White King and Red Queen: How the cold war was fought on the chessboard, By Daniel Johnson
Sunday 25 May 2008
If the Cold War, even more than most, was a continuation of politics by other means, then one of those means was chess – and probably the most apposite one at that. It is itself, after all, a sublimated and codified game of war. Daniel Johnson goes so far as to say that, "by providing the safety valve that kept the lid on the Cold War, chess helped to save civilisation from itself."
The game had long been a passion of Russia's intelligentsia and elite, but in the Soviet era it was nationalised. It fitted perfectly with the official image – egalitarian but serious, logical, rigorous and scientific – that the Soviet Union wished to export around the world. On top of which, dominating the world stage in the arena of chess was an affordable ambition; far more so than in, say, the space race. As one of the only sanctioned, unpoliced arenas of intellectual and creative activity, the game flourished, and between 1948 and 1972 the USSR produced an unbroken line of 10 chess world champions.
The US just had Bobby Fischer. Johnson's comprehensive and fascinating book reaches its endgame with the 1972 World Chess Championship match between Fischer, who'd become the youngest ever grand master by the age of 15, and defending champion Borris Spassky. The culmination of a decade-long antagonism, both personal and political, it was an extraordinary event, played out in front of a global audience. For Johnson it was a manifestation of the Zeitgeist more pregnant with meaning than any other: "the Cold War's supreme work of art".
I'm not sure what the Cold War's supreme work of literature is, but White King and Red Queen – which is about both extraordinary times and extraordinary people, features numerous labyrinthine subplots and characters who are obsessive and extreme in their behaviour – is at least as compelling as the era's spy novels.
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