Postcard from Tbilisi: A visit to the Chess Palace

Kingston’s first-team captain has been spending the summer in Georgia. A foray to the centre of chess life there may not have been the ideal preparation for the start of the new season

David Rowson

The Tbilisi Chess Palace: The construction of a special building for chess shows its importance to the Soviet state

Unlike our cherished Willoughby Arms, the Tbilisi Chess Palace was purpose-built in the 1970s for the practice and promotion of the game. Its full name is, however, the Tbilisi Chess Palace and Alpine Club, so it yokes together two activities which are usually thought of as rather distinct from one other (the Willoughby’s combination of chess and Irish music is perhaps less unlikely and certainly less strenuous).

The construction of a special building for chess and the implication that it is at least as significant an activity as mountain-climbing indicate its importance to the Soviet state and its people. There’s a comprehensive account of the Chess Palace’s significance and of the Soviet and Georgian chess background here.

When I first came to live and work in Tbilisi in 1988, I stumbled upon the palace and was lucky enough to find that an international tournament was taking place there, with the bonus that it featured Mikhail Tal, Oleg Romanishin and … Stuart Conquest. Stuart achieved the remarkable feat of beating both Tal and Romanishin (playing Black in both games), but, as a sign of the strength of East European chess at that time, the tournament winners were the little-known Bulgarian Valentin Lukov and the Georgian Elizbar Ubilava.

I didn’t realise it then, of course, but the privileged position of chess within the USSR would soon be under threat, as the Soviet state itself weakened and finally collapsed. Many top Georgian players, having lost their state subsidies, emigrated to other countries and/or tried other means of earning a living, such as starting businesses or playing poker. Yet the Chess Palace itself remains in place and, I assume, still plays a key role in the development of Georgian chess. Thirty-four years after I first encountered it, staying in Georgia this summer I decided to visit the palace again.  

The Soviet empire that supported chess so generously may have gone, but Georgia’s Chess Palace lives on

Hovering in the empty reception area, I was greeted by a man who emerged from an office with “What do you want?” I told him I was English and interested in chess. I avoided unnecessary and complicated explanations about how I used to live in Tbilisi and had actually played in two minor tournaments here 34 years ago. He asked me to wait, and about 10 minutes later called me in to meet another man, in his seventies, who addressed me with some words of English, trying to understand what I was doing in the otherwise empty chess palace in the sweltering month of August, when all normal people had gone off to the Black Sea or to mountain resorts.

He produced a board and set, and without further talk we began what was in effect a five-minute game without a clock. Playing Black, I very quickly found myself in a tricky line of the Two Knights’ Defence, transposed from a Scotch Gambit. A few moves later I was faced with losing my queen, being checkmated or possibly both. I opted for resignation, mentally blaming my comparative inadequacy on my opponent’s no doubt rigorous training in the Soviet school of chess.

I asked him his name – “Roman”. Clearly not Roman Dzindzichashvili (actually “Jinjikhashvili” would be a shorter and more accurate transliteration, but would spoil the spectacle of all those consonants together) as he was thin and wiry, the opposite of the once famous Georgian grandmaster (and US champion). He eluded my question about his rating, and tactfully made no comment when I told him mine. I noted that he didn’t ask me if I was interested in playing for the local first team, or any other team, for that matter.

For our second game I sought the security of my beloved King’s Indian Attack. Attack it was, on both sides of the board, him on the kingside and me on the other. He sacrificed the exchange and the position was very double-edged, so I bailed out by giving back the exchange for perpetual check. I hoped he hadn’t decided to go easy on a clueless foreigner. I had the feeling that if I could play him every week I would become quite a decent player, but he’s probably too busy doing the organisational work for the next generation of Baadur Jobavas and Nona Gaprindashvilis.

The palace is dedicated to Georgia’s former women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili, the first female GM