When Losing Gets Too Much

Dominic Lawson

There is no game of wits at which losing is more unpleasant than chess. Any game involving cards or dice involves chance. One can blame losses on the fickle Goddess Fortuna. Her constant presence teaches poker players, for example, a kind of stoic fatalism that enables them to cope with even the most unpleasant defeats.

Not so with chess. Everything is visible and therefore theoretically knowable. A loss is hard to view as anything other than a failure of one’s own judgment and intellect. It really hurts, and the higher up in the chess world, the greater the mental anguish. One reason why many strong players give up the game they love is that they increasingly find that the agony of losing so much outweighs the ecstasy of winning that they almost dread sitting down at the board to play.

This is the bleak sentiment that appeared last month to have overcome Vassily Ivanchuk, one of the world’s strongest players. The 40-year-old Ukrainian was taking part in the World Chess Cup, a knock-out tournament, which forms an integral part of the world championship cycle. To almost everyone’s surprise, he was eliminated early on by a 16-year-old Filipino called Wesley So — a very good player, but on paper no match for the player ranked third a year ago.

After his defeat, Ivanchuk exploded with rage, declaring he was quitting chess for good: “I committed chess suicide. I was about to win…then I just went crazy. My opponent…played very badly…To my mind, I should leave professional chess now. I don’t need anything from chess any more. Chess is killing me. Chess is playing against me! Chess is destroying me! Everyone is against me and I don’t see the way out.”

In a way, this outburst was not totally surprising: Ivanchuk is volatile and finds it hard to control his emotions even while at the board. He is also a genius. His best games show an astounding combination of power and elegance perhaps unmatched in this or any era. For this reason, chess fans were enormously relieved when only a matter of days later, Ivanchuk issued a statement declaring: “I ask the forgiveness of my supporters, friends, colleagues and chess lovers for the emotional interview. I was very upset after losing, but am not in any circumstances planning to give up chess.”

We must hope that is true. But the history of chess shows that some defeats cause permanent, irreparable harm to a player’s psyche. One of the most spectacular examples occurred between Wilhelm Steinitz and Curt von Bardeleben in the great Hastings tournament of 1895. When the two sat down to play they were tied for the lead, so it was a crucial encounter. Steinitz, who had lost the world championship the year before, chose this moment to play the most beautiful combination of his career. With a majestic rook sacrifice, he reached a position in which he could force an exquisite mate in 11 moves. At this point, von Bardeleben got up from the board and never returned, forfeiting the game.

It seems that there was a particular reason for this startling breach of chess ethics. The English chess spectators of the day were in the habit of applauding noisily at the end of a well-played game. Von Bardeleben clearly could not face the thought of the thunderous applause for his opponent. Despite avoiding this indignity, as he saw it, von Bardeleben’s confidence had been shot by this one game: he collapsed in the second half of the tournament, finishing only seventh. The way his life ended also indicated a pervasive despair: in 1924, he killed himself by jumping out of his Berlin apartment.

It is no accident that this was the fate Vladimir Nabokov allotted to Luzhin, the tormented chess grandmaster at the heart of his novel The Luzhin Defence. Apparently, Nabokov knew von Bardeleben — and the novel was published only six years after that real-life suicide. In Nabokov’s account, it is not so much losing to a human opponent that finally drives Luzhin to take his life. It was more that he suddenly understood that chess itself was a merciless opponent: this insight strikes him at the moment he accidentally burns himself with a match while considering his next move: “The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess. He glanced at the chessboard and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the players were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?”

One can see exactly this dichotomy in Ivanchuk’s anguish: he declares that chess is “playing against me…chess is destroying me…I don’t see the way out”, but then realises that he can’t live without chess, either. I very much hope — and believe — that Ivanchuk will not emulate the only “way out” that Luzhin discovered. Over the past 20 years, a number of former Soviet players have followed the exit chosen by von Bardeleben, and which Nabokov seized on for his novel’s bleak conclusion. In 1989, Georgy Ilivitsky, one of the strongest Russian players of his day, threw himself to his death. In 1997, the same method was chosen by the former Latvian champion, Alvis Vitiolins. 

These are all different individuals, of course, and we cannot know what was in their individual minds at the moment they chose to leave the world. Yet Nabokov, with his great novelist’s feel for the inner workings of the human mind, was surely correct in seeing the unique mental demands of chess as not just uplifting, but also soul-destroying.

Here, for the record, is that game between Steinitz (playing White) and von Bardeleben, a transcendent triumph for the winner, an eternal torment to the loser: 

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+ 7.Nc3 d5 8.exd5 Nxd5 9.0-0 Be6 10.Bg5 Be7 11.Bxd5 Bxd5 12.Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Bxe7 Nxe7 14.Re1 f6 15.Qe2 Qd7 16.Rac1 c6 17.d5! (an inspired pawn sacrifice) cxd5 18.Nd4 Kf7 19.Ne6 Rhc8 20.Qg4 g6 21.Ng5+ Ke8 22.Rxe7+!! Kf8 (if 22…Kxe7 23.Re1+ Kd6 24.Qb4+ Rc5 25.Re6+ wins) 23. Rf7+! (Not, of course, capturing Black’s Queen on d7, after which Black mates with Rxc1+) Kg8 24.Rg7+!… and it was at this point that von Bardeleben walked out, denying Steinitz the following beautiful forced mate in eleven moves: 24…Kh8 25.Rxh7+ Kg8 26.Rg7+ Kh8 27.Qh4+! Kxg7 28.Qh7+ Kf8 29.Qh8+ Ke7 30.Qg7+ Ke8 31.Qg8+ Ke7 32.Qf7+ Kd8 33.Qf8+ Qe8 34.Nf7+ Kd7 35.Qd6 checkmate.

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