Politics and chess.
Yet, though there has been unprecedented press interest in his bid for the title, the twenty-eight year old Short has found himself lampooned as a Spitting Image puppet, and described as |an Adrian Mole look-alike', and |the most unlikely sports hero to emerge from Britain since Eddie the Eagle'. Such comments seem to betray, to put it mildly, an ambivalent attitude towards the game as well as towards the player. To set all this in perspective, one might reasonably examine the historical precedents. Is chess really capable of sparking off patriotic emotions and commitments, of focusing social attitudes and solidarities, in the way that has made other sports a fertile subject of study for historians?
It certainly has an extraordinarily long history and a unique record of early diffusion between different cultures. Chess is first documented in a recognisable form in Northern India c.600 AD. From there it spread east to China and Japan, north into Central Asia, and west through Persia and the Islamic world, reaching Western Europe around the year 1000. By the twelfth century it was played from North Africa to Iceland and from Spain to Constantinople with almost identical rules, and its symbolism had settled into the pattern of |feudal state in miniature' (king, queen, bishop, knight, and so on with some variations between languages), which it has retained since.
A significant rule change between medieval and modern chess appeared just before 1500, first in Spain and Italy, then spread through Europe, partly by the new medium of printed books. One ironic consequence of this is that modern colonisation has re-introduced chess in its up-dated form into areas, like the Middle East and India, where the original game was first played. Everywhere, especially in the twentieth century, native forms have been supplanted, but the earlier pre-history of diffusion helps to explain why modern chess has become so universal, with now over a hundred countries affiliated to the international Federation.
Before the nineteenth century there was no systematic international competition, but there were plenty of chess writers claiming the superiority of their own countrymen, from early legends about Persians and Indians to Diderot's casual remark in Rameau's Nephew, written in the 1760s, that |Paris is the place in the world, and the Cafe de la Regence the place in Paris, where this game is played best'. A match in 1834, in which the French champion Labourdonnais defeated the London representative MacDonnell, was even celebrated by the composition of a poem called |Une Revanche de Waterloo'. Howard Staunton the pugnacious Englishman who was for a time the strongest player in the 1840s, argued that chess was entirely compatible with Victorian moral values, |not designed to be a waste of time or an excuse for indolence' but |the recreation of men of genius and practical energies, men who are fully alive to the responsibilities of their social existence'.
By Staunton's day, the centre of European chess had shifted from Paris to London, where he himself organised the first international tournament to coincide with the Great Exhibition of 1851. In large part, though, this status reflected the power of patronage, and was maintained by attracting emigres and professional players from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. By 1900 the rival attractions of Germany, Austria, the USA and even Russia were becoming apparent. Isidor Gunsberg, a naturalised Hungarian, was the last Briton to challenge for the World Championship (in 1890-91) before Nigel Short.
By the late nineteenth century, chess was thus established as the pre-eminent board game of serious competition. It was undergoing the same process of codification in its rules and growth in national and international organisation as the leading physical sports. The social appeal of the game, though, still appeared to be a confined one; typically middle-class, middle-aged and male. Admittedly, from the 1880s onwards there were women's tournaments, and younger players demonstrated the ability to compete at the highest levels by their early twenties. More strikingly, a league of chess clubs for working men grew up in pre-1914 Germany, and began from 1912 to publish the Arbeiter-Schachzeitung. In 1923 delegates from several countries met in Germany to form the explicitly Socialist Workers Chess International, which lasted until 1931. Yet such movements were not typical of the game's appeal. In most countries Federations backed by clubs and wealthy patrons sustained only a few professional players. The Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) formed in Paris in 1924 was initially concerned to maintain chess as an amateur sport which could take its place in the revived Olympic Games.
