excerpt:"Two Russian chess grandmasters, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, faced off this week in a 12-game tournament in Valencia, Spain. As of this month, more than half of the Top 20 players in the world come from Russia or another former Soviet Republic. (The top-ranked player is Bulgarian.) Why are the Russians and their neighbors so good at chess?
Because the Soviets subsidized the game. Chess has long been popular in Russia—Czar Ivan IV is thought to have died while playing a match in 1584. After the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, it became a national pastime. Soon after the revolution, Vladimir Lenin's supreme commander of the Soviet army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state-sponsored chess: He opened chess schools, hosted tournaments, and promoted the game as a vehicle for international dominance. The first state-sponsored chess tournament was held in Moscow in 1921. Six years later, chess prodigy Alexander Alekhine became the first Russian to win a world tournament. By 1934, 500,000 amateur players had registered with the state chess program. When Mikhail Botvinnik won the international title in 1948, he kicked off an era of Soviet domination that extended unbroken—except for a four-year streak by American Bobby Fischer—until the fall of the USSR.
Chess was a natural fit for the Soviet Union.