My opponent and crusher of my creams, to the left, playing a lady in Shevchenko Park. Photo: Emil Filtenborg.

Ukraine Nu sent a reporter to Shevchenko park in Kyiv to show off our chess abilities. We were thoroughly disappointed.

It’s not more than 18 degrees outside, the sky is a bit grey, but in one of Kyiv’s major parks, Shevchenko Park, chess players from all over the city have gotten tired of waiting. They are now meeting in the park again, playing friends and strangers – some for small bets.

One of those small bets, 10 uah, was wagered by the writer of this article. I have previously won a few games on, one of the leading chess sites, and since I was in the area, I thought I would go win one over the board.

I opened with the London System, a brutal attacking system against unprepared player. But my opponent was nothing near unprepared. Actually, he has been coming to the park to play chess since 1969.

And it showed. After a few moves, he forced me to retreat a knight, but instead I sacrificed a bishop to win two pawns and gain some momentum. It was not enough, and after a series of tactical defences, attacks and in-betweens, I was completely wiped off the board.

A center of chess

The player who bested me was one of the many chess hustlers in Shevchenko Park, who play strangers for money. Shevchenko Park is quite renown for the small but consistent group of players, who test their skills in the park.

Young and old people alike come to gather around the small tables that are just big enough to support a chess board and a clock. It is a good way to test your skill – even if you are a very strong player.

Like the famous American Washington Square Park in New York eternalised by the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, Shevchenko Park is also known to sometime have grandmasters playing there. It is nothing short of an unique Kyiv experience.

Even if you, like yours truly, have only played a little on and still struggle with the most basic principles of chess, having a game or two with the oldtimers in the park is a fun way to spend a few hours.

The chess culture of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union has always been famous for chess. Many – actually most – world champions came from the Soviet Union. Chess was a very popular past time activity in the USSR, and it remains so today in the post-Soviet space.

During the Cold War, the chess rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was heavily dominated by the Soviets. From 1948 and until Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky in 1971, all world champions were from the Soviet Union.

After 1975, the world championship was returned to the Soviet Union, as Anatoliy Karpov took the title. He was sitting comfortably on that title for years, only challenged by Viktor Korchnoi – a Swiss/Soviet grandmaster – and later Gary Kasparov, who was of course also from the Soviet Union.

In 1985 Kasparov took the title from Karpov, which he then defended against Karpov for eight consecutive years. Since then, Kramnik, Karpov and a third Russian dominated international chess, and it was not until 2007 when Vishy Anand from India won, that the post Soviet hegemony was broken.

Later, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen took the title. He is defending his title this year against the very strong grandmaster Ian Nepomniatchi – a Russian grandmaster, who has previously beaten Carlsen several times in different formats. In that way, it is no surprise that chess has had a central place in Soviet culture.

More than just chess

If you are not a chess player, Shevchenko Park is still worth a visit. The chess takes palace in the North Western corner of the park, but there are also several other reasons to go to the park if not to play.

There are plenty of cafés around the park, serving everything from coffee to a light lunch. There are playgrounds for the children and plenty of benches both inside and outside of the shade.

In central Kyiv it is about the only place to take a breather except for the parks near the parliament and between Maidan and Podil. Shevchenko park can be found next to the Taras Shevchenko University in walking distance from the metro stops of Lva Tolstova and Zoloti Vorota.