In a recent Perpetual Chess Podcast the chess writer and translator Douglas Griffin pointed out how much fine chess literature is waiting to be translated into English; most of it is in Russian, as you might expect. Griffin has been mining Soviet chess archives for many years and presents some outstanding finds on his excellent blog. A discerning book publisher will surely make his work more widely available before long.
Of the great chess books in other languages seeking a translator, Soultanbéieff’s Le maître de l’attaque (Paris, 1974) will be on the connoisseur’s list of the top ten.
Barely remembered today, Victor Soultanbéieff (1895–1972) was one of the strongest amateur players of the 1930s. Like his contemporary Kurt Richter, ‘the Sultan’ enjoyed a global reputation for swashbuckling play despite relatively few appearances on the international stage.
The pressures of family life and a tough day job hobbled his chess career with fatigue and missed opportunities. Who knows what he might have achieved had circumstances been kinder. See Part 1 and Part 2 for details of his life, combinations and crushing victories over the likes of Tartakower and Nimzowitsch.
Le maître de l’attaque [Master of Attack] is Soultanbéieff’s great legacy. It originally appeared in French in the early 1950s under the title ‘Guide pratique du jeu des combinaisons’ [Practical Guide to Combinations]. In a warm preface, Max Euwe heaps praise on the ‘precise, meticulous, instructive and enjoyable’ book and extols Soultanbéieff’s candour:
‘the author … uses his own games to explain tactical ideas but not only his wins, as is generally the case, but draws and even losses. This gives the book a remarkable objectivity.’
Le maître de l’attaque is an attacking manual packed with sparkling games, fragments, pen-portraits, amusing anecdotes and clear, shrewd advice drawn from the master’s (sometimes bitter) experience.
(The following extract is a translation of Games 14 and 15 of Le maître de l’attaque )
‘Holes’ – the Achilles heel of defence
The hole (French – trou; German – loch) is a square that can no longer be defended by a pawn. Example: white pawns on f2, g3, h2; here the squares f3, g2, f3 create ‘holes’ in White’s position. Another example: black pawns on f6, g7, h6; here the squares f7, g6, h7 create ‘holes’ in Black’s position. In general, holes weaken the position and often allow the opponent’s pieces to infiltrate. The following two games offer pretty conclusive evidence of this.
In chess composition the solver has the advantage of knowing to focus on the challenge in hand (‘mate in two’, ‘White to play and win’, etc.); unlike a real game where the player must assess all of the possibilities in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing positions. To recognise that a given position is ripe for a tactic or a decisive combination, to find and execute that manoeuvre or combination – these are the marks of the master. In the following example Black seizes the opportunity with both hands (20…h4!), but how many times are critical moments like this overlooked and squandered?
The game was played in the Liège Quadrangular Tournament in 1949:
Soultanbéieff 2/3; 2-3. P. Devos and F. van Seters 1½; Dr Wery 1. It won the beauty prize offered by M-R Anciaux, honorary President of Liège Chess club.
The classical line is 11 Nxc3 12 Rxc3 e5; it has been analysed in the finest detail and requires very precise play from Black. The text move was tried in international tournaments about twenty years ago but without much success. At that time I contributed a special article about it to L’Echiquier magazine (1932).
12 Bb3 e5
13 Re1 (?)
Black’s psychological plan bears fruit: as theory frowns on the variation, my opponent, although a first-class theoretician, did not trouble himself to study it. Instead of this passive move, he should have played, as I showed in the aforementioned article, 13 Ne4! which is stronger than the move commonly played 13 d5 (Nc5!). Confident that 13 Ne4! gives a positional advantage against all Black replies (including Tartakower’s 13…Nf6 14 Nxf6+ gxf6 with weakened kingside), I had adopted this original, bold and yet dubious continuation in a correspondence match with the Lithuanian champion S. Macht (1932-33; drawn: +1, -1, =2). 13 (Ne4) a5!? 14 a3 a4 15 Ba2 Ra5?! 16 Qd2 Rb5?! (a rook manoeuvre à la Sultan Khan) 17 Nc3 e4! 18 Nxb5 exf3 19 Na7 ! Qg5 and after 20 g3 the ‘nail’ on f3 and the ‘holes’ on g2 and h3 caused Black many problems, but the game was drawn on the 51st move.
