In the summer of 1972, Henry Kissinger made a clandestine phone call.
President Richard M. Nixon’s adviser wasn’t calling a head of state or ringing a diplomat. He instead phoned the American chess player Bobby Fischer, who had threatened to back out of a match against Soviet world champion Boris Spassky. Kissinger urged Fischer not to quit, telling him, “This is the world’s worst chess player, calling the world’s greatest chess player,” Fischer biographer Frank Brady told The Washington Post.
Fischer agreed, eventually winning the “Match of the Century” and ending 24 years of unbroken Soviet chess dominance – a record the U.S.S.R. felt proved its intellectual might.
This summer, five decades after Fischer bested Spassky, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reportedly hopes to start a “great British chess revival,” pouring funding into the English Chess Federation and school chess clubs in a bid to boost children’s numeracy.
As the Kissinger-Fischer call shows, Sunak’s not the first world leader to yoke broader policy goals to the royal game. The idea that chess can help a nation’s fortunes stretches back at least a century. And as the Chess World Cup continues this month, there are rumblings of chess wars to come.
The first stirrings of the chess Cold War happened the week World War II ended.
From Sept. 1 through 4, 1945, American and Soviet chess teams played each other via radio receivers, during the week Japan signed its official surrender. Given Soviet players’ infrequent participation in international competition during the 1930s, the Americans felt confident.
“There is no reason for misgivings as to the outcome of the forthcoming match by radio on ten boards with Soviet opponents,” the New York Times wrote in a preview of the games.
But the Soviet team, including future world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, stunned their American counterparts, winning or drawing nearly every game.
The United States probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
Even before the Russian Revolution, rulers such as Ivan the Terrible (who allegedly died at the chessboard) and Peter the Great played, as did Communist leaders such as Vladimir Lenin. The Soviet regime formalized that passion, creating a state-run Chess Section in 1924. Children learned chess in school, and signs of talent occasioned further training from grandmasters or other top players.
“There was ample state funding at all levels, which ensured that there were chess clubs all over the country, from Moscow to small villages in Siberia, in army divisions and in factories,” player Andrey Terekhov wrote in 2020 on the platform Chess24. During the Cold War, the system paid dividends, producing world-champion players including Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal and Tigran V. Petrosian.
Soviet officials and chess magazines saw the game as a way to prove dominance over Western countries. They also drew connections between chess and their political goals, historian Seth Bernstein wrote in an article on the Soviet chess system.
“For some Bolshevik leaders, chess games bore a similarity to the dialectical processes of historical progress,” Bernstein wrote. Soviet psychologists produced a study of chess masters, arguing the skills the game developed could lead to a revolutionary consciousness.
US uninterested by comparison
Before the Fischer-Spassky match, the U.S. government had been uninterested in chess by comparison, said Brady, Fischer’s biographer. Millions of Soviet citizens played chess at its peak popularity; the U.S. Chess Federation had roughly 2,000 tournament players by the late 1950s, he said.
Still, Kissinger recognized the 1972 match’s significance, and Fischer returned to the United States a hero. His victory spawned a “Fischer boom” in which U.S. Chess Federation membership nearly doubled in one year.
The rise of internet chess and the ability to play against opponents all over the world has somewhat lessened the country-based nature of training, said Bill Wall, who has written several chess books.
But while the American-Soviet rivalry may be in the past, some countries still see chess as a way to develop children’s math and strategy skills as well as a potential geopolitical boon.
Grandmaster and coach Boris Avrukh, who has trained several current top-ranked players, said he’s watching a rising generation of Indian chess wunderkinds, many of whom trained during a period of governmental and institutional support for the game. Chinese players have also ascended over the past several decades through state-backed training programs.
And Russia’s love for chess remains. The president of FIDE, the international chess governing body, is Arkady Dvorkovich, whose father was a chess arbiter and who previously worked for the Russian government.
“Chess has always been a symbol of intelligence, strategy and tactical maneuvering,” Brady said. “If a nation can win on the chessboard, it implies that they may be able to outwit other countries diplomatically.”