To follow up on our recent article on Artel Drevprom’s “Baku” set, here are images of Baku sets that have been posted in the Facebook Group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery by its members, together with a few photos of the set appearing in the historical record.
Belarusian Mushroom Chessmen
I call this hypermodern set Belarusian because so many specimens originate from Minsk and its surrounds. Many collectors of Soviet sets describe it as Mushroom because the architecture of the king and queen resemble mushrooms: the flat, disc-shaped crowns resemble mushroom caps resting directly on long, thin, pedestal-free stems.
This specimen is from Minsk. The seller dated it as from the 1960s, and I concur. The kings are roughly 90mm tall, and the pieces are unweighted, deriving their stability from their oversized conical bases. Long, narrow stems rise from the large bases of the royals, attaching directly to the mushroom cap crowns, unmediated by a pedestal or connector as typically found in Staunton designs.
In contrast to the royals, the clerics and pawns have no stems. Their conical bases terminate directly at the bottom of their disc-shaped pedestals. Tear-shaped miters sit atop the bishops. The knights are oversized, slightly taller than the bishops and towering over the rooks. They are simply carved, with manes cut only on the left sides of their heads. The rooks are undersized. There is no demarcation between the rook’s base and tower walls, which rise up in a single uninterrupted curve.
Here we see a Mushroom set being used on the streets of Moscow in 1947. Some of the pieces appear to be taken from other types of sets.
Nick Lanier called the pieces “Svelte,” and listed the set as German, though he admitted “some details point to Russia or even the Baltics.” Given the pieces’ fat bottoms, I find the name inapt. Nor do I find any credible evidence to support his opinion of geographical origin in Germany or the Baltics. While a German influence is theoretically possible from Germans living with Russia in the twenties 1920s and 30s, the German population around Minsk and other western regions was relocated eastward during WWI.
This design likely can be traced to the 1930s. Kiev collector and vendor Nikolay Filatov believes this set is from the 1930s, but does not express a view as to its geographical origin.
The 1930s version is weighted, and its kings are slightly taller than the 1960s version, measuring 10.2 cm in height. Unlike the later version, the royals have three collars separating their crowns from their stems. The bishops also have three collars separating their miters from their stems, whereas the later versions have single disc-shaped pedestals. The shape of the earlier knight is also different from the later version, most notably in its straight chest. The chest of the later version is v-shaped. Thus, over time, the Mushroom design was simplified, making it easier and cheaper to produce.
The hyper-modernist design of the Mushroom set is reminiscent of another, later hypermodern design with Belarusian connections, the plastic Minsk 1980 Olympic set.
It is interesting that two hypermodern set designs are linked to Minsk and Belarus. Belarus was devastated and Minsk leveled during the Great Patriotic War. It was rebuilt to exemplify Soviet Socialist Modernism and designated a Hero City for its reconstruction efforts. Minsk is home to myriad examples of Soviet Socialist Modernist architecture.
Other examples of Soviet Socialist Modernist architecture in Minsk can be viewed here, here, and here. While modernist architecture built after 1945 cannot explain set designs that arose in the 1930s, it can help explain why the hypermodern design of the Mushroom set became popular in Belarus in the 1960s, and why the 1980 Minsk Olympic set took a hypermodern design.
The hypermodern Mushroom sets were popular in Belarus in the 1960s, though the design originated before the war in a place yet to be determined. The post-war sets reflected the post-war Soviet Modernist architecture of Minsk, and remain monuments of their own to Soviet Modernism.
The Gulag Sets of Mordovia
After the Great Patriotic War, sets of the Berezovsky design were mass-produced in labor camps located in and around the villages of Temnikov and Yavas, Mordovia. The set pictured above is one from my collection that has been restored to its original finish. The pieces below are in their original red. The opposing pieces are black. They are from 1954.
The Gulag Museum provides a history of the Mordovian camps:
The Temnikovsky ITL was opened on 6 June 1931 and operated until 12 October 1948 when it was reorganized into the Osoby (Special) Camp № 3 (“Dubravny Camp”). The administration of Temlag initially was located in Temnikov District, Sredne-Volzhsky Krai, later it was in the settlement of Yavas in Mordovian ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). The Temnikovsky Camp was established for logging but it was reorganized in 1940 for producing goods for mass consumption and conducting other works. The maximum number of prisoners held in Temlag was recorded in 1933 as 30,978. Many of them were women: 6,204 out of 14,896 prisoners in 1943. In terms of operational command, the camp was initially subordinate to the GULAG (Chief Administration of Corrective-Labor Camps and Colonies), later it was transferred to the control of the Administration of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in Sredne-Volzhsky Krai, and beginning on 8 May 1935 it was transferred to the GULAG again. In 1937 the Vetluzhsky ITL was included into Temlag. During its reorganization into the Osoby (Special) Camp № 3, all its property and some part of its prisoners were transferred to the Dubravny Camp and the Temnikov Industrial Complex of the GULAG.
Like the Berezovsky camp, the Mordovian camps were located near forests that provided the raw materials for logging, and the production of furniture, toys, chess sets, and other wooden consumer goods. It is after the 1948 transfer that we find chess sets being produced. Here is one of the earliest of the Mordovian Gulag sets, from 1949.
Many of these Mordovian Gulag sets have survived. Here are a variety posted by members of the Facebook group of Soviet chess set collectors, Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery.
Here is a montage of stamps from the boxes of the posted sets.