13…e4! 14 Nd2 Nf6
Here White intended to play 15 Bc2 and if 15…Bf5 (?) 16 f3 winning a pawn, but noticed that 15…Bg4! 16 f3 exf3 17 gxf3 Bh5 would give Black an advantage.
15…Re8 16 Ne2 Nbd5 17 a3
To parry the threat of Nb4-d3 winning the exchange.
17…Bd7 18 Nf1 b6!
If the a8 rook moves 19 Qc5 would force the exchange of queens owing to the threat of Qxa7, freeing White’s game.
19 Nfg3 Rac8 20 Qb1 h5!
The right plan! White’s play has been a little hesitant (as shown by his knight manoeuvres) and his forces are far from the kingside. So Black seizes the opportunity to launch a quick attack on this side of the board.
21 Bxd5 cxd5 22 Rxc8 Rxc8 23 Nc3
Not wanting to concede to his opponent an undoubted advantage in the endgame after 23 Rc1 h4 24 Rxc8+ Bxc8 25 Nf1 Ba6, or 23 h3 h4 24 Nf1 Bb5 25 Rc1 Rxc1 26 Qxc1 Qc7 when White is subjected to a mating attack.
23…h4 24 Nge2 h3! 25 Nf4 Qd6
This move was played only after a long think, as White realised the danger the holes on f3 and g2 posed to his king. In any event damage to his king’s position is unavoidable, for example 26 Nxh3 (if 26 gxh3 g5 followed by …Bxh3, …Ng4 etc.) 26…Bxh3 27 gxh3 Qe6 threatening …Nh7, …Rg6+ or …Rh6. after 26 Nxh3 Ng4 the best move is 27 Nf4 g5 28 Nxd5 gxf4 29 Nxf4 with three pawns for the knight while 27 g3 Qh6 28 Kg2 loses to 28…Nxh2.
26…g5 27 Nfe2 Qe6
Already threatening a deadly invasion: Qf4-f3-g2 mate. Weaker was 27…Ng4 when White can put up some resistance with 28 Qd1 Qf6 29 Nf4 gxf4 30 Nxd5 and 31 Nxf4.
28 Qd1 Qf5 29 Nc1 Ng4 30 Qe2 Rxc3!! 0-1
On taking the rook there follows 31…Bb5!! and any queen move allows Black to give mate by Qxf2+ or Qf3-g2. Note that there is no saving White after 29…Ng4.
Defensive tries like 30 Rf1 or Re2 (instead of 30 Qe2) lead to beautiful zugzwang positions:
30 Rf1 Rxc3!! (stronger than 30…Bb5 31 Nxb5 Rxc1 32 Qe2 – 32 Nd6 Qxf2+! – Rc2 33 Nd6 and not Qd1 Rd2 or Rxf2) 31 bxc3 Ba4! 32 Qe2 Bb5 33 Qd1 Bc4 34 a4 a5 and White’s large and superior army is completely movebound and quickly mated!
30 Re2 Qf3 31 Qf1 Rxc3! 32 bxc3 Bb5 33 Qxh3 (must escape zugzwang!) Bxe2 34 Qg2 Bc4 35 Qxf3 exf3 36 h3 Nf6 37 g4 Ne4 winning because once again White has run out of moves!
A Deadly ‘Nail’
Originally from Poland, as a youth my opponent belonged to the famous Lodz school (Salve, Rubinstein). A fine and deep player, Albert Jarblum is also one of the most likeable I know.
He did not show his best qualities in this game. Leaving theory on his ninth move, he got a passive position and succumbed to an energetic mating attack.
‘. . . Hillary Clinton asserted that Donald Trump is “playing checkers and Putin is playing three-dimensional chess”. . .
