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January 24, 2008

The best book about chess since Alice Through the Looking Glass - Christie Davies finds another book about chess which he can enjoy: White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chess Board - Daniel Johnson

Posted by Christie Davies

White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chess Board
by Daniel Johnson
Pp. 383. London: Atlantic, 2007
Hardback, £22

Daniel Johnson is to be congratulated on creating a fascinating historical and political analysis of what, despite strong claims from soccer and snooker, must be the world's most boring game, chess. Chess boards, dart boards, coal boards are much of a muchness.

There is a certain satisfaction to be had from the knowledge that today a computer can beat the best of chess players; we have lived to see the death of human chess. Daniel Johnson's book takes us back to those strange days when grown men - intelligent men - were fascinated by the bizarre manoeuvres of pieces on an eight by eight pattern of squares given strange names like "the notorious Spanish bishop" or "the poisoned pawn".

Yet, as Johnson shows in his admirable account, this silly little game became part of the great contest of good and evil known as the Cold War, a war that ended with the triumph of democracy and capitalism over the evil empire of communism. Indeed in his story of chess we can see at work both of the two great unmitigated evils of the twentieth century - communism and anti-Semitism.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet Union dominated chess because as Johnson shows it had strength in depth. They smashed the Americans 20-12 in 1954 and 25-7 in 1955 and the lowly British 18.5-1.5. By 1960 there were 3 million registered players in the USSR and 5 million by 1970.

In 1958 Chernigov, a single region of the Ukraine, had over 10,000 active players - more than the entire United States.
Chess was like those mountains of coal and pig iron of which the Soviets boasted, like their laborious dams and canals, their enormous drunken conscript armies, their forests of obese missiles. At that time there were those in the West who really believed the Soviet's boast when they said, "We shall bury you". In chess, as in investment, as in armaments, they thought bulk could prevail. Dean Hewlett Johnson, the first Red in Canterbury, even wrote a book called Soviet Strength.

Left-wing visitors to the Soviet Union would no doubt be shown these orderly arrays of chess boards in clubs, be assured that the players were ordinary workers and pioneers and go back to give lectures in Toxteth and Snaresbrook about the new Soviet man, so different from our own unruly and degenerate proletariat. Back in Russia vodka driven hooligans beat their wives, fought in the streets and froze to death drunk in the snow.

Yet there was another factor as Johnson shows:

The popularity of chess among intellectuals in Communist Russia may be explained simply: chess was one of the 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, from which any deviation was punishable by a term in a labour camp or worse. The abstract, impractical nature of chess protected it from the interference suffered by scientists who were forced to follow charlatans such as Trofim Lysenko….Chess was a partial exception to institutionalised xenophobia: many chess players, amateurs as well as masters, belonged to the "inner emigration".
Why ephemeral chess, the cultivated person's bridge rubber, which has no product and nothing original beyond permutations should be seen as creative is odd; rather it must have been a substitute for the abstract or revolutionary intense chit-chat that Continentals like to have in cafes, another amphetamine of the intellectuals.

For the leading chess players though, the ones who maintained the prestige of the Soviet Union by beating foreigners in the same way that drugged up East German athletes did, there was always pressure to conform to the Party and there was the ubiquitous pressure of the KGB. Chess champions were highly privileged but watched and accompanied when they played abroad. Soviet life was in Johnson's memorable phrase:

a pathological form of carrot and stick - privilege and fear - as a substitute for the financial incentives of the market.
As usual there were wonderful Soviet anekdoti. After a leading player Taimonov lost a key match to the American Bobby Fischer in Vancouver, there was an unusually thorough search of his luggage at Moscow airport and they found a copy of Solzhenitsyn's banned novel The First Circle. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was a friend of both, used to tell the joke:
Have you heard that Solzhenitsyn is in trouble?

They have found Taimanov's book The Nimsovitsch Defence among his belongings!

In 1941 Mikhail Barulin - a leading chess "problemist" - had been denounced for cracking a politically incorrect anti-Soviet joke and died in prison. If the Chief Constable of Heddlu Gogledd Cymru had his way it would probably happen in Britain too. Yet Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko, the chairman of the All Union Chess Section attached to the Supreme Council for Physical Culture of the Russian Federation who pioneered the use of chess as a political weapon in the proletarian revolution had a great sense of humour. He was the one who when Commissar of Justice enforced the "five ears law", when in Johnson's words:
[Krylenko] imposed the death penalty on any peasant who took more than five ears of wheat during the Ukrainian famine in which up to 8 million died. [Krylenko] boasted that he had abolished capital punishment, but when it was pointed out that an admiral had been sentenced to death despite the ban, he commented:

"Admiral Shchastny is not being executed. He is being shot."

It is a measure of the importance given to chess in the Soviet Union that such a man was put in charge of the game.

However during the later stages of the Cold War, things began to go wrong for the Soviets. In 1972 the American player Bobby Fischer heavily defeated the Soviet champion Boris Spassky in a match in Reykjavik in Iceland, a match followed by the entire world. The Soviets were not invincible, something we needed to be told in the early 1970s when they were advancing everywhere under cover of détente.

Fischer's mother, his mother's husband and his mother's lover (probably his real father) were all communists and quite likely Soviet spies. His mother later took part in the Walk for Peace from San Francisco to Moscow.

It was perhaps inevitable that Fischer who was fatherless by two fathers and neglected by his mother, who like most Marxist feminists placed radical politics before maternal care should have become fanatically anti-communist and eventually mentally aberrant, first converting to a Christian sect that kept all the Jewish dietary and Sabbath rules and then denouncing the Jews, his own people, in an altogether anti-Semitic way.

