Sceptics maintain that live chess is as enthralling as watching paint dry. Ultra-sceptics reply: unfair to paint. As a theatrical experience it is austere and minimalist: two men, two chairs, a table and no dialogue. Yet for three months the cheapest seats at the Savoy were, by a long way, the most expensive cheap seats in any London theatre. Twenty pounds to watch The Times World Chess Championship from the stalls, thirty-five pounds from the upper circle, fifty-five pounds from the dress circle. This wasn’t just greed speaking, or desperation on the part of Times Newspapers to recoup some of their estimated four-to-five-million-pound investment. It was also a genuine anticipation of domestic interest. For the first time in the modern history of the championship– deemed to have started with the 1886 match between Steinitz and Zukertort–a Briton had emerged as title contender. Nigel Short was also the first Westerner to contest the final since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Pre-Fischer, you had to go back to 1937 to find another Westerner, the Dutchman Max Euwe; post-Fischer, the only way to get into any of the seven World Championship matches was to be a Russian whose name began with K: Karpov, Korchnoi, Kasparov. Now, at last, there was a local boy to root for, and a serious underdog as well. Kasparov is constantly referred to as the strongest player in the history of the game; Short wasn’t in the top ten. The size of his task could be estimated by the fact that even one of Kasparov’s seconds, the Georgian grandmaster Zurab Azmaiparashvali, was ranked above him.

Gary Kasparov was, or was thought to be, a known quantity. He was the dynamic, aggressive and moody champion, much photographed lifting weights, thumping a punch bag, playing football and swimming on his ‘Croatian island retreat’. He was the new-style Russian, from ‘war-torn Baku’–the chum of Gorbachev, then of Yeltsin; easily packageable, and with the zippy nickname Gazza (by analogy with another Gazza). Nigel Short was the harder case for packaging, since, like many chess players, what he had mostly done in his twenty-eight years was play chess. Only two things appeared known about him: that he had once played in a teenage rock band called the Urge (originally titled Pelvic Thrust), and that he was now married to a Greek drama therapist seven years his senior. But then the phrase ‘chess biography’ is–as Truffaut once cattily remarked of the expression ‘British film’–a contradiction in terms. Chess is, famously, an activity entirely unrelated to the rest of life: from this springs its fragile profundity. Biography theoretically links the private to the public in such a way that the former illuminates the latter. But in chess no such connection, or reductiveness, applies. Does grandmaster X prefer the French defence because his mother left his father when he was as yet a small child? Does bed-wetting lead to the Grunfeld? And so on. Freudians may see chess as Oedipal: an activity whose ultimate aim is to kill the king, and in which the sexy queen is dominant. But attempted match-ups between on-board and off-board character produce as many counter-indicators as corroborations.

Ruthless gutting of Cathy Forbes’s Nigel Short: Quest for the Crown therefore added only a few small, irrelevant embellishments. Nigel had fallen into an Amsterdam canal as a child, and been mugged in his home city of Manchester at the age of twenty; his parents had separated when he was thirteen, and his frequently stated ambition was to become a Tory MP. It is an indicator of how scarily scant the record is when Ms Forbes is driven to record that, as a teenager, Nigel ‘alarmed acquaintances by threatening to dye his hair blue.’ An empty threat, as it turned out, though perhaps not entirely unhelpful to the putative psychobiographer, given that blue is the emblematic colour of the Conservative Party.

These exiguous and banal details were widely reproduced. Since chess players are on the whole neither charismatic nor polymorphous, it was comic to see the varying journalistic templates into which Short was excitedly fitted. For Hello! magazine, that tinned rice pudding of the newsstand, it was Nigel the family man, posing happily in his Greek retreat with wife, Rea, and little daughter, Kyveli. For the Sun, it was Nigel as modern British hero, who ‘loves rock music and a pint with his mates . . . He stormed up the ranks but he didn’t ignore his other passions– women and music.’ Short dutifully posed for a laddish photo, hoof to plume in black leather, strutting his stuff among knee-high chess pieces while toting an electric guitar. Headline? it’s only rook and roll but i like it. Harmless fun, and all that, but, at the same time, deeply unconvincing. Nigel, too, has a nickname, by the way. If Gary is Gazza, Nigel is Nosher. Etymology? ‘Nigel Short’ anagrams out schoolboyishly into Nosher L. Git.

Short is twenty-eight, Kasparov thirty, but judging from their pre-match press conferences you would guess at a much wider age differential. Short, a boyish figure in a bottle-green suit, with boffinish specs and cropped hair, cut a nervous, adolescent, halting figure, and spoke with the slightly strangulated vowels of one who has had speech therapy. He was accompanied on the podium by his manager and accountant, grandmaster Michael Stean (of whom it was once said that he thought about chess all the time except when he was actually playing it); Stean would occasionally lean over and deflect the trickier questions. There is, of course, no reason at all why a chess player should be good at PR; even so, the difference between Short and Kasparov was remarkable. For a start, the Russian has much better English than Nigel. He handled the conference by himself and with presidential ease; was just as much at home with geo-politics as with chess; attended courteously to questions he was mightily familiar with; and generally came across as a highly intelligent, worldly, rounded human being. In his many interviews and appearances, Short, by contrast, gave the impression of being thoughtful, considered, wise and precise when talking about chess, and barely adult when talking about anything other than chess. He brought to mind the remark of the great world champion Emanuel Lasker in his Manual of Chess: ‘In life we are all duffers.’

The talking-up and colouring-in of the match entailed a certain half-hearted attempt at demonizing Kasparov. It has been a feature of all world championship matches since Fischer v Spassky that there has to be some goody-baddy, them-or-us aspect for the non-aficionado to get a handle on. So now the champion–hitherto presented as the applaudable outsider who had taken on Moscow Centre–was restyled as ‘the last great beneficiary of the Soviet machine.’ (Linguistic note: we may occasionally have had a ‘programme’; they always had a ‘machine’.) And the fact that Kasparov had assembled a strong team of ex-Soviet seconds was put down not just to the sinister continuance of ‘the machine’ but also to the money Kasparov had amassed during his reign. Short could therefore be depicted as the cash-strapped Western individualist, though in fact he was paying his coach Lubomir Kavalek 125,000 dollars for twenty weeks of work, with a promised victory bonus of the same amount. The political angle was also rejigged. The fact that Kasparov had moved on from being a Gorbachevian to a Yeltsinite prompted Short, the Tory hopeful, to denounce his opponent’s politics as ‘a fake’. The Englishman also chose a Reds-under-the-beds line in pre-match interviews by emphasizing the ‘KGB connection’. This stated, first, that Kasparov had enjoyed the friendship and protection of a local KGB boss back in Azerbaijan; and, secondly, that he had received special training from the master manipulators in how to unsettle opponents. ‘The story may be nonsense,’ Short said of the latter claim, while happily rebroadcasting it to The Times, ‘but it would be absolutely consistent.’

