BOOK REVIEW / Opposite the other Gazza: 'The Inner Game' - Dominic Lawson: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EVEN over the dinner table, Garry Kasparov liked to have as many little objects between himself and Nigel Short as he might find on the chess board. So, in a rare moment of cordiality just after the two of them had agreed on the terms for their world championship match, he invited Short out for a meal - at Ken Lo's Memories of China restaurant in London. Dominic Lawson does not tell us how Short managed against Kasparov in this particular encounter (Egg Fried Rice to King Prawn - check]), but he tells us most other things, in a fascinating if one-sided tale of how Nigel Short came to fight for the biggest prize in chess.

The book describes itself as 'the real story behind the World Chess Championship' - and certainly Lawson's access to what went on in the build-up to the championship and during the six weeks of its duration in September and October last year is impressive. But it was access only really to the Short side, of which Lawson himself was no mere observer. He was more of an aide, negotiating business for Short, chauffeuring him, being his friend. And the intimacy with which we are allowed to see into Short's life underlines how little we find out about Kasparov's.

'Gazza', as Short calls him, remains a shadowy, humourless, stereotypically Soviet figure - a brooding genius all right, but one for whom no trick is too low in his obsessive pursuit of chess glory. Ah, but is he happy? Lawson would have us think not, although you wonder whether that isn't his way of rationalising the disappointment of Short's comprehensive defeat. There were moments in their 20 games when Short made Kasparov sit up - or rather, sit down - but for the most part the Englishman was outplayed. For Lawson, feeling every move of the way for poor Nigel, the response seems to be 'If you can't beat him, pity him'.

The story badly needed a villain who got his just deserts. Instead, this one slunk off with the spoils, leaving Short to play the very British role of brave loser. And the guitar-strumming Short is an endearing figure, whose attempts at bravado and talk of destroying his opponent cannot disguise his fundamental good nature. Nor can being mauled by Kasparov, and, if the true test of a sportsman's character is the way in which he responds to defeat rather than victory, then Short passes it magnificently.

If the book has a hero, it is Mrs Short. To be the wife of a sportsman imposes its own strains, and Rea Short displays as much inner strength as any chess player - all the more, in some ways, since she does not play the game - in supporting her husband, bringing up their young daughter while he is away for months, and then finding that when he does finally come home for dinner he's very often got Dominic Lawson with him.

The authority with which this enables Lawson to tell his story is hugely to the reader's gain, however. He is right there, in the hotel room immediately before and after the matches, having lunch with Short on the days in between, a backstage witness to the emotional and mental turmoil that he goes through. I doubt any writer could get as close to a top tennis player or boxer during the moments that matter. As well as nice biographical incidentals - that Short sunbathes in the nude, for example - Lawson provides a terrific insight into the riches of chess itself: the extent to

which it is a team game, with much resting on the research carried out by each man's set of advisors; the way some moves are like rare birds, not sighted since 1972; the frantic brainwork for which there is no physical expression other than the way you screw your piece down on to its square.

And like the best sportswriters - this is more of a sports book than any other kind, though rather a grand one - Lawson creates great drama out of his material. Even as the world championship unfolds and it becomes apparent just how little of a match Short is for Kasparov, the tension is brilliantly sustained. And no, you don't have to be a chess expert or even to have played the game at all to enjoy this book. Indeed, I think that the experts might find it a little light on match analysis. Like many people who were put off first by the hype and then by the uncompetitiveness of it, I followed the world chess championship with only a passing interest. Reading this account has made me regret that.