Chess high-life comes to pieces: William Hartston on the West's top players for whom perestroika has meant hard times

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The Independent Online
BOBBY FISCHER and Boris Spassky are battling over the chess board for a dollars 5m purse on the luxury island of Sveti Stefan in Yugoslavia; Jan Timman and Nigel Short are preparing for their world title final eliminator in January, which will make the winner a millionaire; and world champion Garry Kasparov is thinking about his dollars 4m title defence in Los Angeles next year.

But, below those rarefied levels, the world chess economy quickly dries up. With an ever-increasing number of would-be professional players chasing a limited amount of prize money, any rational analysis makes the financial rewards of life on the black and white squares look distinctly grey.

David Norwood, at 23 one of England's brightest chess prospects, recently gave up his life as an itinerant grandmaster to take a well-paid, full-time job as a foreign currency trader at a merchant bank. After three months, he decided to go back to chess. 'The job made me too much money and money stops you thinking,' he said. 'Once you've made a living at chess, and got used to the chess-player's lifestyle, it's very difficult to go into something so demanding.'

A chess-player, according to Norwood, likes to control his own time, to make his own choices and to think on his own terms. 'Chess-players learn to be self-indulgent,' he said.

Until two or three years ago, with Britain a major world power in chess and France, Germany and Spain all offering a growing number of well-paid tournaments, the prospects for a young grandmaster from Western Europe looked good. But Norwood knew when it all began to fall apart: 'I remember when the Berlin Wall was coming down, and the news that the Soviets would be living like us soon, I just felt sick,' he explained. 'I knew it was the end of the world for me. While everyone else was celebrating, I realised this was a disaster.

'Suddenly you have all these impoverished Russians prepared to play for nothing. The life of a Western chess professional came to an end with glasnost.'

Norwood looks back to the good days of four years ago when, as an undergraduate at Oxford, he could spend a fortnight of his holiday tripping over to France, winning a tournament with ease, and pocketing pounds 2,000 prize money - 'more than my entire year's grant'. Now, at any tournament in Europe, he knows he will find dozens of ex-Soviet, ex-Yugoslav or Romanian grandmasters scavenging for hard currency.

At a tournament in Spain last year, Norwood counted 35 professional players competing for a total prize fund of pounds 3,000. With play, analysis and preparation for the games adding up to around 100 hours' hard work, the rate of pay worked out, on average, at less that pounds 1 an hour.

'And that's not bad conditions,' says Norwood. In England alone there are between 30 and 40 players whose principal income derives from chess, and we have only one or two tournaments each year that offer what he would describe as 'serious prize money'. Appearance fees are rare and most top prizes are no more than pounds 500.

With a sharp, tactical chess style and an even sharper dress sense, Norwood has made considerable efforts, since obtaining his history degree from Oxford, to publicise chess. 'There's a real romance about the game' he says, 'a real emotional power.' He firmly believes in the educational value of the game, but finds the British attitude to chess totally unsupportive compared to the esteem it attracts on the continent. 'It's somehow derided here as something only for cranks.'

Norwood regrets not having been trained properly as a chess- player when he was younger. 'At 15 or 16 I was the best of my age in the world, but instead of having a trainer I was giving lessons, charging pounds 7.50 an hour. It was great pocket money. I could go to the pub with my friends and have all these pounds 10 notes.'

Now Norwood, who describes himself as 'talented, lackadaisical and hedonistic', is ranked just outside the top 100 players in the world, but is reasonably content.

'These days to be good at chess requires a narrowing of the mind. A zooming in on the target and cutting out distractions. There's no way I could do that.'

He plans to continue playing, and to prove that, without putting in any special effort, he can still be as good as 'the boring Soviet machines'. Apart from that, he sets himself no objectives.

'If at 23, with no wife and mortgage and kids and car and all these other nasty things, you start worrying about the future, you may as well kill yourself immediately,' he explains.

As a trader, Norwood could have looked forward to a six-figure salary within three or four years; instead, on the unpredictable chess circuit, he may have to include the pence to make such a claim. 'In a bad year, I might make as much as, say, someone working in a hotel reception, but I know multi-millionaires and my lifestyle's certainly much pleasanter than theirs.'

(Photograph omitted)