Culture and Civilisations

Is chess dangerous?

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Is chess dangerous?

In 1981 I visited Lagos, Nigeria, to inaugurate the first pan-African Junior Chess Championship. After handing over the then customary bribe to pass through immigration control, I proceeded to my hotel. Once there, I discovered, lurking in my room, the most massive and aggressive swarm of mosquitos I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. My first (sleepless) night turned into a First World War dogfight between the aerial insects and myself, armed with a huge can of nerve agent, otherwise known as anti-mosquito spray. Come dawn, the battle had been won and the mosquitos all shot down, however, for some days afterwards I bore a distinct resemblance to Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Quasimodo, with his protuberant humpback and shuffling gait.

Lessons learned: never enter Lagos without a giant can of mosquito spray and never leave without an escort. When I departed from Lagos I took the precaution of being accompanied by a Nigerian admiral in full dress uniform (he was vice president of the Nigerian Chess Association) and the airport officials were too busy saluting to stretch out their hands for bribes.

Regular readers of this column will realise that I regard high-level chess as a sport, a mind sport. We all know that physical sport can carry certain dangers. Some perils are endemic with the territory, others can be more outlandish. Muscle injuries, cuts, broken bones, ligament and tendon damage are common in many sports. Among the former category are, for example, those unfortunate cases of head injury, to name one example of many, sustained by footballers accustomed to heading the ball and, of course, boxers. Muhammad Ali was a notable warning to those who continue the practice of their sport, well past their reasonable sell-by dates.

Another way to court danger is to enter Formula 1, where crashes can be spectacular, such as the recent accident of Romain Grosjean in the Bahrain 2020 race. Here is the shocking footage of the crash and it is incredibly fortunate that he was not seriously injured. While 2003 rugby World Cup winner, hooker Steve Thompson, who competed in every game of that event, no longer has any recollection of his once triumphant matches. Thompson is involved with seven other rugby giants in instigating legal action against the governing bodies of the sport, for injuries which they claim, came about as the outcome of playing rugby. The casus belli is concussion, and growing numbers of former players are taking to the courts for compensation.

While re-watching the 2003 match on TV, the British great Thompson began to realise that he had absolutely no recollection of being part of the victorious team, nor, indeed, of even having been in Australia, where the final had taken place. That was the trigger for teaming up with other litigants to take up arms against both the world and Welsh rugby authorities for their alleged lack of care for the physical wellbeing of their players.

More outré hazards include the descent of swarms of bees on football and cricket pitches the stabbing of tennis star Monica Seles by a deranged fan of her opponent, the invasion of a golf course by a gigantic alligator, and Mike Tyson’s attempt to immortalise Evander Holyfield, in the style of Van Gogh, by biting off his opponent’s ear, during a bout for the heavyweight boxing World Championship in 1997 in Las Vegas. For those of a sensitive disposition, do not follow this link of the video.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, of those unusual and unanticipated catastrophes which have surrounded sporting events was an actual war (La Guerra del Futbol) caused by the football match between El Salvador and Honduras, when rioting began during a FIFA World Cup Qualifier. The war began on July 14 1969, when the military of El Salvador launched an attack against Honduras. Hostilities lasted 100 hours, until the Organisation of American States intervened to prise the belligerents apart.

Which brings us to chess, indubitably the most civilised of pastimes, and quite foreign to unseemly brawls. Surely playing chess cannot be fatal to life and limb? Again, one has to distinguish between dangers lurking at the board and accidents waiting to happen on the way to, or from, chessboard combat. A common medieval theme was violence at the chessboard between nobles angered by losing a game, frustrated by a higher status player (such as a King) retracting a move already played, or irritated by an unhelpful comment from a bystander.

A veritable litany of notables from the Middle Ages have been implicated in such mythical chessboard tumult, including the untimely demise of the High King Brian Boru (hit on the head by a chessboard) after the Battle of Clontarf, King Canute when taking time off from his alternative apocryphal pastime of reversing maritime tides, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and Bad King John. He may have been bad, but he was not that bad and I doubt that there is much veracity in any of these lurid accounts from distant history.

In contrast, at the international grandmaster tournament of New York 1981, I personally witnessed an act of violence which must have caused great puzzlement to anyone trying to follow the games at a distance from the published moves in the tournament bulletin. The bemused reader would have noticed that, in one round, the vast majority of games were agreed drawn in very few moves: three, six, nine… all quite unacceptably peaceful in an event where the grandmasters are expected to persevere in search of chessboard victory.

