Why was Chess So Popular in Russia? – And What About Now?

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Looking at the list of grandmasters from around the world you will easily see that a goog number of the best chess players come from Russia. Add to that former Soviet States also supplying many of the best chess experts in the world and you have to wonder, what is it that the Russians love about Chess and why is it so popular?

The popularity of chess in Russia is in part due to subsidization of the game throughout the 20th Century and that chess is part of the national curriculum in education in many parts of the country. It is not only considered a national pastime but also an important aspect of mental development.

Chess popularity is on the decline however, and Russia is not as dominant in the ratings as it once was, having just 2 of the Top 10 rated Grandmasters in the world at the current time.

Let’s look more into the history of chess in Russia and where it remains popular – and Why!

Chess in Russia

After the Bolsheviks took power over the country in 1917 the game became the national pastime. Chess became a state-sponsored chess game with organized tournaments around the country. By as early as 1934 over 500,000 amateurs were officially registered as playing competitively. Chess quickly gained popularity and Russians became the leaders of playing the game on an international level.

Understanding why the Russians are so good at the game is a combination of things, with many players to this day coming from the country to lead the international games. Currently more than half of the top players from around the world are from Russia, knowing who the greatest players from the country are will help you understand the game better.

How did chess influence the country?

Tracing back to the first-time chess was played in Russia is just as difficult as tracing when modern chess was invented. One of the oldest stories regularly told is that Czar Ivan IV died while playing the game in 1584, even before then the game was loved by many of the citizens of the country.

Because chess was subsidized by the government through most of the Soviet Union era many schools relied on the subsidies to have enough money to operate. As the Cold War started chess became an easy way for the government to press its superiority on the international crowd. Special schools were created in the country for players to study the moves of chess day in and out, with a large majority of players doing nothing but play chess.

In 1927 Alexander Alekhine became the first Russian to win in a world tournament, followed by Mikhail Botvinnik won an international title. This launched the game into massive popularity, and the Russians stayed virtually undefeated until the fall of the USSR. With the only break in the streak being a four-year winning streak by American Bobby Fischer.

Who is the most famous Russian chess player?

Choosing one famous Russian player is almost impossible as there has been nearly a century of the game being dominated by the country. The most famous living player from Russia is Garry Kasparov, who was the number one player in the world for 255 months. His chess-playing career lasted for 21 years until he retired to become a writer and political activist.

The second most famous chess player was Alexander Alekhine, who died in 1946, but was known for the aggressive playing style that he used against opponents. Reigning as the world chess champion from 1927 to 1935, and then from 1935 to 1946, he created and innovated on several opening playing styles that have remained in use today. Alexander was well versed in end game tactics and regularly caused his opponents to lose through superior strategy.

One of the youngest, currently living grandmasters from Russia is Sergey Karjakin, who was born in 1990 and has been successful as a master of the game for many years. Currently playing in tournaments around the world he may not be an international master but has proven himself capable of outplaying even the bests.

When was chess the most important for Russia?

Chess was most important to Russian pride during the USSR rule of the country, as it was during this period that the government not only subsidized playing the game but also required it. This is because it was seen as great national pride to beat every other country in almost everything. For this reason, Russians played the game on an international level to ensure that other countries, mostly the US, could not claim the world championship.

As sanctions were placed on the USSR the country began focusing on things that it could play against others, with chess being a pivotal point. Most players from Russia during this period underwent strict training and were harshly punished if they lost on an international level. While many know about the great spy games that were played between the US and Russia, few remember the great tournaments of chess.

As the USSR started to fail and the cold war came to an end the game was no longer seen as important and many of the chess schools set up across Russia were closed. This is not just because the training was too grueling, but because the intense amount of training was starting to have major negative effects on the players. Too much chess has been proven through studies to have negative effects on the mind, and nowhere on earth was chess studied as much as in Russia.

When did chess popularity start to decline?

The popularity of chess never really declined in Russia as people continued to play the game long after the USSR died. However, the intense training given to chess players was no longer required, while people got themselves ready for tournaments. There may still be some lingering masters that have schools where they train people to play the game.

Owing to the intense training that was lobbied at chess players there are some crowds of people that no longer wish to play chess. While there are still a large number of people that actively train to play chess, the fire that burned in the USSR to have the game played is no longer being burned. This is why you may still see many Russians crowned as grandmasters, but not to the extent of the mid-20th century.

A few people have noted that while the USSR focused too much and used draconian techniques to force and torture players into becoming better, the results are worth noting. The game’s taxation on the mental powers of anyone quickly becomes too much, with a large number of people that played for the USSR suffering from later mental health issues. This is why you will no longer see intense training camps that require people to play the game at all times.

Does Russia have a lot of grandmasters?

As one of the countries that have enjoyed a large number of competitive players, Russia has a large number of grandmasters. The country currently has the most grandmasters in the world, with the only country that comes close to the same amount being India. Currently, Russia has 240 grandmasters, with new ones being given the title every year.

In 2017 India only had 47 grandmasters, which is a far cry from the amount that Russia has, however, currently the international chess world is increasing in capabilities. As more and more countries enter the world of chess the number of grandmasters is starting to diversify. A common question being why some countries have so few grandmasters when neighboring countries may have so many.

This can be attributed to the fact that those living in poorer countries may not have access to playing at tournaments, with a large number of people having to pay for other countries to become grandmasters. Usually, you will see that African grandmasters are given the title of grandmaster when playing for western countries. Usually, this is because the master was chosen for a scholarship at a university from that country to play the game, instead of playing chess in tournaments in their own country.

How Many of the Best Grandmasters are Russian?

Whilst Russia possess the greatest number of title Grandmaster by far over any other country, their dominance at the very top of the FIDE tiers is not as strong as it once was. That said, they still represent 23% of the top 100 currently rated Grandmasters in chess.

  • 23 of the top 100 Grandmasters
  • 2 of the Top 10
  • 4 of the Top 25
  • 15 of the Top 50


Russia has always loved the game of chess, and throughout its history, the game has been a central part of the country. With a significant number of grandmasters coming from the country, and a lot of reigning champions calling the country home, it is no surprise that Russia is the place to be when mastering the game.

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