It’s been quite some time since the world’s attention hovered over a chess board in the classic 1972 Reykjavik Fischer-Spassky, or since computer firms rose to fame through improvements in chess softwares that outplayed top human minds. Unsuccessful in its Olympic bid, FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs) has scored some success as of late on a different political field by stirring up some movement in the EU to introduce chess as a mandatory primary school sport. For the post-socialist space, once the Berlin Wall had fallen the “intellectual superiority race” seemed a moote point, with democratization, market liberalization and poverty-alleviation being head-lining political topics. The accelerated globalization of sports meant that the “Soviet (or post-) Chess School” became something in-between a nostalgic affiliation and a vague recommendation for up and coming players. The type of pride embedded in chess since the 1972 clash, echoing nationalist-pride feelings, has however yet to die out in most post-socialist transitions. With Garry Kasparov’s continuous democratization struggle in Russia (which is in itself interesting as Kasparov himself is of Azeri origin!) being an isolated instance of chess-based fame still playing some role in everyday politics, the looming questions seems to be: What has happened to the thriving Socialist Chess Schools?
Post-socialist nation-branding: some general notes on sports and politics
From a theoretical point of view this overarching topic falls at the crossroads of two immense bodies of literature: nation-branding and banal nationalism (for classical examples see Fox, Brubaker etc.). Since for the sake of space it would be impossible to fully map either of the two, I limit myself here to acknowledging the benefits of a “beyond identity” approach to nationalism that I intend to follow (Brubaker). The key observation in this line of thought is that ethnically-framed sports rivalries, as seen in other cases (football, gymanstics, handball etc.), have died out in chess and, more importantly perhaps, in the remaining politics that surrounds it. Certainly, there is an important point to be made from marketing theory: chess doesn’t sell even if one were to conjur up an “ancient hatred” (to give some other examples that sometimes get this overtone – Romania-Hungary, Serbia-Croatia, Poland-Russia). The point of marketability seems strengthened by the fact that other apparently “smaller” sports, although part of the Olympic cycle, are also neglected in everyday CEE politics: table tennis, martial arts etc. Yet, it is important to note that by comparison, under communism chess was in a status of relative superiority (in what concerns the rhetorical importance, funding and mediatization it was being awarded) hence its post-socialist demise must be seen as a contrast to the constant low-importance ascribed to the previously mentioned cases.
The declining status of chess
On a nationalistic-scale of values, which sometimes trumps purely economic-based branding strategies for up-and-coming transitions countries, chess could have offered CEE countries some sort of pride-compensation (Armenia is a good example in this case). De facto though economy and this nationalistic-scale of values were intertwined in an amorphous and unsystematic manner: sporadic results against “global powerhouses” obtained by marketable sports (football in particular) attracted short bursts of political attention and media-hype, constantly declining “small sports” were generally disregarded with their even more sporadic notable results sharing the same fate of ignorance (unless very specific contingencies are involved – as was the case for instance of the Romanian Kings’ Chess Tournament where the Romanian participant – by organizers wildcard rather than international qualitifcation – came in last but managed uneventful draws against world-class oponents; or the Polgar Chess School in Hungary – a purely private initiative! – which despite being an almost closed-circuit event benefited from the presence of Kasparov himself and hence gained some coverage).
It is important to note here that for a sport that is not particularly viewer-friendly, the loss of political visibility and interest meant a collapse of funding and the start of the well-known vicious circle of declining sports in CEE countries: lack of funding – lack of practitioners – lack of results – lack of importance (from whichever angle the topic is approach by post-socialist politicans these terms will always swirl one around the other!). Not even the nationalistic-scale of values remains fixed: it is important that a state compete and be successful on a global scale in sports that are equally important for the “opponent nation-state” (for instance a Hungary-Romania football match is seldom unaccompanied by supporter violence regardless sometimes of the game winner, while a chess defeat for either country in the World Chess Olympiad would at best be just another title on the news list). What is more, if other sports oftentimes benefit from dubious state sponsorships (as is the case of publicly owned football/handball clubs) not merely for survival but sometimes as long-term projects, chess has almost been lent some sort of a stigma as a communist relic! (at least in the early 90s, a perception which is fading as of late).
Although at first glance chess could appear as just a “small sport” dying under the rules of the market, there seem to be more layers behind the curtain, which have to do with the specific social embedding chess was given under communism. Certainly, there are extremely intricate aspects of the internal-sport politics themselves that could in part also answer the opening question (such as for instance the discrediting effect of the 2006 Topalov-Kramnik cheating scandal; or the 90s split of FIDE itself at Kasparov’s hands hugely undermining the image of the federation due to Kasparov’s increased marketability), yet it seems that these are issues affecting the organization of all sports. What seems to strike out ultimately is that the slow decline of the Socialist Chess School is a combination of factors: changed rules of the an increasingly globalized sports market, whose effects were, after the fall of communism, not softened by state policies, but catalyzed.
Photo Source: European Parliament