White King and Red Queen – chess during the cold war

1/6/2008 – This new book, by Daniel Johnson, focuses on the way chess became became a political weapon in the proletarian revolution of the Soviet Union. Naturally the 1972 match Spassky vs Fischer plays a central role. Three generally critical book reviews have appeared, by John Nunn in the Financial Times, by Steven Poole in the Guardian, and by Nigel Short in the Sunday Times. Excerpts.

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Daniel Johnson:

White King and Red Queen

Hardcover, 368 pages
Publisher: Atlantic Books (November 9, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1843546094
ISBN-13: 978-1843546092

This new book on the chess during the cold war has been reviewed three time, once by John Nunn in the Financial Times (together with a review of the book The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk), once by Steven Poole in the Guardian, and once by Nigel Short in the Sunday Times. We give links at the end of each of our excerpts.

For the FT review it is necessary to have an account, which is free and painless, requiring only that you submit your email address. We have one hotmail account solely for this purpose, just to make sure nobody would consider handing over the address to third parties (the Financial Times surely would not anyway). It is worth doing this to have access to the many serious news sites that offer free but registered services.


In his FT review John Nunn writes: "Daniel Johnson gives a brief historical overview, but his main focus is on the role of chess during the cold war... This area is too recent to have attracted much attention from chess historians, and Johnson makes good use of the available sources, including those only available since the opening up of Soviet archives. But in parts the book reads like a polemic against communism, while the last section is in essence a eulogy to Garry Kasparov, the former world champion who is now involved in anti-Putin politics.

White King and is also marred by a number of inaccuracies. Johnson states that the 1950 Chess Olympiad was held in Belgrade; in fact, it took place in Dubrovnik. He also says that the Ukrainian grandmaster David Bronstein "was banned from foreign travel for the next 15 years [from 1976], until the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist'', even though he played at least 10 tournaments abroad in this period. Johnson offers some interesting insights, but the definitive work on cold war chess remains unwritten." [Read the full review here]


Steven Poole is very critical of this new book and writes: "The virtue of Johnson's book, rich in anecdote, is that it places the much-discussed political significance of this one match in a longer context, stretching the normal definition of the cold war somewhat to begin in the years after the 1917 revolution... Apart from Fischer, the lone American hero who refused to defend his title, Johnson focuses mainly on mavericks and dissidents within the USSR.

In this book, indeed, everything must become a parable. Johnson veers off on some ill-advised tangents, including a discussion of the race-IQ "theories" of Charles Murray (in order to explain the preponderance of Jewish grandmasters), and a peculiar reading of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the spaceship computer HAL is supposed to represent the Soviet Union. The book's guiding principle, though, is revealed in the acknowledgments, where the author thanks other writers for his "moral clarity".

Well, "moral clarity" here means a cartoon view of history. In his triumphal summing-up, Johnson writes, straightfaced: "The power struggle between East and West had also been a battle between ideology and truth." [His] "moral clarity" becomes a distorting lens even in matters of pure chess. Discussing Karpov's style, he resorts to clichés: "cautious, cold-blooded, strategic [ ...] unexciting [ ...] unspectacular". In fact, anyone who has studied Karpov's games knows that he often played chess of great attacking beauty, and was still able to trounce the best in the greatest individual tournament performance ever, at Linares in 1994. But to acknowledge that would not fit with the given stereotype of Karpov as the boring, bureaucratic Soviet, and it would muddle Johnson's childishly Manichean scheme in which nothing once backed by the party could ever have had any value at all.

In fact, as Kasparov generously related only weeks ago, Karpov tried to visit him while he was imprisoned in November, but was denied access. Was that the action of a bloodless ideological automaton? Despite Johnson's anxiety to show otherwise, the truth is not so red and white. [Read the full review here]


Addendum

We have found a third review, in Times Online, by Nigel Short, who writes: "It is rather sad, really, but this could have been an extremely good book. The subject is fascinating: how the Soviet Union, from the 1920s onwards, systematically used chess as a propaganda tool and proxy for war. And yet the undoubted eloquence of the author – a distinguished journalist – is no consolation for the book’s pervasive factual sloppiness. Certainly, some of these errors are trivial, but they are nevertheless irksome. Daniel Johnson is an intelligent man, but sometimes I fear his critical faculties desert him altogether. The hoary, old chestnut, about chess being a game on which more books have been written than on all other games put together, is repeated yet again. One should just look next time one is in a bookshop, to see how implausible this claim is."

Nigel concludes his review with the following: "Anyone reading this somewhat damning review may imagine that White King and Red Queen is a disaster. It is not. It is brightly written, though its deficiencies make it hard to recommend warmly. I only wish the author, who was kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgments, had sent me a draft first. I would have gladly suggested some improvements." [Read the full review here]

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