The rise and fall of chess in the 20th century was intimately linked with the cold war and the Soviet Union's giant investment in the game. But deprived of the atmosphere of menace that characterised that era, chess has dissipated much of the capital it built up over more than a centuryby Daniel Johnson / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Chess has always been a simulacrum for political and military confrontation, with its gambits and endgames, stalemate and checkmate. We imagine diplomats or generals facing each other across a board. The game has been internationally popular for more than two centuries, but, like the literary genre of the spy thriller, it came into its own in the cold war. To take one of many examples: the opening scene of one of the first James Bond films, From Russia with Love, is a chess match between two grandmasters. And in real life, it was the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972—when an eccentric American genius smashed 25 years of Soviet chess hegemony—that marked the beginning of the end of the cold war.
Chess provided a mega-metaphor for this psychological war, one that derived added significance from the game’s important role in Soviet communist society. The Russians might have lagged behind in military technology or economic competition, but over the chessboard they reigned supreme. A battlefield that for the first time in history was genuinely global could be metaphorically translated on to the 64 squares.
Chess provided one of the safety valves that kept the lid on the cold war. But how did chess come to play this role: both symbol of the war and its antithesis? And how does chess illuminate the process by which the west triumphed over communism?
The place of chess in European culture closely reflects the rise and fall of the educated elite, for whom it was the recreation of choice. The story begins with an image that records one of the great encounters of modernity: a group portrait, painted in 1856 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, which depicts three major figures of 18th-century thought—the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Swiss divine Johann Caspar Lavater and the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The focus of the picture, around which these ornaments of the Enlightenment are stationed, is a chessboard.
Lessing and Mendelssohn first met in 1754 after a mutual friend had recommended the latter to the already celebrated Lessing as a chess partner. It was a fateful meeting of two remarkable men, but also of two cultures. In Nathan the Wise, the play which proved to be its author’s most popular work, Lessing, the Christian, depicted an idealised Mendelssohn as Nathan: wise, enlightened and Jewish.
The progress of chess from pastime to artistic or scientific maturity was accelerated by Jewish assimilation, which transformed the German-speaking Bildungsbürgertum, or educated middle class, of Mitteleuropa into agents of modernist reform. That German-Jewish symbiosis—doomed by antisemitism though it proved to be—provided the cultural context in which chess could become the intellectual recreation par excellence. And from the mid-19th century onwards, an extraordinarily high proportion of chess masters, including most of the great world champions, have been Jews.
Chess is a special case of a more general phenomenon—the higher than average IQ of “Ashkenazic Jews of European origin”—which begs many questions and still defies simple explanation. We do not know whether Jews had an inherent disposition to excel at chess, or were attracted to the game because this intellectually demanding, competitive, sedentary sport fitted the prevailing Jewish stereotype in 19th-century Europe. What we do know is that what Gerald Abrahams identified as “the chess mind”—a combination of memory, logic and imagination—has much in common with skills that were and are characteristic of Jewish intellectual life. Above all, the study of sacred texts is conducive to a game on which more books have been written than on all others put together. The game of the book seems to have had a very special appeal to the people of the book.
In Lessing’s Nathan, chess is also depicted as the private passion of Saladin, the enlightened Muslim sultan, who is checkmated by his sister Sittah. For Lessing’s cosmopolitan intellectuals, chess was a means to overcome prejudice—religious, racial, national or sexual. Excluding chance and hence discouraging gambling, chess was the only game worthy of the gentleman. (Until 1987 it was the only game permitted within the Palace of Westminster.)
Yet the status of chess in the Enlightenment was ambiguous. The game fascinated many of its leading lights, from philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who anticipated the chess computer) to the encylopédiste Denis Diderot. But chess, which had been a courtly pastime ever since its first flowering ten centuries earlier at the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid’s court in Baghdad, was still generally regarded as the frivolous diversion of a leisured class rather than a serious pursuit. By the late Victorian era, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was still treating chess as an entertainment for children.
