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Chess in Russia: Origins & History – 25 Key Historical Facts

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

The evolution of chess in Russia reads almost like a love story. We can look through the hourglass at photos of people sitting in parks across from one another, deep in thought, strategically planning their next move, taking their opponent out one chess piece at a time. How did this simply-looking strategy game become so influential in Russia?

Chess was introduced to Russia somewhere between 801 and 900 AD during trade between the Northern Europeans and Middle Eastern merchants. Centuries later, Russia would become one of the world’s leading chess-playing countries, giving the game some of the greatest chess players of all time.

Russia gave chess a chance to evolve into the passion it is today. Russians use chess to learn the skills of patience and tactics, but that’s barely scratching the surface of the relationship between Russia and chess. 

These are 25 historical facts about chess in Russia and how it all began:

1. Chess Was First Introduced To Russia In The 9th Century

In old Russia, chess became known during the 9th century thanks to the Volga trade route. This route connected Northwestern Russia and Northern Europe with the Sasanian Empire and the Caspian Sea through the Volga River, where Russians got their hands on the game that was developed by people in India centuries before. 

2. Cultural Relations Led To A Better Understanding Of Chess

As cultural relations and connections developed between the Vikings and the Byzantium, so did a better understanding of chess. 

Representatives of different nations played chess to interact and get to know each other. Yet, it would still take a few hundred years for the Russians to develop their strong bond with the chess board.

3. Russia Gave Chess A New Name: Shakhmaty

During the 13th century, Russians finally gave chess a name they could be proud of: “Shakmaty,” which means “the king is dead.” 

Though chess was popular among the population, the Russian Orthodox Church saw it as a gambling game (which many people treated it as, to be fair). Therefore, the Russian population had to play it as an underground game for centuries.

4. Ivan The Terrible Was Pressured To Ban Chess In Russia

Tzar Ivan IV, known as “Ivan the Terrible,” was pressured into banning chess in 1551 by the Russian Orthodox Church because, in their eyes, chess was a gambling game, which was a sin and should not be allowed. 

Ironically, people popularly believe that Ivan the Terrible died in 1584 while preparing for a game of chess.

5. The First Book Of Chess Was Published In Russia

After Ivan the Terrible, there isn’t much history to tell us how chess evolved over the next few centuries. However, the first book about chess translated into Russian was published in St. Petersburg in 1791. It was a translated version of Benjamin Franklin’s Morals of Chess, entitled “Pravila dlia Shashechnoi Igry.”

6. Alexander Petrov Was The First Strong Russian Chess Player

Alexander Dmitrievich Petrov was so passionate about chess that he became Russia’s first strong chess player, chess master, writer, and composer. He became Russia’s champion at the age of 15. 

Petrov remained the best player Russia has seen for over a century. He even invented the opening move that is now known as the Petrov Defense or Russian Defense.

7. The Chess Reputation Of Carl Jaenisch Began

Carl Jaenisch was born in 1813, and he quickly picked up the Russian passion for chess. When he was 27 years old, he decided to devote his time to only playing chess. 

However, it could not sustain him back then, so he found employment at the Ministry of Finance. But he did not let his true passion die; he still obsessed over chess and played whenever he could. 

8. Carl Jaenisch Published A Book In 1842

Carl’s obsession with chess led him to start a new project in 1840. He had long dreamed of publishing a chess book called “A New Analysis of Chess Opening.” The book was published in 1842 and so well received by the Russian chess-playing population that it became Volume 1, with Volume 2 following in 1843. 

He was the first chess player to open a match in an organized, analytical, and scientific way. He also published a final book, Volume 3, also known as “Treatise on the Application of Mathematical Analysis in the Chess Game.”

9. St. Petersburg Society Of Chess Amateurs Was Founded

The St. Petersburg Society Of Chess Amateurs, also known as the Society of Chess-Lovers of St. Petersburg, was founded by a few members in the house of Count Alexander Grigorievich Kushelev-Bezborodko on March 27th, 1853. It was the first official Russian club dedicated exclusively to chess.

