daniel johnson white king and red queen

sunday telegraph, 18 november 2007

The key flashpoints of the Cold War are fairly obvious: Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea. But Reykjavik? In 1972 it played host to the most surreal of all Cold War confrontations: the battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky to be world chess champion.

For the Soviet Union, chess had always been a key weapon in the Cold War. Even more than sport, the cerebral character of chess gave it significance in asserting Soviet superiority over the West. Chess, Daniel Johnson writes, 'fitted perfectly the official image of Soviet Man as serious minded, logical and "scientific" even in his leisure activity'. And in Spassky, it possessed 'the most cultivated, the most charming, the most good looking and the most popular' of all Soviet world champions.

America, on the other hand, had virtually ignored the game, largely because no American had been good enough to challenge Soviet supremacy. Until, that is, Bobby Fischer burst on to the scene. The son of a Communist Party member (and possible spy), Fischer himself was virulently anti-communist, not to mention poisonously anti-Semitic and teetering on the edge of pathological paranoia. He was also a chess genius, described by one Russian grandmaster as 'An Achilles without an Achilles' heel'.

For Fischer the showdown at Reykjavik committed 'the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians'. Richard Nixon agreed, sending Fisher his 'personal congratulations' and assuring him that 'I will be rooting for you'. Henry Kissinger also put in a call. 'America wants you to go over there to beat the Russians', he told Fischer.

Fischer did beat the Russians - though as much by gamesmanship as by genius. He failed to show up for more than week and then deliberately turned up late for the rescheduled opening match. He insisted that the chairs, the chessboard, and the lighting were all changed, that the TV cameras be banished, and that a game be played in a back room away from the spectators. At one point he started shouting in the middle of a match and had to be restrained. Fischer's antics, observed Garry Kasparov, who would, a decade later, be the greatest of all chess champions, 'broke Spassky'.

The Reykjavik match forms the centrepiece of Johnson's meticulously researched study. The bizarreness and theatricality of the confrontation was, he suggests, the perfect metaphor for the Cold War. 'The Cold War was the first war caused and dominated by intellectuals and it was best symbolised by the game of the intellectuals'. Fischer-Spassky 'was the Cold War's supreme work of art', embodying 'abstract purism, incipient paranoia, sublimated homicide'.

White King and Red Queen is less a history of chess than a history of the Soviet Union narrated through the fate of its chess players. Johnson spells out the often brutal methods used to turn chess into a political tool and to create the extraordinary state infrastructure that underpinned the Soviet domination of the game. He also demonstrates the remarkable passion for chess, among both intellectuals and the public. Many of the greatest Soviet writers and musicians, from Nabokov to Shostakovich, were obsessive players. Chess, Johnson suggests, 'was one of the very few officially sanctioned areas of intellectual freedom. Unlike art, music or literature, chess was a creative pursuit that did not have to be conducted according to rules and theories laid down by the authorities, from which any deviation was punishable by a term in a labour camp or worse.' As a result, 'Soviet chess was both a microcosm of life in a collectivist society and - as a last refuge of the free spirit - its antithesis.'

For Johnson, the story of chess and the Cold War is not just a history but also a morality tale, a fable of good vs evil, of liberty vanquishing totalitarianism. 'No other field of mental strife', Johnson writes, 'exhibits so vividly the true significance of the [Soviet] endeavour to abolish human freedom once and for all'. It is an approach which provides Johnson with what he calls 'moral clarity' - a phrase tellingly borrowed from the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who on hearing Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire' suggested that 'immediately, there was moral clarity'.

The trouble, though, is that history is not as black and white as the pieces on a chess board. There is, in Johnson's narrative, a lack of both shading and perspective that after a while gets wearing. His attempts to paint every action by every Soviet leader as ineffably evil is both comical and tiresome. Stalin, he writes, 'does not seem to have been a chess player; as a young man he preferred terrorism'. As for Lenin, 'after his return from exile to Russia in 1917 [he] gave up chess altogether. He was able to use real people as pawns instead'. Whatever the crimes of Stalin and Lenin, such visceral invective does little to illuminate the nature either of the Soviet Union or of chess.

At the same time, in his headlong rush to convict Moscow, Johnson ignores the extent to which the West itself played the ideological game, manipulating everything from the space race to sports tournaments for political ends. And he overstretches the metaphoric power of chess to the point of parody. Chess, for Johnson, 'illustrates the process by which Western civilisation ultimately triumphed over the gravest threat it had ever encountered'.

To reject Johnson's black-and-white theory of history is not to embrace the moral relativism against which he warns. Rather, it is to make a distinction between moral values, sporting battles and historical struggles and to suggest that it is possible to take a stand in favour of liberty, democracy and an open society without necessarily seeing the world as if it were a battle between Aslan and the White Witch - and without accepting Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II as the three great revolutionaries for freedom. Chess, as Johnson himself points out, 'makes a good allegory, but a bad teacher'.