In the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, chess emerged as a popular competitive activity, with international tournaments that attracted wide public interest—the first one in London in 1851. The spas and seaside resorts of the European bourgeoisie treated chess as a tourist attraction, and provided the wherewithal for dozens of masters to earn a living from the game. A few achieved eminence in other professions: Adolf Anderssen was a schoolmaster, Ignác Kolisch a banker, Siegbert Tarrasch a doctor, Amos Burn a merchant, Milan Vidmar an engineer, and Ossip Bernstein a lawyer. Others valued their scholarly achievements (Howard Staunton and Emanuel Lasker) or their social status (Paul Morphy and José Raúl Capablanca) more highly than their chess. By 1900, however, chess at the highest level was no longer a game for amateurs, nor did professionals have to suffer the indignity of playing all-comers for a pittance. Instead, chess aspired to the status of an art form or a science. The years before 1914 witnessed a golden age of chess, above all in central Europe.
The terms “master” and “grandmaster” lend chess a certain mystique, as if the game’s initiates were a kind of freemasonry. Their use, however, dates back no further than the early 19th century: the first recorded mention of “grandmaster” in English occurred in 1838. Initially, “master” meant any expert player, whether professional or not, while “grandmaster” was reserved for a handful of masters of world championship calibre. In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II awarded the title of grandmaster to five finalists of the St Petersburg tournament—Lasker, Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Tarrasch and Frank Marshall. But the title was only formalised by the world chess federation, Fide, which in 1950 created a hierarchy of titles, culminating in “international grandmaster,” to be attained by consistently good results against grandmaster competition. The result has been a progressive devaluation of the title, and there are now many hundreds of grandmasters. The gap between the vast majority and the world champion has widened to the point that Garry Kasparov could play simultaneous matches against some of the strongest national teams, such as Israel or Germany, and defeat them without losing a game.
The first grandmaster to be acknowledged as supreme, the composer François-Andre Danican Philidor, owed much of his fame at chess to exile. Proscribed by the French revolutionary directoire as a courtier, he was forced to emigrate to London, where he earned a living at chess. Philidor’s feat of playing blindfold chess against several opponents simultaneously made him a brief celebrity, but he died a poor émigré.
The revolutionary years of 1789, 1848 and 1917 sent many more chess players into exile. After the failed revolution of 1848, another one who pitched up in London was Karl Marx. Marx adored chess and—much to his wife Jenny’s exasperation—would disappear with his fellow émigrés for days at a time on chess binges. Despite devoting much time to chess, he never rose above mediocrity. Rousseau had been a similar chess-playing bohemian and so, later, were Lenin and especially Trotsky. (The news of Trotsky’s triumph in the Bolshevik revolution was greeted by the head waiter at the Café Central in Vienna with the words: “Ach, that must be our Herr Bronstein from the chess room!”)
When in 1917 the commissars of utopia abandoned the café and took over the Kremlin, they brought chess with them. By the mid-1920s, the new Soviet Union had decided to adopt the game as a form of mental training, a preparation for war and peace. Chess was seen as a demonstration of dialectical materialism, the absence of chance rendering it appropriate to the austere tastes of the party leadership. Chess was deemed to be classless, untainted by bourgeois ideology, and hence suitable for the new proletarian cadres. And so began the unprecedented experiment of incorporating chess into the official culture of the communist revolution.
In the west, meanwhile, the 1920s witnessed the high noon of modernist art, the chess equivalent of which was the hypermodern school, a romantic reaction against the classicism of the older generation. Just as artists turned to abstraction, or composers abandoned tonality, so in chess the younger masters experimented with moves that had formerly been thought “ugly” but which embodied new strategic ideas. Iconoclasm in art and chess were combined in the person of Marcel Duchamp, who played well enough to represent France alongside the world champion, émigré Russian Alexander Alekhine.
