24 September 2017

The 12th Soviet Championship

I've occasionally remarked that the series on Top eBay Chess Items by Price is often a case of feast or famine. In the previous post, Man Ray Chess Photos, I noted, 'the short list had only a single item and I had to go well under my usual cutoff price to find it.' For this current post I had plenty to choose from, even if I again went under my usual cutoff price.

The item pictured below was titled 'Soviet Chess Photo: Panorama of 12th USSR Chess Championship 1940', and sold for US $316 after seven bids from two bidders. Just after the auction opened, the first bidder entered his maximum price. Some days later the second bidder came in with a lower price. Finding that it was insufficient to win, he increased it gradually over the next day, finally giving up. The first bidder had obviously decided that this was a valuable photo. How high was he willing to go?

Top: The entire item

Bottom: Detail from the item

The description said,

Original Soviet chess panoramic photo from 12th USSR chess championship in 1940. On the photo - Moscow conservatory, the place of the tournament. Size of the photo - 19,5 cm x 7 cm. Please notice that the photo was made by the original author by the process of bonding five smaller photos. Probably that was the only way to make a panoramic photo in 1940.

If you look carefully at the top photo, you can see the lines showing where the different photos have been joined. The description continued,

12TH SOVIET CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP: • This is a photograph from the famous 12th Soviet Chess Championship held in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory from September 4th through October 3rd, 1940. The 12th Soviet Chess Championship was truly a battle of the titans. Outstanding players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Vasily Smyslov, Alexander Kotov, Isaac Boleslavsky, Igor Bondarevsky, and Andre Lilienthal took part. This so-called "absolute championship" is rightfully considered one of the strongest USSR chess championships ever held.

Here’s an excerpt from Mikhail Botvinnik’s memoirs. "It was a tough tournament. There were many participants and very few off-days. The Grand Hall of the Conservatory has excellent acoustics. The spectators behaved impudently, made a great deal of noise, and clapped all the time. The excellent acoustics only made matters worse. Supposedly, Sergei Prokofiev applauded Keres vigorously after the latter won a game. The other people in his box reprimanded him,, and then the composer remarked, "I have every right to express my feelings." Would my friend Mr. Prokofiev be happy if he were playing a trio and spectators applauding the violinist’s performance drowned out his piano piece? Chess players are in a worse position, though. A pianist can afford to play a few false notes amid booming applause, something a chess player isn’t allowed to do."

The results of the 12th Soviet Chess Championship were truly sensational, since two young players, Andre Lilienthal and Igor Bondarevsky, came in first and second, respectively, leaving grandmasters Mikhail Botvinnik and Paul Keres, the tournament favorites, far behind. The unprecedented hype surrounding this tournament matched its historical significance. After all, the unofficial right to contend for the world championship crown, as well as the prestigious title of USSR champion were on the line.

"The most difficult and most monumental tournament in which I’ve ever taken part has come to a close," Andre Lilienthal wrote. "I have no reason to be displeased with myself. First off, my win over Botvinnik himself wasn’t too bad. Secondly, I snatched what seemed to be an irrevocably lost point from Bondarevsky in the last round. Thirdly, I managed not to lose a single game. Fourthly, I wound up in the wonderful young company of Bondarevsky and Smyslov at the top of the leaderboard. A decisive match for the title of USSR champion is up next. I have to prepare thoroughly for it, which, first and foremost, means getting some much needed rest."

Three months after the tournament was completed, on January 14th, 1941, the Soviet Committee on Physical Culture and Sports issued an order approving the tournament results and awarding Bondarevsky and Lilienthal, the tournament winners, grandmaster titles; however, this order was missing a key point, since it did not mention any sort of match between the two victors. That strange inconsistency came to light a month later when it was decided -- through a behind-the-scenes power struggle -- that one more tournament for the title of absolute USSR champion would be held, a tournament Mikhail Botvinnik won.

Unless I'm misreading something, that description is not entirely accurate. The first paragraph mentions the '12th Soviet Chess Championship', and refers to it as the 'so-called "absolute championship"'. The last paragraph implies that the absolute championship was played later, which is confirmed in Botvinnik's book on the 1941 tournament.

