In Chapter Seven of the 1957 James Bond novel From Russia With Love , a Soviet chess player named Kronsteen is called away at a crucial moment of the Moscow Championship final, a tournament he has won two years in a row. He has been summoned to attend a secret meeting of the Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH (an acronym of Smiert Shpionam, or "Death to Spies"). Kronsteen, it turns out, in addition to being an international chess grandmaster, is also the head of SMERSH’s planning department, and he has been assigned the task of arranging the assassination of James Bond.
When this scene was translated to film, for the 1963 production of From Russia With Love, it led to one of the great moments in the history of Canadian participation in fictional international competition. The venue of the chess tournament was switched from Moscow to Venice, and Kronsteen’s opponent was a Canadian grandmaster named McAdams. (One internet commentator has also noted the physical similarity between the actor who played Kronsteen, Vladek Shreybal, and the current Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.)
In the film, the position on the Kronsteen-McAdams board corresponds precisely to that of an actual match, played in 1960 at the USSR Championship in Leningrad, between the Soviet grandmasters Boris Spassky and David Bronstein, which is considered one of the greatest games of all time. (Bronstein's name was also altered and used by Ian Fleming for the name of his fictional villain.)
While the Bond films and, to a lesser extent, the novels, have been criticized for being far removed from the realities of international espionage and subterfuge, this is one episode that did have at least some basis in fact. For most of the 20th century, the Soviet Union carried out a highly successful program of talent development and training, intended make its chess players the best in the world. And, while its players were never proven to be spies, there was often much behind-the-scenes bureaucratic and political manipulation at both national and international tournaments. The Soviet chess program was intended to be a demonstration of the USSR’s superior intellectual resources, as well as its educational and organizational abilities.
This program was extremely successful, so that, from 1948 until 1993, when the world chess championship was split into two rival factions (the Federation International des Echecs (FIDE) and the Professional Chess Association), Soviet players held the world title for all but the three years that the American Bobby Fischer held the title, from 1972 to 1975. And from 1993 to 2006, most of the players that held the top positions in the two rival chess federations were from former Soviet republics or satellites. (The current champion, however, who won the World Chess Championship after the reunification of the two federations in 2007, is Viswanathan Anand of India).
How did this situation arise, in which, for the past 60 years, the best chess players in the world have had names like Spassky, Mikhail Tal, Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov? The story is a fascinating sideshow of the Cold War.
On July 29, 1938, a man named Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko, who had been arrested six months previously by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, was put on trial before the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court. During his imprisonment, he had signed a confession detailing his "crimes against the State," presumably after being tortured by his captors. Though he repudiated this confession at the trial, he was found guilty after less than twenty minutes, and was shot immediately.
Krylenko was one of the most high-profile victims of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s. Krylenko had briefly been the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army in 1917, and had then become a prominent figure on the prosecutorial side of the Soviet courtroom. As a public prosecutor and Deputy Commissar (Minister) of Justice, he presided over earlier show trials, in which he became famous for his tendency to ignore questions of individual guilt or innocence in favour of political expediency and the supposedly greater interests of history and the Communist revolution. He once said, "Execution of the guilty is not enough. Execution of a few innocents as well will be even more impressive to the general public."
Krylenko also once defended himself against accusations that he had broken a Bolshevik regulation against ordering executions -- by arguing that he had not sentenced a particular defendant "to death," but only "to be shot."
In the mid-1930s, though, Krylenko began to receive less favour from Stalin, and he focused less on his high-profile judicial role and more on his life-long passions for mountain-climbing and chess. Since 1924, he had been the editor of 64, a prominent magazine about chess; and it was rumoured that he had had daily matches with Lenin when they were both in exile in Switzerland in 1915. In the early 1930s, Krylenko became the Director of the Soviet Chess Committee. In this position, he began a program of promoting chess as a political and ideological weapon. In 1932, in a speech to the Congress of Chess Players, he said, "We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula 'chess for the sake of chess,' like the formula 'art for art's sake.' We must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess."
(For a fuller account of Krylenko’s life and work, see this article.)
And so, in spite of Krylenko's subsequent arrest and execution, the Soviet Union instituted the foremost chess development program in the world. In this way, chess became more than a game played between two individuals; it came to be seen as a battle of intellect and organization between the Soviet communist system and the capitalist powers of the western hemisphere. Some people, in fact, saw chess as a metaphor for the entire structure of the Cold War, with two great superpowers manipulating all of the many tools at their disposal in order to gain the slightest advantage over the other.
