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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?