These stamps bear dates from 1950 to 1952. The five-pointed star is the registered trademark of Gulag production. The “5 TEM” marks denote production by Factory 5 of the “Temlag” or Teminovsky Corrective Labor Camp. The triangular OTK stamp is the mark of the factory. Temlag’s major industries included logging, woodworking, railroad construction, and consumer goods, so it is no surprise to find chess sets were produced there.
Following Stalin’s death and Beria’s general amnesty of 1953 , the star Gulag trademark disappeared on many of the Mordovian sets, and stamps bearing the Tempromkombinat name begin appearing. Tempromkombinat is a Soviet acronym for the Temnikovsky Industrial Combine of Gulag. Here are some examples.
The Gulag trademark did not entirely disappear after 1954, though the reasons for this are unknown. Here is an example.
The sets produced by the Mordovian camp are quite attractive and relatively well-made. Unlike the Gulag sets of the 1930s, the Mordovian sets were unweighted, and relied upon their wide, conical stems and bases for stability. Portuguese collector and historian Arlindo Vieira admired the pieces’ simple, slim bodies and broad bases that afforded them stability during play despite being unweighted. He found them “elegant” and “aesthetically very pleasing” even though they are made from “poor” wood. In these ways, they reflect the “simplicity in manufacture, without great details in the pieces,” which results from “the need for serial manufacture” at “affordable prices” characteristic of Soviet pieces.
The knights of the Mordovian Gulag sets are simply carved, but aesthetically very pleasing. Here are some examples.
In 1960, the Gulags were officially terminated, though prisoner labor remained part of the Soviet penal system. By 1954, Soviet officials widely acknowledged that Gulag production was inefficient and unprofitable. The Berezovsky Gulag design perhaps reached the pinnacle of its development in the camps of Mordovia, but it would continue to be produced in State factories in ever more simplified and regrettably degraded versions.
Children of the Gulag: The Berezovsky Chessmen
The 1930s saw the introduction of chess set production by Gulags. Gulags were used to produce chess sets in to fill the need for sets among the Soviet Union’s burgeoning army of chess-players. Increasing the production of consumer goods was a goal of Stalin’s Second Year Five Year Plan, and planners viewed Gulag labor in Gulags as one way to produce more consumer goods and toys.
The production of chess sets by Gulag labor may well have begun in the Berezovsky Children’s Penal Colony of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, located in Siberia, near Krasnoyarsk. The Krasnoyarsk camp opened in February 1938. It specialized in logging, but prisoners also made furniture, so chess set production was a natural complement. Indeed, Krasnoyarsk sits amidst large pine and birch forests. It was a major hub of the Gulag system under Stalin. The children’s penal colony likely housed the children of prisoners interred in other camps in the Krasnoyarsk area.
Employing children employment in woodworking was a common Gulag practice. According to historian Anne Applebaum, while there are some examples of children’s work camps being assigned to hard physical labor such as mining or forestry in the harshest conditions of the far north, most children’s camps were dedicated to wood-working, metal work, and sewing. Gulag rules provided that children split their time between work and schooling, but the rules most often were honored in the breach. Camps often had no schools. Children faced the same deplorable living conditions and treatment as adult prisoners.
Here is an example of a first quality set the children of the Berezovsky camp made, and the stamp in its board.
Here is an example of a second quality set made in this camp, identified by a stamp inside its board/box.
Neither box bears a date stamp, but we can reasonably date them as pre-1939, when Gulag production began bearing a five-pointed star as a registered trademark.
The design is both very simple and surprisingly elegant. Simplicity of design made sense for a set that was to be produced by unskilled or semi-skilled child Gulag labor. The bases and stems of the royals, clerics, and pawns form a cone, providing the pieces a good degree of balance. The “step-up” base characterizing the base-to-stem transition of the traditional Staunton design has been simplified to a circular cut. The stem ends at a disc-shaped pedestal, but the double collars characteristic of Staunton clerics and royals have been eliminated. The royals’ crowns are simply turned, the Staunton cross replaced by a tear-shaped turned finial on the king’s crown, and pointed crenels replaced by simple cuts on the queen’s coronet. The elaborately carved Elgin Marble knight has been replaced by a simply carved horse of a pleasing shape but little detail. The kings are 90 mm. The pieces are weighted with plaster. The set is made of birch, and the black pieces are simply painted. The design was successful and was produced all the way to the end of the Soviet Union, albeit in different production facilities over time. Later versions were unweighted.
Portuguese collector and historian Arlindo Vieira admired the design’s simple, slim bodies and broad bases, which afforded the pieces stability during play. He found them “elegant” and “aesthetically very pleasing” even though they are made from “poor” wood. In these ways, they reflect the “simplicity in manufacture, without great details in the pieces,” which results from “the need for serial manufacture” at “affordable prices” characteristic of Soviet pieces.
Vieira called the design “Latvian” because he found it in many pictures of Latvian events in which pieces like these were used. Many contemporary collectors of Soviet sets today would identify the pieces as “Latvian,” notwithstanding that over the course of six decades they apparently were manufactured in multiple locations from Moscow to Mordovia. However, artist-collector Alan Power and others have begun to call the pieces “Mordovian-Latvian,” or simply “Mordovian,” reflecting our our understanding that many sets of this design were manufactured in a Mordovian Gulag in the late 1940s and 1950s.
I also have seen the design referred to as “Tal’s favorite” or the “Latvian Tal” set. The basis for such claims is an exuberant exclamation Vieira uttered in his iconic 2012 video on Soviet chess sets, but neither he nor anyone else has offered any evidence for the claim other than Tal is seen playing with such pieces in several photos. Those photos by themselves do not reasonably support any claim of a special relationship between Tal and the design.
