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The night before the Russian-American chess match opened in Moscow, the manager of the American team was called upon to make a speech. The manager is a lanky New York advertising man named Rosser Reeves, who looks and acts like a typical American, wears what the Russians consider typical American gear—horn-rimmed glasses—and, like most Americans, does not know much about chess.
So his speech opened amid profound apathy in a country where chess is almost the national game, where as many as 150,000 players have entered a single tournament and where the man in the street knows a good chess move from a bad one in the way Americans know batting averages. In vain Mr. Reeves praised the Moscow subway. Nobody smiled when he described Russian hospitality in unblushing advertising prose. But then by a happy inspiration Mr. Reeves mentioned America's team chess titles of the early 1930s, adding that there was only one thing wrong with them—"The Russians did not play in those matches." (Appreciative laughter.) Warming up, Reeves expressed hope for an American world champion in the future, saying there was only one obstacle—"and the name of that obstacle is Mikhail Botvinnik."
Now here was something his Russian audience understood, the pre-eminence of the great Botvinnik, champion of the world. So Reeves had the crowd with him when he came to a fervent conclusion: "I would like to utter a prayer that Russians and Americans for the next 10,000 years meet in combat no greater than chess." There-upon, the NKVD band broke into The Star-Spangled Banner, and there followed what Pravda usually calls "stormy sustained applause rising to an ovation."
FLASHES OF CEREBRAL LIGHTNING
And when the games started there was no letdown in the Russian enthusiasm. The Hall of Columns on Pushkin Street, where the purge trials were held, and where Stalin lay in state, was packed. On a curtain at one end huge boards duplicated the moves made by the players on the eight boards on the platform. The curious tension that marks the beginning of a major chess contest was intensified at Moscow by television and radio coverage and newsreel cameras—something that American players, familiar with galleries of three or four (or none) in obscure chess clubs, were not accustomed to. Chess games are silent. Two clocks stand beside each chessboard. A player makes his move, and presses a lever which stops the clock on his side of the board and starts his opponent's clock—the time limit is a minimum of 40 moves in two and a half hours of play. There are critical periods in big games when nothing can be heard except the ticking of the clocks.
On the first board Samuel Reshevsky and Mikhail Botvinnik sat silent and poised amid flashes of cerebral lightning. Reshevsky is slight, bald, 43 years old, an ice-cold veteran who has been playing chess since he was a 4-year-old infant prodigy. Botvinnik is 44, an electrical engineer. He won the world championship in a tournament held in Russia to determine the successor to Alexander Alekhine. Alekhine, of Russian origin, became a Nazi supporter, and was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Lisbon. Botvinnik defeated Reshevsky in 1948, and obviously did not expect too much trouble this time.
Forty minutes after the first match started, Botvinnik was pondering on the chessboard before him one of the most perplexing chess situations in modern tournament play. Reshevsky had presented him with a genuine puzzler, perhaps a new contribution to chess literature, something that chess players are certain to be discussing for a long time. It electrified the Russian audience. After 15 moves Botvinnik was in difficulty. In another 13 moves he had virtually equalized the game. Then he faltered again and resigned after 41 moves.
Reshevsky suddenly found himself a great man in the Soviet Union. Autograph seekers beseiged him. Premier Bulganin and Khrushchev posed with him. Said Khrushchev with ponderous pleasantry, surveying Reshevsky's five feet of height: "Such a little man, but so big in chess!"
The subsequent political and social enthusiasm well-nigh concealed the fact that there was a major chess tournament still in progress. When the American chess team showed up at the American Embassy's Fourth of July garden party it was mobbed. Present also were Bulganin and Khrushchev, Malenkov, Mikoyan, Marshal Zhukov, Gromyko, a scattering of Russian admirals, the heads of most ministries, and some 50 officials a shade less prominent, plus 400 members of the Moscow diplomatic set. And in the center was the American chess team, blinking in the limelight.
Premier Bulganin said, somewhat apologetically: "We [of the Kremlin] don't really follow chess," but said he was really in favor of all kinds of sport and cultural interchanges.