In 2012, Portuguese chess collector, history teacher, and photographer Arlindo Vieira published a YouTube video that has profoundly shaped the course of Soviet chess collecting. Simply titled “Russian-Soviet Chess Pieces,” the nearly twenty-seven-minute YouTube video presents Vieira’s “beloved collection” of Soviet chess pieces in a sophisticated and visually appealing slide show overlaid with a soundtrack of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and other Russian music. Vieira divides his presentation into ten sections. Eight of the sections exhibit individual chess sets. Two sections exhibit groups of sets. One group comprises four sets he collectively calls “Grandmaster” sets. The second, the subject of the concluding section, includes photos of chessmen Vieira longed to acquire. Vieira supplemented his video in a series of nine articles posted in his chess blog, Xadrez Memoria, elaborating his views on the sets of his video, and on the collection of Soviet chess pieces. Each blog article corresponds to a specific section of the video. Throughout both video and blog, Vieira’s beautifully staged photos and flamboyant prose, his careful choreography and well-chosen score, and his charisma and passion draw us like a magnet to Soviet and Russian chessmen.
St. Petersburg 1914 Chessmen?
Set to the haunting refrains of the famous Russian ballad Zhuravli, or The Cranes, which ponders whether a flight of cranes overhead are the surviving souls of soldiers lost at war, Vieira opens with a pre-revolutionary set of particular significance. It is a heavily battle-scarred black- and natural-colored set of pieces he tells us are very similar in style to those used in the famous St. Petersburg tournament of 1914. We now describe pieces of this style to be “Karelian Birch” pieces, referring to the wood from which they are made.
In Xadrez Memoria, Vieira describes how he acquired the set:
I passed by them as a ‘dog in a harvested vineyard.’ I realized that they were Russian or Soviet, I caught a glimpse of their poor condition, and went on to the next image at Ebay’s chess auctions. After an hour I returned and decided to do a closer study of the pieces, because some strange reason made me not forget them. Bad state yes sir. But, an original ‘patina,’ an antiquity that did not deceive even by the excellent pictures that the seller of St. Petersburg put in the auction. ‘Very old,’ he said, but he didn’t venture how much. The bidding price was very low, around 30 dollars and there were two days to go. Nobody had bid so far, and I was sure that nobody would bid. For the state of the set, and for the fact that Russian –Soviet chess pieces are not part of the favors, the madness, the almost monetary ‘orgasms’ of the collectors of Jaques of London, British Chess Company, among others. I will say that they are poor relatives of international chess collecting, apart from one or the other rare case. That has no value, for the design, for the wood, for the conventional catalogs of the ‘sharks’ of the very ‘British’ collection.
Now fascinated by the old, battle-damaged pieces, he pressed the Russian dealer on their age. Although the dealer would not “guarantee the antiquity” of the set with certainty, his experience told him that the pieces were from the 1930s or 1940s. They exhibited a rich patina, they had suffered much damage over time, and their design was “so different” from characteristic Soviet pieces from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s:
That night, Vieira found it difficult to sleep. Visions of these pieces bearing the patina of antiquity filled his dreams. He began to think he had seen them before, but where? He rose from his bed and began to research his chess library for photographic evidence of their identity. Then, Eureka!
I removed two books: ‘Bernstein’s Schach – Umd Lebens Laufbahn’ by Savielly G. Tartakower – from Tschaturanga – Olms, and ‘Akiba Rubinstein – Uncrowned King’ by Donaldson and Minev from International Chess Enterprises. On their covers, confirmation. Both Bernstein and Rubinstein pose for the photo, with pieces, if not the same, at least very similar to those that were at auction. These photos are clearly from the 1st decade of the 20th century. Would they therefore be even older chess pieces, that is, from the 1st-2nd decade of the 20th century? That they were terribly used, lacerated, tired by so much fighting on the board, it was clear, or at least I wanted to believe it was. I am sure, I had: this model of pieces was the most common, at least in St. Petersburg before the Sovietization of chess.
