Soviet Chessmen And The Queen’s Gambit

Soviet Chessmen

The utter dominance of the Soviets and Russians over the game of Chess held sway for the better part of the past century. An almost unbroken chain of Soviet-Russian Grandmasters - Alekhine, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik - rose to become World Chess Champions between 1927 and 2007.

Soviet Chess Sets - A Symbol of Pride

As the Soviets established themselves as the undisputed global powerhouse of Chess, the game gradually became assimilated into - and occupied a position of prominence and prestige in - the culture and ethos of the region.

The finest craftsmen in the land began focusing their energies on creating indigenous Chess sets - and while most were modeled on the Staunton style - they featured touches of design and ornamentation reflective of their highly distinctive art and design traditions.

The Russian Babushka Blue and Red International Chess set and the Matreshka Chess set, for instance, are inspired by the famous nesting dolls fashioned in the typical Russian-Ukrainian folk art style.

Some Soviet Chess sets were designed in response to preferences expressed by some of the greats of the game hailing from the region. There are for instance famous Chess sets named after Flohr, Botvinnik, Tal, and Petrosian.

Others were created in preparation for prestigious tournaments to be held in the region - The 1959 Russian Zagreb Staunton Series, for instance, commemorates the World Championship Candidates tournament held in Zagreb, while the 1961 Baku Chessmen was named after the Soviet Championship held in Baku.

These exquisite creations generated wide-spread fascination across Russia - both in Chess and in Chess-related art. The game had come of age and permeated popular culture in Soviet-Russia by the mid 20th century.

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The Status of Chess in the West

In spite of the rich Chess traditions of western Europe and a fair amount of popularity across the US, barring some pockets of keen interest and following, the game has not quite entered the mainstream of public consciousness in the west.

Fascination over the indigenously crafted Chess sets from various parts of western Europe and Soviet-Russia, was confined to an inner circle of aficionados - global in its representation, but limited in its numbers. All that has now changed with the 2020 release of an astoundingly popular Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit.

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The Queen’s Gambit - Global Impact

Named after the popular Chess opening involving the White Queen-side Pawn sacrifice, just as much in use today as it was when it originated in the 15th century, the series depicts the life of American female Chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, tracing her rise to the highest echelons of the male-dominated domain of professional Chess.

Reportedly viewed by over 62 million households in the US alone, The Queen’s Gambit was critically acclaimed, won multiple awards, and gained the acknowledgment of several Chess Grandmasters - male and female - as an accurate representation of the world of professional Chess.

An Unprecedented Outcome For Chess

As a cultural phenomenon in its own right, The Queen’s Gambit has had a profound influence over all segments of its audience, captured the public imagination, and fuelled a massive resurgence of global interest in Chess. 

The New York Times reported that the frenzy around Chess in the US after the release of the series was only rivaled by the one triggered by that rare landmark in American Chess History when Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky to become the first and only American World Chess Champion of the 20th Century.

One leading e-retailer with a global presence reported an unprecedented 1000% surge in sales of Chess sets and a 600% uptick in sales of Chess books during the month following the release of the series.

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An Unmatched Fillip For Chess-Inspired Art

The Queen’s Gambit not only succeeded in popularizing Chess amongst a worldwide audience but also sparked new interest in traditionally hand-crafted Chess sets from across Europe, prominently showcased at different points over the course of the series.  

The set that particularly caught the public eye and imagination - showcased multiple times through the series including during the dramatic climactic encounter between Beth Harmon and Vasily Borgovin, was the elegantly-crafted and highly-distinctive Soviet-Latvian Chess set dating from the 1950s.

This particular set flew off the shelves of every major chess-supplies store across the US and was reported to be sold-out from every major Chess e-store around the world, within a couple of weeks after the seventh and final episode of the Queen’s  Gambit was aired.