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
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.
Richard King is a literary critic based in Perth.