10 Sept 2013

The incredible story of how Putin used secret KGB chess tactics to outwit the US

Kavlov in 1949, a secret photograph taken by US intelligence camera concealed in his chess board
Russia’s incredibly quick response to John Kerry’s suggestion yesterday that Syria could avert a US strike if it handed its chemical weapons was a masterful tactical move by the Kremlin master. Putin instructed his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to make a statement that Russia will ensure that Syria will surrender and agree to the destruction of its chemical weapon, extending a process a lifeline to president Obama who was struggling to convince US representatives of the necessity of attacking Syria.

Many commentators have pointed that Putin’s quick thinking has offered a convenient solution for all involved, but few have recognised the role that chess played in this incident. Keen enthusiast of the game will recognise that Putin’s proposal was a variation on the classic ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’, in which a functionally-degraded chess piece is sacrificed to create space for manoeuvre elsewhere. But that is only half the story.

Few people will know of the role chess played in Soviet strategic thinking and the various programmes that the USSR established to train its military and intelligence elites in the art of Zevsebia, or chess-think. Chess-think was for the USSR what game theory was for the US during the Cold War, but the Soviets went further than the Americans in making chess-think second nature to their cadres.

According to Soviet documents that were declassified in 2004, the first Zevsebia programme was initiated in 1932 when Stalin, an obsessive chess player, put the man who would later head the NKVD Beria in charge of running the programme. Beria recruited Russian chess grandmaster Kavlov, also a keen amateur boxer who won a bronze medal in the 1924 Olympics, and charged him with developing the outline of the programme.

Kavlov’s template was to survive almost unchanged until 1986, when Gorbachev, who had an aversion to chess, cancelled the programme after decades of successful operation during which it trained hundreds of the top Soviet cadres. Kavlov’s combination of intellectual and physical rigorous training provided a winning formula for the programme, and Stalin often joked that graduates were ‘our own Supermen’.
One of the few known Jabowntski sacrifice notations 

The programme was only offered however to a small number of top operatives that had the appropriate levels of mental and physical fitness to pass the rigorous training. In the KGB for example, only agents promoted to the prestigious X2, nicknamed the steel professors, were allowed to receive a Zevsebia training. The X2, as you might have expected, was Vladimir Putin’s old unit in the KGB. An even more interesting fact is that the six remaining Zevsebia graduates are all associated with Putin’s inner policy circles, as former Kremlin insider Yuri Nodov revealed in his critical but obscure 2008 book ‘The Circle’.

In one of the few available written documents on Zevsebia, Nodov published a description of the programme and its training routines in his book, providing a valuable insight that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. Not only were the trainees subjected to intensive training in tactics, military theory, chess and physical fitness, they were forced to compete in chess under extreme conditions. For example, the trainees were forced to play rounds of chess inside refrigerator rooms at below-zero temperatures. They were also made to compete inside very hot rooms, invariably while hopping one foot or doing push-ups. It isn’t surprising than fewer than fifteen per cent of all candidates graduated from the programme. It won’t come as a surprise that Putin came top of his class.

Putin no doubt came across the ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’ during his Zevsebia training, as Russian chess players were forbidden to use it in play and it remained a tactic known only to those within the intelligence community. Stalin had good reasons to maintain the secrecy. During the siege of Leningrad, he and Beria and Kavlov implemented a variation of the manoeuvre by offering Hitler forces what appeared to be a valuable strategic position on the outskirts of the Zabvadna, only for the jubilant Nazis to realize too late that this allowed Stalin to outflank them and finally manage to break the long siege. Yaroslav Mitske’s book ‘The Gamble’ has a detailed description of the operation. Mitske also describes how Stalin had the sixty officers who were in charge of the operation shot after the war ended to preserve the secrets of the ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’, no doubt because of his paranoia.
Young Putin at the Zevsebia school, in its trademark uniform. 

For Zevsebia experts, there is no doubt that Putin’s manoeuvre yesterday when he offered to sacrifice the Assad regime’s chemical weapons in return for staving off the US attack was inspired by the classic chess move. The Kremlin will no doubt dismiss those reports as fantasy, as it has done for decades but the evidence is there for all to see. It’s not a little bit ironic that the manoeuvre that allowed the US to save face was developed by the Soviets for precisely the opposite reason.
Stalin and Beria at a visit to the Zevsebia school in 1947.
This guest post was written by my friend, Russian expert Dr Michael Metzger

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  1. Very interesting, but wasn't it Kerry, not Putin, who created the whole option - and by accident rather than design?

    1. Yes, I think so too. The fanatical neocon dogs of war slipped up which allowed the Kremlin to checkmate. Sometimes I think it is a mistake for us to think that behind the scenes there is only cool, calm and rational maneuvering when in fact it can be chaotic reacting to fast moving events driven by pride, and we know that comes before a fall.

  2. If this is true, we must admit that the improvement of strategic thinking under stress conditions and risk can produce as much peace as victory in war. If this is a lie, it is a lie well told and extremely refined.

  3. Obviously there have been continuous communication and the strategy is to make Kerry think that it is his idea ... just like the Nazi's thought it was their idea to take the position in Stalingrad.

  4. In wars (and occasionally hunting sprees) there is a very secretive weapon that is sometimes used, known only to a privileged few. The weapon is deadly and liquidizes the target across vast distances. This fearsome tool of destruction is called "The Projectile" (in some circles it is also known as the bullet), etc...
    a ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’ it seems is no more impressive than just "a sacrifice" - if basic compromise (chess irrelevant as well i might add) is what they teach to the top elite KGB operatives then Russia might be in a lot bigger mess than the U.S. seems to be in...

  5. Bonjour Karl,
    allow me to correct a small point in you article.
    The picture at the top is for Marcel Duchamp

  6. Interesting! By the way your article was translated by a Romanian newspaper and they did not even give the should be reference to you. The author was given as Diana Rusu. You can check out the newspaper article which makes money on your back


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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