The crucial exception to this general pattern occurred in post-1917 Russia. It is not absolutely clear how the new Russian leaders came to see chess as something more than a bourgeois diversion, but a crucial initiative was taken by A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, a chess master and chief commissar responsible for training military recruits. Ilyin persuaded the authorities to include chess in his training programmes and then, especially after the creation of the All-Union Chess Section in 1924, to promote it throughout the entire country. It is clear that the main political impetus was one of internal policy rather than international prestige. The aim, in the ringing slogan of the 1924 Congress, was to |take chess to the workers!', promoting literacy and political consciousness. Numbers of registered players rose from 24,000 in 1924 to 150,000 in 1929 and 500,000 in 1934, a record which encouraged the state to continue to increase its support. Success in international competition was achieved only in the mid-1930s with the conquests of Mikhail Botvinnik. His victory at the Nottingham tournament in 1936 was celebrated on the front page of Pravda, while Botvinnik himself sent a telegram to Stalin beginning |Dear beloved teacher and leader' which he later revealed had been dictated from Moscow. Western visitors to Russia in these years were deeply impressed with the popular enthusiasm for the game they encountered, in contrast to their own meagre support, and came close sometimes to becoming fellow travellers of the chessboard.
Ironically, but predictably, the only non-soviet regime to find a place for chess in its political ideology was that of Nazi Germany. As part of this, world champion Alexander Alekhine, himself a Russian emigre, was persuaded in 1941 to publish articles contrasting wholesome Aryan chess with materialistic Jewish chess. Alekhine's death in 1946 left the world championship vacant, and with this in mind the USSR consented to join FIDE in 1947, Botvinnik duly winning the resultant tournament to become the new champion in 1948. Thereafter, FIDE organised qualifying competitions which relentlessly produced a challenger for the title every three years, all of them between 1951 and 1969 Soviet citizens. During the same period Soviet players held the world women's championship, and the USSR won the biennial world team championship on every occasion from 1952 to 1974. Such a degree of dominance over a widely pursued
competitive activity is striking, especially as the severest competition tended to come from Eastern European countries which had partially imitated Soviet sponsorship and training techniques.
Faced with all this, Western commentators began to ask whether there was some essential connection between chess and |Russianness' (hardly likely, since world title contenders have included an Armenian, an Estonian and a Latvian). Others doubted whether, in chess or in other fields, individual talent could compete successfully without full-time training of a kind which only states could provide. But in 1972, the defiantly individualistic American, Robert Fischer, won the world championship by defeating the Russian holder, Boris Spassky. As Fischer neared his goal, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged him (in an election year) to play as the champion of the Free World, while the British financier Jim Slater provided material inducements by increasing the prize fund to an unprecedented $250,000. After his victory public interest in chess increased, generating commercial sponsorship which outlasted Fischer's subsequent eccentricities and retirement from competitive play.
The 1972 debacle also showed up internal weaknesses in the Soviet chess establishment, increasingly seen as a top-heavy bureaucracy dispensing patronage and privileges to a favoured elite, justified only by the prestige of international victories which were now suddenly in doubt. Though the world championship was regained by Anatoly Karpov in 1975, and has been held by Russians ever since, the Soviet Chess Federation was unable in the 1970s and 1980s to defuse increasingly bitter internal disputes, or stem the flow of defections to the West. Yet even after the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, Russia remains the world's leading chess nation and five other former Soviet republics finished among the top ten countries in the 1992 team championship. The periodic appearance of England as world no.2 reflects the individual abilities of a talented group of players, now headed by Short, but also the availability of sponsorship, mostly from the City, publishers and computer companies.
The ability of chess to act as a vector for national feelings will always be limited by its relative lack of mass spectator appeal. There are large numbers of players in many countries, but they are not easily Organised collectively, except as a market (just as many more people buy CDs than attend concerts). A limited role, though, is not a negligible one, as the Soviet experiment of incorporating chess into programmes of social modernisation has demonstrated. Nigel Short's victory this year, if he achieves it, may not transform the position of chess in Britain, at least not for long, and aggressive state promotion of the game on the Soviet model may never be repeated. But chess remains a uniquely successful and influential fusion between mental pursuit and organised sport.