Pawns and Power
How Chess Culture Formed Post-War Russian Diplomacy
Emilia Castelao | Diplomatic Academy of Vienna
In June of 1941, Soviet Grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik fled to the city of Perm Krai, Russia, in the midst of a surprise attack by Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union. Due to Germany’s unexpected invasion, Botvinnik would be unable to travel to and play the 1941 World Chess Championship match against Alexander Alekhine, a former Russian superstar who had sought refuge and citizenship in France. As the war raged on, the Secretary of the Regional Party Committee said to Botvinnik as a means of consolation about the news, “there will come a time when you will once again be useful to the Soviets as a chess player.” During the Soviet Union’s postwar development, we see this idea of chess and its usefulness come into play as a means of soft power diplomacy. Through international chess tournaments between the United States and the Soviet Union, the subculture of chess became a platform through which diplomacy could be consumed by both politicians and the general public. The USSR's investment in its chess culture would push a new class of postwar Soviet chess players into the international spotlight and allow the country to establish dominance in an unsuspecting fashion: a rivalry between the U.S. and USSR chess communities.
Soviet politicians considered chess players to be highly valuable. Their ability to think ahead and understand complex calculations meant that they were seen as extremely intelligent people. Soviet politicians hoped that by dominating the chessboard the Soviet people would be viewed as superior on the international stage. In his autobiography, Botvinnik recounted the “invisible presence” of Nikolai Krylenko, former People's Commissar for Justice of the USSR. Krylenko died in 1938, but during the height of his leadership, he insisted on integrating chess into the lives of Soviets, from the working class to the political elite. Krylenko promised “chess to the masses”, envisioning it as a means of bringing people together and making the Soviet Union an international cultural power. While in-person chess matches and celebrity players stopped during the Second World War, chess as a national unifier did not. It solidified its place in working-class culture, but most importantly, it made its debut as propaganda in Soviet diplomacy.
In 1943, the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries began publishing the “Soviet Chess Chronicles”, a journal dedicated to chess culture that would be published in English, French, and German until 1946. The journal was dedicated to recounting the games of rising Soviet chess talents, as well as commenting on the state of chess in the USSR. This publication became a prime example of how the Soviet Union began promoting its image of dominance in the chess world with overall cultural and political superiority.
A special double issue of the publication focused on this budding U.S. versus USSR chess rivalry. Its most prominent issue was its report on the USSR v USA Radio Match, which was held in September 1945 remotely from New York and Moscow. In the issue, two prominent Soviet players extensively analysed and reported on the matches. The analysis presented a captivating argument for Soviet dominance over the Americans since they unexpectedly beat the Americans with a score of 15½–4½. Up until this moment, the international chess community saw the U.S. as having some of the most dominant, tactful players. No one had suspected that the Soviet team was this strong, with the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR even commenting, “It was quite true that we did not expect such a large score.” After the Soviet win, their image in the chess community began to change. Reuben Fine, U.S. Grand-master, allegedly stated that “the Russians play chess considerably better than we.” In these comments from American chess players, we see indications that they, too, were noticing a looming shift in dominance towards the USSR and Soviet chess players after this win.
Maurice Wertheim, President of the Manhattan Chess Club, strongly emphasised the opportunity chess provided for strengthening the “close, friendly” relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Mikhail Botvinnik was the Soviet Union’s team captain during the USSR v USA Radio Match. During the match, he also recognized the important political consequences of the match and the USSR’s victory and demonstrated how this cultural unifier bled into the soft power approach of the Soviet Union. This involvement by political leaders in the chess world continued as Botvinnik claimed during this match that many in the Soviet political realm, “prepared for our triumph along with the players and [chess] organisers of the pre-war years.” Additionally, in Figure 3, notice Mayor La Guardia’s presence as he watched American chess player, Arnold Denker, compete in the radio match. The attendance of chess matches by political figures during this time began to give chess matches significance that expanded beyond the board.
Soviet and American politicians continued to use chess to shape perceptions of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. A year after the defeat of the U.S. in their 1945 radio match, the Soviet Union invited the American team back to play a live rematch in Moscow. Travel to the USSR was limited at this time, but according to his family, Wertheim convinced The State Department to allow the travel on the basis that it would manifest a better relationship between the U.S. and USSR. The first round of the tournament successfully took place in Moscow, with the Americans again being defeated by the Soviet team. These matches were just the beginning of the Soviet Union utilising chess culture, the World Chess Championship, and the newly reformed International Chess Federation (FIDE, pronounced fee-day), as a part of their primary strategy for soft power dominance in diplomacy.
