Drink Like A Grandmaster?

The late Bent Larsen, who always had some entertaining anecdotes, once told me this story about the ‘greatest combination player’:

Before playing Gideon Stahlberg in one game, Miguel Najdorf kindly invited his Swedish colleague to lunch and promptly started plying him with alcohol. Of course Stahlberg couldn’t refuse and it got to the point where even Mrs Najdorf whispered to her husband about how unfair this was. But Najdorf whispered back that Stahlberg was a grown man and could make his own decisions.

The time came for the game and Stahlberg was completely drunk. But he proceeded to play one good move after another until Najdorf’s position was quite lost. Suddenly, with victory close at hand, Stahlberg offered a draw which Najdorf had little choice but to accept. After the game a spectator asked the wobbly Stahlberg why he had offered a draw in such a good position. “How could I beat the man who had just bought me such an excellent lunch?”

Larsen’s punchline was that it was Stahberg who was best at combining chess and alcohol making him the ‘greatest combination player’.

As Stahlberg has had quite a few rivals for this title is it OK to drink and play chess? Certainly it’s a common habit during UK club matches, especially those played in the back room of pub venues, and ask the players who do so and they’ll probably tell you that this is their hobby and that they like to drink a pint or five during the game.  However it’s most decidedly a negative thing for one’s game because it erodes the clarity of a player’s thinking. And anyone who wishes to rationalise their drinking would be well advised to read Allen Carr’s book entitled Easy Way To Control Alcohol.

Many top players these days are teetotal and those that drink heavily do not seem to fare too well. The remarkable Mikhail Tal had numerous bouts of ill health on account of his consumption, not to mention his early death. Had he managed to control alcohol he might have been champion for many years, indeed Mikhail Botvinnik once remarked that if Tal learned to program himself properly it would be impossible to play with him.

So if one insists on drinking like a Grandmaster it’s better to model Viswanathan Anand or Veselin Topalov rather than Tal or Stahlberg. And one should leave one’s combinations for the board.