This passage is significant not only for describing how Vieira established the likely identity of the pieces he sought to buy from St. Petersburg, but because they reflect his general methodology of scouring the photographic record to identify chess pieces. Furthermore, they presage the method of exposition he will employ throughout the video, juxtaposing photographs of his pieces with those of like pieces in actual play, usually with famous masters. These photos establish the identity and historical context of the sets. This is of particular importance because the types of evidence we have come to expect to establish a set’s provenance are by and large lacking in a land that endured two World Wars, three revolutions, a civil war, a Great Purge, massive population relocations and mass starvation in the intervening time. It is a method that collectors of Soviet and Russian sets continue to employ. To establish the identity and age of this set in his video, Vieira exhibits photos of Rubenstein, Bernstein, the young Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Marshall, and Tarrasch playing with these chessmen, or seated next to them, all establishing their historical provenance and import.
Convinced of the set’s identity, Vieira placed his bid the next day, hopeful he would face no competition for this “dog in the vineyard.” He won, then awaited the set’s arrival. Finally, the postal service delivered it:
[T]he strongest emotion [I] felt when looking at some chess pieces. Even more beautiful than in the photos. The color, the incredible smell of worn varnish and stubble, a ‘patina’ of original time and not of ‘fresh paint,’ and above all the ailments of long board fights, to later rest for long years at someone else’s home, or attic of a St. Petersburg club.
Now Vieira faced the question posed to anyone acquiring an old set. Should it be restored? Or should it continue to bear the scars of its life, which give testament to past battles, past victories, and past defeats?
[Whether] to restore them? So, every time I looked at them, I saw an intense life in those flaws, in that worn varnish, board life, of joys, disappointments, of moves played with the anger of despair of defeat, or joy of victory, and I was going to restore them, for him. to inflate artificial life, to make them cute, to enhance them in the market? Their value, I had already internally attributed it to my passion as a collector.
Throughout his video and blog, Vieira presents many sets in his collection. Many of them are in good condition. Not one of them has been restored.
Some Elements of Soviet Design
In the second section of his video, Vieira introduces us to what he describes as a “Soviet Portable Chessboard” with pieces that are “nothing special.” Although we now know it to be Bulgarian in origin, Vieira’s observations of Soviet tendencies are worth noting: “stylized design,” kings without crosses, and opposite-colored finials that are the “brand image” of Eastern Bloc pieces and board squares too small to adequately accommodate the pieces. “I have hundreds and hundreds of photos of both Soviet players and tournaments,” he writes, “and, with the exception of the USSR Championships, in its final stage, it is extraordinary to see how the pieces do not seem to breathe on the boards, that is, they seem tight, close together, almost occupying every house they are in, giving poor general visibility.” He offers this criticism of Soviet sets repeatedly. “Perhaps,” he speculates, “the enormous massification of chess, the need to manufacture millions and millions of sets, required savings.”
Plastic Olympic Chessmen
Vieira describes his next set as “Unusual Plastic/Metal Chess Pieces” that he acquired from a friend who knew only that they were Soviet. His video tells us little about the pieces, other than they were made in Minsk in 1984, according to a page from a Christies catalog he displays. In Xadrez Memoria, he describes them as “quite different” from traditional Soviet pieces, “almost say, aristocratic in their design.” Vieira was fascinated with their “Flowery… somewhat complex and turned shapes.” He tells us that his research determined that the pieces had been offered to certain personalities and sold to the public in commemoration of the 1980 Olympic games held in the USSR. In the video, he shows the set depicted on the cover of a chess book, from which in his blog he concludes the pieces had gained “some popularity.”
Borodino Factory Pieces
Vieira’s fourth section showcases “traditional” chessmen from the Borodino factory. Although he shares many beautiful slides of this rather simple and crude set, he tells us nothing more about it in either his video or his blog. We can glean from his introductory photo, however, that his knowledge of the pieces’ origins arises from the colorful cardboard box that houses it.
Vieira next presents “Medium Chess Sets,” which he describes as “very popular in schools and clubs.” In fact, we now recognize them as smaller versions of what he later describes as “Grandmaster 1” pieces, which we will examine below.
