Move by move – politicians playing chess

by ChessBase
10/27/2011 – A new book is creating quite a discussion in Germany. It is about two politicians, one a former chancellor of the country (1974 to 1982), the other quite plausibly a future chancellor (2013–), one 93 years old and razor sharp in his mind, the other, 64, a preeminent critic of global predatory capitalism. Both are chess players and the book uses a game motif on its cover. Take a closer look.

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"They are among the most important politicians of their generation, and they have a long-standing friendship. They stand for reliability, landmark decisions and clear, often uncomfortable positions. They meet – this time not to play chess, but to talk about the big policy issues that concern people currently.

Although almost thirty years lie between Helmut Schmidt and Peer Steinbrück, the two are often mentioned together – elder statesman and moral authority the one, and at least since the advent of the global financial crisis the guarantor of political straightforwardness the other. Whether they are talking about the cracks in the foundation of our society or about the ignorance of functional elites, whether discussing the shift in global economic priorities, the future of Europe in face of the disastrous excesses of global predatory capitalism: again and again the conversation returns to the original question of how the primacy of politics, democracy and the welfare state as guaranteed in the future and the growing gap between the governed and governors can be closed."

From the press release of the publishers Hoffmann und Campe. If you can read German this is a highly recommended book, the titel of which translates to "Move by Move". But it concerns us here for a different reason, which will become clear at the end of this article. First, though, some background of the two politicians and their involvement in chess.

Helmut Schmidt is a German Social Democratic politician who served as Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982. Prior to becoming chancellor, he was Minister of Defence and Minister of Finance. He had also served briefly as Minister of Economics and as acting Foreign Minister. At 93 he is the oldest surviving German Chancellor, but razor sharp in his mind and political analyses, as we have been able to tell from radio discussions we heard recently. Schmidt has one of the highest IQs of any politician we know. He is also a keen amateur chess player, as the following pictures prove.

Above is a historical picture of GM Lothar Schmid (arbiter in Fischer-Spassky 1972) playing a simul against members of the German parliament – right Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. The picture was taken on April 23, 1969.

Newspaper cutting showing Chancellor Helmut Schmidt playing in a chess tournament, with the President of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker on the board next to him.

Helmut Schmidt playing chess against his wife Loki, something the two did very regularly (from the album of the Hamburger Abendblatt on the recently deceased Loki Schmidt)

Peer Steinbrück (born January 10, 1947 in Hamburg) is a German social democratic politician who served from 2005 to 2009 as German Federal Minister of Finance in the cabinet of Angela Merkel. In December 2008 Steinbrück controversially attacked the British Keynesian approach to economic policy in an interview with Newsweek. He raised scepticism about the effectiveness of large fiscal stimulus packages and criticised the resulting increase in public debt. Steinbrück is also a sharp critic of the Swiss banking secrecy and the banking system attributing characteristics of the private equity industry to hedge funds.

Steinbrück has been a prominent speaker for the SPD, especially on economic matters. He is considered to be the most probable opposition candidate for Bundeskanzler in the 2013 elections. As of August 2011, he is according to the opinion polls the most popular politician in Germany, ahead of Angela Merkel.

Peer Steinbrück, Germany's Minister of Finance at the time, playing
an exhibition game (click to replay) against Vladimir Kramnik in 2005

Exchanging presents: the politician and the chess professional

Back to the Hoffmann und Campe book. It got a full page review in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on Tuesday, citing the fact that Steinbrück may well make it to German Chancellor with Schmidt's backing.

On Wednesday the Hamburger Abendblatt had a second article on the Schmidt-Steinbrück book, this time on the front page. The main body of the article this time was dedicated to the picture of the two politicians playing chess.

This is an enlargement of the picture in the Tuesday Abendblatt article

And here the one from the cover of the Hoffmann und Campe book

A close-up of the chess board on the book cover

Chess players will immediately recognize what disturbed the author of the second article, who complains that once again the board has been turned by 90°, with a black square on the bottom right. He also finds the position generally suspicious – has White castled long on the kingside in the first picture, he asks? Astonishingly perceptive? Well, the author of the second article is Rainer Grünberg, who happens to be a strong chess player – before becoming a senior sports editor in the newspaper Rainer used to regularly play in the German Bundesliga.

We, on the other hand, have a growing conviction that there is a secret organisation that goes around making sure that chess PR stills and chess sequences in movies always produce the 90° error. The percentage of incidents where this has occurred greatly surpasses what you would expect from chance – which according to our calculations should be around 50%.

Addendum: Our senior advisor John Nunn proposes a different solution: "Such images are very often reflected, thus introducing the error. But why are they reflected? I've no idea – perhaps editors feel they have to be useful and automatically reflect any image that doesn't contain text." Quite possibly the following is the original picture:

Makes sense, doesn't it? After all the two are not rank amateurs in the game...

Addendum 2: A number of readers have drawn our attention to the fact that Helmut Schmidt parts his hair on the left and wears his watch on his left hand (proof). He also normally holds his cigarette in his left hand (and these days wears two rings on his right). So, our readers in general conclude, the picture was not reflected and our original theory is most likely correct: the ICTC (International Conspiracy to Turn Chessboards) must have struck again.

Addendum 3: The pictures for Hoffmann und Campe were taken by well-known photographer Ingrid von Kruse, who was interviewed by the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which picked up the story. The 75-year-old said did not understand anything about chess, and had very little time for the photo shoot. However it was not her that set up the table and pieces – she had only put the ashtray in the front because she wanted it in the foreground (Schmidt is known as a heavy smoker). The table was already there and two politicians apparently did not notice the error. The commotion the book cover has caused in the media has left commentators perplexed – it was "just a photo shoot." However the faux pas could prove embarrassing for Peer Steinbrück, who is considered a very conscientious thinker who may have delivered his rivals in the 2013 elections material for jokes concerning his political orientation.

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