22 October 2008

Chess, Checkers, Ping-Pong

Was Richard Nixon a chess player? That's one of many insignificant questions that will join the significant inquiries as I read through Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008). The subtitle provokes the first significant question: How did the political ascendancy of Richard Nixon stimulate internal cultural conflict?

This question will wait until I read the text.

Chess was important for a brief moment before the world knew about Watergate, but after some of the crimes had been committed. A lone American had taken on the Soviet Empire in a battle over sixty-four squares. This American, Robert J. "Bobby" Fischer, had a lot of pecularities and was in danger of forfeiting the World Chess Championship match with Boris Spassky. Henry Kissinger called the chess player.
This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world.
Kissinger to Fischer*
A glance through the index of Nixonland turns up no evidence that Fischer's chess exploits and Nixon's interest in them is narrated in its more than seven hundred pages. There are nearly a dozen references to checkers, on the other hand, and there is a chapter entitled "Ping-Pong".

Checkers was a dog, and Nixon's Checker's Speech was one of the greatest political speeches in the twentieth century.

Nixon played the pivotal role in the opening of communist China to American enterprise. Someone dubbed it Ping-Pong Diplomacy and the name stuck. American ping-pong players traveled to China for a match in which they got schooled by superior players, but the United States thanked the players for their sacrifice.

I'm paying a lot of attention to chess these days, and logging my dogged support of a Russian player--Vladimir Kramnik--who appears on the verge of a devastating loss to an Indian--Viswanathan Anand. The battle is taking place in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany that also served as capital of a reunited Germany until the government was tranferred back to Berlin in 1998-1999.

Bobby Fischer died in January. But his spirit has a way of inserting itself into contemporary chess events. Can Nixon be far behind?

*Quoted in David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How a Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 143.

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