Red Pawn

How chess became a tool of totalitarian Communism

Chess Communism
Gennadi Sosonko, pictured in Amsterdam in 1978: the best of all chess writers (credit: Dutch National Archives)

 One of the attractions of chess is its lack of ambiguity. In this spirit, I assert that the best chess magazine in the English language is, without question, New In Chess. In fact this luxuriantly printed review appears in Dutch and English, being based in Holland, published by the Anglophile entrepreneur Allard Hoogland and edited by Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam.

Although each of its eight issues a year contains lengthy contributions by the British grandmasters Nigel Short and Matthew Sadler, it is a Dutch element which provides the greatest pleasure. New In Chess is where Genna Sosonko’s articles appear — and he is the best of all chess writers, if what you are seeking is deep historical and personal understanding, beyond topical analysis of the latest tournaments and opening novelties.

I have written about Sosonko before in this column, explaining that he was a leading trainer within the Soviet chess empire before becoming (in 1972) one of the thousands of Jews who emigrated from the USSR, where he became an unperson. In the latest issue of New In Chess he reveals a remarkable document which, more than anything else I have read, exposes how even a pursuit so abstract as chess became poisoned by the politics of totalitarian Communism, especially under Stalin.

 This is a letter from the main KGB archive in Moscow, in which the Russian chess master and theoretician Vasily Panov (1906-73) denounces a book of opening analysis by Paul Keres. To understand the danger to Keres in this, it is necessary to know that, as an Estonian, he had played in Nazi-organised tournaments when his country had been occupied by Germany in the Second World War. He had been interrogated by the KGB after the Soviets had captured Estonia and made him, willy-nilly, a Soviet citizen.

Panov’s letter of denunciation was written in 1950, in the late Stalinist period when all Jews were seen as potential traitors (“cosmopolitanism is bourgeois nationalism”) but when a man such as Keres would also be at great risk. Panov begins his letter: “The Estonian state publishing house has published the first volume of chess grandmaster Keres’s theoretical work Open Games. For an author of theoretical research there is no nobler or more responsible task than to establish the indisputable authority of the pre-revolutionary Russian and Soviet chess schools and to clearly and convincingly show the leading role of the Russian people in such a unique branch of culture as chess. Keres did not succeed in this task. Worse, he used the platform that had been provided for him for the unrestrained glorification of foreign theoreticians, even including fascist mercenaries and traitors to the Soviet people, whose ‘theoretical’ labours are of no value at all.”

This was Panov’s way of describing the fact that in some of his analyses Keres had credited American players, and even the Ukrainian Bogoljubov, who had left the USSR in 1925 and settled in Germany. Or, as Panov informed the KGB: “The justifiable anger and astonishment of Soviet chess players is provoked by the numerous systematic, completely baseless, offensive mentions of the fascist underling Bogolyubov.”

It is not known if the KGB ever called Keres in for a further interrogation over his opening analyses. But the bulk of his extraordinary chess career was played under this shadow. In 1948, when he took part in the tournament to establish a successor to the world championship left vacant by the death of Alexander Alekhine, Keres was told by the KGB that it would be trouble for him and his family if Stalin’s favoured candidate Mikhail Botvinnik should fail as a result of anything he did: in other words, Keres should not beat him. And, as it turned out, Keres lost four of his five games against Botvinnik, who went on to win the supreme title. However, it is also known that Botvinnik was furious when he found out that the authorities had been intervening in this way. He wanted to win on his own terms, and in any case believed he had the measure of the Estonian.

Very few others did, however. In his tournament career Keres won against every world champion from Capablanca to Bobby Fischer, making him the only player apart from Viktor Korchnoi ever to have beaten nine undisputed world champions. It is with reason that he is regarded by many as the greatest master never to have become world champion. He once said: “I have been unlucky — like my country.” Dying of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 59, Keres did not live long enough to witness his country’s restoration of its independence — which it marked by putting his portrait on one of its new banknotes.

Today, Estonia is one of the ex-Soviet nations fearful of the Russian imperial revanchist Vladimir Putin. As Sosonko notes in his commentary on this excavation from the KGB archive: “Regardless of its content we can acknowledge that Panov’s review can be considered an example of the journalism of the time — as well as some of the journalism of today’s Russia. Suspicion, the search for potential enemies everywhere and anywhere, the inflation of achievements, a sense of historical destiny, a division of the world into ours and the foreign can be noted in many aspects of Russian life nowadays.” 
 
In the circumstances, perhaps it is a fitting irony to end with a game won by Keres representing the Soviet Union — and playing a variation named after the man who shopped him to the KGB. The victim on this occasion (the Leipzig Olympiad of 1960) was the Romanian master Corvin Radovici.