Sports, Politics, and the Global Chessboard

The quadrennial Olympic competitions always arrive on the same leap years as the American presidential elections, and usually provide some pleasant if nonetheless metaphorical distraction from politics, but in this crazy election year it hasn’t proved sufficient. Even after more than seven years of those awful Obama administrations America is still great enough to be well ahead in the medal count, and there have been the usual plentitude of inspiring tales of individual American effort along the way, but as usual it’s all being re-told according to the same dreary collectivist storylines of race and class and gender and of course how that Muslim-American woman will be competing in the fencing competition in a hijab. By this point, we’re more interested in the upcoming world chess championship.
Most of the rest of the world will pay no attention to the event, and we really can’t blame it, but we have our own idiosyncratic reasons for being enrapt. We first took up chess way back when we were so young we required baby-sitting and our amorous parents hired the local high school champ to watch over us during their occasional and much-needed nights on the town, and he taught us not only the moves but also the tactical and strategic fundamentals of the game in the hope that it would keep us more or less quiet and still until our parents arrived home with an evening’s wages. The ploy had little effect on our more athletic and fidgety older brother, but it led to a years-long and mostly successful rivalry with a more mathematically-talented younger brother and our own life-long fascination with the game. A few years later the ruggedly individualist and undeniably brilliant American champion Bobby Fischer faced off against the collectivist and daunting Soviet Union’s reigning World Champion Boris Spassky in a compelling single combat contest of the ongoing Cold War, and it got more press attention than any of those heroes of a terrorism-stained Olympics or even that classic National Basketball Association finals between The New York Knicks and The Los Angeles Lakers, and when Fischer easily prevailed against Spassky’s brilliance and the commie’s conspiratorial advantages despite his temper-tantrum-induced disqualification in an early game we became lifelong followers of the World Chess Championship.
That Fischer guy could play a game of chess as beautifully as Mozart could write a symphony or Michelangelo could paint a ceiling, but the son of a Jewish mother’s virulent anti-semitism and the American hero’s outspoken anti-Americanism and the champ’s all-around nuttiness eventually undermined his heroic status. The only other American considered a world champion was Paul Morphy of New Orleans, who earned the unofficial title by convincingly beating the world’s best back in the antebellum and pre-official-championship days, and he also wound up going crazy, but in his days at least it had more to do with his unfashionably pro-Union views. Spassky was eventually recognized as a half-hearted dissenter against Soviet communism and an all-around-sportsman and undeniably brilliant chess-player in his own right, but the brilliant but more doctrinaire Soviet Anatoly Karpov wound up winning the next title by default when Fischer insisted on the most insane terms for a title defense.
Karpov successfully defended the title against two Soviet commie challengers, then retained his championship in a phony-baloney draw against the proudly half-Jewish and defiantly anti-Soviet challenger Garry Kasparov in ’84. Kasparov won fair and square against Karpov in ’86, then dominated the chess world into the 1990s.
Some of the corrupt organizational squabbling you find going on all the time in boxing then followed, with a charming enough English fellow named Nigel Short holding one of the disputed more-or-less world titles for a while, but Kasparov generally remained on top before retiring to take up a full-time career in politics, which he admirably continues here and abroad to this day, and a most worthy but altogether boring and draw-prone champion from India named Viswanathan Andad wound up as the little-recognized champion. He nobly defended the title the against yet another Russkie, then wound up losing his title in ’13 to a handsome and buff and combative 20-something Norwegian named Magnus Carlsen, who everyone in the chess world considered a more telegenic and exploitable champion.
This time around the big chess event will take place in November and December in the South Street Seaport district of lower Manhattan in New York City, and although the brilliant if oddly-named yet all-American grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana were upset in the preliminary matches by one of those inevitable Russkie challengers there’s still an intriguing Cold War feel to the championship. Carlsen’s challenger is the outspokenly pro-Putin and pro-Crimean invasion Russkie Sergey Karajkin, and given the champ’s unabashed identification with the free west and under-the-gun Scandinavia the battle lines are quite clearly drawn. Unlike the Cold War days of ’72 we’re in an American election year when the Democrat nominee offered a “reset button” to the Russkies and pulled back on a nuclear-defense deal with the Czechs and Poles and seemed to invite the recent Russian revanchism, and the Republican nominee and his in-bed-with-Russia campaign team were apparently unaware of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and seem quite content with Russia’s revanchism in any case, so our pro-western and pro-western-Ukrainian-type sympathies will be with some pretty-boy Norwegian rather than some nutcase half-Jewish and anti-semitic if undeniably brilliant and ruggedly individualist American this around.
Sports and politics are full of such ambivalent rooting, and even such an elegant game as chess isn’t immune to these complications.

— Bud Norman

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