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War by Other Means

Daniel Johnson's fascinating account of the Soviet Union's attempt to turn an ancient game into a Cold War weapon.

By From the March 2009 issue

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White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard
By Daniel Johnson
(Houghton Mifflin, 384 pages, $26)

With its virtually limitless possible moves and combinations, chess has meant many things to players since it appeared in India about the 6th century: casual pastime or embarrassing school of humility, challenging mental workout or, in the case of a number of grandmasters, sanity-threatening maniacal fixation. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, author of the great chess story The Royal Game, whose chess-obsessed protagonist goes crazy, puckishly defined it as "thought that leads nowhere, mathematics that adds up to nothing, art without an end product, architecture without substance."

For Daniel Johnson, chess is nothing less than a mega-metaphor for the late Cold War. Indeed, in White King and Red Queen he argues persuasively that, with its "abstract purism, incipient paranoia, and sublimated homicide" it became a proxy war between superpowers prevented by the nuclear bal- ance of terror from engaging in direct hostilities. A British journalist, chess aficionado, and contributor to The American Spectator, he once played Garry Kasparov to a draw in a simultaneous exhibition. In this original take on an unexplored aspect of the late Cold War, Johnson is well placed to depict in detail that peculiar period in mid-20th century when chess matches were front-page news and grandmasters were household names.

Long a favorite of Russian intellectuals and rulers—Peter the Great took along special campaign boards of soft leather while battling Turks or subduing obstreperous serfs—chess was turned into a tool of the revolution by Marx and Lenin, who were avid players. (They were also very bad losers: Marx would rage when put in a difficult position; Lenin got depressed if he lost and finally gave the game up because it distracted him from the revolution.) They and Stalin made it an instrument of the all-embracing communist state. It was, they considered, both a demonstration of dialectical materialism and good mental training for war both hot and cold.

By the mid-1920s Moscow launched a nationwide program with the declared objective of dominating the chess world. What better propaganda for the New Soviet Man? "We must organize shock brigades of chess players and begin immediately a 5-year plan for chess," declared Nikolai Krylenko, Stalin's commissar of war and founder of the Red Army, who himself headed the new All-Union Chess Section. With a multi-million ruble budget, Krylenko created a vast, tentacular infrastructure of 500,000 players by the 1930s. That number would eventually peak at some 5 million. A systematic training program spotted promising players early in Communist youth chess clubs and rewarded them as they matured with rare treats like foreign currency earnings and travel abroad. At one point the Ukrainian province of Chernigov alone had over 10,000 players, more than the entire U.S.

THE FIRST GREAT HERO of soviet chess was Mikhail Botvinnik. A meticulous, methodical product of the Russian chess machine, he developed a rigorous pre-match procedure that became standard for Soviet masters preparing for international competition: three weeks' confinement in a country dacha with intensive training games, plenty of exercise and fresh air, stringent analysis of all the opponent's past games, four openings devised for both White and Black, concluding with five days of rest without chess just before the match.

After Botvinnik won a big international tournament in 1936, the ministry of heavy industry rewarded him with an automobile. Stalin himself signed an order providing him 250 liters of gasoline. As Johnson notes, "Apart from the vehicles assigned to the nomenklatura, Botvinnik's may well have been the only private car in the Soviet Union." When he entered a theater, the audience gave him a standing ovation; his studious, bespectacled face glowered from propaganda posters; Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, he of the eponymous cocktail, personally intervened to ensure that Botvinnik had plenty of time off from work as an electrical engineer to study chess.

If being a chess star was a passport to the good life, Soviet style, the machine had no pity on losers even after Stalin was long gone. Mark Taimanov, champion of the USSR, grandmaster, inventor of the clever Taimanov Variation of the Sicilian Defense, and a gifted concert pianist to boot, had to run a humiliating gauntlet of punishment after losing an important international match in the early 1970s. Rather than being waved through customs as usual on his return to Sheremetyevo airport, he was subjected to a thorough search and found to be carrying a copy of Solzhenitsyn's banned novel, The First Circle. As the customs official explained candidly, if he had won, "I would have been prepared to carry the complete works of Solzhenitsyn to the taxi for you." In Moscow, Taimanov was summoned before the Sports Committee for a harsh dressing down and Soviet-style "civic execution": kicked off the national team, he was stripped of his title of Merited Master of Sports, banned from publishing, forbidden foreign travel, and ordered to do no more piano performances.

America had been the world's strongest chess nation in the 1930s. The Russians ended that after World War II by crushing an American team in a radio match in September 1945. For the next three decades their only serious competition came from their East European satellite states, especially Yugoslavia. The idea that Communist chess supremacy did actually demonstrate Western decadence took hold in certain quarters.

Enter an arrogant, paranoid Brooklyn brat named Bobby Fischer, whom Johnson considers "perhaps the most extraordinary genius in the history of the game." After winning the U.S. championship in 1957 at 14, Fischer showed up in Moscow the next year boldly demanding to play Botvinnik. But when the chief Soviet chess bureaucrat informed him that he would not be paid for the games, he abruptly declared "I'm fed up with these Russian pigs" and went home. When he did play top Russians later that year in Yugoslavia, he finished fifth, good enough to earn Fischer the grandmaster's title at 15.

At first he was respectful toward the Russians and was on relatively friendly terms with Boris Spassky. But as he observed the Soviet players in action he became convinced that they had rigged world chess against him by agreeing among themselves to throw games to each other during tournaments. He was largely right—even paranoids have enemies—but that didn't keep him from beating several Soviet grandmasters during the 1960s.

By 1970 the Soviet chess machine began to feel what Johnson calls "Fischer fear," with Botvinnik warning his comrades that the volatile American prodigy had become a threat to Soviet chess. Little did they know. Despite his mother Regina being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party U.S.A., Fischer had gradually become an ardent anti- Communist ready to fight the Cold War. "It's really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians," he declared. The scene was set for the most famous chess match in history, Fischer vs. Spassky in Reykjavik in the summer of 1972. Johnson calls it "the Cold War's supreme work of art."

In the tense run-up to the contest, both President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, contacted Fischer with messages of support, saying in effect, Go over there and beat the Russians. As the two-month match got under way, world newspapers played it on their front pages, London pubs replaced dartboards with chessboards, and New York bars tuned their television sets not to the Mets games but to live broadcasts from Reykjavik. (Even I, certified chess duffer, clipped the daily accounts of the games and duplicated them on my board.) Fischer himself called it hand-to-hand combat. Their superb, gripping 13th game, which Fischer won after eight hours of play, doomed Spassky and ended the supremacy of the Soviet chess machine. As Johnson puts it, "In Spassky's submission to his fate and Fischer's fierce, exultant triumph, the Cold War's denouement was already foreshadowed."

THIS WELL-RESEARCHED account of the Soviet attempt to turn an ancient game into a Cold War weapon makes fascinating reading for both history and chess buffs. In his acknowledgements, Johnson thanks a circle of American friends, including Michael Novak and Bob Tyrrell, for their help in giving the book its unflinching moral clarity. In his tale of those murky years of looking glass conflict, two final ironies stand out. First there was the strength that chess gave the unyielding Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, a first-rate player, to resist his interrogators and tormentors. "The chessboard had improved my defense against false threats and concealed tricks," he later wrote. "I gave them no openings."

Then there were the contrasting post-Cold War destinies of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Fischer, his neurons overloaded, became increasingly delusional and bitterly anti-American in his exile in Iceland. Meanwhile, Garry Kasparov, the last Soviet champion, became fervently anti-Communist and the most prominent leader of today's domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin's resurgent police state. Fortunately not all grandmasters are driven crazy by chess.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.