The Guardian • Issue #2098

Socialism through chess: the USSR, Cuba and the politics of Chess


Photo: European Union/Pietro Naj-Oleari– (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Chess is a game of intellect, discipline, and strategic thinking. It’s is an equaliser in which a peasant, once taught, can play as well as someone of the ruling class. Chess has been associated with socialism for some time, not only in its Soviet incarnation.

Karl Marx was an avid chess player. One of his frequent opponents was Wilhelm Liebknecht the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, with whom Marx played marathon sessions. Only one recorded game played by Marx has survived. Marx’s biographer, Frederick Wheen places him as Class A, meaning possible Grandmaster.

Vladimir Lenin was also an avid chess player and a strong promoter of the game in the USSR. There are famous photographs of Lenin playing the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov during a visit to Maxim Gorky in 1908. There is an apocryphal signed sketch of Lenin playing chess with Adolf Hitler dated 1925, representing the coming conflict between the USSR and Nazi Germany.

As chess materials became more affordable, and the theory was spread amongst the Soviets, chess became a state-funded sport. Chess was closely tied to the State labour organisations. The Party believed that chess would raise the cultural level of the working class, a prerequisite for socialism. Chess soon became the ‘people’s game’ as it was inexpensive, social, easy to teach, and players learnt strategic thinking. By the 1940s the Soviet Union was the world’s leading chess power.

In 1945 the visiting US chess team gave Stalin a carved pipe depicting him playing chess with President F.D. Roosevelt. The US vs USSR chess match was broadcast on radio in both countries. The ten leading masters of the USA played the ten leading masters of the Soviet Union. The USSR team won by 11 points, a crushing defeat for the US. The defeat in chess of the USA against the USSR became a Cold War symbol. Soviet chess players went on to modernise the game and produced the world’s greatest players. By 1991, seven out of the eight chess world champions were Soviet. The only non-Soviet was Bobby Fischer.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the 1972 championship was a major media event, billed as the Match of the Century, as the US press turned the World Chess Championship of Bobby Fischer (USA) vs Boris Spassky (USSR) into a spectacle of Capitalism vs Socialism. It was covered by the daily TV and newspapers around the world. Held in Reykjavik, Iceland, chess became a major propaganda tool for the US media circus. Under this unprecedented media hype, Fischer demanded that all cameras be removed, then used every dirty trick to distract his opponent, who in the end capitulated.

Fischer became the World Chess Champion on 1 September 1972. He retired from chess, forfeiting his title without defending it in 1975. He knew he had been a pawn of the US media and politics. Fischer died in 2008, looking dishevelled and suffering from mental health issues, saying he hated what chess had become. Films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Pawn Sacrifice (2015), and Broadway play Chess the Musical continue to bring Fischer to popular American attention. The American media still touts Fischer as the World’s greatest ever Grand Master.

Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Cuban government has been a strong supporter of chess, as a national sport supported, to help spread socialism. The Federación Cubana de Atletismo (FCA) was founded in 1961. Chess is taught in Cuban elementary and secondary schools. Cuba’s first world champion was José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942). In his honour the annual Capablanca Memorial Chess Tournament was set up in 1962.

Fidel Castro was a strong chess player and there are numerous photos of him playing chess with workers and advanced players. In 1965 Cuba connected to the Marshall Chess Club in New York by telex to allow Bobby Fischer to play in the 4th Capablanca Memorial tournament in Havana. Each game lasted up to seven hours. Cuba paid its US$10,000 cost. In 1966 Cuba spent more than US$5 million on the 17th Chess Olympiad in Havana.

Castro played several exhibition games including a draw with Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian and a win against Bobby Fischer. Fischer extended his visit in Cuba after the rest of the US team left. In 1975 FIDE (International Chess Federation) awarded its first Cuban Grandmaster title to Silvino Garcia Marinez. Despite US sanctions and the continuing propaganda by the US media, Cuban chess players are well known around the world, having twenty-seven Grand Masters. Cuba’s Cabrera Albornoz received the award of Grandmaster from FIDE in 2019. The 2024 Capablanca Memoriam International Chess Tournament will be played at the Habana Libre Hotel, supported by The Confederation of Chess of the Americas (CCA) and the FCA.

FIDE and politics

In Toronto, Canada the 2024 World Chess Championship is run by FIDE (International Chess Federation) to determine the next World Chess Champion.

There is more than a lot of money at stake, the winner also carries national political prestige.

The eight-player double round-robin tournament will decide the candidate to play the defending champion, Grandmaster (GM) Ding Liren of China. From the start the competition has had its upsets, with the very popular GM Magnus Carlsen of Norway withdrawing. In response to the Russian conflict with Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian flags have been banned from all FIDE-related events, leaving Russian players using the FIDE flag. Ukraine has a special significance, as it is one of the world’s great chess nations. The other GM candidates in the competition are from USA, India, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan. The politics of the US playing against Russia and possibly China have not been lost on international observers.

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