By 1929, however, the speculative bubble of European prosperity had burst, causing ubiquitous collateral damage, not only to the arts and sciences but also to chess. The case of Emanuel Lasker, who was world champion for a whole generation from 1894-1921, illustrates the impact of the European catastrophe on possibly the most impressive personality in the history of chess. Lasker, the son of a poor Jewish cantor from the German-Polish borderlands, was a mathematician good enough to work with Einstein, a poet, an inventor and a published philosopher. His works on the theory of games, above all his Manual of Chess, are still classics. Lasker achieved financial independence through journalism and lecturing, while his prestige enabled him to force organisers into providing adequate remuneration and playing conditions for international chess.
When the Nazis came to power, Lasker (by then in his sixties and retired from chess) immediately attracted hostile attention. His philosophical works had made him a friend of Walter Rathenau, the foreign minister who was murdered by antisemites; his sister-in-law was the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, while his wife Martha wrote for satirical journals banned in the third reich. The Laskers had their country house at Thyrow, their Berlin flat and their savings confiscated. Like thousands of other German Jews, they found themselves leading a nomadic existence in exile. Settling at first in England, Lasker was forced to return to chess, and at major tournaments in Zurich, Moscow and Nottingham he held his own with the greatest masters of the younger generation. The world champion, Alekhine, declared: “The very idea of chess as an art form would be unthinkable without Emanuel Lasker.”
After the Moscow tournament of 1935, Lasker was invited to stay on in the Soviet capital, attached to the Academy of Sciences. During his two-year stay in Moscow he was fêted by the party apparatus, and seems to have been left to pursue his studies. But in 1937 Lasker took his wife on a visit to the US, from which they apparently intended to return. They never did. By then, Lasker could not have been oblivious of Stalin’s great terror, which was unfolding around him, and the danger that this might represent for foreigners. Lasker, the supreme exponent of “chess as an art form,” could no more survive in Stalin’s Russia than in Hitler’s Germany. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust, but his niece Anita, who was forced to play in the camp band at Auschwitz, survived to tell her story.
War and chess were two of the few things that the Soviet Union excelled at. The two were connected from the outset in the person of Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko (1885-1938). Lenin appointed Krylenko as head of the commissariat of justice once the Bolsheviks had surrendered to the Germans. When the Cheka unleashed the red terror later that year, Krylenko declared: “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.”
Krylenko put these ideas into practice throughout his bloody career. Then, when in 1937 Stalin turned on the veterans of the secret police, Krylenko was not only “liquidated” but also airbrushed out of history. Only in the 1960s was the old monster rehabilitated as one of the founders of Soviet chess.
For in 1924, Krylenko had taken on the task of turning chess into the Soviet Union’s national game. As chairman of the chess section of the supreme council for physical culture of the Russian socialist republics, Krylenko persuaded the Kremlin to organise the first international tournament at Moscow in 1925, to be followed by two more in 1935 and 1936. In his introduction to the tournament book, he wrote: “In our country, where the cultural level is comparatively low, where up to now a typical pastime of the masses has been brewing liquor, drunkenness and brawling, chess is a powerful means of raising the general cultural level.” Krylenko edited the main Soviet chess journal, 64, keeping ideological control of a chess community that soon grew to tens of millions. The party slogan: “Take chess to the workers!”
The mass popularity of the game that was awakened by the 1925 Moscow tournament is recorded in Chess Fever, a delightful silent film that gives no hint of the monsters already brought forth by Russia’s sleep of reason. José Raúl Capablanca, the Cuban world champion, makes a cameo appearance in this tale of a young man so obsessed by chess that he neglects his girlfriend. The millions of young Soviet chess pioneers from whose cadres the first generation of Soviet chess masters emerged were similarly distracted from the nightmarish reality of the gulag. In a state where religion was brutally suppressed, chess became one of the opiates of the people.
