Chess Sets of Major Tsarist and Soviet Events, 1909-1941

Karelian Birch Pieces, used in the 1909 & 1914 St. Petersburg Tournaments. Chuck Grau photo.

Having examined Arlindo Vieira’s groundbreaking work, I turn now to a survey of major tournament sets. I begin with an examination of sets used in significant events from 1914 to 1941. My goal is to provide a quick identification guide to the new collector or student of Soviet designs, and a bit of information about them to help further study or appreciation of these sets.

Pieces from the 1909 & 1914 St. Petersburg Tournaments: Late Tsarist Karelian Birch Chessmen

1909 St. Petersburg. Photographer unknown.

The last major tournament of the Tsarist era was played in St. Petersburg in 1914. Participants included World Champion Lasker, Capablanca (the winner), Alekhine, Tarrasch, Marshall, Nimzovich, Rubenstein, Janowski, Bernstein, Blackburne, and others. Here is a photo of the 1914 Tournament and some of its illustrious participants, together with two magnified and enhanced close-ups of the pieces used.

1914 St. Petersburg Tournament, photographer unknown. L to R: Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, J.R. Capablanca, Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch.
1914 St. Petersburg Pieces.

1915 St. Petersburg Pieces.
C. 1900 Karelian Birch Pieces, Antonio Fabiano Collection, Chuck Grau photo.

The photographic record above establishes that pieces like these were used in the famous 1914 St. Petersburg Tournament. Usually referred to as “Karelian Birch” pieces, the set is named for the wood from which they are turned, characterized by its uniquely bold figure and found only in the Karelian Peninsula north of St. Petersburg. Staunton features predominate, though an opposite colored finial replaces the king’s crown, and the queen’s orb is also changed to the opposite color. In some sets, the king’s finial is made of bone; in others, wood. In some sets the king’s finial is replaced with a demi-orb. The cuts in the bishop’s miter are usually asymmetrical, but those in the pictured set are symmetrical. The unusual crown of the king hearkens to those found in some Austrian sets. The sets came in various sizes. Known specimens include 3.75″, 4.00″, and 4.25″ kings. The pictured set’s kings are 3.75″.

Karrelian Birch Pieces. 3.75″ king. Wooden demi-orb atop king. Asymmetrical miter cuts. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Pieces from the 1925 First Moscow International Tournament

Once Soviet authorities decided chess was going to be an instrument of state policy intended both to raise the cultural level of the masses to define an area of cultural competition where they intended to “meet and exceed” the West, they decided to hold an international tournament in Moscow to measure where Soviet players stood in relation to those of the West. Scholar Michael Hudson terms this program “Political Chess.”

While there are a handful of photos, some taken from the film Chess Fever, which starred no less than Jose Raul Capablanca and other participants of the tournament, collectors have not identified a surviving example of the set. The photos themselves are somewhat unclear as to the set. Here is a well-known photo from the event and a close-up of the pieces in it.

Capablanca and Lasker, Source: Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, inventory #259945.
Close-up of Capablanca-Lasker set by Eduardo Bauza.

The pieces are Staunton in style and proportion, with stepped-up bases, distinct pedestals, “triple collars,” a cross atop the king’s crown, a crenellated coronet, and distinct merlons in the rooks’ turrets. The pieces are probably from the late Tsarist period because during the preceding years, two revolutions and a civil war impeded both the development of Soviet style and the production of new chess sets.

1933 Botvinnik-Flohr I (“BFI”) Chess Pieces

Continuing to pursue their program of meeting and exceeding the West, Soviet chess officials arranged a 1933 match between their most promising player, Mikhail Botvinnik and Salo Flohr, who was then considered to be a world championship contender and perhaps the strongest player in the world. The match was played in Leningrad and Moscow and ended in a draw.

Here is a photo of the pieces used that appeared on the cover of the match book authored by Botvinnik.

Cover of M. Botvinnik’s 1933 Match Book

Although the available photos from the event are few in number, and somewhat ambiguous as to the size and style of the pieces, the pieces in the photo appear to bear many similarities to those in the photos from the 1925 First Moscow International. No surviving examples are known.

Unfortunately, the pieces pictured below were thought to be the same as the match pieces, and are commonly called “BFI” pieces. Ongoing review of the photos of the event have convinced me and other collectors that this name is mistaken for these pieces, even though they share some design features with the set actually used in the 1933 match.

Soviet Upright Pieces Misnamed “BFI” Pieces, Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

However, a set in the collection of Antonio Fabiano is very close in style to that of the 1933 match. Its main deviation from the match set are the concave walls of its rooks’ towers, which appear straight in photos of the match. Here is his set.

Antonio Fabiano Collection, photo.

In these pieces, we begin to see the development of a distinct Soviet style, despite the diminutive cross upon the king. The stepped-up base of the Staunton base has largely disappeared. The stems are noticeably concave, and mirror modernist dendriform columns rather than the neoclassical columns incorporated by Staunton sets. While the queen’s crown retains crenels on her coronet and the rook its merlons, the bishop’s miter has lost its cut. The knights make no attempt to copy the Elgin Marbles as Staunton knights do. Its snout is elongated, its mouth toothy, its eyes oversized, combining to form a very expressive visage.

