Reviews | September 27, 2010 17:32

Review: The KGB Plays Chess

The KGB Plays ChessChess politics is back - in just three days, after a long and memorable election race, we'll finally know if Anatoly Karpov will be the next FIDE President. In truth, politics has always played an important role in the chess world, especially in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The KGB Plays Chess by Boris Gulko, Viktor Korchnoi and others, movingly documents some of the most shocking episodes in Soviet chess politics, in which Karpov was often involved in a rather different role.

The KGB Plays Chess, published this fall by Russell Enterprises, claims, among other things, that Karpov was in fact a KGB agent with the code name "Raul", and was helped in various ways by the Russian secret police to keep his world championship title, which he won by default in 1975, up until the termination of his first match against Kasparov, ten years later.

These claims make it immediately obvious that the book is an important and unique project. It's a collaboration of no less than four authors: GM's Boris Gulko and Viktor Korchnoi, acclaimed Russian journalist Yuri Felshtinsky and former KGB colonel Vladimir Popov. The KGB Plays Chess sheds light on the role and influence of the KGB, the former Soviet secret police, on some of the best chess players of all time. Many of the claims and facts that are in this book are still completely ignored in Russia today.

The KGB Plays Chess

Polish GM Michal Krasenkow reading the Russian edition of the book in Khanty-Mansiysk. The photo was taken by Vladimir Barsky, who reviewed the book for the German magazine Schach. He says that many Russians are trying to ignore the book altogether.

Boris Gulko, currently living in the USA, is one of the most remarkable chess grandmasters in the history of our game. He and his wife Anna, a WGM herself, were allowed to emigrate from Moscow only in 1986, almost ten years after they first tried to apply for emigration from the Soviet Union. In this period, they were blocked, harrassed and humiliated by the KGB and the Soviet regime in ways Viktor Korchnoi feared when he himself defected from the USSR in 1976 and was declared 'persona non grata' by the communist forces. These 'forces' included many strong chess players, most prominently, Anatoly Karpov, whose reign as Chess World Champion almost fully coincided with Gulko's struggle for freedom.

The book, and especially the lengthy chapter written by Gulko, made a deep impression on me of which I am still recovering. Before revealing some of the truly scandalous and sensational contents of the book, I want to address a few of the book's drawbacks and my solution for them. While I think this book should be read by anyone interested in chess history and politics, I have some problems with the way it is presented to the reader. The first of those is the fact that the chapters are ordered in a way that will, I fear, confuse readers.

Boris Gulko

GM Boris Gulko | Photo © James F. Perry, posted on Wikipedia under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 license

The core of the book is the story of Boris Gulko and his escape from the clutches of the Soviet system. Therefore, not to begin the book with his story, as is the case in the current edition, is in my view an editorial mistake. The first chapter contains the 'evidence' Popov and Felshtinsky have collected for the things the KGB did to Soviet chess players (and what some of those players did themselves), and clearly it is important to show that the claims Gulko (and Korchnoi and Kasparov) have made in the past can now, for the first time, be confirmed by someone from inside the KGB itself.

The problem is that Popov and Felshtinsky do not know the ins and outs of the chess world well enough (more about this later on), so their story - which is, after all, about the chess world - is at many points highly confusing. They admirably make up for this lack of knowledge by presenting an overload of facts, names and incidents that supposedly stem from the KGB archives and/or Popov's memory. However, no actual evidence (in the form of document scans, archive copies, etc.) is presented in the book. On top of that, there isn't a single footnote refering to existing documents to corroborate the claims the authors make in the book. This is a serious handicap for a chapter that is supposed to be about 'evidence' of some truly shocking 'facts':

Tigran Petrosian, world chess champion, was recruited in 1973 by officer Anatoly Smaznov of the First Department of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB.

Lev Polugaevsky was recruited in 1980 by Lieutenant Colonel Igor Perfiliev of the Eleventh Department of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB.