In fact, there is no evidence that Putin plays chess, and in any case, it is not his sort of game. Chess is a contest of inflexible rules, transparency and of an intellectual competition where the options are strictly constrained. Everyone starts with the same pieces, and everyone knows what a pawn can do and when it’s their turn to move. Putin doesn’t want to limit his options like that. He does know judo, however. A black belt, he has been honing his skills since starting as a teenager, and his approach to statecraft seems to reflect this. A judoka may well have prepared for a rival’s usual moves and worked out countermoves in advance, but much of the art is in using the opponent’s strength against him to seize the moment when it appears. In this respect, in geopolitics as in judo, Putin is an opportunist. He has a sense of what constitutes a win, but no predetermined path towards it. He relies on quickly seizing any advantage he sees, rather than on a careful strategy.’
Mark Galeotti, ‘Putin is a Judoka, Not a Chess Player’
We Need to Talk about Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong (London: Ebury Press, 2019), pp.13-15
Playwright Samuel Beckett’s interest in chess is well known, but what did he read about the game? There are several chess books among the 757 works in Beckett’s online library.
‘He also studied the chess columns regularly in Le Monde and spent hours playing chess against himself, re-enacting some of the famous games described in the Best Games of Chess of Alexander Alekhin, Mikhail Tal, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera and the current champion, Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian. He had recently been given Irving Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played. 62 Masterpieces of Modern Chess Strategy which he studied avidly. And, a few years later, a friend added Spassky’s and Fischer’s best games to his growing collection of chess books, which he divided between his Paris apartment and Ussy.’
James Knowlson, ‘Accident, Illness, and “Catastrophe 1967–9” ’
Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), pp.546-7
That he was a fan of Irving Chernev shows good taste. Reuben Fine was another favourite.
A few months ago McFarland’s new-born chess book saw the light of day. After working for over four decades on his favourite chess subject, Alan McGowan presented his biography of Kurt Richter (1900–1969).
Richter may not be the best-known German chess player of the interwar years, nor was he the strongest, but nevertheless he was a fascinating character whose name is still familiar today. Besides his outstanding contributions to opening theory, Richter’s reputation as an extremely sharp and tactical player endures. Even in his lifetime his status was such that McGowan quotes world champion Alekhine that he ‘could recognize one of Richter’s games out of hundreds’ (p.128). Some of them became very well known and caught the eye of other great contemporaries. One of his classics (against Ahues, see below) made Réti think, not too surprisingly, that ‘The reign of the Romantic era in chess is long past’, while Tartakower was more optimistic and saw it as ‘hope for the German chess renaissance and a glimpse of its direction’ (p.40).
A collection of Richter’s best games, by Alfred Brinckmann, was published as early as 1939. Golombek, reviewing it for the British Chess Magazine, wrote somewhat lyrically that ‘Almost every Richter game is characterized by a superb fighting quality and a great depth of Anderssen-like combination’ (p.188). It will please the modern reader unfamiliar with Richter’s games that Golombek was entirely right in his judgement.
Richter defeating his publisher, Alfred Brinkmann, at Bad Aachen 1935
McGowan’s attraction to Richter is thus evident, and in his introduction he elucidates a little on what made this maverick so special. Richter experimented with several interesting opening ideas and innovations, which often led to very sharp positions where his tactical brilliancy fully came into its own. Unlike many other players, the result was less important to Richter than a thrilling fight.
McGowan first encountered Richter in Foldeák’s book Chess Olympiads, which contained some of his games, and he began gathering information about him as long ago as the 1970s. He claims that he could have published a book on Richter even back then, but fortunately he waited a little longer for otherwise it would have been an entirely different work. Modern technology has made unearthing information and games a lot easier, adding to the material McGowan has gathered from an extensive network he built up over forty years.
The book consists of nine parts, with 499 games and four appendices. A little over 350 games are annotated rather deeply, but it is a pity that McGowan does not explain his approach to annotating these games. It seems that he has written notes for most of the games (probably using a lot of contemporary sources), but sometimes bases his comments on those of other players and sometimes quotes the historical sources. More games, with no or very few notes, are given in a first appendix. A second appendix summarizes Richter’s results, while McGowan rounds off with two essays on Richter’s openings with White and Black. With the latter he wishes to
‘highlight the extent of Richter’s involvement and to review the history of the openings, which has sometimes been ignored or treated indifferently. Further, it is important to understand that some authors have made Richter’s contributions less important than those of Soviet-era players, including the removal of his name from the titles of books about the one opening to which he contributed the most.’ (p.318)
It seems that McGowan is especially irked by the case of 1 d4 and 2 Nc3, which is nowadays known as the Veresov opening (see also p.19).
Richter’s chess career is treated chronologically, tournament by tournament, with each chapter providing a short introduction and (mostly) a selection of games. McGowan logically devotes more and more attention to Richter’s career as it reaches its peak. McGowan gives full coverage to Richter’s most important events like Podebrady 1936 (his only international tournament), the 1936 Munich Olympiad, Stuttgart 1939, Munich 1941 and 1942.
After Munich 1942 the war completely overshadowed all chess activities and by 1945 Richter found himself in a shattered land. His appetite for chess had waned and his tournament career became less of a priority. Instead he focused on his work as a journalist and writer in Berlin and East Germany. His final years were spent behind the Iron Curtain, cut off from many of his old chess friends.
Richter’s chess legacy is an enchanting one, and any reader playing over his games will be bewildered by their tactical richness. There follows a small selection of games and fragments he left behind. Please bear in mind that these games are outstandingly analysed in the book.
Munich 1942 was one of Richter’s most interesting tournaments. He played well, sharing third place with Bogoljubow and Foltys, behind Alekhine and Keres. In the sixth round the world champion came up with a ‘wonderful concept’ to deal with Richter’s aggressive impulses.
Alekhine – Richter
Alekhine anticipated this move when playing his rook to e1. The queen lures the rook to d4 before coming out again.
Yet there are some regrettable missed opportunities in this book. Opening it for the first time, the reader is immediately struck by the acknowledgements section, which is truly impressive. McGowan’s words of thanks, which stretch over two pages, give the reader good reason to expect the best. Not only does it read as a ‘who’s who’ of chess scholars, but it reveals that the author’s long study of his subject brought him into contact with many of Richter’s former opponents (including Rudolf Teschner who eulogised Richter on his death as ‘friend, my teacher, and adviser’) and above all with Richter’s brother Gerhard.
McGowan’s correspondence with Gerhard Richter continued for years and he supplied ‘a considerable amount of information, including documents, photographs and scoresheets’. So it is somewhat disappointing that this intense contact fails to come across in the book. We learn that Kurt was ill during his youth, and that this affected his whole life, but hardly ever do we learn more about him personally. Many references to information provided by Gerhard actually derive from an old article in the Deutsche Schachzeitung, and not from his correspondence with the author (for example, p.138, footnote 4).
Richter late in life (Rudolf Teschner, Schach-Echo 1970)
McGowan often shows self-restraint, seemingly in deference to the ‘rule’ set by some chess writers that restricts the ‘chess historian’ to mere facts and excludes anecdotes, sketches and impressions of the time. Although Richter’s chess career is covered in detail, his character remains rather flat, and the author does not really examine his childhood or life under the Nazi regime and in East Germany. Richter is not brought to life as a human being and the reader does not learn much about his personality or personal history beyond cursory details such as his dislike for travelling or his serious illness as a child.