The image of the western and Soviet spymasters as chess players, planning ahead the moves and countermoves to be played out in eastern Europe, in newly independent African and Asian countries, and even under the oceans and in the depths of space, was popularized by spy novels such as John le Carre’s “Karla Trilogy,” in which the MI6 operative George Smiley engages in an epic battle of wits against his KGB archenemy “Karla,” involving countless moles, double- and triple-agents, defections, blackmailings and assassinations.
The actual game of chess was used as a plot point in the spy stories of Ian Fleming, as mentioned above, and, less ominously, in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me .
But in real life, the connection between chess and the Cold War was never more apparent than during the 1972 match between Spassky and Fischer, held in Reykjavik, Iceland. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (an enthusiastic amateur at chess himself) considered the outcome of the match to be of such great importance that he phoned the volatile Fischer twice to make sure that he would actually show up in Reykjavik to face Spassky.
Some commentators saw the 1972 championship as the ultimate battle between the US and the USSR for intellectual bragging rights. However, it is hard to argue that Fischer was a product of any established US system of training and development - in fact, he had had to teach himself Russian in order to read Soviet chess publications and learn their theories.
Ultimately, international chess competition over the years has given more insight into the competitive rivalries that arose within the Soviet Union, rather than into its struggle against the United States. Neither the US nor its western allies ever seriously sought to create a program to challenge the Soviet chess academy. And although many Americans got caught up in the competition during the Spassky-Fischer match, and American interest in chess spiked in subsequent years, the enthusiasm quickly died down - particularly when Fischer turned out to be a completely unbalanced individual, first refusing to defend his title against the next Soviet challenger, Anatoly Karpov, in 1975, and then going into hiding, emerging only years later as a virulent anti-Semite.
But in the Soviet Union, the drama did not end with the Fischer-Spassky showdown. In the late '70s and early '80s, a fierce rivalry developed between the new champion Karpov and a Soviet who had defected to the Netherlands, Victor Korchnoi. A contemporary chess player, Robert Byrne, describes the antagonism the pair felt for each other:
Korchnoi, the challenger, thrives on rancor, developing instant aversion for every opponent he plays. Their mutual dislike began with Korchnoi's disparaging remarks about Karpov's play during their final Candidates' Match in Moscow in 1974. True enmity did not blossom, however, until their title match in Baguio City, the Philippines. After Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976, his wife, Bella, and son, Igor, were prevented from joining him. Karpov was not amused when Korchnoi called him "the jailer of my wife and son", implying that Karpov could have obtained their release from the Soviet Union so they could have joined Korchnoi. Karpov retaliated by terming Korchnoi "immoral" for leaving his family behind when he defected to the West. Korchnoi screamed, "Filthy!" and Karpov would no longer shake hands.
In their 1978 match in the Philippines, Korchnoi also accused Karpov of having hired a parapsychologist to stare at him during the match in order to distract him. Karpov responded that Korchnoi's sunglasses were shining light in his eyes. The match finished with neither of them speaking to the other; Karpov won, maintaining his world championship.
Although the Soviet Union and its chess-related institutions have collapsed, chess still has a prominent cultural presence in Russia. One of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's most prominent political adversaries is Garry Kasparov - the very man who was the undisputed world chess champion from 1985 to 1993 (before getting into a dispute with FIDE and breaking off to form the Classical World Championship, which he then held himself until 1999), and who is, arguably, the greatest chess player of all time.
Kasparov is the head of an organization called the United Civil Front, part of a larger movement entitled The Other Russia , which has for the past couple of years been trying to organize resistance to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In November 2007, Kasparov spent five days in prison for resisting arrest and organizing an unauthorized protest. (Considering what has been known to happen to other opponents of the Putin regime, Kasparov may count himself lucky to have only been imprisoned so far.) He tried to run for President himself in the March 2008 Russian election, but gave up when he encountered strong official resistance and persecution. (He was hardly likely to win much of the popular vote, in any case.)
(There is an excellent New Yorker article on Kasparov’s recent political efforts.)
Upon examination, it seems that Nikolai Krylenko’s plan to make chess a key element of the Soviet plan for increasing its global profile and influence may have been a mistake. While the Soviet grandmasters undoubtedly raised the profile of the USSR on the world stage, the interpersonal rivalries among them, engendered by their often over-sized egos, led to cracks in the facade of the country’s united front.
Ultimately, it is the individual genius and the strong-willed personalities of players such as Spassky, Karpov, Korchnoi, and Kasparov that we end up truly admiring, not the Soviet bureaucratic system that initially trained them.