Rafael Vaganian was recruited in 1983 by the Fifth Department of the Armenian KGB. Vaganian worked with Soviet grandmasters, including trips abroad.

Eduard Gufeld was recruited in 1981 by Igor Perfiliev. (...)

These are some pretty interesting claims, but as is well knows, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It's largely absent. Apart from this serious lack of concrete evidence (making one suspicious even of claims that are probably factually correct!), Popov and Felshtinsky's style is often not exactly 'factual' but more reminiscent of a genre that has always been popular in Russian literature: novels about (petty) criminals, such as, say, the famous The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov or Dead Souls by Gogol. Here's an example:

When the first president of the International Olympic Committee, Vitaly Smirnov, learned about this strange appointment, he asked: "Is this the same Gavrilin who cuts salami at Gramov's dacha?" Gavrilin's salami-slicing skills compensated for his general lack of culture and inability to communicate with people. He would shock international sports representatives who visited Moscow before the Goodwill Games in 1984 and in later years by taking a greasy newspaper out of his briefcase, in the car on the way from the airport, and extracting from it a salami, which he would then proceed to slice. After that, his guest would be invited to split a bottle of vodka.

While it is certainly true that anecdotes can sometimes reveal useful background information about important persons, note the somewhat clumsy style of the authors, who effectively use the same salami joke no less than three times in a single paragraph. Not exactly Gogol. Equally clumsy is their knowledge of some well-known (to chess players) facts in the history of chess. Thus, they describe the last phase of first Karpov-Kasparov match as follows: "In what seemed to many to be a hopeless situation for Kasparov, he suddenly started winning game after game." Well, not exactly, and in fact Gulko later on sets the record straight by describing how the match really went in a much more confident (and correct) manner.

Which brings us to my solution for reading the book in an understandable way: start with Chapter Two (Gulko's story, about which more later on) and only after reading this, turn to chapter by Popov and Felshtinsky. It will give you a proper frame of reference and you will also be able to make more sense of the name spaghetti the authors present in the first chapter - which, by the way, is not lacking in shocking facts claims.

For instance, both former FIDE President Florencio Campomanes and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch are mentioned as KGB agents serving the wishes of the Soviet regime. Anatoly Karpov himself, too, was a KGB agent (code name "Raul"). In fact, according to this book, Karpov won both matches against Korchnoi (Baguio 1978 and Merano 1981) because he received help from the KGB. For instance, Korchnoi's son, Igor, was held in prison during both matches. But things were apparently even more extreme than this:

The operational group from the KGB also included poisonous substances experts, whose task it was to monitor Karpov's food intake and bowel movements. Their mission was to prevent anyone from putting anything in Karpov's food that could negatively influence the health of the Soviet world champion. In addition, these experts had in their possession special substances that provoked anxiety, caused sleep disturbances, and raised blood pressure. Agents from the operational group were able covertly to enter the premises occupied by Kortchnoi and his team and to work their lodgings over with these substances.

According to the plan worked out by the KGB, if the match were to take a turn that was unfavorable for Karpov, Korchnoi would be given a toxic substance that caused congestive heart failure leading to death. But this was naturally consided only a last resort - if Karpov started losing. (...) But Korchnoi lived, because he lost.

Korchnoi vs Karpov in 1978

Korchnoi vs Karpov in 1978

At such moments in the book, a nice photocopy of the actual list of 'poisonous substances' from the experts, or a written order by a KGB official, would have been a nice bonus for readers with a skeptically inclined attitude. Still, even if only 5% of what's in Popov and Felshtinksy's story is true, it's still an absolutely horrific and important account of what playing chess in the Soviet Union under these circumstances was like. Chess players in the free West can only imagine.

Interesting though the first chapter of The KGB Plays Chess is, it's pale compared to the second, written by Boris Gulko. This is probably the most impressive personal life story I've ever read after The Diary of Anne Frank and Celine's Journey to the End of Night. It's difficult to even begin describing what it is, exactly, that's so compelling about this story of despair, hope and, ultimately, triumph. Is it Gulko's cynicism?

