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Chess & The Cold War

Aug 26, 2022
Politics
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29
minutes

The game of chess played a vital role during the Cold War, allowing Russia and the United States to fight intellectual battles over a board game.

In this episode, we'll explore how the game of chess was used in a world where nuclear weapons could not.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Chess and the Cold War. 

[00:00:28] Chess is often called the ultimate game of strategy, a game where two players have exactly the same pieces, and they need to use all of their mental abilities to outsmart the other.

[00:00:40] And although chess may be a game, during the Cold War it was used as a way to play out a very real world conflict, the conflict between East and West.

[00:00:53] So, in this episode we will tell this amazing story, of how the chess board became the battleground for the Cold War, and how one country, the USSR came to dominate the international game in a way that no other country has done, either before or since. 

[00:01:12] OK then, Chess and The Cold War.

[00:01:16] Before we go back in time, let’s take a moment and stay in the present day, or at least in the 21st century. 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

[00:01:28] There are few areas of life that the conflict has not touched. 

[00:01:33] Energy sanctions, rising food prices, the fastest growing refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and thousands of civilians dead: these are just some of the consequences of Europe’s first military conflict between states since the Second World War. 

[00:01:51] You might be surprised to learn that, on a far less significant level of course, even the international chess scene has been affected. 

[00:02:01] Almost as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, the world of professional chess became a flashpoint in the war. 

[00:02:11] Within a week of the invasion, the International Chess Federation had pulled, it had cancelled, major tournaments from Russia and Belarus. 

[00:02:22] For Russia too, chess quickly became a factor in its propaganda calculations. 

[00:02:29] In April of 2022, the Russian state media regulator blocked the online chess website chess.com for publishing interviews with Ukrainian players about the invasion. 

[00:02:43] Russia also faced pushback from its own chess champions – the pride and joy of a nation that won all but one World Chess Championship between 1948 and 1990. 

[00:02:55] Many grandmasters left the country in protest. 

[00:02:59] A grandmaster, by the way, is a prestigious title awarded by the International Chess Federation, and it’s second only to the World Champion title. 

[00:03:09] So, some grandmasters left, other grandmasters who were abroad at the time chose not to return to Russia. 

[00:03:17] Some who remained wrote an open letter to Putin criticising the government’s actions. 

[00:03:24] Yet this isn’t the first, nor the most dramatic, time that the game entered the geopolitical stage. 

[00:03:32] In the six decades after the end of World War Two, chess was caught up in the global stand-off between the communist USSR and the capitalist United States, otherwise known as the Cold War. 

[00:03:47] Back then, the game’s international profile grew like never before. 

[00:03:53] Chess’ global popularity during this time owed to the fact that it became an arena of ideological and cultural competition between the two dominant powers. 

[00:04:04] Because of the game’s importance in showcasing national brilliance, many players became celebrities and heroes both in their own nations and abroad. 

[00:04:16] One of them was the Soviet player, Anatoly Karpov, who was born in 1951. 

[00:04:23] Being born right at the start of this global conflict, you could say Karpov was a Cold War baby. 

[00:04:30] He would go on to become a Cold War star. 

[00:04:34] He came from a poor family but by the age of 15 he had become the world’s youngest international chess master. 

[00:04:43] Now, he is regarded as one of the best chess players in history.

[00:04:49] Although he clearly had a brilliant mind, Karpov also enjoyed the full support of the Soviet state throughout his career. 

[00:04:58] From the 1970s onwards, he actively collaborated with the KGB, the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union. 

[00:05:07] And in return, the regime showered him, they covered him with privileges

[00:05:13] So how did a humble board game become so important that its players were seen as valuable intelligence assets in a global conflict? 

[00:05:24] To answer this question, it’s important to remind ourselves of what was actually happening during the Cold War, and why the 64 black and white squares of a board game became one of the places where the war was fought.

[00:05:40] In 1947, just two years after the end of history’s deadliest war, the world was plunged into a new and altogether stranger conflict. 

[00:05:52] Capitalist America and the communist USSR emerged as the sole unchallenged superpowers at the end of World War II. 

[00:06:01] For the next four decades, these irreconcilable economic and political systems would fight for supremacy in the postwar world. 

[00:06:11] With military and economic resources that dwarfed their nearest rivals, they quickly carved the world up between themselves. 

[00:06:20] On the one side, America led the Western bloc of capitalist countries that stretched across Western Europe and much of the Middle East. On the other stood the USSR, which drew Eastern Europe, Cuba, and parts of Latin America into its orbit

[00:06:37] International affairs suddenly became a black and white game. 

[00:06:42] Smaller world players faced a stark choice: ally with either the capitalists or the communists, or else leave themselves exposed to the political ambitions of both. 

[00:06:55] The two superpowers stockpiled ever-more advanced weapons at a manic intensity. 

[00:07:03] However, as we know, fortunately they never engaged directly in battle. 

[00:07:09] Because the slightest provocation risked a nuclear war to end all wars, mutually assured destruction as it was called, tensions held out without an end in sight. 

[00:07:21] Across the ideological divide, the superpowers watched each other’s every move with hawk-eyed intent, each watched the other very closely. 

[00:07:31] This was a war of nerves where tensions bubbled away beneath the surface. 

[00:07:37] Because they could not be resolved in the heat of battle, they resurfaced in the most unlikely of arenas. 

[00:07:44] Chess was one of them. 

[00:07:46] In this rule bound world, the most rule-governed of games reigned supreme. 

[00:07:53] Now, you may know that chess has long been associated with statesmanship

[00:07:59] Just like diplomats and kings and queens are constrained by the rules of the international system, the pieces on the board are governed by a simple set of allowable moves.

[00:08:12] The history of the game of chess reveals this relationship well. 

[00:08:16] The earliest written account of the game comes in the Persian Chatrang-namak, which explains that it was introduced to Persia by 'Dewasarm, a great ruler of India' in the 6th century. 

[00:08:29] In the 17th century, King Charles I of England, a king who would go on to lose his head after a rebellion, He owned a chessboard inscribed with a Latin phrase: “With these, subject and ruler strive without bloodshed’.

[00:08:46] Fast forward to 1947 and chess had transformed from a symbol of governance to an actual blueprint for foreign policy. 

[00:08:57] In this year, the US diplomat George Kennan gave a lecture at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. 

[00:09:04] Here, he formulated a grand vision for America’s international strategy based on the game of chess. 

[00:09:13] To achieve security in this newly divided world, Kennan said that America had to “marshal all the forces’ at their disposal on the world chessboard…in such a way that the Russian sees it is…in his interests to do what you want him to do”. 

[00:09:32] Kennan would become famous for being the mastermind behind what's called ‘containment strategy’. This was a foreign policy approach that really shaped international relations during the 1950s and 1960s. It proposed maintaining two fixed spheres of influence. 

[00:09:51] One would be presided over, controlled by America, the other by the Soviets. 

[00:09:58] Crucially, neither side could encroach on, could go into, the others’ sphere. 

[00:10:04] Neither could they resort to violence. 

[00:10:07] Instead, opponents would have to be cornered into, forced to make, weaker moves by canny, strategic decisions and movements. 

[00:10:15] And, just like in chess, tactical sacrifices would be needed to win the wider war. 

[00:10:23] Chess only grew in significance as the conflict developed. 

[00:10:27] As nuclear weapons made direct military engagement a suicidal prospect, culture replaced armed combat as a way of attracting prestige and allies. 

[00:10:38] The game was not just a strategic metaphor anymore. It also became a way for communists and capitalists alike to prove their cultural superiority on the world stage, and thereby appeal no only to their own people but also to attract countries that had to date not chosen a side. 

