Profile: Advance of a pawn king: Kasparov, fame and fortune await Britain's finest player in 150 years. William Hartston looks at the prodigy poised to rule the chess world / Nigel Short

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The Independent Online
FOR THE past week, in a small theatre just round the corner from the palace of El Escorial in Spain, Nigel Short, 27, England's most successful chess player for 150 years, has been locked in battle in the most important match of his career. His opponent is the Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman, 41, and the principal prize for the winner will be the right to challenge Garry Kasparov for the world title this autumn.

After a drastic loss in the second game, Short came back with two wins in a row to take the lead, but the play of both men has been characterised more by nervous errors than brilliance. They are the last two survivors of a three- year series of eliminating events which form the elaborate and exhausting preamble to the world championship.

Only at this level do rewards become commensurate with years of mental energy. If he scoops the prize money at El Escorial, adds to it the guaranteed loser's purse in the world championship, and boosts the total with a sponsorship deal promised by a German computer company, Nigel Short will become Britain's first chess millionaire. Further, he will be one step away from joining the most exclusive company in world sport. The champion must defend his crown only once every three years. Since Wilhelm Steinitz and Johann Zukertort fought the first official world championship in 1886, there have been only 13 holders of the title. None has been English; none even had an English challenger.

NIGEL SHORT, born in Lancashire on 1 June 1965, was a textbook chess prodigy. At six, he asked to join his older brother in learning how to play. By eight, he was participating in adult tournaments, and before he was 10 he accomplished the conventional rite of passage by beating his father, himself a decent club player; unlike other great prodigies, such as Paul Morphy and Capablanca, Short did it blindfolded.

At school, he never seemed very bright - just an average, cheerful kid who happened to be brilliant at chess. He never had to work at it much - he relied on a natural feel for the game rather than on absorbing the theoretical manuals.

Before he was 20, he broke all records for achievement in chess. From the youngest contestant in the history of the British championship at 12, he became the world's youngest International Master at 14 and at 19 the world's youngest grandmaster and the youngest British champion.

The chess was superb, but he was a gawky adolescent, with long hair, flared trousers and bass guitar. He had a slight stammer as well as a Bolton accent, which has now given way to a curious, cropped manner of speaking in which he chooses words as carefully as chess moves. When he won the BBC Master Game television chess series in 1981, the producer felt obliged to sharpen up Short's image with an extra-meticulous edit of his voice-over commentaries. When Short said 'Well, er, I think (pause), I'm (nervous cough), probably winning, er, now', the sanitised version was a crisp 'I'm winning now'.

And, for the most part, he continued winning. In 1986 Short scored his first win against Kasparov, and the following year, Kasparov came to London to teach him a lesson in a six-game speed chess match. The champion won only by four games to two. 'Kasparov understands more about chess than I ever will,' Short said then. 'But that doesn't mean that I'll never beat him.'

Short benefited from, as well as contributing to, a general revival in English chess. In 1970, the English team could manage only 25th place in the Chess Olympics; by the mid-1980s, they were regularly finishing second. Despite some setbacks, such as the Brussels tournament of 1987 when he came 11th out of 12 contestants, Short's lazy genius had by 1988 taken him to third place in the world rankings. Only Kasparov and Karpov, who between them had held the world title since 1975, were above him.

Then, in 1988, came the most important defeat of his career. In the quarter-finals of the eliminating matches leading to the world championship, he met his old friend and neighbour, Jonathan Speelman. Brilliantly inventive, Speelman had been one of England's grandmasters for years, but seemed to lack the killer instinct needed to be a world beater.

Speelman looked relaxed during the match, while Short was uncharacteristically uncommunicative and tense. He had become excessively cautious, playing tightly controlled chess, over-burdened with his reputation and the knowledge he was a Great Player. He was bemused by his opponent's guileful play and was soundly defeated. He slumped from third to 18th in the world rankings. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. For perhaps the first time, he started taking chess and himself really seriously.

'I had no concept of what it is to work on chess,' Short says of his early years. 'I enjoyed reading about chess, but I had no idea how to work in a disciplined way on the game.'

Chess is too difficult to play perfectly. Even the best players cannot work out everything, so decisions rely on calculation and intuition. Above all, games are not primarily won by good play, they are lost by mistakes. With every move potentially a fatal error, the tension of a top-class contest is phenomenal. Kasparov claimed not to have been surprised by the Speelman result. 'Nigel needs to make fundamental changes to his personality,' he said.

WHAT WE see now is a new, more mature Nigel Short - husband, father, Conservative Party member, disciplined worker. He met his wife, Rhea, 34, a drama therapist from Athens, at a party given by the former world champion, Boris Spassky, in Paris. They married in 1989 and share their spare time between her parents' house in Athens and his small flat in West Hampstead. They would move to somewhere more spacious, says Nigel, but he does not want the hassle to distract him from thinking about the match.

Rhea denies being Nigel's personal psychologist - 'I'm just his wife.' But she is a stabilising influence and her perceptive comments are useful to him in sizing up his opponents. 'Being a drama therapist,' she says, 'makes me more aware of what happens behind what you see, so I can understand maybe the tension that is under the surface. It's very easy to see that this player is very talented but insecure, and that player is not so talented but extremely ambitious and hard.'

The third member of the team is the trainer, Lubomir Kavalek, 50, an American grandmaster originally from Czechoslovakia, who has added an experienced professionalism to Short's attitudes. Kavalek has taught Short to work hard and instilled in him a vicious determination. 'I enjoy crushing people,' says Short, 'there is no doubt about that. I get a bigger kick from playing good chess, but if I can humiliate the guy at the same time, that's even better.'

He has taught himself to dislike his opponents when he feels it is necessary to counter their hostility. Of one Russian champion he says: 'I don't like the guy; his mentality is Stalinist-like. I think he is just a thoroughly unpleasant person.' Another he describes as 'a tricky guy; he's extremely intelligent and he lies a lot'.

When the current cycle of world title eliminators came around, Short had learnt how to identify and play to his opponents' weaknesses; and he had learnt how to preserve his own confidence and equanimity over the period of weeks that a match might last.

In a sport where grandmasters have accused each other of beaming death rays, passing coded messages in yogurt pots, or employing hypnotists, Short's record as a sporting player has only one blemish. In a tournament in 1987, a Hungarian grandmaster formally protested when he turned up for their game wearing shorts. The complaint was upheld. 'Apparently my legs were not a pretty sight,' says Short.

Back on the world championship trail in 1991, in the round of the last 16, Short was once again paired against Speelman. After falling behind early in the match, Short scored a late win to tie the contest, then won a quick-play two-game play-off.

In the next round, he defeated Boris Gelfand, a young Russian who was ranked third in the world. Again Short recovered after being one game behind. This victory earned him a semi-final match against Anatoly Karpov. Before that match, which took place in Linares, Spain, Short finished in last place in a tournament in the same city. If he had been deliberately trying to lull Karpov into a sense of security, he could hardly have done better. Hardly any grandmaster gave Short any chance of beating Karpov. After all, Karpov had been world champion from 1975 until 1985, had fought a series of desperately close contests with Garry Kasparov, and had never been beaten by anyone other than Kasparov in match play. Yet before the contest, Short gave every indication of being calm and confident. 'I have not come here to put up a good show,' he said at the pre-match press conference. 'I have come here to win.'

The intelligent preparation of Short's small team brilliantly sidestepped Karpov's renowned strengths. For all the assistance of the seconds, analysts, cooks, doctors and parapsychologists who form part of the entourage of any Russian champion, Karpov was reduced to helplessness.

Short was scathing of the parapsychologist. 'He was sitting in the front row and jotting down thoughts. He was making observations like 'Short only orders the coffee when he's worried', things like this, but I don't think the guy was very serious, he was offering lots of bad advice to Karpov. He seemed to be more interested in chatting up my cousin, whom we took along as a babysitter. Actually, at the end of one game, he dropped a piece of paper - he was constantly making notes during the game - and I was expecting to see all these deep psychological notes written down in Russian. Instead, he was writing phrases like 'I love you' and 'I have no money', so I thought, well, I'll let Karpov believe this guy is doing him some good, because this is just voodoo really.'

But there will be no dirty tricks or bare legs against Timman, who for many years has been a close friend of Short and ally in his battles against the former Soviet Union. Will Short win through to challenge Kasparov? Before the match, he was slight favourite; after last week's performance, the odds on his winning have strengthened. As the tension grows, Short's newly found composure will be a great asset.

(Photograph omitted)