It seems that most modern chess masters have been either destructive or self-destructive, impossibly arrogant or downright deranged. The great Paul Morphy was a paranoiac recluse who lived out his final years in deathly fear of poisoners. Wilhelm Steinitz had a delusion of playing chess with God and giving Him a pawn and one-move advantage. Boozy, bigoted Alexander Alekhine is said to have urinated on the floor during a match. And then there was Bobby Fischer, who gave up his world championship to pursue his many eccentricities. "You don't have to be mad to be world champion," says Nigel Short of England, "but it helps."
For a chess player, Short seems almost normal. Ranked among the Top 10 players internationally, the 23-year-old Short is outgoing and decidedly Pythonesque. He's also one of the few Westerners—his countryman Jonathan Speelman is another—since Fischer abandoned the game in 1972 to be given a chance of breaking the Soviet Union's grip on the chess crown. In August, Short will take on Speelman in the quarterfinals of the world championships. If Short wins that match and again in the semifinals, he will have a chance to challenge champion Gary Kasparov for the title in 1990.
Short is sitting in the lounge of London's Park Lane Hotel, where two years ago Kasparov made his first defense against his predecessor, Anatoly Karpov. A slim, pallid fellow, Short peers out from behind wire-frame spectacles that make him look owlish. "I hear the United States is very big, with lots of wide-open spaces," he says. "It must be frightfully windy there."
Short's conversation is laced with humor and irony. He chats and plays chess with the same relaxed nonchalance. While Kasparov is daring and bloodthirsty, relentlessly stalking his opponent's king, Short is a model of rationality and pragmatism. His game is clean, intuitive, straightforward. "I've become more of an attacker in my old age," he says dryly. "I only recently discovered how enjoyable it is to bludgeon an opponent to death."
As a kid growing up near Manchester, Short was called a prodigy long before he knew what the word meant. He picked up chess at the age of five by watching his father, David, a public relations specialist, teach moves to Nigel's older brother, Martin. During Fischer's 1972 title match with Boris Spassky, Nigel spent hour after hour playing through the games on a pocket chess set. "I thought Fischer's games were excellent, but as a person he seemed an awkward so-and-so," Short says. "I admire his awkwardness now. It's a form of self-indulgency you have to earn."
By seven, Short was so precocious that he had already drawn the attention of the chess press. At 10, he beat Viktor Korchnoi, then No. 2 in the world, in a game that lasted nine hours. O.K., so Korchnoi was simultaneously playing several other players for much of that time in an exhibition. At 11, Short became the youngest player by four years to qualify for the British championships. At 12, he defeated 10-time national champ Jonathan Penrose in 41 moves. At 14, he became the youngest international master in history and tied for first in the British championships. At 15, he had a book published about him (Chapter Three: "Nigel at Nine").
Around that time, Short learned what competition at chess's highest level can be like as he finished last in a field of grand masters in a London tournament. His career suffered what he calls a two-year hiccup. "I felt like a steamroller had gone over my head," he recalls. "All my illusions were destroyed. I'd always thought I wasn't much behind the world champion. I'd never realized there was such a gulf."
The real problem was, says his father, that Nigel wasn't working hard enough. "He was getting by purely on talent." Young Nigel had acquired a carefree image. He once played Space Invaders between matches and at a tournament in France he provoked an international incident when his smart-aleck responses to a questionnaire were printed in the tournament bulletin. Officials were less offended by his answer to the hobby query ("bearbaiting and necrophilia") than by his response to the question, "What do you hate most in life?" Answer: "France." They demanded and received an apology.
Short's frivolous behavior and offhand remarks (he once said the only exercise he got was "sex, occasionally") have been called immature by the British press. "You have to remember Nigel was brought up in the company of chess players," says David. "He didn't have a chance to mix with other children."
Short didn't excel in the classroom. Besides chess, his passion was rock music. As a teenager, he formed a band called the Chess Nuts, which later became The Urge. "We wanted something that sounded a little bit naughty," he says. With Short playing bass guitar and writing lyrics like "my feet will walk across the water of your mind," The Urge finished next-to-last in a school talent show. "Nigel wasn't bad," says his wife, Rea. "He was horrendous."
There was one other chess phenom for Short to measure himself against—Kasparov, who is two years older. In the 1980 world junior championship, Short got the silver, Kasparov the gold. The two are not the best of mates. Short trashed Kasparov's autobiography, Child of Change, last year in the British magazine The Spectator. He questioned if all world-class chess players—clearly including Kasparov in that group—were not "Grandmasters of self-delusion," and dismissed the book as a paranoid sequel to The Lord of the Rings. "It was honest and interesting," Short says, "but I'm sure Mein Kampf is interesting, too."
Still, he and Kasparov found common ground last year in a made-for-TV speed-chess exhibition (each game was limited to 50 minutes) at London's Hippodrome. Their prematch press conference was staged with all the subtlety of a Las Vegas revue. Short and Kasparov, seated at a chess table on a platform that rose through a trapdoor, appeared amid an extravaganza of flashing strobes, dry-ice-induced fog and window-rattling music. The two players wore outfits that matched the colors of their pieces: Short was in a white dinner jacket, Kasparov a black tuxedo. Despite losing the match four games to two, Short said, "It's a result we can both be happy with."
Kasparov would never be pleased in defeat, but then Short lacks his ruthless ambition. "Nigel is perhaps a more balanced personality," says John Nunn, Short's frequent second. "He constantly asks himself, Do I want to spend my entire life studying five hours a day and playing chess?" Even the three days a week Short usually trains with Nunn are a pain. "Thinking hurts." Short says. "It's difficult to really, really concentrate. After a while my brain frazzles."
"Short's approach is lightweight," says Kasparov. Of course, Kasparov was raised in a society that systematically and conscientiously nurtured his talent. In contrast, Short was pretty much on his own. His culture has traditionally treated chess players as geeks. "Playing chess has only recently become an acceptable profession in the West," says Nunn. "It's no longer just another way to be unemployed."
American grand master Larry Evans believes Short has virtually no chance of unseating Kasparov as world champ. "Short's game doesn't have Kasparov's density or depth or profundity," says Evans. Others think Short's arsenal of opening moves is too primitive. "Whereas Short fires V-2 rockets," says British grand master Raymond Keene, "Kasparov deploys missiles with 15 revolving warheads."
Short readily acknowledges the missile gap. "I've got such a long way to go before I get to the level of Kasparov," he says. "He knows more about theory than I ever will. That doesn't mean I won't beat him, though."
But Short first may have to get past Karpov, the most formidable of the praetorian guard of Soviets who stand between him and a title match. Short finished ahead of Karpov in April to win a tournament in the Netherlands, and had a new chrysanthemum, nine years in cultivation, named after him. In the excitement, he neglected to bring one of the plants home for Rea. "It was a blunder bigger than any I've made on the board," he says.
Short, now 23, became the youngest international master ever, when he was only 14.