Sarah's Chess Journal

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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Dimitri Shostakovich
April 2007

Rene and Georgette Magritte,
With their dog after the war,
Returned to their hotel suite
And they unlocked the door.
Easily losing their evening clothes,
They dance by the light of the moon
To The Penguins,
The Moonglows,
The Orioles,
and The Five Satins,
The deep forbidden music
They'd been longing for.
Rene and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war.

-Paul Simon

Dimitri Shostakovich

   When it comes to music, my tastes are purely plebian. Appreciation of classical music, just like that of chess, is partially dependent on a certain level of education in that area, or, in the least, greater understanding leads to greater appreciation. Appreciation of the historical significance requires much less commitment. That's my cue.
   Among my favorite books on chess history are those by Genna Sosonko who wrote predominately about Soviet chess players, mostly in the post-Stalin era. There's something about the paradox of creativity in a repressive society that gives his stories a poignancy most other chess stories lack. During the Stalin years things were exponentially worse and the juxtaposition of creative minds against such a backdrop is especially stark. Whether it's chess, music or literature, there's a yearning for truth and beauty that transcends any societal restrictions, but in a society that demands conformity to official doctrines, the paths to truth and beauty can often be quite subtle and convoluted. Dimitri Shostakovich is considered by some to be the greatest of Soviet composers. Forced to strive under that paradox where the state demands great results but, at the same time, fetters the the creative process and dictates the acceptable expression of that process, it's quite possible that Shostakovich, as with other Soviet artists who served the State as well as Art, was compelled to reach even deeper inside himself and produce greater work than he might have in a freer society.

Shostakovich's relationship with chess was far more casual than that of Prokofiev or Oistrakh, but it's certainly worth noting especially since his Waltz No. 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2 is featured in the Nabokov-inspired chess film, The Luzhin Defence, and appears as two separate tracks on the soundtrack album.

My schizophrenic ramblings above, hopefully, serve as counterpoint to the more structured and formal article documenting Shostakovich's chess play by Lawrence Totaro of Ultimate Chess Collecting below.


Dimitri Shostakovich

September 25 [O.S. September 12] 1906–August 9, 1975


Shostakovich: A Life. Contributors: Laurel E. Fay - author. Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Place of Publication: Oxford. Publication Year: 2000.

   Page 31

The year 1926 began auspiciously. On New Year's Eve, Shostakovich dreamed that he was walking in a desert when suddenly an old man appeared before him and predicted that he would have a lucky year. Shostakovich resolved to finish his Second Symphony quickly; he claimed he could already hear the whole work in his head. He also kept himself busy correcting the parts for his First Symphony and gratifying a passion for chess.

   Page 110

Shostakovich was not a man who suffered idleness or boredom well; he appeared a bundle of nervous energy, given to restless fidgeting and squirming. From his mother he inherited the penchant to wile away idle moments laying out games of solitaire. He was not driven solely by artistic pursuits. From childhood, he was an indefatigable reader of fiction, classic and contemporary. Chess was chiefly a youthful infatuation; although he followed match play, he was never as serious a competitor as Prokofiev or David Oistrakh. In old age one of the favorite yarns he liked to retell was how, as a callow teenager, he had challenged and lost to Alexander Alekhine, 7 something which could have taken place only before the future world champion left Russia for good in the spring of 1921. Shostakovich enjoyed billiards and cards, and during the 1930s he played poker regularly.

(Footnote 7 reads: M. Dolgopolov, "Budem znakomď--Alekhin...," Izvestiya, 17 August 1974, 5. Among others who recall hearing the composer recount versions of this story are Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky and Mstislav Rostropovich.)

   Page 111

Reflecting an actuarial streak in his nature, Shostakovich maintained a neat log of soccer scores inscribed in a notebook--championship play arranged in pyramids--for many years both before the war and after. (He used the same notebook to log the results of chess tournaments, to inscribe his worklist by opus number, and, at least initially, to catalogue the scores in his library. 17 ) Soccer offered Shostakovich an escape, both from music and from the cares of daily life.

(Footnote 17 reads: This notebook is preserved in the Shostakovich family archive.)

   Page 273

At home, Shostakovich barely had time to unpack before he and Irina were off to Leningrad to board the Baltika, sailing on 31 June on a roundtrip voyage to England. The composer was an honored, if undemanding, guest on board ship. One of the crew recalled that his only special request was for the repair of his old transistor radio; he wanted to follow the progress of the Spassky-Fischer chess championship set to get under way in Reykjavik. 41

(Footnote 41 reads: Ye. Kunitsďn, "Pamyatnďye vstrechi s Dmitriyem Shostakovichem," Sovetskaya kul'tura
(26 September 1978): 8. As it turned out, the opening game of the chess tournament was postponed from
3 until 11 July 1972, long after Shostakovich had disembarked.)

Is there any record of exact correspondence between Alekhine and Shostakovich? Did they ever play more than once as stated above and can any reader identify the game between the world champion and the composer? [L.T.]

   From page 118 of  SHOSTAKOVICH: A Life Remembered by Elisabeth Wilson, it reads:

“Shostakovich was a man who, for the sake of a good story, could so far as to invent a tale. For instance, to this day I don’t give much credence to some of his stories. To of them he used to tell me regularly, maybe twice a year. One was about how, when a young boy, he met the chess-player Alekhine in the cinema. There was nobody around and, Dimitri Dimitriyevich, who didn’t recognize Alekhine approached him and asked him for a game. I don’t believe this story, particularly, as I then had occasion to recount it to Boris Spassky. Spassky said that Shostakovich would have had to be very young indeed as Alekhine left Russia 1919 or 1920.” (Recorded interview with Mstislav Rostropovich and Elisabeth Wilson)


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