8 January 2008

Knights of the evil empire

White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard
by Daniel Johnson (Atlantic)

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, was imprisoned for five days last month after participating in an opposition rally in Moscow. On his release, he wrote an impassioned editorial for the Wall Street Journal denouncing “Mr Putin and his gang” and observing that “KGB officers in plain clothes were clearly in charge even at the police station”. Although Kasparov is no longer a professional chess player but a politician himself, the event makes a chilling postscript to Daniel Johnson’s colourful history of chess as an ideological weapon in the USSR.

Most famously, chess became a proxy version of the cold war during the 1972 match in which Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, after Henry Kissinger had intervened to persuade the holed-up Fischer to play. Johnson efficiently relates the by-now-familiar story of Fischer’s rise, punctuated by drama-queen vanishings, with a wry running simile that compares him to Achilles, “sulking in his tent”. In view of Fischer’s later deterioration into ranting anti-Semitism, Johnson sensibly resists the cliché that chess makes men mad, and instead offers the valuable observation: “It was not chess that made Fischer what he eventually became — it was the abandonment of chess.”

The virtue of Johnson’s book, rich in anecdote, is that it places the much-discussed political significance of this one match in a longer context, stretching the normal definition of the cold war somewhat to begin in the years after the 1917 revolution. Here we meet, for example, the fantastically nasty Vasilyevich Krylenko, who “created the Red Army”, played chess with Lenin, and decided that chess should “become a political weapon in the proletarian revolution”. Already by the 1930s, famous composers of chess problems were being arrested and shot for voicing the wrong opinions. Nonetheless, Krylenko’s idea had legs. Over time, an extraordinary pedagogical infrastructure was built up. The best chess players were given good salaries, and had foreign-travel privileges for playing in international tournaments. By the 1950s, the Soviets were miles ahead of the rest of the world in chess strength. As Johnson points out:

Chess was one of very few officially sanctioned areas of intellectual freedom. Unlike art, music or literature, chess was a creative pursuit that did not have to be conducted according to rules and theories laid down by the authorities.

Apart from Fischer, the lone American hero who refused to defend his title, Johnson focuses mainly on mavericks and dissidents within the USSR. There is, for example, the extraordinary story of Natan Sharansky, a strong chess player who worked on early computer analysis of the endgame, and who then became a figurehead for the refuseniks after agitating for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and being imprisoned for nine years. He played the long game with his KGB interrogators with strategies drawn from chess, as Johnson relates, elegantly offering parallels with Stefan Zweig’s novel The Royal Game, in which a prisoner preserves his sanity by playing mental chess against himself.

Then there is the remarkable Victor Korchnoi, a man with a mischievous sense of humour and a passion for making enemies. Korchnoi defected to the west in 1976, and then contested two world championship matches against the Soviet champion, Anatoly Karpov. The atmosphere of geopolitical paranoia tipped over into farce, as Korchnoi hired a parapsychologist and wore mirrored shades to protect himself against hypnotic rays, complained about a yoghurt served to Karpov because it might be a coded message from his team, and brought in yogis in saffron robes to counteract the evil emanations.

Despite heroic effort, Korchnoi did not dethrone the awesome Karpov, which feat was left to Kasparov, an unruly young star not popular with the party leadership, though he was never an outright dissident. Johnson’s account of the epic series of matches that Kasparov and Karpov fought becomes a parable of the inevitable disintegration of the imperial machine in the face of creative energy.

In this book, indeed, everything must become a parable. Johnson veers off on some ill-advised tangents, including a discussion of the race-IQ “theories” of Charles Murray (in order to explain the preponderance of Jewish grandmasters), and a peculiar reading of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the spaceship computer HAL is supposed to represent the Soviet Union. The book’s guiding principle, though, is revealed in the acknowledgments, where the author thanks other writers for his “moral clarity”.

Well, “moral clarity” here means a cartoon view of history. In his triumphal summing-up, Johnson writes, straightfaced: “The power struggle between East and West had also been a battle between ideology and truth.” Throughout there is an intrusively moralising attitude and a sneering tone, as when Marx is called “a typical coffee-house intellectual”, and Johnson cannot credit the USSR with any positive achievement. He writes, for example: “Like other ideologies, that of the Soviet or Russian ‘school’ [of chess] was largely myth.” That is simply not true, as evidenced by the fact that Bobby Fischer himself learned Russian in order to read Soviet chess magazines, because that was where all the cutting-edge theory was to be found. Fischer eventually beat the Soviet system by assimilating and improving upon its own weaponry.

Why is it so righteously important to denounce all the works of a regime that was consigned to the dustbin of history nearly two decades ago? The answer comes in Johnson’s hagiographical paragraphs on Sharansky’s political career in Israel. Sharansky is lauded for continuing his battles in the cause of liberty by trying “to persuade the West that its core values do truly have the power to overcome the global jihad currently being mounted by radical Islam”. Handily, it seems that the “moral clarity” of the cold war can be translated wholesale to the “war on terror”.

One also has the uncomfortable sense throughout that Johnson is sitting in judgment on chess players who did not display the defiance he considers appropriate, in circumstances that he is fortunate not to have lived through. The great Botvinnik (who was Kasparov’s teacher) is handled with some distaste. And poor Karpov is not extended much courtesy, even though Johnson notes that he made important intercessions with the authorities on behalf of both Korchnoi and Kasparov, which is not exactly the behaviour one would expect of a party stooge. Johnson is far more sympathetic to Kasparov, who himself remained a party member and dedicated his first book to Gorbachev.

Johnson’s “moral clarity” becomes a distorting lens even in matters of pure chess. Discussing Karpov’s style, he resorts to clichés: “cautious, cold-blooded, strategic [ ...] unexciting [ ...] unspectacular”. In fact, anyone who has studied Karpov’s games knows that he often played chess of great attacking beauty, and was still able to trounce the best in the greatest individual tournament performance ever, at Linares in 1994. But to acknowledge that would not fit with the given stereotype of Karpov as the boring, bureaucratic Soviet, and it would muddle Johnson’s childishly Manichean scheme in which nothing once backed by the party could ever have had any value at all.

In fact, as Kasparov generously related only weeks ago, Karpov tried to visit him while he was imprisoned in November, but was denied access. Was that the action of a bloodless ideological automaton? Despite Johnson’s anxiety to show otherwise, the truth is not so red and white.

  • John Hutnyk

    Ahh, Very good stuff – also check out hte old bearded master hisself, here .

    Trinketization

  • http://www.resoluutio.net Antti Jauhiainen

    Great example of the type of skewed discourse that historians too easily resort to. Analyzing history is different from Steven Spielberg movies, and many somehow forget this. The black&white cover of the book that turns color once you place mouse over it is neat as well!