These photos provide a quick reference guide to Soviet and Late Tsarist chess pieces. It remains a work in progress that I intend to periodically supplement. Many thanks to Steven Kong, Mike Ladzinski, Antonio Fabiano, Ron Harrison, Mykhailo Kovalenko, Nickolai Filatov, Porat Jacobson, and Alex Marshall for providing their photos and sharing their knowledge of these wonderful sets.
Possibly c. 1890 Tsarist Pieces, Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo. Exquisite knight carvings.
“Smyslov’s Set.” Nearly identical to a set owned by the former world champion and housed in a Russian Chess museum. Made from Karelian birch. Antonio Fabiano Collection, Chuck Grau photo.
Circa 1900 Karelian Birch Pieces. Similar to those of the 1909 and 1914 St. Petersburg Tournaments. Very well-crafted and nicely weighted. Karelian Birch sets have appeared in several sizes, and with differences in certain details. This king’s finial is bone. Others are wooden semi-domes. The miter cut on this bishop are symmetrical side-to-side. Others are asymmetrical. 95 mm kings. Read more about them . here Antonio Fabiano Collection, Chuck Grau photo.
Late Tsarist Karelian Birch Pieces. Similar to those of the 1909 and 1914 St. Petersburg Tournaments. The miter cuts in this bishop are asymmetrical, and the king’s finial is a semi-dome. 92 mm kings. Decently weighted. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly Late Tsarist Pieces. Steven Kong Collection, photo.
Possibly Late Tsarist Pieces Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
Possibly Late Tsarist Pieces Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
c. 1910 Alekhine Pieces. Named and dated by Steven Kong from a photo of Alekhine with like pieces. Rare, majestic pieces. Approximately 125 mm kings. Nicely weighted. Steven Kong photo.
1925 First Moscow International Tournament Pieces. A very traditional Staunton design, with crosses on the kings and cuts to the bishops’ miters. No example of it has yet emerged. National Archives of Argentina photo.
Possibly Tsarist Pieces. Steven Kong Collection, photo.
Possibly 1920s -30s Cannon Rook Set. Read more about this fascinating set here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1920s-30s Constructivist-influenced set. 63 mm kings. Unweighted. Read more about these Constructivist-influenced pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Late 1920s-30s Smyslov Pieces. 109 mm kings. Modestly weighted. Cloth bottoms. Read more about the Smyslov pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Pieces of the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr Match. On the cover of Botvinnik’s account of the match. The set remains an enigma.
P ieces very close to those 0f the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr Match. One notceable difference is the shape of tower walls on the rooks. In the photo above, they are straight. Here they are concave. Antonio Fabiano Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s Upright Pieces. Mistakenly called “BFI” 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, they have a distinctly different stem structure, among other differences. The designation “BFI” first arose when 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. Arlindo Vieira and two manufacturers of reproductions theretofore had confounded the two different sets. When I first acquired a different specimen of these pieces (which I later sold), I mistakenly identified them as pieces like those used in the 1933 match. Later inspections of the few surviving photos of the event and the book Botvinnik authored about it convinced me I had been mistaken. The design is beautiful and significant in its own right, and deserves its own name. Meanwhile, the identity of the pieces actually used in the 1933 match remains a mystery. 90 mm kings and unweighted, stability being provided by the proportionately wide bases. A fine example of one group of Soviet sets defined by stems that end their upward rise nearly perpendicular to the planes of the bases, supporting a distinct pedestal upon which the signifiers rest–the kings’ and queens’ crowns, the bishops’ miters, the pawns’ orbs. In addition, the sides of the royals’ and clerics’ piece signifiers are nearly flush with the perimeter of the bases. Another common example is the so-called “Averbakh II” set. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s Upright Pieces. Pieces like these continued to be made into the 1940s, and are often found in with a darker brown finish. 95 mm kings. Unweighted, but reasonable stability is afforded by the solid bases. Cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s Pieces, possibly made by Artel Kultsport. Often called the “Laughing Knight” set. Two characteristics of this design are the facial expression of the knight, which appears to be laughing, and the vestigial globus cruciger atop the bishop. 96 mm kings. Unweighted. Refinished. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s Tournament Set. Heavily weighted, artistically restored by Alan Power of the Chess Schach. 97 mm kings. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s-40s Pieces. Very similar to those Vieira claimed were used in Soviet Championships of the 1940s and 1950s. In this regard, I believe he mistook them for Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces. 87.5 mm kings. Unweighted. Cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Probably 1930s Artel Kultsport Tournament Pieces. Well-turned and carved, with stunning, ferocious knights. The accompanying board/box contains a partial label identifying Artel Kultsport. Nicely weighted in a manner similar to other 1930s sets. 100 mm kings. One of the few Soviet sets I’ve run across with any kind of warping, but with the requisite cigarette ash burns in the amber varnish. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Love that knight.
