Transformation of the nerds: The modern chessplayer is a sleeker creature than the regressive slob of old. But can a game of such arcane difficulty really be glamorised into a global telly sport?

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The Independent Culture
THE FACE of chess is changing. For one thing, it is getting handsomer. Gone, it seems, are the bespectacled eccentrics, the mumbling autists and reeking regressives of yesteryear. The Grand Master Analysis Room no longer resembles the soundstage of Revenge of the Nerds. And look at the TV team. Daniel King could be a stand-in for Daniel Day-Lewis. Jon Speelman is the romantic image of the struggling artist, hard-up but head-in-air - the young Courbet, perhaps. Once a GM and now a busy chess middleman, Raymond Keene has evolved from cautious pedagogue to broadhanded entrepreneur, to white-suited impresario. Once upon a time chess players tended to look like Nigel Short, ie like child prodigies catapulted into adulthood. Now they tend to look like Garry Kasparov. Short, with his ripe and inconvenienced stare, is still fascinating to watch, perhaps because he more faithfully conforms to the outsider's ideas about the game. He expresses its ponderous anguish: the low blink-rate, the dreamlike retardation of gesture and reaction time. Whereas Kasparov, for all his famous intensity, now looks thoroughly secular. He looks as though he is at another kind of board meeting - at the IMF, say, okaying that 50 billion for the Brazilians.

Himself a considerable chess problemist, Vladimir Nabokov wrote two novels about chess, or around chess. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the interest is structural and metaphorical: the elusive Sebastian moves like a chessman, the knight, the only piece (other than the rook as it castles) capable of leaving the board and then returning to it. He is a figure for the ethereality of the game. The earlier novel, The Defence (1929), is much more solidly, even grossly naturalistic. Here we

encounter the slow-moving body and racing mind of a chess master, Luzhin, whose obsessive and tragic quest is for the impregnable 'defence' - against the white pieces, and against life. Luzhin will do as the archetypal GM of the pre-modern era. Pure scientist,

crazy professor, arrested adolescent. The moment she sets eyes on him, his shadowy sweetheart knows that here is a man who will have to be inspected on his way out of the door every morning: odd socks, unbuttoned fly, a gout of shaving-cream in either ear. Such erotic feelings as he awakens in her are almost exclusively maternal. His besetting vulnerability will lead to breakdown, and then to suicide. Seedy, solipsistic, gullible, pitiable, abstracted, tormented and doomed: this, surely, is our platonic ideal of the chess genius.

No longer. The days of slobs and inverts, of fag ash and crumbs-in-the-beard, are all behind us. Modern chess has become professionalised, technicised - and glamorised. With its ranks of VDUs, its laptops, its display screens and mimic boards, the press room has submitted to the TV burnish: the burnish of the modern. All is finger-tip and button-punch. The GMs are practically in lab coats. Information flashes and whirrs like the figures on the computer data-base. 'We're out of the book]' shouts one analyst to another, around move 12, when one player unveils (as chess machismo dictates) his latest 'novelty': that novelty, he hopes, is on its way to being an innovation. Attacks and defences, we notice, are no longer called 'openings': they are now called systems. The backstage scene feels like a dramatisation of the switch from the old notation to the new. '1 . . . P-QB4', for instance, has become the brisk, the ruthless, the digitalised '1 . . . c5'.

Garry Kasparov became world champion in 1985. Unquestionably, his has been a style-setting administration, like that of a two-term President. You see the role-model trickledown everywhere, from the Analysis Room to the chess pub or coffee house; maybe even to Washington Square Park, the world of hustlers and misfits (where every bum and babbler is a jinxed GM), so beautifully caught by Fred Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. During these years Kasparov has refused to be straitened and caricatured by his own eminence. His self-esteem is still wonderfully sincere (it is without blind spots); he still twists and bounces around while he talks; his laughter is still dismayingly anarchical. Yet he has found amplitude; chess is his energy, but not his trap.

