Chess great made a game out of world aggression

January 22, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Hard to believe, kids, but 25 years ago the entire world was on the edge of its seat, awaiting the results of - a game.

Remind your parents of that the next time they complain that you are playing too much Wii.

In 1972, the game was chess and all that was at stake was world domination. It was the Ruskies versus the red, white and blue. Bobby versus Boris.

I was only 12, but I remember that chess match like it was yesterday. Actually, with the onset of middle-age, short-term memory loss, I remember it a lot better than yesterday, in which I recall that I got out of bed, but everything after that is kind of a blur.

But Bobby Fischer's death last week certainly resonated with me, as it did with the entire generation of people out there who have no idea how to program a cell phone.


If you're younger than 30 - if, when you hear the term "Evil Empire" you think New York Yankees - this might seem strange, this worship of a chess-hero-turned-Holocaust-denying weirdo. But it was a strange time.

The situation, see, was that we were mortal enemies with the Soviet Union. Why? Because they were a bunch of godless Marxists. What's a Marxist? I don't remember, but it was a Very Bad Thing, there's no denying that.

If the United States and the Soviet Union had existed in the 1500s, they would have fought a big war, someone would have won and that would have been that.

But back in the 1970s, America never went to war with the USSR because we were too busy trying to figure out what was wrong with our Chevy Vegas. (Answer: The aluminum engine had melted.) Yes, we were a superpower, but we were insecure, like Tom Cruise.

The Soviets and Americans didn't fight, we just sat across the globe, glowering at, and trying to one-up, each other. We got the hydrogen bomb, they got more hydrogen bombs. We put missiles in Turkey, they put missiles in Cuba. They put a man in space, we walked on the moon. We invented Hacky Sack, they made more hydrogen bombs.

As a matter of fact, collecting bombs was a big hobby for both sides. Bizarre as it sounds, at any given time, any schoolchild could tell you how many nuclear missiles they had, versus how many missiles we had. They had more missiles, but accounting for Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles, we had more warheads. That was an important distinction, we felt.

These bombs were like marbles. No one ever played marbles when I was a kid; you just collected them and sat around bragging about how many you had.

And we collected countries, too. He who dies with the most puppet governments wins. We wanted to stick it to the Soviet Union, so we attacked the North Vietnamese. The Soviet Union wanted to stick it to the United States, so it attacked Afghanistan. Makes sense.

So did the fact that we would get other people to attack other governments and the Soviets, in turn, would get their own other people to attack our other people, who were attacking the other governments on our behalf. Imagine trying to make sense of this at age 12.

So what, really, did the Soviet Union ever do to us? Well, its leader once pounded his shoe on a desk. And once they added a few seconds to a game clock so they could win a basketball game.

I know. As you are reading this, it is hard for you to contain your outrage. It's hard to believe we didn't blow them to smithereens right then and there.

So into this cauldron of tension stepped Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, two of the top chess grandmasters of the world. They played their match in Iceland, and the USA won.

To a kid who didn't know anything about the seriousness of world politics, the "domino theory," oppressive regimes and SALT II, this was huge. I knew the Soviets were bad, and we'd beaten them at their own game.

That made us superior.

Looking back, I don't know which is worse: The delusion that a board game can transform itself into the equal of world aggression, or the fact that world aggression cannot be settled by the playing of a board game.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

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