Beauty, Truth and Hitchcock

  • While the rest of the sporting world was distracted with sideshows -- the World Series, the Douglas-Holyfield fight -- the main event was being played out in utter silence at the Hudson Theater on Broadway, where the two best players in the world, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, were fighting it out for the championship of chess. (After 12 games, the match is tied.)

    Now, mention chess and most people's eyes glaze over. They think of two old geezers, one of whom has died but no one has noticed, in overstuffed armchairs at the Diogenes Club. Know how chess crowds do the wave? guffawed a CBS newsreader. With their eyebrows.

    Ho, ho. What the benighted don't understand is that modern chess is played not just against an opponent but against a clock. It thus produces a heart- stopping equivalent of football's two-minute drill. At Move 32 of Game 8, for example, challenger Karpov, losing, was forced to make nine moves in less than three minutes. He executed them in a dazzling flurry that didn't just leave him winning; it left the crowd stunned and silent. Except, that is, for one patron who, unnerved by Karpov's preposterous escape, let out a loud, shocking laugh.

    Moreover, the place to watch world-championship chess is not in the theater but five floors up, in the analysis room. There the action is frenzied. One TV monitor shows the players and the running time clocks. The other shows the latest board position. Scattered about are a score of the greatest players in the world, a couple of whom are standing at the front trying dozens of follow- on combinations on a large demonstration board. The result is a tumult of lightning analysis, inspired second-guessing, withering criticism, contemptuous asides, suggestions and refutations as the pros search for the best possible "lines" into the future.

    During Game 8, I found myself in a room with the U.S. chess champion (Lev Alburt), four grand masters and one legend, former World Champion Mikhail Tal. It was like watching the World Series with five Hall of Famers parsing every pitch and Cy Young correcting them. On Karpov's 23rd move the parsing got slightly crazy: If Kasparov does A then Karpov must do B. If Kasparov then tries C and Karpov answers with D, look out: E, F and G follow. But if Kasparov does Z, then . . .

    Some of these lines were harmony, variations on the main theme of the game. Some were jazz riffs, freestyle and whimsical. Some were just fanciful trills, exotic and occasionally atonal. They all went up on the board fast and furious, as patzers -- plodding amateurs -- like me struggled to follow the logic.

    Then Karpov did the unexpected: he advanced a pawn, unbalancing the position and not a few grand masters. Instantly all the heretofore examined lines, entire symphonies of hypothetical variation, vanished into the ether. "Unheard melodies," murmured the yellow-tied patzer sitting near me. His tone was wry and regretful.

    The move done, the grand masters wiped the slate clean and began composing fresh music, speculating on what might follow next. This greatly disturbed the dapper young Yugoslav grand master Ljubomir Ljubojevic. Shaking his head in disapproval, Ljubo strode up to the board, took down all the moves now being assayed and brought the position back not to Move 23 but to Move 22. If Karpov had pushed the pawn in Move 22 instead of first delivering that ridiculous check, the now animated Ljubo insisted, it would have been a triumph. He then gave a long demonstration of the truth of his analysis.

    Of course by then it was irrelevant. Karpov had played the check first. Enough of history, said the others, impatient to get on with analyzing the world as it now existed. Ljubo insisted on analyzing the world as it should exist. As the groans grew louder, Ljubo's retort was indignant: "Let's find some truth here."

    The yellow-tied patzer had come for beauty, but Ljubo had come for truth. In chess, that means finding not just a good move or even a harmonious move but the perfect move. God's move.

    Playing chess with divinity can be dangerous, however. The great Steinitz, who once claimed to have played against God and won (he neglected to leave a record of the game), went quite mad. The last great practitioner of truth, Bobby Fischer, after winning the world championship in 1972, disappeared into some apocalyptic sect in California and had the fillings in his teeth removed to stop the KGB transmissions.

    Melodies you can get in any record store. But truth? Where else can you find truth? The next day I saw Ljubo again. It was 12 hours later and he was still shaking his head.

    Down on the Hudson stage, however, the protagonists were engaged not so much in truth seeking as in attempted murder. Kasparov, who calls Karpov "a creature of darkness," had declared his intent not just to defeat Karpov but to destroy him. Accordingly, Kasparov played the opening games with the confident, reckless belligerence of a young Ali. Karpov, though, was fully Frazier's equal. The result was mayhem rarely seen at that level of play. It was like a title fight with 10 knockdowns by Round 3 or, for the more delicate, like a ballet performed not on a stage but on a trampoline.

    Even the exalted were amazed by the innovations, the sacrifices, the / speculative attacks, the kind of stuff a patzer like me tries out in Washington's Lafayette Square, not the kind world champions play with $1.7 million at stake. I asked the great and wizened Tal what he thought of the opening games of the match. "Hitchcock movies," he replied with a grin.

    Beauty, truth and Hitchcock. Now, that's entertainment. Benjamin Franklin, when ambassador to France, was known to spend most of his time at the Cafe de la Regence playing chess. Why did he so rarely go to the Paris opera? "I call this my opera," explained Franklin. He'd have camped at the Hudson.