PA Wire/PA Images Reigning FIDE world chess champion Magnus Carlsen (left) and challenger Fabiano Caruana competing in the World Championships earlier this day.
# Obsession
'I've met a lot of people who threw away their livelihoods because of how addictive chess was'
Brin-Jonathan Butler discusses his new book, ‘The Grandmaster’.

WHO IS MAGNUS Carlsen — the Norwegian many consider the greatest chess players ever — and what makes him tick?

That was one of the questions Brin-Jonathan Butler sought to answer with his new book: ‘The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and The Match that Made Chesss Great Again.’

The journalist and author, who also written books on boxing and Cuba, delves into the labyrinthine world of chess for his latest effort.

The 2016 World Chess Championships in New York City, in which defending champion Carlsen ultimately defeated Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, serves as the backdrop.

But in addition to covering this match, Butler also takes a broader look at the sport, focusing on topics including the brilliant and mysterious figures of the game’s past, such as Bobby Fischer and Peter Winston, the addictive nature of the sport and how it has ruined many lives as well as being enjoyed by millions, and the way in which female players have increasingly progressed and overcome negative stereotypes in this male-dominated environment.

Of course, it is not designed purely for hardcore aficionados of the sport. As author Michael Finkel has said of the book: “It’s less about chess than about the razor’s edge between genius and madness.”

The42 recently caught up with Butler to discuss his critically acclaimed latest work.


Tell us about the initial process of deciding to write ‘The Grandmaster’. Did you have any doubts or reservations about writing the book?

I was overwhelmed with a tremendous amount of doubt about it. In a lot of ways, the major subjects I’ve written about — Cuba, boxing, bullfighting — you have to be pretty talented to do a bad job of emphasising the drama in those places.

With chess, the idea of potentially 12 games with 72 hours of inactivity, just a little piece off the board moving, there are only so many ways that you can try to characterise the action in a way that’s dramatic.

It doesn’t communicate to a general audience, especially in this country, with a limited attention span where a video game tournament can sell out Madison Square Garden. But watching two guys who are 25 years old for six or seven hours, it was very scary. I think the big thing was that I didn’t know if the match would be any good.

If you’re looking back at some famous event, my editor said, just do what John McPhee did with [the late American tennis star] Arthur Ashe at a big open, or what Norman Mailer did with Muhammad Ali in Zaire. I said: ‘Those are established great events that there were books about. We don’t know if this is going to be any good. Chess is not tennis and Magnus Carlsen is not Muhammad Ali, so let’s just lower the expectations a little bit of what this can be.’

And so I bought about 40 books on chess and different subjects related to chess. It just felt like a very high-risk-high-reward proposition of trying to find my way in real time with a very sharp deadline and turnaround to make it as interesting as I could and really having no idea if that was possible.

Soccer - UEFA Euro 2012 - Group B - Denmark v Germany - Arena Lviv EMPICS Sport People play chess in Lviv square. EMPICS Sport

Did you find many parallels between boxing, which you write frequently about, and chess?

Certainly. I think chess as a subculture has many easy parallels with boxing, which I didn’t expect at the time. Boxing is full of obsessives, full of prodigies, who either develop into what their potential was or get derailed. 

Boxing is a world where you’re either rich or need a second or third job, and I think that’s even more extreme in chess. There’s a lot of poverty, despite people being extraordinarily talented at other things. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve had PhDs and very marketable skills, who threw away their livelihoods and their families because of how addictive chess was. 

I think obsession, addiction, compulsive people [are common]. Like boxing, at times, it is elevated beyond just being about sport. It’s drawn in so many big literary powerhouses to take it on — there’s something so primal about it. Chess is something like that too.

1500 years the game has been around and it doesn’t care what political system, or culture, or race people are. It affects everyone. If the amount of people who are adherents to chess were a religion, it would the fourth biggest religion in the world. In those ways, I felt like I loved the surrounding accoutrements of chess. And I loved writing about that.

What I really struggled with most was trying to keep the game that was played on the board interesting for a non-chess-playing audience. I really wanted to write a book for non-chess people and for people who said the last thing I’d want to read is about chess and hoping, as was the case as I was writing it, once I told them about a few elements of the game, they thought: ‘That does sound like something I’d want to read about.’ So that was the real challenge for me.

What is it that makes chess so addictive and that makes people practically give up their lives for it in some instances?

I think that’s a mystery. The only autobiographical material in the book is that when I found the game at three, I loved board games, I loved competitions, but chess was the only one that when I lost at it, I just couldn’t believe how much it seemed to assault my identity on some primal level.

