Sunday, January 4, 2009


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.

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