1980s >> 1986 >> no-983-july-1986

Chess and Politics

Chess, which has been played for several centuries, is now a big-money, nationalistic sport just like World Cup football. Variations of the game existed in India and China nearly fourteen hundred years ago. Persian manuscripts dated about 600 AD refer to the game, and board games resembling chess have been found in Egyptian tombs over 3,000 years old.

In pre-capitalist times chess met disapproval and was even banned by the Christian and Islamic religions because it was used for gambling. Gamesmanship, hustling and patronage seemed to have emerged in the 15th century with the progression of the game to its present form, as modifications to the moves of some of the pieces made it more interesting and more widely played. Money could be made for the top players from gambling and sponsorship by the rich and influential. Such was the competition and jealousy aroused by the prospects of fame and fortune that Paolo Boi and Giovanni Leonardo were poisoned by rivals in the 16th century.

Wilhelm Steinitz was the first player to become recognised as “world champion” after he defeated Anderssen in 1866 although before this a number of players had been unofficially recognised as the strongest players of their time. Although there has never been the rigid distinction between amateur and professional players that exists in other sports, chess prior to the 1860s had been dominated by men with private incomes as the time demanded for tournament participation effectively excluded workers. The development of chess clocks to time the moves, making the games of reasonable length, and properly arranged tournaments enabled professional players, without private income or sponsors, to compete for prize money.

When spectators were charged half a guinea (52½p) entrance fee in 1876 to see Steinitz play Blackburne at the West End Chess Club, London The Chessplayer’s Chronicle was outraged: “The thoroughly mercenary spirit in which this latest exhibition of professionalism was conducted throughout has heartily disgusted all true chessplayers.” (Hartson. W 1985 The Kings of Chess, Pavilion Books, London)

The chess establishment was shaken again in 1890 when Steinitz defended his world title against Isidor Gunsberg and agreed that the winner should receive two thirds and the loser one third of the prize money put up by backers instead of the winner taking all. Nevertheless, Steinitz was unable to make a satisfactory living from the game and when asked why he had competed in the taxing 1898 Cologne tournament when over 60 years of age, he replied: “I can spare the fame but not the prize money”.

The next world champion Emanuel Lasker, who defeated Steinitz in 1894, was determined not to suffer the poverty of his predecessor and insisted on a higher remuneration for his appearances in tournaments and exhibition games. But Lasker failed to improve the financial circumstances of his fellow chess professionals. Karl Schlechter, the gifted Viennese player who had been strong enough to hold Lasker to a drawn world title match in 1910, died of pneumonia brought about by malnutrition in 1918 and Akiba Rubinstein, winner of 21 major tournaments, ended his career in poverty.

In common with most other sports, the history of chess is one of struggle both for the establishment of the game and for the players until modern methods of communication, and television in particular, reached audiences of millions. Chess “superstars” emerged, able to earn considerable sums of money from their playing abilities. But, also in common with most other sports, chess became a political weapon marked by bitter nationalistic rivalry.

Alexander Alekhine, world champion 1927-35 and 1937-1946, proved a useful tool in the hands of the Nazis. Between 1941 and 1943 he played in a series of tournaments in Nazi-occupied countries and in 1941 wrote a series of articles entitled “Jewish and Aryan Chess” in which he tried to “prove” the superiority of Aryan “attacking” play against Jewish “defensive” methods. Apart from the absurdity of such a racist hypothesis, the first two world champions Steinitz and Lasker were both Jewish; Rubinstein, considered by many to have played the most perfect chess ever seen before the first world war, was a Talmudic scholar and ultra-orthodox Jew. In using Alekhine in their propaganda war the Nazis had chosen carefully. Alekhine had joined the Communist Party in his native Russia but later fled the country and denounced Bolshevism. In turn he was denounced and written out of Russian chess history where he had won prizes at St. Petersburg in 1912 and 1914.

Many of the chess Olympiads have been political events in which the interests of the sport took second place. The Munich Olympiad of 1936 was an advertisement for the Nazi regime; Albania refused to play South Africa at Siegen in 1970 and were defaulted 0-4; at Skopje in 1972 Albania refused to play Israel and were scored 0-4; they then withdrew and the entire score was annulled; the Nice Olympiad was a political circus rather than a chess event. Algeria and Iraq refused to play Rhodesia and Tunisia refused to play Israel. The results of these matches were estimated by computer. South Africa withdrew after FIDE (chess’s ruling body) decided to expel them and defaulted their last three matches and Rhodesia were also expelled.

The most blatantly political chess event in recent years was the “Against Israel Olympiad” held in Tripoli in 1976 in opposition to the official Olympiad at Haifa. Mike Newman has described how, with a playing strength which could be barely sufficient to reach minor counties’ standard in Britain, he played top board for Gambia and achieved a creditable personal score of 8 out of 13, such was the poor playing strength of the 34 competing nations attracted by Libya’s payment of all expenses. (Chess vol. 42 pp. 63-64). Chess was encouraged in Russia after 1917 by an organised state programme, in part to discourage excessive drinking among the masses but also to raise the general cultural level, and for use as a political weapon against rival countries outside the Russian empire.

Chess in Russia prospered as a result of state sponsorship and the propaganda war was vigorously (though at times absurdly) pursued. Alekhine and Bogolyubov were praised, denounced for defecting to the West, and later rehabilitated as heroes. Krylenko too fell victim to the purges and was imprisoned and later shot on Stalin’s orders for lowering the standard of chess. Even for such a monster as Krylenko the charge was grossly unfair as he had done a great deal to raise the level of chess (even if for the wrong reasons) and, indeed, his name was restored in the anti-Stalinist years when Khrushchev became leader.

The internal politics of FIDE have been governed by expediency; the rules controlling the conditions of the world championship tournaments and the Candidates’ tournaments which decide who should play the world champion have been changed time and time again, bowing to political pressures and financial considerations more often that to the interests of the game. At times the pre-match squabbling before the Fischer v Spassky world championship in 1972 bordered in the farcical. And even before then Fischer had vociferously complained about the conditions of the Interzonal tournaments and accused the Russians of cheating in the Candidates’ tournaments. Fischer probably had a genuine grievance because the Russians tended to play a large number of brief drawn games against each other and saved their energy for long hard-fought battles against non-Russian players.

The Korchnoi v Karpov matches of 1978 and 1981 were even more farcical: Korchnoi had defected from Russia but his family were refused permission to leave. Tournaments in which Korchnoi appeared were boycotted by the Russians and his name did not appear in their chess publications. Korchnoi accused Karpov of trying to hypnotise him and receiving coded messages in yogurt. Karpov won both matches and, ridiculous as the arguments surrounding the matches seemed, like the Fischer v Spassky match, public interest was aroused. Chess enjoyed a spectacular boom as a result of the publicity.

Chess has become big business: the sale of chess books exceeds that of any other sport; Karpov has become the first chess millionaire; chess sets, chess clocks, score sheets and magazines secure world-wide sales. Capitalism impoverishes our lives; besides enslaving us economically it perverts even our leisure interests in the name of profit. Instead of being a stimulating game played in a spirit of friendliness, chess has been tainted by nationalism, commerce and political rivalry between capitalist states.

Carl Pinel

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