Leading Article: May the nicer man win

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'IT IS a testy, cholericke game and very offensive to him that looseth the mate.' That was how Robert Burton described chess in his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1626, and the recent history of world championship chess provides much evidence to support his view. In 1972, Boris Spassky, normally the most gentlemanly of grandmasters, became so worried, when losing to Bobby Fischer, about the possibility of electronic devices sapping his mental energy that he asked for the players' chairs and the light above the chess table to be dismantled and examined by physicists.

In 1976, Tigran Petrosian accidentally kicked Viktor Korchnoi at a critical moment of a world title qualifier. Korchnoi threatened to kick him back and the match erupted in disputes about under-the-table fouls and above-the-board abuse. When Korchnoi met Anatoly Karpov for the world title in 1978, the organisers felt obliged to install an anti- kick board beneath the playing table. Carpentry, however, could not prevent bizarre allegations of coded messages in yoghurt pots, or of hired assassins and hypnotists.

Great champions have worn mirror glasses to prevent harmful influences being beamed into their brains, or demanded one-way mirrors between them and the spectators; they have refused to shake hands, and even insisted on sitting at separate boards.

In this context, the match between Britain's Nigel Short, 27, and the Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman, 41, which finished on Saturday, was a model of decorum and tranquillity. Short and Timman began the match firm friends and ended it, after three weeks' hard fighting, just as happy in each other's company. Before the match, both men had condemned what they saw as the institutionalised dirty tricks of the now-defunct Soviet chess establishment. Their play and sportsmanship in San Lorenzo de El Escorial has shown that nice guys can also win at chess.

In winning the match, Short becomes the first Briton this century to challenge for the world title. His achievements already, in a country with no great tradition of professional chess, have been astonishing, but his next adversary is formidable. World champion since 1985, Garry Kasparov is, according to Short's description, 'thoroughly unpleasant'. He also leads Short by 10 wins to one in previous encounters.

Short has come this far as much through his remarkable composure as technical skill. Without the aid of psychologists or parapsychologists, he has learnt to know his opponents better than they know themselves. Above all, he has learnt to despise testy, 'cholericke' and offensive opponents and to ride the waves of tension they invoke. Nigel Short versus Garry Kasparov promises to be an enthralling match. May the nicer man win.