This book takes the novel approach of narrating the history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War as seen through the prism of chess. As such, it's an entertaining and sometimes riveting read that vividly brings to life some of the colorful personalities of the past century - most notably that deeply-troubled genius, Bobby Fischer.
The paperback edition gets off to an unpromising start with a preface which includes several paragraphs of the author praising himself through selected reviewers' quotes. This kind of self-aggrandizement is best left to the blurbs one expects to see on the back cover - and denotes a certain defensiveness on the author's part which is entirely unjustified. This is a good book, and it can stand on its own merits without such puffery.
Johnson believes that "chess illuminates the process by which Western civilization ultimately triumphed over the gravest threat it had ever encountered." It's a bold and somewhat hyperbolic claim. There can be no dispute that Soviet-style communism was a great threat to Western civilization - but was it greater than Nazism and fascism?
Another bold declaration follows: "The Soviet Union excelled at only two things: war and chess." Really? Not ballet, not gymnastics, not space travel? And it's hard to say they excelled at war, given their chaotic performance in the Winter War against Finland and their response to the German invasion of 1941.
Despite his tendency to exaggerate, Johnson does convincingly tell the story of how Lenin and Stalin set out to dominate the chess world after the 1917 revolution -- and how it was intimately connected to the Stalinist Terror and show trials of the 1930s. At the same time, he argues, ordinary Russians flocked to chess as one of the few areas of intellectual activity not censored by the state. Chess, he says, "became the opium of the people."
Johnson provides a fascinating chapter on the role of Jews in chess. Several leading players, including at least two Soviet World Champions, were Jews. They had to navigate treacherous waters in a state always on the edge of launching new anti-Semitic campaigns. We learn the inspiring story of how the renowned dissident Anatoly Sheransky used chess to retain his sanity through long years of imprisonment on trumped-up charges - and how he came to believe he was playing a long game of chess with the Soviet dictator Yuri Andropov. Sheransky emerged victorious, checkmating the entire Soviet Union, which shortly afterward ceased to exist.
The chapters about Fischer and his classic showdown with Spassky have been told many times before. Johnson has a fine eye for drama and tells the story with considerable élan. He then goes on to describe the lengthy battles between Karpov and Korchnoi and Karpov and Kasparov, attempting to link them to his central thesis. Johnson clearly believes that Vladimir Putin's Russia is the political and intellectual heir to the old repressive Soviet Union, still playing the same games through chess to ensure one-party control and frustrate the emergence of genuine democracy.
It's a bit of a stretch perhaps - which is the main flaw in an otherwise fine book. Johnson has a great story to tell and tells it well - but cannot resist the occasional urge to make his overarching theory go a little bit too far.