One of the more justified criticisms of modern professional sport is that it has become too competitive to allow anything approaching a normal life on the part of its practitioners. To get to the very top, or even close to it, they must combine the austere dedication of a monk with the selfish drive of a monster. The age of the glorious amateur, or even of the man of parts, seems all but dead.
This might also be said of chess: grandmasters aspiring to compete for the world championship must work much harder now than the previous generation, not least because computer-driven opening theory is developing at a pace which would have astounded the old school.
There are some, however, who refuse to let their lives be taken over in this way — and the most noticeable example is the Russian champion Peter Svidler. The 35-year-old native of St Petersburg has won the Russian championship a remarkable six times, including the most recent, last August. Svidler went straight on from that to win, in September, the immensly arduous Chess World Cup, which qualifies him to play in the eight-man World Championship eliminating tournament next September.
Yet when I rang Peter to congratulate him, our conversation roamed over much more than chess: whenever he talks to an Englishman, he prefers to discuss cricket. Having been introduced to the game in 1999 by his friend Nigel Short, Svidler immediately became consumed by a passion for this most un-Russian pursuit. In fact, when I called him, he was in St Petersburg glued to a Eurosport satellite transmission of a one-day cricket match, and hugely frustrated that the Russian commentator was ignorant of the law governing stumping. During the recent Ashes series, he said, he had got little sleep because he was up all night watching the broadcasts live from Australia. He supports the English cricket team faithfully, to such an extent that his emails have the automatic sign-off “Strauss for Prime Minister”.
Two years ago Peter mystified the rest of the chess world by playing in a modest event in Gibraltar, most popular with English chess amateurs keen for a bit of sun and games on the southernmost tip of Europe. He explained to me that he agreed only because the Australian organiser of the tournament had promised to bowl to him in a cricket net on the Rock if he played: there exists on YouTube a video of Svidler batting in said net, demonstrating some very passable square cuts and straight drives.
In fact he is unusually well co-ordinated, physically, for a chess player. Among his other passions is snooker, and he played the game semi-professionally for a number of years (or as he put it to me, “I played a lot, and for money”). This is perhaps part of Peter’s all-round Anglophilia — he much prefers Martin Amis to Leo Tolstoy — although it might also just be characteristic of a natural games player.
Now that he is married, with two young children, Svidler’s days in the snooker halls are over; perhaps responsibility for a family has forced him to dedicate himself more than before to chess, which is after all the only profession he has (although he tells me only half jokingly that his ultimate ambition is to be “Russia’s top cricket commentator”).
It is clear that to have achieved what he has already in chess, without the unremitting study of his rivals, is the mark of an extraordinary natural talent. Thus the editor of the Russian chess magazine 64, Mark Gluhovsky, says that while most top chess players are characterised by an iron will and work ethic: “Very few can get by on pure genius, like Svidler.” This attitude has at times exasperated his colleagues in the Russian national team, most notably after his last-round loss against Spain in the 2010 Chess Olympiad made it impossible for Russia to take the coveted gold medal.
The team’s trainer, Evgeny Bareev, afterwards let rip: “Svidler’s potential is colossal! [But] it’s a question of his relationship with chess — it isn’t the most important thing to him any more. Chess doesn’t forgive such a relationship. I shouted to him about it before the tournament, and during it, but what of it? Together with Svidler, chess punished the whole team — and also the trainer, who took a man into his team who doesn’t love chess.”
When I raised these lacerating words with Peter, he reacted with characteristic generosity of spirit: “Zhenya is a good friend and doesn’t say things like that lightly, so it made me sit up and think. It was meant as a message for me. I do still love the game, but you also need to work very hard, and for me this is the most regrettable aspect.”
There is of course irony in that self-deprecating pay-off, and it was clear to me that Peter is now ferociously determined to push for the ultimate title of world champion: “Half a year ago I would have said this is a very long shot, but now I have a huge opportunity — I am most motivated when playing against the very best in the world.”
When I asked Peter for his favourite game, it was no surprise that he chose the following struggle from the recent World Cup in which, with the Black pieces, he knocked out the awesomely tough Gata Kamsky — who had eliminated Svidler in the same event four years earlier. Its conclusion is an unforgettable mixture of elegance and brutality. The notes that follow are from Svidler’s own remarks:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 b5 6.Bb3 Bc5 7.a4 Rb8 8.axb5 axb5 9.c3 d6 10.d4 Bb6 11.Be3 0-0 12.Nbd2 h6 13.h3 Re8 14. Qc2 exd4 15.cxd4 Na5 16.Ba2 Bb7 17.e5 Nd5 18.Bb1! (I missed this, and am lucky not to be losing immediately) g6 19.Bxh6 Nc6 20.exd6? (After 20.Qe4 I would have to play well to draw) Qxd6 21.Ne4 Qb4 22. Ba2 (At first I still thought I was losing. But then I saw something…) Nxd4 23.Nf6+ Kh8 (Not, of course, 23…Nxf6 24 Qxg6+ and mates) 24.Nxd4 Nxf6 25.Nc6 Qh4!! 26.Nxb8 Re2!! (The astounding point: after 27.Qxe2 Qg3! the White Queen has been deflected away from control of c6, so that Kamsky can no longer block the threat of Qxg2 mate by withdrawing his Knight to c6.) 27.Qc3 Rxf2 28.Nc6 Rxf1+ And with Svidler, as he put it “about to collect the entire chess set”, Kamsky resigned. A modern classic.