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He setts his men (all savinge the kinge, which by no means he could not stand in his place with the rest upon the plain board): his chief favorett and Boris Fedorowich Goddonove and others about him. The Emperor in his lose gown, shirt and lynen hose, faints and falls backward. Great owtcrie and sturr; one sent for Aqua vita, another to the oppatheke [apothecary] for marigold and rose water, and to call his gostlie father [confessor] and the phizicions. In the mean he was strangled [choked] and stark dead.
Historians still debate whether Ivan was poisoned by Boris or died of natural causes, but there is no dispute about their common devotion to chess. It was only natural that Sergei Eisenstein (himself a keen chess player) included one of the best chess scenes in all cinema in his three-part epic, Ivan the Terrible (1944). The tsar was more than Stalin’s hero; he was his alter ego. As his paranoia grew, so did the dictator’s identification with the tsar — to the point where even Eisenstein’s cinematic epic was not hagiographical enough for Stalin. Actors whose features were deemed too Jewish were weeded out of the cast, and the director, too, came under suspicion. The second part of the trilogy was a window into the soul of a tsar tormented by guilt. When Stalin saw Part 2, he was furious, so it was released only after his death in 1958. The incomplete third part — The Boyars’ Plot — was destroyed on Stalin’s orders. Despite its veneer of Marxist ideology and European culture, the Soviet Union was a reversion to Ivan the Terrible’s oriental despotism.
One pursuit that oriental and enlightened despots had in common, however, was chess. Russia’s great Westernizers, Peter I and Catherine II, both shared Ivan’s passion for the game. Their chessmen and boards are displayed in the Hermitage Museum along with a Fabergé set made for Nicholas II. For most of the Romanovs, chess remained what it had been at the courts of the Renaissance: an esoteric divertissement for the edification of royal, military, or sacerdotal elites. It was due to Napoleon that thousands of Russian officers learned the game from their French counterparts during their occupation of Paris in 1814–15 and brought it back home with them. Thus chess owed its popularity in Russia not to a Russian emperor but to a French one.
The Russians who took up chess in the wake of the Napoleonic wars belonged to a new class, the educated elite that became known as the intelligentsia. Not only in Russia, but elsewhere in Europe and America, the place of chess closely reflected the rise of this group. A good starting point for the story of the love affair between chess and the intelligentsia is an image that records one of the great encounters of modernity: a group portrait, painted in 1856 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. It depicts three major figures of eighteenth-century thought: the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Swiss divine Johann Caspar Lavater, and the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The focus of the picture, around which these luminaries of the Enlightenment are stationed, is a chessboard.
1 From Baghdad to St. Petersburg 1
2 The recreation of the revolution 13
3 Terror 23
4 The opium of the intellectuals 41
5 The emigres 48
6 The patriarch and his progeny 65
7 The Jewish factor 76
8 The American way of chess 105
9 Bobby's odyssey 117
10 An Achilles without an Achilles heel 138
11 The death of Hector 164
12 The machine age 202
13 Defying the evil empire 225
14 The yogi versus the commissar 249
15 Soviet endgame : Kasparov versus Karpov 267
16 After the Cold War 299
Essay on sources 321