Nor was this all. Short and his camp deliberately promoted their man’s personal dislike of Kasparov as a factor in the encounter. ‘I find it hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Nigel Short first began to loathe Gary Kasparov,’ Dominic Lawson, editor of the Spectator and a close friend of Short’s, wrote in his own magazine. He made a pretty good job of it nonetheless, identifying an incident during a tournament in Andalucia in 1991, when Short had played a certain move against Kasparov and the world champion had responded by laughing. The Russian, Lawson revealed, also ‘glares’ at opponents and, according to Nigel, walks up and down in their line of vision ‘deliberately . . . like a baboon.’ Not that Short needed his friend as a mouthpiece. He was already on record as calling the champion an ‘Asiatic despot’, saying that Kasparov ‘wasn’t spanked enough as a child,’ labelling his seconds as ‘lackeys and slaves’ and pugilistically lamenting that when it came to the World Championship final, ‘I don’t want to sink to the level of the animal to beat the animal.’ At the pre-match press conference, Short was asked about the fact that he had once called Kasparov an ‘ape’. Although the journalist gave him an out by admitting that it was an ‘old quote’, Short replied with schoolboy jauntiness: ‘Anyone who has seen Kasparov by the swimming-pool will know that he is very hairy.’ When this drew a chuckle, Short backed up his ‘old quote’ by pointing out that ‘the Norwegian women’s team refer to Kasparov as “the Rug”.’

One could certainly rule out the idea that Short’s low abuse of Kasparov might have been a nervous miscalculation by one unused to the spotlight. Ever since Short was first declared a boy wonder, nearly twenty years ago, he has been skin-bleached by flashbulbs and had his tonsils scoured by microphones. More to the point, Short has a history of graceless behaviour. Interviewed for the tournament bulletin of the World Junior Championships in Belfort, the eighteen-year-old Nigel delivered this view of his host country: ‘France represents everything I detest most in life. Your country’s only useful products are porn films.’ Perhaps it was a wonky joke (or even an early attempt to suck up to Mrs Thatcher), but a couple of years and several rescinded invitations later, Short was obliged to grovel to Europe Echecs. ‘Would you believe me if I told you that I love France and that I dream of being able to play there again?’ Cathy Forbes finds a neat formula for Short’s verbal manner, which can be shy, awkward, polite or aggressive, and sometimes all four: ‘He seems to use speech to conceal thought.’

Kasparov himself had made only a single pre-match verbal strike, just before Short played the Dutchman Jan Timman for the right to challenge for the title. Asked whom he expected to meet, and how he expected the final to go, the champion had replied, ‘It will be Short, and it will be short.’ But Kasparov’s serious–and scary–response to Nigel’s taunts came, quite properly, across the chessboard at the Savoy. Watched closely in the early games, he failed to glower, he failed to smirk at Nigel’s moves, failed to pace up and down like a baboon. He behaved impeccably. And at the same time he played cruel and destructive chess.

The first four games of the twenty-four-game match were catastrophic for Short. Setting off for the Strand in a state of rather wan patriotism that first Tuesday in September, I thought: two-two after the first four; we’ll settle for that. No, we’d be thrilled with that. Short is a notoriously bad starter in big matches. So (this was my modest plan) Short should attempt to slow down the champion, frustrate him, not let him play the way he wants to. Eight days later, Short had made almost the worst possible beginning, with three losses and a draw. It was bad not just because of the brute score but for various and cumulative reasons. Short lost the first game after running out of time in a frenetic scramble and ignoring the offer of a draw. He drew the second after missing a chance to create a passed pawn, which some said might have given him winning chances. He lost the third despite a furious, flamboyant attack on Kasparov’s king. And he lost the fourth despite laying out a lengthy and impressive opening preparation. The preliminary conclusion seemed to be this: that Short was showing he could set Kasparov problems, but the champion was showing that he could answer them in style.

I followed the opening games in the Grandmasters’ Analysis Room, a couple of doors away from the Savoy, at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a place with historic chess associations. During the last century, patzers and pros met upstairs, at Simpson’s Divan, to drink coffee, play chess and gamble for shillings; here in 1851 Anderssen played his so-called ‘immortal game’, a classic of sacrificial attack, against Kieseritzky. This location no longer exists, but a curved brass plaque reading ‘Simpson’s Divan Tavern’ hangs like an armorial shield on the wall of the downstairs smoking bar, which has been commandeered for grandmasters and their hangers-on. The atmosphere is part senior common-room, part sweaty-socks rumpus area. Here, away from the formality and actuality of play, are the basic necessities for following the game: two large display boards flashing out the moves as they happen, a television link with a fixed long-shot of the players at work, a television whose live commentary allows colleagues to be gently or not so gently mocked, an array of chessboards on which to thump out possible continuations, power points for databases and the Official Bulletin laptop, ashtrays and a half-price bar. Here also are the luxuries: space to roar and burble, chunter and chatter, rage and wail. A roomful of grandmasters in a state of busy analysis recalls some wildlife clip of lion cubs scuffling among one another. There are snarls and spats and ear-chewing expressions of territoriality; only when the camera pulls back do we realize that the lion and lioness themselves are lolling higher up the hill.

When you eavesdrop on the chatter of chess, you discover that it reproduces and confirms the game’s compelling mixture of violence and intellectuality. As pieces are finger-flipped around demonstration boards in swift refutation of some other grandmaster’s naïve proposition, half the language has a street-fighting quality to it. You don’t just attack a piece, you hit it You don’t merely take a piece when you can chop it off, hack it off or snap it off. Pawns may advance, but they prefer to stomp down the board like storm troopers. Getting your opponent into time trouble, you try to flag him; playing a sacrifice, you sack a piece, as you might sack a city. And since violent verbs require victims, your opponent’s bits of wood are personified into living matter: ‘I want to hit this guy and this guy.’