At first, Soviet chess yielded few results to show for the scarce resources the state invested in building up an elaborately hierarchical system. The first Moscow tournament in 1925 was indeed won by a Russian, Yefim Bogolyubov, ahead of Lasker and Capablanca, but he promptly joined the ranks of the Russian émigrés in Germany. So did Alexander Alekhine, who succeeded Capablanca as world champion but never returned to Russia, drifting around Europe, chain-smoking and drinking heavily; during his 1935 championship match with Dutchman Max Euwe, which he lost, he was found drunk in a field. Two years later he regained his title, having drunk nothing but milk in the meantime.
Alekhine’s fate, and that of other uprooted intellectuals of his type, was immortalised by The Luzhin Defence, Vladimir Nabokov’s first great novel. Written in Russian while the young novelist eked out a living in 1920s Berlin, it tells the story of Luzhin, a chess genius on the borderline of sanity, for whom the phenomenal world—the world of politics, money and even love—barely exists. A young woman sets out to save Luzhin from what she sees as his monomania, but he is not sure he wants to be saved. He can resolve his existential crisis only by suicide. Nabokov, who was himself a fine chess player, depicts to perfection the psychology of chess. The title gives a clue: the Luzhin defence is meant to be a chess opening, but here it stands also for the prophylactic mechanism behind which Luzhin shelters. He also uses the game as a metaphor for the intellectual life, and the novel is an elegy for the fragile European culture that he saw collapsing about him.
Luzhin is not based on any one individual, but apart from Alekhine he bears a close resemblance to two other great émigré masters: Aron Nimzowitsch and Akiba Rubinstein. Both were from pious Jewish families, in Latvia and Poland respectively; both played chess of great originality, but did not have the equanimity and stamina to become world champions; both were ascetic loners, psychologically fragile, and eccentric. Nimzowitsch did callisthenic exercises during his games; a brilliant writer but utterly self-absorbed, he made himself the leading theoretician of the hypermodern school with his treatise My System. Rubinstein, like the fictional Luzhin, would sometimes jump out of windows if a stranger entered the room, and he spent the last 30 years of his life in an asylum.
The first and greatest chess hero of the Soviet Union was Mikhail Botvinnik. Born in 1911, he belonged to the first generation to reach maturity under communism, and like many of his contemporaries he trained as an engineer—in fact he later made important contributions to Soviet computing. His first appearance abroad, at the annual Hastings tournament in 1934, was a failure. Botvinnik worked on his weaknesses, and when he returned to the international arena, at the 1936 tournament in Nottingham, he finished first, equal with Capablanca and ahead of Euwe, Alekhine and Lasker—all present or past world champions. No young Soviet citizen had achieved such celebrity before.
The Soviet domination of chess was established by Botvinnik’s victory in the 1948 match-tournament in The Hague, which included the five leading grandmasters after the deaths of the world champions Alekhine, Lasker and Capablanca. Suspicion has never entirely been dispelled that Paul Keres, a young Estonian whose results before and during the war were fully equal to Botvinnik’s, had come under pressure from the Soviet authorities as a result of his “collaboration” during the Nazi occupation. Keres played well against his other three rivals but collapsed against Botvinnik, enabling the latter to emerge as the new champion. Halfway through the tournament, the Soviet leadership had panicked about the threat posed by the US champion, Samuel Reshevsky, who beat Botvinnik in a fine game. Botvinnik was summoned before the central committee, but was able to reassure them that he could win. If the American, who faded in the second half of the tournament and ended third equal, had won the title, Stalin might have withdrawn support not only from Botvinnik but from chess itself.