[00:10:59] Karpov would express this well in his autobiography called ‘Chess is My Life’, which he published in 1980. 

[00:11:08] In it, he sneered at, he laughed at, a 1972 international tournament in Texas that was sponsored by a businessman who had made his money through selling fried chicken. 

[00:11:21] To him, the so-called ‘Fried Chicken Tournament’ symbolised the vulgar character of capitalist society where individual wealth and cheap gratification were more important than a collective effort to pursue greatness. 

[00:11:37] So, although international sports like football and ice hockey were also ways of projecting national superiority during the Cold War, nothing compared to chess for showcasing moral and intellectual strength. And in this field, by the start of the Cold War, the Soviets already had a strong edge, a strong advantage, over the Americans. 

[00:12:01] This was because chess was already popular in 19th century Tsarist Russia, but it was after the communist revolution of 1917 that the game really exploded. 

[00:12:12] Chess-playing institutions became developed and supported by the state. 

[00:12:17] Josef Stalin, the communist leader who came to power in 1922, was an enthusiastic supporter of these chess initiatives

[00:12:27] To Stalin, skill in chess could prove the intellectual acumen, the brainpower, of the Soviet people, and particularly their talents for problem solving – the sort of cognitive skills that he thought would help his country overtake the West in its economic and technological development. 

[00:12:46] One of the earliest people who lobbied the Communist regime to back chess, to support chess, was a man called Nikolai Krylenko, a 1917 revolutionary who became a high-ranking Soviet politician. 

[00:13:01] He sold the game to the party as an ideologically useful form of relaxation. 

[00:13:07] It would encourage logic and reason among the masses, he said. This would discourage them from the religious ideas that were so hated by the communists. 

[00:13:17] His appeals were successful. 

[00:13:20] The government set up the All-Union Chess Section, a state body that organised mass chess events in workers clubs and factories. 

[00:13:29] The grandest of these was the All-Union Workers competition, which attracted tens of thousands of players from all across Soviet society. It began in 1924 and happened every year for the next five decades.

[00:13:45] 1925, however, was the real turning point for the game in the USSR. The government awarded a prize of 30,000 rubles for the world’s first state-sponsored chess tournament, which was held in Moscow. 

[00:13:59] The new tournament attracted the best Russian players and fuelled the game’s meteoric rise. 

[00:14:06] “Chess fever” broke out and the 1920s became a period where many later grandmasters first became hooked on the game.

[00:14:15] What is perhaps striking looking back on the Moscow tournament today is how open it was. 

[00:14:22] Back then, international champions were invited to compete. 

[00:14:27] This all changed after World War II when relations between the West and East grew more and more strained, more difficult. By the 1950s, the containment theory of international relations was in full force. 

[00:14:43] The border between the communist east and the capitalist west became fixed. 

[00:14:49] Suspicion reigned on both sides, and there was little opportunity for Soviet chess players to compete against their Western counterparts

[00:14:57] Then, in the 1960s, both sides began to push for a more aggressive foreign policy. 

[00:15:05] Containment was out and a new strategy, known as rollback, was in. 

[00:15:11] The USSR and America began actively trying to bring more countries in their orbit of influence, often by arming groups in small foreign nations to fight proxy wars on their behalf. 

[00:15:24] Under these new conditions, chess became charged with political significance for the Soviet Regime

[00:15:31] And in the early 1960s, just when passive containment was abandoned in favour of active rollback, a new young contender emerged as Russia’s next top chess player. 

[00:15:44] Yes, you’ve already heard his name. It was our Cold War baby, Anatoly Karpov. 

[00:15:51] After showing early promise, his rise as a chess player and public figure was carefully cultivated by the state intelligence services, the KGB.

[00:16:01] The KGB’s influence ran right across Soviet society, and the chess scene was no exception

[00:16:09] From the 1950s onwards, the KGB accompanied every major chess player to international tournaments. 

[00:16:16] The US similarly saw chess tournaments as potential battlegrounds.

[00:16:22] Because foreign chess tournaments were one of the rare moments that people from the capitalist and communist blocs would meet and mix relatively freely, it was a prime opportunity for both sides to recruit spies. 

[00:16:38] The KGB nurtured communist loyalists within the chess world in several ways. 

[00:16:44] They gave a comfortable state stipend, a state salary, for top players. 

[00:16:50] For the best, they went even further. 

[00:16:53] Boris Spassky, one of the greats of chess history and a world champion in the 1970s, was given access to luxurious resorts all around the USSR. 

[00:17:04] Yet Spassky had the sort of temperament that made the regime wary, that made it nervous. He was critical, outspoken, and temperamental – signs that he could never be completely trusted, and as we’ll find out shortly, the Soviet authorities had reason to be wary

[00:17:25] Another player who was a thorn in the side of the regime was Viktor Korchnoi. 

[00:17:32] Like Spassky, Korchnoi was brilliant but non-conformist in character. As a result, he was closely watched for any sign that he may defect to the West. 

[00:17:44] Anatoly Karpov, however, was a different story. 

[00:17:47] First, he was a chess prodigy

[00:17:51] In 1969 aged only 18, he was named as an international master - a rank just below world champion that is awarded for life by the International Chess Federation. 

[00:18:03] Second, he was the perfect party representative. Karpov respected the regime hierarchy and was a true believer in the USSR’s project. 

[00:18:14] Unlike the unpredictable Spassky or Korchnoi, Karpov’s deferential character marked him out as a reliable regime asset, as someone who could be trusted. 

[00:18:26] Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s, when he was perhaps still a teenager, Karpov was recruited as a KGB agent under the code name Raul. 

[00:18:38] From then on, Karpov would be accompanied by KGB agents to all the tournaments he attended outside the USSR. 

[00:18:46] His relationship with the KGB culminated in 1978, before the World Chess Championship in Manilla, in the Philippines. 

[00:18:55] The previous year, Karpov had won the world title for the first time. 

[00:19:00] In Manilla, he would have to defend it. 

[00:19:04] In the lead up to this crucial tournament, the KGB and the party had decided that the 26-year-old star would receive all their help to retain his title. 

[00:19:15] This was because his challenger would be the troublesome individualist, Korchnoi. 

[00:19:21] Two years earlier, both Korchnoi and Spassky had done what the KGB had always feared: they had betrayed their country. 

[00:19:31] In 1976, Spassky had set a wedding date to marry a lady called Marina, a French embassy employee in Moscow. 

[00:19:41] Ever since the Soviet authorities had heard of their romance, they had been trying to break the couple apart. The KGB went to hideous lengths to achieve this. In the lead up to Spassky’s departure, they broke into Marina’s apartment in order to infect her underwear with venereal disease

[00:20:01] The attempt was thankfully unsuccessful. 

[00:20:06] The final straw came when the Soviet government forced Marina to leave the country before their wedding day. 

[00:20:13] Spassky immediately joined her to live in Paris because he believed that she would never be allowed to return. 

[00:20:20] In spite of the fact that Spassky was allowed to keep his Soviet citizenship, this was a real blow for the Communist party. 

[00:20:28] Worse was to come. 

[00:20:31] 1976 was also the year when Korchnoi fled. 

[00:20:35] The final push for him came after his loss to regime favourite Karpov in a 1974 Moscow chess tournament. The press had been criticising him harshly and his state salary had been reduced. 

[00:20:51] Ever since 1974, Korchnoi had been looking for any opportunity to defect. This came when he played at a chess tournament in Amsterdam in 1976. After the match, he simply didn’t turn up to the airport for his return flight. Instead, he went to the nearest police station to ask for political asylum.

