'Chess is the supreme sublimation of war," writes Daniel Johnson – and, he argues, of the cold war in particular. With chess and the US-Soviet stand-off as its entwined theme, this book about "how the cold war was fought on the chessboard" was crying out to be written. Johnson's career – as writer, editor, cold warrior and accomplished chess player – makes him the ideal author. When he describes the games, the key moments and the clinching moves, his judgement carries the necessary air of authority.
But his book ranges widely, from chess's history through its growth as an international competitive sport to the epic world-championship matches – Fischer-Spassky, Karpov-Korchnoi, Karpov-Kasparov – that punctuated the last third of the 20th-century. It is a great strength that he keeps the broader historical backdrop always in his sights: the popularity of chess among 19th-century intellectual European exiles; the post-war influx of German and Russian intellectual refugees that gave chess a new life in the US; the transition made by the last cold-war world champion, Garry Kasparov, to the real world as a politician trying to marshal opposition to Putin.
Nor does Johnson flee difficult topics. Why have the upper reaches of competitive chess tended to be dominated by Jewish players? Does the game "select" individuals with the highest IQs? What about the psychology of so many world-level players: obsessional, fragile and often downright anti-social? He also addresses the question of artificial intelligence: whether a computer, however sophisticated, will ever be able to replicate all human decisions.
But Johnson's strongest suit – and the heart of this book – is his account of how and why chess became a weapon with which the Soviet Union chose to fight the cold war. This is where his expertise and perspicacity come most fully into play. Chess, he observes, offered intellectuals in communist Russia "one of very few officially sanctioned areas of intellectual freedom". Players were spared the interference suffered by scientists and others.
But he also notes that chess could serve totalitarianism. Playing professionally amounted to a privilege to be granted and withheld. Johnson's detailed account of Natan Sharansky's battle of wits with the KGB is a highlight of this book.
Another is his description of the Fischer-Spassky world-championship drama of 1972, which happened just as the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction was thawing into détente. The match was "an abstract antagonism on an abstract battleground using abstract weapons... yet their struggle embraced all human life". "Spassky, like Hector, grasped that the gods had abandoned him. Fischer, as pitiless as Achilles, had murder in his heart and victory in his grasp. In Spassky's submission to his fate and Fischer's fierce exultant triumph, the cold war's dénouement was already foreshadowed."
Johnson supplies a wealth of quirky details. Chess is the only game permitted within the Palace of Westminster. The wife of one champion, infuriated by his nocturnal preoccupation with chess, glued the pieces to the board while he slept; divorce followed. Henry Kissinger – Jewish, an immigrant and a chess player – seemed to tweak to Fischer's mindset and persuaded this self-absorbed individual back to the chessboard for the sake of his country.
In the ill-tempered duel between Karpov and Korchnoi, each accused the other of playing nefarious mind-games. Korchnoi was distracted by Karpov's staring psychologist. He retaliated by introducing two saffron-robed, Harvard-graduate yogis, Didi and Dada, to whom Karpov – someone who "probably came closest to fulfilling the Stakhanovite ideal of Soviet man" – duly took exception.
I could have done with more on the epic duels and less of the pre-20th-century context. Johnson also seems far more comfortable writing about the subversive menace of closed societies than the fallible brazenness of the US, which makes for a slight imbalance. And the cold warrior in him seems sometimes too close to the surface, not least in the uncritical coverage of Kasparov's righteous combat against the sins of Putin, seen through the lens of today. He also tends to labour his central idea, justifying the metaphor – chess for the cold war – too clumsily and often. He did not need to. The duels fought over those 64 small squares between the 1950s and 1990s speak eloquently for themselves.
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