Today, we take it for granted that Russian players are a major force on the international chess scene – and for much of the 20th century, they were completely dominant. But this wasn’t always the case, and there was a time when Russia was not considered to be among the great chess nations of the world.
That changed when Mikhail Chigorin came on the scene. Chigorin was the first great Russian chess player, challenging for the world title and ushering in the so-called Russian (later Soviet) school of chess. At the same time, Chigorin also marked the end of an era, as he was the last of the great Romantic players who gave way to the more solid and positional style of the modern chess masters.
Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin was born near St. Petersburg in the Russian Empire on November 12, 1850. Unlike virtually all modern grandmasters – and even in contrast to most top players of his time – Chigorin did not play chess as a youngster, only learning the moves for the first time when he was 16. He would not seriously begin play until he was 24, when his fascination with chess drove him to quit his job as a government officer and being playing professionally full time.
By 1880, Chigorin had defeated the other local masters easily, and it was clear that he was the best player in the St. Petersburg area, and likely in all of Russia. His career then took him abroad, where he began playing in the few international tournaments that were available to him at the time. In Berlin 1881 he made his first appearance, finishing in a tie for third in a group of 17 master-level players.
But Chigorin’s coming out party was the London tournament of 1883. The tournament is best remembered for Johannes Zukertort’s victory three points ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz, but Chigorin performed admirably too, finishing in 4th place. It’s a testament to the era – still firmly in the Romantic period – that Chigorin did not draw a single game, winning 16 and losing ten. That was far from rare though, as neither Zukertort nor Steinitz scored a draw in the event, either.
World Championship Contender
After sharing first at New York 1889 – the Sixth American Chess Congress, where he scored 29/39 – Chigorin used his strong results to challenge Steinitz for the World Chess Championship.
The match was a contrast in styles, as Steinitz was pushing for the new school of chess thought – one in which small advantages were accumulated through smart positional play – against Chigorin’s more Romantic notions of success through brilliant combinations and demonstrative tactics. As we all know, it was ultimately Steinitz’s ideas that won out, but not without a struggle. Chigorin acquitted himself well in the match, losing 10.5-6.5. He fared even better in a rematch in 1892, when Chigorin was in it until quite late in the event, ultimately losing by a 12.5-10.5 score.
The strongest tournament Chigorin was ever able to participate in was Hastings 1985, one that may have been the strongest tournament of the 19th century. Chigorin would ultimately score 16/21, yet still come up a half-point short to Harry Pillsbury. Still, finishing in second place was an excellent result for Chigorin, as he would finish ahead of World Champions Emanuel Lasker and Steinitz, as well as other notables like Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter and David Janowski.
While he would go on to win other international tournaments (notably Budapest 1896), none of those events were nearly at the same level as the Hastings event. Instead, Chigorin cemented his legacy by winning the first three Russian Championships (then known as the All-Russia Tournament), becoming the winner in 1899, 1900-01 and 1903. This ensured that Chigorin would be remembered as the strongest Russian player of his era, and helped him become an inspiration for generations of Russian players to come later.
Chigorin helped establish chess associations and clubs in Russia and proved to be a valuable ambassador for chess around the world. In 1907, Chigorin was diagnosed with an untreatable case of diabetes. He passed away in January 1908, at the age of 57. Since his death, Chigorin Memorial tournaments have been a fixture in Russian chess, with the most recent version of the tournament taking place in St. Petersburg.