50 Years of Chess, Year 7 (Part 2)

by admin on October 7, 2020

In the fall of 1978, I joined a group of 35 American students for a semester abroad in Leningrad, Russia. I had been studying the Russian language since my junior year of high school, and chess was one of the main reasons (at first). When I was at Phillips Academy, I wanted to start learning another foreign language because I was bored by French (sorry!), and Russian was the most exotic language they offered. I was very much into chess then, and I thought that learning Russian would enable me to read chess books and magazines that were inaccessible to Americans. That did not really happen: I subscribed to a Russian chess magazine for a few years but never learned anything from it that I couldn’t have learned in Chess Life.

When I got to college, I found a lot of great reasons to continue studying Russian. I liked my teachers at Swarthmore, though they were polar opposites: Tom Bradley, a Marxist with a classic, Lenin-style goatee and a suave, urbane attitude that made him very popular with students; and Yuri (George) Krugovoy, a blustery Russian emigre who had no love for the Soviet government and no particular love either for the American system except for the fact that it was not Communist. What he did have was a deep and abiding love for Russian literature and all of the heavy concepts that literature probed so deeply: good and evil, freedom, duty, conscience. Thanks to him I probably learned nineteenth-century Russian literature better than I learned English literature.

In my freshman year I heard about the Russian Language Program at Leningrad State University, a semester program that a couple other Swarthmore students attended, and that immediately became my ambition — to learn Russian well enough to go to Leningrad in the fall of my senior year. In the fall of 1978 I finally got my opportunity to spend 114 days in Peter the Great’s jewel of a city on the Gulf of Finland, a city that has justly returned to its previous name of St. Petersburg.

Those 114 days changed my life. Here’s the thing about studying abroad: it is a nonstop, 24-hour-a-day learning experience. In school, you learn bits and pieces about the world, an hour at a time before you leave the classroom. When you’re living in another country, you learn new things just by opening your eyes, by talking, by doing anything. You learn about all the things you’ve been taking for granted that you shouldn’t; you learn about other ways and sometimes better ways to live. If you fully embrace the experience, rather than sitting around moping about how homesick you are, you will learn ten times more than you ever learned in a semester of college.

College is also the perfect time for traveling abroad because you have so much energy and so few preconceptions. You have no idea what’s coming next and you don’t give a darn. In those days, if I ran into some oddball stranger on the street, I would not hesitate to talk to him and probably learn something new. Maybe I’d even make a friend. Now, forget it. I cross to the other side of the street. When I re-read my diary now, I am in awe at how much elan vital I used to have. I went everywhere and tried everything I could. Warning: It doesn’t last. Nowadays, if I go shopping and write a blog post and play with my foster kittens, that’s a pretty busy day!

The time to travel abroad is when you’re 20. Not when you’re 60.

Okay, let me gradually move the conversation toward chess. My chess goals for the semester were pretty simple. I wanted to find out how Russian chess players live and I wanted to play in a tournament. I managed to accomplish both goals.

By the way, a lot of what I tell you here is already in an article I wrote for Chess Life in August 1981, called “Chess in Russia.” But I’m guessing that not too many readers have back copies of Chess Life from 1981, so I’m not in too much danger of boring you with repetition. If you do have back copies, look for the one with the super-ugly cover. That’s the one with my article. It was, by the way, the first article I ever wrote that I got paid for — the beginning of my writing career!

First, one great thing about being a chess player in Russia is that it’s so respected, and so many people play. If you tell someone you’re a chess player, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a game, and that your opponent will be pretty good.

For strong players, first category and up, there were lots of opportunities to play and improve. (By the way, “first category” is roughly Class A, and “candidate master” is roughly expert. However, I estimate that these Russian categories were about 100 points stronger than the corresponding American categories, so “first category” was more like 1900-2100, and “candidate master” more like 2100-2300.) At Leningrad State University (LGU), the chess club and team were open to first category and up. The tournament I eventually played in was for first category and candidate masters. In the entire time I was in Leningrad I never heard of an event for second category or lower. So it remained a mystery to me how weaker players could ever improve.

My U.S. rating at the time was 1900, so I could just about pass myself off as a first category player. I went to the university chess club, which was quite different from chess clubs in the U.S. The LGU club had a trainer, who was an official employee of the physical education department, and the club meetings were serious business. We would go through positions in “64” magazine in rapid-fire style. It was hard for me to keep up, both because of the language and because of the level of chess. One time we had a more fun meeting where we played a blitz tournament, but even that turned out to be unexpectedly serious. They played 5-minute chess using touch-move rules, which I had never done in my life. I admitted to the trainer after losing three games that I was having trouble with touch move and he offered to waive the rule for me, but I refused. When I was in Russia, I wanted to do everything the way the Russians did. I ended up that blitz tournament with a record of one draw and seven losses. Oh well, at least I got a draw!

My next chess event was a match, in which I played for LGU’s second team against another university. The matches had fifteen boards, twelve men and three women. I just want you to think about this. How many American universities could field 30 players (two teams), 24 men and 6 women, all above 1900 strength? I’m guessing zero. But there were several such universities in Leningrad alone.

