Around 1950, a new Soviet Staunton design appeared. In its highest forms, it was used in multiple Soviet Championships and several intra Soviet World Championships over the next four decades. It was also used in lower tournaments, and in its most simplified forms mass-produced. Arlindo Vieira called these Grandmaster 3 sets, and one of the last versions the Grandmaster 4 pieces.
GM3s are a markedly different design from that of the GM1s and GM2s, both of which are typically Soviet designs. Like the Tal pieces, GM3 pieces are much more traditionally Staunton, down to the straight ascension of the stems, the distinct breaks between base, stem, and pedestals, the triple collars, the vestigial cross atop the king’s crown, the crenels in the queen’s coronet, the bishops’ miter cuts, the merlons of the rooks’ towers, and the S-shaped backs characteristic of Staunton knights.
Here are GM3 pieces that I believe perhaps to be the earliest version, circa 1950, and similar to those in the Isakov photo.
This set is well-made, the knight’s chest has three dimples, and the rook’s tower and merlons are thin. The knight leans forward, with its snout protruding past its belly. The original finish (shown) was a detestably sticky water-based varnish that Alan Power of the Chess Schach has replaced while maintaining the set’s patina and wear. Kyiv collector and dealer Nikolay Filatov has called this variant the “Super GM” set, and I’ve adopted his usage. The kings are 120 mm and the pieces are weighted.
Championship Pieces: Grandmaster Supremes
The pieces used in Soviet and intra-Soviet World Championships typically were of noticeably higher quality turning, carving, and finishing than the versions usually available to collectors. Some collectors began calling these Championship versions of the GM3 design Grandmaster Supremes to reflect their superior quality. Tal and Botvinnik played their 1960 and 1961 World Championship matches with GM Supreme pieces.
Botvinnik and Petrosian also played their 1963 World Championship match with GM Supreme chessmen.
GM Supreme pieces were used regularly in Soviet Chess Championships after 1950, displacing the Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces that previously had served as the preeminent pieces of Soviet Championships. Whereas the BFII was predominantly a Soviet design, the GM Supreme set, like the Tal set, was a predominantly Staunton design dressed up in Soviet lipstick, namely the vestigial nature of the king’s cross and the opposite colored finials. For this reason I use the term Soviet Staunton to describe them. This displacement ironically reflects the triumph of Stalin’s Socialist Realism over the Bolshevik Constructivism and modernism in the design of tournament chess pieces, a matter I will examine in a future article. Here is a photo of GM Supreme pieces in use at the 1973 Soviet Championship.
These magnificent sets were few in number, and are exceedingly rare. I know of only one complete set in the possession of a collector, and another partial set owned by a Ukrainian chess artisan and vendor. Here is a photo of the complete set.
While they exhibit variations over the many years they served in Soviet Championships, Grandmaster Supreme sets are distinguished from regular GM3 sets by a number of characteristics. They are better made and finished. Their knights appear Lardyesque, squarish in shape, with the nose never protruding beyond the belly, and with three dimples carved in the belly. The rooks have generally thinner towers and thinner merlons.
Regular GM3 Sets of the 1950s and Early 1960s
GM3 sets of the 1950s and early 1960s saw minor variations in knight carvings, the shape of the bishops’ miters, finishes, and felting, but which variations occurred when or where are largely unknown. Here are several specimens of that period from my collection.
Here are GM3 chess pieces being used in the 1952 Ukrainian Championship, held in Kyiv.
Regional Variations: Estonian and Georgian Sets
The photographic record reveals unique variations of the GM3 design in use in Estonia and Georgia SSRs. American collector Ron Harrison has specimens of each in his collection. Here is a photo of Ron’s Estonian Super GM3.
My basis for dating Ron’s set is the photographic record that he has compiled and posted in Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery. I refer to it as a Estonian because it appears prominently in photos of events there, not because of any direct evidence that it was produced there. I think it’s worthy of a specific designation because of the unique drop-jaw, “goateed” knight, which distinguishes it from other GM3s.
