Dominic Lawson makes all the right moves in his intriguing radio series Across the Board

The journalist interviewed unusual or prominent figures over a game of chess

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The Independent Culture

We all have things we like to do in our spare time. For some people, relaxation comes from collecting stamps or knitting; for the more adventurous hobbyist, it's snowboarding or hiking up vertical mountains. For the poet, Tom Rawling, who died in 1996, it was night fishing.

The Radio 4 documentary Night Fishing told the story of Rawling, who was admired by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, but whose poetic output about his native Cumbria and the practice of fishing for sea trout remains largely overlooked. Most of Rawling's life was spent as a schoolteacher, and he only began writing in his retirement.

In order to provide us with a glimpse into Rawling's world, the poet and presenter Grevel Lindop decided to accompany an angler, Finlay Wilson, on his quest to catch sea trout, a fish so easily spooked by human presence that it is best pursued at night.

The programme went heavy on the atmospherics, from the crunch of earth under foot and the whispering of the trees, to the mournful cello (must it always be a cello?) to signify the seclusion of the nocturnal fisherman.

As Lindop observed, Rawling's poems had a peculiar intensity. "A strange, slightly frightening quality that's vivid, almost obsessive," he said. There was an intensity to Wilson, too, as talked about the "mystical hue" of the light as dusk turned to dark and the "inky depths" of the water. But then he went further. "It's almost a sexual thing, fly-fishing at night," he explained. "It's the anticipation, and waiting for such an aggressive take."

And lo, the mystical spell was broken – for me at least. It was clear from his poems that Rawling felt the same way as Wilson. The sea trout was always a "she" whom he would court and marry.

He called the process a "seduction" during which he would watch, wait and then pounce and kill. It was a bold acknowledgement of a seemingly innocuous pastime with a chilling psychological undercurrent. Never mind fishing as a balm to the soul. Therapy might have been more fitting here.

Dominic Lawson's series Across the Board, in which he interviewed unusual or prominent figures over a game of chess, was a more harmless yet intriguing proposition. Last week, the journalist and presenter took on Murray Campbell, the brains behind the chess computer Deep Blue – which made headlines when it beat Kasparov – and Magnus Carlson, currently the world's number one player.

His final interviewee was Demis Hassabis, a former child chess prodigy and, said Lawson, "probably the brainiest person on the planet", who had abandoned the rarefied world of chess when he was 13 in favour of gaming. He went on to study computer science at Cambridge and immersed himself in academia before founding an artificial intelligence company that was later bought by Google for £400m.

Hassabis was fascinating about how his career had unfolded. Aged 11 he began to realise that, though chess was great for training the mind, it was too narrow a practice for a satisfying career. "It feels self-indulgent to spend all your talents on just beating another human opponent," he said.

Unlike the creepy anglers in Night Fishing, Across the Board revealed all its subjects to be interesting, unusually bright and well-adjusted people, each blessed with a healthy dose of self-awareness.

Lawson's playing chess with his interviewees was far from the point of the exercise, but a neat conceit that encouraged them to put aside any self-consciousness and really talk. These five episodes weren't nearly enough. Roll on, series three.

Twitter.com/FionaSturges

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