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…