I refrain from classifying this set as a GM Supreme because it lacks two of the criteria used to categorize sets with that designation. First, the knight’s snout cannot extend over the front of the belly. Second, the front bottom of the the knight’s belly must have three dimples, as in Jaques knights. Nevertheless, I am comfortable using Nikolay Filatov’s term “Super GM” to describe Ron’s set because it embodies some of the special characteristics of “GM Supreme” sets, notably its very high production quality.
Ron’s research also has brought us another beautiful GM3 variant used in the former Georgia SSR. This design was used in the 1978 USSR Championship held in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR.
This GM3 variant is distinguished by its tall, sharply tiered bases; deep, squared knight jaws; L-shaped knight spines; rimmed rook turrets; and narrow rook merlons. Here is a specimen from Ron Harrison’s collection.
Khrushchyovka of the Chessboard: GM3 Pieces of the Late 1960s and Beyond
Khrushchyovka, literally Khru-slum, is a derogatory term for low-cost, concrete or brick apartment buildings constructed during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev. To meet intense demand for chess sets, the GM3 design was simplified and incorporated molded finials, crosses, and knight heads to decrease production costs.
In Xadrez Memoria, Arlindo Vieira observed that the quality of the Grandmaster pieces degraded over time: “[T]he pieces lost quality from the oldest to the most recent ones, and when I say so, the photos prove it in the very simple question of manufacture: they lost detail, care in the details: look at the Towers, the Horses, in the Bishops and what I said ends up coming to the fore.”
Here is a set from my collection that dates from around 1970, which illustrates Arlindo’s points.
It is apparent that plastic finials and black knight heads have replaced wooden ones, with a degradation in attention to detail and quality in general, as seen in the asymmetrical miter cuts and inconsistent collar structures. American collector John Lawson describes the miter cut as a smirk. Still, the pieces are hefty, reasonably attractive, and comfortable to play with. The kings stand 112 mm tall. The pieces are nicely weighted and their bases are covered with original tan, felt-like cloth. They possibly were manufactured by Voenohot Factory No. 2 outside Moscow.
The degradation of the quality of GM3 sets continued through the end of production. We can get a sense of it by comparing three knights from GM3 sets in my collection, each more simplified and cruder than the one preceding it.
If Botvinnik-Flohr II sets were the workhorse of Soviet Chess before 1950, Grandmaster 3 sets pulled the plow thereafter. Grandmaster Supreme sets served in Soviet Championships and intra-Soviet World Championships, while other events used regular versions that varied across time and region. Over time, the quality of the sets generally degraded as they were simplified for mass production and cheapened for mass consumption. Ironically, the workhorse of Soviet chess for the last forty years of the Union’s life was not a true Soviet design at all, but a traditional Staunton design adorned with opposite-colored finials to give it a pinch of Soviet seasoning.
Next: GM4 Pieces–The End of the Line for the GM3 Design
4 thoughts on “Four Styles of Grandmaster Chess Sets: The GM3 Design”
Thanks for another fascinating trip through your collection of Eastern European chess sets. The Soviets seemed to have bowdlerized the artisanal touches of the best sets fairly consistently. I am impressed with the number of cities represented in your collection, since most of them are (regrettably) in the news these days. On a musical side note: Rimsky-Korsakov had a strong connection to the Black Sea and probably the Caspian Sea, visiting the Russian ports of call. As a young man recently graduated from music school, he married a lady connected to the Czar’s family. The Czar rewarded him by appointing him Inspector of the Czar’s Naval Bands, a sinecure with not many duties but a dependable salary. So he wrote several works for them, including a Concerto for Trombone and Band, probably the first and only such work until the 20th century. One of my friends in music school played the solo trombone part beautifully, while I sat in the trombone section.
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Many thanks, Steve, for the kind words and the good story. Soviet sets of the 1930s exhibit a great deal of imagination and artisanal skill. But given how seriously they pursued the State’s goal of growing the number of players, the demand for sets far outstripped the supply. At the same time, the prices of the sets needed to be low enough for ordinary people to afford them. The solution was industrializing production. This already had begun in the 1930s by using Gulags to make cheap, simplified sets, but the Artel system was still in place, providing artisans a place to craft higher quality products. But after the Great Patriotic War, the pressure to industrialize the production of chess sets was great.