Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cheats,Spies,Crooks and Commies

Washington Post

Nikolai Krylenko, the Soviet Commissar of Justice and Prosecutor General, used to sentence innocent people to death in show trials in the 1930s, until he himself perished in 1938 in Stalin's Great Purge. He neglected his work by spending too much time on chess and mountain climbing, his accusers claimed. In chess, Krylenko had a vision: He wanted to export the game as part of Soviet culture and to establish Soviet domination in the chess world. He began a ruthless game, playing with human pawns ¿ the Soviet chess masters and champions. In 1948, Mikhail Botvinnik won the world title. The aim was achieved.

Since 1931, Botvinnik was regarded as the best Soviet player and everybody thought that he, and only he, had the right to be World Champion, David Bronstein explained in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." (The second, updated and enlarged edition of Bronstein's classic was recently published by New in Chess.) With the championship came political power, and Botvinnik and his helpers used it. In 1951, Bronstein's father was not allowed to go to Moscow to see his son in the world championship match against Botvinnik. Bronstein smuggled him in anyway and almost won the match. It ended in a 12-12 tie, but there was no love lost between Botvinnik and Bronstein through the end of their lives. Shortly before he died, Botvinnik got irritated when someone mentioned Bronstein's name. Botvinnik said, "Please never mention his name in my presence ever again; he is my enemy!" Upon learning of Botvinnik's death, Bronstein quipped: "What a surprise; he was human after all!"

The history of Soviet chess is full of personal quarrels and intrigues. The former world champion and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky once compared Soviet players to spiders in a bottle, biting and kicking each other, sometimes literally, as Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian did during one of their Candidates games. A partition under the table was installed next time they met.

The Soviet players, however, united against a common foreign enemy. According to Bobby Fischer, the American Sammy Reshevsky was the best player in the world in the early 1950s. Bronstein revealed that during the 1953 Candidates tournament in Zurich, the Soviet players were asked to help Vassily Smyslov finish ahead of Reshevsky and therefore prevent the American grandmaster to reach the world championship match against Botvinnik. It was not necessary. Smyslov played too well and won the event. When the Soviet players ganged up on Fischer in the 1962 Candidates tournament in Curacao, playing hard against him but making quick draws among themselves, he called them "cheating commies" and demanded change from tournament to matches. After the change was made, Fischer was unstoppable and in 1972 won the world title.

The world championship matches in 1978 and 1981 between Anatoly Karpov and Korchnoi, who defected from Soviet Union in 1976, were politically motivated. Many shadowy figures, KGB agents and parapsychologists kept coming and going during these contests. Karpov won both encounters. A few years later, with the appearance of Garry Kasparov, the Soviets had suddenly two players capable of winning the world title.

The first world championship match between Karpov and Kasparov in 1984 in Moscow was the longest in history. The final outcome was discussed high up in the Soviet Politburo and in the offices of the KGB. The players were on a destructive collision course and there were fears the long match would inflict lasting damage, both physical and mental. The maneuvers behind the scenes intensified and the match was stopped without a decision after 48 games in February 1985. Kasparov won the next title match in December 1985. The continuation of the feud between the last two Soviet world champions is described in a new book, "Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess, Part Three: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1986-1987," released by Everyman Chess.

In the summer of 1986 in London, Kasparov and Karpov sat down over the board and for the first time two Soviet players contested the world title in a Western country. Newspapers covered the match on front pages, reporting on the clash between a good communist and a bad one. During the first 12 games in the English capital, both players behaved well, but when the match moved for the second half to the Soviet city of Leningrad, all hell broke loose. Kasparov wrote about treason and bribery after he lost three straight games. He named those who betrayed him and the crooks who tried to bribe them. He was still the world champion when the next match was played in Seville, Spain, in 1987, but he barely hung onto the title in the end. In a must-win situation, he won the last game. The murky world of Soviet chess, the stories behind the scenes and game analyses make for fascinating reading, but did Kasparov tell all? For example, his gamesmanship during the 11th game in Seville, unparalleled in the history of the world championships, is not mentioned. After Karpov blundered, Kasparov openly laughed in his face. One has the feeling there are more tales to be told.

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