Kiwi Life

Kiwi Life / Language

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

David Cohen

I often used to ask myself what the ultimate secret is of playing great chess, and I suppose I can’t be the only one to do so these days if the ecstatic reception for this year’s runaway TV mini-series hit, The Queen’s Gambit, has been anything to go by.

Early one balmy evening many years ago at a hotel bar in Wellington, where the click and slide of coins across the counter sounded like so many moving chess pieces, I was so taken with the question that I leaned over and put it to a heavily accented older fellow seated next to me.

‘Analyse,’ Boris Spassky replied with a parental wag of a finger, ‘and don’t accept ready information — you need your own head.’

Who could argue with that? In his time, Spassky had been one of the world’s most adroit chess grandmasters, a versatile, intense player who kept his head when so many about him were surely losing theirs.

Back in the far-off 1970s, long before our encounter and longer still before the seven-part coming-of-age chess Netflix drama currently captivating viewers, Spassky was the goods. The onetime world’s champion’s elliptical, electrifying and at time eccentric games with Bobby Fischer were the stuff of legend.

When I met the greying board warrior in the New Zealand capital, he had been in the country for a series of games against what was generally considered to be the most formidable slate of opponents ever assembled in Australasia. None of them was a patch on his old arch-rival Fischer, of course, but what human being possibly could be?

Spassky and Fischer famously clashed in 1972. They met in the Icelandic summer, the time of year when the sun still lands on the water at two in the morning and lightning flashes from the sky when you pick up a king’s pawn and prod it forward a couple of squares.

At the time, a touch unconvincingly, it had been journalistically fashionable to depict the Soviet champ and his Chicago-born opponent as emblematic of their respective political cultures.

No doubt, the colourful Fischer was something of an American super-achiever. This was a player capable of plotting sequences of up to fourteen moves deep, and if you think that sounds easy, try counting to a few million in double-quick time.

But Fischer’s lonely life away from the board was a more feeble affair, all the more so in the years immediately leading up to his death in 2008. Spassky seemed by far the more Westernised of the pair, a sophisticate who appreciated (in no particular order) the novels of Dostoevsky, playing tennis, the company of beautiful women and good wine.

But the two men did share one big thing in common: an aversion to letting others do their thinking for them. In Spassky’s case, he began learning the game aged nine while living in an orphanage in what was then known as Leningrad. Thirteen years on, he snatched the world title from another autodidact, a street cleaner named Tigran Petrosian. Then it was on to the self-educated Fischer, who taught himself chess from the instruction booklet that came from a set he and his sister bought at a candy store in the American Midwest when he was just six.

When I interviewed Spassky, the buzz in chess circles was around three young Hungarian sisters, Susan, Sofia and Judit Polgár, all of whom were being home-schooled in chess by their idealistic Jewish father. They were said to be quite exceptional, although my Russian interlocutor — as sophisticated and worldly as he may have been — was not entirely convinced.

For once, the advance notices proved correct. Judit, in particular, could have been cast as the real-life Beth from The Queen’s Gambit. She quickly emerged as the strongest of the three girls. Today she is regarded as the most formidable female player in chess history, in her prime a Tyson-like figure at the chess tournaments who demolished virtually everybody in her path, not least her galaxy of male doubters, some of whom took their seats across from her with a smirk before the ground opened up underneath them.

Garry Kasparov, by then the top-ranked player in the world, once said of her: ‘She is talented but not greatly talented. Women by their nature are not exceptional chess players.’ In a later game, Judit crushed him, too, and for good measure the independently educated young woman dispatched Spassky as well.

Closer to home, who might be some of the nominees for superb players who never let others do their chess thinking for them. New Zealand’s Murray Chandler? Australia’s Cecil Purdy? For me, one of the best Australasian examples of the Spassky rule might be Landau Younkman, who I admit I’m rather partial to because he also happened to be my great- great-uncle.

Younkman’s games are still studied for their dashing sacrificial moves and the sly emphasis he liked to put on an ever-whinnying knight. He was adept at attacking his opponent’s centre from the side. A two-time West Australian champ early last century, the Yorkshire-born player was never beaten at all in his telegraphic jousts (a sort of precursor to the online games a lot of us have been playing this year to keep sane during various lockdowns) usually against opponents from Victoria and South Australia.

As it happened, Younkman did know a thing or two about conventional education. He served as a headmaster at Fremantle Boys’ School. But his style on the board and off appears to have been rather his own. ‘One felt that words were his pawns, ideas his bishops and rooks, and it was a strong opponent who was not checkmated at the end,’ one reporter who interviewed him for the West Australian marvelled of his conversational style in 1929.

The article went on to itemise some of Younkman’s more intense personal enthusiasms: all-night poker games, fanatically tending his rose garden and enjoying a reputation as an ‘indefatigable smoker’.

Possibly he may have benefited from a bit of advice on that last one, because the end-game came for him after his heart gave out when he was aged just fifty-three. Yes, but that would have been someone else doing the thinking for him. As someone else once impressed on me in a bar, that’s just not the successful chess player’s preferred gambit.

Kel Richards

A short note on ‘problematic.’ The word has been a respectable part of the English language since the 17th century (borrowed from the French problématique). It means ‘involving problems and difficult to deal with’ (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). The problem is that it’s so often misused. The Urban Dictionary says ‘problematic’ is a weasel word used mainly by people who sense that something may be troublesome, but don’t want to do any actual thinking about what the problem is or why it exists – they just want to dismiss it with a verbal wave of the hand. In a less snowflake culture we might say something is worth debating rather than ‘problematic.’ If someone tries to shut down discussion by throwing ‘problematic’ around like a verbal hand grenade, it might be best to demand they specify exactly what the problems are. It’s unlikely they will be able to.

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