The Short Story

Entry by: Nutcracker

22nd May 2015
UK Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short provoked an outcry recently when he declared that men are "hard-wired" to be better at chess than women. The Hungarian player Judit Polgár, until recently number one female chess player in the world, is amongst those who have countered with accusations of sexism. Polgár has beaten Short on eight occasions, whereas he has won only three of their matches. So is she an exception to a "rule"? Or is it perhaps more interesting to consider what it takes for anyone, man or woman, to be amongst the best in the world in their chosen field?

Both Nigel Short and Judit Polgár started playing chess as children. Polgár became a Grandmaster - the highest title a player can be awarded by the game's governing body - at the age of fifteen; Short at nineteen. This means that as teenagers they must have been devoting many hours of each day to the study of chess. Some, including Short, argue that boys are more likely to do this than girls. It certainly seems that girls are more attracted to social group activities (excluding sport) as they enter their teenage years. The work required to succeed at chess is intense and solitary. Nowadays parents understandably worry about their teenage children who shut themselves away in their rooms for hours on end, obsessed by and to all intents and purposes lost in the world of the internet. How will they get on in the real world, with real people? Will their expectations of everyday life be hopelessly distorted? Girls are less likely to isolate themselves like this, but any individual can be obsessive, and if a young person wants to succeed at chess at the highest level the tunnel vision that goes with an obsessive personality will certainly help them on that road.

Obsession will keep you going through the 10,000 hours of practice which it reputedly takes to get really good at anything, be it chess, or, for example, cycling or playing a musical instrument. But what is the concomitant cost? There are certainly those in the chess world who have fallen by the wayside in spectacular fashion. Take the story of the American Bobby Fischer, who started to learn to play chess at the age of six and dropped out of high school at sixteen to devote himself to the game. He was considered a genius, the greatest chess player of all time. However, when he took part in a match with the Russian Boris Spassky in (the then) Yugoslavia he was deemed to be violating US sanctions and found himself facing criminal charges. His obsession turned towards paranoia about the Jewish people and his own privacy, he spent the last years of his life in seclusion and died a bitter man.

It seems as if in the chess world at least, which requires solitary, celebral activity, obsession can lead to success in the game but there can be a high price to pay in terms of relationships, which generally offer a better chance of happiness in this life than isolation. Some develop a strong but unhealthy relationship with the bottle, such as the Russian Grandmaster Andrei Sokolov. So obsession has really got itself a bad name.

But if the drive which is part of the obsession is turned towards others it can be an immense force for good. Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has established an International School of Chess, which says on its website:

"Chess is not only a game, but a proven learning tool to help students with problem solving, which in turn leads to improved math and reading scores."

Nigel Short, too, is very involved with teaching and with the promotion of the game of chess, including as a commentator and broadcaster. Another of the all-time chess greats, Garry Kasparov, has become a political activist and is Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. He has taken his obsession into an area where he is working with and for others.

One individual's obsession can get a lot done in the world where it moves other people to action. Bob Geldof’s burning concern about the world’s poor produced Band Aid, but he didn’t do it alone – his passion transmitted itself to forty of his fellow pop stars of the 1980s, who were inspired by him to join in making the first Band Aid single and all the hugely successful fundraising that followed to help the people of Ethiopia. Mind you, particularly in view of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” debate, it's worth noting that it has since been reported that although Bob Geldof was the one in the limelight, his then wife Paula Yates was the real driving force. But sadly she's no longer around to tell us the whole story.

Interestingly enough there is another Nigel Short who is very successful in his field. He is a classical singer of the highest rank, an award-winning conductor, former member of the King’s Singers and founder of the virtuosic choir Tenebrae. In his field, even more than in the field of pop music, good relationships with others are essential for good music-making. Maybe what he, his namesake in the world of chess and many people who are successful in other areas of the arts, sport, politics, business have in common is what we might term a “fad” - focus, application and determination. And I’m sure that men and women alike have access to that. But if they are to be happy in their lives – and this applies to all of us, whatever work, cause or interest we choose to pursue – the essential is to seek out a balance. There are times when we all need to be able to switch off and, quite simply, take a little lie down with a good book and then fall asleep over it. And don’t even mention guilt – that’s just another unhealthy obsession!