Vladimir Putin: Check and mate, comrade. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Putin Takes the King

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The echoes of Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea are finding their way to some interesting places. The Russian oil town of Khanty-Mansiysk is currently hosting the Candidates Tournament, to pick the challenger for Magnus Carlsen's world chess championship. Eight of the world's best will battle mightily through 14 rounds. I don't know what's going on in the playing hall or in the city itself, but on the websites that broadcast the moves to fans around the world, the live comment threads are haunted by the shadow of what's happening in Ukraine.

Ordinarily, the online discussions during the games are about chess -- who's winning, who should play what and, among the bolder, who's a moron for missing some complex bit of computer analysis. This week, however, commentators are seeing conspiracies everywhere.

An Azerbaijani grandmaster ruins a winning position and loses to a Russian, and suddenly the thread is full of bad jokes. (Example: "Putin has now lifted his threat to invade Azerbaijan.") One Russian defeats another, and a whole string of anonymous observers are certain the loser was ordered to blunder, because Putin wanted the other player to win. A Bulgarian crushes a Russian, and commentators are certain that it's because the long arm of Putin's secret police doesn't stretch to Sofia.

Every blunder by or against a Russian is analyzed in terms of what Putin must be thinking. At least once a day, someone digs up and recapitulates Bobby Fischer's 52-year old Sports Illustrated essay, "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess."

There's little reason to take these accusations seriously -- there hasn't even been a Russian world chess champion since 2006 -- but the constant Putin references do illustrate both a cost and a benefit of running a police state at home with an aggressive militarism abroad. The cost is that everyone is ready to believe the worst, all the time: Anything your country achieves in any field must be the result of cheating, or worse. The benefit is that everyone thinks you omnipotent: Stretch out your hand toward the chessboard, and the outcome is foreordained. Even the humor conjures the image of Putin's power.

Sic transit gloria mundi, of course. But it's fascinating nevertheless to watch the sneaking online admiration for the swaggering tyrant ... while it lasts.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net