Four Styles of Grandmaster Chess Sets: GM4 Pieces

Grandmaster 4 chessmen are the final evolution of the GM3 sets that first appeared around 1950, the end of the line for an august design. Recognizing them to be descendants of the GM3 design, Arlindo Vieira wrote that the GM4 pieces were “the last version of this competitive set.” They represent the further simplification of the GM3 design in the interest of increasing production and reducing cost through factory production and the substitution of plastic parts for carved ones.

Tal glaring at Viktor Kupreichik over GM4 pieces, 1981 Soviet Team Championship. 0-1. Photographer unknown.
Arshak Petrosian-Vitaly Tseshkovsky, Yerevan 1984. GM4 Pieces. Photographer unknown.

GM4 sets were produced from the 1970s to the 1990s. They appeared in a number of variants, perhaps, as Moscow collector Alexander Chelnokov has suggested, because they were made in multiple factories which each had a slightly different take on the stylistic details. Some retained vestigial rook merlons, queen crenels, and miter cuts. All had plastic knight heads and finials. All retained the basic Staunton architecture of the GM3 design while discarding some or most of its details.

Alexander Beliavsky with GM4 pieces. Date and photographer unknown.

Here are three GM4 variants that retained vestigial cuts, crenels, and merlons. The first eliminated the miter cuts; the second and third variants retained crude ones.

Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
Alexander Chelnokov Collection, photo.

The next variant was known to Soviets as the Champion set, according to St. Petersburg collector Sergey Kovalenko. Sergey tells us that the Champion set was produced by Voenohot Factory No. 2, as were the GM4 set below, Yunost, Voronezh, and other GM3 sets. I include it within the GM4 category because it retains the general Staunton architecture of the GM3 sets, but with the plastic knight heads and diminished detail and quality of the GM4 sets.

GM4 Champion Pieces from Voenohot Factory No. 2. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The kings in this set are 104 mm tall. The pieces are unweighted, and the finish crude and badly in need of sanding. The finials are all plastic. The king’s crown is topped with a peg, rather than the vestigial cross found in other GM3 and GM4 sets.

From a design perspective, the pieces are Soviet Stauntons within the broad GM3/GM4 family, but with Soviet-styled, CV-shaped knights more like those found in the Yunost, Voronezh, and some sets of the forties and fifties, than the Stauntonesque, S-shaped knights of the GM3 and other GM4 sets. Like other GM4 sets, the knights have plastic heads and torsos. Like GM3 sets, the rooks have merlon cuts, the bishops miter cuts, and the queens shallow, scalloped cuts on their coronets. The miter cuts are asymmetrical like those in late model, mass-produced GM3 sets. Unlike GM3 sets, the merlon and coronet cuts are vestigial. The collars are irregular and unevenly and nondescriptly turned.

Below are GM4 pieces from my collection that were produced by Voenohot Factory No. 2 near Moscow, as revealed by their original cardboard box.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Gone from this set are the queen’s crenels, the bishop’s miter cut, and the rook’s merlons found in the GM3 design. All the crosses, finials, and knight heads are plastic. The set’s kings are 108 mm tall. The pieces are nicely weighted. The bottoms are covered with leatherette pads, some of which on this specimen have slightly buckled. Arlindo Vieira described the GM4 as “elegant and playable.” I quite agree, despite their simplifications.

GM4 sets were used in the 1994 Moscow Olympiad. Vieira rightly criticizes the organizers for providing boards that cramped the pieces and garish tablecloths on the playing tables “made players crazy.” Here is a screenshot of a wonderful YouTube video of the game Korchnoi-Yusupov from that event.

Korchnoi-Yusopov, Moscow 1994, with GM4 pieces, likely the Voenohot version.

The mass production of GM4s meant there were plenty of them with which to play simultaneous exhibitions with them. Here are Kasparov and Smyslov doing just that.

Kasparov simultaneous exhibition. Undated. Photographer unknown.
Smyslov simultaneous exhibition. Moscow 1989. I. Utkin/TASS photo.

Conclusion

The GM4 sets were the culmination of the evolution–or devolution–of the venerable Grandmaster 3 line. While the GM3 design was simplified and cheapened by the GM4’s elimination of details and its replacement of wooden parts with plastic ones, the Grandmaster 4 retained much of the original design’s basic elegance and remained a very playable set.

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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