He Stood with Giants

Gennadi Sosonko’s intimate personal knowledge of the Soviet Union’s greatest grandmasters is unrivaled — and he was a useful player himself

Chess Communism

Genius, extreme ability — call it what you will — is not evenly distributed among races and nations. This, at least, seems true of chess. The Russian-speaking world had an extraordinary hold on the world championship for the second half of the last century and the early years of this one; and within that, there was a wildly disproportionate Jewish representation at the highest level.

This phenomenon is essentially cultural; and like all such flowerings it requires an interpreter, someone to explain to the wider world just what was going on at a human as well as an intellectual level. Fortunately such an interpreter exists in the form of Gennadi Sosonko, who celebrates his 70th birthday next month. Genna — as he is known to his friends — has written three marvellous volumes, based on his intimate personal knowledge of the leading players from the former Soviet Union: Russian Silhouettes, The Reliable Past and Smart Chip from St Petersburg. Now, to the delight of his many admirers, Sosonko has produced a new volume: The World Champions I Knew (New in Chess, £21.95).

Genna’s perspective is in many ways a poignant one. He was a leading trainer within the Soviet chess empire, first as a teacher of the precocious talents within the Young Pioneers — a kind of Bolshevik Boy Scouts — and later working with such giants of the game as the former world champion Mikhail Tal and the eternal challenger Viktor Kor-chnoi. Yet in 1972 Genna became one of thousands of Jews who left the Soviet Union for Israel — in his case, very soon afterwards settling in Holland. As he put it to me, “It meant saying goodbye to my family, assuming that I would never see any of them again.” He also left behind a chess culture that he loved, but whose allure was outweighed by the sense of personal political oppression, of being under lock and key with the state itself as jailer. 

In Soviet eyes, Sosonko had become a traitor, an unperson. He describes in his new book how after he had taken joint first place in the Dutch chess championships of 1973, he read in a Leningrad journal that there had been “a three-way tie for the Dutch championship, between Enklaar and Zuidema”.

In this context of absolute censorship, it’s understandable that Sosonko wanted to establish, for the record, what it was really like to live among the chess elite of the Soviet Union, especially as the age of Communist chess supremacy is something which young chess players today find hard to believe existed. “I wanted to show how these incredible champions — all of whom vividly expressed their individuality — got along in the times in which they lived, and how the times got along with them.” For these champions, chess was a language which transcended both the vicious politics of the time and place, and even the intense personal animosities inevitable when it was possible that everyone was informing on everyone else. “I saw famous champions . . . when they weren’t speaking at all and didn’t even greet each other. Those same people would analyse a game they had just played, for a long time, and with excitement; then after the analysis revert again to their usual relationship — not on speaking terms.”

His chapter on the first Soviet world champion, the terrifyingly determined Mikhail Botvinnik, is especially gripping in this regard. He describes how when “someone who was visiting him incautiously mentioned the name of Bondarevsky [a rival] over dinner, Botvinnik got up slowly, went over to his desk, opened a drawer and took out a piece of paper with some kind of list on it: the names of these people are not mentioned in my home.” This was the era of Stalin (of whom Botvinnik was an unapologetic admirer): people really did just become unmentionable.

In 1960 Botvinnik lost his world title to the most dazzlingly talented of all the Soviet champions, a 23-year-old Latvian Jew named Mikhail Tal. Sosonko’s reminiscences of this self-destructive, alcoholic, morphine-addicted, womanising “half angel, half devil” form the pulsing heart of his latest memoir. To those of us who love chess — and especially the astonishing games created by Tal in his all-too-short prime — Genna’s account amounts almost to heavenly revelation: “A glance from his burning eyes, which penetrated the board and his opponent, a movement of his lips, the unbelievable pressure of his ideas — these couldn’t be withstood emotionally by the weak.”

Although Tal also suffered at the hands of the Soviet system — being banned from travel after getting into a drunken fight in a Cuban bar — Sosonko’s admirably objective conclusion is that the same system was indispensible in nurturing a unique talent: “Mikhail Tal, thrown into the flow of Western life, would have spun in the whirlwind of permissiveness and pleasure with such force that chess would simply have dissolved . . . and even if Tal had managed to fulfil his promise in this case, too, he would hardly have managed to fly like such a shining rocket: the extraordinarily rich chess atmosphere of the Soviet Union didn’t exist in any other country.”

Sosonko’s style of play was far more cautious than that of his hero, Tal. But he has some brilliant games to his own credit, none more spectacular than the following miniature, played in 1979 against the German world championship contender Robert Hübner. 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 (Sosonko’s favourite Catalan opening) d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 (Turning it into a true gambit. Otherwise he would regain the pawn with 5.Qa4+) a6 6.0-0 b5 7.Ne5 Nd5 8.Nc3 c6? (The normal move is 8…Bb7. Hübner’s innovation is now refuted with immense energy) 9.Nxd5! exd5 10.e4 Be6 11.a4! b4 12.exd5 Bxd5 (12…cxd5 is met by 13.Nxc4 exploiting the pin on the h1-a8 diagonal) 13.Qg4!! (This is a killer. The point is that after 13…Bxg2 White doesn’t recapture automatically with 14.Kxg2 but plays 14.Re1! with an overwhelming attack) h5 14.Bxd5! (A temporary Queen sacrifice: after 14…hxg4 15.Bxf7+ Ke7 16.Bg5+ Kd6 17.Bxd8 and it is White who wins material) cxd5 15.Qf5 Ra7 16.Re1 Re7 17.Bg5 g6 18.Bxe7! (Another temporary Queen sacrifice, which compelled Hübner’s resignation: after 18…gxf5 19.Bxd8 Kxd8 20.Nxf7+ wraps up, and if 18…Qxe7 19.Qc8+ Qd8 20.Nxg6+ Be7 21.Rxe7 mate).