Young Kamsky and the 1941 Leningrad Championship Chess Set

This photo of young Kamsky came across my Facebook feed recently. The set he and his father are using reminds me very much of the set used in the 1941 Leningrad Championship, a variation of the venerable Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces first introduced at the 1934 Leningrad Masters Tournament.

Gata Kamsky and his father Rustam, c. 1987. N. Adamovich /TASS photo. Source: Douglas Griffin.

According to Wikipedia, “The [1941 Leningrad] championship continued to be played, in spite of tremendous difficulties, during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, though the tournament of 1941 could not be finished…”

1941 Leningrad Championship. Players, photographer unknown.

Here is a discussion of chess in besieged Leningrad by Dmitry Oleinikov, Director of the Moscow Chess Museum, who begins by referring to chessmen printed on paper cubes for the city’s beleaguered citizens:

The spirit, enclosed in weak flesh-this is what these lightest, hollow inside, cardboard cubes, painted with red and black ink, remind of. This is the chess of besieged Leningrad.

Instead of the boards and figures that burned down in the stoves of the insatiable bourgeoisie in the terrible winter of 1941-1942, the Leningrad Industrial Complex launched the production of the most simple and cheap chess. And all because in the besieged city thousands of people played and wanted to play chess.

Besieged Leningrad Set. Moscow Chess Museum Photo.

Just as the citizens of Leningrad continued to play chess through the siege, the city championship went on. Writes Oleinikov:

Already in November 1941, the strongest chess players of Leningrad (among those who were not evacuated or drafted into the active army) announced: “Today, in a difficult and tense situation in the city of Leningrad, we are opening the next chess championship. <…> We are in good spirits, and no blockade, no hardships can hinder us.”

The newspapers of December 1941 became smaller, appeared less frequently, and nevertheless found space for messages: “The unfinished games were played out in the chess championship of Leningrad. Before the fifth round, Novotelnov is ahead … Today the next round will take place in the N hospital “. In the hospital – because the chess players came to their spectators and fans, and the further, the more the chess proved its healing effect.

The siege lasted almost three years, and up to a million and a half Soviets died from it. Among them were many chess organizers and highly ranked players. Oleinikov continues:

The organizer of the tournament was Samuel Weinstein, an active figure in the Soviet chess movement from its very first years. The 1941 championship will be Weinstein’s last chess brainchild: he will die in that terrible winter. The blockade will take away many famous and not famous chess players from Leningrad. Among them are Vsevolod Rauser, a renowned theorist who proclaimed: “e2 – e4, and White wins!” composers brothers Kubbeli … On the way to evacuation, Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky will die under bombing; having already reached Perm, the master and author of popular books Ilya Rabinovich will die of exhaustion. Many young chess players of Leningrad, who were predicted to have great achievements before the war, will die at the front, and remain as candidates for the master… having already reached Perm, the master and author of popular books I.L. Rabinovich.

Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky, father of Political Chess, died during the Siege of Leningrad. Public domain photo.

But despite the hunger and the cold, the hard labor and the death, organized competition went on. Oleinikov writes:

And yet, … participants [in the Leningrad Championship] recalled that even getting to the site of the tournament was not easy: they had to reckon not only with enemy shells, but also with police squads and military patrols that directed pedestrians to bomb shelters during shelling. 16-year-old Aron Reshko, the future foreman, and then the youngest participant in the 1943 and 1944 championships, was sent out of town for agricultural work and walked tens of kilometers every day to participate in the championship. One of the tournament participants, Vasily Sokov, spent the whole night on the eve of the next round on duty, extinguished seven incendiary bombs, and the next day he was offered to postpone the game. He replied: “At the front, they are fighting day and night, and there is no need to arrange a resort for me here!”

The conditions were abysmal:

They played to the accompaniment of exploding shells, bomb explosions and antiaircraft artillery shots; frozen over a difficult position, they forgot about the bomb shelter – even when one day the blast wave knocked out all the glass in the room! To maintain the strength of the participants – and to fight scurvy – they were given nettle soup and pine compote…

1941 Leningrad Championship BFII pieces. Steven Kong Collection, photo.

Surviving specimens of the set used in the 1941 Leningrad City Championship are exceedingly rare, but one is held in the collection of Steven Kong of Singapore.

1941 Leningrad BFII Pieces. Steven Kong Collection, photo.

The pieces incorporate the architecture and detail of the original mid-1930s BFII pieces, but for three aspects. Instead of the angular miter of the earliest versions, the miter of the 1941 Bishop is ovoid. Unlike the earliest miters, the 1941 miters lack cuts. And, finally, the 1941 Rook towers are carved with mortar work not found in the earlier versions.

1941 Leningrad Championship BFII Rooks, showing mortar work detail. Steven Kong Collection, photo.

The knights are exceptionally beautiful, and bear a striking resemblance to the Novgorod Knight of the 15th Century.

1941 Leningrad Championship Knights. Steven Kong Collection, photo.
1941 Leningrad Championship Knights. Steven Kong Collection, photo.
Novgorod Knight. 15th Century. I. Linder, Schachfiguren im Wandel der Zeit photo.

The set of the 1941 Leningrad Championship, held under the horrendous conditions of the Siege of Leningrad, was a fascinating evolution of the venerable Botvinnik-Flohr II design. Surviving examples of this beautiful and historic set are extremely rare.

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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