Book Review: Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw by Austrian author Thomas Glavinic
Chess and the mysteries of human aggression
Constructing the Game
I played chess again one hot afternoon this summer. It had been a number of years. Surprising myself, my approach had changed radically: I had become aggressive. Lost was the long-ago defensive game I played with my brother. And lost was the careful game I had needed with my son, who already at seven could put up an excellent fight.
At ten, my son discovered the elegance of the Japanese game called Go, and I lost my chess partner. But that didn’t bother me too much: chess had lost its appeal. I had finally beaten my brother, and out there in the world, the Machine had also beaten the grandmaster. The brute force programs had been refined with heuristic logic and pattern searches; there were even chess competitions between computers. Why still believe in human intuition?
Luckily, I read Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw. This wonderful book is a fictional account of the world chess championship held in 1910 in Vienna and Berlin between the actual world champion of the time, Emanuel Lasker, and the fictional Carl Haffner, who is modeled on the true Austrian grandmaster Karl Schlechter. At the time, the German Lasker had already been champion for sixteen years. But the Vienna Chess Club was sure their Schlechter could secure the world title for Austria.
Schlechter was a master, but he was particularly a master of the defense, with a style "always geared to safety." Not aggressive, he was generally inclined to let a game finish undecided: Over half of the some 700 games he played in his professional career ended in a draw. As described by Glavinic, the unassuming Schlechter (alias Haffner) had to be pushed into challenging the world champion.
In the quiet depiction of how the nearly destitute lived in fin de siècle Vienna, the life of the chess genius Haffner seems strangely foreign, but nevertheless painfully alive. Perhaps the most curious and yet finest point in Carl Haffner’s nature is his reluctance to be any sort of burden. He has an almost pathological modesty and a deep humility. He refuses any gain that he does not feel absolutely fairly earned.
In contrast, his opponent Lasker, as portrayed in Love of the Draw, has "a fighting spirit unequalled by any player alive."
Chess is a silent sport, but it is nevertheless full of contemplative fury, minute choreography of skill, and slow-motion wrestling. It is not merely a game with 64 squares; it is much more than the memorization of openings or tactical positioning. It is the encounter of two psyches, a meeting of two temperaments. When Haffner meets his foe, he is upset and embarrassed by the hullabaloo. In return, Lasker eyes Haffner intently, assumes a "serene and lofty manner," and puffs on a cigar.
As in solving any problem, in chess it is possible to play a pugilist game, boxing your way forward. It is also possible to choose a game that builds walls and nearly immobile defenses. Some players prefer symmetry in the opening , others immediately fight for the center of the board. Some strive for equality and others for the advantage. Some are willing to sacrifice pieces to gain positional strength, others are reluctant to lose a single one.
"Every true master has a style of his own. A musician doesn’t invent songs, he composes them. A writer doesn’t simply write books, he puts them together. Similarly, a great chess master doesn’t play games, he constructs them."
The reluctant Austrian begins the challenge, moving carefully. But as Lasker immediately notices, Haffner "played chess with his entire self, not just with his brain."
The first four games all end in a draw. Then Haffner wins the fifth after a remarkable blunder by Lasker. In the tenth and final round, Haffner leads by a point. He opens strongly, and Lasker’s serenity is finally broken. Lasker knows that the final game, too, will most certainly end in a draw. Suddenly Haffner makes a move that is completely out of character.
As the astonished spectators immediately see, "the Viennese challenger had lost his wits: he was playing to win." Haffner considered his lead unmerited: to truly consider himself the world champion he had convinced himself that he needed to win by two points. But it is a short-lived aggression: just a few moves later, after a nearly paralyzed hour-long analysis of the board, Haffner "plays like a child" and loses the game.
For a grandmaster, chess is like ballet, full of elegant series of moves that have been analyzed for hundreds of years. There are five categories of openings, each divided into a hundred sub-categories, of which each has a name. These are patterns that masters can dance in their sleep. What for us amateurs can feel like slow plowing forward, or even tedious and complicated stumbling, is for a master a rapid attack or defense that can be implemented again and again.
In the end, Haffner returns to his humble life in Vienna. But Lasker’s triumph is not a true victory. Although the victor takes the spoils, in this case a gold watch, both he and the defeated know that it was merely due to Haffner’s retreat in the last moment that left the balance of the scales in Lasker’s favor.
Love of the Draw is an unassuming book, much like the title’s protagonist, but it is rich in the subtle intricacies of human nature. The succulent vocabulary of John Brownjohn’s translation from the original German is a pleasure. But above all, the book reawakened my interest in how and why people play chess.
Chess is not the "real world," nor is the solving of chess problems a metaphor for it. But the mental process of disentangling the myriad possibilities offered in a game of chess is deeply satisfying. It is comparable to moving through the clean steps of a mathematical algorithm or reading a long crime novel. It leaves the mind both exhausted and refreshed.
And so I will play more chess. But not like Haffner. It seems that I would rather, like Lasker, "accept losses in order to lure an opponent onto dangerous ground." It has been a revealing glimpse into my own psyche and, I must admit, the idea is exhilarating.
Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw
by Thomas Glavinic
(John Brownjohn, transl.)
The Harvill Press (1999)
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