Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fighting the Cold War Over a Chessboard

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the western bloc countries never tested each other in a shooting war. They did, however, often contest their differences over sporting events.

One of those was the Bobby Fischer vs Boris Spassky world chess championship match played in 1972 -- the same year that Canada confronted the Soviet Union in the famed Summit Series.

In the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik party embraced chess as a matter of public policy.

As with most forms of competition -- athletic, intellectual or otherwise -- the Soviet Union sought to mobilize dominance at chess for maximum propaganda value. But chess had particular appeal.

With its overwhelming focus on strategy and not-so-subtle overtones of militarism, dominance at a game like chess could offer comfort to any members of the Soviet populace who worried about open warfare between the USA and the USSR.

Likewise, Americans who were worried about a military conflict between the USA and USSR -- and who wouldn't have been, considering that such a conflict would inevitably involve nuclear weapons -- must have been very distressed by Soviet dominance of the sport of chess. At one point, the Americans had only one Grand Master. The Soviets had numerous, a benefit of their Chess school.

Canadians were distressed by Soviet dominance of hockey during the 1960s and 1970s, but Canadians didn't have to worry about having to directly play nuclear hockey with the Soviets from across the globe.

It was against this fearful cold war backdrop that Bobby Fischer, considered to be the great American hope, failed to show up at the appointed time for his world championship match. Of all things, Fischer was repeatedly holding out for more money.

Fischer was anything but patriotic in his motives. He remarked that he intended to play a chess match against a lesser opponent every month. Instead, his handlers wanted a system for the fair selection of contenders for the world chess championship.

After significant political wranglings -- not surprising considering the environment surrounding sport at the time -- the match finally got underway.

Once the match began, Fischer very nearly quit. He lost the first game, then forfeit the second. But eventually personal pride prompted him to continue the matches under better conditions -- he insisted that television cameras were too loud, and had been distracting him.

Fischer would game three, and go on to dominate the match. The Soviets would claim that Fischer was using some sort of mind control device against Spassky -- an ironic claim considering that it was the Soviets themselves who were experimenting with techniques such as remote viewing.

Eventually, Spassky was so overwhelmed he had little choice but to concede defeat.

But Fischer would refuse to defend his championship. By 1975, Fischer was forced to forfeit the world championship to Anatoli Karpov, Spassky's Kremlin-chosen successor. Spassky would eventually be exiled from the country.

Defeat was something that Soviet sporting officials never tolerated. Just as the American Olympic hockey victory over the Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid games led to the political disfavour of phenomenal Soviet goalie Vladimir Tretiak, and the Soviet loss in the 1988 Canada Cup eventually led to the Soviet Union turning its best players loose for the professional game, Spassky's defeat prompted an effective exile to Paris.

Just as the days when Canadian hockey players grinded out international ideological conflicts against their Soviet counterparts will likely never return, nor will chess ever see another contest as ideologically contested as the 72 Spassky-Fischer match.

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