Killing Time


Being a fox-chasing lad of the left, I used to comfort myself with the thought that Engels also liked hunting. All the same, Engels too felt the need to justify his passion. There was probably some snickering in the International Working Men's Association, so he said the revolution would need cavalry. Hunting was good training. Back oh-so-many years ago the left, or at least my sector of it, tended to be snooty about sport. We thought it was a distraction. All those workers cheering their soccer teams could otherwise be putting up barricades and shooting the bankers.

With our derisive talk about "the spectacle" we didn't catch the eternally equivocal nature of sport, nicely summed up by the Frenchman Roger Caillois in his excellent little book, Man, Play and Games, published in English in 1961. Caillois took issue with Jan Huizinga's observation in Homo Ludens that play "is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life.... It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space, according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner."

"Rules," Caillois answered, "are inseparable from play as soon as the latter becomes institutionalized. They transform it into an instrument of fecund and decisive culture. But a basic freedom is essential to play in order to stimulate distraction and fantasy. This liberty is its indispensable motive power and is basic to the most complex and carefully organized systems of play. Such a primary power of improvisation and play, which I call paidia, is allied to the taste for gratuitous difficulty which I propose to call ludus, in order to encompass the various games to which, without exaggeration, a civilizing quality can be attributed. In fact, they reflect: the intellectual and moral values of a culture, as well as contribute to their refinement and development."

The authorities revel in rules. Liberty terrifies them. At: first the leaders of the infant Soviet Union eagerly seized on chess. As the Soviet chess historian A. Kogan put it, "From the point of view of the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, chess is not an end in itself but a means of raising the cultural (and thereby also the political) level of the laboring masses in the world."

By 1924 the Third All-Union Congress was announcing that the attributes required of a good chess player "show all the attributes of an intellectually and psychologically perfect type of individual;" and that chess is "a political weapon that must be used in order to give to the working masses, tired after their daily labor, a rational leisure activity."

Chess reached the apex of its career as a weapon in the class struggle at the end of the twenties. "In time," the Soviet chess commissar announced, "the situation must be reached wherein every chess-playing worker in the U.S.S.R. must be a leader in socialist competition in industry....the chess organization has every right to demand that chess workers should be in the front ranks of the building of socialism, of technical mastery and of the rapid and successful development of the First Five-Year Plan."

But amid these clarion calls there were also apprehensions about the possibly seditious, anti-Stakhanovite nature of chess; about the worrisome fact that chess players tend to like nothing much besides playing chess. There were fears too that chess associations might not be political enough. A commissar said ominously that there was excessive focus on competitions and championships, that political and industrial tasks were being shirked while "political disinterestedness flourished, under cover of which chess circles harbored sentiments remote from, or even hostile to, the proletariat."

To the Bolshevik leaders, chess was certainly an alluring alternative to such favored pastimes of the masses as brewing liquor, drinking it, then brawling. It was also a weapon against superstition. "No people" Lunacharsky, commissar for education, declared in 1928, "are more superstitious than card players. …

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