Smart Chip from St.Petersburg and other tales of a bygone chess era is an immensely fascinating collection of Genna Sosonko’s chess journalism. Many of the pieces in this book, as in his earlier Russian Silhouettes (also reviewed at this site), will especially appeal to chess players with an interest in the history of the Soviet period.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
Smart Chip from St.Petersburg and other tales of a bygone chess era
by Genna Sosonko
New In Chess, May 2006
This, the third collection of Genna Sosonko’s journalism, further cements and consolidates his reputation as being quite the best and most interesting chess writer on the planet. The pieces can be broadly placed into two groups. In the first, we have personal profiles of various chess players, the living and the recently deceased (for many of these pieces originally served as obituaries), a genre of writing which will be familiar to readers of Sosonko’s two previous collections. And in the second group are articles that explore the many diverse aspects of chess. Here Sosonko looks at the relation of chess to religion and dreams, and examines the effect of such factors as old age, the desire for glory and fame, and a “killer instinct” (or the lack of such an anti-social quality) on chess performance.
“A Master with no Name” is, to my mind, the most fascinating piece in the book. It tells the story of Evgeny Ruban and is something that no one else could have written. Here is the story, in summary: Ruban was, in the 1960s, a highly promising chess player; he could very easily have become a grandmaster, or perhaps have had a distinguished academic career; he was a postgraduate, intelligent and well-read. Sosonko reports that he met Ruban around this time, and disliked him: he seemed too arrogant and full of himself. If this was so, life – and Soviet society – would soon kick the stuffing out of him.
Ruban was brought down to earth by his arrest following a homosexual liaison in a public park; apparently, he’d gone there after picking up a bit of rough trade. At his trial he might have escaped punishment if he’d expressed remorse for his actions, but instead he talked about Plato and Proust and the naturalness of same-sex relations. The expression of such attitudes at that time – in the Soviet Union in the 1960s! – when, even in the West, one couldn’t be so openly gay, strikes one as being evidence of hubris or an honesty bordering on foolhardiness. (Or perhaps it is simply evidence of arrogance, the same arrogance that Sosonko sensed in him and may have arisen from his superiority at chess.) Anyway, Ruban from that point on was damned: he was sent to a labour camp and his life from then on was a downward spiral. And Sosonko traces its bleak trajectory with scrupulous compassion. This is a story that has the remorseless logic of tragedy, or the logic of one of Isaac Babel’s stories about lives blighted by war. Babel is, in fact, a good model here, for he said once that he wrote in order to make the reader see; and Sosonko’s writing, at its best, has this same quality. He tells you stories, like this one, that you never suspected were even there. At one point in the narrative he mentions that “Wings” (a Russian gay rights organisation named after Mikhail Kuzmin’s novel of 1906) is merely a stone’s throw away from the Chigorin Chess Club, the club where Evgeny Ruban played.
The other biographical pieces are altogether happier, and “Yakov Neishtadt at 80” and “A Miracle” can serve as examples here. Both celebrate lives devoted to chess that have turned out well. Neishtadt’s story expresses the view that chess as a subject of study, an intellectual pastime, is extremely satisfying. Whilst for Ratmir Kholmov, the subject of the latter article, chess was his salvation: “I have chess, it rescues me to this day … Playing is still what I really want to do … Chess is a miracle, of course. A miracle.” Sosonko’s appreciation of these two fighters and survivors gives you (if you’re a chess player) an appetite to seek out Kholmov’s games and, in the case of Neishtadt, to read his books, in particular his study of Steinitz. And you want not only to look at Kholmov’s beautiful wins against Keres (1959) and Bronstein (1964), but also at some long games where he was able to put up a protracted, ultimately successful defence.
“The Morpheus Variation” is a fascinating, well-researched article which explores the relationship between chess and dreams. In it, Sosonko has interviewed many grandmasters about how chess has figured in their dreams. Some have dreamed about great players from the past, or players they have known and played, but are now deceased. Some have dreamt about moves they might have played in a just-completed, crucial game: opportunities missed and lost. And sometimes moves and sequences of moves, variations, come to them, like propositions that have no referent in the real world. This article reminds us that chess, like language primarily, but also like music and mathematics too, is a medium of thought. Indeed, David Bronstein once remarked that chess could and should be used to communicate with extraterrestrials, because all emotions could be expressed by chess moves.
Another article in the same vein is “Killer Instinct”, a meditation on aggression and its value in chess, as in other sports. Chess is a logical game and it might be thought that aggression would be out of place in it. But since chess is by nature logical, this means, in part, that you can only win by inducing your opponent to make mistakes and then exploiting these errors mercilessly, with “extreme prejudice” as they say in an action movie. You need to be able to put the boot in: “Chess is a game for hooligans”, as the American grandmaster Boris Gulko says here. Sosonko considers many players, the cruel and the kind, and admits that he probably belonged more in the latter camp. He notes that, in chess, the anxiety of your opponent can give you pleasure; the game makes you aware of your anti-social impulses. Graham Greene wrote once that a writer must have “a chip of ice in the heart”; and chess players need something of this quality too. In chess, one must punish human stupidity. Perhaps above all the game teaches us that man is not – as Aristotle asserted – “the rational animal”, but rather he’s (as Matthijs van Boxsel expounds at greater length in The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity) at root “the stupid animal”. And all players, even the great, err.
Smart Chip from St.Petersburg and other tales of a bygone chess era is an immensely fascinating collection of Genna Sosonko’s chess journalism. Many of the pieces in this book, as in his earlier Russian Silhouettes (also reviewed at this site), will especially appeal to chess players with an interest in the history of the Soviet period. However, with this book he has significantly extended his range. He does a great service here in explaining to non-chess players what it is about the royal game that engages, enchants and excites. He is the Neville Cardus of chess; there is no more just epithet, and I can think of no higher praise.
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org