Chessmen of letters: Amis and Nabokov

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Chessmen of letters: Amis and Nabokov

Martin Amis, who died last month at 73, took a great interest in chess and often wrote important essays about the game. Amis was also a competent player, as I discovered when facing the author across the board as part of the public relations campaign for a book launch. I had wrongly expected him to be a pushover, but to my surprise he was well informed about the opening, a Queen’s Indian Defence. He maintained White’s natural advantage well into the middle game, and only wilted towards the end, when I managed to launch a decisive attack against his king. Unfortunately, no record of this game has been preserved.

My speculation concerning the root of Amis’ fascination with chess is that it stemmed from his well-known lifelong admiration for another celebrated twentieth century novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, author of the chess-centred Russian masterpiece The Luzhin Defence (originally published in English as The Defence). While I was studying German language and literature at Trinity College Cambridge, I was astonished to receive a letter from Nabokov himself, offering me a hand-drawn diagram of one of his chess compositions, which I promptly forwarded to the Trinity undergraduate magazine. As I write, efforts are underway in the Trinity archives, desperately seeking the original MS of Nabokov’s puzzle.

The following reconstructed diagram and move record — first published on page 32 of The Trinity Review, Lent Term 1969 — pays scant regard to the magnificence of Nabakov’s masterpiece. One must imagine the yellow as a rich, burnished gold; and the green as a deep, regal purple.

Nabakov wrote to me as follows: “White to mate in two moves.”

Key: 1. Qxe4

The key deceptively prevents the set mate 2. Bxe4 after 1… f4. The interest of the problem lies in the first three variations with the Bishop advancing one step at a time.

  1. a) .. f4                  2. Bg6#
  2. b) .. Rxg5            2. Bxf5#
  3. c) .. fxe4              2. Bxe4#
  4. d) .. Nxe4            2. Nxf7#
  5. e) .. Kxg5            2. Qe3#”

These are the solutions given by Nabokov, but for completeness’ sake, we should also include:

​​                             f)​            1… fxg5​              2. Bxf5#

In his 1993 essay collection Visiting Mrs Nabokov And Other Excursions, Amis relates, during the course of an admiring interview with Nabokov’s widow, Véra, that during his time in Berlin during the 1920’s, “Nabokov started playing a lot of chess with Véra’s father.“ The interview took place at the Palace Hotel Montreux, where the Nabokovs had taken up permanent residence since 1961. Little did I realise, when I competed in a grandmaster tournament with Viktor Korchnoi at that selfsame hotel in April 1977 that the Nabokov ménage was living above the tournament on the sixth floor of that very edifice. Nabokov himself died two months later, while Véra Evseevna followed him in 1991.

Amis describes the Nabokovs as “intensely private” and I doubt that even one of the most notorious of Soviet defectors, the twice world championship challenger Korchnoi, was aware of the irony. Namely the presence of his fellow renegade against Soviet rule, the literary Titan,  still revising and perfecting his collected works, several floors above the chess moves being executed by Viktor Lvovich on the mezzanine. It was at Montreux that I offered to assist Korchnoi as his second in the world championship cycle in which he was currently involved, the cycle that brought him within striking distance of seizing Karpov’s crown. I was to compensate for the missed opportunity in Montreux to beard a literary lion in his den, when I succeeded in meeting Jorge Luis Borges (another lover of chess) in his apartment in Maipu St Buenos Aires the following year.  

I was first mentioned in despatches by Amis, when he wrote about the 1986 London leg of the Kasparov vs. Karpov world championship in the summer of 1986 in Piccadilly’s Park Lane Hotel. I was chief organiser of this match, hosted the nightly TV shows and wrote the official match book.  The match deviated from the invariable tradition of hosting world championships in Moscow as a direct result of the international scandal surrounding the closure of Kasparov’s first challenge to Karpov’s throne.

In February 1985 Garry Kasparov had been battling world champion Anatoly Karpov for almost six months. After no fewer than 48 championship games, (a record that still stands), Kasparov had arisen from the ashes of 5-0 defeat to bounce back with three wins, the last two of which had been consecutive. Having appeared initially as overwhelmingly dominant, Karpov now seemed punch drunk. He only needed one more win to clinch the match in his favour, but it seemed more likely that Kasparov would win his requisite three, before Karpov could reel in his crucial one win.

For the whole of game 48 (which turned out to be the last game played) I had been in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, with Florencio Campomanes, the reigning FIDÉ President, and two other leading World Chess Federation officials. Our task was, if possible, to smooth the path of the Israeli team for participation in the 1986 Olympiad, set for Dubai — a peace initiative which was doomed to failure. On the evening of Saturday 9 February, Campomanes was phoned urgently by Moscow, with a stunning message from the World Champion’s camp: Karpov was too ill to continue and Campomanes was to fly at once to Moscow to resolve the situation.