Possibly 1930s Tournament Pieces. The stems are mildly dendriformic, reminiscent of the Smyslov design. Heavily weighted. 94 mm kings. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Late 1930s Mordovian (fka Latvian) Pieces. Formerly called “Latvian” because Arlindo Vieira called them that after finding them in a number of photos from there. Further research leads me to conclude that these pieces were made in a number of locations, but not in Latvia. Many of them, the most desirable ones to my eye, were made in Mordovia. These pieces, of second quality, were made in Berezovsky Children’s Penal Colony in Siberia, close to Krasnoyarsk. It is not surprising that Soviet Authorities turned to Gulags to manufacture the large number of sets needed for the exponentially expanding numbers of players. The old Artel system simply could not come close to supplying the numbers needed. Pieces in this style were produced from the late 1930s to the end of the Soviet Union, and I think it is safe to say they are the most numerous of any Soviet set design. These kings are 90 mm. The pieces are weighted with plaster. Weighting of any kind is rare for this design, but apparently was was a feature of the original Gulag sets. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Late 1930s Mordovian (fka Latvian) Pieces. First Quality, also made in Berezovsky Children’s Penal Colony. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
1955 Mordovian Set. Over the years, this design continued to be produced, even as details of its design evolved. To my eye, this is the most beautiful version of the style, made in Mordovia. These pieces are unweighted. The kings are 100 mm. The set has been refinished. Dealers and collectors sometimes refer to this design as “Tal’s Favorite,” but there is no evidence to support this claim. It arises from a slide in Arlindo Vieira’s 2012 video where while presenting several photos of Tal playing with a like set, exclaims, “He loved these pieces!” Arlindo’s passion sometimes, as here, spilled over into hyperbole. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Another example of a 1950s Mordovian set With red used for the “White” pieces. This was very common for this design in the 1950s. 100 mm kings. Unweighted. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1960s Mordovian Pieces. With knights very characteristic of many Soviet sets of that decade. 100 mm kings. Unweighted. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1980 Mordovian Pieces. The final major evolution of this venerable design, by this time being mass-produced in factories. The pieces have been noticeably simplified to facilitate mass production. This is most evident in the knights, which have become little more than slabs cut by a band saw. The cuts in the rooks’ turrets and the queens’ coronets also have been removed. The fictional Beth Harmon played her ultimate match with pieces like these in the Netflix series Queen’s Gambit. 100 mm kings. Unweighted. Dated by reference to a similar set with a dated receipt and label in its original cardboard box. That set was manufactured by Obyedovskaya Toy Factory, Ivanovo Region. According to Wikipedia, “Ivanovo (Russian: Иваново, IPA: [ɪˈvanəvə]) is a city in Russia. It is the administrative center and largest city of Ivanovo Oblast, located 254 kilometers (158 mi) northeast of Moscow and approximately 100 kilometers (62 mi) from Yaroslavl, Vladimir and Kostroma. Ivanovo has a population of 408,330 as of the 2010 Census, making it the 49th largest city in Russia. Until 1932, it was previously known as Ivanovo-Voznesensk… “Ivanovo gained a reputation as the textile capital of Russia during the nineteenth century. The development of the textile industry involved the importation of textile machinery from England often accompanied by supervisory staff particularly from Lancashire. Most textile workers are women, so it has also been known as the ‘city of brides.’ Probably the most famous of the city’s female natives was the postmodern French writer Nathalie Sarraute. Also, there is a branch plant of AviraKids, a Russian holding company that occupies 37.5% of the Russian gaming equipment production industry.” Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Mid-1930s Botvinnik-Flohr II Pieces. Artel Prometheus, Leningrad. Very close to those first introduced at the 1934 Leningrad Masters Tournament, and used in the 1935 and 1936 Second and Third Moscow International Tournaments, and numerous Soviet Championships. The design evolved over the years, and was a workhorse of upper level Soviet Chess for decades as it ascended to world domination. In my opinion, Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces are the most iconic of all Soviet pieces. 97.5 mm kings. Well-weighted. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Mid-1930s Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces. Finely crafted, with bone finials topping the 100 mm tall kings, a feature reserved for only the top of the line late Tsarist and early Soviet sets. The beautiful knights are well-carved. These bishops lack miter cuts. Substantially weighted. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Mid-1930s Botvinnik-Flohr II Pieces. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr pieces here. Steven Kong photo.
