About Chess

I’ve finally finished watching the Netflix series called The Queen’s Gambit. I loved the fifties and sixties sets . . . all that wallpaper and the turquoise. And the clothes!  Then there was the sad, dark underside. I don't want to give away anything. I want to focus on the chess! Yes.

My dad was a serious chess player. He’d have his Sunday-afternoon chess friends come over and they would sit in a silent bubble for hours. My brother and our friends learned to carefully tiptoe around the sanctity of the game. 

Curiously, Dad’s chess mates were also former POWs. As a kid, I paid little attention to Dad’s war stories . . . that was my brother’s territory. Talk about airplanes and uniforms would make my eyes roll. In any case, my dad was not one to dwell on the past . . . but I did know that chess helped Dad survive his almost five-year-long sentence in a coal mine outside of Moscow. The camp commander saw in my dad a worthy chess opponent and I’m rather sad that Dad never saw me that way. I played Chinese checkers, instead. Much simpler.  Go here to look at some great images of gulag-made chess pieces. 

Anyway, now I’m curious about the role of chess in the Soviet Union and in the gulags. After a quick surf on the web, I’ve found some books to add to my ‘to read’ list.  Stefan Zweig, wrote The Royal Game a novel about chess and madness. Nabokov wrote The Luzhin Defence. 

from Wikipedia
S. Zweig

Natan Sharansky survived more than a hundred KGB interrogations using imaginary chess moves. Like other gulag survivors, living in the mind was one way to escape the brutalities of the physical reality. Other chess-playing prisoners somehow managed to carve chess figures out of wood.

So why was chess so popular in the Soviet Union? 

Fact: Marx played chess before there was a USSR and then after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Lenin loved and encouraged the game.

Fact: Chess was used as a tool to enlighten the proletariat masses. Chess schools instead of bingo halls. Chess was considered an athletic sport. 

Fact: Chess could demonstrate to the rest of the world how cultured and advanced the Soviets were. The Soviets were determined to prove that communism was best.

Russia continues with the Soviet chess obsession. It’s cheap and portable . . . doesn’t require an internet connection, or electricity. Just the rules, a board, some wooden figures (or made of anything, really, even breadcrumbs if you're in the gulag) and a teacher. 

I’m disappointed that I never got to learn. Turns out only 15% of elite chess players are women. Huh? I was being trained to fold laundry and vacuum when I was a girl. 

My kids had chess lessons in elementary school and it's too bad my dad never got to play with them. Teaching chess moves is akin to teaching life skills and I could have used some of those lessons while growing up. Instead I had to learn things the hard way. And some moves, I’m still trying to figure out. 

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