World Chess Culture: Cold War Checkmate

“White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chess Board”
By Daniel Johnson.
Houghton Miffilin, 384 pages, $26

Reviewed by Harvey Blume

The book’s thesis about the Cold War is that chess was nothing less than sublimated war between the US and the USSR.

For something that is neither war, per se, nor sexual love, chess has supplied fine fodder for literature. To establish that, you have to look no further than to classics like Vladmir Nabokov’s “The Defense” and Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story”. For more recent examples, you can consult Walter Tevis’s “The Queen’s Gambit” (1984), Paolo Maurensig’s “The Luneburg Variations” (1997), and Ronan Bennett’s “Zugzwang” (2007) These are gripping fictions, and as indebted to chess for their plots and character studies as “War and Peace”, say, was to the Napoleonic Wars, or Faulkner’s novels were to his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. In fact, writers of all kinds resort to chess as if it were a sort of communal Yoknapatawpha.

And it’s not just the written word that chess fructifies, but media ranging from high art (Marcel Duchamp) to television. Consider, for example, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” — the network sequel to the Arnold science fiction movies. Chess insinuates itself into the plot in the form of a computer program named The Turk — so called in honor of the famed nineteenth automaton that bedeviled many onlookers into believing it won by purely mechanical means. In “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, a digital Turk may be guilty of infecting defense department computers with the spark of artificial intelligence they need to boot up the machine consciousness that turns against the human race.

But let’s get back to books, and at once admit that a focus on chess by no means assures quality. Clinkers do occur, demeaning both chess and literature, while spawning an adoring fan base. In the case of Katherine Neville’s “The Eight” (1988), the fan base likely overlaps that of Dan Brown’s super clinker, “The Da Vinci Code”. Neville, like Brown after her, proceeds like a coal company that conceives of mining as a process of decapitating mountains, leaving blasted, flattened terrains. Neville does much the same to a cast of characters that includes Napoleon, Voltaire, William Blake, and Catherine the Great, in a plot centering on the mystical endowments of an ancient chess set.

Neville seems unsure about exactly what powers this set confers on its owners. Military dominion? Eternal life? Is the set a philosopher’s stone or does it perhaps provoke the Rapture? One thing the set clearly does not impart is any knowledge of chess itself, but then, how could it when it magically came into being millennia before chess was invented? Neville’s writing seems, likewise, to have originated well before any standards had been arrived at for decent prose. A character with an urgent need for the ladies room says she feels “a little puckered around the bladder.” That sort of writing puckers on for close to six hundred pages. “The Eight” has generated a sequel, “Fire.” Despite my strong belief that a reviewer should never damn what he has not read, I’m going to make an exception for “Fire”, and say, sight unseen: Puck it.

Daniel Johnson’s recent, “White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chess Board”, is a different sort of chess book entirely. To start with, it’s non-fiction, and leaves no doubt that the author, a founder of the English conservative monthly, “Standpoint”, cares and is deeply knowledgeable about the game. The problem is that he cares about his neo-conservative politics perhaps more. The first pages of the book, in which Johnson salutes a “circle of American friends” without whom he would not have achieved “moral clarity”, give fair warning: Johnson’s friends are the grand dragons of neo-conservatism — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Decter among them.

Surely there is room for politics in a book describing the role chess played in the Cold War. But Johnson’s wields his moral clarity like a bludgeon, and batters the book with it. He seems unable to trust readers to understand that Stalinism was monstrous, and can hardly turn down any opportunity to remind us. He writes, for example, that: “Despite its veneer of Marxist ideology, and European culture, the Soviet Union was a reversion to Ivan the Terrible’s oriental despotism.” OK, no argument. But do proclamations of that kind need to burst out nearly every other page?

Johnson’s thesis is that chess was nothing less than sublimated war between the US and the USSR. Rooks, knights, bishops, kings, queens and pawns took the place of nuclear missiles, which made the chessboard a ferociously contested battlefield. Johnson’s thesis is complicated by his palpable nostalgia for the Cold War. Not only was the Cold War good for chess — never were more Westerners aroused by the game than when Bobby Fischer met Boris Spassky for the championship in 1972 — it was even better for moral clarity. Moral clarity may be, for Johnson, “increasingly rare today” but was abundant “in a bipolar world divided by the Iron Curtain.”

Johnson’s love for chess contends bravely throughout with his addiction to polemic. He provides an engaging history of the game and attends to a key psychological question associated with it, namely: Does obsession with chess rescue you from madness or drive you to it? As retold by Johnson, the career of refusenik Natan Sharansky, which was played out in a context
of exceptional moral clarity, yields an answer.

In 1978, Sharansky, who had been arrested by Soviet authorities, was sentenced to thirteen years hard labor, including time in solitary confinement. While in solitary, on a daily basis, replayed a chess game he had once lost, following it out mentally down to “ten, twenty, thirty, even forty moves.” That he eventually arrived at a winning position mattered less to him, he wrote, than the fact that chess “helped preserve my sanity.”