It was very mysterious and frightening and inexplicable. And increasingly what I found is that’s a very common reaction to chess — it challenges your identity in very unexpected ways. It’s such a strange thing that any idiot can learn how to play chess, or the basics of it, in an about two or three minutes, and even computers have been able to master the game. And there’s something straddling those two extremes that makes it immensely compelling for a certain kind of person.

I’m not a very maths or science-y person. But I could still early on see the games of Bobby Fischer, when somebody is going to point out a symphony of movements and calculations.

A lot of people find art in it, others find science, a lot of people just love the feeling of competition. The stakes that are involved in a one-on-one battle where everything is equal and there’s not the element of chance to dictate the result. Poker is a game of incomplete information [which is] chaotic and disrupts what you’re trying to do. In chess, all the information is there to be solved — we’re just so inadequate that we aren’t able to process that information and adequately use it. So in some ways, it reflects, in ways that we intuit, as we play the game.

Imago 19700905 Imago / PA Images Bobby Fischer pictured playing chess in 1970. Imago / PA Images / PA Images

What comes across in the book is how difficult it is for a reporter to get access to a chess star like Magnus Carlsen, beyond his routine press conferences and media briefings. Was this a problem for you, were you disappointed by it, or was it something you were expecting?

Initially, I thought there’d be a great deal of access. because my first literary agent when I came to work was also Magnus Carlsen’s agent in America. So I assumed, just because her and I had a good relationship, that it would just be a slam dunk to have access to Magnus. And why not? Because I was working with one of the biggest publishers in the world to try to promote him and promote the game, and it’s free marketing.

I didn’t have a single conversation with Magnus through the entire match — there was never a good time. In lots of other sports, an element of what their performance is about is dealing with the crowd, dealing with the adversity of the audience. In chess, these guys looked like they were in an execution chamber that was sealed off, it was most the bizarre, surreal spectacle. Like they were in some other galaxy and it was being beamed to us what was happening play by play.

The organisation of the whole match was so amazingly strange and seemingly just wrong-headed. Even in the 2018 match that just concluded, they had on the side of the table: ‘The world is watching.’ And I was watching the official feed from FIDE [the World Chess Federation] and it said there were 3,500 people watching. There were contradictions like that, where you’ve 3,500 people watching your feed — obviously don’t say the whole world is watching, it’s a bad look.

It seemed like their publicity department, in trying to get the access to Magnus, was something similar. They’re desperate for mainstream attention, and yet they do so many things to shoot themselves in the foot. I was very confused by that, but I did the best I could to write around it. 

Imago 20181128 Imago / PA Images Magnus Carlsen of Norway (file pic). Imago / PA Images / PA Images

One of the recurring themes of the book is the toll that playing chess at the top level can take. Looking at Magnus Carlsen, you wonder what fate awaits him. Could he be another Bobby Fischer and struggle with mental health issues, or has he got a better chance of avoiding those problems?

It was asked of Magnus and he said: ‘When you look at Bobby Fischer’s story, you feel a sense of risk.’ So it is a risk that’s out there, but I don’t think there’s a probability [it will happen].

I interviewed some neuro-scientists to ask: ‘Is chess healthy for the human brain?’ ‘Is it healthy to give eight hours a day to this game from when your five until your 30? Do we know the impact of doing that?

We know if you’re involved in boxing, getting hit on the head has clear detrimental effects on your brain. What about obsessing over a game that is very stressful and very demanding?

There was a World Championships in the 1980s — a doctor had to stop the competition because of the toll it was taking on another participant who lost 20 pounds from mentally exerting themselves. So I think it is very demanding.

But it’s a game, as it is for any champion, where the stakes increase the better you get at it. You have everybody gunning for you. And yet it’s not a game where — like, a Mike Tyson in his peak could knock somebody out in 90 seconds to retain the title. It requires constant application, constantly dealing with the pressure, constantly staying up on the new techniques and the evolution of technology to stay on top of your game.

So I think there’s a lot of pressures and stresses associated with it and I think it’s a unique dynamic for chess players. I think it takes a major toll on these guys and there is a long list of characters, like Fischer, who cracked.

It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg thing. Does it attract people who are mentally unstable? Or did it make them mentally unstable. And there are reasonable arguments for both sides of that, or that they’re not mutually exclusive. Maybe it makes mentally unstable people worse.

Magnus, early on, was identified as a curious person by his father and by people around him. He’s showed signs that he’s on the autistic spectrum, but I think he’s adjusted a lot better now he’s nearing his 30th birthday than he seemed earlier on.

