Chess by Shelby Lyman
on January 3, 2015 – 12:01 AM

Dedicated though he is, Magnus Carlsen, the world champion of chess, insists that his passion for the game is not an obsession.

If true, his testimony illustrates that even devotees can have a large degree of internal freedom. Devotion to the royal game, of course, takes many forms that are or seem obsessive.

Consider the following example. In 1918 – amidst the turmoil and duress of the Russian revolution – traditional chess clubs, split asunder by internal political divisions, ceased functioning as customary.

Instead, improvised gatherings took place in the homes of individual chess players.

Love of the game and ingenuity assumed a central role.

The chess master Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky later recalls a game with Nikolai Grigoriev – a future Moscow Champion – during which, first the electricity failed and then a back-up supply of candles proved insufficient to finish play.

But there was still recourse for the resourceful: the straggling book or container of matches lurking somewhere in the darkness.

“When it was one player’s turn to think,” he wrote, “the other lit a match and held it until his fingers began to burn.”

When Grigoriev announced “check,” thinking that he would soon mate his opponent, Ilyin-Zhenevsky replied, “Excuse me, but you are in check yourself.”

In the flickering blackness immersing them, Grigoriev was unaware that his own king was under attack.

The game ended in a draw.


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