Aggression involves contempt. So an opponent’s strategy which seems passive or unadventurous is dismissed as vegetarian. (Hitler was a vegetarian, of course, but no matter. So too is Jon Speelman, the British number four.) Here is Nigel Short reflecting before the title-match on some of the off-beat lines he had played against Karpov: ‘Kasparov could destroy such openings at the board, and then I’d be fucked. I must play a real man’s opening. No quiche.’ Real men are macho, as is shown by these examples of Shortian language, taken from Dominic Lawson’s book of the match, The Inner Game. ‘I’m going to give it to him good and hard.’ ‘I’m going to give the guy a good rogering.’ ‘I’m going to give it to him good and hard, right up him.’ ‘I want to rape and mate him.’ Lawson recalls the moment in Barcelona in 1987 when he first heard Short use the acronym ‘TDF’, which he took as shorthand for some complex strategical ploy. At first he didn’t want to confess his chessic ignorance, but after Short and the American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan had used the expression several times, he finally cracked and inquired. ‘Trap. Dominate. Fuck,’ the two grandmasters chanted back at him.

Interwoven with all this is a more polysyllabic language of theory and aspiration. A move may be natural or artificial, positional or anti-positional, intuitive or anti-intuitive, thematic or dysfunctional. If its aim is to inhibit the opponent rather than strike menace on its own behalf, then it is said to be prophylactic. And what are the two players seeking? The truth of the position;or sometimes, the absolute truth of the position. They are struggling to prove something; though an outside observer might not believe in it. This makes each game a courtroom scene, and a world championship match a Day of Judgement. Another analogy is with the philosophical symposium: as in, ‘The players are continuing their discussion of the Bc4 variation of the Najdorf.’ Thus high ambition combines with low brutality; there seems to be no middle vocabulary developed by the players.

Strategic verbal violence is a factor in daily life off the board as well. You only have to sit among top chess players for a while to learn that they tend to divide one another into two categories: ‘nutters’ and ‘traitors’. These terms were widely deployed in the global institutional wrangling that preceded the London match, and which hung over it like weather cloud. For decades, the world championships had been run under the auspices of FIDE, the International Chess Federation, the second-largest governing body in sport. Collisions between high ego, high financial expectations and this sort of established bureaucracy are hardly surprising: in 1975, Bobby Fischer had laid down several million and five demands as a condition for defending his title, FIDE had accepted several million and four, whereupon the American had scowled off into the sunset never to push a public pawn again until his grey-haired rematch last year with Boris Spassky. Since 1982, when Florencio Campomanes became president of FIDE, relations with some of the top players have deteriorated sharply. I asked one English grandmaster what he thought of Campomanes. He replied that he found him charming, intelligent and very likeable; the only problem was that he should have been running a small Marxist state with a large military budget rather than a sports federation.

The latest rumble began in 1985, when Campomanes called off the first Karpov-Kasparov match on the spurious grounds that both players were exhausted (though both said they wished to continue). In 1987, top players dissatisfied with FIDE set up the Grandmasters’ Association (first president: Gary Kasparov), which ran its own tournaments and had its own World Cup while continuing to cooperate with FIDE for the world championship qualifying cycle. But by 1990 many grandmasters were fed up, some with the quarrelling, some with Kasparov’s bossiness, and they signed a peace treaty with FIDE. Kasparov resigned from the Grandmasters’ Association and was left without a power base. His long-term plan at this time was to play (and win) the 1993 final under the FIDE rules: ‘Then, in 1996 I will take the championship away from FIDE, make an independent promotion . . . Campomanes will create a new world champion, but who will care about him?’

In fact, his chance came much sooner, and from a surprising source. After Short had qualified for the final, FIDE called for bids from interested cities to host the match. Various organizational ineptitudes and divagations ensued before Campomanes awarded the match to Short’s home city of Manchester, which had offered 1.15 million pounds in prize-money. FIDE had, however, failed to inform Short or discuss the matter with him, whereupon Short proposed to Kasparov that they organize the match themselves. ‘FIDE thought I was a little bunny rabbit because I smile a lot and look fairly inoffensive,’ the Englishman later recalled. ‘But I’m a bunny rabbit with sharp teeth, and they got bitten.’

Thus came into being the Professional Chess Association, a body so ad hoc that it consisted–and still consists at the time of writing–only of Short, Kasparov and Kasparov’s lawyer. It was formed, in Raymond Keene’s often-repeated phrase, ‘to bring chess into the modern world.’ This meant ‘giving fans maximum enjoyment and sponsors full value for money,’ according to one of the Association’s rare public statements; it also meant ‘better-focused marketing’. Nigel Short at his opening press conference spoke of the need ‘to professionalize and commercialize the sport, as has been done in the past with tennis and golf.’ This sounds fair enough, but there is also a certain amount of humbug in the Association’s proclamations. Creeping bureaucratese, too. Try this for size: ‘The PCA is the first governing body to be co-founded by a world champion and to be vested by him with the ability to further confer the title through competitions organized by it. As a result, the PCA has an organic right to do so not enjoyed by any previous sanctioning body.’ In playground terms, this means: I’ve got the biggest conker, come and get it, ya ya ya.

Professionalize and commercialize . . . tennis and golf. This meant, in part, television, and the medium responded with enthusiasm. Channel 4 (as co-backer) put out three transmissions on every match day, and the BBC one. Television close-ups roundly emphasized the physiognomic and gestural differences between the two players: Kasparov fizzingly coiled, scowling, frowning, grimacing, lip-scrunching, head-scratching, nose-pulling, chin-rubbing, occasionally slumping down over his crossed paws like a melodramatically puzzled dog; Short more impassive, bland-faced, sharp-elbowed and stiff-postured, as if he’d forgotten to take the coat-hanger out of his jacket. But this repertoire of tics, plus the undifferentiated way of playing the moves (not much room for commentary on the back-lift, pick-up or follow-through of the arm) does not amount to much in the pantheon of sports images. Experts did their best with junior-anthropology interpretations of body language (‘Nigel’s got his knuckles pressed up to his chin–he’s really concentrating’) but were too often reduced to valorous attempts to talk up the action. ‘We’re actually seeing two people thinking in public!’ enthused the aptly named Mr Keene at one point. ‘Thinking incarnate on the TV screen!’ The camera did provide one shot that gave a powerful idea of the force field of a chess game: an overhead view of both players straining forward across the board, with only two ranks separating them from a Maori nose-rub or, more likely, a headbutt. Still, when all is said and done, the basic and constant visuals in television chess are of two seated players pushing wood.