My first contact with the KGB probably occured even before my birth. I was born at the beginning of 1947 in Germany, and I don't think that the pregnancy of the wife of an officer in the Soviet occupation forces would have been left unregistered in the annals of the KGB.

Or his anecdotes, impregnated with sharp and deadly observations?

Once, in the autumn of 1976, I was coming back with the Burevestnik Sports Society team from the European Champions' Cup in the Swedish town of Lund. We spent a couple of hours in Copenhagen. In a large bookstore in the center of the city, I asked the sales clerk where I could buy books in Russian. An elderly Danish woman who was standing next to me turned to me and suggested, maliciously: "In Russia." This was an amusing joke. In bookstores in Russia at that time one could only buy ideological garbage.

His ability to combine personal honesty with profound insight?

"Understand," a [Czechoslovakian] labor union activist from a large Ostrava factory explained to me, "we are not against socialism. But we want socialism with a human face."

Socialism was something that I, strictly speaking, couldn't care less about. Chess is a capitalist game. The winner gets one point, the loser zero. There is no hint of egalitarianism. But with a human face! Not with Brezhnev's face, not with Krushchev's face, but with a human face! "Can such a thing be really possible, in the USSR, too?" I thought.

Or perhaps it is Gulko's bitter and reproachful self-reflection that pervades his story.

Yet I was still allowed to travel abroad at that time. Apparently, the fact that I had gone to Sweden and, fool that I was, returned to the USSR, had played a significant role.

Then again, it may be his loving portrayal of the people around him, the fellow "refuseniks" and his description of their way of life.

The wonderful essayist, poet, and prose writer Yuri Karabchievsky became a close friend of ours. Yuri was a pathologically honest and harmonious person. At the time we first met, not a single word of his had been published in the USSR, since he was physically incapable of working with publishers that were under control of censors. But Karabchievsky did not attempt to leave the Soviet Union either, since he felt that he was part of Russian culture. Yuri published his works in the West and earned a living by working as an engineer, an appliance technicial. The KGB did not grab him, most likely, because Karabchievsky was not an anti-Soviet writer; he was simply completely not Soviet, that is, he was honest and harmonious in every letter he wrote.

In the end, what probably most impressed me was Gulko's persistence in trying to "beat" the KGB in ways not unlike the game of chess is played: by constantly changing his strategy, applying various tactical measures and, ultimately, by showing his toughness and his fighting spirit. Gulko resorted to hunger strikes and endlessly attempted to organize demonstrations in Moscow, to mobilize Western chess players and journalists, everything because he believed he had a right: the right to move to another country.

Somewhere halfway his story, I noticed that I was not bothered at all by the lack of concrete 'evidence' in this chapter. Then I understood why: Gulko's is a personal story, not a journalistic effort. That isn't to say the claims he makes aren't true. In fact, I'd say his version is even more reliable than Popov and Felshtinksy's because Gulko stays objective all the time. For example, in the following description of a spontaneous speech he delivers - right inside the lion's den - to plea for the release Igor Korchnoi, note how he can't help agreeing with his biggest enemies about the tournament's organization:

The main unpleasantness was waiting for them at the championship's closing ceremony. In the biggest hall of the Central Chess Club of the USSR, behind a long table, sat the Moscow officials. The hall was full of people. The officials began praising each one another for the tournament's excellent organization, wich was indeed good. At the end of the event, after they finished praising each other and began to relax, I walked up to the table and announced that I wanted to say a few words.