“Soviet Championship” Set of the ’50s & ’60s
The next three sections are the real meat of Vieira’s video. The first of these he describes as the set of “Soviet Championships 50-60.” Photos of the set from his collection are interspersed with photos chess book covers and of many famous masters: Damsky, Botvinnik, Flohr, Petrosian, Tal, Korchnoi, Fischer, Boleslavsky, Taimanov, Kalman, Spassky, and Bronstein.
In his blog, Vieira relates that the eBay seller of his pieces had described them as “German.” Vieira, however “quickly realized” through the seller’s photos that the pieces in fact were “very common Soviet pieces” from the 1950s and 1960s. The shapes of the kings and queens, the large knights and pawns, the “slender style of the pieces” and their “elegance on the board” reminded him of the pieces he had seen in photos of Soviet events of those years in his “archive of interesting chess photos.” “A self-respecting ‘collector’ of chess pieces must be an archeologist of chess photographs,” he advises. “It is through them that you can often find the missing pieces in your collection, identify a Staunton, or other type of pieces, or even approximate the set you own.”
The board that accompanied his pieces afforded him the opportunity to repeat his concern that the Soviets generally played on boards too small for the pieces. He complains that the small size of the board’s squares piles the pieces “on top of one another,” that they “lose their freedom,” and become “asphyxiated,” thereby “making the visibility confusing.”
Vieira generated great interest in the sets depicted in these photos, but also sewed seeds of confusion. Later analysis of his and other historical photos has discerned not one but three different sets, and multiple variations of one of them, notwithstanding their stylistic similarities. Another unfortunate confusion was sown by a photo Vieira uses, which he tells us is an enlargement of one taken in the 1933 match between Flohr and Botvinnik, and infers from it that the style of his set originated in the thirties. While subsequent research largely substantiates Vieira’s claim that the style of his pieces arose in the 1930s, it also helped confuse the pieces used in the 1933 match with those used in their games in the Moscow International Tournaments of 1935 and 1936. As a result, collectors and vendors alike came to treat photos of the 1935 and 1936 events as though they depicted the pieces used in the 1933 match. While the 1933 match set remains an enigma, photographs known to be of the 1933 match make it clear that the set appearing in them it is significantly different from those used in the later tournaments.
“I called this set ‘Latvian’!” exudes Vieira at the outset of his next section, “So popular in the country of Tal, Vitolins, and so on!” The pieces are tall, slender, and simple: thin stems rising from wide bases and perpendicular pedestals, upon which rest unadorned crowns without connectors or collars, and topped with opposite-colored royal finials. Both the bishop’s miter and the king’s finial echo the onion-shaped domes of Orthodox churches. The knight is a simple slab, seemingly cut with a band saw and without any elaborate carving details. Netflix viewers might identify the pieces as the same style used in the Moscow Tournament climax to Queen’s Gambit.
Vieira admires the pieces’ simple, slim bodies and broad bases that affords them stability during play despite being unweighted. They are “elegant” and “aesthetically very pleasing” even though they are made from “poor” wood. In these ways, they reflect the “simplicity in manufacture, without great details in the pieces,” which results from “the need for serial manufacture” at “affordable prices” characteristic of Soviet pieces.
He refrains from concluding that these pieces reflect any kind of regional style, but observes that they have appeared in “dozens and dozens of pictures related to Latvian schools, tournaments, and players” and, at least at the time he wrote, 2012, most of the sellers offering them for sale on internet auction sites were from Latvia.
Vieira’s “Latvian” designation has stuck until recently. Most contemporary collectors of Soviet sets today would identify the pieces as “Latvian,” notwithstanding that over the course of six decades they apparently were manufactured from the Leningrad and Moscow regions to Mordovia. However, artist-collector Alan Power and others have begun to call the pieces “Mordovian-Latvian,” or simply “Mordovian,” reflecting our growing understanding of where the pieces were manufactured.