Or, too often for comfort, not pushing it. Channel 4 carried the first hour of each game live, and wandered into quasi-philosophical problems of being and nothingness. What invariably happened was that the players would in the first few minutes rattle out a familiar opening, until one produced a prepared variation from the known line. The player who had been varied against would then settle down for a long and slumberous ponder while the innovator went off and made himself a cup of tea. The high point of such on-air ‘thinking incarnate’ came during Game 9, itself a facsimile of Game 5 in its opening moves. After the first eleven moves had been flicked out in a couple of minutes, Kasparov varied. Short thought. And thought. Commercial break. And thought. And thought. Second commercial break. And thought. Finally, after using up forty-five minutes of live television time, he castled. Tennis and golf? Forget it.

Another reason chess is unlikely to take off (and the support of the ignorant couch potato plus know-nothing stadium-clogger are an important financial factor) is the variable charisma of those who play the game. If all players were as intelligent, voluble and linguistically assured as Gary Kasparov, the game could print its own cheque-books. But the truth is that pawn pushers en masse tend to belong to the train-spotter tendency. Anoraks, plastic bags, old sandwiches and an introverted excitement are some of their characteristics. Television did its chivvying best with the species: two of Channel 4’s resident grandmasters were Daniel King, whose shoulder-length hair and colourful shirts looked positively vie de Bohème in the context, and the bankerish figure of Raymond Keene (nicknamed ‘the Penguin’ for his well-lunched stomach and the rather Antarctic set of his head on his shoulders). The third, however, was the far more compelling–or, if you were a ratings-bothered television channel controller, uncompelling– figure of Jon Speelman.

Speelman is a very strong player indeed, who beat Short in the Candidates’ cycle in 1988 and was currently acting as one of the Englishman’s seconds. Some, indeed, take the view that Speelman’s mazily unfathomable style might have given Kasparov more trouble than Short’s more directly aggressive manner; though when I tentatively put this theory to grandmaster James Plaskett in the bar of the Analysis Room he looked at me as if I had just played some nutter’s opening (say, lh4), and replied, ‘Gazza beats everyone, doesn’t he?’ To add my own penn’orth of tribute: I once played Speelman in a charity simultaneous, and he handled my attacking verve and prepared innovations very well, especially given that he was also taking on thirty-nine other opponents at the same time. (To come clean, what happens is this: you sit there trembling at the board, hideously alone, knowing that you are obliged to have your move ready the moment the grandmaster arrives before you. This is fine at the start, when the chance of going humiliatingly wrong is less, and you have some time to think as he strolls round the other thirty-nine boards; but as the game goes on, other players drop out and the position complicates, your tormentor comes whizzing along with ever-increasing frequency. At moments like this you feel the tiniest inkling of what it must be like to be subjected to full-time, high-level pressure from across the board. The other humiliating aspect is that you swiftly realize that the flurrying figure who gazes briefly at the position, bangs out a move and flurries on, isn’t really playing you; he’s playing the board. You are not just one-fortieth of his thinking time, you are also merely the equivalent of some practice position set up by one of his trainers to get the sleep out of his eyes.

But Speelman, for all his great savvy on the board, and the affectionate respect in which he is held, is never going to be the Agassi of the sixty-four squares. His name was once misprinted in The Times as Specimen, and the sobriquet is still remembered and apt. Tall, gawky and shy, with downcast eyes, thick-lensed spectacles and a circular shrubbery of comb-free hair, Specimen is the ultimate boffin version of the chess player. His other nickname, from the days when he had a wild beard as well, was Speelwolf. There exists rare footage of him on the dance-floor after a chess Olympiad. Unwinding is what he seems almost literally to be doing: a sort of frenetic, uncoordinated whirling response to all the self-imposed discipline of the previous days. Boadicea with knives on her chariot wheels cleared less space around her than the grandmaster on the dance-floor. Despite his regular appearances on television over a period of three months, it would be a fair bet that no clothing chain has subsequently approached him with the suggestion of a sponsoring deal. He is, in brief, a sports marketer’s worst nightmare. This is, of course, all to the greater and more serious glory of the sport he takes part in. But the alarming and true presence of Specimen stands like an emblematic bar to the popularizer’s dreams.

As Game 5 began, with Short already three clear points down, the bookmaker William Hill was declining to take any money on Kasparov. Local cheerleaders ransacked the records to discover that Steinitz had once been one-four down in a world championship. Fischer had trailed Spassky zero-two, and Smyslov in 1954 had been in exactly the same mess (half to three-and-a-half) against Botvinnik before fighting back to level at twelve-twelve. By Game 9, however, Short was five clear points down, and we were all staring at another famous deficit instead: Kasparov’s own zero-five against Karpov in their first title match of 1984-85, a score that, by a rare coincidence, was also reached after nine games.

What the brute statistics failed to reveal, however, was that the chess had been vivid and thrilling, as it would continue to be until almost the very end of the match. Both players favoured sharp, open positions, which–apart from anything else–meant that the amateur observer could see much more clearly what was going on. Not all professional observers approved. US grandmaster Larry Evans was in the Savoy Theatre commentary box during Game 6, and through the earphones you could practically hear his neck crack from incredulous head shaking. ‘Looks like a position out of Hack Attack in Kingpin magazine. It doesn’t look like a world championship game. It looks like a coffee-house game.’

Game 8, a street-fighting draw, was further enlivened by the news that Nigel Short had sacked his coach at the end of the first week’s play. Lubomir Kavalek had been paid off after Game 3 and was now back in the States. The surprise was all the greater given the unremitting public praise of ‘Lubosh’ right up to the opening pawn-push. He was, we were told, Nigel’s secret weapon; he had an unrivalled database of a million games; he was ‘the Czech who loved beating Russians’ (having left Prague in 1968, he had resurfaced four years later in Reykjavik as Fischer’s unofficial second). He had coached Short since the start of the Englishman’s run at the title and was variously described as his mentor, guru, father-figure and Svengali. The extent of his influence may be judged from this delicate revelation from Cathy Forbes: that Kavalek ‘also pays attention to the regulation of his charge’s bodily functions. After Short has let off steam by playing his guitar before a game, Kavalek will remind him to empty his bladder.’

Kavalek was sacked, it later emerged, because he had stopped coming up with new ideas, was enjoying the free hotel life too much and had become a ‘depressing influence’ according to Short. Though the Short camp tried to make light of the event, with Dominic Lawson talking about Nigel finally getting ‘the team he wants,’ the same journalist’s subsequent account of Short’s anger and dismay is revealing; ‘Tomorrow I must kill Kasparov. But today I am killing my father … He was my mentor. In the past year I have seen as much of him as I have of my wife. No, in fact I have spent more time with him than I have with Rea . . . Don’t you feel the brutality of this moment? It’s parricide.’ Listening to this plaint, Lawson ‘began to feel like an extra in Oedipus Rex.’ It is, no doubt, never quite the right moment for parricide, but the timing of Kavalek’s departure seemed inept: comforting to the enemy, dispiriting to the home supporters. Besides, who was now reminding Nigel to pee before each game?