Also, Gulko convincingly describes how paranoia takes over when you're in a situation such as the refuseniks were under the Soviets. "In general, I didn't know anyone whom someone didn't suspect of being an informant." Such candid observations make it easy to believe him on other points - some of which are crass indeed. Especially Karpov - who was a known Soviet supporter at the time - finds himself at the receiving end in this book. The following fragment is striking not only because of its harshness towards the 12th World Champion, but also because it's a great, nuanced description of creativity under the Soviet regime, no doubt easily applicable in other situations:

Anatoly Karpov in those days was extraordinarily influential. He was a unique phenomenon in Soviet life, a genuinely exceptional figure in terms of creativity and at the same time faithful to the Communist Party and the KGB nomenklatura. Good writers were opposed to the government by definition. Only hacks like Safronov or Kochetov were loyal. (...) The great composer of the Soviet period, Dmitri Shostakovich, accepted all kinds of honors and official titles while he lived, but when he died he left behind memoirs that made Soviet officials' skin crawl. The most prominent representative of the scientific world in those days was Andrei Sakharov.

Only in chess was the Soviet nomenklatura able to raise the kind of crop that had, in effect, been the goal of the Revolution of 1917. Furthermore, Karpov had the right ethnic background - by contrast, way, with the Jewish ideological Communist Botvinnik. And a "faithful" Communist was not at all the same thing as an "ideological" one. (...) In any politicial situation Karpov knew which statement was the right statement. I remember an interview he gave at the time to the magazine Studenchesky Meridian.

Karpov was asked to describe the most memorable event in his life. Any loyal Soviet citizen would have replied, of course, that it was not his first kiss or his victory in the world chess championship (...) buy his meeting with Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (...). Karpov began his answer in exactly this way. But in contrast to an ordinary Soviet person, Karpov did not stop there and continued: "There was another memorable event in my life: the adoption of the New Soviet Constitution of 1977."

Again, a footnote referring to the page on which volume of mentioned magazine this interview can be found would have been nice, but that doesn't mean it is a rather disillusioning (and, after reading this book I suppose, correct) picture of the very same person who's currently running for FIDE President...

Anyway, I guess you should read the stories about Karpov, Korchnoi and Kasparov (and many others) yourself and judge whether you believe all of them or not. Some them annoyingly overlap with what Popov and Felshtinsky write about - but despite an excellent index at the end of the book, the texts themselves don't seem to have been cross-checked for factual consistency. For example, what exactly happened in 1983 during the negotiations of the (postponed) Kasparov-Korchnoi semi-finals is portrayed in three fundamentally different ways by Popov&Felshtinsky, Gulko and Korchnoi (who wrote the lengthy Afterword).

The KGB Plays Chess

The Russian edition of the book, published in 2009 in Moscow

That said, I think the most memorable part of the book is actually connected to Gulko's own fate. In his constant conflict with the KGB - who bugged his phone and appartment for years and actively followed not only him and his wife, but also members of his family - he also discovers some pretty cool (I thought) things, such as that shouting in public that a certain person is, in fact, a KGB agent, makes the agent run away as quickly as possible: "there were certain rules that they, too, had to obey. Thus, their membership in the 'organization' could not be revealed in public."

As Mikhail Gorbachev comes in power ("a big change from the three half-corpses who had reigned before him") in 1985, Gulko and his wife Anya sense a change in the air and they ultimately seize it - but not before overcoming some terrible ordeals lasting several years, not only including "petty tricks by the KGB", but also, among others, prolonged detention and extreme psychological warfare. One clear but terrible picture emerges from these pages: if you were a chess player (or indeed any other citizen) in those days and you didn't like the Soviet Union or the KGB, then you were in deep, deep shit. Fortunately for him, Gulko's story has a happy end - but (as he points out himself many times) countless Soviet dissident stories do not.

The Afterword by Viktor Korchnoi - probably the most famous chess dissident of all time - is interesting in its own right. Apart from more or less expected sneers towards the usual suspects ("the shameless Campomanes"), it is also full of nuance. For example, Korchnoi is quite forgiving towards KGB colonel Viktor Litvinov, Kasparov's former "manager", who is treated rather less mercifully in other chapters. But look what Korchnoi writes about him:

The [first] world championship match between Karpov and Kasparov would soon begin. I saw the entire Soviet chess machine before me. But the only person who I felt was for Kasparov was Litvinov. And I found a convenient moment, called him aside, and took him for a walk in order to tell him some of my observations about the strong and weak sides of Karpov's game and behavior. A colonel of the KGB and an inveterate enemy of that organization and of the Soviet Union - strolling about London in peaceful conversation!