[00:21:14] By 1978, before the Manilla world tournament, he was a stateless resident in Switzerland. 

[00:21:21] This was why it was paramount, it was extremely important, for the USSR that their party loyalist Karpov should stay on top at the 1978 world championship. 

[00:21:34] For him to be beaten by a stateless defector and critic of the regime would be a huge propaganda blow for the country.

[00:21:43] Orders to support a Karpov victory at all costs originated from the leader of the USSR himself, Leonid Brezhnev, filtering down to the head of the KGB, and then to the head of KGB’s shadowy agency, the ‘Fifth Directorate’. 

[00:22:00] To boost his chances, Karpov was sent to Manilla with an entourage of 12 KGB personnel.

[00:22:07] Back in the USSR, the KGB had already imprisoned Korchnoi’s son on spurious charges to put off his father before the match.

[00:22:18] The British grandmaster Michael Stean would later say that the 1978 Manilla tournament was the ‘most bewildering and dirty’ championship match in the history of chess. 

[00:22:31] Both sides resorted to outlandish measures, ridiculous and unbelievable lengths, to give their players an advantage. 

[00:22:40] The second game already gave indications that this would be no ordinary match. 

[00:22:46] When Karpov was given a pot of yoghurt by his handlers, the Korchnoi team was up in arms, saying that the pot was a coded instruction to Karpov, a secret message, about game strategy. 

[00:23:00] In perhaps the strangest tactic ever used in the game, the KGB used a parapsychologist named Zoukhar to destabilise Korchnoi mentally. 

[00:23:12] Korchnoi claimed that this famous Soviet hypnotist was there to hypnotise him from the audience stand by staring intently at him. 

[00:23:22] By the eighth game, the jury, the people controlling the game, decided to move Zoukhar to a row further back to prevent him from disrupting the player’s concentration.

[00:23:35] By the nineteenth game, Korchnoi’s team brought out its own group of parapsychologists, in addition to two cult leaders from a sect called Ananda Marga, who came dressed in saffron robes, bright red cloaks

[00:23:51] These cult leaders sat down near the game in a lotus position.

[00:23:57] The Soviet delegation, who referred to the cult leaders as ‘terrorists’, said that they must not be allowed any contact with Karpov’s own team. 

[00:24:08] Throughout the tournament, these cult leaders would train Korchnoi in mental techniques. One exercise they got him to do was to pierce an orange that symbolised his opponent Karpov’s head. 

[00:24:21] It has also been claimed that, had it looked like Korchnoi was going to win, the KGB agents would have found a way to stop the game and poison Korchnoi's food, so that he would be killed instead of beating the Soviet champion.

[00:24:37] After 32 gruelling games, including 21 draws, Karpov finally won the match and held onto his world title. 

[00:24:47] Upon his return to Russia, he was congratulated by Brezhnev and awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. 

[00:24:55] Soviet Russia had won, but only just.

[00:25:00] In 1981, Karpov won once more time against his dissident rival Korchnoi, but his supremacy wasn't last. 

[00:25:08] Soon, he would face a much more formidable challenger in the form of Garry Kasparov. 

[00:25:15] When Karpov first played Kasparov in 1975, he beat the young contender easily. 

[00:25:22] But in 1984, when they met again to compete for the world title, the balance of power had shifted. 

[00:25:30] After losing the first nine games, Kasparov recovered in spectacular style. He won for the very first time against Karpov, the former world champion and darling of the Soviet State. 

[00:25:44] Like Korchnoi before him, the rebellious Kasparov was never fully trusted by the regime

[00:25:51] Even as a teenager, Kasparov was very critical of Communism. Yet despite efforts by the party to hinder his career, to stop his career, Kasparov would become perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. 

[00:26:07] Once the Communist regime fell in 1989, he left the party and in 2013, he left Russia altogether to escape political persecution. Since then, he has been a vocal champion of Western liberal democracy. 

[00:26:22] And today, he is one of the most famous and outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin.

[00:26:29] On the surface, chess provided huge propaganda victories for the Soviets. The country won all but one World Championships from 1948 to 1990. 

[00:26:40] However, this could not disguise the fact that the regime had created a society hostile to creatives and intellectuals. 

[00:26:49] Many of the chess players who left did so because they felt managed by their government in a way that suffocated their talents. 

[00:26:57] And what about the politics of chess in the present day? 

[00:27:02] Since 2017, many foreign policy experts have argued that a new Cold War is beginning. 

[00:27:10] This time, the Eastern powerhouses of China and Russia are challenging the Western might of America and Europe. 

[00:27:18] And chess is still a powerful metaphor for conflict, a point of comparison used by commentators and chess players alike.

[00:27:27] In an eerily familiar echo of Cold War thinking, the anti-Putin chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov tweeted in April of 2022: “Putin’s war on Ukraine is not chess, it’s true. But it is black and white, good vs evil.”

[00:27:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Chess and the Cold War.

[00:27:52] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:27:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:28:00] Are you a chess player?

[00:28:01] What do you think causes this game, above almost every other, to be used as a metaphor for military conflict?

[00:28:09] For the Russian listeners out there, how are these chess players remembered in your country?

[00:28:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:28:19] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Chess and the Cold War. 

[00:00:28] Chess is often called the ultimate game of strategy, a game where two players have exactly the same pieces, and they need to use all of their mental abilities to outsmart the other.

[00:00:40] And although chess may be a game, during the Cold War it was used as a way to play out a very real world conflict, the conflict between East and West.

[00:00:53] So, in this episode we will tell this amazing story, of how the chess board became the battleground for the Cold War, and how one country, the USSR came to dominate the international game in a way that no other country has done, either before or since. 

[00:01:12] OK then, Chess and The Cold War.

[00:01:16] Before we go back in time, let’s take a moment and stay in the present day, or at least in the 21st century. 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

[00:01:28] There are few areas of life that the conflict has not touched. 

[00:01:33] Energy sanctions, rising food prices, the fastest growing refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and thousands of civilians dead: these are just some of the consequences of Europe’s first military conflict between states since the Second World War. 

[00:01:51] You might be surprised to learn that, on a far less significant level of course, even the international chess scene has been affected. 

[00:02:01] Almost as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, the world of professional chess became a flashpoint in the war. 

[00:02:11] Within a week of the invasion, the International Chess Federation had pulled, it had cancelled, major tournaments from Russia and Belarus. 

[00:02:22] For Russia too, chess quickly became a factor in its propaganda calculations. 

[00:02:29] In April of 2022, the Russian state media regulator blocked the online chess website chess.com for publishing interviews with Ukrainian players about the invasion. 

[00:02:43] Russia also faced pushback from its own chess champions – the pride and joy of a nation that won all but one World Chess Championship between 1948 and 1990. 

[00:02:55] Many grandmasters left the country in protest. 

[00:02:59] A grandmaster, by the way, is a prestigious title awarded by the International Chess Federation, and it’s second only to the World Champion title. 

[00:03:09] So, some grandmasters left, other grandmasters who were abroad at the time chose not to return to Russia. 

[00:03:17] Some who remained wrote an open letter to Putin criticising the government’s actions. 

[00:03:24] Yet this isn’t the first, nor the most dramatic, time that the game entered the geopolitical stage. 

[00:03:32] In the six decades after the end of World War Two, chess was caught up in the global stand-off between the communist USSR and the capitalist United States, otherwise known as the Cold War. 

[00:03:47] Back then, the game’s international profile grew like never before. 

[00:03:53] Chess’ global popularity during this time owed to the fact that it became an arena of ideological and cultural competition between the two dominant powers. 

[00:04:04] Because of the game’s importance in showcasing national brilliance, many players became celebrities and heroes both in their own nations and abroad. 

[00:04:16] One of them was the Soviet player, Anatoly Karpov, who was born in 1951. 

[00:04:23] Being born right at the start of this global conflict, you could say Karpov was a Cold War baby. 

[00:04:30] He would go on to become a Cold War star. 

[00:04:34] He came from a poor family but by the age of 15 he had become the world’s youngest international chess master. 

[00:04:43] Now, he is regarded as one of the best chess players in history.

[00:04:49] Although he clearly had a brilliant mind, Karpov also enjoyed the full support of the Soviet state throughout his career. 

[00:04:58] From the 1970s onwards, he actively collaborated with the KGB, the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union. 

[00:05:07] And in return, the regime showered him, they covered him with privileges

[00:05:13] So how did a humble board game become so important that its players were seen as valuable intelligence assets in a global conflict? 

[00:05:24] To answer this question, it’s important to remind ourselves of what was actually happening during the Cold War, and why the 64 black and white squares of a board game became one of the places where the war was fought.

[00:05:40] In 1947, just two years after the end of history’s deadliest war, the world was plunged into a new and altogether stranger conflict. 

[00:05:52] Capitalist America and the communist USSR emerged as the sole unchallenged superpowers at the end of World War II. 

[00:06:01] For the next four decades, these irreconcilable economic and political systems would fight for supremacy in the postwar world. 

[00:06:11] With military and economic resources that dwarfed their nearest rivals, they quickly carved the world up between themselves. 

[00:06:20] On the one side, America led the Western bloc of capitalist countries that stretched across Western Europe and much of the Middle East. On the other stood the USSR, which drew Eastern Europe, Cuba, and parts of Latin America into its orbit

[00:06:37] International affairs suddenly became a black and white game. 

[00:06:42] Smaller world players faced a stark choice: ally with either the capitalists or the communists, or else leave themselves exposed to the political ambitions of both. 

[00:06:55] The two superpowers stockpiled ever-more advanced weapons at a manic intensity. 

[00:07:03] However, as we know, fortunately they never engaged directly in battle. 

[00:07:09] Because the slightest provocation risked a nuclear war to end all wars, mutually assured destruction as it was called, tensions held out without an end in sight. 

[00:07:21] Across the ideological divide, the superpowers watched each other’s every move with hawk-eyed intent, each watched the other very closely. 

[00:07:31] This was a war of nerves where tensions bubbled away beneath the surface. 

[00:07:37] Because they could not be resolved in the heat of battle, they resurfaced in the most unlikely of arenas. 

[00:07:44] Chess was one of them. 

[00:07:46] In this rule bound world, the most rule-governed of games reigned supreme. 

[00:07:53] Now, you may know that chess has long been associated with statesmanship

[00:07:59] Just like diplomats and kings and queens are constrained by the rules of the international system, the pieces on the board are governed by a simple set of allowable moves.

[00:08:12] The history of the game of chess reveals this relationship well. 

[00:08:16] The earliest written account of the game comes in the Persian Chatrang-namak, which explains that it was introduced to Persia by 'Dewasarm, a great ruler of India' in the 6th century. 

[00:08:29] In the 17th century, King Charles I of England, a king who would go on to lose his head after a rebellion, He owned a chessboard inscribed with a Latin phrase: “With these, subject and ruler strive without bloodshed’.

[00:08:46] Fast forward to 1947 and chess had transformed from a symbol of governance to an actual blueprint for foreign policy. 

[00:08:57] In this year, the US diplomat George Kennan gave a lecture at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. 

[00:09:04] Here, he formulated a grand vision for America’s international strategy based on the game of chess. 

[00:09:13] To achieve security in this newly divided world, Kennan said that America had to “marshal all the forces’ at their disposal on the world chessboard…in such a way that the Russian sees it is…in his interests to do what you want him to do”. 

[00:09:32] Kennan would become famous for being the mastermind behind what's called ‘containment strategy’. This was a foreign policy approach that really shaped international relations during the 1950s and 1960s. It proposed maintaining two fixed spheres of influence. 

[00:09:51] One would be presided over, controlled by America, the other by the Soviets. 

[00:09:58] Crucially, neither side could encroach on, could go into, the others’ sphere. 

[00:10:04] Neither could they resort to violence. 

[00:10:07] Instead, opponents would have to be cornered into, forced to make, weaker moves by canny, strategic decisions and movements. 

[00:10:15] And, just like in chess, tactical sacrifices would be needed to win the wider war. 

[00:10:23] Chess only grew in significance as the conflict developed. 

[00:10:27] As nuclear weapons made direct military engagement a suicidal prospect, culture replaced armed combat as a way of attracting prestige and allies. 

[00:10:38] The game was not just a strategic metaphor anymore. It also became a way for communists and capitalists alike to prove their cultural superiority on the world stage, and thereby appeal no only to their own people but also to attract countries that had to date not chosen a side. 

[00:10:59] Karpov would express this well in his autobiography called ‘Chess is My Life’, which he published in 1980. 

[00:11:08] In it, he sneered at, he laughed at, a 1972 international tournament in Texas that was sponsored by a businessman who had made his money through selling fried chicken. 

[00:11:21] To him, the so-called ‘Fried Chicken Tournament’ symbolised the vulgar character of capitalist society where individual wealth and cheap gratification were more important than a collective effort to pursue greatness. 

[00:11:37] So, although international sports like football and ice hockey were also ways of projecting national superiority during the Cold War, nothing compared to chess for showcasing moral and intellectual strength. And in this field, by the start of the Cold War, the Soviets already had a strong edge, a strong advantage, over the Americans. 

[00:12:01] This was because chess was already popular in 19th century Tsarist Russia, but it was after the communist revolution of 1917 that the game really exploded. 

[00:12:12] Chess-playing institutions became developed and supported by the state. 

[00:12:17] Josef Stalin, the communist leader who came to power in 1922, was an enthusiastic supporter of these chess initiatives

[00:12:27] To Stalin, skill in chess could prove the intellectual acumen, the brainpower, of the Soviet people, and particularly their talents for problem solving – the sort of cognitive skills that he thought would help his country overtake the West in its economic and technological development. 

[00:12:46] One of the earliest people who lobbied the Communist regime to back chess, to support chess, was a man called Nikolai Krylenko, a 1917 revolutionary who became a high-ranking Soviet politician. 

[00:13:01] He sold the game to the party as an ideologically useful form of relaxation. 

[00:13:07] It would encourage logic and reason among the masses, he said. This would discourage them from the religious ideas that were so hated by the communists. 

[00:13:17] His appeals were successful. 

[00:13:20] The government set up the All-Union Chess Section, a state body that organised mass chess events in workers clubs and factories. 

[00:13:29] The grandest of these was the All-Union Workers competition, which attracted tens of thousands of players from all across Soviet society. It began in 1924 and happened every year for the next five decades.

[00:13:45] 1925, however, was the real turning point for the game in the USSR. The government awarded a prize of 30,000 rubles for the world’s first state-sponsored chess tournament, which was held in Moscow. 

[00:13:59] The new tournament attracted the best Russian players and fuelled the game’s meteoric rise. 

[00:14:06] “Chess fever” broke out and the 1920s became a period where many later grandmasters first became hooked on the game.

[00:14:15] What is perhaps striking looking back on the Moscow tournament today is how open it was. 

[00:14:22] Back then, international champions were invited to compete. 