Like so many grandmasters before him, Botvinnik was a Jew, and like many other Jewish communists from this background he believed the new socialist state would do away with the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Indeed, Soviet chess achieved domination partly because the Nazis had murdered or driven into exile virtually all central and western European Jewry. But although most of the greatest Soviet chess masters were Jewish—besides Botvinnik they included David Bronstein, Mikhail Tal, Yefim Geller, Viktor Korchnoi and Garry Kasparov (born Weinstein)—Stalin was an antisemite. Even in the Brezhnev era, Jews (including numerous chess masters) suffered discrimination and were suspected of dual loyalties, especially once Jewish dissidents demanded the right to emigrate to Israel. Natan Sharansky managed to remain sane in prison partly by playing thousands of chess games against himself in his head. Sharansky was briefly a minister in the Ariel Sharon government, and, with his book The Case for Democracy, was also an inspiration for President George W Bush. But his proudest boast is that when the greatest of all the Russian world champions, Garry Kasparov, visited Israel and gave a simultaneous display against numerous opponents, Sharansky was still strong enough to defeat him. Sharansky’s experience is reminiscent of one of the best stories ever written about chess: The Royal Game, a novella by the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig.
When the dust settled after the war, it became clear that the Russians had far outstripped all other countries at chess. The US, which, partly thanks to Jewish immigration from Europe, had emerged as the strongest chess nation of the 1930s, was shocked in September 1945 when, in the first important postwar match between the new superpowers, the Soviet Union defeated the American team in a radio match by the crushing margin of 15.5:4.5. The following year the USSR annihilated England 18:6. For the next three decades, the only serious competition came from its own satellite states, which lent credibility to Khrushchev’s warning to the capitalist west: “We will bury you.”
Communist supremacy had both an ideological (“theoretical”) and practical basis. The “Soviet school of chess” was supposed to have raised the theory of the game, in strategy and tactics, to a much higher level than had been possible in the bourgeois culture of the west: “If a culture is declining then chess too will go downhill,” Botvinnik wrote. There was a nationalistic strain in this ideology: openings were renamed after Russian masters, and non-Russian masters denigrated or written out of the script.
But the real basis of the Soviet school was its colossal infrastructure, creating a pool of millions. As the huge Soviet training campaign bore fruit, and literally hundreds of players achieved master or grandmaster strength between the 1940s and 1960s, a vast system of rewards and punishments was built up, with endless in-fighting and denunciations. The life of a chess professional was a privileged one: stipends were much higher than average wages, and foreign travel allowed. Botvinnik and his successor Vassily Smyslov were awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian Soviet honour—no British professional has received so much as a knighthood.
But the pressure to conform was intolerable for some, and a steady stream of chess refugees fled to the west, the most prominent being Viktor Korchnoi, who twice played matches for the world championship in 1978 and 1981 against Anatoly Karpov. Korchnoi, now a Swiss citizen, claimed that his Soviet opponents used dirty tricks to defeat him. Although Korchnoi lost both matches, he is still, in his mid-70s, playing chess at the highest level. Boris Spassky, too, went into voluntary exile in France after his defeat by Bobby Fischer. Another dissident was the Czech grandmaster Ludek Pachman, who was imprisoned for his part in the 1968 Prague spring. This Marxist turned anti-communist almost died in the torture cellar to which he was dragged in the middle of the night. To escape further torture he tried to kill himself, and his wife was told he would not survive. I remember playing against him in a simultaneous display at the same time as about 20 other juniors in 1972, just after he was allowed to go into exile. Pachman actually lost this hard-fought game, but was gracious in praising the gawky teenager before him. He looked far older than his 48 years: under a noble domed forehead, his face still bore the unmistakable marks of the mental as well as physical torment he had endured.
Just as chess reflected the cold war, so it also marked the fall of communism. In 1972, Bobby Fischer, the American wunderkind, became the first westerner to challenge a Soviet world champion, Boris Spassky. The match took place in Reykjavik (like their Viking ancestors, Icelanders are chess fanatics). The story of that extraordinary match has been told many times (see Prospect January 2004): how Fischer’s demands kept threatening to abort the event before it had started; how Henry Kissinger phoned Fischer—”This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world”—to persuade him to play; how the British capitalist Jim Slater doubled the prize money; how Fischer finally appeared, lost the first game, forfeited the second, kept everyone guessing, won the third game (the first time he had ever beaten Spassky), and never looked back. With hindsight, it is clear that détente had already taken the sting out of the cold war, and that the new electronic technologies, civilian and military, that were beginning to transform the west had already doomed communism. At the time, however, this was not yet obvious, and Fischer’s victory over Spassky struck a psychological blow. Fischer himself saw the match as “the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russian… It’s given me great pleasure as a free person… to have smashed this thing.”
