The 64 squares of­fer con­sid­er­able scope for Cold War metaphors

White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chess­board By Daniel John­son At­lantic Books, 368pp, $ 49.95 The Im­mor­tal Game: A His­tory of Chess or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Il­lu­mi­nated Our Un­der­stand­ing of War, Science and the Hu­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

ON one level, chess is un­friendly to prose. Not­with­stand­ing its mil­i­tary char­ac­ter, the game lacks phys­i­cal drama. The prob­lem is eas­ily ob­served in a live match. For hours at a time the play­ers sit there, frown­ing over the 64 squares. Then one of them slowly reaches out, picks up a pawn and moves it about 5cm. Even if the au­di­ence wanted to go wild ( and it is un­likely that any­one out­side a tiny mi­nor­ity has the faintest idea what’s go­ing on), solemn ar­biters at the back of the stage would bran­dish plac­ards read­ing ‘‘ Si­lence!’’

De­spite this, and per­haps in part be­cause of it, chess has in­spired some mighty lit­er­a­ture.

From Vladimir Nabokov’s two chess nov­els, The Defence and The Real Life of Se­bas­tian Knight, to Ste­fan Zweig’s The Royal Game, chess, more than any other game, holds the se­ri­ous writer in thrall.

The rea­sons for this are three­fold: the aes­thetic and math­e­mat­i­cal beauty of the game; the mes­meris­ing ten­sion be­tween that beauty and the hu­man wreck­age that of­ten sur­rounds it; and the fact that chess is an in­com­pa­ra­ble metaphor for in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal con­flict.

It was Boris Spassky v Bobby Fis­cher ( Reyk­javik, 1972) that trans­formed chess writ­ing into a rich sub- genre of lit­er­ary re­portage. Played as it was in the midst of the Cold War, the match was a po­lit­i­cal, as well as a sport­ing, en­counter. There was also the clash of per­son­al­i­ties, which seemed, in a fun­da­men­tal way, to un­der­line the po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. Spassky, the im­per­turbable cham­pion, headed the Soviet ma­chine in char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sober style, while Fis­cher, the mer­ce­nary

Amer­i­can chal­lenger, dis­graced him­self re­peat­edly. (‘‘ His bad man­ners,’’ wrote Ge­orge Steiner, ‘‘ verge on the tran­scen­dent.’’)

Spassky v Fis­cher is the cen­tre­piece of Daniel John­son’s White King and Red Queen. But the real value of John­son’s book is that it shows how chess was in­cor­po­rated into the of­fi­cial cul­ture of Soviet com­mu­nism.

Chess, ‘‘ the supreme sub­li­ma­tion of war’’, be­came ‘‘ a mega- metaphor’’ for the stand- off be­tween the su­per­pow­ers, one that de­rived added sig­nif­i­cance from the game’s role in Soviet so­ci­ety. ‘‘ If the Cold War was the best thing that ever hap­pened to chess,’’ John­son writes, ‘‘ chess fur­nished the best metaphor for the Cold War.’’

The be­gin­nings of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Soviet com­mu­nism and chess- ob­ses­sion are in­nocu­ous enough: chess was sim­ply part of the bag­gage that the 1917 rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies brought with them from the cof­fee houses. But by the mid1920s the Soviet Union had de­cided to pro­mote the game en masse. Ap­pa­ratchiks such as Niko­lai Krylenko politi­cised chess to an ab­surd de­gree and set in place a vast chess in­fra­struc­ture un­der­writ­ten by dis­in­for­ma­tion, psych- ops and skul­dug­gery, in­clud­ing the vic­tim­i­sa­tion of play­ers deemed to be ide­o­log­i­cally un­sound.

One of those play­ers was Vic­tor Korch­noi, who de­fected in 1976. His match against Ana­toly Kar­pov is fas­ci­nat­ing for the sur­real at­mos­phere of Cold War para­noia that en­gulfed it. The en­coun­ters be­tween Kar­pov and Garry Kas­parov in the ’ 80s were sim­i­larly charged with po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, Kar­pov rep­re­sent­ing the old Soviet Union, Kas­parov rep­re­sent­ing the new. In­deed, the Kar­pov- Kas­parov epic dove­tails beau­ti­fully with the wider endgame: the col­laps­ing scenery of Soviet com­mu­nism, cul­mi­nat­ing in 1989 with the de­mo­li­tion of the Ber­lin Wall.

The only prob­lem with John­son’s book is the lack of chess anal­y­sis. By con­trast, David Shenk’s The Im­mor­tal Game in­cludes a blow- by- blow ac­count — one or two moves be­tween each chap­ter — of a short but ab­sorb­ing prac­tice game be­tween Adolf An­der­ssen and Lionel Kieser­itzky, played in 1851.

This was the so- called Im­mor­tal Game, in which a spec­tac­u­lar sac­ri­fice by white ( An­der­ssen) led to an equally spec­tac­u­lar check­mate.

Shenk proves an in­sight­ful and en­thu­si­as­tic com­men­ta­tor, such that I found my­self rac­ing through the chap­ters in or­der to get to the next bit of play. Not that those chap­ters are any less fas­ci­nat­ing. Much more than a straight­for­ward his­tory of chess, The Im­mor­tal Game cov­ers sub­jects as di­verse as the role that chess has played in diplo­macy, its util­i­sa­tion by writ­ers and artists, and the as­ton­ish­ing geo­met­ric pro­gres­sion.

The nu­mer­ous in­sights chess af­fords into the work­ings of the hu­man mind ( and the toll it some­times takes on it) make for par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing read­ing, es­pe­cially when it comes to Kas­parov’s bat­tles with Deep Blue and other chess com­put­ers, dur­ing which Kas­parov, in one sense, rep­re­sented the hu­man species.

And then there is chess’s al­le­gor­i­cal clout. Shenk, who has a keen jour­nal­is­tic sense, be­gins his book in AD 813 with an im­age of Muham­mad al- Amin, sixth caliph of the Ab­basid Em­pire, play­ing chess against a favourite eu­nuch in the im­pe­rial in­ner sanc­tum of Bagh­dad, which is un­der at­tack from al- Amin’s brother. Now, in that un­for­tu­nate part of the world, a dif­fer­ent en­emy is wreck­ing its pawn struc­ture in an at­tempt to af­ford more move­ment to its bishops. Clearly, there’s life in the old metaphor yet.

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Richard King is a lit­er­ary critic based in Perth.

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