Chess and politics, the two sides of the board


The noble game has been an indirect witness to key moments in contemporary history, such as peace in the Middle East or the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The symbolic, cultural and semantic association of chess and politics is beyond dispute. In parliamentary language – by extension in journalistic language – the expression “restrained” is used when a politician corners or corners his opponent. And when it gets strong and reacts, we say it “castles”, because it is ready to defend itself, to go into battle. In the same way, decisions must be made in both the government arena and the black-and-white board, and not only in the short term, but also in the medium and long term. The statesman and the great teacher pursue the same thing: to solve problems. The metaphor of politics as a great game of chess makes allegorical sense when we consider the evolution of the noble game through the ages. Chess has been (and has been) present at many times in universal history, almost always as an accidental element, others as a source of inspiration and sometimes as a decisive factor in the intellectual sphere of an age, of the so-called spirit of time .

In 1947, US President Harry S. Truman gave a speech to his Mexican counterpart Miguel Aleman at the National Palace in Mexico City. Truman’s message was broadcast by radio to the entire Aztec nation. Truman said: “Traditionally, international relations have been compared to a game of chess in which one nation tries to outwit and checkmate the other. I cannot accept that comparison regarding relations between your country and mine, Mr. President. Truman learned the rules of chess when he was little. He did this thanks to his uncle Harrison Young, whom biographer Robert H. Ferrell described as a “genius in checkers, chess and poker.” Let’s say that Truman assimilated the concept of chess to deftly apply it to the diplomatic council, at least in that solemn speech.

Can we deduce from this that a politician who plays chess (well) will make better decisions? According to legend, Napoleon, a great fan of the sixty-four squares, first practiced the military maneuvers he performed at the front with the positions. However, the Emperor’s playing strength was never anything to write home about. ‘Le Petit Caporal’ lost to El Turco, a chess machine that roamed the European courts in the 18th and 19th centuries as a true illusionistic spectacle. The most surprising thing was not the emperor’s defeat, but the fact that Napoleon twice tried to cheat the incredible doll. Let’s get back to the question. What level of chess do we need to reach to observe and manage political action from a more thorough, reasoned and strategic perspective? The question is a tricky one, because I am sorry to say that there is no direct correlation between the degree of knowledge of the game and the emergence of a skill that helps us discover the best move outside the board. In life, the best move often depends on which side you play on. Do grandmasters and world champions agree on geopolitical issues? The double K is a clear example. On the one hand, Karpov is a parliamentarian for United Russia, Putin’s party. On the other hand, Kasparov, from his exile in New York, raises his voice against the game that the Russian leader is playing in Ukraine.

Taking into account this subjectivity factor, I repeat the question: can chess be useful in the exercise of politics? Ibán García has been a Socialist MEP in the European Parliament since 2019. In 1996 he was named World Chess Champion with the Spanish team. For Ibán, the chess effect on political office is clear: “Knowing that there are unbreakable rules and having mental agility are common elements in chess and politics.” Ibán has spoken more than once with President Pedro Sánchez about the relationship between the two disciplines. “Occasionally [Sánchez] You asked me about aspects of playing with a board in front of you. He has great respect for chess in its many dimensions,” he confesses. And he adds: “Chess matures the concept of responsibility and promotes the development of a strategic vision. Within the framework of politics, this long-term thinking is very useful to anticipate the movements of other political actors who defend interests other than yours.

This last reflection by Ibán García reminds me of the propositions explored by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, in his prophetic book, The Great World Board. Brzezinski was a noted chess player and brought his playbook to the White House: “As in chess, American global planners must think several moves ahead.” The following excerpts from Zbig, the nickname by which he was known, could form part of a treatise on contemporary politics. For example: “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the battle for world domination is still played.” Or this other one: “If Moscow regains control of Ukraine, Russia will regain the resources to become a powerful imperial state spanning Europe and Asia.” And let me read you one last sentence. Brzezinski says: “Eurasia is the center of the world. He who controls Eurasia controls the world.” This statement is undoubtedly the extension of a strategic maxim that governs the most elementary principles of the noble game: “He who controls the center of the board wins the game.” The figure of Brzezinski, a refugee of Polish descent, is key to understanding the international policy of the United States in the last decades of the 20th century. He advised John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. It was Brzezinski who convinced Jimmy Carter of the need to to arm the jihadists in Afghanistan. The idea hid a trap, that the Soviets would step in and have their own Vietnam. President Carter once said, “Zbig sends me ten ideas every night.” In September 1978, Jimmy Carter invited the Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat at his official residence, intent on seeking a framework for peaceful relations in the Middle East. Carter entrusted Brzezinski with the task of fostering a relaxed atmosphere, and Zbig immediately brought a checkerboard to Camp David. Several (precious) photos have been preserved in which we see Brzezinski playing relaxed with Menahem Begin. For the first game, Begin is said to have remarked, “Okay, I’ll play, but just for the record, I haven’t since before the Holocaust.” After twelve days of negotiations and much chess, Begin and el-Sadat signed the Camp David Accords. President Carter beamed. On October 11, 2002, Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 78.

Step back in time a bit. On May 19, 1962, John Fitzgerald Kennedy celebrated his birthday at Madison Square Garden in front of more than fifteen thousand people. Marilyn Monroe appeared on stage in a movie scene singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’. “Thank you,” said Kennedy, “I can now retire from politics.” The writer Bill Wall, among other sources, specifies that that same year, “on his birthday, [el presidente] got a chess set from a friend.” I can’t guarantee that the chess set, with its ebony and ivory pieces, was delivered to the party in Madison, but the hypothesis is strongly supported. I also don’t know if it was used, although it wasn’t should have happened, because a year and a half later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. After the tragic outcome, Evelyn Lincoln, the President’s personal secretary, returned the gift to the friend who had given it to Kennedy and eventually came the set is owned by actor Peter Lawford, JFK’s brother-in-law.

You won’t believe it, but Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s alleged assassin, had a hidden passion: chess. Like Kennedy, Oswald enlisted in the Marine Corps. During this period he studied Russian. His obsession with language was so strong that the recruits started calling him “Oswaldskovich.” A fellow unit member, Richard Dennis, competed against Lee Harvey on the board each week. Dennis testified at the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s assassination: “Oswald had a chess game of red and white pieces. He always chose the red pieces, commenting that he preferred the Red Army. The chess game you was given to Oswald by his mother when they moved to New Orleans in 1954. Lee Harvey was 14 years old and she took him everywhere with her ever since.Oswald’s chess went up for auction two years ago for a starting price of $15,000. four pieces: a pawn and a bishop on the white side; and a pawn and a knight in the Red Army.

In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother, won the California presidential primary. Minutes later, he was murdered by the young Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan. While incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California, Sirhan Sirhan played chess against Charles Manson on a cardboard made by the inmates themselves. The noble game here again seems to flutter through the tragic history of the Kennedy family, like an archangel on a Renaissance painting, like an accuser who pleads and shouts “guilty” possessed by a dark curse.

The list of politicians and world leaders who are chess fans is long and spans the gamut of ideologies: Yasser Arafat, Benjamin Franklin, Alfonso XIII, Fidel Castro and Che, Primo de Rivera, Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill… Many of they reached a more than acceptable level of play. And they all made decisions unconsciously under the checkered influence of reason. After all, politics is, as Bismarck said, “the art of the possible.” Something similar to what happens on the board. Although there are always exceptions, such as that of President Richard Nixon, who publicly admitted that he never understood the game of chess. His dog, a friendly black and white cocker spaniel, was named Damas.

It’s not bad either.

Source: La Verdad


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