I am thinking of referring to this style as the Berezovsky design because this is where it appears to have originated based on the board stamps. I think that would be fitting homage to the child prisoners of the Gulag who first made them.
Pieces in a Larger Game: The Key to Understanding Soviet Chess Sets
The key to understanding Soviet chess sets is to consider them as an economic problem born from a political choice.
The first things I learned in college as a student of political science and economics were that 1) politics is who gets what, when, and how; and 2) economics is what is to be produced, when, where, and how. I came to see economics and politics as two sides of the same coin, much in the way Classical Economists did, considering them to be the single subject of Political Economy.
John Stuart Mill, much maligned by Marx, saw production to be determined by natural laws, but distribution to be a product of political choices. In the Soviet Union, however, the decision that drove most everything related to chess sets was political: the program of Political Chess I have written about elsewhere established as state policy exponentially increasing chess play among the masses.
The program of Political Chess was wildly successful, ultimately drawing millions of players to the sport. According to Professor Richards, in 1923, at the end of the Civil War, there were approximately 1,000 registered players in the Soviet Union. In one year, that number ballooned to 24,000. By 1929, the number had grown to 150,000, and more than tripled to 500,000 within the next five years. The number of players doubled to 1 million by 1951, six years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, and then tripled to 3 million by 1964.
All these new players needed sets to play on. To appropriate a phrase from Lenin, what was to be done? Who was to produce these sets? Where? How? The Soviets’ answers to these questions was reflected in evolving state policy that first eliminated the market, then reinstated it, then abandoned it in favor of artisan collectives–artels–and workers imprisoned in Gulags, and finally by state factories worked by wage labor.
The Soviet Union inherited a system where the handful of sets needed were produced by private artisans working in ateliers and artels. During the Civil War, however, the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to replace private markets with a command economy, a set of policies given the name War Communism (1918-1921). Of course, it is hard to believe that anyone was making or buying new chess sets during this period of political, economic, and social upheaval.
War Communism succeeded in arming, clothing, and feeding the Red Army enough to defeat the Whites and their Western allies, but it left everyone else cold, hungry, and wanting. So Lenin adopted what he called the New Economic Program (1921-1928), or NEP, that dialed back the command economy and promoted private markets to produce necessities and consumer goods. This gave ateliers and artels the space to operate and grow. They likely were able to provide the sets needed for the early stages of growth in player numbers, but there is scant direct evidence for chess sets being produced under NEP, even though we can infer that there were enough sets to service an increase of 23,000 players from 1923 to 1924, and of another 126,000 by 1929.
Lenin died in January 1924, and Stalin successfully maneuvered to succeed him. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Stalin saw a command economy to be the way the Soviet Union could rapidly industrialize. Plus, a command economy was more for him to command. So the expansion of private ateliers and artels was reversed under his First Five Year Plan (1928-1932). This could only have hurt anyone who had been making chess sets under NEP and strained the state’s ability to supply sets to the relentlessly growing army of players, which reached half a million by 1934.
Agricultural collectivization and drought brought famine and mass starvation from 1930 to 1933, and the singular focus on industrialization generated sizeable shortages of other consumer goods. Stalin addressed this with his Second Five Year Plan (1932-1937) and expansion of forced labor camps known as Gulags. While maintaining rapid industrialization as a goal, the Second Five Year Plan promised to expand the production of consumer goods, a category that included chess sets, and promoted the used of cooperatives–artels–to do so. Similarly, Gulags were seen as an economic engine to develop natural resources, build infrastructure, and manufacture consumer goods. Among the natural resources was timber, and among the consumer goods were furniture, toys, and chess sets, all made in workshops associated with timber harvesting.
These economic policies bore fruit. From 1932 to the onset of the Great Patriotic War, the number of artels and the value of their production markedly increased. We also can see from surviving sets and their affixed labels that artel chess production increased dramatically during this period, as a dazzling array of designs have survived.
The Gulags, too, turned to chess production. In the thirties, a Siberian children’s penal colony began producing simple, functional sets in a design that continued to be produced in a Mordovian Gulag in the forties and fifties and then in state factories until the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond.
Both the Gulag design and many of the artel designs evidence the influence of Constructivists and other modernists. In the case of the artels, this influence likely was a matter of artistic expression. In the Gulags, however, it was a matter of economization. Simplification enabled unskilled and semis-skilled workers to more easily and economically manufacture the sets. It is ironic that one of the most enduring contributions of the Constructivists–champions of human liberation from wage slavery and commodity fetishism–was produced in Gulags. Such is the tragedy of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The Great Patriotic War brought a decline in the artels, as war production required greater economies of scale. Surviving artels were able to continue largely by adopting mass production techniques characteristic of state factories. By 1956, the Central Committee of the Communist Party had decided that “many enterprises of industrial cooperation have ceased to have the character of artisanal cooperative production and essentially do not differ from enterprises of state industry.” Remaining artels began to be nationalized, becoming state-owned enterprises under the control of the various state authorities.
By the early 1950s, state authorities had come to realize that Gulag production was inefficient and uneconomical. Upon Stalin’s death, a Beria’s general amnesty sounded the death knell of the Gulag system. By 1960, it was formally abolished, though prison labor continued to be used in state prisons.