The same goes for the ‘zeitgeist’ that does not really shine through the book, despite the fact that Richter lived in a fascinating era much of which remains undiscovered. We learn little about, for example, people like Erhardt Post and Otto Zander, strong chess players and officials in the service of the Nazis. Sometimes McGowan mentions disputes, even involving Richter (p.65, footnote 16), but he prefers to skim the surface rather than scrutinise the details of these conflicts. From time to time McGowan deals with Richter’s attitude towards the Nazi regime, but drifts into vague and far-fetched conjecture. Take, for instance, the following line Richter played against Becker during the ‘German-Austria Friendship tournament’: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 d4 exd4 5 Nd5. The game was played on 12 March 1938, i.e. the day when early in the morning German troops crossed the Austrian border leading to the Annexation of Austria. McGowan comments:
‘We can only speculate about what was going through Richter’s mind when he replicated real life by moving into the Austrian’s half of the board. Was this simply an expression of German-Austrian friendship or did he have something more symbolic in mind?’ (p.177)
A few moves later Richter made a mistake and Becker won the game.
On page 103 McGowan tells us more about ‘Dr Zabel’, the fictional aspiring chess master Richter invented for instructional purposes. The notes to the games involving Zabel are among the most interesting in the book. McGowan concurs that ‘such games provided some insight into the way Richter viewed chess in general’, but he hardly explores this figure and fails to examine Zabel’s comments to elucidate Richter’s views of chess. On p.271, close to end of the book, McGowan suddenly mentions ‘Ben Akiba’, ‘another figure invoked by Richter in his writings’, but the reader learns nothing more of him. We are left in the dark as to whether Richter created more characters like this.
Despite these criticisms, Alan McGowan’s book is full of brilliant games, deeply annotated, and anyone with even the faintest interest in chess history in general (and especially of those difficult interwar years) will give himself/herself a major present by purchasing it. It is a fascinating reconstruction of Kurt Richter’s life. Also noteworthy are the numerous, often truly outstanding, photos of chess masters. Many have not been published before and contain close-ups of famous as well as lesser known chess masters. Needless to say, their presentation is enhanced by the classic layout McFarland has designed for its biographies.
Ray Keene’s charity, The Brain Trust, appears to donate a lot of the money it raises to organisations run by Ray Keene and his friends.
What’s going on? Let’s ask Ray directly.
Email, Sunday 13 January, to email@example.com. [For details and further reading, see Notes below.]
Sorry to bother you.
I have been researching a charity called The Brain Trust,1 of which you appear2 to be both a Director and a Trustee, and I would like to ask you some questions about it. These questions relate to the accounts for the periods ending 31 March 2016 and 31 March 2017 – and more widely to the question of whether the charity is operating as a charity properly should.
I would be grateful if you could give the questions some consideration, since it would be useful to have them answered before deciding whether and how to take the matter further.
I have previously sent these questions to the email address given on the Brain Trust website3 and to two4 of your fellow Directors and Trustees,5 but have not received a reply.
In the year to 31 March 2016 it appears that almost all Brain Trust donations listed in section 3 of the accounts6 were made to entities controlled by individuals who are themselves Trustees of the Brain Trust, specifically T Buzan and RD Keene OBE. Why was this? Is this the Brain Trust’s normal practice?
Although some of those donations are listed in section 15 of that year’s accounts, which lists “related party transactions”,7 several other donations of the same kind are absent from that section. Why is the list in section 15 incomplete? Was this done to disguise how many donations benefitted Trustees?
How did the Brain Trust come to donate several thousand pounds to World IQ Counsel Limited8 when, according to that company’s own accounts, it never traded? What was the purpose of the donation, and was it connected to the fact that you were a director of that company?
Do the purposes of donations to entities owned or controlled by Trustees include permitting those Trustees to receive tax-free income?
Why did your accounting practices change for the accounts covering the year ending 31 March 2017, so that donations of less than five thousand pounds were no longer listed?9 Was the intention of this to hide the fact of further donations to entities controlled by Trustees?10
Why were the accounts for the year ending 31 March 2017 signed off despite including basic errors? These include11
the non-appearance of any section for “related party transactions”
the absence of a section 15, while both 14 and 16 do appear
the accounts stating that “the company made twelve grants totalling £x” but giving no actual figure.
Is it your view that these accounts were presented in a satisfactory condition? 12
I look forward13 to receiving a satisfactory reply in the near future.
