Colombian-Swedish Grandmaster Pontus Carlsson continues to fight the good fight as far as social issues are concerned. Bringing light to these issues years ago, he became front and center of a discussion about racism in Sweden. The Chess Drum ran an interview about his challenges four years ago.
In that segment, he discussed his problems in his adoptive country, including racial insults, illegal detainment, mistaken identity, and false accusations (i.e., stealing his own car). More recently, he was the target of fierce media attacks in Europe after his candid interview with Newsweek.
“If this is the worst of racism Pontus has experienced in thirty years of his chess career, then it is something for which the chess world should be praised and not disparaged.”
~Pavel Matocha on Pontus Carlsson being tossed bananas and enduring monkey chants at tournaments
GM Pontus Carlsson
Photo by Fred Lucas
In 2020, the issue of race exploded onto the world scene with the death of George Floyd. This death continues centuries of injustice against Blacks, in general. Floyd, 46, was manhandled and ultimately murdered by the Minneapolis police while bystanders screamed for his life. After his death went viral, millions worldwide took to the streets, and popular hashtags memorialized Floyd’s death. Racism in America had hit the national stage once again.
While there had been countless high-profile U.S. cases of civilian deaths at the hands of police, there was something very different about seeing a Black man gradually choked to death in plain view. Officer Derek Chauvin exerted deadly force in a very casual pose while Floyd called out for his deceased mother. In his testimony to Congress, Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd referred to it as a “modern-day lynching in broad daylight.”
This hearkens back to a period where Blacks in America were targets of brutal lynchings (including burnings, beatings, castrations, and mutilations). These were not always on-site executions, but many times staged as public spectacles with refreshments, programs, and souvenirs. People gathered, enjoyed snacks, joked, and cheered amidst blood-curdling wails.
Afterward, spectators took ghoulish pictures with battered and charred corpses. Body parts were sold, and locks of the victim’s hair were sometimes included in framed pictures. Lynchings occurred nonstop for 100 years after slavery ended. (WARNING… graphic images!) The point is that the 2020 protests were not merely a rallying cry for the torture and death of George Floyd, but a culmination of cries against human injustice over centuries.
Chess & Racial Justice
The chess community weighed in as various organizations posted statements condemning racism. FIDE released a statement touting the chess community as an example of racial tolerance. Here is an excerpt from FIDE:
Chess players tend to travel a lot, and the more you travel, the more you are exposed to racism and xenophobia. Sadly, that has been the case for our colleague Pontus Carlsson and many others: we have heard their testimonies, and we would like to offer them our support. But most incidents occur outside the chess competitions: at chess tournaments, we are proud to say that the incidents are minimal, and we will stay alert to prevent this from happening. In fact, no one has filed a complaint about racial discrimination at any of our official events, at least since the current administration took office in 2018. The Chess Olympiad, where players of 180+ countries live together for two weeks, is a true celebration of the unity of humankind in all our diversity. (link)
The FIDE statement painted the chess world as a utopia where there are minimal reports of racism. Having attended several Olympiad tournaments, this author can attest to the beauty of these events. However, the statement was a gross oversimplification and warranted a response. Ironically, there are no specific references to racism in the FIDE Code of Ethics, but there is this statement:
It is impossible to define exactly and in all circumstances the standard of conduct expected from all parties involved in FIDE tournaments and events, or to list all sets which would amount to a breach of the Code of Ethics and lead to disciplinary sanctions. In most cases, common sense will tell the participants the standards of behavior that are required.
While common sense should prevail, there has been a tendency to downplay acts of racism because there is a desire to believe that these things no longer happen. The chess world is a microcosm of global society, and racism is more commonplace than we can imagine. The real question may be whether such incidents are taken seriously. Unfortunately, some have decided to trivialize the matter.
Black Pieces Matter!
