Chess Journalists of America

The following article was published in The Chess Journalist, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Consecutive No. 100, June 2001 (Editor: John Hillery). One-time only publication rights have been obtained from the contributor. All other rights are hereby assigned to the author. Articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the CJA, its offices or members. Copyright 2001 by the Chess Journalists of America.

Kings and Pawns in Soviet Russia

by Olaf Ulvestad

[[Our thanks to Russell Miller for providing this article from the Washington Chess Letter. The first installment appeared in the October 1948 issue.]]

July 19, 1946

That was a red-letter day in my life! It was then that the seven top ranking American Chess masters voted me on the team to represent the USA in the coming September ten-man chess-team march with Soviet Russia at Moscow.

The mere thought of this good fortune gave me thrills of anticipation. Aside from the international chess competition, I was to get first-hand glimpses of a country which was at once the subject of considerable criticism. My feelings were naturally heightened when I thought of the barriers which the USSR had raised to foreign visitors. We, moreover, were invited guests. I looked forward eagerly to the trip.

Various preparations followed. There was not time to squander, as we were due in Moscow on September ninth. Special training was a "must." This included practice matches with fellow team mates, careful study of latest developments in chess strategy, and close analytical examination of recorded and published games of Soviet opponents for style, strength, and weaknesses. (The Americans and Soviets had exchanged line-ups; i.e. each man on each team knew who his adversary was to be.) Numerous essential details such as passports, plane and steamer connections and accommodations, luggage and packing also took time and energy.

Late in August the US chess team left by plane from La Guardia Field, bound for Stockholm. The first stop was Gander, Newfoundland, for an hour of "stretching" and refreshment after the cramped, bus-like accommodations of the plane. The next stop was Shannon, Ireland, where we came down with the setting sun to the beautiful green country-side where the River Shannon flows. We had an excellent meal at the airport there and the "stretch" after the long trans-oceanic flight was welcome. There followed some flying over Ireland and England until we reached the North Sea, over which our plane kept a consistent elevation of about 7000 feet. We arrived at Copenhagen after dark, but the experience of flying down into such a beautiful, lighted city at night is unforgettable. The pause at Copenhagen was long enough to find out about the taste of Danish coffee and listen to continental conversation at the airport restaurant. Again we were on our way and a few hours later enjoyed an experience at Stockholm similar to the one we felt when we descended on Copenhagen.

The customs officials at Stockholm were polite, efficient, and brief in their routine duties. Twenty days (going and coming from Moscow) were spent in Sweden; but more of that later. Meanwhile, "On to Moscow!".

The first week in September the American Chess group boarded a Russian ship and sailed to Leningrad by way of Helsinki, Finland. The other passengers were Swedes, Finns and Russians. Incidentally, I learned that Swedes make up a fair percentage of the Finnish population. During the trip to Leningrad we were mainly concerned with the many pleasures of the voyage and with last-minute chess-match preparations. I observed only casually the Russians who played dominoes with such enthusiasm on the sun-warmed decks.

Twenty-four hours were spent in Helsinki. During that time a Finnish Chess delegation entertained us and showed us around the city in private cars. Among other things, we saw the Finnish Houses of Parliament, which are considered some of the most beautiful of the world's public buildings.

We sailed into the war-scarred harbor of Kronstadt (the naval base which leads to Leningrad) on the morning of the fourth day from Stockholm; we docked at Leningrad before noon on the same day. The Soviet immigration officials came aboard shortly and started a thorough "screenings" of all passengers except out party. Evidently special arrangements had been made to expedite our entry. Oral and written examination of the other passengers was lengthy, apparently routine, and seemingly unnecessary. The incoming Russians appeared to take all this as a matter of course. Their faces in the long and lasting queues were almost expressionless, despite the tedious interrogations and form-filling.

Our baggage was off in mid-afternoon. We waited to step into a bleak dock on a dreary, rainy day. Awaiting us on the dock was a group of Russian interpreters and others assigned to our party. They had an old bus for us and two army type trucks for our baggage.

Leningrad is beautifully laid out on a river. While coming into the city I noticed the lack of war-damage repair, as well as the signs of rebuilding. Building material, especially glass, was scarce, if the boarded and papered apertures, which were formerly windows, were any indication.

We stayed overnight a the finest hotel in Leningrad. This hotel and the Hotel Metropole in Moscow are both of the pre-revolution construction. Shortly after we "checked in" our passports were taken up, with no reason given. Due to the activities of arrival none of us bothered to ask an explanation. Dinner was served that evening on a scale that one sees rarely, even in films. An enormous, long table was used. On it were huge quantities of hors d'oeuvres, several kinds of drinks from "soft" to "hard" (these included wines, champagne, and vodka) and a culinary triumph in the form of a huge salmon, which had been cleaned, baked, skinned and sliced from head to tail, and laid out complete on a enormous platter. (I was later told that there are five different classes or standards of living in the USSR, and that guests of the Soviet Union enjoy "class one", which is the standard enjoyed by Stalin, Molotov, and other top-ranking Soviet leaders).

