Why do Russians excel in chess? (Reality check!)

If you look at the list of most famous chess players in history you are likely to find someone that belongs to a Russian origin (or the Soviet Union at the time), the pattern is there. Even looking at some of the elites in today’s world would give you some glimpses of Russian chess players being good at the game, what’s the deal with this correlation?

I think some beginners would have these thoughts in their head at some point when they view some prestigious chess events, why do Russian players excel in chess?

Russian players are likely to excel in chess since the government provides financial support for their players. There are state-sponsored tournaments that increase monetary prizes since chess is a popular game in Russia. Chess is also being taught in schools as a formal curriculum.

But this is not just a question of curiosity though, there is a good lesson to be learned from why the country is doing so well competitive-wise. It would give us an idea of why some countries excel and why some don’t and make some comparisons here and there about the talents in the world of chess.

Is the government the reason why Russians are so good at chess?

The Russian government helps the progress of Russian chess by providing state-sponsored tournaments, stipends for players to accommodate participation in overseas competitions, and chess subjects that are required to learn at schools.

Russians incentivize the pursuit of chess by providing stipends for the players solving any monetary issue that can impede the competitor, this makes them capable of achieving their maximum potential unlike with other countries. Some people might not know this but chess players do struggle financially most of the time, competing in tournaments doesn’t give a lot of money even to make a living.

If you want to learn the dire situation of chess players when it comes to monetary returns in their pursuit my other article (will open in a new tab) explains that in detail.

But essentially it is incredibly difficult to make a living out of chess much less afford any luxury, as bright chess players get older there are other things that will take hold of their time. One cannot possibly burst into their maximum potential if they cannot even make a living, other responsibilities will take their time instead of actually training and improving.

Not to mention the fact that participating in prestigious competitions overseas requires accommodation from hotels, food, and chess materials to actually win some money. There is an initial investment required, which is why governments who provide financial support for their chess players will make it more likely for those players to succeed than others.

The players who are backed by the Russian government already have a competitive edge with their environment making them much more competent than their peers. A player that is born in a third-world country for example even if they are as talented as a Russian player, will not achieve the same accomplishments (most likely) since they are not in an environment that supports them.

The Russian government sponsor chess tournaments

The thing with chess is it is very difficult to acquire the prize money that would be given to the players, there are little things in tournaments that are monetizable for most businesses. The organizers for the most part have to rely on donations and personal fundings along with some minor sponsorship from small businesses plus spectators which is not a lot of money.

In Russia however there are state-sponsored chess tournaments that increase the monetary value of competitions, this gives motivation for rising players to continue mastering their craft. If a competitor can see that there is a financial future to their pursuit they are much more likely to train harder and improve, this is another competitive advantage.

There will be more competition since winning tournaments is becoming worth it, and everyone is going to progress at a faster rate which they did. People are also going to treat playing in chess competitions as a good side hustle, that they give it a shot and even identify if they have talent, this further increases access to players who are capable of excelling.

Chess is taught in schools in Russia

I think one of the biggest reasons for this phenomenon is the existence of chess subjects as a curriculum in schools, where young people are actually able to figure out early if they have what it takes to excel in chess. When young people are introduced to chess they will have the opportunity to showcase their hidden abilities that they may not have discovered otherwise, something that is rare in other countries.

In other countries only those who made a decision to pursue chess in the first place can have the chance to highlight their potential, that is not the case in Russia. Young people are able to make a connection with the game early and be able to pursue it if they want, this access to education might be the reason why there are so many elite Russian players.

Is the popularity of chess in Russia the reason they excel in chess?

Chess is a popular game in Russia where various communities gather in public parks, sidewalks, and any open spaces to play and meet with each other. Even major news about chess has been broadcasted in several media outlets since the 1950s.

One of the things that keep people from staying in the game is the lack of camaraderie, it’s just hard to find a group of people that will support your pursuit of chess. In Russia however, chess is much more popular than with the rest of the world, meaning people are able to find the right association that has the resources to improve their game and not quit early. 

Since the game is so popular in Russia there are various communities that help each other stay engaged in chess, public parks, sidewalks, and forests are where enthusiasts gather to meet one another. It is easier to find competitions and rivals that would enable a competitor to set a standard for themselves to be at their best, again, this is harder in other countries.

