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Форум » Международный Шахматный Форум » Публицистика » The world's greatest game. (so why have we fallen out of love with chess?)
The world's greatest game.
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The world's greatest game – so why have we fallen out of love with chess?
The world championship between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen is finely poised, but sadly chess is still ignored
The defending champion Vishy Anand, left, and Magnus Carlsen in the heat of battle during
their world championship clash. Despite the excitement, it's gone
largely ignored by the British press. Photograph: AP

In his very funny short story Career Move, Martin Amis imagines a world where the public profiles of screenwriters and poets
are reversed. Screenwriters get their screenplays published for pennies
in little magazines, while poets are surrounded by glamorous agents and
publicists, go to the gym every day and earn a fortune as studios fight
over their latest work. I sometimes have the same fantasy about chess players and Premier League footballers.I have over the past decade become a chess obsessive. I'm not quite sure
how it happened, but there it is. For the next three weeks I – and
thousands of other aficionados – will be logging on to chess websites to
watch the world championship match in Chennai between the Indian
title-holder Viswanathan Anand and his 22-year-old Norwegian challenger Magnus Carlsen.It is an enticing match-up – ageing Indian champ against western
wunderkind – which started over the weekend with some cagey draws but
burst into life on Wednesday with a complex, double-edged game that kept
us on the edge of our seats for five hours. That, too, eventually ended
in a draw, so they are all square after four games, but this was proper
fighting chess and bodes well for the remaining eight games. Carlsen
remains the favourite, but Anand is not going to be usurped quite as
easily as many of the pundits felt at the outset.The sadness is that the mainstream media in the UK aren't following the games very
closely. I'm old enough to remember not just the great match in
Reykjavik between the crazed American [url=http://observer.theguardian.com/osm/story/0,,870785,00.html]Bobby Fischer[/url] and the suave Russian Boris Spassky in 1972, which was headline news
for months, but the matches between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi
in 1978 and 1981, which used to get decent-sized daily news reports.
Now, apart from occasional short items by underused chess
correspondents, there is nothing in the UK press.Despite there being 20,000 committed club chess players in the UK, several hundred
thousand casual players and a strong chess presence in schools,
especially at primary level, this great event is being seriously
under-reported. What coverage there has been is of Carlsen, who is portrayed as a kind of geeky Matt Damon. There is no attempt to get to grips with the actual chess.The game has slipped off the mainstream media agenda in the UK. In India
and Norway, there is of course huge excitement about the match –
Norwegian news websites crashed when, in a tournament in London in
March, Carlsen qualified to play for the world championship, and they
were buzzing on Wednesday when it seemed their hero was getting on top.The sport is a national obsession in Armenia, too, thanks mainly to world No2 Levon Aronian and an educational system that builds chess into the curriculum. It
remains strong in Russia and, indeed, throughout the old Soviet Union.
But in the UK, one of the top chess-playing nations in the 1980s and 90s
as a result of the generation of players led by Nigel Short who were
inspired by Fischer's victory in Iceland, it has been marginalised.
Hence my Amis-like fantasy of Premier League games being played in front
of a handful of spectators at tatty grounds, while chess is shown live
on TV with Alan Hansen bemoaning the inadequacies of the Sicilian
Defence.It has an unfortunate reputation of course – as a game played by old blokes with large paunches and spotty teenagers with
limited social skills. As a keen league and tournament player, I can
confirm that many of the stereotypes are true – I fall firmly into the
former category. It isn't, though, applicable at the very highest level.Carlsen is a sporty, relatively normal young man – genius calculating machines
don't do absolute normality. Anand is incredibly normal – probably too
much so for the media, which prefer a Fischer-like streak of lunacy in
its chess players. Aronian is a clued-up, jazz-loving thirtysomething.
Vladimir Kramnik, the Russian former world champion who very nearly
pipped Carlsen to play in Chennai, is articulate, sophisticated, steeped
in the history and culture of this greatest of games.Because that is what it is – the greatest game ever developed. A sport that has
been played for more than 1,500 years – it can trace its lineage back to
India (the Chennai match is a sort of homecoming) in the sixth century
AD when elephants were used instead of today's knights. It swept through
Persia and on into Europe, where it was played over successive ages in
medieval courts, Enlightenment salons and 19th-century cafes. It was the
original beautiful game, a pursuit worth wasting your life on, as the
Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree put it.Not everyone in chess's long history has agreed with Ree. Bernard Shaw despised it. "Chess," he said,
"is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing
something very clever when they are only wasting their time." HG Wells
took a similar line. "The passion for playing chess is one of the most
unaccountable in the world," he wrote in an essay entitled Concerning
Chess in 1901. "It annihilates a man." Raymond Chandler was just as
rude, calling it "as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you
could find anywhere outside an advertising agency".I prefer the view of the German-born Siegbert Tarrasch, the best player in the world
in the 1890s, though never world champion (the official title had only
been instituted in 1886). "Chess, like love, like music, has the power
to make men happy," he wrote in the preface to The Game of Chess, which
was published in 1931, three years before his death. The more you know
about the game, the more limitless it seems. Thirty-two pieces and pawns
on a 64-square board, yet more possible game variants than there are
atoms in the universe.Even computers, which play chess fiendishly well, have not worked it out completely. There is no perfect strategy
that will guarantee victory – the variables are too numerous. There was a
period in the wake of Deep Blue's victory over the world champion Garry
Kasparov in 1997 when the fad was for man v machine matches. Generally,
the machine won, and these days they are too good for even the
strongest grandmasters. A software package costing £30 would beat Anand
and Carlsen with one microprocessor tied behind its back. So now, except
as a learning aid, we have to ignore them. As Kasparov once said to me:
"A car can beat a human in a race, but we are still excited by the
Olympic 100m final." Computers, able to make millions of calculations
per second, play near-flawless chess; they offer an ideal for us poor
humans to aspire to.The reason the game dropped off the media agenda is not that it got less interesting or less beautiful, though
Deep Blue's win did take some of the gloss off that mysterious title of
"grandmaster". This is in many ways a golden age of chess, as the great
tournament in London to determine who would face Anand demonstrated.
What has been stripped away is the geopolitical context that made the
Fischer-Spassky confrontation and the Karpov-Korchnoi matches – Karpov
was the Soviet golden boy, Korchnoi the defector – so dramatic.During the cold war, chess was politics carried on by other means. When
Fischer was threatening to pull out of the 1972 match, it took a call
from national security adviser Henry Kissinger to persuade him to carry
on. It was that important to the US to get one over on the Soviet Union,
which had dominated the game since the second world war.Chess no longer has that back story. The organisers would like to build up the
current match as east v west, but mild-mannered Vishy against earnest
young Magnus doesn't quite hack it. All we have is the intrinsic,
boundless beauty of the game, which has captivated players for a
millennium and a half and keeps this old bloke going in a world he no
longer quite understands.Stephen Moss is writing a book about chess for Wisden Sports Writing/Bloomsbury

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