Simon Kuper Simon Kuper

Sport and mind games

Ed Hawkins longs to believe in the possibility of mind control over players. But there’s nothing occult about the psychology of sport

Years ago, a friend persuaded me that a reviewer should almost never give a book a bad review. Most books, he argued, are written with honest effort. Writers often devote years of their lives, whereas reviewers put in hours. Even a mediocre book that hardly anyone will ever read generally contains something worth passing on in a review. Savage reviews are usually just attempts to show off.

Ed Hawkins, a respected investigative sports journalist, worked hard on The Men on Magic Carpets. But I struggle to find anything good to say about it.

He starts from an interesting premise: during the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States employed psychics to win sports matches and, potentially, wars. In 1978, at the world chess championship between the USSR’s Anatoly Karpov and the ex-Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi, the KGB’s mind-control agent Dr Zoukhar sat in the audience sending negative brainwaves to Korchnoi. The player, advised by

two members of an Indian religious sect… did handstands away from the table in an attempt to make Zoukhar’s orders fall from his head. His mistress sat next to Zoukhar. She kicked him. She tickled him. Until Karpov’s fitness instructor sat on her.

Korchnoi lost, and lamented: ‘I expected to play one against one. Instead the whole Red Army, led by Zoukhar, was against me.’

Dozens of Soviet scientists worked on mind control and extrasensory perception. A woman named Nina Kulagina, a product of Russia’s centuries-old ‘psychic heritage’, could reputedly stop a frog’s heart just by staring at it. Forget sport — the military applications were obvious. Meanwhile, over in 1970s California, hippies at the Esalen Institute on the cliffs of Big Sur were on a similar quest for the psychic in sport.

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