The Grandmaster Pieces
To the tune of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, Vieira introduces the meatiest chapter of his video, “The GM Pieces—Four Versions/Styles.” In Xadrez Memoria, he describes these GM, or Grandmaster sets as:
Soviet pieces characteristic of many Clubs, competitions and even simple chess lovers that in a park, or Garden, anywhere in the former Soviet Union used to use them. Almost always these pieces were made with the respective folding board that also served as a box where they were kept (such “anemic” squares of 4.5 – 5cm square for pieces with a King base with 3.5-4 cm!)… All of these pieces are very reasonable in size, with the KINGS walking 10-11 cm high… [T]hey are very different sets from each other and have been used in different times…
Vieira designates each type of Grandmaster with a number, 1-4, and dedicates one sub-section of his video to each type. The dates he ascribes to each type do not really run chronologically. He dates the GM1 in the seventies and eighties; the GM2 in the sixties through the eighties; the GM3 goes undated in both the video and the blog; The GM4 is undated, but he describes it as “the last version of this competitive set,” and shows it in use in the mid-eighties.
According to Vieira, the GM1 was “very popular in chess clubs.” Its lines are simple: cylindrical bases, slightly rounded at the tops, giving way to a stem, broad at its juncture with the base, and sweeping up in a concave arc to form a relatively narrow pedestal, upon which modest crowns, simple tear- miters, and orbs rest to signify the royals, clerics, and pawns. The knights are simple, more sawn than carved. Vieira shares photos of the specimen in his collection, and of the piece in play with Spassky, Karpov, and Kasparov.
The GM2, he tells us, is “a very big set, but harmonious and pleasing to touch.” Indeed, the GM2 shares key design elements with the GM1, only they are more dramatic. The bases are larger, more bulbous. The stems also rise in a concave arc, but a larger one, forming a larger pedestal, upon which larger crowns, onion-shaped miters and orbs sit. The knights bear more and better carving. Well-staged photos of the GM2 in Vieira’s collection, of the set in play with Karpov, Gaprindashvili, Kasparov, and Vitonis, and of the set on the covers of books follow.
Vieira labels the GM3 “the traditional set of Soviet Championship(s).” He intersperses photos of his set with those of Kasparov, Petrosian, Balashov, Bikova, Tal, Gaprindashvili, Spassky, and Chiburdanidze playing with these venerable pieces. Surprisingly, he offers little discussion or elaboration of his views of the set. He lets his photos speak for him.
We can see that the GM3s are a markedly different design from those of the GM1 and GM2, much more traditionally Staunton, down to the straight ascension of the stems, the triple collars, the bishops’ miter cuts, the merlons of the rooks’ towers, and the profiles of the knights, all matters we will examine in detail later.
Recognizing them to be closely related to the GM3 pieces, he tells us that the GM4 pieces are “the last version of this competitive set.” He describes the set as “elegan(t) and playable,” but which “made players crazy” when used on boards with squares, again, far too small. Along with photos of his GM4 pieces, all displayed on squares large enough to allow them “to breathe,” we see photos of them with Karpov, Kamsky, Kramnik, and Kosteniuk.
In Xadrez Memoria, Vieira observes that the quality of the Grandmaster pieces degraded over time. The bishops, rooks, and knights all lost detail over time, though he does not discuss which details degraded or how.
Contemporary Russian Pieces
The final set Vieira presents from his collection is one he describes as “the only set that is manufactured in Russia” today. In fact, Kadun, and perhaps others, were producing sets in Russia at the 2012 date of the video. He assesses the set as “Not bad… but little gracious and very clumsy.” In his view, it “works on a 6 cm. chessboard.” Most of the photos he shares portray his personal set and its pieces, but he does include several shots of the set being used in tournament play, as well as one of Korchnoi and Sveshnikov playing with it.
The final chapter of Vieira’s video reprises the children’s choir singing the poignant lines of Zhuravli with which he opened his work. His subject here is sets that are not part of his collection, “but I dream about them.” The sets are of particular significance because they have come to be most prized by serious collectors, some referring to them as Grail sets.
The first of them appears in four photos Vieira shares from the 1940 Soviet Championship in Moscow. The photos show Bondarevsky, Makoganev, Smyslov, and Keres playing with black and white pieces very much in the traditional Staunton style. “So magnificent, so perfect,” gushes Vieira, that the set “matches with Jaques.”
