INTERVIEW: Even Madonna can't beat Nigel: Nigel Short is just huge in Iceland. Yet here, chess colleagues think he's gone potty and the bank would rather he had a steady job

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:55

And so to Monte Carlo to see Nigel Short at the posh Metropole Palace hotel. Who says the modern chess player doesn't lead a glamorous life? He'll be there till later this week, playing in a tournament, thankful to escape the latest dramas and rows in the world championship shock horror story.

I recognised his voice at once. Not just because it was the only English voice in a press room full of Dutch, German and East Europeans, but because of his weird Dalek-like intonation. I've been in many press rooms, from soccer to snooker, but this was the strangest. The afternoon session was over, so you'd expect the hacks to be relaxing, enjoying the free drink and sandwiches. What they were doing was playing chess, all of them.

In the chess world they can't decide whether chess is a sport, a game or an art. After 24 hours in their company, I'd say chess is a drug. They are all addicts, players and press. Surprising, then, that Nigel, aged 27 but looking younger, should appear more or less normal, given the life he's led.

In September he'll be playing Garry Kasparov in London for a world title. FIDE, the world governing body, decided it was going to be in Manchester, but Nigel and Kasparov were so furious at not being consulted that they formed their own breakaway group and put their match out to tender. It should now earn pounds 2m, about twice what it would have been. Even if he loses, Nigel will make half a million. Who says chess is small beer?

No Briton has reached a world final before. In fact, few Brits have ever been much good at chess, until recently. We didn't get our first grandmaster till 1976; now we have 20. Despite our rise to world eminence, few people in Britain seem aware or interested in what has happened. Which really cheeses off the British players.

Nigel arrived in the press room looking tired and distracted. His two games had been drawn - one of them a blindfold game played on computers, don't ask me how it works. But when I mentioned the lack of British press, he came to life. 'It's appalling. Not one British chess correspondent has turned up. They'll cover it from London, using faxes. It's like reporting a Test match by sitting in your hotel bedroom.'

The Monaco Amber Tournament is privately funded by a Dutchman, J J Van Oosterom, a millionaire who sold his software business in the Netherlands and moved to Monte Carlo. His passion in life is chess, especially postal chess, at which he's a grandmaster. He's put up dollars 100,000 ( pounds 67,000) in prize money, just to have the pleasure of the world's leading players on his doorstep, including Karpov, the former world champ, and the new Hungarian teenage sensation, Judit Polgar. Mr Oosterom has named the tournament after his own daughter, Melodie Amber.

Who is this Mr Oosterom, I asked the woman in charge of the press room. She was playing chess at the time, with herself. 'He's a man,' she said. Thanks a bunch.

Nigel started playing, aged five, in his home town of Leigh, Lancashire. His father, a local journalist, was teaching his older brother to play and Nigel asked to join in. At 12 he beat the British champion. At 15 he was an international master. At 19, a grandmaster.

'I was good for my age, no doubt about that, but nothing outstanding,' said Nigel, when we managed to find a quiet corner. 'I was not a child prodigy, not like Judit. You should go and talk to her. She was a grandmaster at 15.'

Nigel won a place at Bolton School, but wasn't happy there, feeling picked upon, not treated as an adult. At 13, his parents separated, which didn't help. He left school at 16, with four O-levels. What in? 'I don't know.'

Oh come on, one doesn't forget that. 'I was abroad playing chess when they were published. My mother told me later I'd passed four, but I never bothered to ask which ones. I never thought of university for a moment. As a chess player, it would have been a waste of time.'

His chess travels started when he was 12, so he missed a lot of schooling, and he never had a girlfriend until he was 19. All the same, he thinks that his schooldays were pretty normal. For a while, he played guitar in a school group called The Urge. 'I wasted my teenage years, doing nothing. I played chess for fun and I spent a lot of time lying in bed. It was only when I got to 20 I realised I should have been studying chess. I knew little about its history. I didn't have a coach till I was 20.

'There is nothing miraculous about the East European domination of chess. The Russians are no more naturally talented than any other nation. It's all to do with their training methods and systematic studying. Anyone could do it. Judit has been studying chess eight to ten hours a day since she was a child. She's pretty damn good, but it's hard work that's got her here.

'It's nothing to do with heredity. I can't think of any top player whose parents have been top players. Chess doesn't run in families. It comes from nowhere.

'In Britain, chess players are not popular, because the British don't like clever people, and chess is seen as a game for clever people. It's not - it's for everybody. Nobody in this room is very stupid, but you don't necessarily have to be an outstanding intellect to be good at chess.'

Are you clever? 'It depends what you mean by clever,' he said, going into his clipped, Dalek mode.

Can you programme a video? 'I probably could, but my wife, Rea, does that.'

Just as she does almost everything in their home. 'I am very lazy. I have to hold my energy for chess.'

Rea is Greek, a trained therapist, seven years older than Nigel. They met in Germany at a dinner party held by a chess player. They have a two-year-old daughter, Kyveli, and divide their time between Athens and London. Their London home is a two-bedroom flat in West Hampstead. They are looking for a bigger place, now that he can afford it.

'For the past 10 years my income has gone up every year. You could hardly get anyone better than me to lend money to, but I had a hell of a time getting a mortgage - just because my job is playing chess. In December, I applied for a Gold Visa card, as I wanted my limit put up from pounds 2,500 to pounds 10,000, so I can pay hotel bills without worrying. I got the Gold Visa - but my limit was still pounds 2,500. I think banks are stark raving mad. I argued with them, but they were convinced they were right. Now it doesn't matter. I have banks chasing me.'