Mid-1930s Botvinnik-Flohr II Pieces. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
c. 1938 Botvinnik-Flohr II Pieces Dated from a photo in Igor Botvinnik’s Photo Chronicle tribute to his uncle. Similar to the original design, but the bishop’s miter has grown rounded and lost its cut. 97 mm kings. The black king’s finial is made of bone. Substantially weighted. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1940 Botvinnik-Flohr “Penguin Knight” Pieces. Characterized by the penguin-shaped knights. The crenellations and merlons have disappeared. This is the first of the BFII sets with an opposite-color queen finial, a feature that continued through the remaining versions of this iconic design. The stems have grown noticeably more conical, presaging those of the Baku sets displayed below. 110 mm kings. Heavily weighted. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1941 Leningrad Championship BFII Pieces. Named and dated from a photo of the event. Characterized by its rounded miters and the mortar work on its rook towers. A similar set appears in a photo of the 1941 Leningrad Championship. According to Wikipedia, “The 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 and that of 1942, the most difficult year of the blockade, could not be organized.” Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Steven Kong Collection, photo.
c. 1955 Valdai BFII. The final major evolution of the BFII design. This set was made in Valdai in 1955. Sets like it were used in the 1956 Moscow Olympiad and the 1957 USSR Championship. The kings in my blond specimen of this version are 107 mm. My set is nicely weighted and has original brown felt-like bottoms. Read more about Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces here. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
Possibly 1930s Grandmaster Pieces. The 110 mm kings, heavy weighting, and superior craftsmanship all mark this as a set used at the very highest levels of Soviet chess. Breaking from the Modernist influences found in other sets of the thirties, these pieces hearken back to the Karelian Birch sets of the late Tsarist period, notably in the crowns of the royals and the incorporation of more traditional English Staunton elements like the triple collars and the shapes of the stems and bases. These pieces resemble their contemporaries, the 1930s-40s Bakelite and Carbolite pieces made famous in a photo shoot at the 1940 USSR Championship (where BFII pieces were used for actual play.) They also foreshadow the more traditionally Staunton styles that rose to the heights of Soviet Chess in the late forties and the fifties, the so-called Tal set and the Grandmaster 3 (and “Supreme”) sets, and the last of the Soviet Grandmaster sets, the GM 4, itself a cheapened version of the GM3 and Supreme sets. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1940s Carbolite Soviet Staunton Pieces. A very traditional Staunton design also made in maroon and black Bakelite. Made famous by a photo shoot taken at the 1940 Soviet Championship, which was held in Moscow, and therefore often referred to as the “1940 Championship Club” set. The pieces actually used in the championship, however, were BFIIs, as photographs establish. Legend has it that these carbolite chessmen were used in the Moscow Chess Club, but I am unaware of any confirmation of that. The legend has the benefit of at least being consistent with known facts in that it first appeared in Moscow and was considered to be an important design. Cabolite is a phenol formaldehyde resin initially developed by the Karpov Scientific and Research Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow. Perhaps the photo shoot was intended to showcase a practical and beautiful application of the Institute’s research. Likely made at Karbolit Zavod (Carbolite Plant) in Orekhovo-Zuyev outside Moscow. Ron Harrison Collection, photo.
1930-50s Bakelite Soviet Staunton Pieces. In maroon and black Bakelite. Bakelite is a phenol formaldehyde resin that was moldable, but relied on fillers to give it structural strength. The need to hide the filler led to it appearing primarily in dark colors, typically black and dark maroon in chess sets and other consumer products. Carbolite is also a moldable phenol formaldehyde resin, developed to transcend the brittleness of Bakelite and obviate the need for fillers and dark colors to mask them. It differs chemically from Bakelite in that it is made from an acidic solution (utilizing carbolic acid), whereas Bakelite is made from a basic solution. I believe the Bakelite version of this Staunton design came first because Bakelite preceded Carbolite, but there is also reason to believe that Bakelite versions continued to be made even after the introduction of the Carbolite version. 110 mm kings. Unweighted, but heavy from the solid Bakelite and fillers. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1950s Carbolite Soviet Staunton Pieces. I believe these to be from the fifties, owing to the yellowish cast of the white Carbolite, the red plastic finials of the Black royals, and the obvious casting seams, which suggest the decline in attention to detail that began to creep into post-war production. The castings of the Bakelite version and this Carbolite version are virtually identical, though great care was taken to file down the casting seams of the Bakelite pieces. A close inspection, however, reveals that the Bakelite pieces were not seamless, as fine filing marks are evident along lines that most certainly were seams. The most noticeable structural difference between the two versions is there is an additional beveled level at the bottom of the Bakelite pieces, giving them a slight height “advantage” over these Carbolite pieces. These Carbolite kings are 108mm. As with their Bakelite comrades, these pieces are heavy despite being unweighted. Both plastics were used to manufacture miniature versions of the design. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Late 1930s-1950s Miniature Bakelite Soviet Staunton Pieces. These pieces were manufactured by Artel Plastmass (артель “Пластмасс”) in Leningrad. According to Russian collector Sergey Kovalenko, one of the plants of the artel “Mineral” was reorganized into the Artel Plastmass around 1937. Sergey tells us that the most famous products of these artels are gramophone records and dominoes. The kings are approximately 70 mm and the pieces are not weighted. Nikolai Filatov photo.
Possibly 1950s Miniature Carbolite Soviet Staunton Pieces. Nikolay Filatov photo.
Possibly 1930s Valdai Nobles Pieces. The earliest known version of one of the few Soviet designs with an indigenous name. Also called “Valdayski” by Alan Power of the Chess Schach because at least some of them were manufactured by the Valdai Regional Industrial Manufactory located in the ancient region of Novgorod. Like the Mordovian style sets, sets in this style were mass-produced over decades for the growing throngs of players in the USSR. All but the knight rest on bulbous bases that largely obviate the need for weighting, which is absent from this set. The pawns combine an unusually small head with a particularly large base, presenting a uniquely squat appearance. At 89 mm the king stands taller than in later Nobles versions. Unlike its progeny, the knight sits on a pedestal rising from the base, giving it an almost pre-Staunton appearance, and allowing the steed to tower over all but the royals. A note about the dating, Russian artisan Misha Sokolov believes this set to be a “mature” Nobles design, which would date it more toward the 1960s. I find the knight mane carvings and base dimensions much more like sets from the 1940s or early 1950s than those of the 1960s. For example, this pawn base is larger than any of the other known versions of this style, and those of the sixties are the smallest. I infer that this size diminished over time, and that the largest of them therefore came first. Mykhailo Kovalenko, a collector and dealer from Kiev, shares my assessment of the 1930s dating. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1952 Valdai Nobles Pieces. 80 mm kings. Unweighted. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1965 Valdai Nobles Pieces. 79 mm kings. Unweighted. Original red felt-like bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1940 Upright Pieces. Commonly, and mistakenly, I believe, referred to as the “Averbakh II” design, it appears to have more in common with the so-called “Botvinnik-Flohr I” design than that of the Averbakh set of the 1949 Moscow tournament, and shown below. One could think of this set as an elongated version of the so-called “BFI” previously shown. What is striking about this design is its slender verticality, reflected in everything including the thin front profile of the knights. What it shares with the true Averbakh design, and which may lead some to perceive a close relationship among the designs, is the large proportion the height of the royal and clerical signifiers to that of the respective pieces’ stems and overall heights. Also notable are the unusually tall connectors between the top and middle “collars.” What materially distinguishes this design from that of the Averbakh, in my mind, are two important elements. First, in this design, the stems rise vertically from the transition from the base to a perpendicular juncture with the pedestal, upon which the signifier sits; in the true Averbakh design, the stem is concave, and opens up to form the pedestal in a continuous curve, a very distinctive Soviet design element. Second, in this design, the diameter of the royal and clerical signifiers is nearly equal to that of the pedestals, breaking the visual flow up from the base and along the stem; in the true Averbakh design, the diameter of the bottom of the royal and clerical signifiers is clearly less than that of the pedestal, and the curves of the signifiers visually continue the upward curve from the stem, unifying each piece bottom to top. 106 mm kings. Unweighted, but fairly stable due to the relative width of the bases. Bottoms covered in original red felt-like cloth. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
C. 1940 Voronezh Pieces. Named for the city of Voronezh, in southwest Russia, with a current population of slightly more than a million, where, according to the seller, the pieces had been stored since 1940. It is miraculous that they survived the Great Patriotic War because Voronezh had been the site of ferocious fighting during the Nazis’ Stalingrad campaign. It has been reported that 92% of the buildings there had been destroyed during the war. The kings are 10.2 cm tall, with bases of 3.6 cm. By Soviet standards, the pieces are heavily weighted with lead, consistent with pre-war practices. I believe they are likely late 1930s in origin. The design is quintessentially Soviet. The concave stem rises from the base to form the pedestal upon which the royal, cleric, and foot soldier signifiers rest without connecting sections separating them from their pedestals. The cleric is signified by a tear-shaped miter. I’ve come to call the concave shape of the stem the “Voronezh Curve,” and the design the “Voronezh Pattern.” It may not be the earliest example of any of the set’s individual design elements, but the names pay somber homage to this miraculous survivor of wartime devastation. The design became a popular one, as it was mass-produced after the war. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1950s Voronezh Pieces. The design has been rationalized some with greater consistency among the bases. The royals retain wooden finials, which were replaced by plastic ones in later versions. 102 mm kings. Nicely weighted. Original blue cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1940s Barrel Rook Tournament Pieces. Probably made by Artel Kultsport, though Moscow collector Alexander Chelnikov suggests Artel Sila may have been the maker. 