Among the dizzying array of issues President Barack Obama is tackling these days – the economy, health care, abortion rights, the cessation of torture, and education are only some of the most prominent – one that has gotten less attention than many is the United States’ involvement with Russia.
Obama has set out to “reboot” America’s relationship with its former Cold War adversary.
That effort appeared to take a major step forward earlier this week when he seemed to signal a potential exchange in which, according to the Associated Press, the United States would forgo an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe in exchange for Moscow using its influence with the nettlesome nation of Iran and its burgeoning nuclear ambitions.
Such a move could mark a major advance in relations between the two countries, and could even augur a new era of cooperation between two of the world’s most powerful nations.
It has not always been that way.
While the story of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union has been often, if not exhaustively, told, Standpoint editor-in-chief Daniel Johnson recounts it through an unusual lense: the game of chess.
White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard is a gripping book that combines the history of the game waged on 64 black and white squares, the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the convergences between these two histories during the latter part of the 20th century.
Heartfelt thanks to dear friend Evan Kaplan for supplying me with the book.
White King and Red Queen starts with a brief history of the game of chess before moving into Russia and, eventually, the former Soviet Union. Johnson shows how the game has resonated in literature. For example, he provides an extended analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defense. Johnson explains how individuals’ experiences have reflected and in a small way shaped the intersection between the game, the passions it evoked, and the gradual suffocating of freedom and relentless bending of individual will to the power of the state that was so characteristic of the former Soviet regime.
In some cases, the knowledge of chess served as a defense against the regime’s advances. Dissident Natan Sharansky used his skill to foil his captors’ plans to break his will.
Johnson shows effectively how the Soviet Union, through its system of tireless training, dominated the world chess scene essentially unchallenged for a quarter century starting in 1948.
The United States joins the battle later in the century and about a third of the way through the book. The primary warrior for the nation was the brilliant, eccentric and ultimately deranged Bobby Fischer, who battled and defeated world champion Boris Spassky in an epic contest in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972.
Similar to the United States Olympic hockey team victory at Lake Placid eight years later, the contest occurred at a time of serious, but not imminent, threat, and against a backdrop in which a contest between individuals and teams took on far greater geopolitical significance.
Fischer’s triumph over Spassky marked the apex of American prowess in the game during the twentieth century, but is far from the end of the book. Johnson also has fascinating chapters about the battles between the dissident Victor Korchnoi and the system-supported Anatoly Karpov as well as the struggles waged during the mid- to late 80s between Karpov and Kasparov.
Johnson traces the Soviet system’s gradual opening and failing strength under Mikhail Gorbachev and Kasparov’s move from opponent to revolutionary after learning about uncontested and unpunished atrocities in his native Baku in 1990. He also notes, ironically, how the Soviet Union’s fall actually served to strip chess of some of its most compelling match ups, and thus the game has seen a decrease in international interest and attention (Kasparov’s matches against the computer Deep Blue are the one notable exception.).
The book has many positive aspects. A former literary editor for the London Times, Johnson skillfully interweaves historical information, a clear passion for and appreciation of chess, and many literary references to tell a highly engaging tale.
It’s a tale with an argument.
His feet firmly planted in the conservative camp, Johnson argues that the Soviet’s values of repression of individual expression and creativity ultimately served to doom it – a defeat that was foreshadowed in Fischer’s 1972 victory and that saw its culmination in Kasparov’s victories over Karpov during the regime’s waning years.
“The Kasparov-Karpov duel was the climax of the story of chess and the Cold War,” Johnson writes. “That story is also a hitherto untold chapter in the history of liberty.”
Johnson does an excellent job describing and evoking the atmosphere of terror, dread and intrigue that characterized so much of the Soviet Union’s history – a phone conversation between Joseph Stalin and author Boris Pasternak is absolutely chilling – but does less well with talking about the American end of the contest.
To be fair to Johnson, this probably has more to do with America’s comparatively small influence on the game’s history than shortcomings on his part. Still, the point remains that the intersection between chess and politics, societal values and the battles waged between them, is more effectively made on the Soviet than the American side.
This does not detract from a fine work, though.
In addition to the assets listed above, White King and Red Queen also contains interesting chapters about the rise of computers that play against and ultimately handily beat the world’s top humans as well as one about the role Jewish players have had in the game’s history.
In short, White King and Red Queen is a captivating look at the game that people have fallen passionately in love with since its inception and the way the game reflected and shaped global struggle during one of the past century’s most significant contests of countries, ideas and ways of life.