Carlsson sent The Chess Drum a Czech article by Pavel Matocha, titled, “Black Pieces Matter.” To be sure, Matocha is a very influential voice in Czech society, and his words carry extra weight. However, his “yellow journalism” was on full display after the English translation revealed countless distortions and inaccuracies. The backlash from the chess community was fierce.
Click to read translation!
Matocha, now the Chairman of Czech TV, makes light of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and stated sarcastically that because of this initiative, white’s first-move privilege must be revoked. During the protests, this topic went viral after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation posed the question about the racial symbolism of the white pieces having the first move in chess.
Again, the protests are not about one particular icon falling prey to a racist act, but the four centuries of slavery and oppression that most outside (and many within) the U.S. could only faintly imagine. The American media has done a masterful job convincing the world that disaffected Blacks are the main cause of the societal disorder and that no such support should be granted to their cause.
Pavel Matocha (left) with the Czech President Vaclav Klaus (right) and legendary Grandmaster Vlastimil Hort (center). Photo by Prague Chess Society
Racism (whether systemic or not) has many different layers, but they are all insidious at the core. There is a tendency to trivialize instances of racism as simply childish jokes or as isolated incidences. In 2020, the outcry for these abuses of human rights has cast the victims as “looters,” “anarchists,” “communists,” and other names to delegitimize the fight for justice.
If you have your knee on someone’s neck (literally and figuratively), could you then accuse the victim of being disorderly for fighting to get you off? Ironically Matocha reacts to the outcry by saying, “Unfortunately, logical reasoning on this subject has little chance of success in the face of this current epidemic of hysteria.” What is illogical is that people like Matocha have refused to acknowledge the epidemic of injustice.
In his article Matocha, compared racism with instances of chess players being politically punished. This is very different from punishing someone based on their ethnicity (alone) since their appearance should not be grounds for punitive actions. In the article, Matocha wrote on three instances in a Newsweek article where Carlsson was interviewed. They included being tossed a banana and having to endure monkey chants at a tournament. Matocha passed them off as childish jokes, but if anyone has followed European football, these types of acts have taken on a severe consequence. The third was a reference by a Swedish club manager to Agatha Christie’s book, Ten Little Niggers which was later renamed.
He ends his article with racial innuendo, inaccurately stating the number of Black Grandmasters to imply that Blacks are not high achievers and would require lower standards to achieve. There is no other reason to include that statistic. It also echos the trope of many racist right-wing groups found on sites like Stormfront and Vanguard whose adherents have been visitors of The Chess Drum spewing their venom.
Speaking of which, Matocha contemplated chess matches between police and homeless people, skinheads versus anarchists, and opposition versus coalition in the Czech parliament. He seems to understand polar opposites but is absolutely clueless in the context of racial dynamics.
“It’s a great shame that Carlsen has departed from his principles. If a world champion has decided to voice an opinion on politics, it would have been far more topical to focus attention on problems that actually exist.”
~GM Genna Sosonko on Magnus Carlsen’s “Move for Equality” initiative
The Dutch Blunderbuss
Not to be outdone GM Gennadi “Genna” Sosonko weighed in on the debate and offered his own insight during the protests. Above he implies such an initiative advocating for racial justice is less important than other geopolitical issues. Unfortunately, it is this same dismissive attitude that prevails in many societies. In his article published at chess-news.ru on August 27th, the Russian-born, Dutch émigré states,
The South African master Watu Kobese, whom I have watched play at many Olympiads, spent three and a half years in Germany. He says he also encountered racism there. Kobese recalls the discussions he held on the subject with his teachers, which usually ended with the question: “If you dislike Europe so much, what are you still doing here?” I don’t know how you would interpret this advice; I don’t find it illogical either, but the South African chess player perceived it as racist.
This is a common diversion. When a Black person (in a minority situation) complains about injustice, the response is, “If you don’t like it here, go back to Africa.” Instead of correcting racist behavior, the suggestion that the victim should be the one to take some action is extremely thoughtless. Yet, Sosonko finds this a logical response to those speaking out against racism.