'I lost my childhood. I never really had it,' he tells Fred Waitzkin in the recent Mortal Games. 'For some, chess is stronger than the sense of childhood.' Viktor Korchnoi gave his autobiography the generically typical title, Chess Is My Life. What kind of statement is this? A boast, a confession, a helpless confirmation of the obvious? Like most fields of contemporary endeavour, chess obeys the law of ever-increasing specialisation. In 1985, aged 22, Kasparov already looked specialised to the point of inanity. And then something happened. Chess might have taken his childhood; but he seems to be hanging on to his life.

Clearly the expansion has been partly political. I do not refer here to the bold clash of interests and personalities which saw Kasparov and Short break away from Fide to form their alternative body (the wobbly PCA). Nor yet to the largely symbolic opposition between Kasparov and Karpov, in which Karpov played White, or White-Russian (standing for the apparat and the empire), and Kasparov played Black (standing for ethnicity, decentralisation and democracy). In the winter of 1989-90, Kasparov's home city of Baku in Azerbaijan became a kind of control experiment - conducted by Gorbachev, Kasparov believes -

in hardline federal policing, or in brutalist race-management. As in Bosnia, a successful multicultural society was forcibly reinfected with racial atavisms. The bloodbath that followed was Gorbachev's signal to his restless republics. Kasparov was there; he was involved, he was endangered, he helped the people

he could help. And he was never the same. These events not only destroyed his past - they contaminated it. He really had no choice but to reinvent himself.

All Russian chessplayers are prominent political beings, whether they like it or not. Korchnoi and Karpov seemed to form the two ends of the visible spectrum: Korchnoi was conscientiously persecuted before and after his defection, whereas Karpov (to say the least of it) became a consummate placeman, an air-Promoters shouldn't try to minimise the difficulty of the game. It is what surrounds the board with holy dread sniffer, a seat-warmer. Such were the traditional options of the intellectual, and the artist, and the sportsman.

It was Solzhenitsyn who, in far harder times and for far higher stakes, showed that there was a third way: he showed how you could leap right off the board. If you were a figure of sufficient size, you could confront the state directly, and as an equal, because world opinion was ready and waiting to redress the disparity. Kasparov has shown that the chess player can also be a political player. He isn't just a pawn; and he isn't just a data-base either, an inflated cerebellum, a throbbing monomaniac in the closed system of the 64 squares. The effect has been roundly liberating. It has brought air to the cave of chess, and given colour to the etiolated faces of the players. You could warily argue that the chess genius, whose thoughts are about nothing else but the disposition of power, is in crucial need of the other dimension, to stay steady. Fischer was not coerced into a political life, so his paranoia invented one; and it was a mess. So here's the simple message that Kasparov sends: diversify if you dare. Play sublime chess while staying active in the world we know. Many of his rivals hate him for this - for his betrayal of the collegiate monomania. Many others see the force of Kasparov's move, and will emulate him.

Handsomely figureheaded, freshly configured, and at least partly humanised, chess waits in the wings, taking deep breaths, ready to burst on to the stage as a planetary spectator sport. This is the idea. This is certainly Kasparov's idea. Chess offers its audience the soap opera of opposed personalities in genuinely bitter combat, deploying an unbounded repertoire of ploy, feint, bluff, trap, poeticism, profundity, brilliancy, together with a complementary array of blunders, howlers, squanderings, bottlings, clawbacks, pratfalls, chokejobs . . . What stands in its way? Not the epic slowness of the game, nor its frieze-like immobility; not the farcical

expediency of Fide's Florencio Campomanes. What stands in its way is the gap, the chasm, the abyss that lies between the watcher and the watched. The difficulty is the thing separating the ordinary player from Garry Kasparov. The difficulty is the difficulty.