[00:14:27] This all changed after World War II when relations between the West and East grew more and more strained, more difficult. By the 1950s, the containment theory of international relations was in full force. 

[00:14:43] The border between the communist east and the capitalist west became fixed. 

[00:14:49] Suspicion reigned on both sides, and there was little opportunity for Soviet chess players to compete against their Western counterparts

[00:14:57] Then, in the 1960s, both sides began to push for a more aggressive foreign policy. 

[00:15:05] Containment was out and a new strategy, known as rollback, was in. 

[00:15:11] The USSR and America began actively trying to bring more countries in their orbit of influence, often by arming groups in small foreign nations to fight proxy wars on their behalf. 

[00:15:24] Under these new conditions, chess became charged with political significance for the Soviet Regime

[00:15:31] And in the early 1960s, just when passive containment was abandoned in favour of active rollback, a new young contender emerged as Russia’s next top chess player. 

[00:15:44] Yes, you’ve already heard his name. It was our Cold War baby, Anatoly Karpov. 

[00:15:51] After showing early promise, his rise as a chess player and public figure was carefully cultivated by the state intelligence services, the KGB.

[00:16:01] The KGB’s influence ran right across Soviet society, and the chess scene was no exception

[00:16:09] From the 1950s onwards, the KGB accompanied every major chess player to international tournaments. 

[00:16:16] The US similarly saw chess tournaments as potential battlegrounds.

[00:16:22] Because foreign chess tournaments were one of the rare moments that people from the capitalist and communist blocs would meet and mix relatively freely, it was a prime opportunity for both sides to recruit spies. 

[00:16:38] The KGB nurtured communist loyalists within the chess world in several ways. 

[00:16:44] They gave a comfortable state stipend, a state salary, for top players. 

[00:16:50] For the best, they went even further. 

[00:16:53] Boris Spassky, one of the greats of chess history and a world champion in the 1970s, was given access to luxurious resorts all around the USSR. 

[00:17:04] Yet Spassky had the sort of temperament that made the regime wary, that made it nervous. He was critical, outspoken, and temperamental – signs that he could never be completely trusted, and as we’ll find out shortly, the Soviet authorities had reason to be wary

[00:17:25] Another player who was a thorn in the side of the regime was Viktor Korchnoi. 

[00:17:32] Like Spassky, Korchnoi was brilliant but non-conformist in character. As a result, he was closely watched for any sign that he may defect to the West. 

[00:17:44] Anatoly Karpov, however, was a different story. 

[00:17:47] First, he was a chess prodigy

[00:17:51] In 1969 aged only 18, he was named as an international master - a rank just below world champion that is awarded for life by the International Chess Federation. 

[00:18:03] Second, he was the perfect party representative. Karpov respected the regime hierarchy and was a true believer in the USSR’s project. 

[00:18:14] Unlike the unpredictable Spassky or Korchnoi, Karpov’s deferential character marked him out as a reliable regime asset, as someone who could be trusted. 

[00:18:26] Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s, when he was perhaps still a teenager, Karpov was recruited as a KGB agent under the code name Raul. 

[00:18:38] From then on, Karpov would be accompanied by KGB agents to all the tournaments he attended outside the USSR. 

[00:18:46] His relationship with the KGB culminated in 1978, before the World Chess Championship in Manilla, in the Philippines. 

[00:18:55] The previous year, Karpov had won the world title for the first time. 

[00:19:00] In Manilla, he would have to defend it. 

[00:19:04] In the lead up to this crucial tournament, the KGB and the party had decided that the 26-year-old star would receive all their help to retain his title. 

[00:19:15] This was because his challenger would be the troublesome individualist, Korchnoi. 

[00:19:21] Two years earlier, both Korchnoi and Spassky had done what the KGB had always feared: they had betrayed their country. 

[00:19:31] In 1976, Spassky had set a wedding date to marry a lady called Marina, a French embassy employee in Moscow. 

[00:19:41] Ever since the Soviet authorities had heard of their romance, they had been trying to break the couple apart. The KGB went to hideous lengths to achieve this. In the lead up to Spassky’s departure, they broke into Marina’s apartment in order to infect her underwear with venereal disease

[00:20:01] The attempt was thankfully unsuccessful. 

[00:20:06] The final straw came when the Soviet government forced Marina to leave the country before their wedding day. 

[00:20:13] Spassky immediately joined her to live in Paris because he believed that she would never be allowed to return. 

[00:20:20] In spite of the fact that Spassky was allowed to keep his Soviet citizenship, this was a real blow for the Communist party. 

[00:20:28] Worse was to come. 

[00:20:31] 1976 was also the year when Korchnoi fled. 

[00:20:35] The final push for him came after his loss to regime favourite Karpov in a 1974 Moscow chess tournament. The press had been criticising him harshly and his state salary had been reduced. 

[00:20:51] Ever since 1974, Korchnoi had been looking for any opportunity to defect. This came when he played at a chess tournament in Amsterdam in 1976. After the match, he simply didn’t turn up to the airport for his return flight. Instead, he went to the nearest police station to ask for political asylum.

[00:21:14] By 1978, before the Manilla world tournament, he was a stateless resident in Switzerland. 

[00:21:21] This was why it was paramount, it was extremely important, for the USSR that their party loyalist Karpov should stay on top at the 1978 world championship. 

[00:21:34] For him to be beaten by a stateless defector and critic of the regime would be a huge propaganda blow for the country.

[00:21:43] Orders to support a Karpov victory at all costs originated from the leader of the USSR himself, Leonid Brezhnev, filtering down to the head of the KGB, and then to the head of KGB’s shadowy agency, the ‘Fifth Directorate’. 

[00:22:00] To boost his chances, Karpov was sent to Manilla with an entourage of 12 KGB personnel.

[00:22:07] Back in the USSR, the KGB had already imprisoned Korchnoi’s son on spurious charges to put off his father before the match.

[00:22:18] The British grandmaster Michael Stean would later say that the 1978 Manilla tournament was the ‘most bewildering and dirty’ championship match in the history of chess. 

[00:22:31] Both sides resorted to outlandish measures, ridiculous and unbelievable lengths, to give their players an advantage. 

[00:22:40] The second game already gave indications that this would be no ordinary match. 

[00:22:46] When Karpov was given a pot of yoghurt by his handlers, the Korchnoi team was up in arms, saying that the pot was a coded instruction to Karpov, a secret message, about game strategy. 

[00:23:00] In perhaps the strangest tactic ever used in the game, the KGB used a parapsychologist named Zoukhar to destabilise Korchnoi mentally. 

[00:23:12] Korchnoi claimed that this famous Soviet hypnotist was there to hypnotise him from the audience stand by staring intently at him. 

[00:23:22] By the eighth game, the jury, the people controlling the game, decided to move Zoukhar to a row further back to prevent him from disrupting the player’s concentration.

[00:23:35] By the nineteenth game, Korchnoi’s team brought out its own group of parapsychologists, in addition to two cult leaders from a sect called Ananda Marga, who came dressed in saffron robes, bright red cloaks

[00:23:51] These cult leaders sat down near the game in a lotus position.

[00:23:57] The Soviet delegation, who referred to the cult leaders as ‘terrorists’, said that they must not be allowed any contact with Karpov’s own team. 

[00:24:08] Throughout the tournament, these cult leaders would train Korchnoi in mental techniques. One exercise they got him to do was to pierce an orange that symbolised his opponent Karpov’s head. 

[00:24:21] It has also been claimed that, had it looked like Korchnoi was going to win, the KGB agents would have found a way to stop the game and poison Korchnoi's food, so that he would be killed instead of beating the Soviet champion.