Since February, and his win against Jan Timman to put him into the final, everyone assumes he is very wealthy, which is not the case. His earnings are estimated to be about pounds 75,000 a year, far less than our top soccer stars, and millions behind the golfers. He has been besieged in recent weeks by agents wanting to handle him and book publishers wanting his autobiography. All have been turned down. 'I don't want to do anything in a hurry.'

He has one sponsor, Eagle Star, whose logo is normally on his shirt.

For matches, he always wears black - black shirt, jeans, socks and shoes. Opponents must like that, nothing too distracting. 'I do it for myself, to save making choices, to keep my creative energy focused. The fewer things I have to think about during a match, the better.'

He always takes the same morning walk, eats the same food, observes the same routines. During tournaments he spends most of his non-playing time in his hotel bedroom, studying chess. He takes his own lap-top computer with him and can study the last 100 or so games played by any of his likely opponents.

He maintains chess is a sport, no question. How can it be, without physical contact? 'Mental contact can be just as bruising. Chess players have to be in training, physically and mentally, so that makes it a sport. Every country in the world accepts that chess is a sport, except Britain.'

Do you get groupies? 'It depends what you mean. Not in Britain anyway. In Manila, I signed 3,000 autographs - half of them for female fans. All very respectable. You don't get them climbing into your bedroom window.' In Iceland, he was voted the second-most popular person (Kasparov came first), beating Madonna into third place.

How about drugs? Has any player been dope tested? 'There are no rules against it. I do know of players who take beta-blockers and amphetamines, but that's about all. I don't take anything.'

In professional soccer, most top players will admit they enjoyed playing more at 15, when there was less pressure. Does that happen in chess? 'It's the opposite with me. I now have a deeper knowledge of chess, so my pleasure is deeper. I'm also more successful. That helps. I'm the greatest British player this century.'

Not of all time? 'You would not be comparing like with like, if you went back earlier.'

Chess players have their own slang, such as 'I was in Volkswagen', a joke variation on the word zugzwang, meaning a situation in which any move will compromise you. 'Pushing the pawns' or 'playing with the hand' is when you are going through the motions, not playing too seriously, which is what he's doing in Monte Carlo. 'This is a holiday in a way. Blindfold chess is interesting, but not very serious. I needed the break after the upheavals of the last few weeks. It's left me drained.'

But you brought it upon yourself. You were the one who contacted Kasparov, supposedly someone you hate, and suggested the breakaway, just the two of you - and almost all the British grandmasters think you are potty. 'We had clear common interests. We both dislike FIDE. They are commercially inept, they loathe the players, they are self-serving parasites. Ask any player in this room what they think of FIDE. They don't necessarily support me and Kasparov, in fact, very few do, but they don't like FIDE.'

In the past you have called Kasparov a baboon, the most objectionable man in chess, and other insults. Are you now closer? 'Our relationship has improved, but our values are totally different.'

Kasparov is arrogant, egotistical, hyperactive, totally confident, but should he lose (which happens rarely) he can be thrown , because he can't believe it. Nigel is quiet, calm, laid back, and can rationalise a defeat. In the world ratings, Nigel has fallen recently to No 11, while Kasparov is still No 1. What's your score against him? 'I'm not telling you. It's too embarrassing. Look it up yourself.'

The answer is, of 15 games played, Nigel has lost 10, drawn four, won one. Hmm.

'I never expect to play perfect chess. I know mistakes will happen. I don't worry about them, which makes me strong relative to my opponent. Throughout the world games so far, I have always played strongest in the last stages. Sometimes I feel absurdly strong, for no apparent reason. Against Jan Timman, I had this remarkable surge of energy before the ninth game, when the match had swung against me. He naturally came to the game feeling confident, and I could sense it in his mind. What he didn't know was that in my mind I was thinking, he can't touch me.'

Before another vital match he read a book allegedly about his opponent. 'It was by a woman who was obsessed by him. The book wasn't about chess. More about bonking. It got me thinking about another side of my opponent, and it helped me to beat him.'

Is there a sexy book on Kasparov? 'Not that I know, but I've read his biography. It confirmed what an unpleasant fellow he is.'

Nigel has already started training for the world match. Between now and September he'll be spending several weeks at a time in the United States with his coach, Lubomir Kavalek, who has a chess library of 3,000 volumes. Hard luck on his wife and daughter. 'I miss them very much when I'm away, but this is my job. I haven't had a proper holiday for 10 years, but after September, we're going to Australia to relax.'

I had dinner with him that evening, by which time he was a lot more at ease, especially when we got on to our second bottle. Nigel even told a chess joke. When he laughed, I could trace a bit of Lancashire for the first time. Has he picked up his strange English accent from the mid- Europeans? 'People made fun of my accent when I was young. I am from a working-class background, but I'm now middle class, in every respect. Accents can be a handicap in Britain, because people place you and pigeonhole you. I was watching an old film of myself the other day and I have changed in the last decade. It is an advantage for people not to know where you are from.'

Perhaps he is preparing himself to be a Tory MP. Hard to imagine, but it's a possibility he's considering, when he retires. When will that be? 'I don't know. They used to say chess players peaked at 35. Now players are so young it's more like 30, even late twenties. I'll carry on till I don't enjoy it any more.'

Right, the big one. Does he fancy his chances? 'I'm rated at 50-1, so I don't expect to win, but I expect the match to be closer than everyone thinks. I have nothing to lose. I am going to enjoy myself. He is a better player than me, with more knowledge of chess, but I have good self- knowledge, which is half the battle. If I knock him off balance, things can swing in my favour. I've had a message from Mr Major at No 10, telling me to take each game as it comes.'

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments