Aristocratic Olympians: The 1980 Minsk Olympic Set

c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Much Soviet chess set collecting focuses on wooden tournament sets, and understandably so, as those were the sets with which the giants of Soviet chess played their magnificent chess. But Soviet plastic sets provide many delights of their own. To the program of Political Chess, they provided an opportunity to produce great numbers of sets cheaply. For players, they offered sets better able to stand up to the elements for the inevitable games played on park benches whatever the weather. For designers, they provided ways to express creativity not afforded by wood.

This design is showcased in Arlindo Vieira’s seminal 2012 video on Soviet and Russian chess pieces and in his blog Xadrez Memoria. He describes them as “Unusual Plastic/Metal Chess Pieces,” which 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.

c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

In Xadrez Memoria, Arlindo elaborates his views, describing the pieces 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. He shows the set depicted on the cover of a chess book, from which he concludes the pieces had gained “some popularity.”

c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

What I find fascinating about this design is how it incorporates the principle of redundancy found in other Soviet plastic sets. By this I mean the use of the same plastic part to serve different or like functions in different pieces. In this set, the base/lower stem structure is a single unit, and is identical for all the pieces. It comprises the set signifier. Each piece is then identified by a different piece signifier, which either sits directly upon the base/lower stem section, as with the knights, rooks, and pawns, or together with an upper stem section that increases in height from bishop to queen to king. One wonders whether the subliminal message of the design is that “at base, we are all equal.”

c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Kiev collector and dealer Михайло Коваленко, from whom I acquired my set, provides the following commentary: “As for this type of chess pieces, I already wrote in Facebook that there are three types of this type of chess. The first is Belarusian. It can be in a separate package (like mine), or in a plastic chessboard. If in a board, the color of the substrates should be identical to color of an upholstery of a board inside. Belarusian pieces in white turn yellow over time, especially in the sun. There are also Ukrainian-made (the city of Severodonetsk) two types of pieces. The first Ukrainian is similar to the Belarusian, but does not turn yellow. The second Ukrainian is reinforced. The stems are thick and all the pieces are coarser. These pieces are more resistant to shocks. Also, Ukrainian pieces come with yellow metal and ‘silver’ metal. Belarusian only yellow metal.”

My pieces in their efficient storage tray. Chuck Grau collection, photo.

The pieces also are packaged in a variety of boxes. Some commemorate the 1980 Olympics; others different events; yet others contain only the pieces without commemoration. Regardless of the designation, the pieces are referred to generally as an “Olympic” set.

Ukrainian 1980 Olympic Commemorative Set. ChessUSSR photo.

One Ukrainian variation in this design is of particular note. Perhaps as a means to reinforce their relatively longer stems, it incorporates a double base for the kings and queens. Basically, the flare at the bottom of the base is repeated before the ascension of the stem. Perhaps this suggests that, to paraphrase Orwell, “All bases are equal, but some bases are more equal than others.”

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.

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