Sunday Levity: Geopolitical chessboard

Chess was a political metaphor during the Cold War

One week. Two world championships. First Dhoni & Co. Now Vishwanathan Anand. He is now the undisputed world chess champion; via Shencottah, one of the few blogs that have been following the tournament from the start. But you know what Somini Sengupta might write? Well, that “athleticism has never been associated with…Indians in general, and that has been a chip on the shoulder of Indian manhood” (via Falstaff).

Here’s an essay that appeared in Prospect magazine a couple of years ago that traces the rise and fall of 20th century chess linked as it was to the Cold War.

The rise and fall of chess as a political metaphor and an ideological weapon coincided with one of the darkest chapters in the history of mankind. But deprived of the atmosphere of menace that was a by-product of the cold war, chess has dissipated much of the capital it accumulated over the past century.

As a spectator sport, it cannot satisfy a public accustomed to fast, intellectually undemanding entertainment. Artificial constraints on global competition have been abolished, but Fide, the game’s international organisation, is a shambles, controlled and subsidised by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the dictator of a tiny Russian province called Kalmykia. Ilyumzhinov’s only other claim to fame is that he was a close associate of Saddam Hussein and on the last plane out of Baghdad before the coalition invaded. Despite the eccentricity of its governing body, chess is flourishing all over the developing world, especially in the rising powers of India and China. Since the cold war, chess has been privatised, and though it has yet to attract the interest of Russian billionaires, it has been one of the great gainers from the internet revolution.

So much has been owed by so many to chess that it can be seen as a microcosm of our endeavours, our constant companion through the ages. If all that were left of mankind were the game of chess, aliens would know us for what we are: not only Homo sapiens, but also Homo ludens [Prospect]