There is no other chess game in the Chessmen Museum in which the Russians and the Americans are as diametrically opposed to each other as in the American vs. Russian leaders chess game. During the Cold War, the relationship between these two powerful countries ruled the world. This is represented in several ways on the chessboard.

The chess pieces of the American vs. Russian leaders chess game are all familiar faces: America’s first president and the prime minister of the Soviet Union, George Washington and Vladimir Lenin respectively, are the pawns. The kings are the presidents who were in power at the time the game was released: George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The queens by their side are their ‘charming’ predecessors: Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

The chess pieces all have distinctive heads and look slightly comical: take Brezhnev, for example. You cannot get around the exaggerated eyebrows on his chess piece. There are more famous heads on the board, such as JF Kennedy´s, but the lesser known gentlemen are presented clearly as well: these leaders´ names are painted on the chess pieces.

Arms Race

Map of Cuba showing Sovjet missile locations, made by the CIA in september 1962

The reason these types of chess games exist has to do with the political and ideological conflict between the two most powerful countries of the last century: communist Russia and capitalist America. The two countries fought together against the Nazis in World War II, however, some years later, America started to fear the ever-expanding power of European communism. Most of the eastern European countries united with the Soviet Union through a military alliance, i.e. the 1955 Warsaw Pact, and turned into satellite states. An arms race began, which included the threat of targeted nuclear missiles. The greatest threat during the Cold War entered the history books as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

US President Kennedy had considerably expanded the country´s arsenal of weapons and in doing so, he had taken a lead over the Soviet Union. Russian leader Khrushchev did not like this in the least, nor did he like America´s plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the communist leader of Cuba. In 1962, a bluffing Khrushchev, who assumed that America would never get itself involved in a nuclear war, had missiles placed in Cuba pointing towards America. Kennedy was informed about this through spy footage, and he subsequently stated in a speech that he would respond to any attack from Cuba with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Diplomatic negotiations began and eventually Khrushchev withdrew his weapons from Cuba. It was clear that both countries did not want to start a nuclear war.

However, this was not the end of the Cold War. Due to the rising tension between East and West, the Soviets had begun to build a wall in Berlin. This closed the entry gates from east to west for the East Germans, and with it an important border crossing along the Iron Curtain. This border, which ran across Europe from Finland in the north to Bulgaria in the south, separated the communist Warsaw Pact countries from the capitalist West. Most of Eastern Europe was completely closed off from the rest of the world. East and West made exceptions for important sports tournaments though, including chess championships.

Chess as a foundation

Lenin (left) and Trotski playing chess

Although the Soviets lost the arms race, the opposite was true for chess championships. Between 1948 and 1991, the world champion was always a Soviet citizen, with only one exception. The American Bobby Fischer won the world championship in 1972. (In the years before World War II, Dutchman Max Euwe was one of the few exceptions; he won in 1935.) The Russians were so strong because their leaders had been promoting chess centrally since the 1917 revolution.

Revolution leaders Lenin and Trotsky, for example, were great enthusiasts. Both men, as well as later leaders, saw chess as the intellectual foundation of communism. Chess thus grew to be a popular sport. Talented children even received intensive training by grandmasters, far away from their families. This extreme devotion was in stark contrast to the casual chess training in Europe, and the lost chess tradition in America after the Second World War. This led to decades of Soviet domination on the chessboard.

The world is watching

Until 11 July, 1972, that is. Russian chess player Boris Spasski defended his world title that day against his challenger, the 29-year-old American Bobby Fischer. Both men did not want to play in their opponent’s country, for fear of their safety. The final location of this battle was the Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik, although Fischer never confirmed his consent in writing. He was a rather eccentric individual who kept making new demands on the competition management. It made Max Euwe, the then president of the international chess federation FIDE, rather miserable.

The prize money for this grand finale was doubled to the unparalleled amount of $ 250,000, twenty times more than the prize money of the previous World Cup. Television crews from all over the world broadcast the images live and the match made headlines in both Eastern European and Western newspapers. For the first time, a chess championship captured the attention of millions of people who did not even like chess. This match would therefore enter the Western history books as the most important chess duel ever. The participants of this championship would battle out the Cold War on the chessboard. The Soviet Union, which saw its chess successes as evidence of a superior political system, would be proved wrong.

Downfall of the Reds

Fischer kept the world waiting. Eventually, he landed in Reykjavik, but the grandmaster did not show up at the opening ceremony, the draw or even the first match. Would Fischer be playing at all? Spasski, meanwhile, had already earned the right to claim the championship, but he did not do so. He wanted to compete against the American, and fight for the title.
Finally, Fischer arrived and subsequently lost his second match: he had stormed out of the room because of the film cameras that were present. Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, had to get involved to get Fischer back on the scene: “You are our man against the Reds.” Spasski was pretty upset by all this drama and lost the next game dramatically. Then, the two combatants played 18 not very good matches, with Fischer eventually emerging as the winner and world champion. The Reds had been defeated.

More than seventeen years later, the real Cold War also ended, fortunately without armed battles. On 3 December, 1989, US President George Bush and Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev jointly declared that the Cold War was over. These men can also be found on the American vs. Russian leaders chess board, in which Gorbachev’s port-wine stain is unmistakable.

By Marjolein Overmeer