22 September 2017

Chess in the Sky

Anyone can see that's a chess King, right? But how was it made?


The world’s a game of chess, and we’re just pawns. Who’ll make the next move? © Flickr user Rasagy Sharma under Creative Commons.

Hint: One of the tags said, 'Bangalore', which is 'the third most populous city and fifth most populous urban agglomeration in India', according to Wikipedia's page on Bangalore.

21 September 2017

Win a Million Bucks

Seen on Slashdot.org ('News for nerds, stuff that matters'): Solve a 'Simple' Chess Puzzle, Win $1 Million. Sounds good to me! What's the catch?

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have thrown down the gauntlet to computer programmers to find a solution to a "simple" chess puzzle which could, in fact, take thousands of years to solve, and net a $1 million prize. [...] Devised in 1850, the Queens Puzzle originally challenged a player to place eight queens on a standard chessboard so that no two queens could attack each other. This means putting one queen in each row, so that no two queens are in the same column, and no two queens in the same diagonal. Although the problem has been solved by human beings, once the chess board increases to a large size no computer program can solve it.

The catch is in that last sentence, 'the chess board increases to a large size'. As the original article, "Simple" chess puzzle holds key to $1m prize (st-andrews.ac.uk; August 2017), put it,

Once the chess board reached 1000 squares by 1000, computer progams could no longer cope with the vast number of options and sunk into a potentially eternal struggle akin to the fictional "super computer" Deep Thought in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which took seven and a half million years to provide an answer to the meaning of everything.

A related paper, 'Complexity of n-Queens Completion' by Ian P. Gent, Christopher Jefferson, and Peter Nightingale (School of Computer Science, University of St Andrews), published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research 59 (2017) explains everything. But be careful -- you'll need to be a math whiz just to get through the 'Abstract'.


Google image search on 'chess eight queens'

Even the 8-by-8 version isn't that easy to solve. An algorithmic approach of using the Knight's move to place the next Queen -- shown above in the top row, third from left (or bottom row, ditto) -- leaves two Queens on the long diagonal (a8-h1). 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?', indeed.

19 September 2017

Chess at the IMDb

In a recent post, Was Fischer Really Against the Whole World?, I referenced IMDb page for the chess documentary by Liz Garbus, Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) (imdb.com), and wrote,

See also the section titled 'People who liked this also liked...'

That section looks something like the following image.


IMDb: 'People who liked this also liked...'

The eight thumbnails each lead to a corresponding IMDb page, which I've summarized in the following list.

The first seven titles are well known chess movies, while the last title is another documentary by Liz Garbus. As you might expect, clicking on any title leads to another set of 'People also liked' titles. The first film in the list, 'Me and Bobby Fischer', leads to almost the same list, with the exception of the last title, which shows another Magnus movie. (It carries the same name as the current World Champion, but has nothing to do with him.)

For hundreds of chess references from IMDb, see Results for "chess" [imdb.com].

18 September 2017

A Quarrel About Ratings

In the previous post, Ratings Correlated to Performance, I looked at the 1951 U.S. Chess Championship, the first U.S. championship played after the introduction of U.S chess ratings. In this post I'll introduce a small quarrel about the use of ratings to determine participants in that event. The 5 December 1951 issue of Chess Life (CL) included the following letter.

Dear Mr. Major,

I aspire some day to play in the U.S. Championship Finals. I have never had the honor. The only way I know how is to do well enough in tournament competition, so as to attain a rating that will merit an invitation to the preliminaries. This year I thought I did, but I discovered it was not enough. Three of the participants in the U.S. Championship Preliminaries were rated below me in the Rating List of December 31, 1950. I have no way of telling how many others who were rated below me were extended invitations which they declined, or for that matter how many rated above me were likewise skipped.

I wrote a letter of inquiry to Mr. Hans Kmoch in his capacity as Tournament Director. Specifically I asked him the basis for the invitations. His reply appeared to me as a masterpiece of double talk. For example, on the one hand he said that he would have invited me if be had known I was eager to play, and on the other hand that he tried to contact me but failed to do so. Consider this contradiction further in the light of these facts: The USCF had canvassed me more than once regarding my availability and I had always replied in the affirmative. Mr. Phillipps had no trouble at all in reaching me in his drive for tournament contributions.

On my fundamental question regarding the basis for the invitations. Mr Kmoch had this to say: that the Rating System so far has not been accepted as binding for the order of invitations, that the original selections were made by a committee, and that there were subsequent withdrawals and last minute substitutions. No explanation of the basis for either the original selections or the later substitutions.

I present these facts not primarily as a personal grievance, since obviously it is too late to undo past events. However. I am interested in correcting a bad situation.

How long shall we tolerate a double standard in American chess -- a rating system for window dressing and a little black address book for extending invitations to the National Championship Tournaments?

I lay no claim to the infallibility of the U.S. Rating System, or for that matter to any other quantitative method for evaluating qualitative performance. On the contrary, I have some serious quarrels with it. Nevertheless I admit I know of no large equitable method for evaluating relative performance of a large number of players.

Can Mr. Kmoch or anybody else suggest a better way to evaluate relative skill? The fact remains that another system was used in issuing invitations to the last National Championship.

Perhaps Mr. Kmoch can explain it in detail to the satisfaction of Chess Life readers. If it is superior, it can be incorporated into or substituted for future ratings. The other possibility is that factors other than skill were considered in issuing invitations. If so, may I ask what they were?

Jack Soudakoff
New York City, N.Y.

The 5 January 1952 issue of CL included the following article by Hans Kmoch. Although it mentions ratings only once, it serves a second purpose in documenting the difficulties of organizing the 1951 championship.

The U. S. Championship Tournament; by Hans Kmoch
USCF Vice-President and Secretary of Tournament Committee

Two years ago the Tournament Committee, under the co-chairmanship of Messrs George E. Roosevelt and Maurice Wertheim, worked out a tentative schedule for the 1950 Championship, to be held as an invitational tournament, and the championships thereafter, to be open for especially qualified participants. On December 1, 1949, Mr. Wertheim sent a summarizing report of the Tournament Committee's suggestions to President Giers. On April 4, 1950, President Giers wrote the Tournament Committee that its suggestions had been accepted by the Board of Directors.

Unfortunately, a number of unforeseen events caused delay in the 1950 Championship. There was first of all the paralyzing blow delivered to the Tournament Committee by the death of Mr. Wertheim; there was the participation of a U.S. team in the so-called Chess Olympics at Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in August and September 1950; then there was the change in the Presidency of the USCF which had been impending for some months before it became a fact. I may add, if it matters, that I myself as the secretary of the Tournament Committee, had been absent from this country for seven months (June-December, 1950).

Our new President, Mr. Phillips, did great efforts to reactivate the Tournament Committee and get the postponed 1950 Championship held in 1951.

On March 1951 the Tournament Committee met and came to the conclusion the postponed Championship should he held in August 1951 with 14-16 participants. On April 19, 1951 the Tournament Committee decided on a list of 16 participants by name. On May 5, 1951, the Tournament Committee changed the schedule for the 1951 Championship in such a way that 24 players could participate instead of 16 while the number of rounds would increase only from 15 to l6.

On June 11, 1951, invitations were sent out to the selected players. As for the additional names, the Tournament Committee had accepted the National Rating List as a guide, emphasizing, however, it had no obligation to follow that List.

The 1951 Championship tournament was held in New York from July 28 to August 19. 1951

During June 11 to July 28 many changes in the list of the participants became necessary, because some of the invitees were unavailable, some made claims which USCF had no chance to fulfill, some needed time to decide, and some didn't answer at all.

As time went on. the difficulUes to get substitutes were mounting. To many players, the idea of acting as a substitute had a humiliating touch. Others could not accept at short notice, while still others did but later withdrew at zero notice. During the last week before the tournament, I had to work frantically so as to present a complete list of 24 players at the draw on July 28. On that day, just before the draw was to start, Herman Hesse from Pennsylvania and George Eastman from Michigan announced their withdrawals by wire. And there was still no answer from U.S. Champion Steiner.

