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4.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable Chess History
Written in 2007, this is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the world's best chess players over the last 700 years. We learn of the careers of the players, the sporting ebb and flow of the matches they played against each other, and the political context of the games. The chess itself is only mentioned in passing (no diagrams), but it whetted my appetite to look up to the...
Published on 9 April 2012 by Andy

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good story, but not by a historian
I really looked forward to reading this, and in a sense was not disappointed - it's a very readable style, and the character portraits are strong and interesting.

It certainly fills in a lot of detail about US vs USSR chess and more besides.

But although i enjoyed it and would recommend it, there are major shortcomings. The author's biography says he...
Published on 25 Feb 2008 by Martyn


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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good story, but not by a historian, 25 Feb 2008
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Martyn - See all my reviews
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This review is from: White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard (Hardcover)
I really looked forward to reading this, and in a sense was not disappointed - it's a very readable style, and the character portraits are strong and interesting.

It certainly fills in a lot of detail about US vs USSR chess and more besides.

But although i enjoyed it and would recommend it, there are major shortcomings. The author's biography says he writes on chess for the Times and Daily Telegraph, and frankly that comes through loud and clear in the way he discusses the major chess and also political players of the time.

To have real authority a book like this needs a real historian's touch, a realistic but objective portrayal of events without hyperbole. But instead we are given 'facts' such as: 'Lenin usually found time for chess amid his politicking, writing and skirt-chasing'. In contrast Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II (yes, really) are the three 'conservative revolutionaries' (is this a contradiction in terms??) who brought down the Soviet system, through (my equally unobjective take here) their near-nuclear-war-causing aggression and gun-waving.

Despite the USSR getting the first satellite and then the first man into space, we're told it 'only excelled at two things: war and chess'. Admittedly, they ultimately couldn't keep up and ironically, he points out what might have been closer to the truth - the increasing technological advances caused by free capitalist competition as opposed to the corrupt closed Soviet system.

All this unnecessary over-the-top one-sidedness, when we all know the failings of the USSR (whilst, incidentally, being aware of the failings of the West), simply detracts from what would otherwise have been a first rate book. This is not just due to the exaggeration in itself, but where one disagrees with aspects of the perspective given on events one knows something about, it casts doubt on the rest.

So i was left with a slight feeling of wondering how much i could trust the chess anecdotes (though admittedly they seem for the most part reasonably well researched) when i was a little sceptical of the political commentary.

I'd strongly recommend a hardy edit prior to paperback publication, in order to give this book a more robust objective backbone on which to build this powerful story of the politics behind late 20th-century chess.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars White King and Red Queen, 21 Oct 2009
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Spider Monkey (UK) - See all my reviews
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I am inclined to agree with the first two reviews for this book and offer up my own thoughts on `White King and Red Queen'. Whilst very well written and fascinating for someone interested in Chess, this book places way too much importance on Chess in the political events of the Cold War years. Although the political history on it's own is good and the chess accounts on their own are great, together the links are highly tenuous and makes the book weaker overall. I am sure Chess was important for national prestige and pride, but I doubt it had the political impact the author suggests here. This book has three photo sections which illustrate the various stories and events well and although it is a little dry in places, the writing is engaging and informative. The initial chapters were probably the hardest to engage with, but the chapters on Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky were great, as were the later ones covering Kasparov. If you are a fan of chess then this book will keep you reading and interested throughout, but if you come to this from a historical angle then I feel you will be left feeling frustrated and dubious about the veracity of what is being recounted. A highly polished, but author biased account of Cold War era chess.

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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Chess enthusiast exaggerates importance of the game in shaping global politics., 27 Jan 2008
By 
John Foley (Kingston-upon-Thames, England.) - See all my reviews
This review is from: White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard (Hardcover)
The author is a chess enthusiast who wants to show how important chess was in shaping the Cold War. This book is a labour of love and provides descriptions of some fascinating characters. The most apposite story concerns the late lamented Bobby Fischer who won the world championship for the USA against USSR in 1972. The match was played at the height of the Cold War and achieved considerable media interest as a political metaphor. The book repeats the commonly-held view that Fischer was the product of the west. The author sees the ultimate outcome of the Cold War as discrediting anything that the Soviets did - including chess. The book fails to make this argument persuasive.

The paradox is that Bobby Fischer was really playing for himself and not the USA. The free-thinking Fischer was a singular genius. He had prepared for the match by consulting Russian chess research. He didn't participate in any national celebrations upon his victory. Fischer eventually lost USA citizenship after becoming mentally unstable. Fischer was always his own man which is why he was as admired as much in the Soviet Union as he was in the west. The former Soviet empire still dominates chess although this is beginning to change not in favour of the west but because of the rise of India and China.