PS As I am trying to get round to writing to all the Trustees about this matter, I would be grateful if, as well as considering them yourself, you could forward them to Mr Julian Simpole, for whom I do not have an email address.14, 15
The Brain Trust is registered charity number 1001012. Its public address is Ray Keene’s house. It was “founded in 1990 by Tony Buzan”. The Brain Trust Limited is company number 02383683.
Documents relating to the Brain Trust Limited, including its accounts, can be found at the Companies House website under Filing History.
Email sent 31 October 2018.
Emails sent to Professor Jacqueline Eales on 10 December 2018 and Alexander Keene on 6 January 2019. Professor Eales is Ray’s sister and Mr Keene is Ray’s son. The emails were essentially the same as the one later sent to Ray. Neither has been replied to.
The other Trustees are Tony Buzan and Julian Simpole, long-term friends of Ray. (Eric Schiller, also a Trustee and long-term friend, unfortunately passed away in November.) You may wonder whether these relationships are unusually close for trustees of a bona fide charity.
World Memory Sports Council (received £5,100). This runs the World Memory Championships founded by Keene and Buzan in 1991. It is “the governing body for the Mind Sport of Memory worldwide on behalf of the World Memory Championships International Ltd” which company features several Brain Trust trustees on its board. The 2016 Brain Trust accounts state that it is “controlled by RD Keene”.
World Speed Reading Council (received £5,750). This appears to have no present-day corporate or online existence: however we can see from Mind Maps For Business (Buzan and Griffiths, Pearson, 2014) that it is an entity under the control of Tony Buzan. This is also the case for World Creativity Council (received £5,200).
World IQ Counsel Limited (received £5,200). See note 8.
Vesna Petkovic Silk Road Project (received £1,500).This was a project that appears to have explored the “ancient network of the Silk Road” the link of which to the aims of The Brain Trust is not clear. Vesna Petkovic is connected to the Buzan/Keene circle (e.g. see Money or Synapsia Summer 2016 page 7).
UK Schools’ Memory Championship (received £4,500). The precise destination of this donation is opaque, though it’s clear that it’s linked to Tony Buzan: the UK Schools Memory Competition is listed in Mind Maps for Business and there is a website which has not been updated since 2013.
World Mind Mapping Council (received £6,240). This is a Buzan organization with a website though no obvious present-day activity.
Outside in Pathways (received £2,500). This is a not-for-profit company, though not a charity. It has a website on which two listed board members are trustees of The Brain Trust, these being Julian Simpole and Ray Keene.
Everything is Ray Keene, or Tony Buzan, or friends of Ray and Tony.
From 2016 it became a legal requirement for charities to list “related party transactions” above a stated figure. This requirement has clearly been carried out only in part, and in small part at that.
Subsequently Intelligent Resources and Services Limited. A charity sending several thousand pounds to a company that never traded, but was controlled by one of the charity’s own trustees is, on the face of it, a remarkable act.
This is legal, but it does have the effect of obscuring the destination of a large amount of money in circumstances where it would be desirable to know that it has been properly distributed. Of £90,303 distributed, £63,538 has gone to hidden destinations. (In fact the donations as stated add up to £90,333, so either the figure in the accounts is wrong, or one or more of the donations is incorrectly stated.)
The only donations listed as being larger than the cut-off figure are both to Professor Michael Crawford, who received £12,350 under his own name and £14,400 via his Institute for Brain Chemistry and Nutrition. This was certainly a bona fide entity some years ago, but now, though it claims to be located at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it cannot be located there, and the listed contact, Manabel Thabet, is a Buzan/Keene associate. Professor Crawford himself is also a longstanding Buzan/Keene associate and is claimed to be Dean and Chairman of the Board of The Gifted Academy which is a Buzan/Keene venture of dubious nature. All efforts to contact Professor Crawford or IBCHN have failed.
They don’t include the apparent error in calculating the donations (see footnote 9) which I only noticed when writing these notes!
