Since Lenin, many communist leaders have tried to play and promote chess. Stalin was one of them, in the interwar period, but being trendy was not a prerogative of the Soviets; after the war, János Kádár, Iosip Broz Tito and Fidel Castro strongly supported the development of chess in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Cuba, respectively. As regards Romania, photos are known of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu playing chess with a potentate from his close circle. But passion cannot replace competence. Most of the time, these leaders were pathetic players, who were not able to face a tournament of medium and even amateur level; except, perhaps, for one organized only among themselves, an event which, however, never took place, despite the socialist friendship between their peoples. But that did not stop the same communist leaders from turning chess into a powerful propaganda tool during the Cold War. And in this respect, the Soviets were indeed champions.
Where does the “left” fascination for chess come from?
I should highlight here a constant for the communist leaders of all times: they would always relate to the “bourgeois”, permanently studying them in order to intellectually “rob” them. In addition to brutal nationalizations and confiscations, throughout their careers, communist leaders committed a crime of even greater magnitude: copying and stealing ideas that were circulating freely in the West. The Russian revolutionary leaders, whom the early 20th century found in cafes and sometimes in Western private residences, were no exception. There chess had become a popular game of the gentlemen dressed in tails and wearing top hats, the “bourgeois” spied on by revolutionaries. From here to setting out to appropriate the game of chess, under the slogan of snatching it from the hands of the bourgeoisie for the benefit of the people, the path was short; not to mention that, secretly, the revolutionaries actually enjoyed the “bourgeois” position in which they saw themselves when sitting by the chessboard.
In the pages of the Romanian Chess Magazine issued between ‘47 - ‘48 there are several editorials that illustrate this process. “Chess must become a popular sport”, the magazine would read; “chess must no longer be the sport of a few who got rich by oppressing the people”, it must become “a sport for the masses”, a common asset. The idea was not new, in one form or another it had been circulated in the interwar period; but only now has it acquired a political coloration, an ideological spark, a vengeful twist. It did not go so far as to ban the bourgeoisie from playing chess, as the Jews had been forbidden to go to the theater or cinema, but the direction was the same.
In this respect, in the 1947 – 1948 period, Romania was only copying the Soviet model launched twenty years earlier, where the popular transformation of chess had taken place for the first time. In the interwar period, the Kremlin developed a real obsession with the class transfer of this sport, from the bourgeois to the working class.
A couple of tourists looks at a chess set, which organizers claim to be a gift from chess-player star Anatoly Karpov, during their tour among the goods that belonged to former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in the former dictator's residence transformed into an exhibition, in Bucharest Wednesday 04 August 1999. Credit: EPA-PHOTO/EPA/Robert Ghement
The beginnings were difficult; Soviet Russia could not retain all the top chess players of tsarist Russia. Thus, players such as Akiba Rubinstein, Ossip Bernstein, Aaron Nimzovich or Evgheni Znosko-Borovsky did not stay in the USSR, becoming either citizens of newly established states after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, or emigrants. It was also then that the future world champion Alexandr Alehin, who had played in Moscow in the first Soviet chess championship, in 1920, but who later came very close to being executed under the accusation of collaboration with the counter-revolutionary white forces, left the country too.
After this drain of chess players, Moscow quickly switched to a program to popularize chess. Chess circles were set up with the sports associations that enterprises usually had. All pioneer palaces had chess clubs. Local, unional and republican championships were organized. The good chess players were no longer supposed to work, but still received their salary, as well as other benefits. Legend has it that soon to be world champion Mikhail Botvinnik was the first “ordinary man” to be allowed to own a personal car; the keys were handed to him by Grigory Ordzhonikidze himself, the influential Georgian minister from Stalin's inner circle.
The fact that one played chess well was not, of course, a guarantee of personal security in Stalinist society, periodically shaken by arbitrary political purges. A recently documented case is that of Piotr Izmailov, a 1928 champion of the Russian Federation, about whom a biographical volume has been published this year, accompanied by several comments on his games by the great Romanian master Mikhail Marin. In 1936, during the Great Terror, Izmailov was arrested on false charges and executed shortly afterwards. The President of the Soviet Chess Federation himself, Justice Minister Nikolai Krillenko, was executed in 1938, during the period of Stalinist purges. The Ukrainian Feodor Bohatirciuk, a chess player who later emigrated to Canada, said that he was also very closed to getting in serious trouble.
At a strong international tournament in Moscow, he beat the Soviet favorite Botvinnik and lost to Western players, which aroused the suspicion of the NKVD. Also, many powerful chess players were sent to the Gulag in that fateful Soviet Fourth Decade, some of whom never returned. In compensation, the rise of Nazism and other extremist right-wing movements in Central and Eastern Europe brought several famous Jewish immigrants to Moscow in 1935, including former world chess champion Emanuel Lasker, as well as Salo Flohr and Andor Lilienthal. They received - it is true, some for a short time, until it became clear what world they had become part of - houses, jobs and honors and were presented everywhere as personalities who understood the alleged benefits of communism.
During that period, the USSR did not participate in the Olympics, including chess competitions; and chess Olympics did not enjoy the prestige they do today. In the field of chess, the main goal of the Soviets was to bring to the country the coveted world champion trophy held since 1927 by the Russian renegade Alexandr Alehin. The target was not reached in the interwar period, but after the war, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) was reorganized, and the Soviets gained more influence within it. At the same time, their main player, Mikhail Botvinnik, grew mature enough to indisputably win the supreme title in 1948.
