How the Soviets dominated the world of chess – The Queen’s Gambit

AC, Baile Átha Cliath

In 1989, Alexander Mogilny was the first person to defect from the world’s best Ice Hockey team, HC CSKA Moscow, often called the Red Army, and joined the US’ NHL Buffalo Sabres. While he broke some NHL records on a personal level, his teams failed to live up and he was sold and traded around until retirement. He would return to Russia to consult for his home team in 2005.

It wasn’t until Scotty Bowman, from the appropriately named Detroit Red Wings, accumulated a small team of Russian players, would the coordination, teamwork and planning reveal to American audiences how the USSR dominated nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. Although Bowman, who had coached more wins than anyone in NHL history, admitted he was still was unsure how it worked.


The Russian Five in 1997 after winning the Stanley Cup

‘When they designed their own type of plays, we were surprised ourselves. They played a totally different style. I didn’t really get to learn the system but I just let them do what they wanted to do.’ – Scotty Bowman, Red Army (documentary)

They lead the Detroit Red Wings to back-to-back titles in the late 1990s and are often referred to as the greatest unit to ever skate the NHL.


Soviet Sport

Ice Hockey wasn’t the only area where the USSR’s publicly funded sports programs produced world leading champions. In 6 of the 8 Summer Olympics they competed in, the Soviet Union was at the top of the medal count. Public institutions encouraged sport, health and fitness into the daily lives of the citizens to encourage them to be more well-rounded and productive, including sports as seemingly effeminate or irrelevant as chess. Combine this with the considerable amount of leisure time resulting from a universal eight-hour day and guaranteed time off (an anomaly for the era), a passion for mass activity, excellent facilities available at no cost, public transport and free access to services.


December 2, 1957 Sports Illustrated

According to a journalist from Sports Illustrated, who visited the USSR in 1957:

‘Put it all together and you have a sports and physical fitness boom with an importance in Soviet life which is unparalleled anywhere in the world today… The sports and physical culture organization available to the Soviet citizen is impressive in its scope, its diversity and its efficiency. Sports are free, collective and almost obligatory. The average worker is offered the facilities of the sport of his choice through his union, the parent body of the particular sports club to which, according to his job or his profession, he may belong. International competition, recently encouraged, is on the increase and now provides a new and welcome contact with the outside world. Good athletes live well, eat well and are not too much exposed to political pressures. They can look forward to quite a pleasant life devoted to competition and, later on, to coaching and the developing of more good young athletes.’

Getting into space before the USA was a fairly obvious flex but to claim the USSR’s only reason for cultivating sports was the propaganda of Socialist victory over Capitalist competitors, is short-sighted. There was actually more ideological rationale at the root. Faced with the reality of building socialism in a vast, impoverished collection of states, decimated by western invasion, world war and civil war, the Communist Party believed that sport could be of great utility in improving the health and cultural level of the masses.

‘If you want to be like me- Just train!’ [V. Koretskiy, 1951]

In his 1923 article titled Our Revolution, Lenin wrote:

‘You say that civilization is necessary for the building of socialism. Very good. But why could we not first create such prerequisites of civilization in our country by the expulsion of the landowners and the Russian capitalists, and then start moving toward socialism? Where, in what books, have you read that such […] sequence of events are impermissible or impossible?’

Sports, and chess in particular, became seen as a way of addressing a lacking prerequisite of building socialism in the USSR, and so its state and party forces were put to work.


“A healthy mind requires a healthy body.” – One of the more popular Soviet slogans.


Prioritisation, strategy, decision making, time management, weighing options, making sacrifices, concentration, stamina, developing confidence, learning from mistakes and thinking positively are just a handful of the many lessons which, some claim, can be learned from playing chess. When the game was encouraged as a training tool for military recruits during the Russian Civil War, many party members must have agreed with the listed skills above. The state then establishing schools and tournaments, encouraged it to everyone of all ages, especially those in the party and military. By the time the USSR won the chess world title in ‘48, it was the culmination of a massive cultivated program spanning across almost 40 years, throughout Nazi invasion, and it began a tradition of keeping that title for almost all of the following 40 years.

There’s little doubt that as Karl Marx and Vladimir Il’ich Lenin were also both avid players of the game, to varying degrees of success (Lenin is reported to have been a much stronger competitor, and Marx a far more emotionally volatile one), socialist education is tied into the far reaching success of chess throughout the USSR and abroad.

Originating in India, the source of chess in Russia / Eastern Europe is traced back to trade routes with the Bagdad Caliphate in the 9th and 10th centuries but the later adoption of Christianity resulted in hostilities towards the game and all other ‘pagan’ culture. Archpriest Domostroi (c. 1549), in a chapter titled, “How to Express Gratitude to God while Entertaining Guests,” called chess “the devil’s game”. Given how popular the game was among army generals and tacticians at the time, many historians account for the radical changes and speeding up of chess as mirroring warfare’s rapid development in 14th century Europe. It would make historical sense that the military of the USSR would end up overseeing the sport and giving it a status like never before.


The Queen’s Gabit’s USSR antogonist, played by Marcin Dorociński


Many professional athletes, including those that played Ice Hockey internationally, were required to also be in the army. There was rarely a separation between the two in the USSR and the regimented and organised cooperation, especially in team sports, was evident throughout. In Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, there’s a reference from the US chess champion that the Russians are completely out of their league because they work together, teach and learn from one another. Their teamwork, as opposed to the individualist, competitive nature of their own training, has consistently made them the best in the world. While that’s likely just an offhand remark on the part of one of the fictional show’s writers, it’s rather the understatement.

The importance of collaboration and self-criticism is evident in the Soviet Chess School popularised by Mikhail Botvinnik, who began the USSR’s winning streak in ‘48, as explained by Vladimir Kramnik, who held the title for Russia between 2000-2007:

‘Botvinnik’s example and teaching established the modern approach to preparing for competitive chess: regular but moderate physical exercise; analysing very thoroughly a relatively narrow repertoire of openings; annotating one’s own games, those of past great players and those of competitors; publishing one’s annotations so that others can point out any errors; studying strong opponents to discover their strengths and weaknesses; ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses.’


Botvinnik in 1936 (25 years old)

In the 60’s, Botvinnik, who was also a trained electrical engineer, developed some of the first chess computer engines and wrote several works on the subject. He was later a consultant on Kotok-McCarthy also known as A Chess Playing Program for the IBM 7090 Computer, the first computer program to play chess convincingly. So while we may not have the weather for public games, like the ones still being played in parks across Europe and former USSR states, the soviets had a part in our sneaky mid-work games at our desks or on our phones. I’m sure Botvinnik, who died in 1995, would have enjoyed the irony.



Main source and further reading on Marx & Lenin’s chess skills:

Additional sources:


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