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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Chess in the face of evil: Moscow 1941-42

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

In between battles, peaceful duels proceeded over a chessboard. The photo was taken in 1942 on the Northwestern Front by Lake Ilmen.

From Soviet Sputnik Magazine in May, 1985, the story of an incredible 1941 Soviet chess tournament and match under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Yet another astonishing example of the tremendous spirit of the Soviet people in resistance against the Nazi invaders.


The exhibits of the Central Museum of the USSR Armed Forces in Moscow include an unusual one — a chess set. Both the chessboard and the pieces belonged to Maria Kovshova, a national celebrity, who was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. In the very first days of the war against nazi Germany, she, a student of the Moscow Aviation Institute, persuaded the draft board to send her to the front, where she became a sniper. During an engagement, when her ammunition had run out and she was surrounded by nazi soldiers. Maria Kovshova blew up herself and her assailants with a hand grenade.

According to war veterans and abundant photographic evidence, chess was a favourite pastime during the war. Soldiers played chess in trenches when there was a lull; they played it during rest and rotation periods and convalescence in hospitals.

It seems unbelievable, but in November 1941, when the German troops were advancing on Moscow and Hitler had announced that the Soviet capital would fall shortly, the city's regular chess championship was held. It lasted from November 27. 1941, to January 8, 1942, and was won by Master Isaac Mazel (he was killed at the front in 1943). We present a game of the second round of the championship, which Mazel won playing against Vladimir Alatortsev, (who became) an International Grand Master.

Moscow's championships were held in every one of the war years. The city's champions of those years include Vasili Smyslov and Mikhail Botvinnik, later world champions.

Chess tournaments in which the best Soviet masters took part were also held in Kuibyshev (1942), Sverdlovsk (1943), and Ivanovo (1944).

Assessing the importance of these tournaments, in which many talented players gained competition experience, Mikhail Botvinnik wrote:

"During the war the creative potential of the Soviet chess school, far from diminishing, increased. Its investigative character ensured a rapid development of young talent."

Experienced chess players with the army in the field always took advantage of a chance to organize simultaneous games for their mates.

Written by Isaac Linder. Photos by Nikolai Volkov.

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