Loners Inc

Daniel Soar

  • Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion by Feng-hsiung Hsu
    Princeton, 300 pp, £19.95, November 2002, ISBN 0 691 09065 3

Two bishops side by side put pressure at long range on the pawns defending the castled Black king. My queen, ready to advance to the middle of the board, completes the threat. Black will have to weaken his defence by advancing a pawn. There are further forces I can bring into play. I find it slightly frustrating that my mechanical opponent either knows what I mean to do or has taken standard precautions: there’s a knight in the way, and I can’t get at it. My plan – single-minded, bloody-minded, suicidal – revolves around a single square, h7, and he has it covered. Evidently, an all-out attack in the middle game isn’t the answer: there will be refutations, counter-attacks, sacrifices and exchanges; the balance of power will change. A dramatic early mate following an unstoppable combination would be a good way to win a game of chess, but I’ve never won like this. In fact, I’ve rarely won. I know the moves (though I have to remind myself how the en passant rule works), I can follow the basic openings, and I know the principles of development – advance bishops and knights, line up the rooks. But I can’t seem to beat anyone other than myself. I’m not patient enough. I don’t play well enough.

I didn’t play chess when I was younger. I used to say I wasn’t interested in war games, but I lied: I was too competitive to compete. When I was 13 everyone I knew was playing obsessively, all the time: too fast to follow, too fast for talk. Chess clocks were banged, pieces were exchanged, flags fell. Some people couldn’t lose, and never losing seemed to me a better, more convincing kind of statement than anything I could achieve at school with words. There were no excuses, no justifications, no self-deprecations: it was less equivocal, more final. I took for a while to reading about chess, along with stories about musketeers. I killed giants vicariously; I liked the legends. In 1858, Paul Morphy, a boy from New Orleans, played a count and a duke in a box at the Paris Opera during a performance of The Barber of Seville, and chose to throw away his major pieces one by one, finishing with the most elegant mate imaginable. In 1918, Capablanca, the famously instinctive Cuban prodigy, played the Ruy Lopez opening against Frank Marshall and was presented with a new, ingenious, aggressive defence. Marshall, it turned out, had kept his innovation unrevealed for ten years, waiting to unleash it on the player he most wanted to beat. Capablanca saw the prepared series of attacks and knew that Marshall must have analysed all conceivable responses; but he trusted that his position was defensible and played on to win, discovering in the onslaught undreamed-of solutions to apparently insoluble problems. The attractions of chess are perfection, impossibility, flair. And the attractions of chess legends are impossible arrogance and pathological decline. Bobby Fischer is supposed to have said that he’d challenge God, giving him the advantage of a pawn. The same statement, I now discover, is attributed to Steinitz during the days he spent shuffling barefoot through the New York snow: either the legends last better than the players, or the players find the legends too attractive not to steal them from one another. The heroism is bluster.

But chess is more than war. I regret only half-appreciating the beauty of some abstract moves, of sacrifices and gambits, of gambits declined. Watching a game unfold between two grandmasters is baffling (why has he moved his king when it’s not under threat?) but absorbing. One player makes a move; there’s a response. The players know the steps. There is negotiation: the advantage passes from side to side in subtle shifts. Science is involved. Karpov and Kasparov, the untouchables of the 1980s, fed off one another unforgivingly but creatively. Karpov is nicely dismissed in a textbook ascribed to Kasparov: ‘The lacklustre reign of Anatoly Karpov did little to fire the imagination of a new chess generation.’ But after their World Championship games they would look at a board together and examine possible continuations to find out how they could have played better. To beat each other they needed to hate each other, but they had a stronger need to improve their game, and spiralled upwards towards a wordless, inexplicable chess perfection. (Or so we suppose: no one else could understand what they were talking about.)

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in