Book Review: Soviet Chess 1917 – 1991 by Andrew Soltis

Soviet Chess 1917 – 1991 by Andrew Soltis, 2000, McFarland and Company

Soltis is notorious for writing the worst researched books in history. This has so many factual errors it is worthless. It is very poorly written and abounds with inane comments such as “The tragedy of Spassky’s brief reign was that it came just as Bobby Fischer returned to chess.”

There is no tragedy involved when Spassky or any other champion lost his title. It bothered Spassky so much that he won the 1974 USSR Championship (that’s sarcasm). Fischer did not play after 1972 and there was nothing to prevent Spassky from becoming world champion again, had he been good enough.

“The Soviets lost 1-3 to the Americans and finished second, before an embarrassed crowd in Leningrad.” Typical gratuitous insult by Soltis. Why make a derogatory comment? Why should the spectators be embarrassed?

There’s nothing more dull and worthless than “war stories” and Soltis fills this book with such junk. Who needs a blow-by-blow account of how each Soviet died during the war? One is enough. What good is it to relate death and starvation, ad nauseum? That is NOT Soviet chess, that is NON-CHESS.

This book is filled with useless trivia: “The Swedish chess union invited a team from Leningrad to play a double-round 12 board match in Stockholm in the fall of 1926, but two or three days before the match Rokhlin was told that no passports would be available without special instructions from Moscow.”

So he got the permits and they played. Who cares how they got there? Multiply that by one hundred and you see that there is a lot of wasted ink.

Soltis: “The Soviets created an excellent training program for young players but this system arose in the final years of the USSR.”

That is an atrocious mistake. Many years earlier boys who showed aptitude for chess were sent to special schools and received instruction from chess masters.

Soltis writes: “Abraham Yanofsky”, but there is no such person. Daniel Yanofsky was a grandmaster and his second name is Abraham.

After 1 PK4 PK4; 2 NKB3 NQB3; 3 BN5 PQR3; 4 BxN QPxB; 5 NB3 BQB4, Soltis says: “White can play 6 NxP favorably”, but what if 6 … BxPch?

“Bibliography” lists only three books by Botvinnik, but he wrote several others which were translated into English. This is important because in there are Botvinnik’s claims that he unethically tried to have Paul Keres barred from playing chess. Botvinnik said he wrote to the Soviet Chess Federation and said: “The next World Chess Champion should be a Soviet, like me, and not an Estonian, like Paul Keres.” And this was after Keres had won the tournament of AVRO 1938 (where Botvinnik finished third) to become the official challenger to World Champion Alexander Alekhin. Botvinnik prevented Keres from playing in the tournament of Groningen 1946 because if Keres had won, which is likely, it would have been almost impossible to stop him from becoming world champion. It wasn’t until 1955 that Keres was permitted to play in a tournament outside of Russian control.

In 1933 Botvinnik played a 12 game match with Salo Flohr, then one of the best players in the world. Flohr won games one and six and then surprisingly lost games nine and ten. After game eleven was a draw Botvinnik said: “Flohr came to my room the day before the last game and proposed a draw.” Soltis did NOT relate that story. Several persons said Flohr was bribed to let Botvinnik tie the match. Bronstein’s version: “Goldberg helped Flohr find a shop where he could buy a beautiful fur coat very cheaply.”

Very poor writer: “In late 1918 Alexander Fyorodovich Ilyin-Genevsky was 24 years old …”; instead of: “Alexander Ilyin, born November 28, 1894 in St. Petersburg, lived in Geneva, Switzerland for many years and adopted the name Ilyin-Genevsky.”

Ilyin-Genevsky defeated Capablanca in the tournament of Moscow 1925. Soltis: “Capablanca got a bit of revenge by winning an exhibition game from Ilyin in 1936.” Only an imbecile would think that winning a simultaneous game is “revenge”.

Grigory Levenfish tied for first in the 1935 USSR Championship, and won in 1937. Botvinnik had not played in either event, so he appealed to the Soviet Chess Federation, which ordered Levenfish to play a match with him.

