Russia looks to remain a leader in chess

Russian grandmasters Dmitry Jakovenko (L) and Alexander Grischuk (R). Source: Itar-Tass

Russian grandmasters Dmitry Jakovenko (L) and Alexander Grischuk (R). Source: Itar-Tass

On the occasion of International Chess Day, RIR looks at the efforts being made by chess players and officials to boost interest in a game, where Russian has preserved its dominance.

In more than 100 years since the first world chess championship was held, only 16 people have held the title of world champion. Seven of them were trained by the Soviet school of chess, and three are graduates of modern Russian chess. Out of all the numerous sports, chess is probably the only one where Russia, according to FIDE ratings, has managed to retain its leading positions since the breakup of the USSR.

In the July list of the world's top 100 chess players, Russia's Alexander Grischuk is a confident number three. Only slightly behind him, in the sixth place, is Sergey Karjakin (born in 1990), whose name was entered 12 years ago in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest grand master ever. Number eight on the list is Vladimir Kramnik, a world chess champion with a 20-year-old career, famous since Soviet times.

Sergey Karjakin. Source: Itar-Tass

In an interview with RIR, Kirill Zangalis, PR director of the Russian chess federation, affirmed that Russia has not lost its leadership in chess: “The top 100 names on the world rating include quite a few players from the former Soviet Union,” he said. “True, Western schools have become stronger, as testified by the emergence of India's Viswanathan Anand (editor’s note: Anand was trained in the Soviet culture house in Madras) and Magnus Carlsen of Norway (who is the reigning champion). However, out of the world's top 20 grand masters, seven are from Russia.”

In the USSR, the famous line by Bolshevik revolution leader Vladimir Lenin that "chess is mental gymnastics" became a socialist propaganda slogan. Playing chess was considered to be fashionable and prestigious thing. Outstanding Soviet players were household names and commanded great respect. Famous chess players, like Mikhail Tal, had nearly the same pin-up value with young people as the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The Soviet Union's achievements in chess were presented as evidence of the superiority of the socialist system above the capitalist West.

Vladimir Kramnik. Source: Itar-Tass

Yet now, few Russians would be able to name Russian chess players who perform in international tournaments and win top places there. According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation in July 2013, only 2 percent of Russians said they were interested in chess. None of the respondents was able to name any popular Russian chess players. The poll was conducted at the time of the international Universiade in Kazan, where the Russian chess team came second.

Lack of interest and money

According to Zangalis, the general public lost interest in chess, largely due to lack of media attention to this sport. In the 1950s-1980s, the USSR published internationally famous magazines, 64, Chess in the USSR, Riga Chess, and others. The modern Russian chess federation is trying to get the media interested in covering the sport. One such example is the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper (RIR publisher), where Sergey Karjakin acts as an expert contributor; as well as the Kommersant, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Sport Express and other national newspapers.

However, all these breakthroughs in coverage have been achieved only in the past two years. The main challenge for chess is to get on TV screens. So far, there is only one regular TV program devoted to chess, which is broadcast on the NTV Plyus satellite channel. The new board of trustees at the Russian chess federation hope to change the situation in the near future.

“I think, the main problem is that the previous generation, who used to follow chess, are largely gone, while the modern audience live in a market economy, where a TV picture decides everything,” says Sergei Rublevsky, head coach of the Russian national women chess team. He believes that it will take many years to revive the previous interest in chess among modern audiences.

Lack of public and media interest results in reduced sponsorship, as chess is mainly supported by patrons. That is why Russian chess players are faced with the choice: to join a risky sport, where competition for places on the national team, and therefore for funding, is very fierce, or to continue one's education and get a job, which may not be in sport but is at least stable and allows one to pay the bills.

Alexander Grischuk. Source: Itar-Tass

“One should realize that sport always demands sacrifices. Be it chess or football. If a chess player has confidence and has talent, it is worth taking the risk. However, only players at the top of the ratings have a stable income," grand master Sergey Karjakin told RIR.

The Russian authorities are trying to change the situation by investing in chess training for children. Every year, the Russian chess federation, together with the Sports Ministry, allocates grants for talented young players, so they do not have difficulties with funding. According to Mark Glukhovsky, chairman of the board of the Russian chess federation, sponsors too prefer to invest in children. Since chess is a sport that does not incur huge costs, all the expenses are transparent: money is spent on coaches, on entry fees or on grants for players.

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