Competition creates competitive players

Another thing that Russia has is competition, the more that the astute competitors are pitted against each other the more they are able to reach a higher level not possible with playing lower-rated opponents. The game is so popular that there are a lot of higher-rated opponents that everyone can test themselves with, this provides a competitive environment for the population.

Russians generally do like chess a lot making it a popular competition in their home country, this amount of traction will lead to a lot of bright Russians interested in pursuing the game. This is similar to why soccer-loving countries are more likely to produce elites in the soccer world, it is just easier to be interested in something if everyone is interested in it as well.

In other countries it is weird to be good in chess since there aren’t any other environmental conditions that led to that interest, this makes chess for the most part a lonely pursuit (in other countries).

Russians love Russian chess players

Another factor in this equation is recognition, when something is more popular the general populace of that country are able to value their elites more than others. This creates a positive feedback loop where players are incentivized emotionally and socially to continue improving and when they do, they would get more recognition in the process. 

Prominent chess players are actually recognized in Russia where they are more likely to stick to play for their home country, other elites from other nations are less likely to stay since they are not valued. This is actually one of the reasons I brought up why chess players switch their federations in my other article (will open in a new tab) which is less likely to be the case for Russians.

Not only are they able to cultivate a surge of players that are willing to improve, but they are also able to retain them since everybody is doing a good job in keeping their players happy, this is the reason why only a few Russians ever switch federations.

Does Russia’s history play a role in making its people good in chess?

Historically, a lot of elite chess players since the 90s have come from Russia (or the Soviet Union at the time), the country has taken dignity in accomplishing various chess achievements in its ranks where both the government and the people push chess players for excellence.

Traditionally this country has prided itself on excelling in the rankings of the chess world, a lot of Russian players have become world champions and the culture of finesse might have transposed to the new generation. It is just hard to take if the new pool of players that are supposed to be the new generation is not capable of living up to the expectations of their past competitors.

When Russian chess players take the stage there is a sense of responsibility to excel, this obligation to uphold the excellence of the previous generation might have given that extra push to be better than everybody else. In such a climate being good enough is not enough to be recognized, people are pushed to realize their full potential that they might not even discover if they are in an environment with low standards.

Elite Russian chess players are role models

When a country has lots of elites in a particular field this provides motivation for rising players that it is possible for someone of their country to achieve such a level. There are a lot of elites in the Russian ranks that set an example for potential future competitors to continue pursuing the game, this is not the case for most countries.

When there’s not a lot of people who have done it before it creates an obstacle mentally that it might not be achievable to do such a feature, such as with third-world countries. I for example live in the Philippines where there are only a handful of prominent chess players while the only one that we have (Wesley So) was only able to reach that level by leaving the country.

It is hard to overcome that emotional feeling that you are not in the right environment since other people in the same conditions have not reached the top level. With Russians again this is not the case, since it has been proven again and again that players from their home country are able to achieve outstanding things at the top.

Russians want their players to be at the top

Excelling in chess has basically become a pride due to the history of this nation, both the government and its people continually support the training of players even at a young age. In Russia this is a reasonable decision that is accepted by society and even revered, this makes young players be able to take off early without any resistance.

Just take a look at this 3-year-old kid in Russia the played against Anatoly Karpov (in a game show) and has even fought well:

Someone this young would not be introduced to chess if he was not born with Russian parents who would like the game themselves (unless it is in India where chess is also popular). You can tell that this kid will have a bright future with chess being this young that would not be possible if he was born in a country that would treat this pursuit as less acceptable (mostly in Asian countries).

Do you now know why Russians excel in chess?

This condition is an excellent case study on how the environment will affect the finesse of the players when it comes to a field, it gives a bigger message. That other talented person in a less forgiving environment would not be able to reach their potential, it is such a shame that we would not see their form fully realized.

But this also means that we should appreciate those that have cultivated the right climate, it probably took a lot of historical turns to do something like that. It would give us an idea of what it takes for someone to be good at chess, it is hard work yes, but the right environment should also be in place for maximum success.

This will also have some sort of applicability to everyday people, that we should be in the right environment if we want to succeed in the things we pursue. That is all, sleep well and play chess.

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