The 1950s saw the dramatic rise of chess set mass production by state factories employing wage labor. Designs were simplified and often degraded. Wooden knights and finials were replaced with molded plastic ones. What had begun as an artisan trade fifty years earlier was now mechanized. Even so, players voiced protests over the unavailability of sets. By 1964, their numbers had reached 3 million.
The key to understanding Soviet chess sets is to appreciate that their history was driven by a political choice to grow the sport among the masses. How the Soviet economy produced the sets for that burgeoning army of chess-players in turn was driven by the evolution of Soviet economic policy and organization, from War Communism to the NEP to the Five Year Plans to the end of Gulags and artels. You can read about this in more detail in my forthcoming article in CCI-USA, “The Means of Soviet Chess Set Production,” later this year.
Chess Pieces of the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr Match: An Ongoing Enigma
Confusion remains as to the identity of the set (or sets) used in the 1933 Match between the Soviet Mikhail Botvinnik and then-Czech Grandmaster Salo Flohr. The Match, comprising twelve games, six of each played in Leningrad and then Moscow, was engineered by Nikolai Krylenko, head of the Soviet Chess and Checkers Section, editor of 64 magazine, and Soviet Commissar of Justice to pit the rising Red Star against Flohr, then considered to be a leading challenger for the world championship. Krylenko sought to gauge the progress of his program of political chess in achieving its goal of surpassing the West in this arena of cultural and intellectual competition. Wrote Krylenko in the introduction to Botvinnik’s book on the match:
The moment came when we had to test our quality growth, our strength against the professionals of Western Europe. This was the first purpose of the Flohr-Botvinnik match we organized.
M. Botvinnik, Botvinnik – Flohr: Match 1933 at p. 5 (Kindle Edition, 2020).
Sources of Confusion
One source of the confusion stems from the close proximity of the 1933 match to the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament, where Flohr and Botvinnik drew their only game and shared first place ahead of former world champions Emanuel Lasker and Jose Raul Capablanca; and the 1936 Third Moscow International Tournament, where Botvinnik won the famous “Mop the Flohr” game en route to taking second place behind Capablanca, Flohr finishing third. Photos of the three events, often lacking proper labels, were conflated and confounded, even in Botvinnik’s book on the match, and the sets used in the 1935 and 1936 events were thought by some to be those used in 1933.
Recent research has determined that the 1935 and 1936 Moscow events used one design, and the 1933 match another. The design used in those events has been definitively identified and has come to be known as the Botvinnik-Flohr II (or BFII) set. The set used in the 1933 match has come to be known as the Botvinnik-Flohr I (or BFI) set so as to distinguish it from the later design. Although this distinction has allowed us to identify and study the BFII design in its evolving variations, it has not clarified the identity of the 1933 Match set
A second source of the confusion is the paucity of photos of the 1933 Match that have sufficient clarity to readily identify the set used. Because photographic evidence from the 1933 Match is so scarce and of such poor resolution, collectors, myself included, and others have misidentified the design actually used, and only compounded confusion by repeating the mistake as if it was an established historical fact.
A third source of the confusion is that the numbers of Soviet sets and their many creative designs had not yet begun to explode until later in the 1930s. Not only is less known about sets and designs in the immediate post-Civil War Soviet Union, but there were far fewer of them made and even fewer, if any, that have survived. Thus exemplars of these sets are hard to come by, making it difficult to compare candidate sets to the one appearing in the 1933 photos.
Examining the Photographic Record
Perhaps the clearest photo of the set used in the match is found in Igor Botvinnik’s Photochronicle of his uncle’s career. Although the photo’s caption refers to Hastings, the position on the board and a comparison to other photos known to be from the 1933 match indicate that it is indeed from the 1933 match and not Hastings.
Moreover, it is clear from even a cursory examination that the pieces in the photo above are not those used for decades at the Hastings Chess Congresses.
In Figure 3, I have enlarged images of the pieces in Figure 1 and labeled the squares on which they are set. They are not perfectly to scale because I enlarged them a constant 300% from the photo, and the pieces were all at slightly different distances from the camera.
We can glean a number of observations from these images. The stems of the royals are concave, though possibly skewed towards the bases. The stems of the bishop and pawns appear more vertical. The pedestals of the king, queen, and bishop are all substantially wider than the connectors. The connectors of these pieces appear to have two rings defining the top and bottom of the connectors. together with the pedestals, the rings form the “triple collar” characteristic of the original Staunton design. The ratios of the heights of the royals’ crown + connector/base + stem are high. It appears less in the bishop.
The king on e1 at first appears to lack a finial. Further examination of a higher resolution version of the photo provided by Sergey Kovalenko suggests otherwise. This image is shown in Figure 4. The finial appears to incorporate compound curves.
The use of a finial on the kings is confirmed by Figure 5, which appears to show a peg-shaped finial on the White king just above Botvinnik’s left arm (circled in red).
Returning to Figure 3, the queen’s coronet includes multiple crenelations. Both the royals’ crowns appear to trumpet somewhat at the top. The bishop on f1 lacks a finial and does not appear to have a miter cut. Examination of other photos from the match leads me to think that the finial was been broken off from this bishop. However, Sergey Kovelenko has found what appears to be a miter cut in an enlarged and enhanced version of this post’s cover photo, presented here as Figure 5.1. Note the bishop right beneath Flohr’s clock
The knight on c3 of Figure 3 exhibits a C-shaped back and a V-shaped neck. Its back may extend beyond the cylinder of the base. The snout appears to angle up like the Tal knight. It appears to extend beyond the cylinder of the base. It appears to have carved nostrils and Chagall eyes. The ears protrude from the torso. The mouth is open as in the Laughing Knight sets. Teeth are not evident, but neither is their presence precluded. There appears to be a carving cut into the top of the neck extending most of the length of the top of the neck. The mane extends to roughly the mid-line of the torso, which was carved away to leave the mane. the mane has a number of flares, possibly four.
