Culture and Civilisations

Chess encounters: John Paul II, Menachim Begin, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro

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Chess encounters: John Paul II, Menachim Begin, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro

Paul Charles Morphy, 1837-1884 © Ken Welsh/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire)

In my life I have had the immense pleasure of receiving an audience with the Pope in the Vatican, taking tea with Menachim Begin, then Prime Minister of Israel, sipping cocktails with Margaret Thatcher, and tucking into a hearty dinner with Fidel Castro. Not all in one day, of course. I have, though, been fortunate to live through various periods, and to have visited various places, when and where, chess prowess has been held, for various different reasons, in extraordinarily high esteem.

I am reminded of such experiences by last week’s award of two Golden Globes to the Netflix TV series, Queens Gambit. Combined with the lockdown, Queens Gambit has helped to drive online chess to new peaks of user involvement, while publishers are reporting volumes of chess book sales in just the last three months of 2020, which easily surpass their normal annual turnover.

As an example of this notably increased activity,  reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen’s commercial online site recorded up to 11,500,000 games played on any one day last week, with half a million in progress at any given moment.

During my own chess career I have enjoyed a number of occasions in which either the prevailing culture, or a sudden prominence of chess in world news, has resulted in interesting encounters, which, otherwise, might not have occurred.

For example, I have attended an audience with Pope John Paul II, where he blessed the participants of the Banca di Roma International Chess Tournament. I was invited to dinner by Fidel Castro in chess crazy Cuba, a small country which, however, produced one World Champion in the person of Jose Capablanca. Pork, rice and black bean sauce were on the menu at the Havana Palace of Justice.

I have taken cocktails with the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on the occasion of her opening the London leg of the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The cocktails were an interesting infusion of Tia Maria and cream, topped with dark chocolate flakes, emulating a chessboard. It looked better than it tasted.

Finally, afternoon tea with Menachim Begin, who had resorted to chess during an earlier incarnation, while jailed by the British. Our meeting took place in his suite of rooms in the Knesset, and proved, for me personally at least, to be the most useful expression of VIP enthusiasm for chess. On departing Israel from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I was about to undergo the standardly formidable El Al baggage security check, when a sudden inspiration led me to whip out a photo of myself with the Israeli Prime Minister. Result: salutes all round, with the luggage inquisition promptly and painlessly completed.

Along with Queens Gambit mania, two other instances of chess fever stand out. One was the tide of global enthusiasm engendered by Bobby Fischer’s 1972 conquest of the World Title against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, an enthusiasm, soon to be strangled by Fischer’s refusal to defend his spectacularly won laurels.

An earlier tsunami of chess fervour predated my personal involvement, but I have devoted much thought and study to it. This was the mercurial anabasis and tragic katabasis of that earlier American meteor and Fischer-precursor, Paul Morphy, known as the Pride and Sorrow of chess.

Morphy (1837–1884) exploded on to the chess scene in the late 1850s. At the age of 12, Morphy demonstrated his talents in his hometown of New Orleans by beating the European Master Johann Löwenthal. This established his fame as a prodigy and from then onwards his career prequeled, with eerie similarities, that of his 20th-century compatriot, World Champion Bobby Fischer. In 1857, at the age of 20, Morphy dominated the field in the first American Chess Congress held in New York, where he defeated the German Master Louis Paulsen in the final.

There followed a triumphant tour of London and Paris in which he stormed through European chess, while delighting spectators with his casual virtuoso play at blindfold displays, facing up to eight opponents at a time, without sight of the board. In a series of individual matches, Löwenthal, Harrwitz, and Anderssen suffered dramatic defeats at Morphy’s hands. The American‘s superiority was astounding. Against Anderssen, who had won the first international tournament at London in 1851, he lost two games and drew two, but won 17. His only disappointment was his failure to engage Howard Staunton, who was still the world‘s most famous player, if no longer the strongest. Had the title of World Champion been universally recognised at that time, then Morphy would surely have been the holder.

Morphy‘s exploits were exuberantly fêted in Europe and North America. In Paris a bust was unveiled, and dinners and presentations greeted his return home in 1859. Chess mania gripped America and plans for new clubs, tournaments and books were set in motion. 

Yet in a curious precursor of Bobby Fischer‘s withdrawal from public competition after his World Championship victory in 1972, Paul Morphy also chose to retire from serious combat. After his European tour Morphy never again played against first class opponents and confined himself to simultaneous displays or casual games with amateurs, to whom he gave heavy odds.

