CIA, FBI, KGB, and chess
In August 1936, Botvinnik
tied for 1st place with Capablanca at the
International Tournament in Nottingham. This was the first tournament
victory of a Soviet player outside of the USSR. After the tournament, Botvinnik sent a telegram to Joseph Stalin thanking him for
his victory. The telegram was printed in Pravda two days after the
event ended, thanking the whole nation, the party and Stalin. It was
later learned that the telegram was written in Moscow by Krylenko
and that the KGB told Botvinnik to sign it.
In 1943, Humphrey Bogart played correspondence
chess with military members overseas until the FBI visited him. The FBI thought that the chess moves were
secret codes being sent abroad.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, the FBI was watching Bobby Fischer’s family, including his mother, Regina. They followed her, read her mail, and quizzed her neighbors when they suspected that she might be a communist or a spy.
In 1945, Boris Vainstein was the President of the Soviet Chess Federation. He was also a Colonel in the KGB. In 1945, he objected to a world championship match between Botvinnik and Alekhine, declaring Alekhine a traitor.
After World War II, the KGB wanted to execute Paul Keres for treason after the Soviet Union acquired Estonia.
In 1952, a Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezzobasnosti (KGB) officer accompanied the Soviets (Kotov, Taimanov, Petrosian, Geller, Averbakh) at the 1952 Interzonal in Saltjobaden neart Stockholm.
In 1952, the FBI arrested famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Sutton was a chess player and had a copy of How to Think Ahead in Chess by Horowitz when he was arrested.
In 1953, a KGB officer accompanied the Soviets at the Candidates tournament in Zurich. The KGB put a lot of pressure on the Soviet players to assure that Samuel Reshevsky would not win the Candidates tournament. Bronstein’s second was not allowed to travel to Switzerland because he was known as an officer in the KGB.
In 1955, Boris Spassky played in the World Junior Chess Championship in Antwerp and was accompanied by a KGB officer.
In the 1950s, a section in a KGB handbook described how to use chess moves when
communicating. For example, one move could ascertain what was happening
and another could give instructions. Agents would be trained to
understand chess moves.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a KGB officer always accompanied chess players who played outside the USSR, including the Interzonals and Candidates tournaments.
In 1958, the FBI and the CIA worried that the Soviets might recruit Bobby Fischer when he made a trip to Moscow that year. Frank Brady wrote in Endgame, “What no one knew was that the FBI was investigating Bobby, and had been for years. Their interest in him may have been triggered by their belief that his mother was a Communist, in part because she’d spent six years in Moscow attending medical school; they’d been investigating Regina since Bobby was a child. When Bobby went to Moscow in 1958, when he was fifteen, the FBI presumed that Regina had sent him there to be indoctrinated.”
Just after Bobby Fischer appeared on I’ve Got a Secret and won a trip to Moscow in 1958, the FBI immediately phoned their CIA contact in Moscow to make sure Bobby’s activities were monitored while he was in the USSR.
The Central Chess Club in Moscow had a KGB officer assigned to it.
In 1962, at the Curacao Candidates Tournament, a KGB officer accompanied the Soviet grandmasters (Petrosian, Keres, Geller, Korchnoi, Tal).
In Washington, D.C. during the 1960s and
1970s, the Soviet embassy had a resident chess expert on staff that was later
identified as a KGB agent. He was Lev Zaitsev,
the Soviet cultural attache, a chess expert and a KGB
colonel. He had been assigned to the Soviet embassy in Ottowa, Canada and in Washington, DC.
In 1968, Yuri Linev,
a KGB agent, gained Ludek Pachman’s
trust after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Pachman made secret
radio broadcasts against the Soviets and Linev passed
that information to the authorities and arrested Pachman.
In the 1970s, Viktor D. Baturinsky (1914-2002) was the Vice President of
the USSR Chess Federation and former director of Moscow’s Chess Club. He headed up Karpov’s
delegation from 1974 to 1984. He was a
In 1971, Boris Spassky
was invited to a small town in the USSR to give a lecture and a simul. After the
lecture, a secret report denouncing Spassky was sent
to the KGB. Spassky
had made the mistake of saying one of his favorite authors was Solzhenitsyn and
that Spassky complained of his salary and mentioned that
his grandfater was a priest. During the lecture, he also mentioned that if
he ad not become a chess
player, he preferred to be a priest.
