Che­quered ob­ses­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Broekhuyse

through the mid­dle-Euro­pean, Rus­sian and Amer­i­can chess scenes, in­ter­view­ing grand­mas­ters, track­ing down living leg­ends, even mix­ing it with home­less chess hus­tlers in Wash­ing­ton Square. He delves en­ter­tain­ingly into the game’s great per­son­al­i­ties, its sto­ried past and its un­cer­tain fu­ture. He won­ders why so many crazy men play chess but so few sane women do, and whether com­put­ers will “solve” it all one day. He also probes, with im­pres­sive nu­ance, the in­di­vid­ual psy­cholo­gies of var­i­ous grand­mas­ters and their rea­sons for pan­der­ing to this most un­re­spon­sive of mis­tresses.

There’s Nigel Short, the foul-mouthed for­mer prodigy who still burns for the game. There’s Keith Arkell, “the ar­che­typal English chess pro, in his fifties but fight­ing on, living mainly on this win­nings, get­ting by on not very much”. There’s Vladislav Tkachiev, the charis­matic French-Rus­sian-Kaza­khstani grand­mas­ter no­to­ri­ous for play­ing games blind drunk and or­gan­is­ing on­line beauty pa­rades for fe­male play­ers. And there’s the sad case of Bobby Fis­cher, a frac­tured fairy­tale Moss re-as­sem­bles through shards of con­ver­sa­tions with those who knew him, in good times and bad.

Moss out­lines the pre­car­i­ous lot of the typ­i­cal grand­mas­ter, forced to couch-surf or en­dure crappy ho­tel rooms at for­eign tour­na­ments, bulk­ing-up on com­pli­men­tary bistro break­fasts and des­per­ately play­ing for prizes that barely cover their costs. “Re­ly­ing on over-the-board earn­ings, living in fairly ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tion, trav­el­ling con­stantly and stay­ing in non­de­script ho­tels is not a life­style that suits the mar­ried per­son, which is why so many chess pros are male, sin­gle, some­times still living with their par­ents into their thir­ties, a bit dys­func­tional ...”

He does overdo the starv­ing-weirdo theme a bit. There are lots of nor­mal peo­ple who like chess, and some great suc­cess sto­ries. Moss men­tions but does not labour the counter-ex­am­ples: grand­mas­ters such as mul­ti­mil­lion­aire in­vest­ment banker David Norwood or noted econ­o­mist Ken­neth Ro­goff. But the starv­ing weirdos do ex­ist, and the ques­tion is why.

Does the in­ex­pli­ca­ble al­lure of chess re­side in the fact that it’s “a sealed world with a clear set of rules and one over­rid­ing ob­jec­tive that ap­pealed to peo­ple who found life, ‘real’ life, chal­leng­ing”? Or is it, as Dutch mas­ter Hans Ree sug­gests, sim­ply that it’s a game “beau­ti­ful enough to waste your life for”? And there’s grand­mas­ter Danny Gor­mally’s more pro­saic ex­pla­na­tion: “Chess play­ers are no­to­ri­ously lazy and ba­si­cally in­ca­pable of do­ing any­thing else.” I sus­pect the jury’s eter­nally out on that one.

At the end of his three-year quest, Moss has im­proved, but only a bit.

“It didn’t solve my midlife cri­sis,” he ad­mits, “... but just oc­ca­sion­ally I play a game I’m proud of and my heart leaps a lit­tle.”

My own epiphany came with the ac­cep­tance, at 40 or so, that I was never go­ing to be a grand­mas­ter and, no, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be rid­ing through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair all that of­ten, ei­ther. I would win some games but lose lots, too, and it didn’t mat­ter a damn.

And sud­denly, per­plex­ingly, I be­gan to en­joy my chess like never be­fore. is The Aus­tralian’s chess writer.

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