Naturally, there were snitches who immediately informed about Colonel Litvinov's "dubious behaviour" and he was reprimanded by the high command. My apologies to Litvinov. I did not want to create difficulties for him. But I hope that my comments were useful to Kasparov...

Kasparov's place in The KGB Plays Chess is a minor curious thing itself. All authors praise him to no end. In the final chapter of the book, a (rather mysterious) Letter from Vladimir Popov (to Felshtinsky) is reproduced. It is in part about the situation in Putin's Russia (the letter dates from 2007), but it is also about Kasparov. Popov "officially declares" that "for the entire period of his sports career in the USSR, Kasparov was under constant surveillance by the KGB". While this is at least credible, Popov then goes on in rather populist fashion:

Under surveillance, Kasparov proved himself to be a person of true humanist and democratic convictions, never making any deals with the authorities that went against his own notions. By doing so, he sometimes placed his professional future at risk, but he never compromised his principles. That is just the kind of man he is.

Popov's letter is a strange and somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion to an absolutely gripping read. There are simply too many noteworthy passages to quote them all. This review can only offer a glimpse of what is described, but I hope I've convinced you that you should read this book, even if you do it in a different order than was intended by the publisher. Even if you're not particularly interested in chess politics, be it current or historic, or even the Soviet Union, you should read the second chapter of The KGB Plays Chess as an inspiring testimony of hope, courage and human survival.



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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


steven's picture

Celine's "Voyage au bout de la nuit" is not a "personal life story", it's a work of fiction,
(partly) inspired on Celine's own life, which is something completely different.
Style was for Celine a matter of the uttermost importance, and it would send shivers down his spine to see his masterpiece in any way comapred or related to diaries or works of journalism,a category to which this book both stylistically and conceptually most certainly belongs.

Mark Crowther's picture

Darn, I was trying to get hold of this book in English. It doesn't quite sound like the book I wanted it to be either. What I'd like to see is extensive quotes from the KGB files. In particular I'd like to see material on Keres after the war. Any mention of this period that isn't hearsay?

Arne Moll's picture

@Mark: Keres isn't mentioned in the book, which is really about the seventies and eighties, not the decades before.

@steven: Perhaps Celine's novel is not a life story in the strictest sense, but I'm sure you'll agree it's in the same league as Anne Frank's diary in portraying a particular (non-fictional) world view and 'zeitgeist' in a very impressive manner. This is what I had in mind with my comparison. (Gulko's story, by the way, is certainly not a work of journalism. For instance, most of the dialogues in the book must surely be fiction. All personal life stories are to some degree fictional. I agree there's a difference with Celine but frankly I don't care in this context :-) )

shane's picture

dear arne!

I know that some occasionally criticise or correct your English expression. Next time that happens, you might refer them to this great great sentence:

"One clear but terrible picture emerges from these pages: if you were a chess player (or indeed any other citizen) in those days and you didn’t like the Soviet Union or the KGB, then you were in deep, deep shit. "


Bert de Bruut's picture

Celine's "Journey", nor Anne Frank's book for that matter, is not compared with or related to the book under review in any way, apart from the similar impression these books made on the reviewer.

Hatsekidosie's picture

"Note the somewhat clumsy style of the authors."
"Not exactly Gogol."

Know thyself.

vladimirOo's picture

My guess is that the main problem of this book relies in the fact that it is not the work of historians. I mean, an historian would never have given such a controversial book without the support of a precise documentation. There, despite my admiration for all these great players, the first thing i notice is that they are all very biaised, which is normal considering what they lived, and some unfortunately known for their paranoical assertions (Korchnoi and Kasparov) : whether it being fair or not, it cast suspicion on this work.