Over time, Soviet politicians attended more high-level chess events and became increasingly dedicated to the idea that the excellence of their performance in chess was the best marketing strategy for Soviet culture in an increasingly US-centric, democratic international landscape. Figure 4 is just one example of how top-level U.S. chess players came face to face with high-level Soviet politicians. The development of chess culture in line with Soviet diplomatic practices sheds light on how individuals outside of traditional diplomatic environments became entangled in geopolitics, whether they wanted to or not.
Throughout this period, the Soviet Union continued to organise matches where their up-and-coming players could prove their superiority over other players in the chess community. While chess became a metaphor for Cold War tensions, the analogy was predominately important for the Soviets who cared a great deal about maintaining their image to the general public in the USSR where chess was extremely popular. Beginning with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1948, a long line of chess players from the Soviet Union held the title of World Chess Champion until their winning streak was disrupted by American Grandmaster Bobby Fischer in 1972. Soviet domination in the world of chess became inseparable from the USSR’s political identity. Dedication to chess culture, however, was not a priority in the U.S., especially since it lacked the heavy public support it received in the USSR. Fischer’s underdog status and rise to popularity in the U.S. during this period of Soviet dominance coincided with an increase in the public's interest in the game of chess more generally. Chess became a way for people, especially in the U.S., to understand contemporary geopolitics and to indirectly participate.
In 1962, ten years before earning the title of World Chess Champion, Fischer accused five Soviet players of collusion in a Sports Illustrated article, demonstrating this disparity between the USSR and the rest of the chess world. He claimed that the reason Soviet players dominated the chess world was because they were tying games in order to maintain their power and win tournaments. Tying a game gives players a half point in tournaments. The sheer number of Soviet players in chess tournaments gave them the ability to collect more points overall than their competitors by simply tying. This meant Western players could not break through and win against the Soviets, even if they played better and won their games. FIDE took Fischer’s accusations seriously and rules were changed to make Soviet collusion harder, but they most importantly put a spotlight on Soviet dominance in the sport.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, this accusation echoed widespread fears that America was falling behind the Soviet Union in terms of nuclear capabilities, the Space Race, etc. The 1972 World Chess Championships match between Fischer and Soviet Grand-master Boris Spassky pushed the U.S. to acknowledge the importance of the USSR’s cultural dominance in the chess world. It also forced them to face the indirect political implications of the World Championship match. Henry Kissinger, U.S. National Security Advisor at the time, had to get involved and convince Fischer to play because of the immense Cold War connotations surrounding the event, allegedly telling Fischer that “America wants you to go over there and beat the Russians.”
Chess culture as a soft power strategy did not collapse along with the Soviet Union in 1991. Since 1995, the President of FIDE has been from the Russian Federation. Additionally, the Kremlin has been extremely vocal about its support of Russia maintaining the FIDE presidency and its stronghold on the chess world. In a 2022 ceremony at the Central Chess House, which was named after Mikhail Botvinnik, former President of the Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov said that “around 190 countries will participate in the FIDE Congress, and they will vote for our candidate (Arkady Dvorkovitch), they will vote for Russia.” This statement came after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the chess community rallied to sanction the Russian Chess Federation and players, such as Sergey Karjakin, who supported the invasion. Given Russia’s prolonged cultural and political dominance in the sport and FIDE, these sanctions were the first in its history to stifle the country’s power in the sport and organisation. Nonetheless, Arkady Dvorkovitch won his re-election as FIDE President on August 7, 2022, and continues to receive vocal support from Russia.
Using chess culture and world-renowned players, the USSR was able to indirectly spread the ideals of the Soviet Union and remain connected to the larger international community during a time of severe divisions between the East and West. The Soviet Union tied its identity to chess because it allowed them to use it as a political tool to further its priority of dominating the soft power space in diplomacy. Even today chess is used in this way by Russia. Through a comparison with chess history, we can recognise the ways in which present-day political officials mobilise national identity and culture to conduct diplomacy when the world isn't looking too closely.
M. Botvinnik, Achieving the Aim (Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1981)
G. Fine, Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture (United Kingdom: University of Chicago Press, 2015)
F. Brady, Endgame (United Kingdom: Little, Brown Book Group, 2011)
Emilia Castelao is currently earning a Masters in International Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. She received her Bachelors in History from the University of Notre Dame and focuses her research on identity, culture, and chess as agents of modern European diplomatic history. For anyone interested in the primary source material, please reach out at emiliacastelao.com.