[00:24:37] After 32 gruelling games, including 21 draws, Karpov finally won the match and held onto his world title. 

[00:24:47] Upon his return to Russia, he was congratulated by Brezhnev and awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. 

[00:24:55] Soviet Russia had won, but only just.

[00:25:00] In 1981, Karpov won once more time against his dissident rival Korchnoi, but his supremacy wasn't last. 

[00:25:08] Soon, he would face a much more formidable challenger in the form of Garry Kasparov. 

[00:25:15] When Karpov first played Kasparov in 1975, he beat the young contender easily. 

[00:25:22] But in 1984, when they met again to compete for the world title, the balance of power had shifted. 

[00:25:30] After losing the first nine games, Kasparov recovered in spectacular style. He won for the very first time against Karpov, the former world champion and darling of the Soviet State. 

[00:25:44] Like Korchnoi before him, the rebellious Kasparov was never fully trusted by the regime

[00:25:51] Even as a teenager, Kasparov was very critical of Communism. Yet despite efforts by the party to hinder his career, to stop his career, Kasparov would become perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. 

[00:26:07] Once the Communist regime fell in 1989, he left the party and in 2013, he left Russia altogether to escape political persecution. Since then, he has been a vocal champion of Western liberal democracy. 

[00:26:22] And today, he is one of the most famous and outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin.

[00:26:29] On the surface, chess provided huge propaganda victories for the Soviets. The country won all but one World Championships from 1948 to 1990. 

[00:26:40] However, this could not disguise the fact that the regime had created a society hostile to creatives and intellectuals. 

[00:26:49] Many of the chess players who left did so because they felt managed by their government in a way that suffocated their talents. 

[00:26:57] And what about the politics of chess in the present day? 

[00:27:02] Since 2017, many foreign policy experts have argued that a new Cold War is beginning. 

[00:27:10] This time, the Eastern powerhouses of China and Russia are challenging the Western might of America and Europe. 

[00:27:18] And chess is still a powerful metaphor for conflict, a point of comparison used by commentators and chess players alike.

[00:27:27] In an eerily familiar echo of Cold War thinking, the anti-Putin chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov tweeted in April of 2022: “Putin’s war on Ukraine is not chess, it’s true. But it is black and white, good vs evil.”

[00:27:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Chess and the Cold War.

[00:27:52] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:27:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:28:00] Are you a chess player?

[00:28:01] What do you think causes this game, above almost every other, to be used as a metaphor for military conflict?

[00:28:09] For the Russian listeners out there, how are these chess players remembered in your country?

[00:28:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:28:19] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Chess and the Cold War. 

[00:00:28] Chess is often called the ultimate game of strategy, a game where two players have exactly the same pieces, and they need to use all of their mental abilities to outsmart the other.

[00:00:40] And although chess may be a game, during the Cold War it was used as a way to play out a very real world conflict, the conflict between East and West.

[00:00:53] So, in this episode we will tell this amazing story, of how the chess board became the battleground for the Cold War, and how one country, the USSR came to dominate the international game in a way that no other country has done, either before or since. 

[00:01:12] OK then, Chess and The Cold War.

[00:01:16] Before we go back in time, let’s take a moment and stay in the present day, or at least in the 21st century. 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

[00:01:28] There are few areas of life that the conflict has not touched. 

[00:01:33] Energy sanctions, rising food prices, the fastest growing refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and thousands of civilians dead: these are just some of the consequences of Europe’s first military conflict between states since the Second World War. 

[00:01:51] You might be surprised to learn that, on a far less significant level of course, even the international chess scene has been affected. 

[00:02:01] Almost as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, the world of professional chess became a flashpoint in the war. 

[00:02:11] Within a week of the invasion, the International Chess Federation had pulled, it had cancelled, major tournaments from Russia and Belarus. 

[00:02:22] For Russia too, chess quickly became a factor in its propaganda calculations. 

[00:02:29] In April of 2022, the Russian state media regulator blocked the online chess website chess.com for publishing interviews with Ukrainian players about the invasion. 

[00:02:43] Russia also faced pushback from its own chess champions – the pride and joy of a nation that won all but one World Chess Championship between 1948 and 1990. 

[00:02:55] Many grandmasters left the country in protest. 

[00:02:59] A grandmaster, by the way, is a prestigious title awarded by the International Chess Federation, and it’s second only to the World Champion title. 

[00:03:09] So, some grandmasters left, other grandmasters who were abroad at the time chose not to return to Russia. 

[00:03:17] Some who remained wrote an open letter to Putin criticising the government’s actions. 

[00:03:24] Yet this isn’t the first, nor the most dramatic, time that the game entered the geopolitical stage. 

[00:03:32] In the six decades after the end of World War Two, chess was caught up in the global stand-off between the communist USSR and the capitalist United States, otherwise known as the Cold War. 

[00:03:47] Back then, the game’s international profile grew like never before. 

[00:03:53] Chess’ global popularity during this time owed to the fact that it became an arena of ideological and cultural competition between the two dominant powers. 

[00:04:04] Because of the game’s importance in showcasing national brilliance, many players became celebrities and heroes both in their own nations and abroad. 

[00:04:16] One of them was the Soviet player, Anatoly Karpov, who was born in 1951. 

[00:04:23] Being born right at the start of this global conflict, you could say Karpov was a Cold War baby. 

[00:04:30] He would go on to become a Cold War star. 

[00:04:34] He came from a poor family but by the age of 15 he had become the world’s youngest international chess master. 

[00:04:43] Now, he is regarded as one of the best chess players in history.

[00:04:49] Although he clearly had a brilliant mind, Karpov also enjoyed the full support of the Soviet state throughout his career. 

[00:04:58] From the 1970s onwards, he actively collaborated with the KGB, the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union. 

[00:05:07] And in return, the regime showered him, they covered him with privileges

[00:05:13] So how did a humble board game become so important that its players were seen as valuable intelligence assets in a global conflict? 

[00:05:24] To answer this question, it’s important to remind ourselves of what was actually happening during the Cold War, and why the 64 black and white squares of a board game became one of the places where the war was fought.

[00:05:40] In 1947, just two years after the end of history’s deadliest war, the world was plunged into a new and altogether stranger conflict. 

[00:05:52] Capitalist America and the communist USSR emerged as the sole unchallenged superpowers at the end of World War II. 

[00:06:01] For the next four decades, these irreconcilable economic and political systems would fight for supremacy in the postwar world. 

[00:06:11] With military and economic resources that dwarfed their nearest rivals, they quickly carved the world up between themselves. 

[00:06:20] On the one side, America led the Western bloc of capitalist countries that stretched across Western Europe and much of the Middle East. On the other stood the USSR, which drew Eastern Europe, Cuba, and parts of Latin America into its orbit

[00:06:37] International affairs suddenly became a black and white game. 

[00:06:42] Smaller world players faced a stark choice: ally with either the capitalists or the communists, or else leave themselves exposed to the political ambitions of both. 

[00:06:55] The two superpowers stockpiled ever-more advanced weapons at a manic intensity. 

[00:07:03] However, as we know, fortunately they never engaged directly in battle. 

[00:07:09] Because the slightest provocation risked a nuclear war to end all wars, mutually assured destruction as it was called, tensions held out without an end in sight. 

[00:07:21] Across the ideological divide, the superpowers watched each other’s every move with hawk-eyed intent, each watched the other very closely. 

[00:07:31] This was a war of nerves where tensions bubbled away beneath the surface. 