The second set appears in a photo of Averbach playing at what we have come to learn was the 1949 Moscow Championship. (Vieira misidentifies the player shown as Lilienthal, a mistake he corrects in comments to the video, and the event as the Soviet Championship.) “Wonderful pieces!” he exclaims. The set’s style is quite removed from the neoclassical style of traditional Staunton pieces, embodying instead quintessentially Soviet design elements, from the curved shape of its stems to the structure of its knights. Like the 1940 Moscow set, this one has fascinated collectors, who have named it after Averbakh because of this very photo.
The final set Vieira pines for is in many ways the most famous, as it appears with Tal on the cover of his autobiography, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, a depiction of one of his games at the 1962 Soviet Championship in Yerevan. “So precious!” Vieira exudes. The pieces themselves, which have come to be known to collectors as the “Tal” set are more traditionally Staunton than Soviet in their design, and are defined in no small measure by their jaunty knight, the unique angle of its cocked head, and the serpentine curves of its torso. So enamored was I with this set that, unable to find an original, I undertook with my friend, chess partner, and historian Phil Pajakowski and Gregor Novak of NOJ Slovenia to reproduce it. We were humbled when no less than Arlindo Vieira himself described the fruits of our efforts to be “an ode to the reproduction of chess pieces.”
Arlindo Vieira’s Legacy
Arlindo Vieira’s works have excited collectors in Soviet chess sets and have increased our knowledge and understanding of them. Vieira employed a methodology that has served as an example to later collectors and has set an agenda for those interested in collecting Soviet sets.
Before Vieira’s 2012 works, the collection of Soviet chess sets was a stepchild to mainstream collecting. There were no books nor articles addressing them. Except for the odd figural, historical, or “propaganda” set, they were largely ignored by the chess collection literature and auction catalogs. Soviet sets occasionally appeared for auction on eBay, but they came without much information, explanation, or context. Interest in Soviet chess instead focused on its high level of play, its many masters and Grandmasters, and their domination of world chess for decades. While Linder’s two magnificent works, Chess in Ancient Russia and The Art of Chess, explored the evolution of chess pieces in ancient Russia, they offered precious little about late Tsarist and Soviet sets.
Of these the absence of information about Soviet chess pieces, Vieira wrote in the Chess.com Chess Books and Equipment forum:
Linder’s book has no value to the Russian Staunton pieces in their variants. Quite frankly only a Russian can do this book. Curious is the feeling that in Russia there has never been a real interest in the history of competition chess pieces. Even in the recent Chess Museum in Moscow, there are few competition sets of and even the match table Karpov-Kasparov (1984) has an unbelievable ‘German Knight’ or something like set because the original (unique chess set in the world, and very “Jaques”!) was stolen just after the end of the competition. Already they had one of those that was typical of Soviet competitions (GM pieces) but until this they took away. Funny that my blog in articles related to Soviet chess pieces have several visits from Russia! I, who even am Portuguese. Enigma, and mysteries. As you know, even among great collectors who all know… the Soviet chess pieces have always been poor relatives to the fortunes of Jaques, BCC, and so on! Perhaps the great impetus given to [Russian and Soviet] chess sets happened here in the Chess.com Forum.
The major contributors to the forum to which Vieira alludes now have largely migrated to Facebook collector groups.
Vieira (“BurnAmos”) belonged to the Chess.com Equipment forum in the mid-2010s, where his work became known to a group of collectors, Mike Ladzinski (“Goodknight Mike”), Ron Harrison (“Ronbo”), Lokahai Antonio (“UpCountryRain”) and me (“Cgrau”) among them, igniting a passion and a curiosity in Soviet sets in us. We began to seek out sets like those Vieira had shown us from his Russian and Soviet collection, as well as the “Utopia” sets for which he longed, on eBay, Etsy, and from dealers with whom we became acquainted. So did other who had become familiar with his YouTube video and blog. We posted photos and information about these sets in the Forum, which in turn sparked interest among others, notably Stephen Kong (“Chess Praxis”), especially when we moved our platform from the Chess.com forum to collectors’ groups on Facebook. After several years, I formed a Facebook group, Shakhmantynye Kollektsionery (“SK”), dedicated to Soviet and Russian chess collecting. As of this writing, SK has grown to nearly 2,000 members world-wide.