I happened to knock on Campomanes’ hotel room door just as the call ended, and he exclaimed in excited tones: “Anatoly is unable to continue. I must do something about it!” Various emergency solutions were then put forward by Campomanes and discussed by our group in Dubai to aid the FIDÉ President’s thought process:

1) that the match be stopped forthwith; Karpov should retain his title, but Kasparov be permitted another crack at the whip later in the same year;

2) that an artificial guillotine be imposed after game 60, with the man in the lead then taking the title; an even score to result in Karpov’s retention of the title, but with a rematch clause;

3) that the match be postponed for a month or two to permit Karpov to regain his strength.

All of these answers seemed to me to be excessively favourable to Karpov. My clear view at the time was that the match should continue normally. But if the World Champion were truly under too much stress to continue, after his two most recent hammer-blow defeats, then he should gracefully concede and then claim his inalienable right to a revenge match in September 1985. In spite of the inordinate length of this match, the World Title contest, as with any sporting battle, should undoubtedly contain an element of stamina-testing and it seemed to me that Kasparov was bearing up to this aspect with considerably greater success than his rival. There are rules for sporting contests and things become arbitrary if they are ignored. Facing stress and tension, while displaying stamina and endurance, are all part of being a champion. It’s no use setting a world record over 99.999 metres, if you fall over and miss the tape at the last microsecond.

On Sunday 10 February Campomanes flew to Moscow, well aware that western media regarded him very much as being in the pocket of the USSR Chess Federation, which, in turn, was widely suspected of favouring Karpov — and of being controlled by the KGB. This favouritism was doubtless a residue of goodwill from Karpov’s two prior victorious performances against the defector, Korchnoi.

There was, however, a further reason for Soviet officialdom to favour Karpov, a staunch party member, holder of The Order of Lenin and Moscow resident. His challenger Kasparov came from the outlying Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, was half Jewish (he started life under the name of Weinstein) and was somewhat doubtful where loyalty to communist doctrine was concerned. Indeed, Kasparov was to become an outspoken foe of Communism. He remains a bitter and prescient critic of Vladimir Putin. Sadly, his pre-invasion warnings about the Kremlin’s designs on Ukraine were either underestimated or ignored.

A Freudian slip at the time by one senior officer of the USSR Chess Federation said it all: “We have one World Champion, so why do we need another one?” It is incontrovertible that the true sons of Lenin were less than favourably inclined towards the young interloper from Baku, as might be inferred from their attempt in 1983 to cancel Kasparov’s participation in the Semi Final of the World Championship Qualifying Competition. I am delighted to say that I played my part in foiling this dastardly Soviet plot.

Campomanes’ arrival in Moscow led to an ominous and immediate break in the match schedule. Then, on Friday 15th February the crunch came – a press conference called by Campomanes at noon Moscow time, in the Hotel Sport. Around 300 Western journalists were present. I reproduce this reconstruction of the astonishing proceedings from wire services – the fastest way to obtain breaking news before the internet.

Moscow, Friday – the President of the World Chess Federation ordered a halt “without result” to the 160-day-old Championship match, which means that Karpov still retains his title. Nevertheless, titlist Anatoly Karpov, and challenger, Garry Kasparov, rebelled against the move in an angry public debate. Chess Federation Chief, Florencio Campomanes, told a news conference in Moscow’s Sport Hotel that he had decided to stop the match and ordered the two Soviets to play a new, 24-game contest starting on first September and that this would determine the new World Champion.

Campomanes’ pronouncement was predictably greeted with pandemonium. In fact, this might well have been the first official press conference of any sort, on any topic, to have been staged in the heavily dirigiste USSR, which had spiralled completely out of control.

With members of the audience loudly heckling, Kasparov then shouted out that the authorities were trying to deprive him of his chances, and that he wanted to continue play with no time-outs and no intervals. “I have said more than once that I am absolutely healthy”, he continued, “… they have tried to convince me otherwise and to end this match on all sorts of pretexts.”

The wire service carried on: Campomanes was asked if Karpov was too ill to continue. He said he had seen Karpov 25 minutes before the news conference and added, “Mr Karpov is well and appealed to me to continue the match until the very end.” He said he decided to end of the match at this stage because “24 times 2 equals 48”, a reference to the 24-game limit under old rules. Campomanes said he had made the decision impartially in the interest of world chess and denied his friendship with Karpov influenced him.