[00:07:37] Because they could not be resolved in the heat of battle, they resurfaced in the most unlikely of arenas. 

[00:07:44] Chess was one of them. 

[00:07:46] In this rule bound world, the most rule-governed of games reigned supreme. 

[00:07:53] Now, you may know that chess has long been associated with statesmanship

[00:07:59] Just like diplomats and kings and queens are constrained by the rules of the international system, the pieces on the board are governed by a simple set of allowable moves.

[00:08:12] The history of the game of chess reveals this relationship well. 

[00:08:16] The earliest written account of the game comes in the Persian Chatrang-namak, which explains that it was introduced to Persia by 'Dewasarm, a great ruler of India' in the 6th century. 

[00:08:29] In the 17th century, King Charles I of England, a king who would go on to lose his head after a rebellion, He owned a chessboard inscribed with a Latin phrase: “With these, subject and ruler strive without bloodshed’.

[00:08:46] Fast forward to 1947 and chess had transformed from a symbol of governance to an actual blueprint for foreign policy. 

[00:08:57] In this year, the US diplomat George Kennan gave a lecture at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. 

[00:09:04] Here, he formulated a grand vision for America’s international strategy based on the game of chess. 

[00:09:13] To achieve security in this newly divided world, Kennan said that America had to “marshal all the forces’ at their disposal on the world chessboard…in such a way that the Russian sees it is…in his interests to do what you want him to do”. 

[00:09:32] Kennan would become famous for being the mastermind behind what's called ‘containment strategy’. This was a foreign policy approach that really shaped international relations during the 1950s and 1960s. It proposed maintaining two fixed spheres of influence. 

[00:09:51] One would be presided over, controlled by America, the other by the Soviets. 

[00:09:58] Crucially, neither side could encroach on, could go into, the others’ sphere. 

[00:10:04] Neither could they resort to violence. 

[00:10:07] Instead, opponents would have to be cornered into, forced to make, weaker moves by canny, strategic decisions and movements. 

[00:10:15] And, just like in chess, tactical sacrifices would be needed to win the wider war. 

[00:10:23] Chess only grew in significance as the conflict developed. 

[00:10:27] As nuclear weapons made direct military engagement a suicidal prospect, culture replaced armed combat as a way of attracting prestige and allies. 

[00:10:38] The game was not just a strategic metaphor anymore. It also became a way for communists and capitalists alike to prove their cultural superiority on the world stage, and thereby appeal no only to their own people but also to attract countries that had to date not chosen a side. 

[00:10:59] Karpov would express this well in his autobiography called ‘Chess is My Life’, which he published in 1980. 

[00:11:08] In it, he sneered at, he laughed at, a 1972 international tournament in Texas that was sponsored by a businessman who had made his money through selling fried chicken. 

[00:11:21] To him, the so-called ‘Fried Chicken Tournament’ symbolised the vulgar character of capitalist society where individual wealth and cheap gratification were more important than a collective effort to pursue greatness. 

[00:11:37] So, although international sports like football and ice hockey were also ways of projecting national superiority during the Cold War, nothing compared to chess for showcasing moral and intellectual strength. And in this field, by the start of the Cold War, the Soviets already had a strong edge, a strong advantage, over the Americans. 

[00:12:01] This was because chess was already popular in 19th century Tsarist Russia, but it was after the communist revolution of 1917 that the game really exploded. 

[00:12:12] Chess-playing institutions became developed and supported by the state. 

[00:12:17] Josef Stalin, the communist leader who came to power in 1922, was an enthusiastic supporter of these chess initiatives

[00:12:27] To Stalin, skill in chess could prove the intellectual acumen, the brainpower, of the Soviet people, and particularly their talents for problem solving – the sort of cognitive skills that he thought would help his country overtake the West in its economic and technological development. 

[00:12:46] One of the earliest people who lobbied the Communist regime to back chess, to support chess, was a man called Nikolai Krylenko, a 1917 revolutionary who became a high-ranking Soviet politician. 

[00:13:01] He sold the game to the party as an ideologically useful form of relaxation. 

[00:13:07] It would encourage logic and reason among the masses, he said. This would discourage them from the religious ideas that were so hated by the communists. 

[00:13:17] His appeals were successful. 

[00:13:20] The government set up the All-Union Chess Section, a state body that organised mass chess events in workers clubs and factories. 

[00:13:29] The grandest of these was the All-Union Workers competition, which attracted tens of thousands of players from all across Soviet society. It began in 1924 and happened every year for the next five decades.

[00:13:45] 1925, however, was the real turning point for the game in the USSR. The government awarded a prize of 30,000 rubles for the world’s first state-sponsored chess tournament, which was held in Moscow. 

[00:13:59] The new tournament attracted the best Russian players and fuelled the game’s meteoric rise. 

[00:14:06] “Chess fever” broke out and the 1920s became a period where many later grandmasters first became hooked on the game.

[00:14:15] What is perhaps striking looking back on the Moscow tournament today is how open it was. 

[00:14:22] Back then, international champions were invited to compete. 

[00:14:27] This all changed after World War II when relations between the West and East grew more and more strained, more difficult. By the 1950s, the containment theory of international relations was in full force. 

[00:14:43] The border between the communist east and the capitalist west became fixed. 

[00:14:49] Suspicion reigned on both sides, and there was little opportunity for Soviet chess players to compete against their Western counterparts

[00:14:57] Then, in the 1960s, both sides began to push for a more aggressive foreign policy. 

[00:15:05] Containment was out and a new strategy, known as rollback, was in. 

[00:15:11] The USSR and America began actively trying to bring more countries in their orbit of influence, often by arming groups in small foreign nations to fight proxy wars on their behalf. 

[00:15:24] Under these new conditions, chess became charged with political significance for the Soviet Regime

[00:15:31] And in the early 1960s, just when passive containment was abandoned in favour of active rollback, a new young contender emerged as Russia’s next top chess player. 

[00:15:44] Yes, you’ve already heard his name. It was our Cold War baby, Anatoly Karpov. 

[00:15:51] After showing early promise, his rise as a chess player and public figure was carefully cultivated by the state intelligence services, the KGB.

[00:16:01] The KGB’s influence ran right across Soviet society, and the chess scene was no exception

[00:16:09] From the 1950s onwards, the KGB accompanied every major chess player to international tournaments. 

[00:16:16] The US similarly saw chess tournaments as potential battlegrounds.

[00:16:22] Because foreign chess tournaments were one of the rare moments that people from the capitalist and communist blocs would meet and mix relatively freely, it was a prime opportunity for both sides to recruit spies. 

[00:16:38] The KGB nurtured communist loyalists within the chess world in several ways. 

[00:16:44] They gave a comfortable state stipend, a state salary, for top players. 

[00:16:50] For the best, they went even further. 

[00:16:53] Boris Spassky, one of the greats of chess history and a world champion in the 1970s, was given access to luxurious resorts all around the USSR. 

[00:17:04] Yet Spassky had the sort of temperament that made the regime wary, that made it nervous. He was critical, outspoken, and temperamental – signs that he could never be completely trusted, and as we’ll find out shortly, the Soviet authorities had reason to be wary

[00:17:25] Another player who was a thorn in the side of the regime was Viktor Korchnoi. 

[00:17:32] Like Spassky, Korchnoi was brilliant but non-conformist in character. As a result, he was closely watched for any sign that he may defect to the West. 

[00:17:44] Anatoly Karpov, however, was a different story. 

[00:17:47] First, he was a chess prodigy

[00:17:51] In 1969 aged only 18, he was named as an international master - a rank just below world champion that is awarded for life by the International Chess Federation. 

