The Torturous Stress of Chess: An Interview with Brin-Jonathan Butler

Brin-Jonathan Butler on the glory and madness of championship-level chess.

By David BreithauptNovember 3, 2018

The Torturous Stress of Chess: An Interview with Brin-Jonathan Butler

IF YOU MISSED the 2016 World Chess Championship, held in New York City in November, you were probably busy reacting to the recent presidential election. Amid that political chaos, two great chess minds — Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the defending champion and heavy favorite, and Sergey Karjakin of Russia — met in the city’s South Street Seaport, where they waged a quietly furious battle for a title that hadn’t been bestowed in New York for over two decades.

Beneath the surface struggle between two obsessively focused players lurked significant geopolitical implications. Karjakin, originally from Crimea, had only recently repatriated to Russia with the help of Vladimir Putin. For his part, Carlsen had expressed admiration for President Trump. Added to this was the absence of the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, who was banned from the tournament due to US sanctions. The ghost of Bobby Fischer was always nearby, and the match was fought to a surprising end. 

In his new book, The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again, Brin-Jonathan Butler covers the contest with an unerring eye, providing insight into both game strategy and the encompassing sociopolitical context. I recently exchanged emails with Butler about his new book and what it was like to witness the epic chess battle.


DAVID BREITHAUPT: I was struck by the intensity of obsession some chess players display, the all-or-nothing attitude you describe in your book. I was hoping you could expand on this topic. Is there a link, for example, between problem gambling and obsessive chess playing?

BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER: In any walk of life, I don’t believe you can find more preoccupied people on the planet than among elite chess players. If Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000-hour theory sells any genius short, it’s the chess genius. Many chess prodigies breeze past 10,000 hours while they’re barely into their teens. Even if Bobby Fischer was the most naturally gifted player who ever lived, we have to remember he also put in more hours studying and practicing than anyone who had ever played.

I think the most obvious link between great chess players and gambling is that the vast majority of players can’t make any money. I don’t mean the kind of serious money that’s thrown around to professional athletes — I’m talking about rent money, food money. Aside from the top 30, the world’s 600 million active chess players can’t make a living exclusively by playing chess. Gambling is a place where they can earn their keep, whether that involves playing poker or being recruited by Wall Street hedge fund managers.

The much-discussed link between chess at the highest levels and mental illness might have a lot more to do with the effects of poverty more than anything intrinsically destructive to the human mind in the game itself. But certainly I found, from the many chess experts I interviewed, that the game was viewed as a far more addictive drug than alcohol or cigarettes or any illicit narcotic. If chess players could make a living wage by devoting their lives to the game, I don’t think gambling would be as prevalent as it is today.

Fifteen hundred years after the game’s invention, it’s clear that chess offers many useful learning tools to children, but it’s not entirely clear that these skills are transferable off the board. There were five grandmasters originally; now there are around 1,600. They may enjoy that distinguished title, but they’re not rewarded with fat incomes. That was why one of the characters I was most interested in interviewing was a Washington Park chess hustler who rarely made over $50 a day playing against tourists, yet he was able to become the best backgammon player in the world making, in some instances, over $10,000 an hour gambling. Online poker is just a click away, too. Jeff Sarwer was a chess prodigy and world champion at only eight years of age, and he reemerged not all that long ago on the poker circuit. He told me he loves the money he can earn yet misses his first love. But he just can’t support his family with chess.

Poverty aside, I wonder if these cantankerous grandmasters were already on their way to being a bit “different” when they picked up the game. I can certainly see how the pressure of being a champion could drive a fragile psyche over the edge.

Watching the championship players up close for the book, I can say that the pressure is such that you could actually see Magnus Carlsen age almost a decade over the course of a day’s play. I’ve never seen anything like it before. On some dark level, it’s as grueling as anything I’ve witnessed ringside for hundreds of title fights in boxing. The neuroscientists I interviewed for the book are very interested in the question you pose. But we don’t have the data at this point. And we’re left with the old chicken-and-egg situation with elite players who famously did crack up. The torturous stress of chess is obvious if you’re watching it live — it’s unbearable. But it was a subject that made people within the chess community very uncomfortable discussing.

Of course, there are many highly functional players who are remarkably well adjusted and even quite social. I met many. But there’s also a common theme with many of the greats that they either lost a father early on or their father was their first victim. Like writing, chess is a notoriously isolating endeavor. Intense isolation has its rewards but certainly also its drawbacks.

Another feature of the most dominant players — and this is common with most champions in other sports whom I’ve interviewed — is a remarkable degree of sadism in the competitiveness they’ve had to hone since early childhood. Bobby Fischer didn’t just want to beat his opponents, he wanted to crush their egos, he wanted them to cave in. Magnus Carlsen has admitted similar sentiments in several interviews — a deep pleasure in savoring the opposing player’s agony. I wonder what this kind of mindset does to you when you’ve given so much of your energies toward such a narrow pursuit, to the point of being unable to attain a rounded identity in other areas.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the issue you raise is a tremendously complex one that doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer. I certainly tried to explore it in my book from many different angles, including character studies of famous and obscure players alike.

