1944 USSR Championship Set

The set used in the 1944 Soviet Championship continued to steer chess set design away from the Modernist elements of earlier Soviet sets and towards the incorporation of more traditionally Staunton elements. The source of production for the set remains a mystery despite an unusually large amount of relevant evidence.

The 13th USSR Championship was held in Moscow in May and June 1944 by which time tide of the Great Patriotic War had turned against the Nazi invaders. Mikhail Botvinnik won the tournament over a field of seventeen players. It was the first Championship played since 1941. Breaking from the practice of using Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces, which were heavily influenced by Modernist design concepts, the 1944 Championship pieces were much more traditionally Staunton in their design, an evolution of the Barrel Rook set we previously have examined.

Here are several photos of the 1944 event.

Kotov v. Versov, 1944 USSR Championship, 1-0. Photographer unknown.
Closeup of the pieces in the Kotov-Veresov.
Smyslov v. Botvinnik, 1944 USSR Championship, 0-1. Photographer unknown.

The pieces are very similar in structure to those of the Barrel Rook set, except for the angled walls of the Rooks, which are straight in the Barrel Rook set, and the smooth spine of the knight, which bears a toothed mane upon its spine. In addition, there is a faintly discernible shadow pattern on the side of the 1944 knight, which I believe to be the product of mane carvings on the side of the horse’s neck.

The following pieces are like those in the photographs from the 1944 Championship.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The pieces reject the concave and dendriformic stems so typical of sets of the late 1920s and the 1930s, and instead employ the long, narrow stems resembling neoclassical columns and in proportions like those found in Staunton pieces. As with Staunton pieces, the joint between the stems and the pedestals of the royals, clerics, and pawns are perpendicular; and the crowns and miters of the royals and clerics are connected by cylinders bordered top and bottom with distinct rings, which together with the pedestals comprise the “three collars” common to Staunton sets.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The design abstracts away the step-up base of Staunton sets, replacing the step with a carved ring which defines the boundary between base and stem, but, as in Soviet designs of the earlier two decades, maintains the curved flow from base to stem. The set also retains the Soviet CV structure of the knight’s torso, and the use of finials rather than crosses atop the kings, a practice that hearkens back to ancient Rus.

Although the bishop miters lack the typical Staunton cut, like Staunton pieces, the rook turrets bear clearly carved merlons and the queen’s coronet contains crenel cuts. The royals follow the Eastern European practice of opposite-colored finials.

The pieces came housed in a customary veneered Soviet board/box that is of better than average quality and larger than average 50 mm squares. Still, the pieces, with 100 mm kings, are more appropriate for at board with at least 55 mm squares.

1944 Championship Pieces on original 50 mm board. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The board bears a stamp indicating the manufacturer to be Artel Kultsport, with a Moscow address, and that the item is 1st Sort, or highest quality.

1944 Championship Set Artel Kultsport stamp. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Unlike the Ladzinski and Adamski Kultsport stamps we examined in our review of the Barrel Rook set, this box does not contain a separate stamp indicating the item to be a chess board, or what type of chess board the item is. I interpret this as evidence that the stamp applies to the pieces as well as the board. At the same time, there is extrinsic evidence suggesting that the pieces were made by an entity other than Artel Kultsport.

Moscow collector Alexander Chelnokov believes this line of sets was produced by the Red Combine, located near Zvenigorod, roughly 65 km west of Moscow, whereas Artel Kultsport was located in central Moscow. Chelnokov administers a Facebook group titled Russian Chess Sets (Tsarist, Soviet, and Modern) that features his magnificent collection of Tsarist and Soviet sets, and which I heartily commend to your viewing. It is ironic that this rare instance of a relative abundance of information about the production of a set provides us conflicting data, but such is the enigma of Soviet chess sets.

Conclusion

The set used in the 1944 Soviet Championship continued to steer chess set design away from the Modernist elements of earlier Soviet sets and towards the incorporation of more traditionally Staunton elements. The source of production for the set remains a mystery despite an unusually large amount of relevant evidence.

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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