on campuses across the nation.
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