Friday October 6, 2006
“Like madmen they were,” my friend’s mother said. It was the late 70s and she was explaining why she had banned chess grandmasters from her house.They were an emigré family from the Eastern bloc, the father was a talented chess player and for years the house had been a port of call for visiting checkmate greats. But not any more.
“Like madmen!” My friend nodded. According to his reports a chess grandmaster could wreck a house faster than a drug-crazed Keith Moon. The destruction was not wilful but absent-minded. So focused were they on their profession that their peripheral vision was non-existent. They were domestically purblind. Crockery was smashed, drinks spilled, taps left running until baths overflowed. The mother’s patience had finally snapped when a grandmaster from the banks of the Danube had set light to the living room curtains with a cigar while reading the chess reports. His hostess was cooking lunch and had only been alerted to the conflagration when the grandmaster, still immersed in “Bc4 Bd7″ and the like, wandered into the kitchen with flames leaping from his shirt. She saved him by throwing a saucepan of water over his head.
Chess has been in the headlines this week, thanks to the Bulgarian challenger Veselin Topalov, who raised the alarm because the world champion, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, went to the toilet 200 times during their first four games. Topalov was worried that Kramnik was visiting the toilet to receive messages. What messages he would have got in a toilet beyond the usual ones - “Be here 12 Sunday if U want sex” - was not stated, but when I read the reports I could clearly hear “Like madmen they were!” echoing across the decades.Minor incidents can mushroom in the game’s muggy atmosphere. There was the European Cup tie between Slough and SV Merkur Graz which ended in acrimony after the Austrian captain was accused of sneaking up behind an opponent and poking him in the back; the match between Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian in which both were alleged to have been kicking the other under the table; and the 36th Olympiad in Majorca at which the vice-president of the game’s ruling body, Fide, spent the night in jail after allegedly headbutting a security guard.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of my friend’s mother’s words came a few months after she uttered them, when Korchnoi and Valery Karpov did battle for the world championship in the Philippines. Karpov was a man who recalled Jim Laker’s description of the Pakistan leg-spinner Abdul Qadir: “Slightly on the nervous side of highly strung.” Korchnoi had a temperament so mercurial he could have been used as a makeshift thermometer.
Korchnoi demanded that his opponent’s chair be x-rayed to check for “extraneous objects or prohibited devices”. Karpov claimed the glare from his opponent’s sunglasses was giving him a headache. Korchnoi said his adversary was swivelling his chair in an an attempt to disturb his concentration.
The sparring over, Korchnoi waded in with a protest that Karpov was receiving coded messages from his break-time yoghurt. According to Korchnoi, the flavour of yoghurt signalled advice from a team of watching experts. For instance low-fat hazelnut translated as “Bf1 g5″, black cherry as “NxB7″ and a choco-hoop crunchy corner as “switch the board round quick when he’s not looking, or you’re buggered”.
Korchnoi was persuaded to drop his protest after it was pointed out that there are hundreds more chess moves than there are varieties of yoghurt, a point only slightly undermined by the arrival of Karpov’s afternoon snack - lite ‘n’ low Greek-style solid-set yak’s milk with kipper and birch bark. Yet by then, Korchnoi also had a hypnotist to worry about.
In their previous meeting, Karpov claimed to have noticed a member of Korchnoi’s coaching team “trying to catch my eye”. Most of us would simply have assumed the man was trying to draw our attention to the fact our flies were undone. Karpov leapt to the conclusion that this was an attempt to hypnotise him. Perhaps he was right, and the hypnotist had said, “Now when I click my fingers you will act like a paranoid idiot,” because this time Karpov employed his own hypnotist, Dr Vladimir Zukhar, to stand in the crowd and stare at Korchnoi.
Korchnoi counter-attacked, bringing in two members of the Ananda Marga sect as yoga instructors. This saffron-robed pair unnerved Karpov, though that may have had less to do with their transcendental powers than the fact they were out on bail pending appeal, having been sentenced to 17 years in jail for stabbing an Indian diplomat.
I cannot recall who was victorious, though I think we can safely say that in this case and that of the toilet-break fracas, the game of chess was the genuine winner.