Nathan Sharansky: Chess preserved his sanity while he was in a Soviet prison.

At the beginning of his book, Johnson observes that the world is no longer the bipolar place it was when Fischer beat Spassky, or when Sharansky played chess against himself in mental refuge from Soviet persecution. Johnson suggests that a new “golden age of chess” may be at hand, “presaged by the fact that the fifteenth world chess champion [Viswanathan
Anand] is, for the first time, neither European nor American, but Indian.” Perhaps, Johnson suggests, “in the twenty-first century, Asia is reclaiming its lost supremacy in chess.”

This is a nice point but Johnson might have taken it further. He might, in his global survey of the game, have noted not only that an Asian is the champion of what is properly known as international chess, but that millions of people play an Asian variant of the game, known as Chinese chess or Xiangqi. Xiangqi is far more popular in Asia than international chess is here; it’s much more a folk sport, and routinely attracts the sort of attention only something on the order of a Fischer-Spassky matchup galvanizes for international chess. Not yet but perhaps soon, it will be provincial to write about chess as if the form we take for granted in the West is the only, and presumably the foremost, variant to have evolved out of India fifteen hundred years ago. And perhaps, at some point, along with exposure to Xiangqi, we will garner an inkling of the sorts of art and literature it has, over its own long history, inspired.


  1. flying queen on December 15, 2008 at 8:15 am

    is xiangqi really as complex as international chess? there must be far fewer permutations, given that some pieces are restricted to one side of the river or to the fort. the king can only occupy nine points.

    is there not something less serious, more cartoonish and checkersy about xiangui than real (international) chess?

    have any IC grandmasters commented on the differences?

  2. Harvey Blume on December 15, 2008 at 8:49 am

    > is xiangqi really as complex as international chess?

    seems so to me.

    > there must be far fewer permutations, given that some pieces are restricted to one side of the river or to the fort. the king can only occupy nine points.

    i can’t give the definitive computer science type answer to this question (not that i think it matters much) but will note that there are more points/places on the board (90) than in international chess (64).

    also, there is a type of blocking & releasing of key pieces (horse, elephant, & in its way, cannon) that does not pertain in international chess, and lends a different tempo to xiangqi.

    my own sense, as still very much a xiangqi novice, is that the more open board (greater size, fewer pawns, 5 as compared to 8) makes for a more tactical, less strategic approach: you don’t have to build or destroy a pawn structure to break through. the wild combinatorial rumpus is more at hand.

    >is there not something less serious, more cartoonish and checkersy about xiangui than real (international) chess?

    not in my opinion.

    what you comment really conveys to me is international chess chauvinism. don’t worry, i’ve read no less chauvinist commentaries from xiangqi proponents.

    > have any ic grandmasters commented on the differences?

    the answer is yes.

    & there are western masters now competing in xiangqi tournaments.

  3. flying queen on December 15, 2008 at 9:06 am

    ah, the dreaded emoticon rears it’s sunglassed head.

    you type 8, followed by a ) and get this!!!


    & there are western masters now competing in xiangqi tournaments

    and? do they find it easy? difficult?

  4. Harvey Blume on December 15, 2008 at 10:49 am

    > and? do they find it easy? difficult?

    there’s a fair amount of relevant material on line about this. & you might want to consult sam sloan’s book, “chinese chess for beginners,” (2008). sloan’s an international chess veteran, who also plays in xiangqi tournaments.

    it’s a pretty good first book about xiangqi, full of intriguing commentary about the differences between it & international chess. (best to ignore sloan’s weirdly litigious dark side, irrelevant to our discussion).

    but let’s go back to “cartoonish and checkersy.”

    “checkersy” might seem to apply superficially because xiangqi pieces are, after all, discs, not shapes (or, as i like to think of them, action figures) as in international chess. they are discs sporting the chinese ideograms that name them. that learning to recognize these (seven) ideograms is necessary has helped keep xiangqi confined to asia, though the recognition, daunting at first, is really not difficult.

    that xiangqi pieces consist really of their names might contribute somehow to what you call the cartoonish quality, that plus the fact that xiangqi pieces are brightly colored — red v. green (sometimes blue) as opposed to the western monochrome.

    finally, a point from sloan’s book:

    the fine art of checkmate is much more important to chinese chess than it is in international chess. the reason for this is that in international chess, you generally try to win material or queen a pawn. most of the time, you do not think about administering checkmate until you have already acquired overwhelming force.

    i think that with all due caveats & qualifications that is correct. i find myself losing to native xiangqi players because i’m, in effect, playing chess with xiangqi pieces and xiangqi rules— pouting about material, for example, & illusory positional advantage — while they’re coming in for the kill.

    i’m bit by bit getting closer to “seeing” the xiangqi board & understanding the secrets of the xiangqi kill but i’m not there yet.

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