Far from the explanation being a sudden outbreak of mental fatigue, or grand masterly torpor, the cause was a fistfight which broke out at the very start of the round, between the Hungarian Grandmaster András Adorján and the American Master John Fedorowicz. The Hungarian had drawn all of his games so far, apart from beating “The Fed” as he was known. Fedorowicz took belated exception to apparently being singled out for ritual slaughter, and decided to express his annoyance in a manner which left both players locked in physical combat writhing on the floor. They were only separated by the imposingly portly figure of chief arbiter, Eric Schiller, who parted the combatants and restored peaceful order to the scene, by which time most of the other players had quickly agreed their games drawn and escaped from the room, doubtless to avoid being caught up in the conflagration.

I have in the course of several decades competing in international chess tournaments also experienced various risky situations. Thus, the 1967 World Junior Chess Championship was set for Jerusalem, but it was nearly called off by reason of the Six-Day War which had only just concluded with a stunning Israeli victory. Nowadays, the championship would doubtless have been aborted and rescheduled to a less bellicose location. Back in the day, adopting my pose as a member of Monty Python’s infamous tetrarchy of Yorkshiremen, we were made of sterner stuff, and the championship duly went ahead. My road transfer from Tel Aviv airport to our hotel on the Mount of Olives, was littered with discarded ordinance, blown out tanks, defunct artillery, wrecked military jeep. One afternoon during the championship I decided to go for a walk and encountered a cheery Israeli tank crew who waved energetically to me. On relaying this jovial piece of news to the organisers, I was informed that the tank crew was not waving in friendship, but trying to warn me against wandering towards a minefield. 

The following year I competed in Prague, also a seemingly jovial occasion, during the so called, Prague Spring. As I was leaving Prague for the next clash of chess arms, the tanks of the Soviet Army were entering on the other side, just in time to turn the Prague Spring of 1968 into a Prague winter, but if you tell that story to young Czechs now they will not believe you!

Then, in 1973, I was returning from winning the Johannesburg Open Championship, when our Boeing 747, having just refuelled on the Isla del Sal, for the onward journey to London, suddenly experienced a huge shock, followed by a second wave of the worst turbulence I have ever encountered. The flight attendants, normally icy calm, looked terrified and strapped themselves into jump seats. Not a good sign. The captain announced a slight technical hitch and informed us that we would have to circle to burn off excess aviation fuel, and then head for Luanda in Angola. My first thought was that we were all going to die. My second was, why did I go on this trip? My final thought was that travel was part of my life and that hiding away was incompatible with my chessboard ambitions. So I sat back, awaiting probable death, and then we landed. On disembarking it was clear that two engines had exploded and the plane was a write-off. We had to wait for two days for a replacement jet, and Luanda airport had no chairs!

Here is the decisive game between myself and Charles de Villiers at the 1973 Johannesburg Open. 

Four years further on, I achieved the signal honour of being invited by that grandest of grandmasters, Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi, to assist him as chief second and analyst for his World Championship Candidates final against the legendary Boris Spassky. Spassky’s titanic struggle against Bobby Fischer at Reykjavik in 1972 had created more publicity for chess than any other chess related happening, until the advent of Beth Harmon in this year’s Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.

Comfortably seated in the back of a Mercedes, humming along the German autobahn, with Korchnoi next to the driver in the front of the car, we were serenely proceeding to our training camp, when I experienced a sudden jolt. The car rolled over twice and came to rest on the highway upside down. My first thought, in this case, was extreme annoyance, since the crash, for crash it was, might hinder our world championship plans. My second thought was to escape, which I did through the no longer extant windowpane, and ran like hell, in case the car exploded or burst into flames, as is often the case in Hollywood films.

After a few moments of contemplation, I felt sufficiently secure to return to the car to drag Korchnoi out of the wreckage.  Saving the driver was beyond our powers, since he was entangled in a seat belt. We left that task to the soldiers who swiftly poured out of the army troop transport, the rear of which we had hit at a speed only to be contemplated on the autobahn, where there is no speed limit. The conscripts even located my spectacles, my only casualty, and it turned out that Korchnoi’s injuries were insufficient to prevent him from inflicting a convincing defeat on Spassky, in their forthcoming qualifying match in Belgrade.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 90%
  • Interesting points: 92%
  • Agree with arguments: 92%
65 ratings - view all

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