10. Ilya Shumov Won The First Formal Russian Chess Competition

Ilya Shumov, born June 16th, 1819, won the first organized chess competition in St Petersburg in 1859. Ilya was one of the founding members of the Society of Chess-Lovers of St Petersburg. However, the club was closed then, so he founded a new club in 1869, where Emmanuel Schiffers learned to play. 

11. Butrimov Published The First Purely Russian Chess Book

Ivan Butrimov published the first purely Russian Chess book, “Chess Play,” in 1821. He believed “that chess is not merely a pleasant pastime; it also promotes, as mathematics does.”

12. Alexander Petrov Published His First Book

Alexander Petrov also stepped into his role as a chess writer, notably since he was Russia’s first strong chess player. He published his first work in 1842, called “A Systemized Game of Chess.” 

13. St. Petersburg Society Of Chess Amateurs Was Shut Down

The police shut down the first chess club in 1862. Since the club was founded in 1852, it was a regular meeting place for spies as well, and the presence of known Marxist Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky resulted in the club’s closing.

14. Russia’s First Chess Magazine Was Born

Shakhmatny Listok,” which translates to “Chess Newsletter,” was first published in Russia in 1858. The chess magazine reigned until 1863.

15. A Russian Published The First Book On Chess Composition

The world’s first book on chess composition was published in 1867 by Ilya Shumov. It was published in St. Petersburg, often regarded as the birthplace of chess in Russia.

16. Russia’s Chess Champion Was Emmanuel Schiffers

Emmanuel Schiffers first played in a chess club founded by Ilya Shumov in 1869. By 1874 he defeated Andrey Chardin by five wins, losing 4. For a long time, he was known as Russia’s Champion Chess Player.

17. Mikhail Chigorin Was The Prodigy Chess Champion

Mikhail Chigorin was a student of Emmanuel Schiffers. He left his job in 1875 to fulfill his dreams of playing chess full-time. The student eventually became the master in 1879 after defeating the defending champion in a match.

18. Russia’s First Chess Tournament Was In 1876

Russia finally started embracing chess, hosting its first chess masters’ tournament in 1876.

19. Russia’s Second Tournament Was In 1978

The Best Russian Players Tournament in St. Petersburg took place in January 1879. By then, Russia knew it made sense to play chess as a strategic and logical game.

20. St. Petersburg Had Its First Telegraph Chess Match

In 1886, St. Petersburg competed in a telegraph chess match against London, which St. Petersburg won.

21. Russia Hosted Its First International Chess Tournament

Russia finally hosted its first International Chess Tournament in St. Petersburg from December 1895 until January 1896. The winner of the tournament was the legendary Emanuel Lasker.

22. Moscow Hosted A Chess World Championship

Moscow hosted the 6th Chess World Championship, moving the focus from St Petersburg a bit. The Championship ran from November 1869 to January 1897.

23. The First Russian Chess Federation Formed In 1914

The first Russian Chess Federation was formed in 1914 and had 865 members. The federation was known as the All-Russia Chess Union.

24. A World War Broke Out During A Chess Congress

The first World War broke out during the 19th German Chess Federation Congress in Mannheim. The Russian Chess players were taken as prisoners of war to Rastatt, Germany, due to Russia siding with the Allied Forces.

25. The First Soviet Chess Championship Was On Its Way

In 1920, Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky motioned for the first All-Russian Chess Olympiad to be hosted in Moscow. This Olympiad was the first Soviet Chess Championship, even though the Soviet Union would only be officially formed two years later.

Last But Not Least

The Russians have had a long and intimate relationship with chess. After the USSR came into play in 1922, they saw the potential of chess and how it could help them to strategize in war and tactics. Because of this importance, Russia is still known as one of the most significant chess-playing countries in the world, consistently producing some of the most prominent grandmasters.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.