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Chess and Politics

One can find connections between almost any kind of sport or game and politics. Sometimes these things have profound international repercussions, as for example the “body line bowling” episode of the professional cricketers some years ago which nearly led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations between England and Australia.

Chess has been the game that has been played by revolutionists of various kinds for a century, and its enthusiasts claim it as the only really international game.

Many of the earlier Socialists were chess players; sometimes their chess was better than their Socialism. Marx played chess, and so did Engels. William Liebknecht was quite an accomplished player, and so frequently did he beat Marx, that the latter lost much interest in the game. Lenin, Trotsky, and their circle were all keen chess players and Lenin was constantly warning the Bolsheviks of his early days not to take too much interest in chess, as the revolution was “round the corner.”

A century ago the English and French aristocrats were the world’s best chess players, producing many brilliant masters; then the centre of the arena changed to America and Germany. Those who were able to devote the thousands of hours of study to the game that it needed were, needless to say, men of the leisured class.

When chess drifted to Russia it found many active participants in the Russian upper-class circles. When the first World War broke out, there was a masters’ tournament actually in progress at Mannheim. The participants (mostly Russians) were all interned for four years with nothing else to do than play chess till the war finished.

Meanwhile Soviet Russia has developed its chess talent, and given State support to chess in a way unheard of before. Enormous halls are used for tournaments with their walls covered by gigantic chess boards for recording the moves of the master games in progress. Chess players sit for hours and listen to a medley of Soviet propaganda mixed with chess. Chess talks are broadcast with all the enthusiasm of our football commentaries.

In the past chess could never command a “gate” and all efforts to commercialise it were frustrated; but Russia has not only commercialised it, but made chess a vehicle for political propaganda.

Four years ago a team of Russian players visited London and played in Holborn Town Hall. As soon as play was over each day, the Russian masters were quickly bundled into a number of gigantic Daimler cars (probably belonging to the Embassy), and hurried off without the possibility of anyone being able to have a word to say to them. Accepting the many invitations from chess clubs and private players who wanted an opportunity of making friends with them, was out of the question. The Russians were shepherded in and out very much like prisoners who were permitted to have a day off to go straight to church, and then immediately it was over, to return to their cells.

Now that Germany is divided into two zones, players in Eastern Germany are not permitted to visit players in the Western zone (in case they don’t come back—once a chess player’s moved, he’s moved, is the rule in chess). Consequently Western Germans visit the Soviet zone, after a nightmare of pass controls and form filling. But before play can start they are treated to lengthy speeches on freedom, peace, and the abolition of the atomic bomb. Before they depart they are pressed to sign numerous peace pledges against the aggressions of American Imperialism.

In recent numbers of “Schach Express,” a chess magazine published in the Soviet zone of Berlin, we find reports of speeches made by Stalin and his German comrades against the use of the atomic bomb. In “Schach Express” (August. 1950) the Editorial is headed “Chess masters outlaw the atomic bomb.” The June issue contains several pages of reports of mass political demonstrations with pictures of marching youths with flags and banners—all demonstrating against the atomic bomb. The main article is headed “German youths support the Front of Fighters of Peace.” In a tournament book, “Sommerda Thuringer 1950” pictures show famous chess players queuing up to sign protests against war, or declarations of freedom, and is headed “Chess players fight for peace.” On another page the main political article (of this chess book) concludes with slogans in extra large type:

     “Sportsmen; you are not cannon fodder for the Imperialists but fighters for democratic unity and the national independence of Germany.”

In the “nineteen-twenties” Cuba commercialised chess in a peculiar way by making Capablanca (then world champion) “Ambassador Extraordinaire”! If there was an international chess tournament in Moscow or Mexico; or Cape Town or Camden Town, he was sent along by the Government to look after the interests of Cuban nationals who might need him. It is reputed that he was paid £10,000 a year for this, and is probably the only one who has ever made any real money out of chess. The Cuban Government sponsored it to put them "on the map”!

While on this subject the question is always being asked—does chess develop one’s brains? If so it might have a therapeutic value, for those who are deficient in this highly prized quality. In reply to this question which the writer once asked Capablanca, the latter replied, "Most certainly, playing chess develops one’s brains for playing chess.” We therefore doubt if it could be used for developing the "latent brains” of the working class, so that they might more readily understand the social factors which are responsible for the continued existence of Capitalism.

H. Jarvis