Here is an average chat in the Analysis Room, with the personable purists lounging over the chess boards, the chess computers, the chess mags and chess printouts, following the game on the closed-circuit TV. 'Then you hang me on e7.' 'We're trying to get Nd1.' 'You were going Bf4, e5, Be3, then d5.' 'Nf2]' 'Are we winning the piece? Qd7?' 'I always think with f3 it's nothing.' 'This is all right. No. It looks horrible.' 'Give me that line again? Quickly?' 'Kh8.' 'Kh8?' 'Kh8. E3.' 'Not f4.' (Loud sneering.) 'Bg5.' 'Aren't we meant to have a swinging rook?' 'Nigel's taken it.' 'What about Nc7?' 'No way was he going e7.' 'Nd4, Qc4, Qd2' 'E5?' 'D5?' 'I'd consider going a5.' 'What about Nd7 again?' 'F4]' (Loud laughter.)

Now we move to the Savoy Theatre, where the combatants sit centre-stage. In the background the two arbiters lurk like resentful porters in a West End club, occasionally brandishing a sign marked 'Silence'. The audience follows the game on the giant screens, coached over their headphones by the invisible commentary team. In their perch the rotating GMs are rather more disciplined than in the Analysis Room, but just as unstoppably jokey, catty, sarky and cliquey. What you get here is the same blizzard of notation plus much emphatic squirming as the positions solidify and sharpen. During the speed games in the last week the GMs gave up all pretence at mediation and simply jabbered and gloated and cheered among themselves. They are very excited, and excitement is pretty well all they can communicate. The analysis is conducted at a speed and with a second-nature familiarity that put it well beyond the civilian's grasp. Still, as one sits there not understanding the GMs, it's at least nice to think that the GMs are understanding Short and Kasparov. But they aren't.

Take Game 19. Kasparov opened with the Ruy Lopez and Short defended with the Deferred Steinitz (4 . . . d6). By move 12, Short, typically, had wrecked his own pawn structure in the daring hope of greater activity for his bishops and open files for his rooks. At move 20 the Savoy GMs were all in agreement that the game was level. After White's 22nd move they were all in agreement that Black was losing. After Black's 22nd move they were all in agreement that Black had lost.

'What's Nigel got that we haven't seen?' 'Nothing]' 'It's over.' 'Finished.' 'Good-

night, Charlie]' The game ended after White's 26th move, at which point the GMs all assumed that Short had resigned. Not so: down on stage the players were coolly shrugging and leering over the pieces, having settled on a draw.

Subsequent analysis seemed to confirm that the position was unwinnable. But who knew? 'Let's face it,' said Short (according to Raymond Keene's quickie, Kasparov-Short: 1993), 'we don't have a clue what's happening.' 'The final position is a mess,' said Kasparov. 'It's extremely complicated.'

The ladder of incomprehension, at any rate, is clear enough. I don't understand the arcana of the GMs; the GMs don't understand the arcana of Short and Kasparov; and Short and Kasparov don't understand the arcana of their own positions. None of us understands. How very cheering. Chess-promoters shouldn't try to meddle with or minimise the near-infinite difficulty of the game: they are absolutely stuck with it. It is what surrounds the board with holy dread - the exponential, the astronomical.

So what are they up to out there, approximately? Because no one really knows. It would seem that comparatively little time is spent doing what you and I do at the chess board: hectically responding to local and immediate emergencies (all these bolts out of the blue). We are tactical, at best; they are deeply strategic. They are trying to hold on to, to brighten and to bring to blossom a coherent vision which the arrangement of the pieces may or may not contain. And of course they are never left alone to pursue this search. Chess is savagely and remorselessly interactive: it is both mental game and contact sport. What's it like? All-in wrestling between octopuses? Centipedal kickboxing? In its apparent languor, its stealthy equipoise, as each player wallows in horrified fascination, waiting to see what his opponent has seen, or has not seen, one may call to mind a certain punitive ritual of the Yanomami. Only one blow at a time is delivered by the long stave. The deliverer of the blow spends many minutes aiming; the receiver of the blow spends many minutes waiting. Garry Kasparov is the best there's ever been at it, and he knows what chess is. 'The public must come to see that chess is a violent sport,' he says. 'Chess is mental torture.'-

(Photograph omitted)