And with the new territories acquired after the war, the Soviets also took over many captive players, such as the Estonian Paul Keres, who is said to have been the best chess player in history who did not become a world champion. The golden age of Soviet hegemony in chess was beginning. The revolutionary dream had come true; chess became a good for the entire people, with the amendment, however, that not everyone enjoyed its fruits. Only top Soviet chess players would benefit from above-average incomes, outings in the West, and media fame. From the beginning, since Lenin spoke of the special caste of professional revolutionaries, communism continually produced privileges and privileged; and the field of chess was no exception.
For over twenty years, until the appearance of Bobby Fischer on the firmament, the title of world chess champion was a strictly Soviet affair. It allowed only small national variations which, in the iron grip of the Muscovite fist, never managed to become too significant. For example, when Tigran Petrosian defeated Botvinnik in the 1963 match, it was a national holiday in Armenia. Without openly confessing it, even though everyone knew it, the Armenians rejoiced because their hero had defeated the representative of the Russians. To a lesser extent, it was the same when the Latvian Mikhail Tal defeated the same Botvinnik, who, as in the confrontation with Vasyli Smislov, found enough strength to come back and win the rematch. But on the international scene, the Soviets were setting the rules in chess. If in the space race or the arms race there was room for comparison, as regarded chess, the West had no say.
It is obvious why the Americans grabbed with both hands the chance offered by the appearance of a rara avis like Bobby Fischer. Fischer has long been talked about as a future world champion, ever since he was a teenager. But starting with 1970, at the age of 27, he just rocketed. He wouldn’t lose a game, winning tournament after tournament and beating the hell out of the Soviet chess players. No wonder that when the capricious Fischer showed signs of not wanting to play the world title match in Reykjavik with the Soviet champion Boris Spassky, the future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself got on the phone and asked him to participate.
And so, the Americans joined the propaganda game initiated by the Soviets, through which chess became a political marketing field. The “match of the century”, as the confrontation in the capital of Iceland was called, was not only about chess, but also about the images of the two opposing political blocs clashing through their players. Fischer won the match, but then withdrew from competitive chess. Washington rejoiced for a while, but soon the hero from Reykjavik not only did not continue to be its flagship, but even became an opponent, one who went so far as to find justification for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-76052-0335 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5665206
“I'm just a poor man, what do you want with me?” Boris Spassky was telling those back home, including the KGB members who were pressuring him after he’d lost the match with Fischer. The Russian chess player was referring to the fact that at that time, Fischer was unbeatable, no man on Earth could defeat him, not even a Soviet. Eventually, marginalized in Moscow, Spassky would emigrate to France in 1976. His departure did not hurt the Soviets too much, they could afford treating a former world champion like an outcast. On the other hand, though, they were very much disturbed by the fleeing, the same year, of Viktor Korchnoi, a rising chess player. With all the privileges they had, some leading chess players felt that they were suffocating in the USSR and in the satellite countries. This was the case with Korchnoi, but like him there were many others, such as the Czechs Luděk Pachman and Lubomir Kavalek or the Hungarian Pál Benkö. With each of these departures, the image of the communist camp got damaged, especially since the emigrants did not prove to be failures, as the official propaganda would portray them, but contestants in great shape, who developed their careers even further, but this time in “The decadent West”.
Chess and perestroika
From this point of view, the turning point in the Cold War chess history was not the match between Fischer and Spassky in Reykjavik, but the one between Karpov and Korchnoi in Baguio City, Philippines, in 1978. The Soviets risked being beaten with their own weapons; it was not the alien Fischer who defeated them, but the traitor Korchnoi. It should be noted that after Fischer's retirement, the title of world champion went to the Russian chess player Anatoly Karpov, in which the Kremlin was able to see a new Botvinnik, able to defend the Soviet image in chess, in sports and in the world in general. In this context, Moscow did everything in its power not to lose the title again. If we are to believe Korchnoi, the KGB even resorted to parapsychology to increase Karpov's chances. At the same time, Korchnoi says in his autobiography, the Soviets held his family captive and did not allow him to emigrate, in order to put even more pressure on him.
Russian Anatoly Karpov (L) and Swiss Viktor Korchnoi concentrate during during their game at the International Chess Tournament in Dos Hermanas, Sevilla, Sunday 11 April 1999. Credit: EPA PHOTO EFE/EMILIO MORENATTI
Interestingly, the Soviet decline in chess coincides with the general decline of the communist regime in Eastern Europe. Karpov faced Korchnoi in 1981, when the two fought for the world title. But in 1985, at the beginning of perestroika, the impetuous Azerbaijani Garry Kasparov entered the scene, and the Soviet school of chess and propaganda could not resist. One of the reasons was that the KGB was no longer united behind the same Soviet player. One faction supported Karpov, but another group, led by Heydar Aliyev, the future autocrat of Azerbaijan, protected Kasparov. “Don't you dare touch my boy”, Aliyev said during the epic battle between the two “K's”. In this way, the history of Soviet chess ends round, in the same initial note in which sport, politics and propaganda intertwine indistinguishably.
Nowadays, chess has moved away from the area where it can be perverted by the fantasies of dictators or totalitarian regimes. Today's Russia, which has taken over many of the Soviet symbols - the national anthem being just one of them - has tried to revive the image of the dominant Slavic chess. However, the results have been modest. The fact that the current head of FIDE, Arkady Dvorkovich, was Dmitri Medvedev's deputy prime minister between 2012 and 2018 did not resurrect the glory of Moscow chess.
After all, chess has always been a sport that is essentially played at the table, not behind the scenes or in propaganda laboratories. For years, since Vladimir Kramnik, Russia has not had any world chess champions. For years, Russia has failed to win the chess Olympics. And if in December, in Dubai, the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi succeeds in grabbing the title of world champion from the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen – something that was not achieved in 2016 by Sergei Karjakin, who after the annexation of Crimea renounced Ukrainian citizenship for the Russian one - few will be those who will dare say that the old days of Soviet chess are back.