Monday, 22 November 2021

From Chess Champion of Russia to Enemy of the People, the truth about my father.


BOOK REVIEW by Carl Portman





Nikolai Izmailov

Pages: 213

Published by: Elk and Ruby Publishing House   

2021 Hardcover, Softcover and Forward Chess


What is this book about?


The official cover text is as follows: ‘Petr Izmailov was considered to be one of the top four players of the Soviet Union in 1929 according to Yuri Averbakh, and he was ranked around number 50 in the world at the time based on chess metrics methodology. Izmailov won the 1928 Championship of Soviet Russia, reached the last four of the 1929 Soviet Championship, and had a 2/2 lifetime score against Botvinnik. He was a regular winner of Siberian regional and city championships as well as a pioneer in some openings, playing a line similar to the Makogonov Attack against the King’s Indian more than ten years before Makogonov himself.


Izmailov, like many players of his generation, fell victim to Stalin’s purges. He was arrested on spurious charges in 1936 and executed in 1937. His name was then mostly expunged from the Soviet chess press for over 50 years.


At the time of Petr’s arrest, his son Nikolai was less than two years’ old. Once the Soviet-era archives opened up, Nikolai set out to reconstruct the life and chess career of the father he never knew. This book is the result of his research over many years. It contains as complete a tournament record of Izmailov as could be found, as well as all 25 games and fragments that were reported in the contemporary press. At the time of this book’s publication in English Nikolai is a sprightly 86-year-old great-grandfather.


All games and fragments have been thoroughly analyzed in this book in move-by-move style by Romanian Grandmaster and leading chess author Mihail Marin. While his analysis is in itself highly instructional Marin has provided a comprehensive historical background to the chess openings deployed in these games, often showing their origin, contemporary treatment by such masters as Alexander Alekhine and Jose Capablanca, and how they have evolved to modern interpretation by today’s leading grandmasters, such as Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri.  This book will hence be of interest both to practical players wishing to improve their play and fans of chess history.’




·         List of Games

·         Preface

·         Introduction – A book decades in the making

·         Introduction – to the chess of Petr Izmailov by Grandmaster Mihail Marin

·         Early Life

·         Games and Career

·         Izmailov’s Final Months

·         The Aftermath

·         Afterword

·         Appendix I – Tournament results

·         Appendix II – A brief biography of Nikolai Izmailov

·         Appendix III – Bullet chess in Tomsk


My thoughts and comments

There is precious little information out there about Petr Izmailov. I even consulted my chess ‘bible’ The Oxford Companion to Chess (Hooper & Whyld) and found that he was not listed. I have commented before, that books such as this are about much more than chess – they are history, and as such, provide information about people and events that we may not otherwise have known.  For the chess aficionado, this is extremely important.


Born in 1906 Petr Izmailov lived a tragically short life. He died on 28 April 1937, after execution by shooting. This was carried out by the NKVD, the so called ‘People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs’ of the USSR which undertook mass extrajudicial executions of untold numbers of citizens, and conceived, populated and administered the Gulag system of forced labour camps.


Izmailov’s ‘death warrant’ was signed by an NKVD Senior Lieutenant Shevelev, and hastily arranged in about 20 minutes with no hearing. He was accused of being a member of the ‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyist-fascist terror organisation.’ It seems ridiculous now but so many people were put to death under this charge.  


Let’s look at some chess. Clearly the man had chess talent and he was the champion of Siberia and indeed Soviet Russia. He could have done even more were it not for the remoteness of his residence and the fact that he had so many work commitments which cost him dear. His chess was of very high quality and he was not afraid to employ new ideas. This was the game Kosolapov-Izmailov from the Kazan Championship in January 1924.


White has just played 18.f4 threatening to fork the knight and bishop with …f5. Izmailov was too good a player to play the natural looking 18…f5 but why?




After 18…f5 White has the move 19.g4! winning a pawn. There really is much to learn about chess in this book if you play through the games with care. We can see how pawn structure is fundamental in chess and that it will inevitably be a key feature in a high number of endgames. This is also about how to play endgames without the major pieces. 


Here is another position that caught my eye. One of many, to be fair. This was a game that Izmailov lost but that matters not. What is important is the game itself. Here he is playing an opponent who was also executed in the Great Terror, Alexander Schtenger, who had the White pieces in the 3rd Siberian Championship in Novosibirsk in March 1926.


Izmailov had just played 26…Bd8 and the position looks complex to me. Both sides strive to attack. The question is, what did White play next?



Did you find 27.Rxf4! at all?


The book describes this as ‘a simple but elegant combination, winning material.’ Now it is all too easy to input games played decades ago into a chess engine. The simple fact is. Those players never had any of that technology and it was all done in their head. They used carbon, not silicon.


I did however, put this into my ‘Fat Fritz 2’ engine and to be fair it chose 27.Rh6 as the optimum move, giving a huge advantage, followed by moves such as 27.Bd2 or 27. Rf2.


When I put the text move in, the assessment halved, still giving White an advantage though. 1.Rxf4 gxf4 2.Bh7+ Kh8 3.Bg6+ Kg8 4.Bxf7+ Rfxf7 5.Qc8 Rd7 6.Bxf4 Ne6 7.Bh6 Rgf7 8.Rf3 Rfe7 9.Rf6 1-0


Does the book achieve its aim?

The book is about bringing Petr Izmailov’s short but rich life to the public and telling his story through the diligent research and pen of his son, Nikolai. It does just that.


What is ‘The Truth’ anyway? They say there are three versions. His version, her version and the truth. Well, the Truth here is that I feel enriched for having read the book. I felt stimulated intellectually, culturally and even spiritually. I feel lucky to be alive in these times and able to enjoy chess and life. Not so for the countless innocent people such as Petr Izmailov, killed in senseless purges. His light may have been snuffed out at the terribly young age of 30, but this book must surely do some justice to him and to what occurred. Can anyone even imagine what it would be like to have someone knock on your door one day – and lead you off to be shot? It’s man’s inhumanity to man. Pointless. Senseless. Cruel. However, Petr Izmailov left us with the legacy of his games, and for that we should remember him, and celebrate him.


Additional comments.

The book is well presented. In a quirky way the fact that some pages are in two column format (for chess commentary) and others single column (only text on the page) works well and breaks up the reading process. There are plenty of diagrams to accompany the text, which I found of great value because it was easier to follow without a physical board and pieces.


The analysis from GM Marin is light and easy to understand, so it can reach a wider audience. With plenty of Championship tables and some very rare photographs the book is sufficiently detailed to give the reader a feel for the times and more importantly for the man. It describes more than chess – it offers a view of the culture of the USSR at that time and it is quite frankly terrifying, as well as being unremittingly sad.


The time and effort taken to compile this work has been great but the result has justified the means. It is in my humble view, a worthy addition to any chess book collection.


Who is the author?

Nikolai Izmailov is the son of Petr Izmailov.



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