By the first Saturday in October, the match had reached its halfway point, Short had yet to win a game and was still trailing by five clear points. In one sense, the match was dead, and the bookmakers rated a Short victory as improbable an event as proof of the Loch Ness Monster’s existence within the next year. Ambitions for Short were readjusted: he was aiming, as a starting-point, to register a single victory; he was ‘learning to play’ Kasparov with the longer-term ambition of doing better next time. A far cry from the apprehension that he might have to ‘sink to the level of the animal to beat the animal.’ But in terms of excitement things were far from dead, and Short had just had his best week of the match. In Game 10, he built his most powerful attack so far with white, then missed a completely clear win and had to settle for a draw. In Game 11, Kasparov cleverly played on the expected demoralization the missed win would have caused, but Short defended astutely and gained his first draw with black. Game 12 went in a sharp blast from opening to endgame, leaving a position that to the chess duffer looked awful for Short: he had a bishop for three pawns and the champion had four passed and interconnected pawns on the kingside, which looked all set to pile down the board like space invaders. Still, duffers shouldn’t underestimate the power of a sole bishop or the defensive usefulness of a mobile king, and Short got his third half point of the week.

That afternoon the Analysis Room was bustling: grandmasters, hangers-on, journalists, drinkers, wives and children, traitors and nutters. Rea and Kyveli were in evidence; the small and studious nephew of The Times’s literary editor, in Fair Isle jumper and Short-ish glasses, was bashing out the move on a plastic set; while Stephen Fry, the chessoholic actor, wandered in to unleash his own bit of literary home preparation about Short’s plight (Antony and Cleopatra Il.iii, Soothsayer to Antony: ‘If thou dost play with him at any game/Thou art sure to lose, and, of that natural luck/He beats thee ‘gainst the odds.’) The atmosphere should have been genial, but there was a distinct edge of rattiness. The grandmasters’ table was voluble, opinionated and largely pro-Short. But those around it were also watching something which they themselves would certainly never achieve: a challenge for the world title. And, given that chess is a game of extreme competitiveness, a further edge may develop towards the person who is there instead of you–namely Nigel Short. Patriotism (or support for the underdog, or politeness to one’s hosts) can therefore give way to ‘Christ, what did he do that for?’ When Short blocked a long diagonal bishop attack with a knight, a roar of disbelief went up from the table; but in fact it proved the start of a solid defence. Throughout the match, experts, whether on television, over headphones at the Savoy or in the Analysis Room, constantly mis-predicted the two players’ next moves. Only a few were prepared to say, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on,’ or, ‘We’ll only know when we get the players’ analysis of the position.’ But to those in the grandmasters’ circle, tapping into their databases, flicking out possible continuations and then taking them back, freed from the stress of actual play, shuttling to the bar for drinks, fizzing with rivalry yet safe from the highest rivalry two doors away, there was often an exaggerated certainty about what is going on. ‘Well, there’s this,’ snapped Tony Miles (the first-ever British grandmaster and a ‘traitor’ for having apparently offered his services to Kasparov), bossing a couple of pawns around, ‘but it’s a bailout.’ Not a bailout that was followed by Nigel Short, as it happened. At times I was reminded of a remark by the writer Clive James, who had once provided captions to a set of photographs in the Observer magazine. A helpful sub-editor generously restyled them for him, pointing up the wit and taking out the longueurs. ‘Listen,’ James cruelly explained to the sub while making him restore the original text, ‘if I wrote like that, I’d be you.’

In Game 13 violence was expected. Kasparov considers thirteen to be his lucky number–he was born on the thirteenth and achieved his grandmaster rating on the thirteenth and is the thirteenth world champion. Gary, the whisper went, would really be going for it today with the white pieces. Nigel had no chance of winning–you had to go back two years to find the last occasion Kasparov was beaten playing white. But there was no explosion. Kasparov looked weary, Short fresh, and they ground out a solid, dull, professional draw. This disappointed some but pleased others. ‘They’re playing world-championship chess now,’ said one international master.

There were good extraneous reasons for both players to be comparatively docile. Between the twelfth and thirteenth games, the attempted coup against Yeltsin had taken place; Kasparov had to sit and watch tanks blast his parliament building. ‘Frankly speaking,’ he admitted, ‘I spent more time looking at CNN than at the chess books.’ Short’s worries were more parochial. While Kasparov contemplated the future of democracy in Russia, Short consulted libel lawyers over a Sunday Times article alleging that the Englishman was ‘near to collapse’; that there were ‘deep divisions’ in his camp; and that, after the departure of Kavalek, Short’s friend Dominic Lawson was exercising ‘too much influence’. Most insultingly, if not most libellously, Short, hitherto compared to a David taking on Goliath, was now held to resemble Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, the British ski-jumper who became a comic national mascot by cheerily finishing last–and usually a very long way last–in various major competitions up to and including the Winter Olympics.

Short’s reaction has its ironic side. Here was someone who had breezily trashed the moral character, political integrity and physical appearance of the world champion coming on all sensitive and writ-happy when offered a forkful of rough abuse himself. More to the point, he was finding out a little of the cost of ‘professionalizing and commercializing’ the game, of putting it up there with tennis and golf. Marketing a sport involves changing it to suit the people who pay the bills. Marketing means making your sport more accessible to people who are only half-interested in it, and thus coarsening either it or the process by which it is described, or both. Marketing means getting written about by people who understand your sport even less than those who normally write about it do. Marketing means playing up inherent nationalism and chauvinism: witness Corey Pavin wearing a Desert Storm cap during the Ryder Cup. Marketing means betraying the subtlety of your sport, and the subtlety of human character; it means Heroes and Villains, and pratting around in black leather for the cameras. It means extravagant praise leading to extravagant blame: the tall-poppy syndrome, as it’s known in Australia. Marketing can mean earning a lot more money, and marketing surely and finally means, unless you are very lucky, getting dumped on. The comparison between Nigel Short and Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards is, apart from anything else, severely inaccurate: Short–to take the Olympic analogy–was already assured of the silver medal when he met Kasparov. But you can’t expect to be written about with fastidious accuracy once you ‘professionalize and commercialize’ your sport. As an early warning of what might come, when Short and Kasparov opened the bids for their match at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the Englishman sat Kyveli on his lap. This harmless gesture was publicly derided by Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree as ‘Saddam Hussein-like’. Short for once had the lightness of touch to respond: ‘It’s a long time since I invaded Kuwait.’ Some might think being compared to Saddam and Eddie the Eagle is a bit tough. But that’s marketing.

