Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Not Playing to Win

Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw by Thomas Glavinic

By one estimate there are 10 to the fortieth possible chess positions--maybe, but let's just say there's a lot of them.  I know, or I've heard, that there are 70,000 credible positions after the first seven moves of a game, a number that is somewhat easier to grasp.  Anyone who has played the game with any seriousness would agree that chess is "infinite," that is, the complexity of the thing is such that playing a great deal, as I once did, is likely to engage one's attention and excite one's passions as few other human endeavors are capable of doing. Once I was locked in a long game, going on three hours, in a tournament in New York City (full disclosure: I was then, and am now, a patzer), and had one of those moments that I so often have of "chess blindness"--not seeing a simple threat that lost the game.  As my opponent walked off to record his win, I sat transfixed, staring at the board, unable to believe that I had made such an elementary blunder.  I obsessed about that game for hours, played it over, cursed my stupidity, etc.  In other words, I was totally happy, completely engaged with the ideas behind the position, the what-ifs and all the simple moves I could have made to equalize or even win.  That's the way chess can be--mesmerizing, hypnotic, a form of thinking akin to doing mathematics or playing music at a high level of competence (I do neither).  "Chess is life" as the tee-shirt says. Not for me, not anymore, but for a brief time I could taste the obsession that drives so many to love the game more than anything--or to go mad with the endless complexity of it, or perhaps (I hate to say this), with its ultimate meaninglessness.

In 1923, Marcel Duchamp abandoned art for chess ("I am a victim of chess; it has all the beauty of art").  In fact, Duchamp co-authored a theoretical volume on what is called "the opposition" (in the endgame, the king's ability to defend the ring of squares that surround it) and "sister squares" that has some bearing on the book under review--which I'll get to before long--this is still the opening gambit.

Most people who read Nabokov don't read The Defense (or The Luzhin Defense), a book from his Russian period which is not only a fine novel but was made into the only decent chess film I have ever seen (starring John Turturro).  Nabokov composed endgame problems of great beauty and subtlety, with structures not unlike those of his fictions.  Here he is with Vera, his wife, also a fine player.

I have here on my shelves several novels about chess: there's Walter Tevis's wonderful story of a young woman chess prodigy called The Queen's Gambit which is smart about chess and human psychology (Tevis wrote The Hustler and was a passionate pool player but confessed to a greater passion for chess).   Among the finest novels ever written on the subject of chess is Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, published in 1942 and reissued by New York Review Press not too long ago. In Zweig's novel chess saves a man's sanity instead of eroding it.  Thanks perhaps to the popular image of Bobby Fischer--a tragic figure who was one of the finest players of all time, a player to be ranked with Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Tal, and Garry Kasparov--Fischer, who lived only for chess and went mad as a result, has become a kind of anti-hero in chess fiction, a warning against the dangers of the game's allurements, or perhaps a warning against thinking too hard.  Other serious books featuring chess and chess players that I recommend are The Luneberg Variation by Paolo Maurensig (1993) and, among my perferred novels of any sort, Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla, about which I have been meaning to write for months. Here's Bobby at a tournament in Leipzig in the mid-1960's.

It was with considerable pleasure that I sat down this summer to read Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw by Thomas Glavinic, whose eerie and creepy Night Work I read a couple of years ago and found--how shall I put it? Indigestible.  But I knew I'd like CHLOTD since it was described as a fictionalized account of a real and quite well-known championship match between the Austrian grandmaster Karl Schlechter and the virtually unbeatable World Champion German grandmaster Emmanuel Lasker.  The fame, or notoriety, of this match--which took place in Vienna and Berlin in 1910--stems from the remarkable fact that Schlechter was one win, and perhaps one move, away from the championship when, in the tenth and final game he blundered in a winning position and ended up with a draw; as a result lost the match to Lasker (who retained his title due to the tie).  Schlechter's "love" of the draw is of course ironic, but in Glavinic's fictionalized account of the match and of Schlechter's psychological state, the fatal blunder takes on the character of a cosmic judgement against Haffner/Schlechter--always a conservative player, he takes a chance that is out of character and loses everything.

"The move [Haffner] had chosen was even stronger, viewed objectively, but it was an attacking move that precluded a draw [which was all Haffner needed to win the match]. There was no doubt about it, someone must have doctored his coffee. [Haffner] had lost his wits: he was playing to win."

Never before has Haffner risked anything--neither in chess nor in his life--and at the verge of a great triumph he becomes, for the first time, "obsessed with winning at all costs."   But it isn't ambition that costs Haffner the game but a simple blunder, a moment of chess blindness, a break in the absolute concentration that separates the great players from those who can yearn only for a draw.

Glavinic's is the best fictional account of a high-level chess match I have ever read.  The psychological tension and politics of chess are on display, as is the complex inner life of Haffner, a man who was at times obstuse in his private affairs, ambivilent in his relationships, dispassionate even in his great love for chess, and yet, at the moment when his life might have been redeemed, he (perhaps) threw away the prize deliberately by not, for the first time, "loving the draw."

How often I think that I have opted to merely "break even" in life--in a way this is the question Galvinic's novel explores--the cost of risks, the comfort of losing, the zugzwang that is the bane of our lives.

I believe that's Lasker seated on the right, Schlechter on the left.

Thomas Glavinic, born in 1972 in Graz, is a strong chess player and the author of four novels available in English--he is considered to be among the finest young Austrian writers.  Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw was his first book.

This link will take you to the tenth game of Lasker-Schlechter, with annotations by Jose Raul Capablanca.  The blunder comes on the 64th move.

Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw is published by The Harvill Press of London.

George Ovitt (9/26/13)

1 comment:

  1. The more I look at the illustration the more the figure on the right looks like Steiner; but the figure on the left is certainly Schlechter. I shall leave it where it is with the proviso that I can't vouch for the identify of the players.