The book does not show that the Fischer chess match or any other match made any material difference to the outcome of the Cold War. The major factors determining the outcome of the Cold War included the comparative success of market economies, the technological advances by the west and the globalisation of democracy. The author does not refer to these historical mechanisms but instead gets diverted into a plethora of chess anecdotes. Even the discussion on Nathan Sharansky and Gary Kasparov is stretched beyond credulity in connecting with the Cold War. Sharansky used chess to keep his mind active whilst in the Gulag. Kasparov became famous as a great chess player and then retired to take up politics full time. However, any celebrity starts at an advantage in gaining public recognition. Perhaps Kasparov is regarded as having formidable intellectural powers on account of the cerebral nature of chess. Yet this is a thin political justification for holding out chess as having a special status in the former Soviet Union.

Read this book if you are a chess enthusiast who likes weird and wonderful anecdotes. Other books tell better stories about Fischer and other chess greats, but this one tries to pull the various stories into one narrative. Stand by to be disappointed by the absence of any chess diagrams or notation. Perhaps the publisher felt that the market was wider than for chess players and did not want to frighten away other readers. Stephen Hawking omitted equations from his Brief History of Time because it would reduce readership. If you are a historian interested in the Cold War then you can safely exclude this book from your reading list. If you are a general reader, then be prepared for curious diversions, leaps of logic and unabashed anti--Russian propaganda.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable Chess History, 9 April 2012
By 
Andy (Berkshire, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard (Hardcover)
Written in 2007, this is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the world's best chess players over the last 700 years. We learn of the careers of the players, the sporting ebb and flow of the matches they played against each other, and the political context of the games. The chess itself is only mentioned in passing (no diagrams), but it whetted my appetite to look up to the highlights of those great matches since the War.

Clearly the focus is on Russia and the Soviet Union, if only because so many of the greatest players came from there. But other players are mentioned where necessary (i.e., Bobby Fischer), and there's an interesting - one might say poignant - chapter on computer chess, and in particular what it showed about how Soviet computer technology fell behind the West during the 70s and 80s.

As a non-historian, I didn't appreciate quite how chaotic Russia has been over the last 200 years, and how relatively stable (!) it appears to be in these times. For those great masters of the 20th Century, chess was such a different occupation - so much more serious - than it ever was for, say, those dilettante English players who they routinely beat for so long.

Recommended for anyone at all curious about the subject.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars How a clueless American journalist is still fighting his Cold War, 9 Aug 2010
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This review is from: White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard (Hardcover)
This book attempts to tell the story of Soviet Union turning chess into a tool of politics, an ideological weapon to be used against the free world, to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism. A former long-time tournament player, I found the subject extremely interesting.

The first huge disappointment was the introduction. The last thing I expected to see in a book with such a title and subtitle was blatant election propaganda - that is, the author's opinions about certain candidates on Russian presidental elections. Just because one of them is a famous chess player doesn't mean that the current methods of power struggle in Russia have even the slightest to do with chess. So that part most definitely doesn't belong in a book like this.

Secondly, Mr. Hoffman displays striking superficiality and ignorance of the subject at hand. Let me give you a comparison. If someone studies the history of France, he is bound to learn that there have been several French kings named Louis. So, should you read a book mentioning French kings named Luis XII, Luis XIII and Luis XIV, you'd find it hard to take the author seriously, wouldn't you (unless the book was in Spanish)? Similarly, anyone who studies the early history of Soviet Union is bound to become quite familiar with the name Sergo (Sergey/Sergei/Sergej) Ordzhonikidze. Mr. Johnson is repeatedly misspelling that name as Ordzhonikadze, which clearly proves that the name means nothing to him. He has just picked it up somewhere and used it, without bothering to even write it down correctly. It's amazing. It's like reading a book on American history that repeatedly refers to the famous Benjamin "Frinklin".

Thirdly, Mr. Hoffman expresses some very stupid ideas. Quote (p XXIX): "The cumbersome system of qualifying tournaments and matches run by the World Chess Federation, FIDE, militated against Western grandmasters who lacked the backup provided by the state-sponsored Soviet chess machine." He goes on to describe how the New York Times "threw down the gauntlet" by proposing that the US grandmaster Reshevsky be allowed to play a world championship match against Botvinnik without having to pass any qualifications.
Americans' arrogance being legendary, the above childish nonsense is still unbelievable. How can anybody, even an American, seriously claim that winning one match carries more weight than winning several tournaments? Cumbersome?? Probably Mr. Johnson would have preferred an agreement that the world champions would alternatingly come from the USA and the USSR, and then the Americans could have chosen their best chess player by popular vote? After all, why play even matches which are so oppressive and limiting to the extraordinary geniuses who abound in the USA? Giving the title to someone just because he plays better chess is so undemocratic, isn't it?