The rook’s tower in Figure 3 appears to have straight walls. The number of merlons is less clear, but it seems to me that there are four. The pawns are all of the same basic form, but the sizes of the heads vary. The d4 pawn’s head is substantially larger than those of a2, d5, f2, g2, and h2. The head of the pawn on c4 is larger than all of the others except for that on d4.
The cover to the Match book authored by M. Botvinnik (Figure 6) remains one of the best sources as to the design of the 1933 set despite its somewhat poor quality. I use it here to supplement some of the observations made above. I have enlarged images of certain pieces from the squares indicated.
The first matter of note is that the crown of the white king on e1 appears to bear a cross. This, together with the set’s many other Staunton elements suggests a pre-Soviet origin of either the set or its design. Second, the bishop on c8 definitely is topped by a small, spherical finial. Neither this bishop nor the one on d6 appears to have miter cuts. Third, the tower walls of the rook on a1 appear to be straight. It also appears to me that this rook’s turret has four merlons.
Except for the king’s cross and the bishop’s finial, I don’t see anything in this photo to alter my observations of the Photochronicle photo (Figures 1 & 3 supra) described above.
Let’s examine several sets that have been thought to be the design used in the 1933 match.
The Moscow Chess Museum Set & Fabiano Specimen
This set resides in the Russian Chess Federation’s Moscow Chess Museum. Alluding to the famous 1925 film starring Jose Raul Capablanca, it describes the set as “A typical tournament set of Soviet Chess of the times of the ‘Chess Fever’ of the second half of the 1920s – the beginning of the 1930s.” It asserts that sets like this were used in the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr match. Alas, the set is a reproduction manufactured by the Indian firm ChessBazaar, not an original. Here is the reproduction:
The reproduction is consistent with the photographic evidence in many respects. This consistency at one time had led me to believe that it accurately reproduced the 1933 set. But further analysis has forced me to recognize that this reproduction also diverges from the Match set in important respects. The bases employ a double step up from the base to the stem, whereas there is a single step-up shown in the historical photos. The stems of the pawns and bishops are noticeably more arced than those in the photos of the originals. The rook walls are quite concave whereas the originals are straight. The original rook has a discernible base, whereas that of the reproduction merely continues the line of the tower walls. Although we cannot see the connection between the stems and pedestals of the original pieces, the way it is turned in the reproduction gives the royals and clerics the appearance of four collars, which I have yet to see in any other Soviet or late Tsarist set. I find the pedestals narrower on the reproduction than the originals. The rings defining the tops and bottoms of the connectors of the royals and clerics are more pronounced in the reproductions than in the originals. The base of the queen’s coronet in the reproduction is narrower than in the original, its upward curve and crenels more pronounced. Its finial is larger than the original’s. The queen is proportionally shorter relative to the bishop and king than in the set in Figure 3. The reproduction’s king’s crown does not have the same half-globe connector to the finial that the original’s does. The reproduction’s knight torso appears thinner and more serpentine than the originals. Its snout does not have the hourglass shape of the originals, and its mouth does not open as wide as those of the originals, if at all, perhaps because it includes detailed teeth carvings.
ChessBazaar’s reproduction is in fact a very good copy of the beautiful set, shown in Figure 9, from Brazilian collector Antonio Fabiano’s astounding collection. In some respects, such as the more subdued crenels on the queen’s coronet, it is closer to the 1933 match set than the reproduction is. But most of the analysis of the reproduction above also relates to this original. One item of particular note is that the kings’ crowns are topped with small crosses, like the king on e1 in Figure 6 appears to be.
The Kong Specimen
A set nearly identical to the Fabiano specimen resides in the collection of Singapore collector Steven Kong.
The Kong set shares many of the design elements of the sets in the handful of photos we have of the 1933 Match set. It’s very close in its features to Fabiano’s set. A couple noticeable differences from the sets in the 1933 photos: this queen is shorter, particularly in relation to the bishop; this rook turret is taller; the tower walls of this rook are concavely curved; the king’s finial is a large ball rather than a cross or complex curve; this queen finial has a stem and larger ball. Finials are ephemeral elements in many ways because they are prone to get lost and be replaced, and I tend to afford them less weight than other elements when identifying sets. That said, placing a ball atop a stem is a strong and unique element that I’d tend to treat as original. Indeed, Steve assesses his finials to be original. Overall, I think the Kong specimen is very close to the 1933 set but isn’t the exact set seen in the 1933 photos.
The Dzhemakulov Specimen
A third set is nearly identical to the Fabiano and Kong specimens. Photos if it were posted in chess.com by collector Murat Dzhemakulov in 2017.
This set is very peculiar in its coloring. Under Stalin, playing sets contained Red and Black Armies, but never Red and White Armies so as to not afford any credibility to the White Army of the Civil War. This leads me to think this may be a pre-Stalin set. It certainly would not have been used in the 1933 Match with these colors.
The rooks in this set appear to have the same proportions and straight tower walls as those in the 1933 photos. The ball and stem queen finials differ from those of the Match photos, but the pegs might resemble those apparently atop Botvinnik’s king in Figure 5.
