Monday, August 19, 2013

Why are Russians so Good at Chess?

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Monday, 19 August 2013
by GM Daniel Gormally

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Reading through the FIDE rating list (I know what you're thinking, he should get out more) is interesting reading at times (really).

For example I noticed that very few players rated below 2520 (my classical ELO rating is currently 2514) have anything like my rapid and blitz ratings of 2546 and 2571 respectively. Which I like to take as an example that I am underrated. Or that I'm just a speed chess expert?! More on this subject later.

Quite frightening can be reading through the top of the Russian rating list. Basically on my current rating I wouldn't even get in the top 100 in that country. Being over 2700 doesn't even ensure you a place in the top ten!

Why is Russia so strong? This is hardly a new development either, Bobby Fischer was complaining about "those damn Ruskies" before I was even born.

Well I think there are several factors to take into consideration. Firstly chess is in the culture over there. I can't say I'm a great expert on Russian cultural history, but it is obvious that after the Russian Revolution in 1917, chess was been used a promotional tool by the ruling communist elite, as a means to demonstrate Soviet intellectual dominance.

Ever since the early days of Botvinnik, Russia has been pretty dominant in world chess. It's only in recent years that Ukraine have started to challenge that, and while Armenia has cleaned up in the last few Olympiads, they have nothing like the strength in depth of Russia, and it should also be pointed out that both Ukraine and Armenia are former Soviet-bloc countries.

I think it also helps that Russian people tend to be both naturally analytical and creative at the same time, a potent combination for chess. They also have a large population to draw upon, almost 150 million, which dwarfs the population of England for example, but probably can't be used as an explanation, as both China and India have far more people, yet nothing like the amount of strong players (although both are catching up.)

There's also the factor of long and cold Russian winters, poring over a chessboard deep in concentration seems a more natural prospect in that kind of environment, than in a sweltering Miami summer. But that can't be the only reason.

The biggest factor in my eyes is simple- success breeds success. You have a large group of players, you are more likely to develop more strong players, than if you are isolated and don't analyse with anyone.

Most of the top Russian players doubtless live in the big cities like Moscow and St Petersburg. They work together and they work hard. It's a serious profession. You spend time working with strong players you are not certain to get to their level, but you are more likely to do so than if you don't at all.

That's what makes the success of Magnus Carlsen so impressive, coming from a country with very little chess history. There aren't any other players in Norway even approaching his strength. But not only is he an exceptional talent, I'm sure he's also worked with strong foreign trainers from a young age. 

Essentially what I'm saying from this is that it's much easier to reach a high level in Russia than it is in other countries. It's like the analogy of a racing stable. You have good horses working together, eventually they will all start running really fast and start beating horses from other stables, because they will be used to running fast as they do it at home all the time.

If Botvinnik was the archetypal analytical, scientific style of player (in fact he pretty much pioneered this approach)Alexander Morozevich, currently competing in the Chess World Cup, is much more the creative type.

He got through in R2 against another creative and strong player, the Brazilian Leitao. It's always fascinating watching Moro's games and I would expect him to go a long way in this tournament- I would not be surprised at all if he won the whole thing. 

GM Daniel Gormally is open for chess lessons. You can contact him using this e-mail

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