His essay touches on a variety of topics in a scattershot fashion as if aiming with an 18th-century blunderbuss. There are no defined reference points, so what results is a jumble of meandering thoughts hoping to strike a chord with the reader. In his missive, Sosonko discusses dozens of race-related topics in no logical flow (even including Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery). It appeared that the legendary GM had a lot on his mind. (original, translation)
While an outstanding chess player and icon, he fails miserably in adding to the discourse on racism. Now aged 77, he admits that his solution may be to keep a low profile, avoid trouble, and merely wait for racism to fix itself. Racism is not a laughable matter, especially when you are the victim. In the ruin of society, it is not only the actions of the bad people who commit horrible acts but the silence of the good people who sit back and allow it.
Black GMs & Racism
Interestingly, Sosonko tries to use GM Maurice Ashley to discredit Carlsson.
It is not by chance that the world’s first black grandmaster and the famous chess commentator Maurice Ashley refused to discuss the matter when asked for comment. Maurice knows better than anyone that the colour of his skin never caused him a problem when he played chess and, working as a commentator in this day and age, it has more likely been an advantage to him than a hindrance.
GMs Pontus Carlsson and Maurice Ashley
at 2016 Millionaire Chess Open (Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA)
Photo by Daaim Shabazz
Firstly, Sosonko implies that ethnicity (not talent) may be a factor in Ashley’s rise as a commentator. Secondly, he states that Ashley’s refusal to weigh in on the topic implies that he has not had to experience racism in chess. If anyone knows Ashley’s story well enough, they will know the challenges he had to endure in becoming a Grandmaster. In fact, people still question whether Ashley got the title legitimately. Sosonko is again, off the mark. Finally, in the morass of his essay lies the issue of whether white moving first makes chess a racist game. The Chess Drum has posted two essays here twelve years apart with the verdict (2008, 2020).
Matocha’s final statement that FIDE will be forced to moderate requirements for Black players to earn the GM title is another racial trope often heard. There is always an utterance of the number of Black GMs out of the world’s total number as if it is an indication of lack of intellectual capacity. An article written here a decade ago, “The Challenges of Black Chess Masters,” attracted many white supremacists who felt obligated to express why Blacks were intellectually inferior and thus could not produce more Grandmasters.
Many of these comments are made without understanding the consequences of spending inordinate time to master a game that has little economic return. Unfortunately, people of African descent rest at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (in many societies) and must assess how to use their time to generate income for basic sustenance. Playing chess professionally is a luxury few Blacks can afford unless sponsorship is secured. It becomes a weekend hobby not consistent with pursuing loftier goals.
In Chess… Black is Good!
The number of Black GMs seems to be an intriguing stat everyone is interested in. While the number is often misquoted, it is used to prove a dual point… that a Black man is capable or incapable of playing high-level chess! Pursuing the GM title requires an immense amount of time and resources. Spending the requisite hours on chess when so many other socioeconomic factors are pressing is not desirable for most in the African Diaspora.
Ashley, who retired from professional chess shortly after winning Foxwoods tournaments in consecutive years, decried the paltry prize funds and soon understood that he could not survive solely on tournament winnings. Ultimately, he cobbled together a Hall-of-Fame career and is one of the most recognizable chess personalities in the world today. Chess becomes more of a path for excellence, which is one of its redeeming qualities.
Carlsson giving a blindfold exhibition in Kenya. How many future GMs in this photo? That is to be determined, but we’ll settle for chess-playing lawyers, accountants, professors, or a Ministry of Sport! Photo by Terrian Chess Academy
Pontus Carlsson is also helping to develop the minds of future leaders through his work in Africa and also through his “Business Meets Chess.” This is why chess matters in Black lives. Black players have used chess as a springboard to enter competitive universities and enjoy successful careers in a variety of fields. Until there is more sponsorship in chess, Black chess players will continue to replace aspirations for chess Grandmasterdom to be professors, physicians, lawyers, engineers, or aspire to be a respectable citizen of a just society.