KGB Plays Chess, The

The Soviet Secret Police and the Fight for the World Chess Crown

Boris Gulko, Viktor Kortschnoi, Vladimir Popov, Yuri Felshtinsky

Reviewer: John Donaldson
Russell Enterprises
176 pages

The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police And The Fight For The World Chess Crown by Boris Gulko, Vladimir Popov, Yuri Felshtinsky & Viktor Kortschnoi is not your everyday chess book. Not only does it not have any games or diagrams, but in the first 20 pages we learn that many well-known Soviet Grandmasters were recruited to inform for the KGB including Nikolai Krogius, Yury Averbakh, Tigran Petrosian, Rafael Vaganian, Eduard Gufeld and Lev Polugaevsky not to mention Alexander Roshal, the editor of the famous chess magazine 64. If that were not enough, one soon reads that it was very important for Viktor Kortscnoi’s health that he did not win the 1978 World Championship. Had he beaten Anatoly Karpov, the KGB had plans to kill him by the use of a toxic substance that would cause congestive heart failure.

This book has four authors, two of which all chess players are familiar with. Popov is a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel living in Canada while Yuri Felshtinsky is a historian with a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. The ex-KGB agent and the historian are responsible for most of the first third of the book before Boris Gulko tells the story of how he and his wife, women’s grandmaster Anna Ahksharumova, tried to leave the Soviet Union shortly after his winning the 1977 USSR Championship. Running parallel with Gulko’s plight are the trials and tribulations of Viktor Kortschnoi, who defected from the Soviet Union and played two World Championship matches while his wife and son were held hostage. Viktor Lvovich has a six page article near the end of the book in which he recounts his experiences with the KGB after his defection.

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from naming names of those who for whatever reason decided to cooperate with the KGB and the list is not confined to just Soviet citizens. The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police and the Fight for the World Chess Crown alleges that the old-school Olympics oligarch Juan Samaranch was under the influence of the KGB, which used this connection to get close to former FIDE head Florencio Campomanes and ultimately recruit him. Campos’ decisions to stop the first Karpov – Kasparov match is alleged to be at the behest of his Soviet minders. Popov and Felshtinsky write that in both cases the KGB was able to convince Samaranch and Campomanes to cooperate by promising to make them president of their respective organizations with the backing of socialist nations. One small point: the two authors refer to Samaranch and Campomanes being made agents as they do some of the Soviet Grandmasters who informed for the KGB, but the term “asset” or “source” might be more appropriate. The individuals named do not appear to have had any formal training or have been used on an ongoing day-to-day basis. For some and perhaps most, cooperation entailed being a short-term snitch in return for the opportunity to play abroad or other favors. Ideological conviction does not appear to have played a role in their recruitment.

One interesting case that reveals the complexities of the Soviet Union, a place that will likely never be totally understood by anyone who didn’t live there, involves the great Vasily Smyslov who died earlier this year.

Gulko writes in the foreword:

Vasily Smyslov, who took the World Championship title away from Botvinnik for one year in 1957, was not the “Soviet man” that the Communist Party imagined him to be. In 1977, when I was barred from all tournaments for one year for refusing to sign a letter against Kortshnoi, I served as Smyslov’s coach at a competition in Leningrad, held on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik putsch. Smyslov, a religious Christian, described the Soviet government to me as “demonic” during our walks around the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. However, in an age when the possibility to travel to a major tournament was decided not by an invitation from its organizers or by one’s titles, but by the decree of bureaucrats at the Sports Committee, Smyslov made shrewd use of this “demonic government.” He wrote letters to his fans in the upper echelons of the government, got his rivals withdrawn from tournaments, and took their places for himself.

This doesn’t seem very Christian, and was possibly more destructive than some of the behavior engaged in by others condemned as “agents” in this book.

One of the individuals receiving the sharpest condemnation in The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police And The Fight For The World Chess Crown is Nikolai Krogius. Head of the Chess Directorate at the States Sports Committee of the USSR from 1980 to 1990, Krogius had a lot of say in which players would be allowed to go abroad. According to Popov and Felshtinsky, he was recruited by the KGB in 1980 (could anyone heading the Soviet Chess Federation not have been working for the government?) with the codename Endshpil (Endgame).

Gulko writes of Krogius and Yury Averbakh:

Both of the grandmasters were skilled in the art of living cushioned lives under the Communists. To serve the state not by heeding their conscience, but on the contrary, without using their conscience. This was the only path that promised an easy life to members of the creative intelligentsia. And many took it, including talented people.

Time never stands still. Irony of ironies, when the Soviet Union collapses Krogius finds himself moving to the United States as does fellow Gramdmaster Eduard Gufeld and Rona Petrosian, widow of Tigran and another master of milking the Soviet system. In 2001, a book on the endgame (“Just The Facts”) by Krogius is published by Lev Alburt – yes the same fellow who defected from the Soviet Union in 1979 and who spoke for many years of Krogius in less than glowing terms. Now that spirit of forgiveness is truly turning the other cheek.

The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police And The Fight For The World Chess Crown , features four authors for whom English is not their mother tongue and one can imagine the editor/translator for this book had some serious work to do. The occasional article is missing and once in awhile a sentence fragment sneaks in, but the majority of the time this book reads quite smoothly. If you have an interest in chess, politics and the Soviet Union you will find it fascinating reading that is not entirely of historic interest. The Soviet Union may have broken up but chess still occupies an important position in present day Russia up to the highest government levels, as we saw in the recent FIDE elections and the five(!) teams playing for Rodina in Khanty Mansiysk.