98 mm kings. Unweighted, as was the practice during the war, but fairly stable from the solid bases and conical bottom of the stems. Date and manufacturer inferred from stamps included in the boxes of similar sets in the collections of Mike Ladzinski and Tom Adamski. Gone are the sweeping concave stem curves of the Voronezh pattern. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1943 Leningrad Pieces. The accompanying board bears a stamp indicating manufacture in 1943 in Leningrad Fabrika (factory) No. 8 during the Nazi siege. The red color is reminiscent of sets from the 1930s. 105 mm tall kings with 38 mm bases. The pieces’ bottoms are covered with original white patterned cloth. It is nothing short of miraculous if the set was made in besieged Leningrad and/or actually survived it, as wood shortages doomed most wooden sets to the stoves to survive the brutal winters. While the dropped jaw of the knights, the steeple rings of the bishops, and style of the stem and base suggest this is is an upscale version of the “Laughing Knight” design, war-torn Leningrad was no laughing matter. When I look at the knights I see only anguish and lament, not joy. The pieces incorporate a slender verticality and stem and base structure. The kings are 105 mm tall with bases of 38 mm. The pieces are unweighted. Here is a brief discussion of chess in besieged Leningrad by historian and Moscow Chess Museum curator Dmitry Oleinikov, 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. ‘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 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. ‘And yet, during the war years, not a single championship of Leningrad was missed. Although their participants 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!” ‘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… ‘The wounded played in hospitals, the soldiers and officers at the front played. During the blockade, the director of the Leningrad Chess Club Abram Model wrote out more than 500 qualification tickets for the fighters of the Leningrad Front, which means that only there the score of official tournaments, with tables, went to hundreds! ‘In December 1943, even before the blockade was completely lifted, the same Model began admitting schoolchildren to the children’s chess club in the walls of the Anichkov Palace covered with fragments. And almost immediately after the blockade was lifted, an announcement appeared on the plywood board from the side of Nevsky Prospekt with a pencil inscription: “Admission of schoolchildren to the open championship of Leningrad.” The first post-war generation of chess players again played at real chess tables with wooden pieces. Among the players was a thin black-haired boy in a neat quilted jacket – Vitya Korchnoi, in the future a multiple contender for the title of world champion… ‘The model was sometimes accused of being too generous in assigning chess grades to children (“categories,” as they said at the time). And he replied: “If the Leningrad children who survived the blockade find the strength and desire to come to the palace to play chess, I am ready to give them all not only the third – the first chess category!” Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1944 USSR Championship Pieces. Very similar to the sets appearing in photos of the event. Possibly made by Artel Kultsport, according to a Kultsport stamp in the accompanying box, and similarities in design to other sets in the collections of Mike John Ladzinski and Tom Adamski bearing Kultsport stamps. Similar sets in the collection of Moscow collector Alexander Chelnokov and St. Petersburg collector Sergey Kovalenko appear to have been made by Red Combine, however. 100 mm kings. Unweighted. Original black cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly c. 1940 Tournament Pieces. I obtained these from a seller in Israel, who wrote that his grandfather had received them as a prize for winning a tournament. With little doubt they are Soviet in origin. Their base and concave stem style as well as the oversized knights are typical of many Soviet sets of the 1930s. Kings are 88 mm sans finials. Finials might add another 10 mm +/-to the height. The bases are bored for weights, but the bore-holes are empty. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1940 Estonian Proto-Tal Pieces. 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. I rate this set earlier because the knight of the Keres-Mikenas set is a mature Tal knight, which appears in photos of events from 1940 to 1979, and this knight is barely pubescent. Tournament-sized but unweighted. The cross is decidedly non-Soviet, further evidence of pre-Annexation origin. We know that Tal sets appeared in the Baltic region as early as 1940 from the photographic record. We also know that Mike John 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. It is also possible that rather than being the source of the Tal set, this 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. By contrast, Mike reports that his early forties Tal set is heavily weighted, an indicator of its status as a tournament set, and exhibits cuts in the bishops’ miters. 105 mm kings. Unweighted. Original black cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1940 Possibly Estonian Tal Pieces. Read more about the Tal pieces here. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
