During the Jefferson administration, Secretary of State James Madison and Senator John Quincy Adams, then political adversaries, played an occasional friendly game of chess. Neither man, so far as I know, recorded the outcomes. Too bad. One would like to have sat in on those matches between perhaps the smartest men ever to become Chief Executive. More to the point of this story, they were distinguished alums of Harvard and Princeton (the College of New Jersey), two elite universities that are today routinely waxed in collegiate chess by such burgeoning powers as University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); the University of Texas at Dallas; and Miami Dade College.
The new kings of college chess do it the old fashioned way. They pay for it. They relish the prestige gained by sticking it to the Ivy League. They hire Russian and East European coaches. They offer full-ride scholarships for recruits – many of them from abroad, some outright ringers, once including a 40 year old grandmaster. There have been recent efforts to clean up the sport. Grandmasters over age 25 are now prohibited, although those older but currently competing have been grandfathered in. There is a six-year eligibility limit and a requirement that players maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and at least a half-time course schedule. Presumably boosters have been told not to be too overt in handing over those car keys.
So the next time you feel like complaining about big time college football . . .
Chess has always been more than a disinterested battle of intellect. The Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer world championship match in Iceland in 1972 was an epic Cold War sports battle – not on par with the Miracle on Ice, but it was something of a small consolation for being rooked out of the Olympic basketball gold medal that year. If someone other than Hank Iba had been coaching that team we’d have won straight away, but I digress.
Fischer was the typical bad-boy American, the John McEnroe of the chessboard, an authentic genius who was eccentric even in the bizarre world of chess. Fischer lost the first game then forfeited the second in a protest over playing conditions. He then breezed to a convincing match victory, after getting completely into Spassky’s head. Fischer later refused to defend his title because of a dispute with the governing body of chess, FIDE. Over the years he went completely off the deep end of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. In 1992 he ran afoul of the U.S. government by playing Spassky in the old Yugoslavia, violating an Executive Order that implemented U.N. sanctions against the Milosevic regime. That of course made him a cause celebe of the international anti-American crowd. He eventually managed to gain political asylum in Iceland. No word if he’d accept a scholarship offer from UMBC.
In the meantime Russian Garry Kasparov, the player generally regarded as Fischer’s main rival as the best ever (he became world champion after Fischer left the scene), has been an outspoken supporter of democracy in Russia and a fierce critic of Putin. Kasparov heads up the United Civil Front, a movement to unite opposition forces ahead of Russia’s 2008 presidential election. He has faced repeated harassment from the Russian police. Chess, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.