Chess Takes World
By Matthew Hennessey
February 21, 2008
When people think of chess, they usually think of Russia. But chess excellence has now gone global: The current World Champion is from India, and the current World Junior Champion is an Egyptian. Since 1991, Russian players and teachers have fanned out in a chess diaspora, gradually affecting how, and where, the game is played.
For all but three years between 1948 and 2000, Russian players laid exclusive claim to the title of World Chess Champion. The lone exception came in 1972 when the American maverick Bobby Fischer, who died last month in Iceland at the age of 64, wrested the title from Russian Boris Spassky. While his victory would become a defining cultural moment of the Cold War, Fischer’s tenure at the top was merely an interlude. He relinquished the title in 1975 to Anatoly Karpov, and Russians held the top spot for the remainder of the century.
That winning streak was no accident. To the Soviets, chess was political.
“The Soviets set out to dominate world chess,” said New York–based chess teacher and historian Christopher Maksymowicz in an interview with Policy Innovations. “It was a decree from Joseph Stalin. It was an expression of the superiority of the Soviet Union over the West, over capitalism.”
Chess training academies were lavishly funded in the Soviet Union, and promising players were groomed from a young age. The resources of the Soviet state were mobilized in support of champions like Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, and Garry Kasparov. “If you were any good as a chess player, you didn’t live like an average Soviet,” said Maksymowicz.
The end of the Cold War had a withering effect on Russia’s state-sponsored chess dominance. During the 1990s, funding for the chess academies dried up; many closed.
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