For those with an interest in history and an enjoyment of chess Daniel Johnson’s excellent recent book may just provide the ideal summer escape. White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2008) is a captivating overview of the defining conflict of the last century. For Estonian readers there is plenty of evidence that our own grandmaster, Paul Keres, was forced to throw games in the interest of the foreign policy aims of the Soviet hierarchy. Claims that he might have been our own world chess champion are certainly not farfetched. Skullduggery existed for decades, all to ensure that a Soviet player, acceptable to the Kremlin, ruled the entire chess world.
Chess is first and foremost a game of war that is not over until the King is dead. Or equally symbolically, a game where two Kings accept that they are in stalemate and must begin the tilt from scratch. War, however, for all the analogies drawn over the centuries, is hardly a game of chess. Yet during the Cold War chess symbolism was, it seemed, everywhere. Terminology such as gambits, sacrifices, being a pawn, perpetual check and looming checkmate became favourites of political spinmeisters. Many an editorial cartoonist resorted to depicting bishops and pawns as more formidable than actual chess pieces: that is, weapons of mass destruction, shaped like missiles.
Johnson is an avid and skilled chess player, who once played Garry Kasparov to a draw in a simultaneous exhibition. That is no mean feat. As a journalist he covered German politics when the Berlin Wall fell. He is eminently qualified to write on this topic, and the results are consistently entertaining. The work begins from the legends of yore. Ivan the Terrible (allegedly) met his end at a chessboard. Then light is cast on chess players such as Lenin and Stalin. The former, apparently, was a rather bad sport, becoming peeved and tetchy when he lost a game.
The Western reader discovers how the Soviets set up a chess apparatus with which to prove their intellectual supremacy over the West. This was done in order to cement popular support at home and provide public relations triumphs abroad. Chess became by far the most popular “sport” in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Viktor Korchnoi, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were among the most prominent examples of the system’s success. Manipulation with money and perks was obviously only the start. There were, however, dissidents and players who were not afraid to face down the system.
Borya vs. Bobby
A central part of the book concentrates on the famous 1972 duel between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Iceland, a match that for years seemed would never take place. Johnson provides fascinating insight and details about the evolution of wunderkind Fischer, the paranoid conspiracy theorist, who was convinced that the Soviets were either avoiding him or had fixed matches to prevent his rightful ascendancy to the world chess throne. Many of Fischer’s claims were valid, but as the passage of time eventually proved, without chess Fischer’s grasp on reality was tenuous at best. The Reykjavik confrontation and everything that led up to the match made for arguably the most epic theatre of the Cold War, reduced to individuals and a game rather than ideologies and massive weapons stockpiles.
Johnson’s analyses of last century’s other two great individual chess duels, Karpov versus Korchnoi and Karpov against Kasparov are equally brilliant. Korchnoi, the eventual defector, was never allowed an even playing board by the Soviets against Karpov. And Kasparov, even before he faced Karpov for the world title saw the communist system for the totalitarian sham that it was and evolved first into a Soviet dissident, and now into Putin’s nemesis. The Kremlin had so much invested in chess as a foreign policy instrument that it boggles the mind today in an era when computers provide the biggest challenges in gaming, chess and otherwise.
Keres and Nei
Johnson also gives Paul Keres his due. As Keres had competed in tournaments hosted by Nazi Germany his allegiance was seen as suspect by Moscow. (In 1938 Keres finished tied for first at the Avro tournament, held to determine the right to challenge world champion Alexander Alekhine.) In 1948, when Keres was not yet rehabilitated by his Kremlin masters he was, according to Botvinnik, ordered to lose to him at the Hague and Moscow match-tournaments so that Botvinnik could become world champion. Those orders came from no less than Stalin himself. Keres did indeed lose to Botvinnik in the 1948 matches, four times in fact, under what the author calls “suspicious circumstances.” Botvinnik himself confirmed the above a half century later. As an aside, Botvinnik had placed behind Keres at the 1938 Avro tournament. One can only speculate about Keres being a world champion had not war and occupation affected his career.
Viktor Korchnoi revealed another Soviet conspiracy that put the end to Keres’ world champion hopes. That took place at a particularly tense time in the world, in 1962 when nuclear sabre-rattling was the fear of everyone. At the ’62 candidates tournaments in Curaçao, right under the beak of the American eagle, Keres was the “sacrifice” (another fine chess term). While Fischer was bleating about the Soviets ganging up on him by fixing games Keres led the tournament until he inexplicably lost to Hungary’s Pal Benkö, whom he had always defeated hitherto. That lost point proved decisive – Petrosian won the tournament by a half point. Keres finishing second by that very same half point. Petrosian defeated Botvinnik at the 1963 championships, and ruled the chess world until Spassky vanquished him in 1969.
One of Spassky’s seconds in Iceland was Ivo Nei, eight-time Estonian chess champion during Soviet occupation. Nei was also Spassky’s tennis partner. Nei was sent home in disgrace from Reykjavik because it was alleged that he had been collaborating with American grandmaster Robert Byrne to write a book about Spassky vs Fischer. Espionage was never proven in Nei’s case, but he was banned from foreign travel for two years.
Importance of Kasparov today
Today one must look away from the chessboard. Garry Kasparov is now the most important opposition politician in Putin’s Russia. Johnson’s insights are significant. It was during Kasparov’s reign over the sixty-four squares that chess lost its “political resonance” as an extension of the Cold War. Kasparov had to make a choice – Russia or chess, and in 2003 he made his country priority one. By fighting against “the catastrophic expansion of authoritarian power” in Russia, Kasparov, it could be argued, is now fighting for his life.
Johnson notes that once the attempt to use chess “as a tool of totalitarian transformation [ended, it has] reverted to relative obscurity.”
Indeed, few today are drawn to follow the game to the extent of the Fischer-Spassky match when televisions the world over were tuned to a game that for the neophyte is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Fischer and Spassky did much to popularize the game and it was the stereotype of the cold, dour Soviet facing down the unpredictable and passionate American that played a major role.
The author’s research is magisterial, the breadth and scope formidable. The addition of an excellent essay on sources provides plenty of additional reading material.
The Cold War, marked by devious political machinations, was never about facing off on a black and white landscape. Johnson’s sweeping, brilliant book concludes the West, “for all its inequalities and insecurities, proved to be more resourceful because it fought for freedom and lived in truth.”
The Cold War on 64 squares