This is a far too much one-sided book, it really lacks an objective authority (such as an historian). I believe that they tought the KGB agent would play this role, but, since you say that he does not bring any proof, i fear that we are compelled to read again 'Anti-chess' or the series 'Modern Chess' about the KK matches. And i personnaly know that russians are really fond of this kind of KGB story, secret soviet conspiracies etc.

At least, Gulko's story seems to be something new.

Anybody knows if somebody ever did neutral and methodic search on chess during the CCCR, not a chess player or somebody not belonging to our world?

Anonymous's picture
Arne Moll's picture

@vladimirOo: You're right, though I don't think anybody can in their right mind deny the general truthfulness of what's said in this book: that the KGB and the Soviet authorities indeed used to do the sort of things they are accused of by the authors.
For what it's worth, it is also largely consistent with descriptions from other creative areas such as music and literature.

What's tougher to evaluate are the concrete accusations in this book: even though there were many secret agents working for the KGB, that surely doesn't prove Karpov was also one of them. And even though I'm sure the KGB has poisoned some of their opponents, it doesn't follow Korchnoi was to be treated in the same way. For this we need a more rigorous kind of evidence than the memories of a former KGB colonel. I find it incomprehensible that the authors of this book (and the publisher) appear not to have noticed this obvious problem.

Coco Loco's picture

Oh, you want hard proof? Of course. (Former) Officer Anatoly Smaznov of the First Department of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB, could you please make a photocopy of Tigran Petrosian's payroll record for me. Thank you very much.

Germany made the Stasi records public. Last I heard, Russia hadn't quite done so yet.

Casablanca's picture

What about the Hazer Baturinsky? Is this fat pig all over the book like he was all over the Sports Committee?

Arne Moll's picture

@Casablanca: of course he is.
For instance, Gulko describes how Baturinsky personally called up players who were paired against Gulko to recommend them to "go all out" because this was "very important" for them. Embarrassed, the players usually offered draws after just a few moves, but Gulko, who was of course unaware of these phone calls, refused and real games were played after all. His conclusion is noteworthy:

"This story demonstrates once more the fecklessness with which the party managed sports. A person cannot run faster, throw farther, or think better because this is important for the triumph of an ideology - an ideology that he might not even share. One can, of course, order someone to lose; but one cannot order anyone to win."

Henk de Jager's picture

Hmmmm.....Celine´s Voyage au bout de la nuit has biographical elements, but is in its core still a novel and definitely not a life story.

noyb's picture

I've not yet read the book (I will purchase it), but Coco Loco is on the right track; as was Arne. Until we have copies or better still the original KGB records, papers, files, etc., we don't have anything but stories...

jussu's picture

Despite the explicit praise, this review leaves me with the impression that the book is a big pile of crap, with Gulko's story mixed in for some decency. Throwing mud around with no factual evidence is pretty low, and even if most of it is true then what about the rest?

"Even if only 5% of what’s in Popov and Felshtinksy’s story is true..." - No, if you accuse a number of random prominent people from the USSR of contacts with KGB then you should get much higher hit percentage. It was a rule that after a trip aboard, people were contacted by KGB and asked questions. Pretty much everyone turns out to be KGB informant this way.

V's picture

And the authors of this gulko-crap will receive some money. Don't choke of the bones of Petrosian, Polugaevsky and Co.

inky's picture

I was active in chess and FIDE during the whole decade of the seventies, and could tell some very different stories than I've gathered from the reviews.

Karpov was certainly not a member of the KGB after his first defense of his title (which the Soviet Chess Federation stole for him from Bobby Fischer in much the same way that Kirsan stole the last FIDE Presidential election and is attempting to steal this one). Karpov was actually followed by KGB members in the guise of interpreters.

High ranking members of the Federation had real interpreters, one of whom was kept from defecting because her daughter was not allowed to accompany her on any trips to the West.

Campomanes did many things that were suggested by the Soviets, but that was because he did not have the nerves necessary to stand up to the KGB, just as many people now do not have the nerves necessary to stand up to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. He is, after all, a murderer - and this has a lot of fact behind it. (I know, he did not wield the murder weapons - he only controlled those who did).

