Vladimir Putin is often described as being like a grandmaster in his moves on the diplomatic board. This is based on the clichéd view that Russian skill at chess is a function of national character — which it isn’t: besides which, Putin’s moves are conditioned by rage and resentment, which leads to highly irrational decisions.
At the time of writing it is far from clear what his sudden advance into Crimea will do to the overall Russian position. But in the purely chess sense, the biggest advantage was gained by his predecessor as President, Dmitri Medvedev, who in 2009 personally granted the application for Russian citizenship of Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin was then the brightest hope of Ukrainian chess, having in 2002 at the age of 12 years and seven months become the youngest ever Grandmaster, a record which has not yet been broken.
This prodigy had been born in the Crimean capital of Simferopol in 1990, a year before Ukraine gained its independence; but according to one of his fellow grandmasters, his switch of allegiance was not politically motivated, so much as a desire to gain access to the much greater training facilities and support available to those affiliated to the Russian Chess Federation. Whatever the reason, it must have been galling for the Russians that in the 2010 chess Olympiad, with Karjakin playing under their flag, they came second — to the Ukrainian team. This was a particularly sweet victory for the poor relations; and their top board, Vasily Ivanchuk — who had played inspirationally in the event — was awarded the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise by decree of the President of Ukraine. For the second time since the break-up of the Soviet Union Ukraine had won the ultimate team chess event, ahead of the Russians. Before then, of course, players from that region were always described as “Russians” — exactly the way Putin still seems to see it.
In the immediate postwar period, the second and third strongest Soviet players, David Bronstein and Isaac Boleslavsky, were both from Ukraine — and, like the Russian world champion of the time, Mikhail Botvinnik, both Jews. It was piquant that Bronstein needed to beat Boleslavsky in a play-off match to decide which of the two would be Botvinnik’s first world title challenger in 1951 — they were close friends, and Bronstein later married Boleslavsky’s daughter. Botvinnik and Bronstein drew their match 12-12, which meant that the world champion retained his title without any obligation to face a return bout. Many to this day feel it would have been better for chess if the astoundingly creative Bronstein had taken the crown.
No Ukrainian has yet won the undisputed world championship although in 2002 Vasily Ivanchuk and fellow Ukrainian Ruslan Ponomariev (another prodigy who had become a Grandmaster at 14) contested the FIDE world championship, then a hollow affair in the absence of Garry Kasparov, who had broken with the chess governing body. Ponomariev won that match, and thus became FIDE world champion at only 18.
But Ponomariev has not lived up to his extraordinary early promise; and Sergey Karjakin, who had been widely tipped to become world champion, has been thoroughly eclipsed by another former child prodigy, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. It was most unfortunate for Karjakin that Carlsen is just 11 months his junior — one might wait a hundred years for two such talents to emerge.
The biggest chess battle between Russia and Ukraine goes back to the years between the world wars, when Alexander Alekhine twice defended his world title against the Kiev-born Efim Bogolyubov. In truth these matches, in 1929 and 1934, were very one-sided: Alekhine was clearly the stronger player, a fact recognised by everyone in the chess world except for Bogolyubov himself, whose most striking characteristic was extreme self-confidence.
Bogolyubov, in fact, was an oaf. In his second match against Alekhine, one of the games was played in Bayreuth, coinciding with a Nazi convention there. The Austrian master Hans Kmoch recalled: “Uniformed Nazis were everywhere, including the dining room where Bogolyubov, [Aaron] Nimzovich and I were seated at a small table. Though Nimzovich was proud of his Jewishness, the sight of all those Nazi uniforms must have been very unsettling. Bogolyubov was so insensitive to the situation that he casually teased Nimzovich by recommending the pork chops.”
Bogolyubov’s personal crassness should not prevent acknowledgement of his dazzling brilliance at the chessboard. And he had earned the right to a shot at the supreme title, at least on the first occasion. In 1925 he won the great Moscow tournament with remarkable ease, fully two points ahead of the reigning world champion José Capablanca. This was the event which the new Soviet regime put on to demonstrate its determination to bring chess to the masses and to match its own masters against the best in the world: it treated Bogolyubov’s victory as one for its political system. So the commissars were furious when the following year Bogolyubov did not return from a tournament in Berlin: he was thereafter regarded as a traitor. Still, Germany was the right place for Bogolyubov. Apparently his only English word was “beer”, which he loved — and his colossal consumption of the stuff was less damaging to his performance than vodka eventually was to his rival Alekhine.
Bogolyubov was a regular winner of tournament brilliancy prizes along with his first places; but perhaps his most sparkling effort was an exhibition game against Rudolf Spielmann in Stockholm in 1919. 1.e4 (not Bogolyubov’s normal first move, but the players had agreed to test the variation that follows) e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.h4!? (This was the pawn sacrifice they wanted to investigate) Bxg5 7.hxg5 Qxg5 8.Nh3 Qe7 9.Qg4 g6 10.Nf4 a6 11.0-0-0 c5 12.Qg3 Nb6 13.dxc5 Qxc5 14.Bd3 Qf8 15.Be4!! (Astounding—and completely sound: White threatens to crash through via d5, so Black must capture) dxe4 16.Nxe4 N8d7 17.Qc3 Qe7 18.Nf6+ Nxf6 19.exf6 Qf8 20.Qc7 Nd7 21.Nd5! (The thematic follow-up to White’s 15th) exd5 22.Rhe1+ Ne5 23.Rxe5+ Be6 24.Kb1! (Bogolyubov is alert to the fact that his opponent can still castle: if immediately 24.Rdxd5?? Qh6+ 25.Re3 0-0! and Black’s troubles are behind him) Rd8 25.Rdxd5!! (The only move to win) Rxd5 26.Rxd5 Bxd5 27.Qc8 checkmate. The spectators certainly got their money’s worth.