Most serious players I know would just as soon keep something as important as chess and something as trivial as politics as far apart as possible.
But this is the season of caucuses and impeachments, and the global FIDE chess organization, whose membership includes Israel and Palestine, China and Taiwan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, the U.S. and Cuba and Kosovo and Serbia, has found itself in the middle of some sticky political wickets over the years.
Many of the most recent ones involve a country that, ironically, has been a major success story on the chess front: Iran. The country that gave us the word “checkmate” has one of the deepest and strongest chess programs in the Middle East, and boasts as a rising superstar in 16-year-old GM Alireza Firouzja.
But Iranian players have been docked for refusing — under orders from officials in Tehran — to play against Israeli competitors. (Firouzja, whom some tout as a future world champion contender, has recently been playing under the FIDE flag rather than his home country to sidestep the ban.) And major newspapers around the world have tracked the plight of Shohreh Bayat, the highly respected arbiter who refereed the recent women’s world title match, but now says she is afraid to go home after a picture circulated of her at the match not wearing the headscarf mandated for women in Iran.
Still, you could argue things have actually improved in recent years. In the depths of the Cold War, the rivalry between East and West and the long Soviet dominance of chess routinely put a heavy political spin on high-stakes chess matches. It wasn’t just Fischer-Spassky — this year marks the 50th anniversary of the epic USSR vs. the World team challenge in Belgrade, the so-called “Match of the Century” that produced both some memorable chess and some down-and-dirty politics.
The event may be best remembered for the stunning decision by Fischer — returning to the game after a lengthy absence and two years away from his date with destiny in Reykjavik — to step aside and let Danish GM Bent Larsen play first board for the West.
Although the Soviets — boasting Spassky and four former world champs in its 10-player lineup — were heavily favored, the World team ended losing by the barest of margins, 20½-19½, with Fischer chipping in with a 2-0-2 whipping of former champ Tigran Petrosian on Board 2. Larsen held his own against Spassky, with 1½ points in three games, but was on the wrong end of one of the most one-sided losses of the event.
Larsen played his own pet opening (1. b3) in Game 2, but it’s Black who looks like he knows what he’s doing. Spassky already has a free and easy development after 6. Nxc6 dxc6 7. e3 (d4?! exd3 8. Qxd3 Qe7 is much better for Black) when things go sideways in a hurry for White on 10. f4?! Ng4! (already threatening the crushing 11…Rxd2! 12. Nxd2 [Qxd2 Nxe3 13. g3 Rd8 14. Qc1 Ng2+ 15. Kf1 Bh3 16. Bg4+ Bxg4 17. Kxg2 Bf3+ 18. Kf1 Qd7] Nxe3 13. Qc3 Nxg2+ 14. Kd1 Rd8, with an overwhelming attack.
It’s over after one more bad defensive move: 11. g3 h5 12. h3? (h4, closing the flank and accepting a bad position, was the only option) h4! 13. hxg4 hxg3 14. Rg1 (Rxh8 Rxh8 15. gxf5 [Bf1 Rh1 16. Ke2 Bxg4+] Rh1+ 16. Bf1 g2) Rh1!, and White is busted. There followed 15. Rxh1 (Kf1 Rxg1+ 16. Kxg1 Qh4 17. gxf5 Qh2+ 18. Kf1 Qf2 mate) g2 16. Rf1 (Rg1 loses to 16…Qh4+ 17. Kd1 Qh1! 18. Qc1 Qxg1+ 19. Kc2 Qxc1+ 20. Bxc1 Bh7 21. Nc3 g1=Q) Qh4+ 17. Kd1 gxf1=Q+, and White resigned just ahead of mate in three on 18. Bxf1 Bxg4+ 19. Kc1 Qe1+ 20. Qd1 Qxd1 mate.
The close final result was considered a major embarrassment for the Soviet chess machine, and the sting might have been even greater but for today’s second game, the last-round match between GM Viktor Korchnoi, who six years later would defect to the West, and Hungarian star Lajos Portisch. For the fury of Fischer and others, Portisch won the exchange and built up a nearly won position, only to allow a draw with a threefold repetition.
In the final position, after, say, 25…Qb5 26. 0-0-0 d6 27. Ne4 Qc4+ 28. Nc3, White’s king is completely safe and the win is just short of a matter of technique. Had Portisch taken the full point, the Match of the Century would have ended in a 20-20 tie.
The mix of politics and chess at its least attractive may have at last been found: The “Collector’s Edition 2020 Battle for the White House Chess Set,” with President Trump as the Red king, aided by Vice President Mike Pence as the Red queen (hmmm), and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other conservative luminaries as the pieces. The Blue king and queen have yet to be “crafted with impeccable detail,” but Team Blue does include former President Barack Obama as one rook, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer as knights, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a bishop.
Most details, including the Red elephant and Blue donkey pawns, can be found at chess2020.com. It may be a good conversation starter, but if you have a serious chessplayer with a birthday or bar mitzvah coming up, think long and hard before clicking on the link.
Larsen-Spassky, USSR vs. the World, Belgrade, March 1970
1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 Nc6 3. c4 Nf6 4. Nf3 e4 5. Nd4 Bc5 6. Nxc6 dxc6 7. e3 Bf5 8. Qc2 Qe7 9. Be2 O-O-O 10. f4 Ng4 11. g3 h5 12. h3 h4 13. hxg4 hxg3 14. Rg1 Rh1 15. Rxh1 g2 16. Rf1 Qh4+ 17. Kd1 gxf1=Q+ White resigns.
Portisch-Korchnoi, USSR vs. the World, Belgrade, March 1970
1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nc6 4. d4 cxd4 5. Nxd4 e6 6. g3 Qb6 7. Nb3 Ne5 8. e4 Bb4 9. Qe2 O-O 10. f4 Nc6 11. e5 Ne8 12. Bd2 f6 13. c5 Qd8 14. a3 Bxc3 15. Bxc3 fxe5 16. Bxe5 b6 17. Bg2 Nxe5 18. Bxa8 Nf7 19. Bg2 bxc5 20. Nxc5 Qb6 21. Qf2 Qb5 22. Bf1 Qc6 23. Bg2 Qb5 24. Bf1 Qc6 25. Bg2 Draw agreed.
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