November 01, 2005

"Idiots Don't Play Chess"

The photo below of the Zhek Chess Club (from the acronym ЖЕК, for “housing and exploitation office,” which is responsible for utilities and other communal services) in Moscow’s Khoroshevo-Mnevniki residential district evokes the heyday of Russian chess, when the sport was a mass phenomenon. Taken in the late 1980s by local chess lover Sergei Pavlyuchenkov, it shows several of the chess club’s members playing a blitz tourney (speed chess of five-minute games) in the entryway of a Stalinesque building on Raspletina street.

“All these young guys are now in their 40s,” Pavlyuchenkov says with no small tinge of nostalgia. “That was a time when we avidly followed every international chess tournament and would come to the club at night to analyze the games played by Karpov or Kasparov. We would even make bets on the next best move when a chess game was postponed and resumed later. We played normal chess, speed chess, we played chess even by phone. Chess was like our religion – one of our members (Sasha Potebnya) even had his mother knit for him a scarf with chess figures – and we all envied him.”

The Zhek Club was in fact just a hang-out for chess lovers, not just for kids from the residential district of Khoroshevo-Mnevniki. They found out about each other by word of mouth. “Only one of our players had a “pervy razryad” [first grade],” Pavlyuchenkov said. “The rest were just very solid “samouchki” (self-taught) players who learned theory and openings from chess textbooks and borrowed chess puzzles and tests from special chess editions. Yet, our games were pretty close, especially when we played the neighboring Zhek people in a team competition.”

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