‘Don’t disturb me, I’m playing chess”.
Natan Sharansky’s jailers took that as powerful evidence that he was going — or had already become — quite mad. After all, in his punishment cell there was no bed, chair or table, let alone a chess board and pieces. In fact, it was chess that kept him sane.
A human-rights activist campaigning for the rights of Jews to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky was sentenced in 1977 on a fabricated charge of spying for the Americans. He spent nine years in a Siberian prison. Half of that was in solitary confinement and for more than 400 days he was locked in a punishment cell, given barely any food and wore clothes so thin that, in the winter, it amounted to a form of torture.
As a child, he had been a chess prodigy and, at the age of 14, he became champion of his native Ukrainian town, Donetsk.
He could play several games simultaneously in his head (without looking at a board). A flashy but useless skill, he’d always thought. “But, in prison,” he recalled, “it became clear why I needed this”. In his dark, freezing cell, with no one to talk to, where he was forbidden to read or write, he played games in his head, obviously having to move for both sides, white and black — “thousands of games; I won them all”.
In arguably the best work of fiction ever written about chess, Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game, the main character, Dr B, has a different experience. Like Sharansky, he is a prisoner. Like Sharansky, Dr B spends all his time playing chess.
But, unlike Sharansky, the game eventually drives him crazy.
‘I decided to become the world’s top political prisoner’
One international master, Bill Hartston, once said of chess that it doesn’t turn sane people mad, it keeps mad people sane. In Sharansky’s case, it kept a sane person sane.
During his lengthy incarceration, “the KGB hoped that I would feel weaker and weaker mentally: actually I felt stronger and stronger.”
The KGB played games with their captives, of course, games that were rather more savage than those confined to the 64 squares. Before his imprisonment, Sharansky had developed a computer program to play chess endgames. This involved “decision tree analysis”, or, as Sharansky puts it, “building a logical set of aims and the means to reach these aims”.
Each time Sharansky was hauled in front of the KGB, he adopted the same strategy to resist their pressure, working out what his objective was, and how he could accomplish it. “That’s how I answered all my 125 interrogations”, he says.
Aspects of Sharansky’s character, which made his will impossible for the Soviet authorities to break, are evident in his chess. He is competitive, a risk taker, obdurate and fearless. He’s determined to be the best.
Some of this can be traced to his upbringing. Jews faced institutionalised discrimination in the Soviet Union, and his parents instilled into him a lesson. The only way to combat antisemitism was to be supreme in whichever career he chose. Natan originally wanted to be the world chess champion. Realising that this wasn’t going to happen, he moved into maths and physics. And, after it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the best physicist in the world, he jokes: “I decided to become the number one political prisoner”.
When he eventually made it to Israel he entered politics, taking contentious hawkish positions on several issues, and rising to the office of deputy prime minister. His release in 1986 had supplied one of the most memorable images of the Cold War. It occurred on an icy day in February at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, dividing East from West. Exchanged for two Soviet spies, Sharansky was ordered by his minders to go straight across the bridge.
That was a mistake. If you demand of Sharansky that he advance like a rook you should expect him to move instead like a bishop or knight. As Sharansky walked across the bridge he did a little, defiant, zigzag.