Chess Is a Street Fight

Chess is what man most delights in: a struggle. –Emanuel Lasker, 1868-1941, chess world champion 1894-1921

Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people. –Nigel Short, 1965-, loser of a world championship match against Garry Kasparov in 1993

A streetfighter in chess does whatever it takes to win. He understands that chess is not an intellectual abstraction, but hand-to-hand combat—not a high-minded search for truth by two partners, but a fierce and highly personal struggle between two foes.

But not necessarily a grim struggle. For there is an impishness at the heart of the matter, an undercurrent of humorous flimflam. The streetfighter must also be something of a con man. He must know when to seem confident and when to seem despairing, when to move the pieces quickly and decisively and when to let his hand hover over a piece hesitantly, as if stricken by a palsy of doubt. If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, to the streetfighter every game is a kind of performance art.

Some people reading these words may doubt them. “Real chessplayers, good chessplayers, don’t need tricks,” I can hear them say.

They could not be more wrong. Consider Mikhail Botvinnik, the great Soviet world champion who worked as an electrical engineer and was known for his systematic preparation and iron logic: even Botvinnik could stoop to conquer.

Mikhail Botvinnik

Mikhail Botvinnik

By 1960, Botvinnik was pushing 50 and had been world champion for most of the previous twelve years. As he wrote later in his autobiography, Achieving the Aim, “By that time, everybody was pretty fed up with me, most of all my fellow grandmasters. Just how much time can one occupy the throne of chess?”

When the dour and crusty Botvinnik was toppled from his throne in 1960 by Tal, the young and dashing Latvian whose combinations had a touch of magic, the chess world was delighted. Everyone said Botvinnik’s day was done; the 24-year-old Tal had swept him away with his brilliant new style of tactical fireworks.

The only person who disagreed was Botvinnik, who exercised his right to challenge Tal to a return match a year later.

The return match was hard-fought, but by the 15th game, Botvinnik had surged ahead and held a comfortable lead. Then Tal fought back, and the critical 20th game was adjourned in a position that seemed hopeless for Botvinnik.

For two sleepless nights, Botvinnik analyzed his lost position. He found a slight chance to draw the game, based on an unexpected stalemate possibility, but this depended on Tal being careless. As Botvinnik later explained: “I sat there and thought: how can I let it be known in the enemy camp that it is really hopeless for me? Then they will not work hard at it, and it is possible that they will overlook the stalemate.”

In conversations before the game, Botvinnik heaved deep sighs and dropped remarks to journalists such as, “You yourself must see how it stands” and “I shan’t say anything—I’m very tired.” Finally the time came for the game to be played out, and the crafty old warrior had one more trick up his sleeve:

After two days of play and two sleepless nights I was thoroughly tired out, yet I did not take my usual thermos flask of coffee with me to the adjournment session—this would be the most weighty proof that I would make just a few moves and then resign the game. It was during just these few moves that Tal had to miss the stalemate.

Needless to say, the overconfident Tal missed Botvinnik’s subtle trap, failed to win this critical game, and had to give back the world championship title to the old, “washed-up” Botvinnik. “Normally I do not have recourse to such tricks,” said Botvinnik, who reigned another two years as champion, while Tal never again came close.

Tim Hanke