How does the role of gender fit into this complicated mix? Toward the end of your book, you discuss the rising participation of women in what has been a male-dominated pursuit. I had occasion to play chess with some Russians a few years ago, one of whom said he had quit playing for a few years after he was “beaten by a girl.”

Gender was one of the most fascinating elements I explored in writing this book. I don’t think you’ll find a better case study anywhere than that of Judit Polgár. Polgár is to chess what Serena Williams is to tennis, except from the beginning she insisted on only playing men. And she destroyed almost all of them on her legendary path.

Her father created a kind of controlled experiment to prove that a genius could be made rather than born. The rampant misogyny in the chess world provided the ideal context to do it with all three of his daughters, but Judit’s dominance was on a different scale. The story she shared with me for the book was one of the most exciting narratives I encountered. I was astonished by the gleeful hostility and dismissals she received, not just from chess fans but from many of the game’s most famous ambassadors — Kasparov, Fischer, Nigel Short. And she proved them all embarrassingly wrong, not just about her own ascent but about the status of women in the game. Polgár was such a tremendous trailblazer, debunking the snide sexism that prevails in the chess world. Her contribution and her legacy are incalculable.

Particular sports have been used with varying degrees of success as a means of cultural détente over the years — e.g., baseball with Japan before World War II or table tennis with China. How powerful a geopolitical tool are these high-stakes games of chess?

One of the most interesting aspects of chess is how, with Bobby Fischer’s rise and his championship match against Boris Spassky, the game managed to encapsulate the tensions of the Cold War better than almost anything else. Walter Cronkite led the news with Fischer’s victory in Iceland before addressing Watergate or the rising death toll in Vietnam. The two emblematic symbols of America’s victory over the Russians during the Cold War were the Apollo moon landing and Fischer becoming world champion.

Chess first captured the American imagination with Paul Morphy just before our Civil War, but that war killed the game’s momentum in the United States. Then the other major sports — basically intra-national competitions — were created and took over in the American consciousness. But the Cold War did the opposite for Fischer and chess, firing the popular imagination and turning the 1972 championship into a global media event. Chess has never been able to achieve anywhere near the popularity it did with Fischer, before or since.

The 2016 World Chess Championship came with a vast amount of baggage, with Sergey Karjakin being backed by Putin and Magnus Carlsen a Trump supporter. The Russian leader of the World Chess Federation was unable to attend because of sanctions, so the actor Woody Harrelson kicked off the opening ceremony. This was the first time in a couple of decades that the match was held in New York City, which adds a twist to anything. What was left when the smoke cleared?

Carlsen’s struggle to defend his crown against Karjakin caught most experts by surprise. And the dominant theme of the championship was a long series of grueling draws. Karjakin drew first blood in the eighth game and Carlsen was greatly shaken. The tension swelled, and it was unclear who would emerge victorious until the match found its way into overtime. Carlsen’s dazzling final move to retain his title might be the greatest finish to a championship ever seen.

One of the strange pleasures of watching chess up close is the realization that you’re witnessing two people whose lives might be further from yours than anyone else you’ve ever met. Carlsen is a genius, both in his endowment of talent and in the application he’s devoted to developing it. If all the chess players in history had faced the situation Carlsen did just before his last move, likely none of them would have been able to see what he was able to in that beautiful queen sacrifice.

I was left with the realization that Carlsen will never captivate the world the way Bobby Fischer did, but I also don’t believe he will crack up like him either. He will find his own way in his own time. His genius at chess can’t communicate the way a Beethoven might with music or a Picasso with painting, but he’s no less brilliant, and in mastering his craft he’s given just as much of himself to his art. The enigma of chess remains as mysterious as it ever has with Magnus Carlsen as the world’s finest living player.

How big a role do personalities play in championship chess matches? You mentioned the tremendous following Bobby Fischer had — was it because of curiosity about his personal antics?

Bobby Fischer was so preposterously gifted and tormented, it’s impossible to imagine any great novelist inventing him. His speech patterns and his peculiar role in American life seem like something out of J. D. Salinger. It’s quite something for someone working on a chessboard to make the world stop and look on in awe. He was one of the most famous people on earth even for a public that has rarely cared before or since about anything to do with chess.

Harry Benson, who photographed everybody in the second half of the 20th century, told me that Fischer was, bar none, the most fascinating person he had ever photographed or met in his life. For my book, I interviewed several people who knew Fischer quite closely in a variety of ways. It’s just so rare for someone to embody such extremes — the supreme elegance of his genius and the sheer depravity of his madness. How can any of the major characters in public life not seem one-note or pedestrian by comparison?


David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and other venues.

LARB Contributor

David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.


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