[00:18:03] Second, he was the perfect party representative. Karpov respected the regime hierarchy and was a true believer in the USSR’s project. 

[00:18:14] Unlike the unpredictable Spassky or Korchnoi, Karpov’s deferential character marked him out as a reliable regime asset, as someone who could be trusted. 

[00:18:26] Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s, when he was perhaps still a teenager, Karpov was recruited as a KGB agent under the code name Raul. 

[00:18:38] From then on, Karpov would be accompanied by KGB agents to all the tournaments he attended outside the USSR. 

[00:18:46] His relationship with the KGB culminated in 1978, before the World Chess Championship in Manilla, in the Philippines. 

[00:18:55] The previous year, Karpov had won the world title for the first time. 

[00:19:00] In Manilla, he would have to defend it. 

[00:19:04] In the lead up to this crucial tournament, the KGB and the party had decided that the 26-year-old star would receive all their help to retain his title. 

[00:19:15] This was because his challenger would be the troublesome individualist, Korchnoi. 

[00:19:21] Two years earlier, both Korchnoi and Spassky had done what the KGB had always feared: they had betrayed their country. 

[00:19:31] In 1976, Spassky had set a wedding date to marry a lady called Marina, a French embassy employee in Moscow. 

[00:19:41] Ever since the Soviet authorities had heard of their romance, they had been trying to break the couple apart. The KGB went to hideous lengths to achieve this. In the lead up to Spassky’s departure, they broke into Marina’s apartment in order to infect her underwear with venereal disease

[00:20:01] The attempt was thankfully unsuccessful. 

[00:20:06] The final straw came when the Soviet government forced Marina to leave the country before their wedding day. 

[00:20:13] Spassky immediately joined her to live in Paris because he believed that she would never be allowed to return. 

[00:20:20] In spite of the fact that Spassky was allowed to keep his Soviet citizenship, this was a real blow for the Communist party. 

[00:20:28] Worse was to come. 

[00:20:31] 1976 was also the year when Korchnoi fled. 

[00:20:35] The final push for him came after his loss to regime favourite Karpov in a 1974 Moscow chess tournament. The press had been criticising him harshly and his state salary had been reduced. 

[00:20:51] Ever since 1974, Korchnoi had been looking for any opportunity to defect. This came when he played at a chess tournament in Amsterdam in 1976. After the match, he simply didn’t turn up to the airport for his return flight. Instead, he went to the nearest police station to ask for political asylum.

[00:21:14] By 1978, before the Manilla world tournament, he was a stateless resident in Switzerland. 

[00:21:21] This was why it was paramount, it was extremely important, for the USSR that their party loyalist Karpov should stay on top at the 1978 world championship. 

[00:21:34] For him to be beaten by a stateless defector and critic of the regime would be a huge propaganda blow for the country.

[00:21:43] Orders to support a Karpov victory at all costs originated from the leader of the USSR himself, Leonid Brezhnev, filtering down to the head of the KGB, and then to the head of KGB’s shadowy agency, the ‘Fifth Directorate’. 

[00:22:00] To boost his chances, Karpov was sent to Manilla with an entourage of 12 KGB personnel.

[00:22:07] Back in the USSR, the KGB had already imprisoned Korchnoi’s son on spurious charges to put off his father before the match.

[00:22:18] The British grandmaster Michael Stean would later say that the 1978 Manilla tournament was the ‘most bewildering and dirty’ championship match in the history of chess. 

[00:22:31] Both sides resorted to outlandish measures, ridiculous and unbelievable lengths, to give their players an advantage. 

[00:22:40] The second game already gave indications that this would be no ordinary match. 

[00:22:46] When Karpov was given a pot of yoghurt by his handlers, the Korchnoi team was up in arms, saying that the pot was a coded instruction to Karpov, a secret message, about game strategy. 

[00:23:00] In perhaps the strangest tactic ever used in the game, the KGB used a parapsychologist named Zoukhar to destabilise Korchnoi mentally. 

[00:23:12] Korchnoi claimed that this famous Soviet hypnotist was there to hypnotise him from the audience stand by staring intently at him. 

[00:23:22] By the eighth game, the jury, the people controlling the game, decided to move Zoukhar to a row further back to prevent him from disrupting the player’s concentration.

[00:23:35] By the nineteenth game, Korchnoi’s team brought out its own group of parapsychologists, in addition to two cult leaders from a sect called Ananda Marga, who came dressed in saffron robes, bright red cloaks

[00:23:51] These cult leaders sat down near the game in a lotus position.

[00:23:57] The Soviet delegation, who referred to the cult leaders as ‘terrorists’, said that they must not be allowed any contact with Karpov’s own team. 

[00:24:08] Throughout the tournament, these cult leaders would train Korchnoi in mental techniques. One exercise they got him to do was to pierce an orange that symbolised his opponent Karpov’s head. 

[00:24:21] It has also been claimed that, had it looked like Korchnoi was going to win, the KGB agents would have found a way to stop the game and poison Korchnoi's food, so that he would be killed instead of beating the Soviet champion.

[00:24:37] After 32 gruelling games, including 21 draws, Karpov finally won the match and held onto his world title. 

[00:24:47] Upon his return to Russia, he was congratulated by Brezhnev and awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. 

[00:24:55] Soviet Russia had won, but only just.

[00:25:00] In 1981, Karpov won once more time against his dissident rival Korchnoi, but his supremacy wasn't last. 

[00:25:08] Soon, he would face a much more formidable challenger in the form of Garry Kasparov. 

[00:25:15] When Karpov first played Kasparov in 1975, he beat the young contender easily. 

[00:25:22] But in 1984, when they met again to compete for the world title, the balance of power had shifted. 

[00:25:30] After losing the first nine games, Kasparov recovered in spectacular style. He won for the very first time against Karpov, the former world champion and darling of the Soviet State. 

[00:25:44] Like Korchnoi before him, the rebellious Kasparov was never fully trusted by the regime

[00:25:51] Even as a teenager, Kasparov was very critical of Communism. Yet despite efforts by the party to hinder his career, to stop his career, Kasparov would become perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. 

[00:26:07] Once the Communist regime fell in 1989, he left the party and in 2013, he left Russia altogether to escape political persecution. Since then, he has been a vocal champion of Western liberal democracy. 

[00:26:22] And today, he is one of the most famous and outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin.

[00:26:29] On the surface, chess provided huge propaganda victories for the Soviets. The country won all but one World Championships from 1948 to 1990. 

[00:26:40] However, this could not disguise the fact that the regime had created a society hostile to creatives and intellectuals. 

[00:26:49] Many of the chess players who left did so because they felt managed by their government in a way that suffocated their talents. 

[00:26:57] And what about the politics of chess in the present day? 

[00:27:02] Since 2017, many foreign policy experts have argued that a new Cold War is beginning. 

[00:27:10] This time, the Eastern powerhouses of China and Russia are challenging the Western might of America and Europe. 

[00:27:18] And chess is still a powerful metaphor for conflict, a point of comparison used by commentators and chess players alike.

[00:27:27] In an eerily familiar echo of Cold War thinking, the anti-Putin chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov tweeted in April of 2022: “Putin’s war on Ukraine is not chess, it’s true. But it is black and white, good vs evil.”

[00:27:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Chess and the Cold War.

[00:27:52] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:27:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:28:00] Are you a chess player?

[00:28:01] What do you think causes this game, above almost every other, to be used as a metaphor for military conflict?

[00:28:09] For the Russian listeners out there, how are these chess players remembered in your country?

[00:28:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:28:19] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]