Real Men Play Chess

The world's greatest game is not for the faint-hearted. In its wake, international chess has left a torrid trail of punch-ups, lunacy, corruption and even murder plots.
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The world's greatest game is not for the faint-hearted. In its wake, international chess has left a torrid trail of punch-ups, lunacy, corruption and even murder plots.

The first rule of Chess Club is you don’t talk about Chess Club. Forget about Fight Club, real men play chess. Despite being one of the oldest and most cerebral games in the world, chess is actually a testosterone-charged battle and sometimes the fighting spills off the board. This year, 18-year-old Ruslan Ponomariov became the youngest ever world champion. But along the way, his ruthless ability to exploit his oppositions’ tiny weaknesses prompted one grandmaster to say he would like to break Ponomariov’s nose. But that’s not half of it; over the past forty years, chess has been at the centre of punch-ups, madness, corruption and even murder plots.

More than any other game, chess is a psychological pursuit. And a ruthless one at that. Players talk about 'killing', 'decimating', 'destroying' their opponents. “Chess is above all a fight," said the German world champion, Emanuel Lasker. And he would know because between 1894 and 1921 he didn’t lose a single scrap. Of course, the battle is meant to take place firmly within the realms of the chequered board but when passions run high it’s not always easy to contain the aggression.

In 1997, England was playing Austria in a crucial European qualifier. The Austrian player looked to have the game wrapped up but was failing to write down his moves – a slight break with etiquette. As the game ground towards its inevitable conclusion, the English team submitted a written complaint about this lapse in protocol. Incensed, the Austrian captain, Paul Detter, leapt into the fray causing mayhem along the way. Witnesses said he interfered with the time clock, ripped up the written complaint and ‘poked’ the English player in the back, publicly called him something very rude in Austrian, and then stormed out. As a consequence, the English were awarded the match, and the whole Austrian team was disqualified. Detter may have blown it for his team-mates but his actions reveal that chess is not just the sporting bastion of the geek.

Since it was brought to Europe from Persia in the 14th Century by the blood thirsty Moors, Chess has been about passion, violence and genius. Far from being a game for the faint-hearted, when played at the top level, chess is a surprisingly physical activity. Grandmasters need to keep their bodies in peak conditions as well as their minds. During a 10-match game in 1990 Nigel Short shed about half a stone. According to one study conducted at Temple University, chess players experience tremendous stress during a game and their blood pressure, breathing and heart rates increase in a manner similar to football players. When men win a game, the experts say, the rise of testosterone levels in the blood is just the same as that experienced by people who go in for so-called ‘adrenaline sports’.

"Over the past forty years, chess has been at the centre of punch-ups, madness, corruption and even murder plots."

Surges in adrenaline, pumping testosterone, hammering heartbeats: this may sound more like a boxing match than a game of chess but perhaps the two aren’t so different. In both sports, you need to show be merciless towards your opposition: “You've got to be prepared to kill people,” says the otherwise very polite British Champion, Nigel Short. When Tony Miles, the man considered responsible for raising British chess to greatness in the late 1970s and early 1980s, took on the reigning world champion. Anatoly Karpov and beat him, his unorthodox style was described as reminiscent of a ‘street brawl’. Whichever way it is fought, however, chess is war and in 1972 that’s exactly what it became.

When the American champion, Bobby Fischer faced the Russian champion, Boris Spassky in Iceland at the height of the Cold War, chess became front-page news. For the world at large, this was a symbolic clash between the two superpowers. The Russians, with their state-backed and well-drilled academy of chess, had held the title since the War. Fischer was the American loner. This was Communism against capitalism, collective planning versus inspired individualism. It was always going to be much more than a chess match.

The atmosphere, already electric, reached new heights when Fischer failed to show up for the second game of the match because he decided he did not want to play in front of television cameras. Tensions were cranked up further when the Russians demanded that Fischer's chair be dismantled to check for special properties believed to be sapping Spassky's energy. In the end, Bobby Fischer, a man with an IQ of over 180, won easily, securing his place in the history books as well as the chess hall of fame. But it was Fischer’s reputation for eccentricity that kept the world spellbound. Due to defend his title against Karpov, he issued a 14-page document with 179 demands including 15 bodyguards and a knight piece whose nose was a specific length. Fide, the world chess governing body, accepted 178 of them, but balked at the 179th. Fischer promptly relinquished his crown and disappeared for the next 20 years.