c. 1959 Tal Pieces, Possibly Georgian. Read more about the Tal pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1940s-1950s Pieces. These sets came with various knight designs. This one is the most Modernist of them. Also notable is the domed rook turret. 98 mm kings. Unweighted. Original black cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s Tournament Pieces 105 mm kings. Weighted. Blue cloth coverings. The pieces incorporate the “Voronezh” curve from base to pedestal; onion-dome, cutless miters; and cutless coronets and turrets. According to the stamps in the accompanying board box, the set was made by Zvenigorod Cultural Goods Factory outside Moscow, MOSOBLKULTPROM Trust. 107 mm kings. Unweighted. Original blue felt-like bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Grandmaster “Supreme” Pieces, 1950-1970s. Around 1950, a new Soviet Staunton design appeared. In its highest forms, it was were used in multiple Soviet Championships over the next four decades. It was also used in lower tournaments, and in its most simplified forms mass-produced. Arlindo Vieira called these “Grandmaster 3” pieces sets, and one of the last versions the “Grandmaster 4” pieces. The pieces used in the Soviet Championship were of noticeably higher quality turning, carving, and finishing than the lesser versions typically available to collectors. Some of us began calling these Championship versions of the GM3 design “Grandmaster Supremes.” Grandmaster Supreme sets are distinguished from regular GM3 sets by a number of characteristics. They are better made and finished. Their knights appear Lardyesque, squarish in shape, with the nose never protruding beyond the belly, and with three dimples carved in the belly. The rooks have generally thinner towers and thinner merlons. Antonio Fabiano Collection, Nick Filatov photo.
“Super” Grandmaster 3 Pieces, possibly c. 1950. There are a couple of GM3 sets I’ve seen that exhibit some but not all of the identifying characteristics of the GM Supreme sets. This one is well-made, the knight’s chest has three dimples, and the rook’s tower and merlons are thin, but the knight leans forward, with its snout protruding past its belly, and the original finish (shown) was a detestably sticky water-based varnish. Kievian collector and dealer Nick Filatov has called such “tweener” sets “Super GM” sets, and I’ve adopted his usage. 120 mm kings. Weighted. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s Grandmaster 3 Pieces. A standard tournament level GM3 set with all wooden knights and finials. GM3s are a markedly different design from that of the GM1s and GM2s, both of which are typically Soviet designs. GM3 are much more traditionally Staunton, down to the straight ascension of the stems, the distinct breaks between base, stem, and pedestals, the triple collars, the vestigial cross atop the king’s crown, the crenels in the queen’s coronet, the bishops’ miter cuts, the merlons of the rooks’ towers, and the S-shaped backs characteristic of Staunton knights. Later versions replaced the wooden black knights, crosses, and finials with molded plastic ones. The finishes became more uneven, and the carvings less detailed and precise. 112 mm kings. Heavily weighted. Original sand-colored cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s-60s Grandmaster 3 Pieces. 112 mm kings. Heavily weighted. Original blue felt-like cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950-1960s Grandmaster 3 Pieces. 112 mm kings. Heavily weighted. Original dirty rose colored felt-like cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1970 Estonian “Super” Grandmaster 3 Pieces. Pristine specimen of a late GM3 set used at the highest levels of Soviet Chess. Examination of the weights confirms that the pieces are original. My basis for dating it is the photographic record that Ron Harrison has compiled and posted in Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery. I refer to it as a “Estonian” GM3 because it appears prominently in photos of events there, not because of any direct evidence that it was produced there. I think it’s worthy of a specific designation because of the unique drop-jaw, “goateed” knight, which distinguishes it from other GM3s. I can’t really classify this set as a “GM Supreme” because it lacks two of the criteria used to categorize sets with that designation. First, the knight’s snout cannot extend over the front of the belly. Second, the front bottom of the the knight’s belly must have three dimples, as in Jaques sets. I find it tempting to expand my view of what constitutes a GM Supreme in order to include this magnificent set. However, I originated the GM “Supreme” designation to distinguish GM3 sets conforming not only to the highest production standards, but whose knights reflected a more “Lardyesque” pattern than the normal GM3 pattern. I think that GM Supremes are really just high end GM3s and that GM4s are just devolved GM3s. In retrospect, and with knowledge of this pattern, I may not ever have introduced the “Supreme” distinction. What is clear in any event is that Ron has a GM3 that according to the photographic record was used at the highest levels of Soviet chess, and that was produced according to the highest production standards. For this reason I call the pieces “Super” GM3s. Ron Harrison Collection, photo.
