Saturday, July 20, 2024
41 Millharbour: from office building and chess championship venue to apartment block. Photo by Holly Munks © Social Streets C.I.C.
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USSR vs the world: the summer that chess met politics on the Isle of Dogs

Looking back at the unlikely connection between the Isle of Dogs and the Cold War’s most important chess match of the last century.

If you wander down to 41a Millharbour on the Isle of Dogs, you probably won’t discover anything too surprising. Like much of the peninsula, this plot of land is now occupied by a residential block. 

But if you could rewind the clock and enter the building in 1984, you would find yourself amidst a jostling crowd, fighting for space in the former Northern & Shell company headquarters. What were they so excited about? Only the most important chess tournament of the Cold War. 

For those who aren’t aficionados of the sport, Russia has had a reputation for excelling in the sport that goes back to the 9th century. After the Communist takeover in 1917, the government of the Soviet Union (USSR) took things up a notch. They actively encouraged young people to train so they could continue the legacy of chess prowess as a matter of national pride. For most of the last century, Russian players, such as Anatoly Karpov and Boris Spassky enjoyed celebrity status. 

The same cannot be said for many Western countries, where chess players are more likely to be the target of jokes for their ‘geeky’ hobby. However, stars like the American Bobby Fischer raised the sport’s profile, and in 1970, Fischer played in the first so-called ‘match of the century’ in Belgrade. This was the nickname for a tournament between 10 USSR players and 10 players from the rest of the world. 

An unlikely revival

Fast-forward 14 years to the eighties, and the chess community was hoping to revive the competition. The second ‘match of the century’, originally planned for Belgrade, and later Rome, was nearly cancelled when investors pulled their funding. 

The British swooped in at the last minute, with the help of wealthy Indonesian businessman Mr H M Hasan. Raymond Keene – an English chess grandmaster – and the British Chess Federation partnered with the London Docklands Corporation (LDC). 

And so the world’s most talented chess players ended up on the Isle of Dogs when it had only just begun its transformation into the financial hub we know today. 

According to Keene, who was a correspondent for the Spectator at the time, the building was too small for everyone attending the tournament. Spectators crammed into the modest corporate building hoping to see the masters at work. He said:

‘Progress from one end of the room to the other was accomplished by pushing through a mass of bodies.’

Chessboard politics

The event signalled the Docklands’ future as a global destination and proved that chess still had strong roots in London. The city hosted the first-ever international chess tournament in 1851, organised by an English player called Howard Staunton. London remained the capital of chess talent until Moscow took over. 

But there’s the added layer of significance that comes with the USSR’s participation. Matches between the Soviets and people from other countries were generally seen as a proxy for the Cold War. Like the space race, the chessboard came to represent the push and pull of capitalism versus communism. 

The same year as the Isle of Dogs tournament, the USSR boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. Many assumed this was a response to the US boycotting the Olympics in Moscow four years earlier. 

In such a hot political climate, the blank slate that was the Docklands at the time offered neutral ground. Contemporary writing in the Guardian newspaper praised the LDC for its ‘initiative and vision’. To this day, Canary Wharf is still a hub for international negotiations. Banks and financial traders have replaced chess grandmasters, but they are still making moves to outsmart their competitors. 

In 1984, Soviet players were at the top of their game. Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov won victory for the USSR against the Swede Ulf Anderssen and the Dutchman Jan Timman. The Yugoslavian Ljubomir Ljubojević opted to play for the world team and beat both Vasiliy Smyslov and Vladimir Tukmakov. Meanwhile, Alexander Beliavsky beat the United States’ Yasser Seirawan and Denmark’s Bent Larsen. The USSR took home the competition, collecting 21 points to the Rest of the World’s 19. 

A new destination

The tournament’s success proved that London had entered a new golden era of chess and that the Isle of Dogs was becoming an international destination. 

But in the summer of 1984, the Soviets were the victors – at least in the chess world. Not much was recorded in terms of how players felt about the venue, though Keene mentions that the main concern, construction noise, didn’t end up being a major problem. He said:

‘Some fears were expressed about how quiet the playing conditions would be on a building site on the Isle of Dogs. I knew, for example, that there was an industrial strength steam hammer on site, but it was well muffled.’ 

Next time you pass one of the many unremarkable blocks of flats that cover this patch of London, take a moment to stop and consider what strange and extraordinary histories it holds – if only the Millharbour walls could talk.

And if you’d like to flex your mental muscles, the Docklands Chess Club is alive and well. Their founder Norman Went said their numbers have shot up since the pandemic, when online chess platforms boosted interest in the sport. He was optimistic about London’s chess scene: 

‘We’ve seen more girls coming to the tournaments, which is good because there aren’t enough women in chess generally. But they could be the future.’ 

The next tournament takes place at St Nicholas Church in Aberfeldy Village on Saturday 29 June. Visit Spanglefish.com/docklandschessclub/for more information. 

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