According to historian Edvard Radzinsky, who addressed the press corps during the tenth game of the World Chess Championship in Moscow, the era of political chess in Russia ended in 1985 with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Radzinsky mentioned that the end of the era might have come 13 years earlier, when the “terrible” American Bobby Fischer ascended to the world chess throne and “the advantages of our wonderful political system were put in question” but Fischer forfeited his title and normal service — USSR domination of the chess world — was resumed.

Radzinsky noted that the last “political world champion” was Garry Kasparov, so he felt it was symbolic that Kasparov entered politics at the end of his chess career.

Yet day by day at the Tretyakov Gallery, which is hosting the world title match between champion Viswanathan Anand and challenger Boris Gelfand, it becomes clear that chess and politics  remain firmly entwined.

On Wednesday the star visitor to the Tretyakov was former Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Russian gulag and was only released and allowed to emigrate to Israel after a plea from Ronald Reagan to Gorbachev at their first summit.

Sharansky claimed that he stayed sane in the gulag by analysing chess games in his head and he showed that his mind remained sharp at 74 by performing a simultaneous exhibition against local children outside the Tretyakov and offering some sensible suggestions in the commentary box.

Had Sharansky travelled down the road to Moscow’s Multimedia Arts Museum he would have seen part of the gulag turned into art; a remarkable minimalist chess set made of small pieces of wire created by unknown prisoners in Siberia.

The chess set was part of a month-long exhibition of historic chess photos and chess sets, which was timed to coincide with the world title match and that was opened last week by Arkady Dvorkovich,  President Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser.

A few days later when Putin announced his new cabinet, Dvorkovich had been promoted to the post of Russian Deputy Prime Minister (and given the industry portfolio). Press coverage of Dvorkovich’s appointment talked of a connection between his memory for economic statistics and his chess playing ability and even mentioned that his father used to be a chess arbiter. It is hard to imagine such facts being regarded as an important part of Wayne Swan’s CV by the Australian media.

Radzinsky did, however, show up one big difference between chess in Russia today and in the past.

Asked about the 1951 world title match, where challenger David Bronstein was allegedly forced to lose a key game and therefore only tie his match against titleholder and “true Russian” Mikhail Botvinnik, Radzinsky said: “[In Stalin’s time] I don’t think we had to force Bronstein to lose. If he understood that he was supposed to lose, he would lose.”

Radzinsky could have mentioned more modern examples; for example, the decade when Anatoly Karpov was world champion and no Soviet player competing with him abroad was allowed to beat him (and were required to lose if need be).

Even more extreme was defector Viktor Korchnoi’s claim that his KGB file, which he apparently bought for $400 after the USSR collapsed, stated that Korchnoi would have been murdered before he left the Philippines had he not lost his 1978 title match against Karpov in Baguio City.

In stark contrast, in 2012 Anand and Gelfand are under no political pressure to agree to a particular result. Unfortunately, the particular result that they seem to like is a draw and Thursday’s game was the eighth such result in 10 games. This time Gelfand made it look easy against the champion, barely raising a sweat as he neutralised all Anand’s efforts.

With only two games remaining in regular time, it seems that the two players are headed for a day of rapid tiebreakers (roughly half an hour per player per game), possibly followed by lightning (five-minute) games and perhaps even the nightmare scenario of a single Armageddon game for the title and $1.5 million.

Anand, however, was not yet ready to concede that tiebreakers were inevitable, saying: “Let’s not forget we have two more games to play.”

World Championship 2012 Game 10

White: V. Anand
Black: B. Gelfand

Opening: Sicilian Defence

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5!?

After failing to achieve anything in game six with 1.e4, Anand goes for a side line, yet he finds Gelfand well prepared even here.

3…e6 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.b3 e5!

“It is always pleasant to play an innovation on move 5,” admitted Gelfand. “It usually happens on move 20 or 25.”

6.Nxe5 Qe7 7.Bb2 d6 8.Nc4

If 8.Nxc6 Qc7 and the knight is trapped.

8…d5! 9.Ne3 d4 10.Nc4 Qxe4+ 11.Qe2 Qxe2+ 12.Kxe2 Be6

As in the previous game, Gelfand has been gifted the bishop pair but in this case Anand has plenty of compensation, especially his complete control over the c4 square.

13.d3 Nf6 14.Nbd2 0-0-0 15.Rhe1 Be7 16.Kf1 Rhe8 17.Ba3

“Maybe a slightly wrong plan but I couldn’t think of what else to play,” admitted Anand. “If 17.a3 Nd5 18.b4 Nb6! and I couldn’t make the thing work.”

17…Nd5 18.Ne4 Nb4 19.Re2 Bxc4!

“The only way for Black,” said Anand, “but it seems to hold.”

Anand was hoping for 19…f5?! 20.Ng3 Bxc4 21.Bxb4! cxb4 22.Nxf5! with advantage.

20.bxc4 f5 21.Bxb4 cxb4

Here Gelfand offered a draw, declined by Anand because “I thought I had some hopes because of Black’s broken pawn structure,” said the champion, “but a few moves later I decided to return the offer.”

22.Nd2 Bd6 23.Rxe8 Rxe8 24.Nb3 c5 25.a3!? Draw Agreed

At the press conference Gelfand’s former coach Albert Kapengut queried Anand’s last move and suggested that Gelfand could keep the game going with 25 … Kb7 26.Ra5 a6!? but after 27.Ra1 Gelfand could see no way to make progress.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey