Chess moves with the political times

In 1984, the Orwellian year in which Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov first sat down to play, chess was as Russian as vodka. The rematch that began this week in Spain marks the resumption of a duel between two names as evocative of Russia as Stolichnaya. But why should anyone who is neither a chess buff nor a Russophile still raise a glass to these old rivals?

I can think of at least three reasons: the symbolic role of chess in the Cold War; the equally symbolic role of the Kasparov-Karpov matches in the demise of the Soviet Union; and Kasparov’s present role as de facto leader of the opposition to the Putin-Medvedev regime in Russia.

Chess became the perfect metaphor for the Cold War partly because, long before the Russian Revolution, it had been the opium of the intelligentsia. For Lenin, Trotsky, Gorky and the exiled Bolshevik elite, it was an abiding passion. Once in power, Lenin resolved to make it the classless pastime of the proletariat. It was a purely intellectual recreation, at once science and art, in which chance played no part.

Soviet supremacy in chess would demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism. But a darker motive also appealed to Stalin: chess is above all a war game. The man deputed to establish Soviet hegemony in this hitherto bourgeois field was Nikolai Krylenko, creator of the Red Army and chief prosecutor until he too was swallowed up in the Terror. Solzhenitsyn quotes Krylenko in The Gulag Archipelago, regretting that “we sometimes manifested unnecessary leniency and softheartedness”. Not even chess was spared contamination by the commissars of the evil empire.

By training millions of children, the Soviet School of Chess (as its first leader, Mikhail Botvinnik, called it) overtook the West after 1945. Although it preserved its domination of chess to the bitter end, the Soviet Union found that there were few other fields in which it could lord it over the free world. Ballet and gymnastics played a big role in the image of Soviet culture, but the Cold War made chess unique: only it could be a proxy for the nuclear war that could not be fought without reciprocal annihilation.

So when an American teenager challenged the Soviet grandmasters and eventually beat them, it was a shock to the system. Bobby Fischer’s epic defeat of Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972 briefly captured the Western imagination — even Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s. But Fischer’s refusal to play except on his own terms left the field open for the young Karpov to restore Soviet pre-eminence.

For nearly a decade his only serious rival was the Soviet emigré Viktor Korchnoi. The 1970s was the heyday of the dissidents, with figures such as Andrei Sakharov defying the Kremlin. Natan Sharansky used chess to preserve his integrity and sanity over years of incarceration for demanding the right to emigrate to Israel.

Chess was a tool of diplomacy and social engineering, but also a refuge for the uncorrupted few. One of these was Kasparov, who emerged in the early 1980s to become the last Soviet and first post-Soviet world champion. Half Jewish, half Armenian, growing up among the intelligentsia of Baku, with a hostile majority of Muslim Azeris, Kasparov was happy to be adopted by the Soviet elite, who Russianised his name.

In 1984, at the age of 20, he won the right to challenge Karpov in the first of five marathon matches played over more than six years. In all they contested 144 games. No two champions have been more evenly matched: overall, Kasparov won 21, Karpov 19, and most of their 104 draws were fought to a standstill.

Karpov was the cool classicist, Kasparov the fiery romantic. Karpov gazed impassively at the board, a lank lock of hair drooping over his forehead. Kasparov was a volcano of nervous energy, prowling, glaring disdainfully at his diminutive foe, impatient to deliver the coup de grâce. Karpov’s genius lay in doing nothing very much but doing it very well, while Kasparov liked to set the board alight with his pyrotechnics.

Until he learnt to anticipate Karpov’s python moves, Kasparov was often tempted to overreach. Each of the five matches was close; every aspect of chess was explored and rejuvenated. Many of these championship games are classics.

The present match is only an exhibition, with half an hour each for the whole game. This is equivalent to Twenty20 cricket, which is popular with spectators and suits the zeitgeist.

Like Test matches, however, world championship chess must be played much more slowly to plumb the depths of mind-boggling complexity. In the 20th game of their last match in Lyons in 1990, Kasparov foresaw the queen sacrifice that eventually won the game some 20 moves before he played it. A watching grandmaster, Mikhail Gurevich, was awestruck: “It was absolutely incredible.”

But even Kasparov cannot calculate as far or as accurately as state-of-the-art computers. The present match is partly a recognition of physical frailty: Karpov is now a veteran who tires too easily but can still occasionally defeat grandmasters young enough to be his grandchildren. Kasparov is still formidable but retired in 2005. For these two, there is no such thing as a “friendly” game: it is always chess for blood. What sustains them is the adrenalin that only grandmaster chess can generate for hours on end.

When I was fortunate enough to play a long endgame with Kasparov at a charity simultaneous display, he played the last 20 moves one to one, as if his life depended on it. When he could only draw, he was too angry with himself even to shake hands.

The Kasparov-Karpov matches coincided with the Gorbachev era. Karpov at first sided with the nomenklatura, while Kasparov tested the limits of glasnost and perestroika. But by the late 1980s, Kasparov, disillusioned with Mikhail Gorbachev’s doomed attempt to democratise a one-party state, sided with the dissidents. Karpov was elected to the last Soviet parliament. Kasparov presented himself as the revolutionary, Karpov the collaborator, but it was only once Kasparov had learnt how to play the system that he could switch from insider to outsider.

Only in 1990 did Kasparov break with the Soviet Union. Having rescued his family from anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku that he blamed on Gorbachev, he refused to play Karpov under the hammer and sickle flag. There were fears for his life but he won both on and off the board.

Thenceforth he has dedicated his life to politics. His victory over Karpov symbolised the end of the Soviet era, but he is now a symbol of resistance to the neo-Soviet Putin era. Last year he was arrested, assaulted and imprisoned at a protest against rigged elections. To his surprise, one of his visitors in jail was Karpov. Thus the two old enemies have become allies — up to a point.

As Kasparov told a dissident conference in Prague organised by Sharansky and Václav Havel: “We are now in the middle game. For us it is the end of the beginning, but for Putin it is the beginning of the end.”

This is Kasparov at his best, combining chess and Churchillian defiance. Since he said this, two years ago, Vladimir Putin has invaded Georgia, intimidated the West and is being appeased by the Obama Administration. In Russia the opposition is weaker than ever. But Kasparov is determined to checkmate Putin, even if it costs his life.

Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint and author of White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard.