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Genius, extreme ability — call it what you will — is not evenly distributed among races and nations. This, at least, seems true of chess. The Russian-speaking world had an extraordinary hold on the world championship for the second half of the last century and the early years of this one; and within that, there was a wildly disproportionate Jewish representation at the highest level.

This phenomenon is essentially cultural; and like all such flowerings it requires an interpreter, someone to explain to the wider world just what was going on at a human as well as an intellectual level. Fortunately such an interpreter exists in the form of Gennadi Sosonko, who celebrates his 70th birthday next month. Genna — as he is known to his friends — has written three marvellous volumes, based on his intimate personal knowledge of the leading players from the former Soviet Union: Russian Silhouettes, The Reliable Past and Smart Chip from St Petersburg. Now, to the delight of his many admirers, Sosonko has produced a new volume: The World Champions I Knew (New in Chess, £21.95).

Genna's perspective is in many ways a poignant one. He was a leading trainer within the Soviet chess empire, first as a teacher of the precocious talents within the Young Pioneers — a kind of Bolshevik Boy Scouts — and later working with such giants of the game as the former world champion Mikhail Tal and the eternal challenger Viktor Kor-chnoi. Yet in 1972 Genna became one of thousands of Jews who left the Soviet Union for Israel — in his case, very soon afterwards settling in Holland. As he put it to me, "It meant saying goodbye to my family, assuming that I would never see any of them again." He also left behind a chess culture that he loved, but whose allure was outweighed by the sense of personal political oppression, of being under lock and key with the state itself as jailer. 

In Soviet eyes, Sosonko had become a traitor, an unperson. He describes in his new book how after he had taken joint first place in the Dutch chess championships of 1973, he read in a Leningrad journal that there had been "a three-way tie for the Dutch championship, between Enklaar and Zuidema".

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