Moscow collector Alexander Chelnokov has indicated that he has similar sets in his collection, but as the time of this publication, photos of them are not available.
The Mistakenly Named “BFI” Set
The pieces in Figure 12 often are mistakenly called “BFI” or “Botvinnik-Flohr I” pieces, suggesting erroneously that they were used in the 1933 match between Botvinnik and Flohr. While they bear some similarities to those used in that match, notably the structure and details of the knight and the straight walls of the rook’s tower walls, they have a distinctly different base, stem, and pedestal structure, among other differences. The base lacks the step-up to the stem found in Figures 1, 3, and 6; the stems rise straight from the base after an initial curve ascending from the base and cannot in my view be considered concave; the pedestal connects to the stem at a right angle rather than an arc meeting a horizontal plane; and the piece-identifying crowns and miters extend almost the entire diameter of the pedestals, whereas they are indented in Figures 1,3, and 6.
The designation BFI first arose after it was demonstrated that the pieces used in the 1935 First Moscow International Tournament differed significantly from those used in the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr Match. When I first acquired a different specimen of these pieces (Figure 13), which I later sold, I mistakenly identified them as pieces like those used in the 1933 Match.
The foregoing analysis has convinced me I was mistaken. The design is beautiful and significant in its own right, and deserves its own name. I have begun to call these pieces a Soviet Upright design.
A Fifth Candidate Set
I likewise have misidentified at least one other set as the pieces of the 1933 match.
I believe this set to be from the 1930s. Although with a 3.7″ king it is perhaps on the short side for a tournament set, its very heavy weighting suggests that it was. It shares many design elements with the sets in the photos from the match above, but a number of dissimilarities preclude it from being the set of the Match. The stems of the royals and clerics are mildly concave, and the bases share the same general three-level structure as the Match set, but the diameters of the piece signifiers on those pieces are too close to that of their respective pedestals. The king’s finial incorporates a complex curve that seems consistent with the king in Figure 3.
This knight incorporates a C-shaped back and V-shaped neck, but it is too large in relation to the rook and bishop when compared to the pieces on f1,g1, and h1 in Figure 3. It lacks the upward tilt of the head found in the knight on c3 of that photo, and its ears seem angled too far forward.
The rook’s tower walls are straight, and its turret has four merlons, but its tower is wider and appearance more squat than the rooks in Figure 3 and Figure 6. It is the same height as the pawn, whereas the rooks on h1 of Figure 3 and a1 of Figure 6 appear noticeably taller than the pawns in front of them. And the pawn’s head is very elliptical, whereas the pawns’ heads in Figures 3 and 6 are all spherical, even if of varying sizes.
The set used in the 1933 match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Salo Flohr has received much interest and generated much confusion. It has been reproduced by two major modern manufacturers. One of these reproductions resides in the Moscow Chess Museum, which identifies it as the set of the match. This set appears to be a very close copy of an original set held in the collection of an esteemed collector. Two other similar sets have appeared, one with the elusive straight rook walls. None of these sets have the miter cuts appearing in one of the photos. While these sets contain more elements of the original set than other sets that have mistakenly been identified as the Match set, most notoriously the misnamed BFI set, I am convinced that a specimen of the 1933 Match set is yet to publicly emerge. Perhaps that will change when photos of the Chelnokov specimens become available.
Updated 24 August 2022.
The Curious Case of Leningrad Factory No. 8 and the “1943 Leningrad” Set
Studying Soviet chess sets forces us to confront a good number of uncertainties. In many cases, direct evidence of a set’s provenance is simply lacking. Secondary information is scarce, even more so information that is available in English. So it is with these beautiful pieces and the board with which they came to me, which bears stamps that read: Leningrad Factory No. 8, 1943. Here is a close-up of the board’s stamps.
Here are the nicely turned and carved red and black pieces arrayed on the board.
I initially thought that the stamps signified that the pieces and board both originated in Nazi-besieged Leningrad, writing, “It is nothing short of miraculous that the set survived, as wood shortages doomed most wooden sets to the stoves to survive the brutal winters.” But evidence soon emerged that the board was paired with the pieces sometime after they were manufactured. Here are two photos that seem to show these same pieces being offered for sale in a different container.
The dropped jaw of the knights, the steeple rings of the bishops, and style of the stem and base suggest this is what we typically call a “Laughing Knight” set. At the same time, the pieces also incorporate a slender verticality and stem and base structure reminiscent of the Soviet Upright chessmen sometimes called “Averbakh II” pieces, mistakenly implying a stylistic relation to the set Averbakh is seen playing with in a well-known photo from the 1949 Moscow Championship.
All this said, the set is unweighted, which is a noted characteristic of sets manufactured while the Soviet Union was on a war footing, metal being needed for weapons and munitions production. And there is photographic evidence circumstantially linking sets like this one to Leningrad. Here is a photo of a like set being played with by then-future World Champion Lyudmila Rudenko (b. 1904).
Although this photo is undated, Rudenko’s first major success in chess was her victory in the 1928 Moscow Championship, and it is said that her style and form did not finally develop until she moved to Leningrad in 1929 and began studying under the likes of Romanovsky and Tolush. It is conceivable that she is twenty-five in the above photo.
