The best of frienemies

by admin on November 16, 2007

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent an enjoyable hour or two browsing and other Russian chess sites. I want to mention another article I read that took me back to the days of the Cold War — the not-so-good old days — and closed a chapter that I hadn’t even realized was open.

So… As I mentioned last time, the editor of “64” for years and years was a guy named Alexander Roshal’, who was also considered one of the best chess trainers in Russia. He was a “reporter” for the newspaper Izvestiya during the epic Karpov-Korchnoi world championship match in Baguio, in 1978, and he played the particularly odious role of official mouthpiece for the Soviet delegation. Whenever anyone had to say something nasty about Korchnoi, it was apparently Roshal’s job to say it.

In the U.S. everyone focuses on the Fischer-Spassky match as the height of Cold War tensions in the chess world. Well, forget that. The Karpov-Korchnoi match had it beat, and it was a much more exciting match as well. Korchnoi was even worse than Fischer, from a Soviet point of view, because he was a defector. His name was not even mentioned in the newspaper coverage of the match; he was simply called “the challenger.” People in Russia — or at least in Leningrad, where I was studying for a semester — were totally split. Of course, officially everyone had to root for Karpov, but unofficially Korchnoi still had a lot of friends in Russia, and rooting for him was a way of proving your dissident credentials.

Now, getting back to the subject of this post, the first news you see on the website is that Roshal’ died this year, at the age of 70. You won’t read about this in American chess magazines because no one here would remember who Roshal’ was, but I guess that it’s pretty big news in Russia. Roshal’s last columns for “64” are still easy to find on the website, and one of them was about the Baguio match!

What’s interesting about the column is that Roshal’ really does acknowledge and seem to regret his behavior as the attack dog of the Soviet team. He tells a story of how Korchnoi refused to stand for the playing of the Soviet anthem, and he yelled at Korchnoi, “Stand up, accursed one!” (I’m having trouble translating this because it sounds so stilted in English. The literal words are, “Stand up, [you who are] branded with a curse!”) Roshal’ explains his conduct, sort of, as youthful zeal. He also hints, without saying it directly, that it had something to do with his Jewish nationality. The subtext, which the reader is already supposed to know, is that Jews were always considered suspicious in the Soviet Union of that era. By making a big show of criticizing Korchnoi, an enemy of the Soviet state, Roshal’ could prove that he was a dutiful Soviet citizen.

Now almost thirty years have gone by. The Soviet Union is no more, and perhaps old vendettas can be forgiven. According to Roshal’, he recently received a present from none other than Viktor Korchnoi, a book in which Korchnoi had inscribed, “To my frienemy.”

This must be the same feeling that old generals or presidents must have when they meet up again in later years. They’re supposed to be enemies, but they have more in common with each other than they do with anyone else, because history threw them upon a stage together. I wonder if Korchnoi feels the same way these days about Karpov?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Hayes November 16, 2007 at 2:40 pm

It’s funny how some vendettas can be forgiven and others remain. I guess it depends on the individual(s) involved. Botvinnik was known to be on less than stellar terms with a number of fellow Grandmasters. Bronstein had a particular disdain for him. If anyone wants to know what a chess vendetta is like, try reading “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s almost sacriligious in chess circles to criticize this book but, although the games are terrific, you get a real sense of Bronstein’s hatred of Botvinnik because he criticizes him at every available opportunity.

I can’t say I’ve ever had a chess vendetta against someone. I’ve played against people that I wouldn’t socialize with but none that I actually hated. Maybe I would play better if I made myself hate my opponent!


Carina J. November 19, 2007 at 3:45 am

Interesting, paradoxical thoughts.


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