To be sure, other notable collectors had sought out Soviet chessmen before Vieira’s 2012 work. As early as 2000, for example, Antonio Fabiano’s trip to Russia and the Tchigorin Chess Club of St. Petersburg had whetted his appetite, and he since has compiled a truly amazing collection of Soviet and late Tsarist sets, but Vieira’s work validated and enthused these collectors too.
Vieira significantly increased our knowledge of and ability to think about Soviet chess sets. He found the pieces to be simple in design and manufacture, both to facilitate mass production and to keep them affordable for mass consumption. In that simplicity, he often found gracefulness in the combination of thin stems and wide bases, despite the generally poor quality of materials and too often workmanship, but also, at the high end, quality in design and manufacture the equal of Jaques of London. The kings did not bear crowns. The royals and bishops often bore opposite color finials, the knights and pawns characteristically stood proportionately large. Too often, the pieces were played on boards with squares so small that they were asphyxiated. Time and again he demonstrated that placing the same pieces on properly sized boards, giving them air to breathe, bringing them to life, and allowing their elegance to shine through. He also observed that the quality of the chessmen diminished over over time. Detail in design and workmanship declined. Wooden finals and knights came to be replaced by wooden ones, and graceful designs displaced by clumsy ones. Many of his observations later could be verified, others questioned and debated, but always they have offered a baseline and a framework for others on how to think and talk about Soviet chess pieces.
Vieira also gave us names for sets, making it easier for us to talk about them. He designated four sets “Grandmaster” sets and gave them numerical designations to distinguish them. And he began calling a set he saw frequently in photos of Latvian events “Latvian” pieces. Vieira’s names continue to be used today, though Soviet collector Mike Ladzinski has added the moniker “Bronstein” to the “GM2”, alluding to a photo of Bronstein and Tal playing with it, and other collectors, myself included, have begun renaming the “Latvian” pieces as “Mordovian-Latvian”, since so many of the sets are housed in boxes bearing stamps indicating they were made in Mordovia.
An even more crucial part of the framework Vieira gave us was his core methodology: mining the photographic record to identify chess pieces by time, place, and event. This methodology enabled him to identify not only what he had, but what he didn’t have, thereby creating an agenda for future collecting efforts, his “Utopia.” But this methodology has another more basic, more subliminal effect. The photographic record not only ties pieces to times, events, and places, but it connects collectors to the great players who played with such pieces, to the rise and dominance of the Soviet School of Chess, to the tumultuous historical context in which it occurred, and to all the magnificent chess played with them. The photographic record connects the collector to that chess, those players, that history. The connection is palpable. It is powerful. And the feeling of connection continues to tie viewer and subject ever more as slide after slide fades in and out of Vieira’s video. This connection simply does not exist for figural sets, or even for playing sets before the ubiquity of photography. But it is the heart and soul of the collector of Soviet chess sets, and Vieira shows us that.
Vieira laid out a roadmap for what to collect. Collectors began to seek out sets like those from his collection shown from the ubiquitous “Latvian” and Grandmaster sets to the rare Tsarist set introducing his video. Even more desired have been the three “Utopia” sets showcased in his final section. Then there are those sets not shown at all in his work, but which the application of his method of culling the photographic record, or research inspired by his work would identify. We shall see many such sets as our exploration continues.
Finally, questions Vieira left unanswered begged for further inquiry. His section covering the “1940-1950s Championship Set,” presented photos of several different, if arguably stylistically related sets. Each of these needed to be researched and located in space and time, and their relationship with each other, if any, clarified. Then there are questions of style. Do Soviet chess pieces have a style or style? What are its elements? What do they share and how do they differ from chessmen that proceeded them? Are they at all related to changes in conceptions of art and design, and to the broader political, economic, and social objectives of the Soviet state? It is with Vieira’s observations and these broader considerations in mind that we begin our examination of Soviet chessmen.