1970s Grandmaster 3 Pieces. Plastic finials and black knight heads have replaced wooden ones, with a degradation in attention to detail and quality in general, as seen in the asymmetrical miter cuts and inconsistent collar structures. American collector John Lawson describes the miter cut as a smirk. Still, the pieces are hefty and comfortable to play with. Possibly manufactured by Voenohot Factory No. 2 outside Moscow. 112 mm kings. Nicely weighted. Original tan felt-like cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1970s-90s Grandmaster 4 Pieces. I see the GM4 design as part of the GM3 family, albeit simplified and cheapened. But what remains is the basic Staunton architecture of the GM3. Recognizing them to be closely related to the GM3 pieces, Arlindo Vieira wrote that the GM4 pieces are “the last version of this competitive set.” He described them as “elegant and playable,” but “made players crazy” when used on boards with squares far too small. In Xadrez Memoria, Vieira observes that the quality of the Grandmaster pieces degraded over time: “[T]he pieces lost quality from the oldest to the most recent ones, and when I say so, the photos prove it in the very simple question of manufacture: they lost detail, care in the details: look at the Towers, the Horses, in the Bishops and what I said ends up coming to the fore.” Xadrez Memoria 4 December 2012. Indeed, gone from the basic GM3 design are the queen’s crenels, the bishop’s miter cut, and the rook’s merlons. All the crosses, finials, and knights are plastic. 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 that surely distracted players. 11.4 cm kings. Weighted. Manufactured by Voenohot Factory No. 2 near Moscow. 108 mm kings. Nicely weighted. Leatherette pads, some of which on this specimen have slightly buckled. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1970s-80s “Champion” Pieces. According to St. Petersburg collector Sergey Kovalenko, “This set is called Чемпион”/”Champion. Products of the VOENOHOT factory No. 2 (Same factory that [manufactured] gm4 , Yunost, Voronezh gm3 [sets]).” The factory is located in the Moscow region. From a design perspective, the pieces are within the broad GM3 family (which includes both GM Supreme and GM4 sets), but with knights more like those found in Yunost, Voronezh, and some sets of the forties and fifties, than in GM3 sets. Like 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 finials are all plastic. The set is unweighted, and the finish cruder and badly in need of sanding. The miter cuts are asymmetrical. 104 mm kings. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1960s Grandmaster 1 Pieces. The height of Soviet simplicity. The base to stem to pedestal is a simple concave curve. The knight is a slab in the familiar CV shape. The bishop’s miter is an onion top simplified into a tear drop. 98 mm kings. Lightly weighted. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1960s Grandmaster 1 Pieces. In some ways, the end product of Soviet design. This specimen’s kings are 101 mm. The pieces are weighted with sand and glue. The bottoms are covered with original blue cloth. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1960s Grandmaster 1 “Wolf-Ear” Pieces. Sometimes also called “Dropjaw.” A larger version of the GM1 design characterized by the unique knights with their dropped jaws and their wolf-like ears. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1960s Grandmaster 1 Mini. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s-60s Grandmaster 2 “Bronstein” Pieces. Originally classified “Grandmaster 2” as one of four “Grandmaster” sets by Portuguese collector and historian Arlindo Vieira, the “Bronstein” name was added by collector Mike John Ladzinski based on a photo of Bronstein and Tal playing with such pieces. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1980s Grandmaster 2 “Bronstein” Pieces. Wooden knights but plastic finials and uneven “Taffy Apple” finish. 115 mm kings with original dark blue denim-like bottoms. Read more about them . here Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1960s-80s GM2 Pattern Set for the Blind. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1951 Red Combine Baku Pieces. Dated and identified by a gift inscription “In memory of Yuri, from relatives,” and 1951 written inside the accompanying box. The style is named named for the Azaerbaijani city that hosted the 29th Soviet Championship, won by Spassky, where such pieces were used. First cousin of the “Botvinnik-Flohr II” pieces, particularly the circa 1940 “Penguin Knight” version shown above, perhaps the biggest variances being the configuration of the bishops’ signifiers and profiles of the rooks. 106 mm kings. Original deep red suede-like cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s-60s Baku Pieces. I call the Bakus with rounded knight torsos Baku 2s as a short hand way to distinguish them from the sets with the faceted knights we will see below. 106 mm kings. Note the differences in the size and shape of the knights’ snouts, bases, and torso carvings, even though these knights come from the same set as judged by their finishes, wear, original cloth coverings, and sand/sawdust/glue weights. Differences like these within sets precludes me from adopting any system that purports to distinguish sets based on the size and shape of the snouts, bases, and torso carvings at this time without more substantial evidence and explanation than I have seen to date. