Tom Fleming

Match of the Century

White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard


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BOBBY FISCHER WAS always outspoken: ‘They have killed chess with their boring methods of play, with their boring matches in their boring country,’ he said of the Soviets. It may have seemed that way at the time. But nothing could be less boring than Daniel Johnson’s account of the role chess played in the Cold War and of the remarkable Soviet chess machine that dominated the game for half a century. ‘Chess’, writes Johnson, ‘was a perfect match for the peculiarities of Cold War culture: abstract purism, incipient paranoia, sublimated homicide.’

Though chess was a cornerstone of Soviet society, it was only with the ‘Match of the Century’, the world championship clash in 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, that the world’s eyes turned to the game and recognised it as a microcosm of a wider global conflict. It is this fascinating episode that forms the centrepiece of Johnson’s book, but there is much more here besides, not least the entertaining, bizarre story of another symbolic duel between the defector Viktor Korchnoi and the ruthless Soviet champion Anatoly Karpov in 1978.

The ideologues at the heart of the Russian revolution were all chess fanatics, inheriting the game from their bourgeois, mostly Russian and Jewish backgrounds. Trotsky and Lenin spent days on end in coffee-houses around Europe, pontificating over the chessboard (apparently, the news of Trotsky’s triumph in the Bolshevik revolution was greeted by the head waiter in the Café Central in Vienna with the words: ‘Ach, that must be our Herr Bronstein from the chess room!’). During his exile in London, Marx was another ‘grandstanding bohemian’ who frequently left his wife at home to embark upon chess marathons, indulging his pent-up delusions of power – though he was a mediocre player at best and would work himself into a fury if he found himself in a losing position. ‘Chess has always exerted a peculiar influence on megalomaniacs’, writes Johnson, aptly.

If the Bolsheviks’ ‘utopian aspirations’ found expression in chess, the game also quickly became a symbol of intellectual respectability: the chess-playing Soviet, the West was told, was ‘serious-minded, logical and “scientific” even in his leisure activity’. That the game was cheap to organise and free to play also contributed to its growth in a society where resources were sparse; and despite its politicisation, the game remained popular partly because the self-contained realm of the chessboard embodied a type of intellectual freedom also in short supply.

Most of us know something about Bobby Fischer: the boy-wonder who took American and then world chess by storm at an unprecedentedly early age; the American Jew with a Communist mother who developed vitriolic anti-Semitic, anti-Communist and eventually anti- American views; the notorious recluse. He was an aggressive, exciting player who had to be coerced into playing the world championship in 1972, having almost retired from international chess in protest at the ‘Commie cheats’ he claimed had conspired against him in past tournaments by fixing results against each other. Henry Kissinger realised the importance of the game, and telephoned Fischer at his hideaway in Queens.

Boris Spassky, however, was a step above the average Soviet master, typified by the Stakhanovite, ‘rigorist’ Botvinnik. Born in 1937 into a family of strong Orthodox descent, Spassky was a Russian bear-like character of legendary laziness, independent-minded, clever and charming (when he divorced his first wife he said they had become ‘like bishops of the opposite colour’). He was, for Johnson, the Hector to Fischer’s arrogant Achilles.

Fischer won the match, despite losing the first game because of an over-aggressive pawn capture and defaulting the second after getting in a huff about the television cameras. He then insisted that the third game be played in a small back room, with no spectators present. Spassky accepted. It was perhaps one concession too many: combined with the long list of his other petty demands, and the startling forfeiture of the second game, Fischer had, despite surrendering a two-point lead, dictated the conditions of the match and won a psychological advantage. From then on he dominated and, after some brilliant chess, forced Spassky to concede the title in the twenty-first game.

Fischer resigned his title in 1975, when FIDE, the game’s ruling body, refused to accept all of the conditions he laid out for his next title match. He subsequently disappeared from sight, but has emerged from time to time: to play Spassky again in Serbia in 1992, for which the US government put out a warrant for his arrest, effectively exiling him; to crow about 9/11; to move to Iceland after being arrested for tax evasion in Japan. But Johnson is clear that it was chess, and the competitive world in which the game operated, that kept Fischer sane. Once he had won the title against the hated Russians, he lost his anchor. Chess, this book shows, has kept many people sane; and it has driven many in the opposite direction.

When it came to the next world championship in 1978, between Korchnoi and Karpov, the Soviets had learned that a chess match must be won off the board as well as on it. To that end, they employed Vladimir Zukhar as chief parapsychologist, a man who was ‘reputed to maintain telepathic links with cosmonauts in space’. He would sit in the audience, silently encouraging Karpov and glaring at Korchnoi (they both believed, like Spassky, that a player could be hypnotised by a spectator or opponent).

Clearly intimidated, Korchnoi lost an early lead. He took to wearing reflective sunglasses at the board. Korchnoi’s manager (and later wife) sat next to Zukhar and attempted to distract him with a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. ‘In another game,’ writes Johnson, ‘she allegedly tickled and kicked him, whereupon Valery Krylov, Karpov’s physical trainer, sat on her lap.’ The farce continued. Against the rules, Karpov was handed a yoghurt mid-game. Korchnoi claimed that some sort of secret code might be being used to impart a message to Karpov, possibly depending on the colour of the yoghurt or the time at which it was delivered. The organisers arranged that only one colour of yoghurt (violet) could be handed to Karpov, at a designated time – though Korchnoi still insisted that a sample of it should be sent to a laboratory.

But Korchnoi had some tricks up his sleeve too. He had his own parapsychologist, who sat behind Zukhar in the audience to neutralise the latter’s effect. And on the nineteenth game Korchnoi’s entourage had expanded to include a group of nubile parapsychologists under the tutelage of a local priest psychologist and two yogis in saffron robes who assumed the lotus position in the hall. Zukhar, rattled, ‘covered his face with a handkerchief ’ and fled.

Despite the pseudo-scientific tactics, the real significance of the Korchnoi–Karpov match-up lay in Korchnoi’s personal, ideological development. For Johnson, his increasing dissatisfaction with his country, and his decision to defect in 1976, coincided with his best chess. The first leading Russian grandmaster to defect, it was only with the assertion of his individuality that he was able to peak.

The book ends with Garry Kasparov, the outspoken, pro-West upstart who, during glasnost, tested the limits of the Soviet chess front. But the master gave up chess in 2005 to devote his energy to resisting Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime. ‘Kasparov knows’, concludes Johnson soberly, ‘that the game that he is now playing with Putin is for his life.’

Johnson’s book offers long, fascinating digressions on literature, science, and history; on technology and chess; on anti-Semitism in Russia and the disproportionately high achievements of Jews in the intellectual world (sure to rile Bobby Fischer, should he read it). Throughout the book Johnson displays sound research, a sense of humour, and an understanding of what makes chess so appealing to its devotees. He picks pivotal games within the key matches and describes them with the relish of a military historian. Some may find his moral certainty abrupt, or his Iliad analogy repetitive. But this is a magnificent work overall.

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