As it happens, my son, Paul, was a very, very good chess player from the age of 7 to 15, playing at the national level in France, both amongst children and adults. He suddenly quit chess completely not long after he turned 15, telling me that it would require more work than it was worth to stay at the top levels as he grew older. That made sense. In any case, he quit, while I continued to play as a hack. But I also continued to watch the players of his age group whom he had known or played against as they rose up the categories. One who I had first become aware of when he was about 8 years old, and who was only 6 months older than Paul, was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He was already one of the top young players at that time in France, and he continued to rise steadily up the ratings list and through the hierarchy of national, European and world championships.
Lately, this player has reached as high as No. 2 in the world, and currently sits third in the international ratings list. A couple of weeks ago, in France and in French, he published a book about his life in chess (Joueur d’echecs, Fayard) – at age 27 – and I now learn that while I never doubted that this young player would rise up to challenge for the world title, apparently there were a few times in his career when he had his doubts. His rise up the international standings was not quite as fast as some of his contemporaries – like the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, or even Sergey Karjakin, of Russia – but if you watched his career as closely as I have, or even just look at his career ratings chart on the site of the FIDE, you see a trajectory that goes up, up, up, steadily.
But despite having seen Vachier-Lagrave play in many tournaments, having exchanged a few words with him and his parents, and having observed him at the chess club that he and my son were both members of a little more than a decade ago, I never felt I had any understanding at all about who this kid was, this boy who was so clearly made for chess in a way that my son Paul, despite his natural talent, was not. So when I learned that this new book about his life had come out, I immediately downloaded it into my Kindle. And I was NOT disappointed.
Part of the reason I am so bad at chess is my simple lack of attention span when it comes to reading any book about how to play chess. But Vachier-Lagrave’s book has NO writing about how to move the pieces or what an opening, middle game or endgame is. This book is all about what it means to be a professional chess player today, and how he got there. One of his main stated goals is to show that while the game of chess may be extremely complicated in the eyes of most people, and the top level players may be associated with the kind of madness we find in books like “The Defense,” by Vladimir Nabokov, or Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” or in famous players like Bobby Fischer, who went slightly off the rails mentally, Vachier-Lagrave sets out to show just how normal a young man he is.
“At the risk of deceiving some people, chess players are not robots, not computers with legs, and not mad scientists,” he writes (here in my translation from the French). “Worse, or rather, better: We are just normal people! With our qualities and our faults, our certainties and our quandaries, some strong points and many weak points. Normal people who are in possession of an abnormal talent – in the first sense of the word, that is, outside the norm – in a specific area, which is the practice of chess.”
He puts chess into a completely different perspective than that of the popular imagination, and for that this is a book that can be of interest to the general reader, although I feel it will mostly be read by an audience of chess players and fans who know who he is. As it turns out, he describes himself almost perfectly whenever he talks about how he may appear from the outside, to others; somewhat diffident appearing, not overly emotional on the outside, but enjoying to let himself go occasionally, including with friends at a bar.
What I realize most through the reading of this book is that like it or not, fair or not, there IS a difference between the extremely talented and those who are not so talented. While Vachier-Lagrave talks about all the hard work he has had to do in his life to achieve the success he has at the moment, he especially emphasises how impossible it is for him to sit eight hours a day, every day, to just study chess. When he does play, he is like a child having fun kicking a soccer ball. It is not work, it is passion. But he never takes it too far, because it is ultimately, also, his profession. In fact, he can go a few days without playing at all, between tournaments. To empty his mind and return with passion again.
But here, no doubt, lies the key to it all – and in contrast to my son’s relationship with chess: First, Vachier-Lagrave says he could never do without chess, that it keeps returning to hims; second, his natural talent is clearly of a massively high level, and his pleasure is rewarded with satisfaction if he works at it so he does not have to work more than he might want to.
But I also found, as I read this book – which, by the way, is extremely intelligently written, and shows a decent cultivation, which is not surprising for a chess player who also took a university degree in math – that the similarities between success in a chess career and success in, say, a racing car driver’s career, are many. I thought often of the memoir, “Aussie Grit,” of Mark Webber, the Formula One driver, as I read this book, because Webber emphasises over and over again the need to go to the absolute limit in order to reach the highest level. Many drivers have talent, but only those who make all the right moves and never give up, arrive at the pinnacle.
There are many talented chess players in the world, but despite Vachier-Lagrave trying to look “normal,” what sets him apart is his exceptional ability to roll with the punches, believe in himself, and to continue that steady rise up the ladder in pursuit of the dream of his childhood to be world champion. This is no doubt due to his exceptional lucidity about how to deal with life’s potential obstacles.
“The pages of the history books are full of these great young hopes who remained great young hopes and never managed to “make it,”” he writes. “Everything is a question of talent, work and desire, but not even those things are enough sometimes. Bad luck and the unpredictable circumstances of life can destroy progress forever, and put to an end a career that looked brilliant before it even started.”