Bobby was briefly lured out of hiding in 1992 when a rematch with Spassky was held in the UN sanctioned Serbia. Fischer won the $3.5million prize money but was indicted by the US for his efforts. He now faces a jail sentence and hefty fine should he return to his America. He briefly reappeared on September 11th, on a Philippine radio station, where he delivered his verdict on the terrorist attacks. "This is all wonderful news. It is time to finish off the US once and for all,” he said. Fischer is now believed to be living in Budapest. Janos Rigo, his driver and confidant, said recently of him, “Bobby Fischer was a classic case of someone who became mentally trapped inside the game, a prisoner of chess who got lost in its depths and could not find his bearings in the real world outside, a victim of obsession.”

The American was not the only great chess player who lost his mind on that infamous chequered board. In 1976, Tony Miles became Britain's first grandmaster at a tournament in Dubna, USSR. But like a number of other great chess players, he lived on the very edge of sanity. He suffered from depression and had a series of breakdowns. At one time, he became convinced he was Jesus Christ; on another occasion, he had to be restrained by police after vaulting over the barrier at the entrance to Downing Street. At a tournament in China, he was seen wandering around naked in the tournament hall. He became paranoid and was convinced that he was being spied on. After a bitter dispute with Raymond Keene, a fellow grandmaster and his main British rival in the mid-1970s, Miles told people that Keene was trying to have him murdered. Towards the end of his life he had dropped to 376th in the world. He had ballooned to 18 stones, his clothing was dishevelled, his complexion sallow, his hair long and lank. Miles died in November 2001. Many wondered whether his poor performances had sapped his will to go on.

"Surges in adrenaline, pumping testosterone, hammering heartbeats: boxing and chess aren't so different."

The stresses and strains of playing chess at the highest level are prodigious. Players not only play each other, but also the clock. They do not have fixed salaries and a run of poor results can lead to financial pressures, too. In his book The Inner Game, Dominic Lawson writes that the chess grandmaster puts himself under a mental strain that can be overwhelming. The game involves fantastic feats of calculation, as well as competitive strain. Lawson wrote: "While a mathematician might tax his nerves in trying to solve a theoretical problem, he does not have another mathematician in the room to change the problem whenever he looks like solving it." Despite its reputation for being a dour game played by bookish types, recent research has shown otherwise. Psychologists who studied more than 100 chess players say the game attracts sensation-seekers with a thirst for action and adventure on a par with skydivers, scuba divers, mountaineers and skiers. They said: "More competitive chess players have been shown to score highly for unconventional thinking and paranoia, both of which have been shown to relate to sensation-seeking."

The Latvian Mikhail Tal was one such sensation seeker. While the rest of the world was playing safe, predictable chess, along came Tal with all the cavalier, swash buckling style of one of The Four Musketeer’s. So extraordinary were his methods, that one grandmaster said of him: “Tal does not move chess pieces by hand, he uses a magic wand.” One quivering opponent, the Hungarian Pal Benko, was so intimidated that he convinced himself that Tal had to be hypnotising him. In an ill-conceived bid to get a grip on the situation he decided to wear a pair of dark glasses throughout the game. Prior to the match, however, the mischievous Tal got wind of his opponent’s plan and secured himself a pair of enormous, joke dark glasses, which he wore during the game reducing the crowd to hysterics. Unperturbed, Benko stuck to his plan and didn’t remove his shades until it was quite clear that Tal had defeated him anyway.

Chess is unlike any other game. For one thing, you can’t use drugs to improve your performance. The only guy who ever tried it, was the German Dr Fegger. He experimented with Beta Blockers but the effect wasn’t quite what he had intended. Instead of helping him concentrate, the chemicals prevented him from getting enough adrenaline. So the only breakthrough he made was, when he did lose a game, he found he was very laid back at the whole affair. Chess is also the only sport in which top-flight players compete against computers. As Nigel Short pointed out, “We don’t make sprinters run 100 metres against a Ferrari or make weightlifters compete against a forklift truck.” In 1997, however, the World Champion Garry Kasparov took on the calculating might of the IBM sponsored Deep Blue and lost. The knock to his confidence is believed to be so profound that, soon after, it contributed to his loss of the world championship to Kramnik.

In a turn of events that seems eerily reminiscent of a dodgy kung fu movie, Kramnik declared that he was seeking revenge for the humiliation of his former teacher and wanted a showdown with the machine. IBM had a few years to tinker in their tool shed and eventually unveiled Deep Fritz 7, otherwise known as “The Brains of Bahrain”. The confrontation in 2002 - which turned out to be an inconclusive draw - was heralded with the hype: "Bigger than The Thriller in Manila, hotter than The Rumble in the Jungle . . . get ready for The Brains in Bahrain." As I said, who needs Fight Club...