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950-60s Baku Pieces. 110 mm kings. The same noxious weighting concoction as the previous specimen. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s-60s Faceted Baku Pieces. 106 mm kings. Probably the same weighting system as the above specimens, but I have not removed the cloth bottoms to examine. Not noticeably weighted in any event. Singapore Collector Steven Kong calls the faceted knight sets “Baku 1” sets. I do not attribute any temporal significance to the 1 and 2 designations, however, as I have not seen sufficient evidence to support doing so. We may have to reevaluate the designations in light of further evidence as to times and places of production. Note that even these knights exhibits noticeable differences in the size and shape of their knight snouts. I attribute these differences to reflect normal variations in hand-carving, because all other markers–finish, wear, size, and weighting–suggest they belong to the same set Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1950s Averbakh Style Pieces. These share the base, stem, and royal and pawn signifiers of the pieces shown in the 1949 Moscow Championship photo of Averbakh that give the style its name. The bishop miters, knights, and rooks are similar to the 1949, but are modified somewhat. I believe the 1949 set was an evolved version of the Smyslov design of the late 1920s and 30s, and that this set represents a further evolution of the design. From a similar set owned by Eduardo Bauzá: RSFSR Upravlenne Khimychesky Materialov i Kulttovarov Mosoblispolkoma Elizarovskaya Kulttovarov L. Elizarovo Narofominsky r-n Mosk. Obl. RSFSR Management of chemical and cultural materials Moscow Oblast Executive Committee Elizarovo Cultural Objects Elizarovo, Narofominsky District, Moscow Region Also similar in design to some sets from the Borodino Factory near Moscow. 103 mm kings. Original blue cloth bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Possibly 1960s Belarusian Mushroom Pieces. This design likely can be traced to the 1930s. Later versions all seem to emanate from Minsk and its surrounds. This specimen is from Minsk. Pre-war versions are weighted, some heavily. This one is unweighted. Nick Lanier called the set “Svelte,” and wrote of its Baltic and German origins. Given the pieces’ fat bottoms, I find the name inapt. Nor do I find any credible evidence to support his opinion of origin, unless one considers Belarus “Baltic” because it borders on Lithuania and Latvia even though it is itself land-locked. While a German influence is theoretically possible from Germans living with Russia in the twenties 1920s and 30s, the German population around Minsk was very small, much of it relocated eastward during WWI. 89 mm kings. Unweighted and unfelted. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Acorn Pieces. A design that goes back at least to the 1940s. The pieces take their name from the large, acorn-shaped head of the bishops. Porat Jacobson Collection, photo.
c. 1952 Shkolnik (“Scholar”) 1 Pieces. In maroon and black bakelite. Glasgow collector Alex Marshall has identified three versions of this popular designthat evolved over the years. According to Alex, the first version, the “Shkolnik 1,” was made of bakelite, and came in the black and dark maroon characteristic of [such] products, rendering the sides difficult to distinguish in low light. A distinguishing feature is the “Kremlin spire” shape of the bishop’s signifier. Alex Marshall Collection, photo.
1960s Shkolnik 2 Pieces In black and white carbolite. Of the “Shkolnik 2″ set, Alex writes: ” the earliest photos I have seen of this date to 1950s. The bugs in the design are now being worked out; knights remain ornate, but produced on a simpler flat mould, bishops have totally changed and lost their orthodox Kremlin spires, colours now easily distinguished.” Also found in red and light blue. 84 mm kings. Unweighted. Alex Marshall Collection, photo.
c. 1980 Shkolnik 3 Pieces. Alex contends that the “Shkolnik 3” is the last iteration of this venerable design. “Produced in thousands in 1970s-1980s, design finally refined for maximum production volume and utility. Simplified knights but return to more bulbous mold for them, much more smoothed out queen crenelations, simplified rook and pawn, pawn now comes with a detachable head. Cost 3 rubles and 30 kopecks back in the day.” The specimen in my collection arrived in a small, white cardboard box stamped Prylukysky Vavod Plastmass. The price stamped on the box indicates its price was 3 rubles, 30 kopecs. According to Wikipedia, Prylusky is a city of about 53,000 inhabitants in north central Ukraine. It was home to a major strategic bomber base during the Cold War, and is chess author Irving Chernev’s home town. 79 mm kings. Unweighted. Brown leatherette bottoms. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1980 Belarusian Olympic Chessmen. Read more about these pieces here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1990 Dniepropetrovsk Proplastymass Rocket City Molodets Set. Read more about the Molodets set here. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.