Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005582, Sun, 5 Nov 2000 17:08:10 -0800

Re: Nabokov and Chess
> From: Marianne Cotugno <mxc52@psu.edu>
> Subject: Nabokov and Chess> Date: Saturday, November 04, 2000 2:31 PM
HEADLINE: Game is up as pupil crushes grandmaster It is not Garry
defeat but rather his grace in defeat that strikes Daniel Johnson as very

BYLINE: By Daniel Johnson

AT THE climax of Vladimir Nabokov's chess novel The Luzhin Defence, the
eponymous grandmaster hero (marvellously recreated by John Turturro in the
recent film) tells his wife: "I have to drop out of the game." Nabokov had
mind the kind of chess problem which is only solved by self-mate - or, in
by suicide.

That is the situation in which Kasparov found himself. The strongest player
the history of chess met his match in his protege, Vladimir Kramnik. After
hubris of his 15-year reign, Nemesis has struck with a swiftness that left
world champion bamboozled, baffled, broken.

In ancient Persia, whence the game's terminology derives, checkmate meant
king is dead". But Garry Kasparov did not die in battle: he surrendered,
capitulated, abdicated from his throne.

The best evidence that something very odd has happened to Kasparov is that
has taken his defeats very well. Normally he is the world's worst loser.
response to losing a game to

Nigel Short in their 1993 match was histrionic.

When I drew a long game with him at a simultaneous display three years ago,

Kasparov was so angry he refused to shake hands, though we have been
for nearly a decade. Yet towards Kramnik he has been courteous, even
in defeat. He appears not to care any more.

It is this which his tens of millions of admirers around the world cannot
fathom. Why was his play against Kramnik so lacklustre? Why could he not
once in a 16-game match? Why, when he was struggling two games down, did he
unleash his incomparable combinative skill?

One theory, based on his own comments, is that personal reasons connected
an acrimonious custody dispute with his first wife have undermined his
equanimity. Another, put forward by his old rival Nigel Short, is that
Kasparov's real playing strength has been in decline for many years and he
just been beaten, fair and square, as much by Time as by Kramnik.

Both theories may be true, yet neither explains his loss of nerve. Some
argued that, after 15 years, he no longer has anything to prove.

Emanuel Lasker, the only world champion to lose a match without a single
victory, had already offered to resign his title to the much younger Jose
Capablanca and was more interested in mathematics and philosophy. That was
and Lasker was two decades older than Kasparov, who is 37, and had held the
title much longer.

It is clear that Kasparov has felt unable to give free rein to his
ever since his defeat three years ago in the second exhibition match
the Deep Blue IBM supercomputer.

Although his title was not at stake, his self-confidence was. The
which could crush human egos made no impact on microchips.

It was Kasparov's will-power which, 16 years ago, enabled him to hang on,
down, for months against his predecessor Anatoly Karpov, drawing game after
game until he finally started to win and the match was stopped, in dubious
circumstances, to enable the exhausted Karpov to recover.

Kasparov won the rematch, to become the youngest world champion at the age

After the Cold War symbolism of the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972, when the
American genius broke the Soviet monopoly, no chess duel has had the
resonance of the four Karpov-Kasparov matches fought out between 1984 and
They seemed to signify the triumph of the new, reformist Russia of
and Yeltsin over the Stalinist old guard. The ascendancy of the brash,
open-minded, pro-Western Kasparov seemed to anticipate communism's

Of Jewish-Armenian extraction, Kasparov considers himself Russian but was
in Baku, Azerbaijan. (He had to rescue his family by helicopter during a
pogrom.) His talent was recognised when still a boy and his Jewish surname,
Weinstein, was changed to Kasparov to suit his anti-Semitic Soviet

Trained by the former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik (an unreconstructed
communist), Kasparov was the last and finest product of the Soviet school,
founded by Lenin and Stalin, which dominated chess after 1945. But Kasparov
also an individualist, an entrepreneur and something of a buccaneer. His
ambition having propelled him to the top of his cerebral profession, he set
about remaking the chess world in his own image.

His attempts to take over or replace FIDE, the world chess federation, have
failed. It remains a deeply flawed organisation. In 1993

Kasparov and his British challenger, Nigel Short, broke away, but after two
successful title defences, Kasparov was left high and dry.

For the last five years no human challenger could raise the $2 million
for a match until the dotcom revolution made it possible for a London
consortium, Braingames Network, to organise the present encounter.

Kasparov has made a fortune out of chess, but he is also a philanthropist,
has promoted the game as an educational tool around the world. He dabbled
post-Soviet politics, founded a party and even considered standing for the
presidency. He is the best-known Russian in the world, after Gorbachev and

What will he do next? He is committed to playing in three tournaments next
year. Comebacks, though, are rare in chess. The psychological damage
by defeat is too severe. I like and admire Garry Kimovich Kasparov, but I
not know how he will survive the loss of his nimbus of invincibility. Like
Luzhin, he may have no choice but to drop out of the game.