The chess historian Richard Eales argues that, in social terms, Morphy‘s attitude was a throwback to earlier days when skill at chess was regarded as the accomplishment of a gentleman: “Throughout his life nothing offended Morphy more than the suggestion that chess was a profession or that he wished to profit from playing it.”

The early to mid-19th century had, however, witnessed the development of a corps of players and journalists, who did earn their living from chess activities. Morphy recoiled from this milieu and spent the rest of his life in increasing seclusion. His attempt to set up a legal practice failed and the American Civil War damaged the personal fortunes of his family. In later life, Morphy sadly developed paranoid delusions and refused even to talk about his former chess triumphs. He died in 1884 after suffering a stroke. As with Bobby Fischer, Morphy‘s vanishing act at the very height of his powers created a myth of super-human power in the public mind. He had played a mere 75 competitive games, but the belief persists that he may have been the greatest natural genius which chess has ever seen.

In terms of chess practice Morphy‘s contribution was indeed considerable. He was not only well versed in the theory of the day, he was amazingly rapid and accurate in his play. His coruscating technique was ingenious and resourceful. Never blundering, he was also blessed with outstanding understanding of the endgame.

During the chess Olympiad at Havana 1966 I experienced my aforementioned dinner host, Fidel Castro, interacting with Bobby Fischer in the main lobby of the Havana Hilton, then known as the Havana Libre Hotel. Bobby’s favourite game, a stunning Morphy win, is linked below, and Bobby delighted in demonstrating its brilliance to Fidel, who, I fear, failed to grasp its finer points. In contrast, Che Guevara, whom I narrowly missed, was clearly an expert at the game, once drawing a game with the International Master Bob Wade, who was twice British Champion.

Fischer’s favourite game was played in 1858 between Paul Morphy and the combined Franco-German duo of Karl II, Duke of Brunswick, and Comte Isouard de Vauvenargues. It was played in a box at the Paris Opera, during a performance of Bellini’s Norma. Having suffered through Norma myself, I can well understand why Morphy and his aristocratic opponents resorted to a game of chess. Other sources claim that it was in fact The Barber of Seville, in which case inattention to the stage would have been less excusable. Whatever the actual opera which was being ignored, posterity can well replace the aphorism of King Henri IV of France: “Paris vaut bien une Messe”, (‘Paris is worth a Mass’) with “une partie d’échecs dun tel éclat vaut bien un petit défaut de vigilance”  (‘to create such an ingenious game of chess is worth a few moments of inattention’).

While on the topic of ingenuity on the chessboard, there has been a gratifyingly huge reaction to my column from last week about The Great Chess Murder Mystery . One correspondent in particular, Bruce Monson of Colorado, has thrown new light from an unexpected angle, writing that he was immediately struck by the “cross-hair circle” in the image that I thought may have been a crossed-out mistake in the author’s “crude map for Ireland”. What follows is a close paraphrase of his astute insights, coupling our case with that of the notorious Zodiac serial killer. In particular, Mr Monson writes: “this crossed-circle is exactly what the infamous Zodiac Killer used as his moniker in his taunting correspondence,  when he terrorised the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

The Zodiac Killer was infamous for his mocking of the police in letters and codes he sent to the newspapers. He was addicted to “games” which included word puzzles, ciphers and other oddities. Bruce’s suspicion is that this fascination also extended to chess. Mr Monson continues by saying that the killer once sent a map of the Bay Area with a cryptic compass rose in the form of his cross-hair moniker placed on top of Mount Diablo, presumably with a “code” that, if solved, would lead to a “buried bomb”.

There are other similarities, in that the Zodiac Killer was known for using British spellings of words and phrases, leading some to suspect he may have been from England or Ireland. After 1974 there was no further correspondence from the Zodiac. He was never caught. Bruce strongly believes that our murder suspect for The Great Chess Murder Mystery drew some inspiration from Robert Graysmith’s book, Zodiac, published in 1986, and from the murder of Donna Lass, in particular. She went “missing” in Lake Tahoe in September 1970 and her body has never been found. Her murder was attributed to the Zodiac Killer, due to a map-like card the killer sent to the media, presumably giving clues to her whereabouts.

Thank you Mr Monson. The parallels are definitely intriguing, but the dates preclude the same person being involved. Hardly the Zodiac himself, but a warped homage, yes. Or, as Bruce Monson notes, an “inspiration”.

When planning last week’s column, I was hoping to receive such valuable new information. I would, therefore, like to thank Bruce Monson again for his plausible, perceptive and promising insights. Further contributions will be gratefully accepted and I will, of course, keep TheArticle community regularly apprised of any fresh developments, in my efforts to revive the spirit of Sherlock Holmes.

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Member ratings
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  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 99%
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