In 1972, American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer challenged and defeated Boris Spassky, the defending champion from the USSR, in the World Chess Championship. It was the height of the Cold War. Called the Match of the Century, the epic competition symbolized the power struggle between the world’s two superpowers. When Fischer won, he was the first American ever to do so, and the first non-Soviet to win in nearly thirty years.
The last game of the match began on August 31. Spassky resigned after 40 moves and never returned to play. On September 1, Fischer was awarded the championship.
The 2014 film, Pawn Sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber, focuses on Bobby Fischer. Back in 1972, however, Ayn Rand was at home, with her husband, watching the match, and she had her eye on Boris Spassky.
On September 11, 1972, Ayn Rand published “An Open Letter to Boris Spassky” in her then biweekly periodical The Ayn Rand Letter. Thus Rand’s letter was dated a mere ten days after Spassky’s crushing defeat. She was 67 years old. Her hatred of Communism was unabated, and she wasted no time before giving Boris Spassky a piece of her mind.
“Dear Comrade Spassky,” she began ironically, “I have been watching with great interest your world chess championship match with Bobby Fischer. I am not a chess enthusiast or even a player, and know only the rudiments of the game. I am a novelist-philosopher by profession.”
Rand was not the least bit intimidated by Spassky’s grandmaster status, and she did not hesitate to tell him a thing or two about the game.
While watching Spassky and Fischer play, Rand had been thinking, as usual, and over the course of the match she developed a complex, layered analogy between Spassky’s chess playing and Communism. She wrote the letter to explain it. It speaks volumes about her, in the best way, that Rand was not the least bit intimidated by Spassky’s grandmaster status, and that she did not hesitate to tell him a thing or two about the game.
She began by explaining to Spassky the importance to chess of the Law of Identity:
Then I was struck by the realization that the game itself and the players’ exercise of mental virtuosity are made possible by the metaphysical absolutism of the reality with which they deal. The game is ruled by the Law of Identity and its corollary, the Law of Causality. Each piece is what it is: a queen is a queen, a bishop is a bishop - and the actions each can perform are determined by its nature: a queen can move any distance in any open line, straight or diagonal, a bishop cannot; a rook can move from one side of the board to the other, a pawn cannot; etc. Their identities and the rules of their movements are immutable - and this enables the player’s mind to devise a complex, long-range strategy, so that the game depends on nothing but the power of his (and his opponent’s) ingenuity.
Rand went on to ask Spassky a few questions. What would happen, she asked, if, after playing for hours and successfully cornering your opponent, some arbitrary power changed the rules? What would happen if “the rules of chess were updated to conform to a dialectic reality” and “your queen turned suddenly White to Black, becoming the queen of your opponent?” What if you had to play by teamwork and couldn’t make a move until the team voted? What if you had to move at the whim of someone holding a gun to your back? What if there were two sets of rules, proletariat and bourgeois, being played simultaneously? What if winning triggered a social penalty?
The questions were rhetorical, and she already knew the answers. Her point was that those were the real-life rules governing Spassky’s life under Communism, rules that Spassky, she believed, knew were intolerable. “No, you would not be able to play under any of the conditions listed above,” she told him. “It is to escape this category of phenomena that you fled into the world of chess.”
What she objected to was letting it take over your whole life, to the point where you effectively stopped acting meaningfully in the outside world.
Rand did not dislike chess or any other game, as long as it was played as a game. Former chess master and author Larry Abrams had the singular distinction of teaching Rand the fundamentals of chess: “I’ve always enjoyed the game and offered to show her how beautiful and enjoyable it could be, which is what led to the lessons,” he told The Atlas Society.
As a result of the lessons, Abrams believed that she’d developed “a new appreciation for, and therefore assessment of, the game itself.” He remembers one lesson in particular:
Once when I played her a game and showed her a move she could make, she became very excited, saying something like “Oh, that’s beautiful. If I go here, then even if you go here or here, I can still do this!” I told her that any good chess player would see the move I suggested, but she was undeterred. Totally charmed.
What she objected to, according to Abrams, “was letting it take over your whole life, to the point where you effectively stopped acting meaningfully in the outside world, and I certainly agree with that.”
Because Communism is the state-enforced stoppage of meaningful activity, Rand saw Spassky as playing chess not to master reality but to evade it:
Oh, yes, Comrade, chess is an escape - an escape from reality. It is an “out,” a kind of “make-work” for a man of higher than average intelligence who was afraid to live, but could not leave his mind unemployed and devoted it to a placebo - thus surrendering to others the living world he had rejected as too hard to understand.
Rand concluded that for Spassky a meaningful life was not an option as long as he lived in the USSR. She even asked him, point blank, whether he would play chess at all if his options were different:
Would you have wanted to escape into chess, if you lived in a society based on Aristotelian principles? It would be a country where the rules were objective, firm and clear, where you could use the power of your mind to its fullest extent, on any scale you wished, where you would gain rewards for your achievements, and men who chose to be irrational would not have the power to stop you nor to harm anyone but themselves. Such a social system could not be devised, you say? But it was devised, and it came close to full existence. . . . It was called Capitalism.
Rand never softened her stance against Communism. She never changed her mind about its life-negating effects. Spassky, on the other hand, clearly had second thoughts. While there is no evidence that Rand formally sent the letter to Spassky, and we don’t know if Spassky ever read it, he came to many of the same conclusions about his life in the USSR that she did. In 1975, Spassky married a French diplomatic officer and emigrated to France. He continued to play chess, but by 1983 he was raising a family and playing for France, and the game no longer reigned supreme.