Pawn Cocktail

“chess pieces” by Derek Bridges is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” – essential reading for anyone who did Hamlet for O Level – opens with Rosenstern (or is it Guildencrantz?) tossing coins. Every single one of them comes up heads. The current world Chess championship was beginning to feel like that; with draw after draw. It became possible to imagine a championship with an unlimited number of games which would be won by the first player to actually win a single game. This could go on, in principle, until one of the protagonists died. Carlson has now spoiled this delusion of eternity by going two games up after 8 have been played.

Watching the first match (recorded) live was not riveting spectator sport. The Grandmasters, Magnus Carlson and Ian Nepomniachtchi – the First Russian I’ve ever heard of called Ian – sat and stared at the board. Stared at each other. Stared at the walls. Fidgeted slightly. Made a move and clicked the clock, then walked off to relieve tension leaving the other to think alone.

They were playing – if that’s the right word – in a long glass framed cuboid, like an elongated shipping container; so it looked a bit like a human zoo, presumably for pandemic related reasons. As this match is being held in Dubai, every now and again, a bloke in flowing robes and keffiya would walk past them along the rear wall – first one way, then back again. Never looking at the board. Never making eye contact with the players. His role a mystery. But he seemed busy in a pointless sort of way. A big screen showed the current position of the pieces, so it was possible to think out what might a a good move next; sometimes even accurately.

Back in York in the late 1970s we had a team in the Yorkshire Evening Press Chess league made up of assorted anti-fascists, socialists, feminists, the former editor of Peace News and others called the York Moles. Sometimes we fielded an entirely female squad. unusual, because hardly any of the other teams had any female players at all. We were a spectacularly uneven. At our strongest, with players who made a serious study of the theories of Nimzovitch, we could beat anyone in the league. At our weakest – in the interests of equal opportunities we sometimes fielded people who’d only just learned the moves – we were the only team in the history of the league ever to lose to the Approved School.

Lenin used to play chess with Maxim Gorky, but gave it up, apparently, because he considered it too serious to be a pastime and not serious enough to be a job.

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