Last but not least, I feel that the book contains way too little information about the history of chess and way too much whining about the supposed anti-semitism in the Soviet Union. As I learned in late 80's, there was indeed quite a lot of anti-semitist sentiment among the Russians, but Mr. Hoffman distorts the facts in a way Joseph Goebbels himself would be proud of. Let me give you some examples.
Mr. Johnson talks in length about Jews' large-scale emigration from USSR to Israel. After mentioning that 31 000 Jews got a permission to emigrate in 1972, he tells about a prominent Jew who was denied that permission. Mr. Johnson has the nerve to lament that as proof of the Soviet regime's profound anti-semitism. I found myself staring in utter disbelief at this mind-blowing display of Mr. Johnson's utter stupidity or arrogance, or both. Mr. Johnson talks like emigrating from Soviet Union had been a right or something. He apparently doesn't realise that the Soviet Union of that era was a country where an attempt to leave the country without authorisation carried a long jail term for treason. To even request a permission to emigrate would have resulted, if not in imprisonment, then at the very least in yourself and all your close relatives being brandmarked for life as politically suspicious. Soviet authorities allowing a person to emigrate - that's like the US authorities granting someone a permission to produce and sell crack. If I try really hard, I can almost understand why the Soviet government chose to deport rather than enjail a world-famous dissident like Solzhenitsyn. But I still can't grasp how it's possible that not one, not ten, but a staggering number of 31 000 Jews got a permission to emigrate to not any country but to Israel, the USSR's arch-enemy, in year 1972 alone. That is anything but a manifestation of anti-semitism. It is an incredible, unreal, amazing proof that the Jews were living in a very different kind of Soviet Union than I was. It would have been easy to find ten if not hundred times that amount of people (of various ethnicities) who would have literally killed for an opportunity to leave the Soviet Union by any means, legal or illegal. But for most people, even a one-week trip to Eastern Germany remained a life-long hopeless dream, while Jews somehow managed to get permissions to leave the country for good, by tens of thousands.
Another quote: "Nonetheless, Jewish identity papers [in post-WWII USSR] bore the word "Jew" and this indelible stigma was used to deprive them of opportunities for education or employment." (p 75) This quote is so mind-blowingly idiotic that I don't know where to begin explaining. The word "Jew" in the identity papers was not some sorts of a subtler form of the yellow star as Mr. Johnson is suggesting. The ethnicity was recorded in every Soviet citizen's documents. (Do I need to tell you that there was, of course, no such thing as "Jewish identity papers"?) Other than Western democracies who honour everyone's equal right to be assimiliated into their country's dominant ethnic group, the Soviet Union actually recognised everyone's right to be identified by his ethnicity. If the Jews are ashamed to be called Jews, it's their problem, not mine. But I can assure you that the members of most so-called ethnic minorities (actually, indigenous peoples in their historic homelands forced to live under Russians) cherished those entries in their documents very highly. Another thing Mr. Johnson is not telling you (or maybe he just hasn't bothered to find out) is that when a person was issued his first ID upon reaching the age of 16, he was quite free to choose his official ethnicity. I mean, you couldn't claim to be a Komi if you were obviously Armenian, but I find it rather unlikely that anyone who was fluent in Russian would have had any difficulties having his official ethnicity recorded as Russian. So, I believe that for most Jews, it would have been possible to get rid of their "indelible stigma", had they wanted to.

I was about to write that Mr. Hoffman writes like some sensation journalist. Checking his background, I found out that he actually is a newspaper columnist or something. Indeed, this book is written the way journalists "research" things, being much more interested in entertaining the reader than the truth.

This book might have some curiosity value to those to whom the words "cold war on chess board" are something totally new, but if you already know something about it and want to deepen your knowledge, don't bother. This is light entertainment lacking any analysis - merely a journalist writing to capture the reader's interest but not really caring about the subject. As to really intriguing mysteries of the chess cold war (like what really happened to Paul Keres in that 1948 tournament), Mr. Hoffman says nothing more than "maybe it was like this, but maybe it was like that".

To sum up, this book is a complete piece of, um, incompetence. I learned hardly a thing I didn't know before, and I can write much better anti-communist rants than Mr. Johnson, thank you. Didn't need to pay $15.61 for that.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, 11 Mar 2010
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"If the Cold War was the best thing that ever happened to chess, chess furnished the best metaphor for the Cold War."
The metaphor between chess and the Cold War may seem obvious, but not so obvious that anyone has written about it in such depth before Daniel Johnson. Perhaps only Johnson is well placed enough to have written this account of the rise and fall of chess, and its players, during the Soviet era. He was not only a talented young chess-player, but went on to become a journalist reporting as the Wall fell. With his editor's eye for a good narrative, he is uniquely placed to tell this story.

As a reader who came to this book knowing nothing of chess beyond a vague memory of the basic moves, I found it accessible and compelling. It is nicely structured, encapsulating the history of chess, the appeal of chess to the Russian - particularly the Russian intellectual - mind, and the appeal of chess to the Soviet mentality.

Johnson's narrative really lifts as the Cold War reached its climax in the 60's and 70's, and the chapter detailing the Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky match at Reykjavik (1972) is utterly compelling. The characters emerge, fully treated, as fascinating individuals grappling with their historical circumstances. From KGB dirty tricks to psychological mind games, 'White King and Red Queen' has it all.
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