Soltis: “The player that wins six games wins the match,” but “the match ended in a draw, 5 wins each and 8 draws, when Levenfish won the last game.” STOP! That is NOT “six wins”. WHY did they stop? Soltis doesn’t say.

Botvinnik acted unethically and asked the Soviet Chess Federation to let him play in the tournament of AVRO 1938, instead of Levenfish, who had been invited and deserved to play because he was the Chess Champion of the USSR.

Botvinnik tried the same “trick” after the 1940 USSR Championship where he tied for fifth with Boleslavsky, behind Bondarevsky, Lilienthal, Smyslov and Keres. The Soviet Chess Federation then ordered the infamous “Absolute Championship of the USSR” in 1941, which Botvinnik won.

On Friday, November 20, 1925, a simultaneous exhibition was played where Capablanca lost to Botvinnik. Several anecdotes have been published: “Capablanca said – ‘That boy will become a Master’ or ‘That boy will become World Champion.” The LEAST credible is Botvinnik’s version: “Capablanca was very angry and threw the pieces off the board.” That is a LIE and is typical of how Botvinnik, his entire life, tried to demean other masters by telling the most outrageous lies. Capablanca had been playing simultaneous exhibitions since 1908 and by all accounts was a gentleman. He certainly NEVER attached any importance to a simultaneous game.

Boris Verlinsky, a deaf mute who won a tournament game from Capablanca, became the first grandmaster of chess of the USSR, but his title was erased several years later so that Botvinnik could officially become the first grandmaster of chess of the USSR.

When the USSR was preparing to send a team for the first time to the FIDE Team Tournament the leading players voted to send Keres, Smyslov, Geller, Boleslavsky, Bronstein and Kotov. Soltis’s account of how this happened is woefully inadequate and incompetent. He does NOT say there was a training tournament first where Botvinnik performed poorly and some players (Kotov and others who hated Botvinnik) went to the Soviet Chess Federation and suggested that Botvinnik should not be on the team. Botvinnik was irate and humiliated because, as he said, the training tournament was not serious chess, it was supposed to be a mental exercise where the players were not concerned with winning or losing. The team of Botvinnik, Keres, Smyslov, Geller, Bronstein and Boleslavsky would have been much better than the one that played, where Kotov replaced Botvinnik. Keres scored only 6-1/2 – 5-1/2 on board one, by far his worst result in many FIDE Team Tournaments, and Kotov played only three games, scoring 2 – 1, but the team very easily won first prize, ahead of Argentina, Yugoslavia and 22 other teams.

In the 1952 USSR Championship the rule was that players could not agree to a draw until 30 moves had been played. Botvinnik said he tried to cheat by offering a draw to Taimanov at move 22 and they agreed to continue until move 30. Surprisingly, according to Botvinnik, move 30 came and went and Taimanov continued playing and eventually won the game.

How sad it is when a liar, cheat and swindler like Botvinnik finds he cannot trust someone! They tied for first but Botvinnik won the play-off match 3-1/2 – 2-1/2.

With all the thousands of great games he could use, instead Soltis prints worthless practice games between Botvinnik and Ragozin.

Soltis is wrong in saying that Fischer had the best result at the FIDE Team Tournament, Havana 1966. He scored 88.2% while Petrosian had 88.5%.

Soltis is ridiculous when he calls chess “murderous” and “brutal”.

After Fischer defeated Taimanov and Larsen in Candidates Matches by 6 – 0 each, he was supposed to meet the winner of a match between Petrosian and Korchnoi. Soltis does not say the Soviet Chess Federation asked them if they could defeat Fischer. Korchnoi said no one could defeat Fischer, but Petrosian said he thought he could win, so Korchnoi was ordered to let Petrosian win their match.

After Fischer defeated Spassky in the 1972 match, Baturinsky said that a Soviet official named Schlelokov said: “How could Spassky have lost to an American? If I had my way everyone who was with Spassky in Reykjavik should be shot!” Soltis omits the punch line: “I WASN’T THERE!”

Copyright © 2006 James Schroeder, Vancouver, WA

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