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16. Oktober 2002

George Steiner

The chess world has much to thank for the legendary World Championship of 1972, not only for its marvellous chess and wealth of associated stories, but also for a little book, which is unique, since it was penned by a first-class philosopher, namely, George Steiner. The chess community appreciates popularity and social acceptance, and takes notice whenever it appears in the media - in films, advertising. This was particulary the case here, where their beloved game received philosophical recognition at the highest level; for popularity of this type - despite the meaning of the word - means appreciation by the cognoscenti.

George Steiner appears to hail from a different era. He belongs to a type of person who one normally only comes across in chronicles of times past - the polymath. His classical knowledge is awesomely wide and so are his interests. Steiner's works include books on Greek drama, Russian literature, and Heidegger. He has written on the philosophy of language, music, arts and, here, chess. He seemingly effortlessly employs different languages to operate in various fields; in fact, in his view, language is everything, and therefore, as a poly-linguist, he is a free-spirit.


"The sporting scene" was published in 1972 and is based on his own eyewitness account. It takes huge detours round geographical and mental peculiarities and ancient Icelandic sagas to the psychology of the combatants and does not forget the political backdrop to the contest. The actual games are, for the thinker, merely of secondary interest.


Spassky is described as "an individual of great charm and impeccable courtesy", as a gentleman, though with signs of "melancholy and introspective passivity (the Oblomovism of Russian literature and life)". Fischer, on the other hand, remains an enigma for a cultivated man like Steiner; and had he not been a genius, had he not "changed the social and professional nature of a game that is perhaps fifteen hundred years old", he probably would not have been of any interest to a philosopher, being seen merely as a "loner" with "bad manners and indifference to customary social behaviour and to the personal feelings of others to a degree which verges on a transcendent state". But it is precisely this contrast between his star performance in a "totally abstract, esoteric, terribly narrow cerebral pursuit" and the lack of morality and education which attracts the metaphysical mind. The question is, was Fischer entirely responsible for his misbehavour and social failing, or is he a creation born of the very nature of chess: "Whatever Fischer's idiosyncrasies are, the game itself encourages paranoia, states of unreality and autistic obsessiveness". Finally it is made clear that the Russian title defender is not part of the quasi mythical formula "Spassky - Fischer".

It is somewhat ridiculous for Steiner to censure Fischer in an outmoded, antiquated way, for often turning up late for the games, being, as he was, "by definition, junior to the world champion".

Were Stefan Zweig to have fortuitously named his anti-hero Fischer instead of Czentowic, no one would doubt, that the American chess genius was nothing other than a reincarnation of the Slavonic chess monomaniac.


Steiner is at his best when he describes the "crescendo of triumph in chess" and it soon becomes clear, that he is trying to construct this book in analogy to this crescendo. This main part is always ecstatic and eminently readible, despite the principal problem - just as with music or mathematics - that chess is totally incomprehensible to a non-player. "The poets lie about orgasm. It is a small, chancy business, its particularities immediately effaced even from the most roseate memories, compared to the crescendo of triumph in chess".

Finally, Steiner adds it all together, and the sum is surprisingly small. But, in the other hand, for one who has at his disposal more than just one cultural area, it is nevertheless astonishing: "Chess may well be the most profound, least exhaustible of pastimes, but that is all it is".


Copyright © 2002 by Christian Hörr