I hadn’t even expected to play in the match — I just went to the Tchigorin Central Chess Club to watch it. But someone unexpectedly didn’t show up for LGU, so I was asked to substitute. Alas, I didn’t make America proud. I lost my game and the team lost the match, 12-3.

Undaunted by any of this, I continued my quest to find a tournament to play in, and I finally found it at the “Burevestnik” (Stormy Petrel) chess club. Okay, a word of explanation. In the Soviet Union, everybody was organized into trade unions. The national trade union for students was Burevestnik. All sports were organized through the trade unions, so there was a Burevestnik soccer team, hockey team, chess team, etc., etc. You might have noticed that in the PRO Chess League online, one of the Russian teams is called the Stormy Petrels. That’s the trade union.

It’s a very different system from the U.S., and it’s kind of cool. It’s as if every Little League baseball player in the country actually played for the New York Yankees organization (or some other big-league team), instead of just wearing a Yankees uniform.

Anyway, since I was a student, the Burevestnik club was the place for me to go. I spoke with the manager of the club, a very friendly man named Yefim Solomonovich, who told me that they had a club quarterfinal tournament coming up, and I could play in that. It was a 16-man round robin. There was no entry fee; I had a hunch that the players had to qualify somehow, and that I might have stolen somebody’s place. But Yefim Solomonovich did not say, and I was desperate enough that I did not ask.

Another big difference between Russian and American chess was that Russian tournaments were organized completely on the international model. There were no “weekend Swisses,” the staple of American chess. The only tournaments I was aware of were round robins. Also, ratings did not exist and titles were based on performance, not ratings. Each player had a little passport-sized book with their results, and you would move up to, say, candidate master if you scored a candidate master norm. (Or a certain number of norms, I’m not sure how many.)

Yefim Solomonovich warned me that I would find the tournament very difficult, because half of the players were candidate masters and half category I. My prior experiences with the blitz tournament and the university match certainly reinforced his warning. I was definitely expecting to end up somewhere near the bottom, unless a miracle happened.

Well, miracles did happen, and I’ll show you some of them in my next post. I got two wins from absolutely busted positions, one of them where the computer says that I was 12 pawns behind (!). I won a couple games on forfeit from people who withdrew from the tournament. [That is, by the way, the downside of round robins. People who are doing poorly have no incentive to continue. One of the 16 players withdrew after round one and his results weren’t even included in the cross table, so the tournament officially had only 14 rounds rather than 15. Two more withdrew later in the tournament, and their results were included.]

In the end, I eked out a positive score, 7 1/2 – 6 1/2 (4 wins, 2 forfeit wins, 5 losses, and 3 draws). This was almost unbelievable in a tournament where I think even a result of 4-10 would have been pretty good. I tied for seventh and eighth. Score one for American chess! Let’s hear it: U-S-A!

Heck, maybe I even qualified for the semifinal, but of course by then I was long gone.

Finally, one other very interesting thing that happened during my semester in Russia was the first Karpov-Korchnoi world championship match, which was won by Karpov +6 -5 =20. (In this post-Fischer era, they were playing first to six wins.) In those pre-Internet days, the way to follow the game live was to go to the Tchigorin Central Chess Club, a palace-like building with a big auditorium where they put up the moves on a demo board as they received them over the wires. The auditorium, of course, was packed. I think that it’s worth reposting in full what I wrote in my Chess Life article.

“The match was portrayed as a contest between the model Soviet citizen, Karpov, and the unspeakable renegade Korchnoi, who in most press accounts was not even mentioned by name, but referred to as ‘the challenger’ or ‘the pretender.’ I had arguments with Soviet acquaintances who, while not doubting Korchnoi’s skills a chessplayer, seriously questioned whether he deserved to be called a member of the human species. When Karpov finally won, under exceedingly dramatic circumstances, having received a personal telegram from Leonid Brezhnev exhorting him to victory, there was great jubilation in the newspapers and on the walls of Leningrad State University, where Karpov had gotten his degree in economics. ‘Karpov’s victory is our victory!’ the headlines proclaimed. I wondered if, deep down inside, after the hell he had been through, Karpov himself really felt that way. Perhaps he did.

“On Dec. 11, less than two months after the end of the match, Karpov made an appearance at his alma mater, in which he talked about the epic struggle. Though I had looked forward to hearing his speech, I found it very disappointing. He said nothing that was not already well-known and ventured no comments on the real controversies of the match, the infamous Dr. Zukhar and Korchnoi’s gurus. Nor did he answer questions from the audience, citing tiredness — certainly a justifiable excuse, but could it have been that there were certain questions he didn’t want to answer? His report was very biased, as he dwelt at length on his victories without explaining any of his defeats, criticized the size of Korchnoi’s entourage without saying how many people were in his own, and criticized Korchnoi’s interrupting the match with time-outs, while portraying his own time-out as a necessary and ingenious strategy. Moreover, I found him unappealing as a person. Toward Korchnoi he was very sarcastic, and he showed he could be sarcastic toward others, too. At the beginning of his speech, when the incessant flashing of flash bulbs began to annoy him, he said testily, ‘I think that’s enough already, OK?’ rather than asking the photographers to stop.

