Monday, March 10, 2014

Peter Svidler on the "Mystical Quality" of Chess

Seven-time Russian chess champion Peter Svidler recently was interviewed by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the 2004 FIDE World Chess Champion; in Part I, Svidler offers a very candid appraisal of his chess career:

I still think I'm primarily a chess player, but the question can perhaps be phrased: "Have I been as much of a chess player as I should have been over the course of my career?" And I think to that the answer is no. But once again, by now that's probably unfixable and I'm probably more of a chess player right now than I was three years ago--so I'm trying to do something about it. 

I have been somewhat...relaxed towards my chess career in general over the past decade or so. Who knows what could have happened...but the whole, "what would have happened with him if he'd worked on chess for 12 hours a day," is completely pointless, because I don't see myself working 12 hours a day whatever I do. It's a non-starter. I know of some people who do that, but I can't imagine changes in my life which would lead me to that.

It is fascinating that even someone as accomplished as Svidler believes that he does not have the work ethic or focus possessed by the very greatest chess players. Svidler both recognizes this shortcoming and accepts that it is fruitless to wonder what might have been had he taken a different approach; he knows that it is just not in his nature to have the monomaniacal devotion to the sport displayed by Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, three World Champions who have each permanently inscribed their names very prominently in chess history. Svidler is well aware that he never came close to reaching their level: "...I will be listed as a bit-player in the era of Kramnik. Maybe not exactly a bit-player, but still--there are people out there who shaped the chess world to a certain degree. I don't see myself as one of those, but I'm a decent player."

Although Svidler failed to establish himself as an all-time chess great, in Part II he explains why chess captivates him (and millions of other people who are spellbound by the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess):

I think it's an incredibly beautiful game. It can bring you a lot of joy if you study it and begin to understand it. You do need to put in some work because the "problem" with chess is that you do need to get past a certain level to begin appreciating just how beautiful it can be...

It has a somewhat mystical quality for me. In its best aspects it's like music or literature. It can create a feeling of wonder and beauty--obviously not every day, but it can. That's the reason I'm still happy I'm playing it because every now and then you create something which makes you think, yeah, that really was something which will remain. It's more than a game--at least I like to think so...

Success and recognition and all those things are important, clearly--who doesn't want those?--but this feeling that you get every now and then that you're completely in control of what you're doing over the board and the pieces listen to you and do what you say… For me that's absolutely fantastic and what I'm searching for--what I'm playing for.  

Svidler nailed it: chess provides both a means to express oneself artistically and a way to at least have the illusion of exercising control in a world that often seems very chaotic and unpredictable.

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