Soldiers of International Competition 1934-36: Botvinnik-Flohr II (BFII”) Pieces

The next major events held in pursuit of the Soviets’ program of Political Chess were the 1934 Leningrad Masters Tournament, the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament, and the 1936 Third Moscow International Tournament, all of which pitted the top Soviet players against fields of top Western players, including three then or future world champions Lasker, Capablanca, and Euwe.

A new set design appeared in these tournaments, perhaps the most iconic Soviet chess pieces of all, which we have come to call Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces, BFII for short. In evolving variations, they were used at the highest levels of Soviet chess from the 1930s to the 1960s, including the three mentioned events of 1934, 1935, and 1936, multiple Soviet Championships from 1937 to 1957, and the 1956 Moscow Olympiad. World Champions Lasker, Capablanca, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Fischer all played with pieces of this style.

Flohr and Botvinnik, Tournament Book, Caissa Ed. (1998) at 177.
Close-up of Capablanca’s Pieces, Moscow 1935, photographer unknown.

Pieces like these were used in the 1934 Leningrad and 1935 and 1936 Moscow International tournaments, and a number of USSR Championships in the late 1930s and 1940s. The following specimen is from the collection of Singapore collector Stephen Kong.

Mid-Thirties BFII Pieces, Steven Kong Collection, photo.

The set acquires its name from the two players who shared first place in the 1935 affair, Mikhail Botvinnik and Salo Flohr, ahead of former world champions Lasker (third) and Capablanca (fourth). It was with pieces like these that the famous Mop the Floor game was played between Botvinnik and Flohr in the 1936 tournament. The II designation distinguishes these pieces from those used in the Botvinnik-Flohr match of 1933 (BFI pieces). Until the differences between the pieces used in the 1933 match and the other events were rediscovered in 2017, collectors and manufacturers of reproductions had confounded them.

Mid-Thirties BFII Pieces, Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The pieces pictured above were turned and carved in Leningrad at the Prometheus Cultural Goods factory on Krestovsky Island, according to a stamp in the accompanying red-stained wood box. An identical set housed in an identical box with the same Prometheus stamp also bears a 1935 or 1936 date stamp, depending on how you interpret the smudged final digit of the stamp. The style of these pieces differs noticeably from that of traditional English Staunton in several respects. First, the king is not topped with a same-color cross, but a secular, opposite-color finial. While the bishop’s miter at first included a cut in the Staunton tradition, it soon disappeared in subsequent versions.

Tal Pieces of the 1940 Estonia-Lithuania Friendship Match

The earliest known example of the so-called Tal set is seen in photo of Paul Keres and Mikenas in a match between Estonia and Lithuania held in Tallinn, Estonia prior to the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union later in 1940. The set derives its name from a photo of Tal playing at the 1962 USSR Championship in Yerevan with a later version of the set. The photo appears on the cover of Tal’s autobiography, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal.

Keres-Mikenas, Tallinn 1940, photographer unknown.

A specimen of this set resides in the collection of Mike Ladzinski.

1940 Tal Chessmen, Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

These chessmen adopt traditional elements of the English Staunton design, most notably the long stems narrower at the top than the bottom; the distinctly jointed pedestals, the three-ring collar system, the cross-crowned king, the bishop miter cuts, the merlons of the rook turrets, and the collective column-pediment. Unlike traditional Stauntons, the crosses and finials are opposite-colored. The unique, jaunty knights do not emulate the Elgin Marbles but are virtually identical to those of the 1962 Yerevan set. The pieces contain the wide, almost squared-off bases characteristic of the Tal, but not yet as tall as those of the Yerevan set. The cross is a true cross, not the vestigial cross of the 1962 version. While the rooks’ turrets incorporate merlons, their towers are noticeably narrower than their successor’s, and concave rather than straight, like the Yerevan tower. The pawns’ stems are longer than in later versions, making the pawns less squat.

1941 Leningrad Championship Pieces

The BFII design evolved through the late thirties, the forties, and the fifties, with multiple variants existing side-by-side over the years. One notable variant was used in the 1941 Leningrad Championship, which was begun during the Siege of Leningrad but was never completed.

1941 Leningrad Championship, photographer unknown.
1941 Leningrad Championship BFII Pieces, Stephen Kong Collection, photo.

The pieces have retained their general shapes and proportions, as well as the crenellations on queens and rooks. The bishop’s miter, however, had grown rounded and lost its miter cut. This BFII variant is notable for the mortar work carved into the rooks’ walls.

Hopefully, the collector or student of Soviet chess sets now has some basic information to help identify these sets and when, where, and by whom they were used.

Author: Chuck Grau

I'm a chess collector, chess player, and retired attorney. I've been collecting Soviet and Russian chess sets since 2014. I'm interested in their history, design, and the people who made and played with them.

9 thoughts on “Chess Sets of Major Tsarist and Soviet Events, 1909-1941”

      1. Hi Chuck:
        I just got in to it after not playing for over 30 years. You have caused me to gravitate towards the Soviet style of pieces because of your great research and commentary. Although original Jacques sets are also on my radar screen.
        Love the GM sets esp. GM3. Also the “carbolite” sets of the 40’s to 70’s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: