c. 1940 Barrel Rook Tournament Set

The looming world war had its impact on Soviet Chess design. Sets began to appear without metal weights, as metals were reallocated to the production of instruments of war. And from a visual perspective, designs began to retreat from the Constructivist and Modernist influences of the late 1920s and 1930s, adopting more traditional Staunton elements, following a trend towards Neoclassicism we already have noted in Soviet architecture.

c. 1940 Barrel Rook Tournament Chessmen. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

I use the term “Barrel Rook” to describe this set because of the barrel-like shape of its rooks, perhaps the set’s most notable visual attribute. The kings are 98 mm tall, a typical size for a tournament set, and the pieces are unweighted. Nevertheless, the pieces remain fairly stable because of the solid bases and conical bottom of the stems.

c. 1940 Barrel Rook Tournament Chessmen. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Gone are the sweeping concave stem curves of the Voronezh Pattern. But at the same time, so is the stepped up base characteristic of the Staunton design and found in the Late 1930s Grandmaster and the phenol resin Soviet Stauntons of the same period. Instead, the stem flows organically from the base in accordance with Soviet design precepts, the only demarcation a shallow turned ring.

c. 1940 Barrel Rook Tournament Chessmen. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The beautiful knights incorporate the typically Soviet CV structure of the back (C-shaped) and chest (V-shaped) and are nicely carved. Perhaps their most prominent feature are what Berlin collector and artist Porat Jacobson Chagall eyes, because they whimsically resemble those seen in so many of the Belarussian’s images of horses and other paintings.

The photographic record shows the set in use at high levels in what appears to be some time in the 1940s, but the date, location, and name of the event have as yet not been established.

Salo Flohr, Alexander Konstantinopolsky, Barrel Rook chessmen. Event, date, photographer unknown. Source: S. Voronkov, 2 Masterpieces and Dramas of the Soviet Championships 375 (2021).

The set probably was made by Artel Kultsport, though Moscow collector Alexander Chelnikov suggests Artel Sila may have been the maker. I infer the date and manufacturer from stamps included in the boxes of similar sets in the collections of Mike Ladzinski and Tom Adamski.

Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

The top stamp from the Ladzinski set tells us that Artel Kultsport is the maker, with an address in Moscow. The next stamp identifies the item as Chess Board no 4-a, which according to Kyiv collector and dealer Mykhailo Kovalenko, may indicate squares of 4 cm. The second stamp also tells us that the item was inspected by Controller No. 1, who in the third stamp has indicated it to be of “1 Sort,” or first quality. The final stamp provides the year of manufacture to be 1941.

c. 1941 Barrel Rook Set. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

Tom Adamski’s set provides similar information. His set also originated at Artel Kultsport, and comprised or included Chess Board No. 3. Like Ladzinski’s it is of first quality and was produced in 1945. Many thanks to Mykhailo Kovalenko and Eduardo Bauza for their help in translating the stamps.

Tom Adamski Collection, photo.

Even if the stamps apply only to the boards but not to the pieces found inside them, they are evidence as to when and where the pieces were produced, absent any evidence that they were not. This inference is strengthened by the fact that the pieces in the boxes are very similar, suggesting that both sets of pieces are of similar origin. If the pieces were placed in these boxes randomly, it is far more likely that these two examples would be different than as similar as they are.

Conclusion

The c. 1940 Barrel Rook set, characterized by its stout rooks and Chagall-eyed knights, was used at high levels of Soviet chess. Incorporating more elements of Staunton design than most Soviet sets of the late 1920s and 1930s, it was part of the general repudiation of the Constructivist and Modernist ideas that had helped shape them.

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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