However, I had foreseen possible trouble of this kind and was fortunate enough to find a number of distinguished players who would not mind acting, so to say, as substitutes for substitutes, willing to step in at any moment. The names of the gentlemen who by their comprehensive attitude substantually contributed to the tournament are: Edgar McCormick, Jack Collins, Dr. Ariel Mengarini, Dr. Joseph Platz, and Ed. Schwartz. McCormick had even to wait until the first round had started, for I felt that Steiner's place must be kept open until the very last minute.

The emergency job of looking for substitutes was largely done by Mr. Phillips and myself. We acted in accordance with the decisions the Tournament Committee had previously taken. Our bid to get some of the best-placed players from Fort Worth netted only Jim Cross; Eliot Hearst from New York and Lee Magee from Nebraska were unavailable.

As for our critics, we had New Yorkers who would wonder what non-New Yorkers were doing in this tournament, as well as non-New Yorkers who simply couldn't imagine why so many New Yorkers should participate. We had these who wouldn't mind a few thousand dollars if these dollars were to be produced by the USCF, those who considered themselves second to nobody in importance, those who would blame the Tournament Committee for a player's failure, and those who generally seemed to believe that ill-will was the only guide the Tournament Committee ever had.

By and large, however, the Tournament Committee's good-will was recognized. It ought to he at least as far as its members, Mrs. Wertheim, Mr. Alexander Bisno, and Mr. George E. Roosevelt, are concerned. Sapienti sat ['A word to the wise is sufficient']. The thankless job of raising the funds was accepted and in spite of tremendous difficulties satisfactorily done by Mr. Phillips.

The tournament itself was a smooth affair. There were no incidents of any importance.

Nowadays, the use of ratings to determine invitations is done routinely. When would U.S. ratings be accepted to determine invitations for the U.S. championship?

17 September 2017

Was Fischer Really Against the Whole World?

The first lesson I learned from this ongoing series on The Sociology of Chess (November 2016), is that the subject of sociology can be stretched to cover just about everything. Since chess pops up in all sorts of different cultural settings, there are plenty of sociological angles to examine.


Bobby Fischer Against The World -- Full Documentary (1:32:52) • 'A really inspiring as well as heartbreaking documentary film on Robert James Fischer, who was famously known as Bobby.'

For more about the film, see Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) (imdb.com). Its 'Storyline' says,

'Bobby Fischer Against the World' is a documentary feature exploring the tragic and bizarre life of the late chess master Bobby Fischer. The drama of Bobby Fischer's career was undeniable, from his troubled childhood, to his rock star status as World Champion and Cold War icon, to his life as a fugitive on the run. This film explores one of the most infamous and mysterious characters of the 20th century.

See also the section titled 'People who liked this also liked...', which lists a number of chess-related movies. This documentary by Liz Garbus should not be confused with the book by Brad Darrach, 'Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World', last seen on this blog in 'They Got Spies on the Line!' (April 2016). The IMDb page on Liz Garbus includes references to two more chess titles by Garbus: Chess History (Video 2011) and The Fight for Fischer's Estate (Video 2011), both running for less than ten minutes.

15 September 2017

Smallest Chess Set?

This might not have the allure of Most Hamburgers Eaten in Three Minutes or Most Pool Balls Held In One Hand, but it's still impressive.


Smallest chess set - Guinness World Records (2:02) • 'Artist Ara Ghazaryan has an exceptional eye for detail, particularly with his latest work, the world’s smallest handmade chess set'

For more about the set, see Check out the world’s smallest handmade chess set (guinnessworldrecords.com):-

Made on an incredibly minute scale, the entire board with accompanied pieces measures a total of 15.3 x 15.3 mm (0.6 in x 0.6 in), a size that amounts to be smaller than a U.S. quarter coin.

Is this really the smallest? Guinness also lists the Largest chess set: 'measures 5.89 m (19 ft 4 in) on each side'. Last year on this blog we saw Chess with Walkie-Talkies (August 2016), which beats the Guinness record holder by a country mile. Hasn't someone already constructed a small chess set molecule by molecule?