“Lest my negative reactions be seen as a result of my bourgeois prejudices, I will mention that several students from the socialist state of Hungary, with whom I attended the lecture, were even sharper in their disapproval of Karpov than I have been. Nor is Karpov an object of universal adulation in the Soviet Union, as one might conclude from the newspapers. A master, who is one of the best young players in Leningrad and probably knew what he was talking about, told me later that among serious chess players in Leningrad, those who had been filling the hall at the central chess club, the majority had been rooting for Korchnoi to win. As as player he had a more interesting and exciting style, and as a man… let those who have known him judge.”

I would just add to this account that Korchnoi had deeper Leningrad roots than Karpov did. He was born there and also attended LGU (so I can say that I attended the alma mater of both Karpov and Korchnoi!). So yes, there is no doubt that in Leningrad at least, and among people who knew them both, Korchnoi was the favorite. Even if the newspapers couldn’t say his name.

All of this only scratches the surface of the experiences I had in my semester in Leningrad, but for chess players these are the highlights. Next time I will show you some of my games from the Burevestnik tournament.


  1. The time to travel abroad is when you are young. If your university offers a travel abroad program, or if you can find one through another university, do it. It’s so worth it.
  2. When you are abroad, embrace the experience with both arms. Seek out the chance to meet real people and get away from the typical tourist activities (though, of course, some sightseeing is good and necessary to understand the culture).
  3. As much as you can, resist the temptation to compare your host country with your native country and to criticize them just because they are different. Accept that there are other ways to do things, and appreciate the good while recognizing that it is not your place to change the bad.
  4. Homesickness is inevitable, but the best cure is to get off your butt and do something.
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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner October 7, 2020 at 3:35 pm

Hey Mr. Nance! For your readers not old enough to have read Chess Life in 1981 (second grade for me), here is the link to the archives. Frankly, the issue is interesting enough even without your article.



admin October 8, 2020 at 8:54 am

Wow, Chess Life certainly was different then. Less slick but maybe more meaty. I was fascinated to see, on pages 25-26, an article by Jeremy Silman that drops a lot of names of California players whom I have subsequently heard of or met. Mike Arne was the first board on my team that took third place at this year’s US Amateur Team West! Next time I see him, I’ll have to ask him about that long-ago game with Silman.

“Mr. Nance” still had a few years to go before changing his name to Mr. Mackenzie…


Roman Parparov October 7, 2020 at 3:50 pm

To answer your question about what players Category II and lower could do: nothing.
The only way to improve the category up to first was through juvenile kid tournaments in official chess clubs (Pioneers Palace, Pioneer Houses, the LGU club and Sportschool #2, and that’s all).

There weren’t any resources to spare on adult players Category II and lower. The only alternative would be to move somewhere in a deep province where you could become a local champion with Category II, and advance to some regional qualifications where you could get a higher level. A very dubious investment with a cost of leaving Leningrad for a deep province.


admin October 8, 2020 at 9:05 am

Thanks for the information! I strongly suspected this, but didn’t want to come out and say so, because I didn’t know for sure.

Your last comment reminds me of something my (Russian) roommate in Leningrad once told me. “The Soviet Union is three countries: the city, the rural areas, and the south.” I spent 99 percent of my time in the city. The closest I got to the “deep province” was riding through it on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

For American readers: by the “south,” my roommate meant the Muslim republics that separated from Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed: Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, etc. Very interesting that even back in 1978, when they were still part of the USSR, my roommate considered them a “different country.”


Roman Parparov October 11, 2020 at 5:25 pm

Not only Muslim. The two Christian Caucasian republics, too, and the population of the Russian Black Sea Shore and North Caucasus as well.

The reason is that they weren’t really socialist, but more like corrupt feudal clan states under the guise of Socialism. Plenty of illegal private enterprise. There were rich and poor people there, and money did mean something, unlike in most of the rest of the USSR.

The only other area that stood out was the Baltic countries that managed to maintain a higher quality of life they had before being captured all the way through the separation in 1990.

We went to Estonia every summer 1986-1989. In a way it was like going abroad.


Larry Smith October 8, 2020 at 9:37 pm

Interesting post!

I thought the worst Chess Life cover was the one with Karpov flanked by Siegfried and Roy, but the cover of “your” issue takes the cake! At first I thought I was looking at Fractured Fairy Tales from Rocky and Bullwinkle!

What struck me about that issue though is that it was chock-full of article after article written by top-notch authors. Yours, of course, but then the columns that go on and on by Gligoric, Benko, Ask the Masters, Soltis, etc. The world has changed, of course, but there was so much information in the magazine back then. And, as you mentioned, so many players’ names that conjure up the past, including those of former opponents and current friends…


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