Power politics over a chess board


By Daniel Johnson

Houghton Mifflin, $26, 416 pages


Thought to have originated in India in the sixth century A.D., the
beautiful game of chess finally has returned home. The current world
champion is Viswanathan Anand of India.

He is only the third non-Soviet (or Russian post-Soviet break-up)
since 1948 to hold a world chess title. Journalist Daniel Johnson
explains, "it is impossible to write the history of chess during the
Cold War period without contrasting the rival political, economic, and
social systems. Only a book that got to the heart of the matter, to
what made the evil empire evil, could give the Cold War chess
grandmasters their context."

Chess probably entered Russia during the early-16th century. Several
czars and czarinas played the game, as did a number of Soviet
revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin. Notes Mr.
Johnson, "Chess has always exerted a peculiar magnetism for
megalomaniacs, from Napoleon to Castro."

However, support for chess became a matter of politics. Nikolai
Vasilyevich Krylenko was, reports Mr. Johnson, one of the few
Bolsheviks "who had the sacred privilege of playing chess with Lenin."
In the mid-1920s, Krylenko established centralized control over the
game and, in Mr. Johnson’s words, drafted a "five year plan for chess,"
mobilizing the game "as part of the increasingly totalitarian direction
of society." As Commissar of Justice, Krylenko helped prosecute
Stalin’s campaign of terror, which consumed many in the chess world.
Krylenko himself was arrested in 1937 and executed the following year.

Russian Alexander Alekhine actually won the title in 1927. But he
played for France and remained in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War
II. Only after he died in 1946 did Moscow truly claim the chess crown
as its own when Mikhail Botvinnik won the tournament to select
Alekhine’s successor. With success came privilege – and danger.
Explains Johnson:

"Botvinnik was treated as a favored son, though that favor was
strictly conditional on his continuing success against Western
grandmasters. The minister of heavy industry, Grigory Ordzhonikadze,
rewarded him with a car. Apart from the vehicles assigned to the
nomenklatura, Botvinnik’s may well have been the only private car in
the Soviet Union. A year later, Ordzhonikadze vanished into the vortex
of the Terror. Botvinnik was fortunate not to join him."

Government control brought resources. Writes Mr. Johnson, "the
practical basis of the Soviet school of chess was its colossal
infrastructure. From 150,000 registered players in 1929, the numbers
grew to half a million in the mid-1930s. By the 1950s they had reached
1 million and would eventually peak at 5 million." Those who won
received bountiful wages and unusual travel opportunities, which
"conferred almost unimaginable privilege."

Ultimately, the Soviets became victims of "the rumbustious individualism of the American way of life," notes Mr. Johnson. Bobby Fischer
was brilliant but erratic, in contrast to the dull but disciplined
Soviet machine. By the mid-1960s, Botvinnik had been dethroned,
ultimately replaced by Boris Spassky, a relative nonconformist among
the Soviet players. He proved to be the unlucky victim when Fischer’s
will to win overcame the latter’s mercurial temperament.

While watching chess has been derided as akin to watching grass
grow, the process leading to Fischer’s victory provided world-class
entertainment, ably described in "White King and Red Queen." Mr.
Johnson pays particular attention to the tumultuous impact of Fischer’s
triumph on the Soviet chess machine. After Fischer won the first
"candidate’s" match, blanking Soviet grandmaster Mark Taimanov by the
shocking score of six-zip, Taimanov found himself in disgrace.

Fischer then took out the Dane Bent Larsen by the same score and in
the penultimate match crunched former Soviet world champion Tigran
Petrosian by the astonishing margin of four points. Yet Fischer’s
bizarre antics almost sank the championship match against Boris
Spassky. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger even called Fischer,
urging him to show up in Reykjavik for the match.

Once both players sat down at the chessboard, the result seemed
inevitable. With Fischer taking a strong lead, writes Mr. Johnson, "the
real battle again shifted away from the board. It was plain to all that
only a miracle could stop Fischer now. Being good communists, the
Soviet team did not believe in miracles; they believed in conspiracies
instead. The fear of what might await them back in Moscow fueled the
atmosphere of paranoia that had pervaded the Spassky camp." At one
point, the Icelandic authorities x-rayed Fischer’s chair and
disassembled a lamp to check for listening devices.

Fischer’s triumph heralded the slow, painful end of the Soviet chess
system. Apparatchik Anatoly Karpov won the title in 1975 by default in
a dispute over match conditions. Mr. Karpov then twice defeated Soviet
Viktor Korchnoi, who fell into disfavor before defecting, and whose
family became an unofficial pawn in the struggle. But next came Garry Kasparov.
Notes Mr. Johnson, "His Armenian-Jewish background made it more likely
that the boy would grow up to be a champion not only of chess but of
dissidents, too."

Although a product of the Soviet chess machine, Mr. Kasparov
ultimately joined Fischer in modeling arrogant individuality against
the Communist system. Mr. Karpov and Mr. Kasparov fought four bitter
matches, which left the latter the undisputed world champion. Explains
Mr. Johnson, "The Kasparov-Karpov duel was the climax of the story of
chess and the Cold War. That story is also a hitherto untold chapter in
the history of liberty."

Both the Soviet Union and international chess order collapsed
thereafter, as Mr. Kasparov and other grandmasters broke from FIDE, the
international chess federation. Although still the game’s highest-rated
player, Mr. Kasparov retired from chess in 2005 to fight for democracy
in Russia. The two separate chess crowns were finally reunited, with
Mr. Anand the current titleholder. Once a symbol of international
political conflict, chess has returned to its more boring status as
"only" a game.

Yet the Cold War struggle over chess continues to enthrall many of
us patzers. Mr. Johnson argues that chess "almost uniquely had resisted
the totalitarian takeover of every aspect of culture. However much the
ideologues and gangsters in the Kremlin might try to politicize the
game, they could not control the moves on the board." In the end, he
observes of Mr. Kasparov, "The supreme intellectual product of the
Soviet system turned against his masters, in the process exposing their
claims as hollow and mendacious." For that we all should be thankful.

Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Reagan, is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Originally published here: http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jan/04/playing-chess-during-cold-war/