Slovenia loves chess

Slovenians have loved chess since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was one of the first activities that linked us together as a nation. As a result, despite our small size, we have contributed a lot to chess, even at the world level.

Milan Vidmar (1885–1992) was a top-class chess player, among the best in the world in his time, a grandmaster who in one tournament came joint second with Akiba Rubinstein behind world chess champion José Raúl Capablanca (1888–1942). Alongside his notable achievements at the chessboard and in top competitions, he enriched Slovenian culture with numerous works of philosophy, chess books, instructional books and inventions, and left an inspiring legacy as rector of the University of Ljubljana and president of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. If Milan Vidmar helped promote and popularise chess through works of chess literature aimed at a wide audience, the grandmaster Vasja Pirc (1907–1980) had a lasting impact on professional chess players and earned his place in chess history both with a series of theoretical works and with the opening known as the Pirc Defence (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6).

Before the Second World War, Slovenia was very strong in chess terms, but interest in the game dwindled in the years after the conflict. It revived following independence, when the Slovenian Chess Federation became active, and reached its peak with the 35th Chess Olympiad in Bled in 2002, at which time chess was even introduced into the primary school curriculum as an elective subject.

Today there are 76 registered chess clubs in the country, more than 7,500 active players, including several grandmasters (GM) and women grandmasters (WGM), and three world youth chess champions: Bruno Parma, Luka Lenič and Laura Unuk.

Laura Unuk, a multiple winner at the World Youth Chess Championship. Photo: Barbara Jakše

Milan Kneževič, honorary president of the Slovenian Chess Federation (ŠZS) and, before that, its president for more than 30 years, is a man who has contributed a great deal to Slovenian chess. Building on the solid foundations laid by his predecessor Ljuban Jakše, Milan Kneževič fully justified the trust placed in him, continuing Jakše’s work and consistently fulfilling his mission. This included outstanding organisation of the Federation, to ensuring the best possible conditions for both amateur and top-flight chess players.

“I am very happy to be a small part of the world of chess, which I love and which has given me so much, and although I have never achieved an important chess title myself, my greatest satisfaction is to see young people taking pleasure in their own achievements in chess and growing both as chess players and as human beings. At the ŠZS we have organised numerous excellent international tournaments, achieved notable successes and won the highest honours. The pinnacle of all this was the 35th Chess Olympiad in Bled, which brought Slovenian chess and Slovenia to the attention of the world and introduced the game to the regular primary school curriculum. The ŠZS now has a new leadership and I firmly believe that chess in this country has a bright future.” Milan Kneževič received the Bloudek Prize for lifetime achievement in 2011, an honour of which he is particularly proud. It is wonderful to see him at the chessboard, grappling with the challenges of chess with enthusiasm and total absorption.

Milan Kneževič, honorary president of the Slovenian Chess Federation. Photo: Barbara Jakše

“The Mitropa Cup is a traditional friendly team event that has already helped many young (and less young) talents to get very important experience, and this time it was also special for me, being a captain, trainer, and head of the delegation of 10 players, both young men and young women, on the Italian teams. But being so nice, polite and well-educated and so motivated to learn, I must confess that I enjoyed a lot the hard work and the great bonus of meeting old good friends from different countries and learning more about the world, the common problems that so many countries are facing, while still we all shared the hope for a better future. I was specially happy about the good news of positive changes in many chess federations, all of which seems very promising! Till the next time... Thank you!” – Arthur Kogan, Italian team captain

“Thanks a lot to all of the Slovenian Chess Federation. The organisation was perfect and this Mitropa Cup will stay in our memories for long time.” - Laurent Guidarelli, French team captain

In 10 years’ time, the world of chess will meet in Slovenia once again. Perhaps in Bled, this time? And why not: Slovenia is wonderful, green and charming. Tournament website:

Slovenia boasts quite a number of chess curiosities, from the Pirc Defence to Janez Boljka’s insightful chess sculpture in Bled to the “Best Chessmen Ever” chess set by Jonas Žnidaršič. The latter were tried by Garry Kasparov himself in Maribor during the 2012 World Youth Chess Championship.

The European team and club chess championships are also on the horizon, which means that Slovenia and Slovenian chess will continue to be in the news.

Jonas Žnidaršič with the chessmen he designed, with multiple national chess championship winner Aleks Jeršič. Photo: Barbara Jakše

Text by Barbara Jakše