In 1972, the Soviets accused the CIA of bugging Boris Spassky’s
chair during the Fischer-Spassky world chess championship
match in Iceland. Both chairs were later X-rayed and no electronic bugs
were found. During the world championship match, Fischer complained that
KGB men were in the hall trying to hypnotize him. There were KGB agents at the event as well as Viktor Bubnov, who was from the Soviet military intelligence, the
GRU, and had different priorities because of the NATO and American bases at
At one point, Fischer complained that KGB men
in the playing hall were trying to hypnotize him.
After Bobby Fischer won the world chess
championship in 1972, he stated that he feared assassination by the KGB, which
was one of the reasons why he refused to play chess after his match with Boris Spassky.
In the 1970s, preventing dissident Soviet
chess players from winning matches and tournaments was a priority of KGB
foreign operations. One of their
missions was to discredit dissident chess players who had emigrated to the
In 1974, there may have been an effort by the CIA to entice Soviet grandmasters to defect to “the West.”
In 1975, Karpov was accompanied by Vladimir Pichtchenko, a KGB agent, when Karpov played in tournaments outside the USSR.
In July 1976, the KGB spied on Boris Spassky during his visit to Singapore.
During the 1978 world chess championship in the Philippines, there were at least 18 KGB officers in attendance trying to ensure Korchnoi’s defeat against Karpov. Korchnoi claimed he was “hypnotized” by KGB agents to play badly.
In 1979, Grandmaster Lev Alburt
defected from the USSR. Speaking at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, Alburt said some Soviet grandmasters were “used as KGB
In 1980, Igor Ivanov
was part of a Russian chess team that played in a Cuban chess event. On a returning refueling stop in Nefoundland, Igor Ivanov ran from
the plane, chased by KGB agents. He
successfully defected from the USSR.
In 1982, Boris Gulko
was beaten up and arrested by KGB agents for demonstrating in front of the
In 1983, when Garry Kasparov first went abroad to play in chess tournaments, he was accompanied by Viktor Litvinov, a KGB lieutenant colonel from Azerbaijan and Kasparov’s former “manager.” While in London, Litvinov was seen talking to dissident Viktor Korchnoi as was later reprimanded by the high command.
In the first Karpov-Kasparov match held in Moscow, some American journalists brought a pile of chess newspapers to the press room. One of the newspapers carried a cartoon of a boxing match between Karpov and Kasparov, with Karpov having been knocked to the canvas. The KGB were there to quickly confiscate the newspaper.
In 1991, the KGB was disbanded and the Federal
Security Service (FSB) was created afterward.
In 1998, Regina Fischer’s 750-page FBI file became publicly available after her death in 1997.
In 2006, Vesselin Topalov was reprimanded and faced a chess ban from FIDE for violating the Code of Ethics by linking Vladimir Kramnik to the KGB in an interview for a Spanish newspaper.
In 2008, Roustan Kamsky, father of Gata Kamsky, wrote an article on how the KGB influenced the
world of chess and politics thru advertising and the press.
According to The KGB Plays Chess by Boris Gulko, Vladimir Popov (ex-KGB), and Yuri Felshtinsky, chess players that were recruited by the KGB include: Yuri Averbakh (1922- ), Viktor Baturinsky, Florencio Campomanes, Eduard Gufeld, Nikolai Krogius, Alexander Nikitin, Tigran Petrosian, Lev Polugaevsky, Alexander Roshal, and Rafael Vaganian. Alexander Kotov was reported as a KGB agent in Fyodor Bogatyrchuk’s book, My Way to General Vlasov. The widow of Kotov wrote to Averbakh, a friend of Kotiv, asking why he allowed the publication of this book in is chess magazine Chess in Russia. Averbakh responded, “since when has it been considered that shameful to be a KGB agent?”