He was asked again if it  was  true that Karpov was at the point of physical collapse, but had no time to answer before the world champion himself burst into the auditorium, shouting: “I want to make my statement!“ and strode to the microphone to a round of applause. “We can and want to continue the game”, he said. “I do not agree with the decision to end it and to start from scratch. I think Mr Kasparov will second this position.” Kasparov had been sitting at the back of the hall with five visibly agitated members of his team… Invited to the podium by Campomanes (“Garry, do you want to comment?”), Kasparov took the microphone and shouted at the FIDÉ Chief in English: “You said that 25 minutes ago the champion was objecting to breaking off the match. Then why are you making all this show? Will you please answer this question?”

With members of the audience booing and heckling, Campomanes told the angry players he would have been happy to discuss the decision, but had not been able to get in touch with them… Kasparov’s supporters booed and shouted at Campomanes: “You said you just met Karpov, 25 minutes ago.” At this point Mr Campomanes declared a recess in the news conference to discuss the situation with the players.

After the meeting, the President and Karpov both agreed to a halt that categorically aided the current World Champion, and Kasparov was forced to abide by the ruling.

Campomanes sought, implausibly, to defend himself but, of course, nobody was convinced, least of all the challenger, Garry Kasparov, as the wire service continued: “It is quite evident that FIDÉ shows complete inability to deal with such things as this World Championship,” Kasparov told reporters. Referring to Campomanes, he said that the press conference reminded him very strongly of an attempt to stage a well-rehearsed spectacle in which everyone knows his own rôle.

What is one to make of all this? Karpov had always suffered, unjustly in my opinion, from the stigma of a champion who won by default (against Fischer in 1975). That he should have been allowed to duck out of a critical situation by the intervention of a deus ex machina, in the persona of the FIDE President, did his reputation nothing but damage. He would have been much wiser to play on and risk the consequences. As for Kasparov, after a highly shaky start, he had produced what was almost certainly, the most impressive rear-guard action in any discipline, in the history of recorded sport.

Remember that the first player to win six games would win the match. From games 1 to 9, Kasparov went down by four losses and five draws. He seemed annihilated and no one came to his rescue at this point. From then on, displaying remarkable tenacity and maturity, he held Karpov at bay in the long war of attrition from games 10 to 26. The public may have seen these games as tedious draws, but they were an important part of Kasparov’s process of mental reconstruction.

Losing game 27 made Kasparov’s position desperate but his opponent’s inability to deliver a knockout blow permitted Kasparov to complete his psychological repairs and ultimately take over the initiative. Indeed, Kasparov won convincingly over the 39 games, from games 10 to 48, by 3 to 1 with 35 draws. Kasparov had the knife at his throat for four months, yet he never gave up, and at the end his chances may even have been superior. He was certainly playing much better chess, and many observers now preferred to regard his claims to be the legitimate World Champion as more valid than Karpov’s.

As it was, Kasparov won the rematch, defended his World Title on three further occasions against Karpov, one of which I was instrumental in organising in London 1986, opened by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

This entire farrago resembles an operatic plot. In fact it did form the inspiration for the Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of ABBA) musical “Chess: The Musical”, and in particular the Arbiter’s song.

As you settle down behind your pawns
Power passes to me
You may play like Fischer,
Capablanca, Tal combined
I don’t mind
Please feel free!

They all thought
they were the big fromage
But they don’t have my clout
I control the match
I start it, I can call it off
Found that out

I conclude with Martin Amis’ damning

assessment of Campomanes, in another piece from his Mrs Nabokov volume:

“There is almost something captivating about Mr Florencio Campomanes, President of Fidé, the world chess federation. Something blithely Chaucerian, with his air of farcical unreliability. If there is no smoke without fire, then Campomanes is a veritable Vesuvius, fizzing and burping with partiality and bad faith. You feel that the world of chess is too small for his talents: he ought to be in arms dealing, or nuclear proliferation…Ever since the Moscow row (described above) Campo has cobbled together a defence of this ‘unpopular‘ decision by directing counter-conspiracy charges at a small band of journalists, led by Raymond Keene, described by Campomanes as skilful, cunning and forked tongued!” 

To slightly paraphrase the title of Fidel Castro’s autobiography, I believe I can safely say on this matter, that History has justified me.

Two games that bring distinct reminders of that dramatic era in the chess world are these:

Dieter Keller vs. Viktor Korchnoi

Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov


Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwell’s . His 206th book, Chess in the Year of the King, with a foreword by The Article contributor Patrick Heren, and written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, is in preparation. It will be published later this year.  

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