Teimour Radjabov has just won the World Cup.

The first two FIDE World Cups, in 2000 and 2002 had 4 groups of 6 players with the 2 group winners going into an 8-player knockout. They were both won by Anand and were stand-alone tournaments.

In 2005 the tournament morphed into its current form, a 128 player knockout with a place in the Candidates as the prize (apart from large bundles of cash) played every 2 years.

Knockout is a brutal format which favours the toughest players over the very best. Even though the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991 every single winner of the current format World Cup was born in the former USSR. Here is the list:

2005 - Levon Aronian (born 1982 in Yerevan, USSR)
2007 - Gata Kamsky (born 1974 in Novokuznetsk, USSR)
2009 - Boris Gelfand (born 1968 in Minsk, USSR)
2011 - Peter Svidler (born 1976 in Leningrad, USSR)
2013 - Vladimir Kramnik (born 1975 in Tuapse, USSR)
2015 - Sergey Karjakin (born in 1990 in Simferopol, USSR)
2017 - Levon Aronian (born 1982 in Yerevan, USSR)
2019 - Teimour Radjabov (born 1987 in Baku, USSR)

The very best non-USSR players have entered multiple times and failed. Players like Carlsen, Caruana, Ding, Anand have entered but failed to make it all the way though the tough competition.

What is it about Soviet born players that makes them winners in this format?

  • 4
    Interesting, also Kasimdzhanov and Ponomariov won FIDE World Championship, which had the same format, in 2004 and 2002(?). Both players where born in the USSR.
    – Akavall
    Oct 4, 2019 at 15:55
  • Numbers and coincidences?
    – David
    Oct 10, 2019 at 10:58

3 Answers 3


Most top participants were ex-USSR. Almost all of the World Cups were held in ex-USSR countries. And the rest is coincedence.

Especially in earlier years, most of the top participants were born in the USSR.

E.g. in 2005, the top-25 by rating of the participants was Ivanchuk, Bacrot, Aronian, Grischuk, Gelfand, Shirov, Akopian, Radjabov, Ponomariov, Tiviakov, Sokolov, Dreev, Kamsky, Bologan, Lautier, Bruzon, Bareev, Mamedyarov, Vallejo Pons, Smirin, Harikrishna, Malakhov, Sakaev, Volokitin, Moiseenko.

Only 6 in 25 (Bacrot, Sokolov, Lautier, Bruzon, Vallejo Pons, Harikrishna) were not born in the USSR. And only 1 in the top-10! And that tournament had Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Topalov, Svidler and Morozevich (4 out of 6 USSR) missing because of world championship situations.

In later years the number of non-USSR players grew slowly, but in 2011 the first non-USSR player on the list was #12, Zoltan Almasi.

2015 was the first year with only 4 USSR players in the top-10, but 11 in the top-20 (#11 Karjakin won).

It's only in the last few years that it's a bit against the odds that a USSR player won it.

There are of course top non-USSR players: Carlsen, Anand and Topalov were consistently in the top most of this period. But as the World Cup was mostly a qualification event for the Candidates and they qualified otherwise (or were World Champion), they played in very few World Cups.

Apart from 2013, all World Cups were held in USSR countries

Of which three times in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia, sometimes in november/december. I think Russian speakers have a psychological advantage in Siberia, they feel more at home because they can at least understand the people.


Taking the facts above, this is easily within the realm of coincedence. I wouldn't bet on a ex-USSR winner next time purely based on the results so far.


I think a lot of it is culture, and certainly they have the longest history of sustained success in chess from their long history of training. Lastly, there is hardship going back to WWII even, which is related to their culture.

I was a Russian linguist for 8 years during the Cold War, and thus, I have met many former Soviets in my lifetime, including chess players, who are my friends. It is amazing the hardships that they have suffered under communism, and especially during the "Great Patriotic War" (WWII). Everything from the encirclement of Stalingrad to the Siege of Leningrad during the war has really made them a very tough people. They also survived the purges of Stalin. From personal experience, I know that they will do whatever it takes to survive, including standing in line all day for a loaf of bread, even though that is no longer the way life is there...it still was when I was a linguist in the Air Force.

That toughness permeates their lives, and I think that includes chess. Do whatever it takes to get by, or in chess, to win. I cannot think of any tougher people.

Of course, you then cannot discount that they have the best pool of teachers to call upon to teach the next generations. Sure, China is catching up, but Russia and the rest of the former Soviet states, still have that pedigree.


The Soviet placed a large emphasis on chess during the cold war. It was meant to show the superiority of their far-left communist politics. They trained virtually every child in the country to play chess and selected the best to become professionals.

Relatively speaking, the soviet government probably spent more on chess than the US spends on things like medicare and social security. I don't have exact numbers in front of me but the USSR's left-wing politics made it a very poor country and their investment in chess was very large. Ultimately, this was what caused the collapse of the USSR. While they could match the US spending in certain areas they couldn't match everything at the same time. Then, when they started losing in areas where they weren't supposed to lose (moon landing, Bobby Fischer, 1980 hockey, afghanistan) the soviet people started to doubt the viability of the Soviet state and some of the smaller republics started breaking off which eventually led to the complete collapse of the USSR.

That being said, the original investment of the soviets is still paying dividends in chess. Even if the Russian government today doesn't spend the resources, the fact is many of the teachers today were brought up in that time. Many of the parents are still fairly strong and able to pass that on to their children.


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