Chess, love and rivalry

Times Online, June 16, 2006

There has been much cackling at the fate of Danny Gormally, the British chess grandmaster who threw a punch at "love rival" Leon Aronian in a Turin nightclub. Gormally was unable to stomach watching Aronian, the world No 3, dancing with 19-year-old Arianne Caoili, an Australian chess player with whom he had fallen in love. He has since acknowledged that his emotions were not reciprocated, but on the night in question could not refrain from attempting a drink-befuddled, pugilistic checkmate.

I would like, amidst the cacophony of condemnation, to add a sympathetic voice to those opining on "Gormallygate." I do so not because I approve, always, of so stark a dispute resolution methodology, but because I too play chess, and, once, many years ago, fell in love with a woman who, like Caoili, fell effortlessly into the "beautiful" category. The scene was Leicester, where I was taking a law conversion course. I was renting a room from a friend called Dave who had himself turned his back on the professions, choosing instead to become a cardboard box salesman.

I sensed early on in my cohabitation with Dave that things were awry in his life. He simply didn’t seem happy as a cardboard box salesman. One evening he announced that he had been to see his old careers adviser, who had told him that he was wasting his life and should become a barrister. Ostensibly to help Dave mull this over, I suggested a game of chess. He was formerly a county player, and our games, while close, had yet to result in a win for me. I hoped that his identity crisis might enable me to catch him off-guard.

Midway through the game, with my Grunfeld defence appearing impregnable, Dave made another announcement: "I rang X today. I reckon I might be in there." Needless to say, X was the woman of beauty without whose imagined caresses I felt unable to countenance another day. Now, here was Dave telling me that he fancied his chances.

"Really?" I said, trying to sound as disinterested as possible. "Yes, it’s been a good day, all in all. Apparently, I have the right characteristics to be a barrister – I’m eloquent, very bright and enjoy arguing – and on top of that, X says she’ll meet me for a date. For the first time in ages I can see a future, one where I’m not forever selling cardboard boxes, but one of financial security, the respect of my peers and the love of a gorgeous woman like X."

I wanted to be pleased for Dave. I knew he wasn’t fulfilled driving around trying to sell cardboard boxes, so good luck to him if he could find a way out. But go on a date with X? Carve out a life with her at his side? No chance. I seethed darkly as I contemplated the thought of her with him. It was unbearable. Suddenly, before I knew it, Dave was leaning back in his chair, looking smug. "Checkmate," he said. Sure enough, it was. Dave said he was tired and was off to bed.

I skulked downstairs, plotting my revenge on Dave if he so much as thought of X again and devising strategies to ensure that she would favour me and me alone with her charms. I started to see the situation as a chess problem. It was complex, but could be solved. With the requisite intelligent analysis, I could vanquish even an opponent as dangerous as Dave. An uneasy silence descended over the next few weeks, as Dave plied his trade, talked of becoming a barrister, and acted as if he had never mentioned the possibility of seeing X. We played chess every night, and every night, he won, save for the last game we ever played.

Midway through this game, having played a conventional Ruy Lopez opening, I found myself looking squarely at yet another defeat. For all my plotting, on and off the chess board, nothing was clear about X, and here I was, about to be humiliated again. There was nothing for it. I played a gambit of extraordinary risk. "I saw X this afternoon," I said. Dave eyed me quizzically. "Yes," I continued, "she was here. It was wonderful." This was untrue, and I have a feeling Dave knew it was. But the thought unsettled him. By the end of the evening, I had gained my one and only draw.

Soon afterwards, I moved to new accommodation. X moved away, having never dated either of us. For many years, Dave and I lost touch, but then one evening, we met at a barrister’s chambers’ summer get-together. Dave lost no time in seeking me out. "I was told you’d be here," he said, "and wanted to give you this." He handed me a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defence, a discomforting tale in which a chess grandmaster is unable to relate to people (and, indeed, objects) as if they are not all part of a game of chess.But despite Luzhin’s elegant strategies and combinations - a life in which everything is seen as a chess move - his obsession with the game eventually results in insanity and suicide. "There’s something about Luzhin that reminded me of you," said Dave.

Albeit that he no doubt regrets having cause to ponder the legal principles of assault, the same cannot be said of the love-struck, refreshingly inelegant and down-to-earth Danny Gormally.