I will not buy the book because I do not wish to enrich those who would publish these sour grapes - especially against Karpov at a time when he is running against the rogue who has ruined our FIDE.

machete's picture

Also fisher spoken about tough time he had on candidates tournaments because soviet players quickly drew their games and arranging their games, so definitely KGB was very strong player

Nima's picture

Perhaps Korchnoi's Chess is My Life (published in the 80s I believe) would be a good compliment to this book. In it, he gives detailed description of some of the things he had to endure in the Soviet Union as aomeone unpopular with the authorities.

From what I remember, Korchnoi describes Karpov as a person who did not shy from utilizing the privileges offered to him by the Soviet system. At the same time, he does not portray Karpov as a malicious person but a skillful politician. He also makes it clear that Karpov really wanted to play Fischer for the title, and the match was sabotaged against his wishes.

Casablanca's picture

I mean chazer of course, the jiddish word for pig.

andi's picture

I agree with inky . It's obiuse that policy have a mane role in other event all over the world such professional sport that containing so match many ,attribute and acceptability . It not only in chess also in many of other popular sports like football...
But it not means that youe most Lose to Live!
In recent situations it's a very suspicious movment to destroy karpov authority.
No doubt that is one of best world chess players for many years and his victories not by accommodation with KGB.It's very geat BLUFF!!

snits's picture


Actually Felshtinksy is Western trained historian with a PhD in History. The lack of any citations of evidence to back up the claims is a very poor job on his part.

Mephisto Hellström's picture

Dear Arne,

Thanx for the review!
(Maybe nice to know for your german-reading audience that this book was already in print since December 2009 with the title: 'Der KGB setzt matt: Wie der sowjetische Geheimdienst die Schachwelt manipulierte'?)

voor's picture

Thank you for a great article Arne. Keep up the great work! I have ordered the book and plan to start with chapter 2.

Perhaps Fischer was justified in his fear of the Soviets attempting to harm him. I'd like to think his rabid anti-semetic rants were a cover to ward the Soviets off, but I doubt it.

test's picture

I'm with jussu on this.

Looks like a big missed opportunity to me from reading this review. Even if there are some grains of truth in the book; if one cannot make the distinction between fact and fiction the whole thing becomes useless.

Arne Moll's picture

@test, jussu: Gulko's chapter - the biggest chunk of the book - is most certainly not useless, nor is it a 'pile of crap'. There are different standards for life stories and journalistic efforts. Read the piece by Gulko and then let me know if you still think what you're saying now.

Lothar's picture

"According to the plan worked out by the KGB, if the match were to take a turn that was unfavorable for Karpov, Korchnoi would be given a toxic substance that caused congestive heart failure leading to death. But this was naturally consided only a last resort – if Karpov started losing. (…) But Korchnoi lived, because he lost."

So why didn't they kill Korchnoi when the score was 5-5? One more win and he would have been World Champion.

call_me_ishmael's picture

There is no doubt that the KGB had a strong hand in Soviet chess, but lets not pretend that Jews where somehow victims of the Soviet Union. Jews created the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union slaughtered millions of it's own citizens, mostly Christians.

In the end, the Soviet Union was like Frankenstein's monster, turning on it's creator i.e. the Jewish intellectuals. Let's not forget how Jewish players like Botvinnik profited from the KGB's influence in chess. The 1948 Championship Tournament is the perfect example. If you're going to write a book about the KGB's influence in Soviet Chess you cannot leave out the fact that Botvinnik was the Communist regime's biggest supporter among the Soviet Grandmasters and the biggest beneficiary of the KGB's "dirty tricks" .

Arne Moll's picture

@call_me_ishmael: "lets not pretend that Jews where somehow victims of the Soviet Union"

Who's pretending this? And who's "leaving out facts"? I suggest you read the book first before criticizing it.

