The Art of The Game

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This photo essay was created by Shehryar Nabi, a student in the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts University, which took 11 students to St. Petersburg, Russia to explore the country up-close. The stories and photographs they brought home focused on the cultural, the social, and the sense of place. The workshop was led by award-winning photographer Samuel James.

In the former Soviet Union, chess was a state-sponsored activity. The first official tournaments were held as early as 1921, just four years after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czarist regime. Support for chess was part of the government’s strategy to emphasize the intellectual strength of the nation. Consequently, Russian players began to dominate international chess, and their entry into competitions was heavily regulated by the state.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the news provided live updates on chess championships. Perhaps the most notorious series of matches in Russian chess was between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Karpov, the reigning, state-supported Russian champion was defending his title against Kasparov, who represented political reform. The game was a big deal at the time. “You couldn’t be neutral in this,” says Grand Master Peter Svidler. “I was very much in the Kasparov camp because he played the more exciting brand of chess and, very objectively, he was a very young and vibrant person on the scene.”

You will not see this kind of coverage of chess in Russia today. The game suffered a particularly harsh decline in popularity in Russia during the difficult economic transition of the 1990s. With the absence of state sponsorship, it was no longer to be found in the mainstream media, and there were not as many young players interested in playing.

Today, chess is making a comeback. In St. Petersburg it has become a very popular activity for young children, although most of them stop by the time they are eleven or twelve, when advancement in the game requires a greater time commitment. Despite a newfound interest in chess, however, the national importance that was placed upon the game by the Soviet government is unlikely to recur.

For the players, though, chess is both calculation and art. It is an inherently logical game, and to play well you have to have a very analytical mind. But that won’t be enough. “A really well-played game of chess is a minor art form,” Svidler said. “It gives you an immense sense of joy because you feel you’ve created something which will remain.”

This attitude separates the public perception of chess through the lens of politics and media from the private passion of its players, whose appreciation for the game is often complex and hard to understand for people outside the chess world. Whether or not chess was regulated by the state, the art of the game has a life of its own. This is certainly the case for Svidler, who re-creates an aesthetically pleasing game of chess like a composer creates harmonious music. “That attracts you to the game to the first place,” he says. “You see this beauty and you want to be able to create it in your own games.”