Rudenko is not the only public figure circumstantially linking the set to Leningrad. Below is a photo of Mikhail Kalinin, who was born in 1875, moved to St. Petersburg 1n 1895, undertook revolutionary activity in 1905, and became one of the earliest members of the Bolshevik Party. In 1917 he became mayor of Petrograd, and in 1919 a member of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party. He ascended to full membership in the Politburo in 1926. Kalinin served as titular head of the Soviet state from 1917 until his retirement in 1946, a largely ceremonial role. Of him Khrushchev supposedly said, “I don’t know what practical work Kalinin carried out under Lenin. But under Stalin he was the nominal signatory of all decrees, while in reality he rarely took part in government business. Sometimes he was made a member of a commission, but people didn’t take his opinion into account very much. It was embarrassing for us to see this; one simply felt sorry for Mikhail Ivanovich.” One could not feel too sorry for him. It was very rare for any Bolshevik of consequence to have survived the Great Purges of the 1930s, and his signature could be found authorizing heinous acts like the murder of thousands of Polish prisoners, signed ceremoniously or not. If Kalinin is sixty in the following undated photo, then it was taken around 1935.
Further photographic evidence likely links pieces like these to the mid- to late-1930s. St. Petersburg collector and researcher Sergey Kovalenko dates the following photo to be from 1935.
The set also appeared in other finishes. Here is a dark red/brown and black specimen from Steven Kong’s collection. It originally was finished in a black and orange/red combination. It is unweighted.
And here is a magnificent specimen from Steve’s collection, in a natural finish. These pieces are weighted, perhaps signifying they are an early version of the design. The exquisite dental work seen in the knight on g1 supports an early dating.
We have seen the stamps inside the board above. The board itself is constructed from plywood. It is roughly 40 cm square. Its squares are irregular, ranging from 45-50 mm. The dark squares and sides are finished with a reddish-brown stain. The board seems to have gone through several generations of hooks and hinges. Notation was added to the borders after market.
Sergey Kovalenko assesses the board as follows: “Such simplifications are typical for boards of the 60s, but, in my opinion, this is also normal for wartime. The colors look early. In any case it is interesting board. Some of evacuated Leningrad factory could make this board, for example.”
What was Leningrad Factory No. 8, and could it have made chessboards amidst the devastating siege?
According to Russian sources unearthed by Sergey, Leningrad Factory 8 was an electromechanical plant launched in 1934. It produced radio broadcasting equipment, charging stations, welding units, related boxes and coils. In July 1941, it merged with the Molotov Telephone plant into a single enterprise, and much of the plant’s equipment and personnel were shipped to Molotov, which was renamed Perm in 1957, a large industrial center on the Kama River and near the Ural Mountains. The joint plant in Molotov began operation in September 1941 located on the site of the former confectionary plant Red Ural, and was renumbered as Plant No. 629. In May 1942, a woodworking operation was added to the joint plant. Among its products were wood boxes for military telephones manufactured at the plant.
There is no evidence that either Sergey or I could find of what, if anything, any remnants of Plant No. 8 remaining in Leningrad may have produced. According to Wikipedia, “86 major strategic industries were evacuated from the city. Most industrial capacities, engines and power equipment, instruments and tools, were moved by the workers. Some defense industries, such as the LMZ, the Admiralty Shipyard, and the Kirov Plant, were left in the city, and were still producing armor and ammunition for the defenders.” According to the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, “upon the outbreak of hostilities, the leading enterprises of Leningrad were reoriented to produce weapons and ammunition. In January 1942, at the most critical time of the blockade, 22 enterprises produced more than 100 types of military equipment, weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, instruments, and so on.”
Based on this information, two possibilities present themselves for the origins of the Leningrad Factory No. 8 board. The first is that it was manufactured in Leningrad by remnants of the plant remaining there after the bulk of its productive assets were evacuated to Molotov. It is conceivable that these remnants continued to manufacture military phones for use by the besieged defenders, and that scraps from the phone boxes were used to fashion some crude chess boards. Communications equipment is among that believed to have been made there during the siege. But there is no direct evidence of woodworking to have continued there, and it seems unlikely that scraps from the production of military phones were used to make luxury goods when thousands were freezing to death for lack of fuel, even under Stalin.
The second possibility is that the stamps from Leningrad Factory No. 8 traveled to Molotov with the bulk of the plant’s other assets, and were used to stamp chessboards made in the merged plant’s woodworking shop from scraps from the production of wooden boxes for military phones, even though the joint plant had been relocated and renumbered. I find this possibility more plausible than the first.
Finally, a third possibility must be considered. That is that the stamp inside my board is not from Factory No. 8, but Factory No. 3. Russian sources tell us that Leningrad Factory No. 3 began making gramophone records in the mid-1930s and children’s toys and radios in the late 1930s, but lacked its own woodworking shop. For this reason, as well as the circumstances of the siege outlined above, I find it unlikely to have been the manufacturer of my chessboard.
This slender, elegant set with wide bases incorporates a design that originated in the 1930s, but it is highly unlikely that it was turned and carved in besieged Leningrad, even though it has several discernable links to that city. The board that housed it when it came to me bears stampings literally telling us it was made by Leningrad Factory 8 during the siege, but there are good reasons not to interpret them literally. More plausibly, the stamps evacuated Leningrad in 1942 with the bulk of the plant’s productive assets, only to be used in Molotov, their new home near the Urals, and were affixed to a board made from by the Molotov plants woodworking shop from scraps of plywood left in the production of boxes for military telephones. Many thanks to Sergey Kovalenko for sharing his research and thoughts on this curious case.