Fischer was a lover of Soviet jokes, whose chess victory was a double defeat for the Reds. Silly pretentious journalists like George Steiner sneered that the anti-Soviet, Cold War politics of Fischer's supporters were "simplistic". Yet in the battle of good and evil simplicity is a virtue, as we know from Churchill's wartime rhetoric.

Defeating the devil requires subtlety and even moderation in tactics but the strategic aim is simple - total victory, a victory that erases the enemy and utterly humiliates those at home who are his sympathisers, half sympathisers and those who try to "understand" him. "Smash socialism!" was the only possible moral line to take .To hold "moderate" views about the crimes of communism is like trying to whittle away the evil of the Holocaust.

It is striking how the Soviets assumed that their defeat in Iceland must have been due to the use of psychotropic drugs, radiation, hypnosis, telepathy, electronic devices and atmospheric chemicals, all organized by the CIA which they assumed must be a mirror image of the KGB. The Icelanders were forced by them to X-ray Bobby Fischer's chair and found two dead flies.

Yet as Johnson shows, the most prescient match was the defeat of the Russian computer Kaissa by the American computer Duchess in 1977. By 1982 at the beginning of the endgame there were 400 times as many computers per capita in the USA as in the Soviet Union. Checkmate 1989.

By then the Soviet dissidents had taken up the chess war against communism, two of the most notable being Viktor Korchnoi, a Jewish bourgeois individualist who was hassled by Soviet anti-Semites and defected, and Gary Kasparov (born Weinstein) who is still a campaigner for democracy, now against Putin. They are a reminder both of the Jewish pre-eminence in chess and of the strength of Soviet anti-Semitism.

When the Jewish Korchnoi played the champion Karpov in 1974 the stage was surrounded by anti-Semitic thugs from the Communist Youth shouting:

That's it, that's it, smash him Tolya [Karpov]!
Korchnoi got hate mail and feared being attacked in the street.

Given that the Jews are pre-eminent in chess as in so many other things (six of the 14 world champions since 1886 have been wholly or partly Jewish and so have more than half of their challengers), it was self-destructive of the Soviet Union to treat them badly. It was even more stupid of the Soviets to exclude them from leading scientific institutions as we can see from the case of the leading player Natan Scharansky, persecuted by the KGB and locked away before finally being allowed to leave for Israel. Johnson writes of him:

Scharansky proved to be a brilliant mathematician and physicist, enabling him to become a graduate student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). This was no small achievement because Jews were very rarely accepted in this prestigious institution, created under Stalin to train the Soviet scientific elite; the administrators complained that they did not want to preside over a synagogue and from the mid-1960s to the 1980s no Jews at all were admitted.
All forms of affirmative action are unjust and damaging but some are more damaging than others.

Daniel Johnson has written an excellent, indeed exciting, account of how the cold war was fought on the chessboard. Most chess books are as tedious as the Kama Sutra, where you are expected to guess how the queen will mate in eight moves. They are full of silly matrices with squiggles in the squares to indicate where the pieces are at some late stage of the game. Johnson has seen through all this to recognize the supreme importance of ideology. Unlike socialism and anti-Semitism chess has never killed anyone. Johnson alone has given an account that cuts through the trivial pursuits of cleft bishops and imperious queens sidling obliquely in search of a knight different from all other knights in the hope of making him jump; Johnson's account goes straight to the real and deadly conflicts of the Cold War. It is the best book about chess since Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain and of many academic articles about the former Soviet Union and about Jewish identity.


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That was a very good review. I applaud your insightful attack on communism and those who defend it. However, I decry your flippant attitude towards the Royal Game. Seeing that the former is more important than the latter, I'll call ithe balance in your favor. :-)

Good work!

Posted by: S. D. Tortorice at January 26, 2008 05:09 AM
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Yet another disgaceful attack on socialism by Dr Davies. The Soviet Union was an egalitarian society that brought chess to the broad masses, unlike England where it is an essentially bourgeois game - look how many chess players are Oxbridge graduates
It also reveals Davies's obsession with sniffing out antisemitism where none exists. The Soviet Union was not antisemitic merely anti-Zionist . The Jews were well-represented in leading positions in the Soviet Union particularly in the intelligentsia and as surgeons and musicians.
The Soviet Union voted in the UN for the establishment of Israel and in 1948 provided Czech weapons for the Israeli army. Matters only deteriorated when Israel failed to become a socialist country and engaged in conflicts with the national liberation movements in adjacent countries. Also the sending of Golda Meir to Moscow as Israeli Ambassador was a provocation . Comrade Molotov, whose wife was Jewish , recognized this.
Antisemitism in Russia was caused by the Orthodox Church and Great Russian chauvinism. Leninism tried to put an end to both but sadly never fully succeeded . We must not judge the Soviet Union by its difficulties and seeming failures but rather praise the selfless idealism of its ideology , an ideology based on the equality of all peoples.

Posted by: Hilary at February 2, 2008 05:20 PM
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Hilary writes of "the selfless idealism of its ideology". This raises two questions:

(1) "its ideology" — does this mean Marxism? Bertrand Russell criticized the philosophy of Marx on two purely intellectual grounds:

"one, that he was muddle-headed; on the other, that his thinking was almost entirely inspired by hatred."

(2) What is selfless idealism? The word "selfless" makes me think of Cybermen.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 4, 2008 07:27 PM
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