While the various errors in the 2017 accounts aren’t to my mind as serious as the various questions raised by their contents and those of the 2016 set, they’re still worth drawing attention to, if only for their shoddiness.
The directionless nature of Brin-Jonathan Butler’s book is evident from its title, ‘The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again’. Already there are two questionable concepts here: an attempt to weave in the theme of the election of Donald Trump, which took place just before the start of the World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin in November 2016, and the suggestion that the match made chess great again. If that doesn’t put you off, there is much to be enjoyed in this whirlwind tour of the (mainly American) chess scene – but more for those with a casual interest than serious players and chess history fans.
Butler is the author of books on Cuba and boxing, and his engaging style makes up for The Grandmaster’s lack of an entirely coherent narrative. Along with attending the Carlsen–Karjakin match and trying to understand what was going on in the minds of the two combatants, Butler also interviews chess luminaries from Fischer biographer Frank Brady to Judit Polgar.
While the stories of Bobby Fischer and Josh Waitzkin are very familiar, one of the most intriguing chapters in the book is about the promising chess player Peter Winston, an eccentric genius who disappeared in a New York blizzard in 1978 at the age of 20, shortly after losing all of his nine games in a tournament. At a school for gifted children the five-year-old Winston had impressed the headmaster by telling him what day of the week his birthday was on. Not long afterwards John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Winston delivered a eulogy in front of the school.
Winston turned his attention and intellectual brilliance to chess, but struggled with mental health and drug problems as a teenager. His chess career peaked when he tied for first place at the US Junior Championships in 1974. He qualified for the World Junior Championships in Manila, but could only manage sixth place. Butler searches in vain for any records that could shed light on Winston’s disappearance, but his sympathetic conversations with Winston’s friends briefly bring the lost boy back to life.
Like many writers before him Butler is fascinated with the link between chess and mental illness, and refers to the standard examples of Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy and Wilhelm Steinitz. Certainly there are people who have had an abnormal obsession with chess, but chess can often also be the one stable anchor in a life of mental turmoil. The documentary Magnus gives clear indications that Carlsen is on the autism spectrum, and dedicating his life to a pursuit that required a phenomenal memory and analytical skills but no social interaction has been ideal for him. Other people on the spectrum sometimes sink into loneliness and frustration, unable to express themselves.
Butler continues the theme of chess as a refuge with his visit to the Chess Forum in Greenwich Village and meeting with its owner, Imad Khachan, who describes how he was dragged out of bed to open the shop on the morning of September 11, 2001, ‘by players literally covered in debris from the collapsed towers’. People had nowhere else to go. A former manager of the Village Chess Shop, Aaron Louis, tells Butler a similar story:
‘Everyone they knew, their family was there. The owners recognized that and they wouldn’t close. Some people who were evacuated from the towers went to the Chess Shop and just kept playing. Never left. It was the only way they could deal with the trauma. After the attacks, we stayed open for days and kept the lights on.’
Khachan came to New York from war-torn Lebanon, but found he was in more danger from ex-convict, drug-dealing chess hustlers. He points out that chess addiction can be harmful, but at the same time adds that the Chess Forum is a community that brings together the rich and poor, and is something genuine, not full of hype. By contrast, Butler finds himself denied access to Carlsen and Karjakin at the match, which is a tasteless celebration of wealth sponsored by Russian fertilizer company PhosAgro, with Woody Harrelson making the ceremonial first move. Khachan also laments the direction chess has taken, telling Butler that Garry Kasparov asked for $30,000 for a 20-minute visit to the Chess Forum.
The topic of the Russian money and influence in chess is one that Butler might have explored more, especially since Karjakin has embraced his role as cheerleader for Putin’s annexation of his homeland, Crimea. But the match was not viewed as a Cold War 2.0 struggle, and it didn’t capture the public’s imagination. Nor did the recent Carlsen–Caruana match with its 12 draws. But there is still a flourishing chess culture all over the world that can always inspire more people, and that is what really makes chess great.