“Playing chess is a creative activity, at least in the sense that the player has to construct or confront many novel positions on the board, although the possibilities for creation are limited by a strict set of rules” (Dennis Holding, The Psychology of Chess Skill)
With the extremely-pervasive celebrity treatment of athletes and physical sports like basketball and football in the US today, it is quite difficult to understand or even to grasp the cultural importance of chess from an American perspective. But in Russia, chess is a national pastime, with a history of state sponsorship and even government leaders and intelligentsia playing themselves.
A game of intellect, skill, and creativity, chess forces its players to remain focused, constantly strategize, and think outside the box – the best chess players are always calculating, trying to stay multiple steps ahead of their opponents. In his psychoanalytic reading of the game, Alexander Cockburn asserts that “[e]xcellence in chess is commonly regarded as the attribute of a powerful mind” (12) and notes how the game is necessarily associated with concepts like freedom, time, and chance (13), which are incredibly appealing to chess players.
Chess in Russia
The Soviet Union/Russian World Chess Championship winning streak went on for so long – 24 years, to be exact – that Edmar Mednis came out in 1978 with his book How to Beat the Russians, a semi-satirical, mostly-serious study of Russian chess champions which sought to pinpoint possible weaknesses in Russian game play. In the text, Mednis comes up with the following 11 “facts” about Russian chess players:
- The Russians, although far from invincible with White, are more likely to lose with Black.
- The Russians lose relatively few games as a direct result of opening errors.
- The choice of an opening system is basically unimportant, though with White closed openings offer somewhat better prospects.
- The chances of beating the Russians in the endgame are slight.
- The primary arena for beating the Russians is the middle-game.
- The Russians are more likely to err in strategic than tactical positions.
- The Russians are much more likely to make errors in defending than in attacking.
- The Russians suffer somewhat from time pressure.
- The surest way to beat the Russians is to play better; by hoping for a lucky break you have little chance of success.
- Psychological factors influenced the results of a moderate number of games.
- The strongest players have the best chance of defeating the Russians. (pp. 1-4)
Though Mednis’ claims may be considered somewhat silly today, chess is undoubtedly a long-standing cultural phenomenon in Russia. Russian chess players were highly trained, with chess courses even included as pre-draft preparations for the military. Christopher Beam suggests that chess embodies Russia’s revolutionary ideals: “It was a game of skill, and the USSR prided itself on its intellectual talents . . . And to Soviet leaders, its back-and-forth dynamic reflected the dialectical concept of history espoused by Marxism.” Unlike in the US, chess can be considered part of Russia’s national identity. Whereas America is represented by celebrity culture and capitalism/love of money and economy, Russia prides itself on intellectual prowess, represented through the game of chess.
Chess in the US
While chess in the US is certainly not as celebrated as in Russia, especially 45 years after Fischer’s championship win, the game holds importance to two particular subcultures in America. After the “Fischer Boom” – the period of time after Bobby Fischer’s rise to fame as World Chess Champion in which chess suddenly became popular and mainstream – the world of scholastic chess grew rapidly. Played by K-12 students, scholastic chess often emphasizes new skills, friendships, and fun, rather than prepping for competitive world tournament games.
A second subculture – known as street chess, its players known as “chess hustlers” – is played, naturally, on the streets and are most popular in New York. Players race against the clock for money; in some versions, players may only have 3-5 minutes to complete their moves.
Street Chess / Chess Hustlers
“The main difference between street chess and regular chess is resourcefulness. The street chess player is a hustler. It’s wildly tactical, you know, tricks, traps, trash talk.” Jonathon Corblah, street chess player
Watch as Norwegian grandmaster and current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen plays some unsuspecting street chess players in New York.
Beam, Christopher. “Red Squares.” Slate, 25 Sept. 2009, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2009/09/red_squares.html.
Cockburn, Alexander. Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death. Village Voice/Simon and Schuster, 1974.
Linn, Nadia. “How Did Chess Become So Popular in Russia?” Visit Russia, 10 Apr. 2017, https://www.visitrussia.org.uk/blog/how-did-chess-become-so-popular-in-russia/.
Mednis, Edmar. How to Beat the Russians. David McKay Company, 1978.
Scott, Steve. “For Love or Money: The World of Chess Hustling.” OnStage Magazine/Goodman Theatre, https://www.goodmantheatre.org/articles/for-love-or-money-the-world-of-chess-hustling1/.