Laughing Knight Chess Set
This set is fine specimen of a not uncommon design, characterized by 1) the open mouths of the knights, which suggests to many that they are laughing, and 2) the ring or ball perched atop its bishops’ onion-shaped miters, echoing the globus cruciger found on the spires of many onion-shaped Orthodox church domes.
The kings are 97 mm tall and the pieces are unweighted. Coupled with the modest bases lack of weighting renders them more unstable than other unweighted Soviet sets, which compensate for the lack of weighting with substantial bases.
My specimen, as are many others, is finished in black and Stalin Red. Yet other specimens are finished in black and brown varnish. Here is a brown and black version in Lokahi Antonio’s collection.
The late Nick Lanier of the Chess Museum has suggested that this design may be of Tsarist origin, but his suggestion is offered without supporting research. I know of no direct or circumstantial evidence and no morphological analysis supporting his suggestion. His specimen is brown and black. He describes the pieces as “very well finished” and the knights as “happy.”
The design is generally thought to arise in the thirties. This is the view expressed in Russian auction sites and by knowledgeable dealers in Soviet chessmen. The photographic record supports this view. Here is a photo from the 1939 Moscow-Leningrad Match for the Deaf.
Here is a 1943 photo from the Evacuation Hospital in Vologda, which, according to chess historian Jorge Njegovic Drndak, specialized in infectious diseases that and treated the victims of the Great Patriotic War. The set appears to be a black and red version.
And here is a photo of what seems to be another black and red version of the set being used by schoolchildren in Udmurt Autonomous SSR in 1947, provided by Sergey Kovalenko.
The Laughing Knight set is thought to have been produced by Artel Kultsport in Moscow. Two dealers in the chain of title of my set represented that it originated with Kultsport. Although my set came in a box/board that had only remnants of a paper label, the board itself was nearly identical to another from the mid-1940s that bears an Artel Kultsport ink stamp. Moreover, Kultsport is known to have affixed paper labels prior to 1941, further supporting the pre-war Kultsport inferences of the set’s origins.
One of the interesting design elements in these chessmen is the almost spherical ring near the top of the peak of the bishop miter, echoing those on the spires of the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
But the defining characteristic of this set is the knight’s gaping mouth, which makes it appear to be heartily laughing. To be sure, some horses, like the American TV star, the late Mr. Ed, played by the palomino gelding Bamboo Harvester (1949-1971), have exhibited a sense of humor. Mr. Ed, America’s first “Stable Genius,” elsewhere has been described as “an obnoxious and inconsiderate troublemaker.”
As gaping mouths are a recurring theme in knight design, Soviet and otherwise, I did some cursory research into what it means when a horse opens its mouth. Here are some of the explanations offered:
- The horse has colic (who would send sick horses to war?);
- It has detected an unusual odor, as a mare in heat, and curls his lip in what’s called a “Flehmen Response” to get a better whiff (it would seem inappropriate to call them “Horny Knights”);
- It is relaxed in contentment (unlikely for a warhorse headed into battle);
- It indicates aggression (befitting a warrior steed); and
- It is vocalizing, as in neighing, opening the mouth and exposing the teeth to allow the sound to resonate, typically an expression of anxiety or excitement (largely consistent with our “laughing” interpretation).
The popular Laughing Knight design originated prior to the Great Patriotic War. It is named for the gaping mouth of its knights, which appears to be caught in mid-laugh. It seems to have been made by Artel Kultsport in Moscow, though the evidence for this is circumstantial and inferential.
Proto-Tal Chess Pieces, c. 1940
An interesting set that adopts a good number of Staunton design elements. I call it the “Proto-Tal” set because it is so similar to the Tal set in a pre-Annexation photo of Keres and Mikenas playing in an Estonia-Lithuania Friendship Match in Tallinn in Spring 1940 that the two must be related. We already have examined the development of the Tal chessmen here in From Tallinn to Tbilisi: the Evolution of the Tal Chess Pieces.
The Prot0-Tal set is tournament-sized but unweighted. My specimen retains its original black cloth bottoms. The king’s cross is decidedly non-Soviet, evidence of its origin in Estonia or another Baltic state prior to their Annexation by the Soviet Union late in 1940. Here are the proto-Tal pieces:
For comparison sake, here are the 1940 Tal pieces in Mike Ladzinski’s collection. The knight is better developed and carved. The bishop’s miter is cut. The pieces are weighted and are covered with red rather than black cloth.
I believe the Proto-Tal set preceded the 1940 Tal set because the knight of the Keres-Mikenas photo is a mature Tal knight, very similar to those appearing in photos of events from 1940 to 1979, whereas the Proto-Tal knight is barely pubescent. I also believe it to be of Baltic, possibly of Estonian origin. We know that Tal sets appeared in the Baltic region as early as 1940 from the Keres-Mikenas photo. We also know that Mike Ladzinski’s c. 1940 Tal set came to him from Lithuania, and that Ron Harrison’s Proto-Tal set like this one came to him from Estonia. These facts support an inference of the set’s Baltic origins.
Alternatively, it is also possible that rather than being the source of the Tal set, the Proto-Tal set is a simplified version of the early Tal set manufactured for popular rather than tournament use. This would explain the greatly simplified knights, the lack of weighting, and the absence of a miter cuts on the bishops.
The Proto-Tal set appears to have originated in the Baltic region prior to its annexation by the Soviet Union, and to be the progenitor of the widely loved Tal chess pieces.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
The knights are exceptionally beautiful, and bear a striking resemblance to the Novgorod Knight of the 15th Century.
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.