Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Soviet Chess

This post may sound like a repetition of an earlier one. But if you're speaking about the Soviet Union during the age of detente, you can't say enough about chess. The USSR invested a great deal of energy, money, and prestige into churning out wonderfully trained soviet grandmasters. It believed that its mastery of the game would reflect the inherent superiority of the socialist educational system.

Chess has had a strange career in the modern era. It somehow moved from a mostly amateur board game into a global sport, although it may now be somewhere in between. Reading Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, one is carried back to the heyday of chess, before computers had seemingly devalued the game. At that time, chess looked more or less like boxing, when regional leagues created their own competitive traditions, and regional winners slowly--but not inexorably--moved closer to world championship bouts.

The USSR's regional league was the strongest of all other leagues during the 1970s; and their champion, Boris Spassky, had claimed the title previously held from another Soviet player. Bobby Fischer, selfish, rude, and monomanically consumed by chess, overthrown the Soviet juggernaut. Fischer's brilliance is part of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, but it's not the whole story. The authors are equally concerned with telling Spassky's story. Ironically, when analyzed in detail, neither Fischer nor Spassky seem to represent their respective ideologies. Spassky was a self-described Russian patriot, but not necessarily a Soviet one. By Soviet standards, he was also am individualist and a rebel. Similarly, Fischer was not the quintessential American. Far from being America's poster boy, he often embarrassed the country with his unorthodox behavior and crass allusions to money.

If Fischer and Spassky weren't really strong representatives of their respective countries, the authors also point out that the battle didn't really reflect what was going on in the Cold War. For while the Soviet and American chess authorities suspected one another of every shade of villainy (from mind games to poisoned chairs), diplomatic relations between the USSR and American grew much more cordial during this period.

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