Chess Playing and Diversionary Tactics

The recent showing of a  documentary about Bobby Fischer, the chess player, and in particular about his World Championship match in Iceland against Boris Spassky in 1972 reminded me of how, in the Cold War period, so many things were viewed through the prism of the power struggle between the US and the Soviets:  the race to the moon, any Olympic games, and even chess.  Whichever was the winner proved the physical and intellectual superiority of that political economic system.

It looks like another world, seen from the contemporary perspective when what we see of Russia is now largely characterised by the extreme wealth and opportunism of the exiled oligarchs.

The 1972 chess World Championship was also about the behaviour of individuals, though, and in particular the waywardness and unreliability of Fischer, who, although he managed to aggravate and alienate everyone he met, still managed to win the contest, watched by a world still totally invested in the symbolism of the Cold War.  The various talking heads interviewed in the programme maintained that Fischer, despite the appearance of gamesmanship in his delaying antics, was largely struggling with himself, rather than his opponent, throughout his matches.

Everyone agreed that in order to become good at chess a person has to spend a lot of time practising it, and that can make it very difficult for some already withdrawn intellectual people to deal with the world in a ‘normal’ way.

I’ve only known one person who was very serious about playing chess, and he too was a rather difficult character.  It was while I was working in Russia in the mid 1990s.  K, a Brit, was already working at the firm when I arrived in Moscow.  I subsequently learned that he had sought out the opportunity to work in the city so as to be able to study with a particular Grand Master.

In the office he was theoretically meant to report to me, but I never quite managed to make that happen, as I so rarely saw him, and when I did, he was in a rush, late for a meeting, or in such a bad temper that it was politic to leave him alone .  Most mornings when I arrived at the office, his jacket would already be on the back of his chair, a file would be open on the desk, but otherwise there would be no sign of him.

After some weeks I discovered that he was getting in about 10 minutes before me and then going into the Gents toilet to play chess on a handheld game device ….for hours.  It was an open secret amongst the staff members who used those particular facilities.

I’ve never quite removed that visual image from my mind’s eye and will, I think, be wary of the player of chess forever.

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