Between the fourteenth and fifteenth games of the London match, I lunched some observations out of William Hartston who had been at school with me back in the days when chess was a very amateur business in this country, and the notion of a British grandmaster was as speculative as the yeti. At our school, there were two reliable ways of getting out of the playground rain at lunchtime. The uncompetitive joined the stamp club, the competitive the chess club. (I joined the stamp club.) Thereafter I followed Hartston’s progress from a distance: International Master, top board for England, chess correspondent of the Independent, resident BBC chess sage.

Hartston has a positive lifetime score against Nigel Short of two-one, though he admits that both victories came before Nigel started shaving. Hartston also works as an industrial psychologist and tends to take a broader and more amused view of proceedings, thereby attracting the ‘traitor’ rather than ‘nutter’ label. For instance, he was sceptical of the new official line about Short: that since he was not going to stage a miracle recovery, he was now ‘learning to play’ Kasparov for the next time round. In Hartston’s opinion, there won’t be a next time: ‘If you put Short back into the ratings, he would be ninth, with five younger players above him.’

This assumes that the Professional Chess Association will still be there next time round. Hartston was not as dismissive as I had expected about the marketing possibilities of chess . . . But tennis and golf? Why not, he replied. He reckons that the players are just as promotable as golfers (who admittedly are not all charismatic totems), and points out that the last game of the 1987 Karpov-Kasparov match, in Seville, drew an astonishing live television audience of eighteen million Spaniards. When I asked him to assess the chances of other grandmasters abandoning FIDE and throwing in their lot with the Professional Chess Association, he replied, with a sort of benign cynicism, ‘The way to a chess player’s heart is through his wallet.’ This doesn’t, of course, make chess players much different from anybody else; indeed, in their case the cardio-economic link is all the more understandable. The very best players have always been able to make a living, but in few other professions (except perhaps poetry) does the earnings graph go so suddenly into free fall when set against the graph of ability. International master Colin Crouch, who is around number thirty in the country, spent nine days away from the London match at a tournament in the Isle of Man. The top prize was a mere 600 pounds, and despite a bright start Crouch came home with only his expenses. This is the reality of even a strong player’s life: small tournaments, small money, local fame. A couple of years ago, Hartston did the following calculation during a grandmaster tournament in Spain: assuming that all the prize money on offer was split between the grandmasters (and there were some powerful IMs there as well), their average earnings worked out at between two and three pounds an hour. The basic rate for the female industrial mushroom pickers in the North of England who demonstrated outside last year’s Booker Prize ceremony was three pounds seventy-four an hour.

Hartston certainly thinks that the money and the politicking were serious distractions to Short’s first-time title challenge. Indeed, he goes further, believing (as does Cathy Forbes) that at some level Short recognized he wasn’t going to beat Kasparov and therefore put his energy into getting the best possible payday that he could. In Hartston’s view, this fundamental self-disbelief had also leached into the Englishman’s play. ‘I get the feeling that Short is trying to prove to himself that he isn’t afraid of Kasparov–but he is.’ Hartston admires what he calls Short’s ‘classical, correct chess style,’ and praised his tactics against Karpov, when he varied his openings in such a way as to provoke damagingly long periods of reflection in that Russian. This is a fundamental part of successful match play. ‘The history of the world chess championship,’ Hartston maintains, ‘shows that the way to beat a great player is to allow him to indulge his strengths in unfavourable circumstances.’ I asked Hartston what strength-cum-weakness Short might play on against Kasparov, and he replied, ‘Impatience.’

With apt timing, Game 15 arrived to annotate this theme. Short, with the black pieces for the eighth time, played a solid, traditional defence which he knew well and had played in all his candidate’s matches but had not so far offered to Kasparov. Observing the opening moves, international master Malcolm Pein praised ‘a sound, sensible Nigel Short not trying to strangle Gary Kasparov from the beginning.’ David Norwood, Hartston’s co-commentator in the BBC studio and fellow-critic of Short’s Panzerism, enthused over what he saw as ‘normal chess’. The game would turn, ultimately, on whether Kasparov’s two central pawns were weak or strong, but the truth of the position would not be swiftly yielded up. Indeed it wasn’t: Kasparov wheeled and probed, Short adjusted and secured. Kasparov had the choice–the eventual choice–of attacking either kingside or queenside; black’s job was to stay patient, shore up the sea wall and wait to find out from which direction the waves would break. Short seemed to do this admirably: there were none of the wide-open spaces and forced piece-trading of earlier games. Then, fascinatingly, the game developed as ‘normal chess’ sometimes does: that is to say, a rather closed, quiescent position, with no material gains and only a half-square or so advantage to either side, opens up into a thrilling, charging attack. The answer to the question as to whether Kasparov’s central pawns were strong or weak was disclosed: they were strong, not least because they belonged to Kasparov. In ten brutal moves, the world champion jemmied his way into Short’s position and ripped the place to bits. Short had not gone on a rash strangling trip, and Kasparov had been obliged to wait a long time for the right moment. Yet he had shown no signs of self-destructive ‘impatience’. On the contrary, he had displayed exemplary patience, then perfectly-calculated aggression.

Subsequent analysis of Game 15 showed, not surprisingly, that the above description is too neat, too thematic. Kasparov may have jemmied open Short’s front door, but the householder had lifted the latch himself. Moments like this–when subsequent analysis acts like gravy thickener on the game you thought you knew–are part of chess’s fascination. If you watch a video of an old Wimbledon final or Ryder Cup match, you aren’t really re-analysing, you are merely reminding yourself of what happened and suffusing yourself again with the emotions provoked by the original events. But a chess game, after it has happened, continues in organic life, changing and growing as it is examined. In Game 6, for instance, when Short opted for what he called ‘the most violent method of smashing Kasparov’s defences,’ sacrificing a bishop on move twenty-six, it was generally thought that he had ‘missed a win’. Analysis of the game continued, however, and by the time the players were hunched over Game 15 a defence had been found which would have given Kasparov a draw. On the other hand, at the time of playing neither player had seen this possible defence, so in a sense it didn’t exist. This is one of the aspects of chess that gives it a sense of high and oscillating peril: the tension between objectivity and subjectivity, between some coldly ascertainable, finally provable ‘truth of the position’ and the clammy-handed actuality of play, with half a dozen different half-truths running through your head while the clock ticks, while the footlights and your opponent glare.

Eventually, some final truth about a position may emerge, months or years down the track. The immediate post-mortems, while appearing to start this process, may in fact work more as a continuation of the struggle on the board, and thus be more psychologically freighted. What normally happens when a game finishes is that the players discuss between themselves the final position and the key moves that led to it. This is not just from sadistic or masochistic interest but also from lucid need. (Kasparov used to do this after games with Karpov, even though he loathed and despised him. ‘I am talking chess with the number two in the world,’ he explained. ‘I wouldn’t go to a restaurant with him, but who else can I really talk to about these games? Spassky?’) Such analysis continued for television and the press, with Short showing himself at his best: straight, rueful, likeable, self-critical, still fretting about the truth of the position. Kasparov, by contrast, the supreme strategist and consummate psychological bruiser, seemed to treat the follow-up discussion as part of the match. Avuncular, dismissive, unfretted, he played the wise don to Nigel’s anxious student. Yes, on the one hand there was this, this and this; but then I have that, and maybe that, and then that; and if Rb8, then Nc5; and of course that move of Nigel’s was a big blunder, so really I think the position is equal; perhaps I even have the better chances. Kasparov’s analyses often seemed craftily to diminish Short’s (and everybody else’s) assessment of what had happened. ‘Nigel’s problem was hesitation,’ Kasparov announced in a lordly way after the débâcle of Game 4. ‘He has big psychological problems, and I am curious to see how he deals with them.’ In Game 10, when Short had played a dramatic queen sacrifice and missed a clear win, The Times headline the next day was ‘demonkasparov dodges killer blow; but if you looked to the end of The Times report, you came to the champion’s laconic summary: ‘An exciting but exhausting game. Both of us missed chances to win.’ With Game 14, Kasparov initially agreed with his challenger’s analysis: yes, the logic of the position demanded that Short push the pawn to c5; yes, Nigel missed a win. Who would quarrel with the finest calculating mind in chess? Except that by the next day the champion had demoralizingly changed his mind: no, c5 wouldn’t have led to victory after all, and Nigel hadn’t, as we might have imagined, nearly scored his first win.

Arriving for the sixteenth game, with Kasparov six points clear and needing only three draws to retain his title, I ran into one of the rumpus room’s senior figures, Professor Nathan Divinsky. Benign and epigrammatic, he is President of the Canadian Chess Federation (and, among other achievements, was once married to Canada’s prime minister). I observed that the match might be over that week.

‘It’s been over for six weeks,’ he responded.

What about the idea that after the match was settled they might play a few exhibition games for fun?

‘It’s been an exhibition game since the beginning.’ As a transatlantic observer sitting day after day at the grandmasters’ table, Divinsky confessed himself disappointed with the narrowly partisan attitudes of the local analysts, with their ‘Nigel-this, Nigel-that’ approach to the match. Here, after all, was a rare and privileged opportunity to watch in action the strongest player in the history of the game: ‘When Nijinsky danced, they didn’t care who the ballerina was.’ He cited a knight move in Game 15 (21 Nf4), which Kasparov had identified as the key moment, but which the boys at the round table hadn’t heeded. As general corroboration of this British insularity, Divinsky pointed out a news story in that morning’s Times. An Englishman had just been awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with an American. The paper had printed the Englishman’s photo, described his career, interviewed his gerbil–and not even mentioned the American’s name.

The charge sticks (though British insularity is perhaps no stronger than, say, French chauvinism or American isolationism– each nation earns its own abstract noun). In defence, I could only plead the extreme rarity of a local challenge reaching this ultimate stage, and the deleterious effects of hype. Later, another explanation occurs. If you are a top player, one who in all likelihood has played against Short, it’s probably not too difficult to imagine yourself in his position, challenging for the title, trying to assess the correct response to Kasparov’s tormenting strategies. It’s much harder–perhaps impossible–to put yourself into the champion’s mind. The round table and the assembled commentators were frequently baffled by Gazza’s ideas, awed by his chess brain. Two remarks from the Savoy Theatre commentary team that afternoon stressed the difference. The first was a reference to ‘Nigel’s habit of having big thinks and then playing the natural move’ (which on this occasion he duly did). The second was an honest and exasperated complaint about Kasparov: ‘It’s depressing, he sees instantly more than we see in a quarter of an hour.’

However, Game 16, to everyone’s great surprise, turned out to be the moment of cheer for the Nigel-this, Nigel-that brigade. For once the ballerina jumped higher than Nijinsky. Even more surprising were the circumstances of the leap. Short had white, and played one of his least attacking games against Kasparov’s habitual Sicilian. (It later emerged that the challenger had a cold and didn’t feel up to more than a piano approach.) After eighteen or twenty moves, the Analysis Room was calling it as dull as it was equal: Speelman wandered past the board I was sitting at with Colin Crouch, whacked a few pieces about and declared the position moribund. For a change of scenery in the most tedious game so far, I went off to the Savoy. As I settled in, Short was offering an exchange of queens, and the headphones were groaning: ‘Oh, Nigel, that’s such an unambitious move.’

In the commentators’ box a bored, end-of-term facetiousness reigned. Cathy Forbes began speculating on Short’s awkward body position, wondering if it was because no one had told him to pee before the game. We were all waiting for queens to come off and glutinous drawdom to arrive. Short later gave two slightly different explanations of why this didn’t happen. At his press conference, he said, ‘I was a little bit too ashamed to offer a draw and I think he was too ashamed, too.’ Later, he suggested, ‘I was too lazy to offer a draw and so was he.’ Given that the match had virtually been decided, and the two players were now business partners popularizing a sport, shame was the likelier motive. And there was also perhaps a familiar unspoken sub-text as the rival queens stared at each other in a proposed suicide pact. Go on, you offer the draw. No, you offer it. After you, Claude. No, after you, Cecil. I’m not taking the blame. Well, you’re six points down, it’s up to you to do something. Kasparov appeared to be playing simply to stay equal, at one point rather futilely retreating his bishop rather than proffer a whisper of an attack. The commentary team interpreted the retreat like this: ‘”I’m not going to offer a draw, English swine”–that’s what that move says.’