He didn’t seem to take defeat well, and most of these players don’t. He’s nearing what is probably his peak if it’s consistent with the other chess players and I guess we’ll see how he’s able to maintain his level where he’s the highest ranked player in the history of chess, because eventually all these guys lose and we don’t know how he’ll deal with that. 

Franz Kafka portrait, Cafe Kafka, Prague, Czech Republic Manuel Cohen Portrait of Franz Kafka, 1883-1924, Czech writer and philosopher. Manuel Cohen

I’ll ask a question that’s asked by you in the book: do you think most people would rather be Franz Kafka, the tortured artist, or John Q Citizen?

I think that they’d cherry pick all the benefits of being Franz Kafka. They like to see all the benefits of having your potential realised, but they don’t see the burden of it.

So I think they’re dishonest when they speculate what it would mean to be somebody fantastic. And it’s one of the things that’s really fascinating about living in America as someone who is not an American — the rewards of the American dream are profound, but the betrayal of the American dream, whether you make it or not, there is a considerable cost we’re seeing with a lot of the most miserable characters in American life, from Marilyn Monroe to Anthony Bourdain.

These people self destruct and you think, they have it all in terms of what they were aiming for, but that seems to be the key problem — it’s not enough once they get there. Meanwhile, everyone else is scrounging to try to attain some semblance of notoriety to being famous, because you’re a ‘loser’ if you aren’t famous in this culture right now.  

I think the current schema is — you are Franz Kafka or you’re nobody. And people feel that stress.

Chess is less popular now than it was in Bobby Fischer’s era. Why do you think this is the case? Is it to do with the sport’s problems with marketing et cetera, or was the Fischer era an anomaly, and one where we’re unlikely to see emulated ever again?

I think the era helped. With the backdrop of the Cold War, you needed a clear symbol to make sense of it. So America used landing on the moon and it used Bobby Fischer beating the Soviet system that was so dominant at chess — this little kid growing up in Brooklyn alone with a single mother, growing up on welfare, could beat the entire Soviet establishment. It was a very convenient symbol of this system triumphing.

But I think the other side that chess is struggling with is that Bobby Fischer was one of the great 20th century characters, and happened to fall into chess. Most of these guys are interested in people, I liked meeting them, I met a lot of good people.

But Bobby Fischer in the consciousness of the world where it applies to chess, he’s more important to chess than Shakespeare is to the English language.

Some people might argue it, but I think it’s backed up in everything I saw anecdotally interviewing people, is that he was just such an extraordinary character with an extraordinary arc of straddling the sublime genius of the game and then all the darkness we saw towards the end. It’s an incredible path and he’s an incredible person in a role that was unprecedented and a performance that was even more unprecedented. I think chess, or anything else, will struggle to produce a character like that ever again.

Sergey Alexandrovich Karjakin DPA / PA Images Russian chess champion Sergey Karjakin was the youngest grandmaster ever at 12. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Another extraordinary character in the book is Peter Winston, the chess genius who mysteriously disappeared in January 1978. Do you think there’s any chance he could still be alive somewhere, after all these years?

It’s hard to imagine. Winston is the character that I was most fascinated by. I had a friend who worked for a newspaper and it has a programme where you can look up the backgrounds of people. It’s as close as you can get to a police background on somebody.

I used it on some of the people in his family to determine where he lived. When I went to that address as I was looking at the apartments and checking the numbers to see which one is his, two doors down, there was a dead body of somebody who had just keeled over going for a walk. I actually had to offer resuscitation on the guy before the paramedics arrived.

It was such a spooky, bizarre coincidence of this extraordinary character from 40 years ago, who disappears in a blizzard and his body is never found. It’s really hard to imagine, even if you wanted to disappear, or clear yourself in a way you can never be found, as some people speculated, to do so with one of the biggest blizzards to hit New York when you don’t even have a jacket on, or any money — I just don’t understand it.

But I also don’t understand how the body has never been found. It’s just such a confusing, sad, fascinating and tragic story — the one that consumed me by far the most in the entire book.

Most of the people that I’m friends with who read the book all said the same thing — even the lawyer who reviewed it said: ‘Why aren’t you doing a book on him?’

Chess - Frankfurt Tournament DPA / PA Images Judit Polgar studies her next move during a 1999 match. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Another interesting subject you tackle is the perception of female players in the game. Would it be fair to say there’s still a degree of sexism in the sport?