CAL|Daniel's picture

I will never read this book simply because I have met Gulko. I have never met a more detestable person in my life.

voor's picture

@CAL/Daniel: What specifically did GM Gulko do or say that caused you to find him detestable?
He seems kind, gentle and intelligent to me. Both he and his wife appear to be wonderful people. And their chess games are beautiful and instructive.

CAL|Daniel's picture

I met him at the US Championship. I greeted him and asked for his signature. I complimented him on his beautiful win. He threw my pen to the ground and told me to (expletive deleted) off. Thats hardly a nice thing to say to a person who was previous a fan BEFORE they met the a-hole whose chess they were admiring.

voor's picture

No that was not a nice thing to say.

Perhaps he was having a bad day. I know that when I say mean things and regret them later I feel badly. I try to remember that mean and hateful words can hurt, and once out of my mouth I cannot retrieve them. One cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube.

Maybe if you forgive his rudeness and let it go good things will come your way.

CAL|Daniel's picture

Good things will come my way just by avoiding him, in the states its common knowledge that the one thing VK and BG share is their terrible attitude towards people. They are genuine jerks.

voor's picture

Well thankfully my experiences were different. I met VK in Amsterdam and he graciously took a photo with my grandson and was very sweet. I met Gulko in New Jersey USA and he spoke at a childrens chess lecture. At that time he seemed nice. They both have been through a lot of bad things in life.

If it is common knowledge in the states that they share a terrible attitude toward people you should certainly avoid them.

jo's picture

@CAL Daniel

If its such common knowledge in the states that they are genuine come you were such a fan...sounds like a little ingenuity on your part.

As an analogy to your pointless statement

Solzhenitsyn didn't have much of a reputation for his social skills in the states either.

What exactly would that have to do with the extent of his KGB problems is beyond me.

I imagine that many who have been oppressed may lose some of their Joie de vivre and maybe even more so feelings of bonhomie to their fellow man.

I have not read the book, do not intend to, and have no opinion on its merits.

CAL|Daniel's picture

Quite simply Jo, at the time I was very new to chess having only played it 6months. I was unaware of the 'common knowledge' until the incident occurred. When I relayed the incident to my friends, the answer was always "didn't you know he was an a-hole?"

As to the merit of the book, I would have trouble believing ANYONE that makes such claims as these without evidence. The review Arne has done indicates there is no evidence whatsoever only 4 people's words that we are supposed to take as fact. I would never take anything Gulko says ever as a fact in regards to people that have oppressed him (hasn't anyone ever heard of the word 'bias?' let alone select memory bias?).

Arne Moll's picture

"The review Arne has done indicates there is no evidence whatsoever only 4 people’s words that we are supposed to take as fact."

That's not true, CalDaniel. Many things are facts and can be easily checked from looking at other sources. The only thing I have trouble with are the extraordinary claims and the fact that there are no footnotes to point to the actual references. But the fact that the footnotes aren't there (quite inconvenient) doesn't mean things cannot be checked in principle, or haven't been checked by the editors.

Zooty's picture

I think the main question is what it means when we're told that for example Polugaevsky was "recruited by the KGB". Did Polu torture dissidents in a basement in Moscow, or did he submit a report on his recent tournament? Or is he just to be found on some obscure list?
Is there any elaboration in the book on what these grandmasters actually were performing for the KGB, if they ever did?

Arne Moll's picture

@Zooty: According to the authors, most of the chess players that had ties with the KGB were "informants", i.e. they passed sensitive information on to the KGB about chess players who were under "surveillance". It's all a little vague and unspecific, although I do not doubt that there must indeed have been chess players who did pass information about their colleagues to the authorities, just like there were informants among musicians, artists, scientists, etc.

noyb's picture

Well Arne, you're review inspired me to purchase the book. I eagerly look forward to the chance to form my own opinion. I've collected a number of books on Soviet Chess Politics and have written a paper on the subject. Certainly the book won't be boring!

Arne Moll's picture

I'd be interested in your opinion once you have read it, noyb.

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