Our hotel rooms, beds, and conveniences did not begin to match in quality those of first-class American hotels; still, who were we, as guests, to be over-critical; we received the best they had. The night passed in pleasant rest, and the next morning we toured about the historical city. We visited an unusual museum, which is called the museum of the Nazi Siege; it had many interesting exhibits showing graphically the siege and its lifting. The citizens started the museum; we were told, three months before the German armies departed.

About noon another meal was served on the same scale as the one on the preceding evening. I counted twenty-one courses in all --- fourteen courses of hors d' oeuvre and seven main courses! Unfortunately, we were unable to finish that "Olympian" repast; a plane was being readied to take us to Moscow, and there wasn't sufficient time to do justice to such a dinner. We broke off dining when about two-thirds through; our passports were returned to us; we boarded the plane, and headed for Moscow.

While on route I had a remarkable view of the Pripet marshes from thousands of feet up. The land is very backward between Leningrad and Moscow, but there are signs of cultivation here and there.

Most of the Soviet chess masters, along with representatives of "VOKS" (Society for Cultural Advancement) and of the press, were waiting to greet us at the huge Moscow airfield, which is thirty miles from the city. We were given quite a reception with many bouquets of flowers for the wives of American team members and press photographs taken right and left. Chess events of any importance always "make" the front page in the USSR. Chess has become, through government promotion, the favorite Russian pastime.

The outskirts of Moscow were a crazy-quilt patchwork of various types of dwellings; shacks, frame-houses, peasant huts of mud with thatched roofs, and even a cave(!) gave a motley aspect to the landscape through which we passed. Signs of Nazi shelling were still evident a few miles away, but as we entered the street networks, these signs disappeared. The Nazis never came closer than within thirteen miles of Moscow, but they wreaked utter havoc on the outlying towns. War-driven people from outside the metropolis came in droves to be sheltered by its untouched buildings from the chilling Russian winter. Their numbers swelled the four-million pre-war population to nearly eight million. Muscovites are living as many as eight to a room because of the increase; such congestion prevents any semblance of private life in most cases; yet, the congestion does not end there. As many as three families to a single kitchen is a common condition.

The American chess group stayed at the Hotel Metropole, which was reserved for guests of the Soviet Union and where our passports were again taken up.

The hotel was splendor despite its age. Vast suites cover the three lower floors. There are several dining-rooms on the second floor, one of which overlooks the ballroom. My room on the fifth floor was large, fairly well furnished, and had a comfortable bed. The bathroom was adequate in conveniences, but the hot water was unreliable. The plumbing, which was put in ten years ago, was out of date thirty years ago in America. Moreover, as in many old buildings, cock-roaches were numerous; they seemed to love the warm steam-pipes, around and about which they assembled in varying numbers. Soap, disinfectants, and exterminates were evidently scarce in Russia. The maids (they have them) scoured my room with something that left a strong, lingering, and not too pleasant odor. I never did find out what it was.

A morning telephone call to the hotel desk was sufficient to bring a waiter to the room with breakfast. The other two meals each day were served banquet-style in a second-floor dining room. Incidentally, the Russian diet is heavy on pork, fish, and fowl; is light on beef and mutton. Much bread and rice were consumed; potatoes seemed neither plentiful nor popular. Tea is universally popular; coffee is practically non-existent.

Guides and interpreters, assigned to us for nine days in Moscow, were tireless in their efforts to organize us into sight seeing or theater-going groups. They had some difficulty in this respect. We failed to respond to their efforts in two ways. One was to stay in the hotel relaxing, exchanging and discussing impressions and views of the trip, and theorizing on chess; the other was to wander about the city by ourselves.

The first evening three of us decided to walk from the hotel to the Kremlin.

The gleaming red star high above the original walled city of Moscow was plainly visible from every direction; it was an ideal guide. Shortly after leaving we were joined by a breathless in-tourist guide who said he was afraid we might get lost. Before long we reached the wide avenue on which the red armies parade in broad formations past the Kremlin Wall. The wall is about twenty feet high and looks formidable indeed. In its center, facing the parade avenue, is a sort of control tower, which is heavily guarded by soldiers. The tower overlooks the giant tomb of Lenin, just outside the wall. Lenin lies in a large, glass-enclosed case with in. He is preserved by embalming fluid, which gives him the appearance of sleep rather than death. Behind the tomb, near the street-level and in the wall itself, are the graves inscribed with the names of the other prominent Bolsheviks who died in the 1917 October revolution. Among these is the grave of Jack Reed, American newspaperman from Portland, Oregon, who became the propaganda minister for the Bolsheviks. When I consider the work and materials, which went into these final resting-places, it seemed they represented a sort of religious fervor. These graves, along with the portraits, busts, and statues of Lenin which are displayed everywhere together with those of Stalin, seem to indicate a conscious intention of the part of the Soviet leaders to supplant present religious leanings of the Russian people with a "spiritual" concept of the "martyred saints" and living leader of the communist political faith. The seclusion and inaccessibility of Stalin, who lives in a small house (location a secret) in the historic walled city, which has become the governmental core of Russia, add to this impression by creating an atmosphere of mysterious importance.

Part IV Washington Chess Letter Feb 1949

We walked quite a distance down the parade avenue, past a beautiful old Russian church now a Soviet Museum, along with other churches and the Leningrad stock-exchange, to the river which bounds the Kremlin on two sides. The night was clear and moonlit, accentuating the atmosphere of mystery enshrouding the impregnable looking fortress-city.

It wasn't until after the match that we were shown the palaces of the Czars within the Kremlin. I will never forget that experience. Regal splendor was everywhere, in the royal reception hall, the chapel, the living-quarters of the royal family, and in the halls where matters of state under the czarist regime were dealt with. The present Soviet congress convenes in a long hall which was converted from two huge rooms of the palace.

Across a wide square from the hotel Metropole is the Bolshoi theater, which has the largest theater stage in the world, I believe. The stage can hold several times the number of persons the average opera-house stage.

Still another such example is the Building of Trade Unions, in which is a large auditorium called the Hall of Columns. Soviet "absolute" chess championship tournaments were held in this hall, which was also the scene of our 1946 USA-USSR chess team match. Rectangular in shape, the hall takes its name from the two rows of columns, which run its length, one row on each side. Enormous cut-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

At all rounds of the USA-USSR match, the hall of Columns was filled to capacity with 1500 seated spectators and 500 standees. Just outside the doors of the auditorium and of the building were large stands advertising the chess-match. At the rear of the auditorium stage were ten giant chess wall-boards, each measuring about six feet square; five of these rested on the high stands, with the other five on scaffolding directly above. Large movable figurines were in the starting positions on the mammoth boards. At the forepart of the stage were ten tables with regular chess-boards and men set up for the contestants. Signs on each table told the names of the contestants and their respective countries. Tellers were ready to transfer the moves from the players' boards to the wall-boards for the audience to follow.

Meanwhile, an informal meeting of the Russians and Americans took place behind the stage. Top board for the USSR was Michael Botvinnik, who, besides being one of the world's foremost chess masters, is an electrical engineer. He played the American champion, Samuel Reshevsky, who was a boy-prodigy of chess and is now an accountant. Board number two on the Russian and American teams were Paul Keres, Lithuanian master and Reuben Fine, mathematics instructor at USC, respectively.

The Soviet masters enjoy a cultural and professional rating because of their chess ability; this effects their earning power considerably. Money credits, clothes, and housing credits are provided them by government subsidy according to their standings in local, national and international tournaments and matches. American masters, however, receive no such subsidies; their playing strength depends entirely upon individual success in developing their chess skill as best they can while earning their livings.

The reception over, players and officials filed on the stage to the applause of the spectators. The din was terrific; the Soviet audience was very enthusiastic and demonstrative. Movie-cameras clicked and speeches were make for duration of the brief opening ceremonies. The applause to the last speech died down, and the masters took up their seats before a quiet, expectant crowd.

Time-control for all twenty games of the match (two games to each set of opponents) was set at forty moves in two and one-half hours. On each table were special timing-clocks - one for each player. These were arranged with switches and levers in such a way that a player, upon completing his move, could stop his clock and start his opponent's; with this system of time control, a player who fails to make the stipulated number of moves in the allotted time is forfeited. Since each contestant had two and one-half hours the entire session lasted a maximum of five hours. Uncompleted games were adjourned and finished in later sessions.

Part V March 1949

My opponent was David Bronstein, champion of Moscow, third in the All-Russian championships of 1945, and a master of international repute. Twenty-one years of age, prematurely bald, quiet, polite, and reserved - he gave an impression of quiet self-confidence for one so young in chess. His impressive successes undoubtedly had a maturing influence upon him. My surprise was only the greater when he took fifteen minutes in answer to my first move! I decided that if he were using psychology, it couldn't be good. As it developed, his slowness got him into serious time-difficulties later on, and he missed an opportunity for a crushing advantage against me under time pressure. This first game was adjourned twice, was the last of all twenty games finished, lasted 118 moves, and took fourteen and one half-hours playing time. Unfortunately, I made a losing slip on the ninety-eighth move, and had to concede an absolutely hopeless position twenty moves later. (Games in important tournaments are rarely played out to checkmate) ("Cornering of a King"). Bronstein resigned (conceded) our second game after forty moves. The Soviet team won the match with a final score of twelve and one-half to seven and one-half.

After the match we had a few days of relaxation and entertainment. Two formal receptions were given us - one by the American Embassy and one by the Soviet Society for the Cultural Advancement (Voks). One September nineteenth a Russian plane flew us to Stockholm.

The Swedish Chess Federation did much to make our sojourns in Stockholm convenient, interesting, and pleasurable. It arranged two "Speed" tournaments for Swedish masters and American Team members. Time control in these games was set at seven minutes for each player. This means that the player whose clock registers seven minutes first loses unless he has either checkmated his opponent or claimed one of a number of "draws" legally possible in chess. First places in both these tournaments were taken by Samuel Reshevsky.

After two enjoyable sea voyages from Sweden to London, and from Southampton to New York, I arrived in America feeling that I had profited both by my absence and by my return.

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