I think the great female players have transcended a lot of those initial prejudices. There’s more [female] participation and involvement in the game.

They’re definitely punching their weight, but it’s a very male world in chess, it’s overwhelmingly male. So I think that would be intimidating for a lot of women to enter into, even if they didn’t meet visceral misogyny, there might be a feeling of not belonging that could preclude a lot of very talented women from wanting to get involved if it doesn’t seem very welcoming.

But I think there are changes to that, because women have earned a lot of respect and transcended the very petty, embarrassing misogyny from some of chess’s big ambassadors, who’ve laid into women with really nasty, hostile remarks. That was something I was really happy to look at. 

Judit Polgar and a lot of the women she inspired to participate are doing incredible things, but it’s still a very male world, no question.

Would it be fair to say — and Polgar is probably an example of this — that it’s almost impossible to become a chess prodigy without at least one parent or authority figure really pushing you into it?

I think more than just pushing somebody into it, I don’t think you can push somebody to be obsessive — they are or they aren’t.

But I think they would need a lot of money for top-level instruction to nurture somebody. Especially in New York, it’s sort of trophy parents trying to have the trophy child. They throw huge money to create the surrounding scaffolding to look after these prodigies. They’re desperate to have a prodigy and [for their child] to realise its potential. If you don’t have that around you, you’re just at such a disadvantage.

Even in the championships, Sergey Karjakin was a grandmaster [aged 12] before Magnus. But he didn’t have the money or resources that Magnus’ parents did in Norway, with his situation in Ukraine. He always resented that — that he’d been cheated, the playing field was not fair for him to realise his potential. That’s another aspect of the game, it’s not a level playing field now in terms of what’s necessary to get to the highest level. These guys need teams, they need an infrastructure.

Chess Addiction / YouTube

That debate about whether it’s nature or nurture which is the cause of great success, I presume you fall more on the nurture side in a chess context?

The Malcolm Gladwell rule is every genius has 10,000 hours of study. In chess, you could easily triple it and say 30,000 hours to get there. It’s much more demanding than other areas where you can excel and be called a genius. I think it’s really important to remember with Bobby Fischer — arguably the most talented natural player to have ever lived — he worked harder than any player before him. 

I think you need both [hard work and natural talent] — you can’t just survive on one or the other. 

Polgar’s father was a good example of trying to Frankenstein his three daughters into fabulous players, and he succeeded. He did it specifically targeting female players, because of the prejudice against them, to prove his theory. 

But every example I saw, that kind of early talent is still conspicuous for the people that have real ability, just like watching some kid slam dunk a basketball at 11 or 12 years old — it’s clear they have tremendous athletic ability, it’s not hiding very much, but it needs to be coached, it needs to be nurtured. And I think chess is a much more extreme example of that. 

Finally, you spoke about your fears at the start of the book that the 2016 World Chess Championship wouldn’t live up to expectations? Do you think it did in the end?

I thought the ending was fascinating, but there’s an expression that I’ve heard applied to chess — there’s an overwhelming degree of monotony that defines most of it, and there’s just a shocking moment or two.

If that’s something that an audience can appreciate, I think chess will deliver. But if you’re looking for sustained excitement, in the last 24 games of regulation in the two championship matches [in 2016 and 2018], 22 of them have been draws. If an American audience struggles with that in soccer, you can imagine what it’s like in chess, in terms of really satisfying them.

So I think chess might have to make some adjustments to move towards its audience in terms of maybe making wins more valuable than draws — doubling their value. Then you would see people much more willing to be offensive and take risks, and it would be less safety first, less people willing to lead the dance in a chess game. 

Everything in chess is sort of like Floyd Mayweather in boxing. It’s all tremendously risk averse and trying to find the narrowest opening through a war of attrition.

It’s not the romantic period that Bobby Fischer played in. It’s much more analogous to computers and auto-tuning singers. And it’s challenging to find a mainstream audience for that — people want to see wins and losses and the more human component coming out, as opposed to working side by side with machines to create ‘accurate games and accurate moves in every step’. We like the human side that’s exposed in all competitions, and chess is feeling less and less human.

Our shorter attention spans with social media et cetera are also surely having an impact on its decline in popularity?

Absolutely. It’s very counter to where the culture is and wanting the results quickly. ‘Get to the point, get to the point.’ Chess was sort of trying to say: ‘But what is the point?’ And that’s a more difficult question for this culture to embrace. I think it’s a very valid thing to ask — it just has a much more limited, narrow audience that appreciates it.

The Grandmaster is published by Simon and Schuster. More info here.

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