One leading tournament director seeks to discourage quick, crowd-displeasing draws by making contestants play at least as far as the forty-move time control. One effect of this is that seemingly drawn positions may come to life again, like some bonfire you think you have terminally tamped down by piling on a mound of sodden leaves. All of a sudden there is a thin spiral of smoke, and then, before you know it, a warning crackle. This is what happened in Game 16. Short called off the queen swap and fiddled around with a queenside knight, while Kasparov put his own queen imperiously in the centre of the board. The position began to stir, not just on the queenside but also on the kingside and in the centre. In just a few moves, a great woof of flame went through Kasparov’s position, leaving it gutted. The champion shook hands, declined any on-board post mortem and stalked off. It was his first defeat in eighteen months. Short acknowledged applause fit for a diva with an unoperatic, soft, semi-clenched fist, then disappeared. This being a theatre, the audience worked to exact a second curtain call; but chess has not yet gone that thespian.

Afterwards, at his victory press conference, Short was engagingly modest and thoughtful, keeping his result in perspective. What had been his strongest move? ‘I thought I played the middle game quite well.’ He admitted to having been ‘rather shaken’ by his loss in the previous game and so ‘didn’t want to do anything drastic.’ He acknowledged that after a seven-year gap he had almost ‘forgotten what it was like to beat Kasparov,’ and gently contrasted his own style with that of Karpov, who tended to play ‘like a vegetarian against the Sicilian.’ The visceral response to victory was time-delayed. Dominic Lawson described Nigel’s touching behaviour over the dinner table that night: ‘He jumped up repeatedly from the table, almost between mouthfuls, and clenched his fists together in front of his chest, like a footballer after scoring a goal. “Wurgh! Wurgh!'”

When I asked Professor Divinsky for his analysis of Game 16, the reply was straightforward: ‘Kasparov blew his brains out.’ With two bullets: ‘Ba8 and g5.’ Kasparov rather agreed, putting his errors down to the fact that he was ‘tired and emotionally exhausted.’ This was a prime example of post-game psychology from the Russian, and not surprisingly it infuriated Short. ‘He can’t really tolerate the fact that I have been playing on equal terms with him . . . He’s used to me collapsing, as I used to do before this match. Now something has happened. So he thinks it has to be something wrong with him, because it can’t be something right with me. He likes to think that if only he didn’t have these worries–personal, political, whatever–he would win every game. It’s not modesty at all–quite the reverse.’ Asked whether winning Game 16 had changed his attitude, Short replied, ‘It does make a difference. This was the last thing I really had to prove.’

After this brief interruption to normal service, Kasparov drew the next four games without much inconvenience, to come out the winner by twelve-and-a-half points to seven-and-a-half. The players relaxed with speed chess (for television viewers) and themed-opening games (for theatre-goers). In the first of the four speed games, Short finally deployed the French defence–which experts, including Viktor Korchnoi, had been urging on him for the previous three months–and duly lost with it. He lost the next speed game, too. And the third. And the fourth. Kasparov, who won the last two games with exactly the sort of glamorous, pouncing attacks that draw new recruits to the sport, confessed that though he was very tired, he had been ‘irritated’ by the fact that Short and not he had been the last to win a game in the match proper. Memo to the world: never irritate Kasparov.

Short trousered 637,500 pounds and was hailed by Kasparov as ‘a partner who kept his word’ (a pleasant contrast with Short’s pre-PCA claim that the champion ‘cannot do business with human beings’). Kasparov won 1,062,500 pounds and an enormous Waterford crystal knight. What else he won is rather unclear, since the world of chess is now as fissured as that of boxing: Kasparov gained the PCA/Times title in London, Karpov regained the ‘official’ title in a rival match organized by FIDE, and, just for good measure, Bobby Fischer still insists that he is the true world champion, since no one has ever beaten him. A Kasparov-Karpov match to unify the titles is about as probable as a grandmaster falling for fool’s mate.

Asked which was his favourite game of the London match, Kasparov replied, ‘I don’t know, because unfortunately I made mistakes in every game.’ This may be read as an indication either of modesty or of arrogance, or as an early strike at whomever emerges as his next contender. But, beyond this, it reminds us that the best chess contains a striving not just for victory but for something beyond: for an ideal, harmonious state that produces a perfect mixture of creativity, beauty and power. So it’s not surprising if God comes into the chess player’s equation at some point, even if only as a linguistic reference. ‘I’m looking for the best move. I’m not playing against Karpov, I’m playing against God,’ Kasparov said during his 1990 world-title match. Nigel Short, after winning his eighth game against Karpov, was even more hubristic: ‘I played like God.’

However the Englishman’s relationship to the Almighty is not just one of emulation but also (as befits a prospective Tory MP) one of negotiation. Cathy Forbes has revealed that part of Short’s build-up to important games was ‘to visit churches, even though he is an atheist.’ An odd habit, which seemed even odder when Short explained it during his match against Karpov in Linares: ‘At first I said, “Please God let me win this game,” but I realized this was asking too much. So instead I asked, “Please God give me the strength to beat this shithead.'” In the course of his subsequent match with Timman, Short elaborated on his atheistic prayers. Yes, he was an unbeliever, he admitted, but ‘I am also an opportunist.’ We shouldn’t perhaps be too hard on him for this– it is only a rougher version of the Pascalian bet as to God’s existence. After his sole and splendid victory in Game 16, amid a flurry of proper questions (‘But what if f5 b6 cxd4 Nd8 Bc2 then can’t he get a draw by perpetual check?’ and the like), I asked Short if he had continued his churchgoing habit during the final. He gave the sort of strangulated, glottal pause that tends to precede his answers to non-chess questions, and replied, ‘No.’ But he had done so in earlier rounds? Short looked a little puzzled, as if some nutter had infiltrated the press corps and in his moment of incandescence was calling him a traitor to the Almighty. ‘Perhaps I should,’ he added politely.

Perhaps he should. Losing at sport releases a swarm of if-onlys, among which God is (as always) the most elusive. If only Short had saved a few more seconds on his clock in the opening game and/or accepted Kasparov’s offer of a draw. If only there hadn’t been that upsetting ruckus with his coach which also led to the loss of his database. If only he’d clinched Game 10 when even a blindfold patzer might have secured it. If only he’d been able to hold his score with black to a reasonable percentage. If only he’d had a cold more often, as he did when winning Game 16. All of which boils down to the main, the cruellest if-only: if only he hadn’t been playing the strongest, the most competitive, the most undermining, the most carnivorous chess player in the world.

The Spelling Bee
Never Let Me Down