The Soviet Union continues to dominate western chess posthumously, as most of the leading grandmasters in the US, Israel, Holland or Germany are now immigrants from the former eastern bloc. But the grandmaster who presided over the final phase of real Soviet hegemony was Garry Kasparov. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, of Armenian-Jewish stock, Kasparov was both the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet world champion. Neither old Botvinnik, who trained him, nor Botvinnik’s successor Anatoly Karpov, nor the system they had served so loyally could constrain this impetuous young genius. His first world championship match against Karpov in 1984 was stopped after five months and 48 games—all but eight of them draws—by the world chess federation president, Florencio Campomanes, who cited the players’ exhaustion. This left Karpov in possession of the title—the result the Kremlin wanted. Kasparov thereafter set out not merely to crush Karpov, but to break open the Soviet system. Having captured the world championship in 1985, Kasparov refused to obey the Soviet authorities. Though he dedicated his autobiography to Gorbachev, by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 he was openly anti-communist. He dominated world chess for some 20 years, until retirement this March, and has now joined the growing political opposition to President Putin.
Kasparov’s chess record outshines all others, but it was his (wholly unnecessary) defeat by the computer Deep Blue in May 1997 that left the deepest mark. Many assumed that chess as a game was now “solved,” even though grandmasters continued to defeat even the best computers. It was the cold war that originally stimulated the development of chess-playing machines, pioneered by the Briton Alan Turing and the American Claude Shannon, in the late 1940s. Both superpowers used chess programmes to simulate nuclear conflict, and it is no accident that the first computer championships were won by Soviet and US machines. By the mid-1970s, western superiority in this, and other areas of cybernetics, was clear.
Chess since the cold war has enjoyed greater freedom but a lower profile. When Kasparov was challenged in London by a British grandmaster, Nigel Short, in 1993, there was none of the symbolism that accompanied Fischer-Spassky, and when in 2000 Kasparov finally lost his title to a less colourful Russian, Vladimir Kramnik, the match (also in London) attracted interest only in the chess world.
The rise and fall of chess as a political metaphor and an ideological weapon coincided with one of the darkest chapters in the history of mankind. But deprived of the atmosphere of menace that was a by-product of the cold war, chess has dissipated much of the capital it accumulated over the past century.
As a spectator sport, it cannot satisfy a public accustomed to fast, intellectually undemanding entertainment. Artificial constraints on global competition have been abolished, but Fide, the game’s international organisation, is a shambles, controlled and subsidised by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the dictator of a tiny Russian province called Kalmykia. Ilyumzhinov’s only other claim to fame is that he was a close associate of Saddam Hussein and on the last plane out of Baghdad before the coalition invaded. Despite the eccentricity of its governing body, chess is flourishing all over the developing world, especially in the rising powers of India and China. In Europe and the US it is more popular than ever before, especially in schools, but struggles to gain the public recognition enjoyed by sport. Since the cold war, chess has been privatised, and though it has yet to attract the interest of Russian billionaires, it has been one of the great gainers from the internet revolution.
Once it was combined with that very English institution, the club, chess became one of the great socialising forces, an equaliser of class, race, sex and generation. It requires no infrastructure: just a few pieces of wood or plastic. So much has been owed by so many to chess that it can be seen as a microcosm of our endeavours, our constant companion through the ages. If all that were left of mankind were the game of chess, aliens would know us for what we are: not only Homo sapiens, but also Homo ludens.