The air was thick with intrigue that April day in Germany. A relentless field marshal, young in age but seasoned in triumph, had just deployed his foot soldiers deep into enemy territory. At stake was the crown — and an expansion of empire.
Another battle was on in the land of the Third Reich, supposed claimant and progeny of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.
But this battle was different.
Many years later, when historians hark back to the heavy thud of imperial boots, the story of that April contest in Germany would stand out; not because of the terrible beauty that an Irish poet had foreseen but for its endgame of courtesy.
Let’s go back a bit. It’s April 28, 2019, Baden-Baden, Germany. On one side was a young man with Hollywood good looks. Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, the flamboyant reigning superstar of chess.
On the other side of the board was grandmaster Peter Svidler, a 42-year-old from Russia.
The Grenke Chess Classic was in its homestretch and Carlsen, 28, was, well, romping home as usual.
No, this is not about Carlsen, he is just a metaphor, rather a master practitioner of a metaphor — a 64-square battleground where no blood is drawn. The victor merely “mates” the vanquished.
That April day, the victor grinned, the vanquished smiled and victory and defeat were sealed with a handshake.
For Carlsen, it was a heady win. Two black pawns, expendable proletariat of the game, pushed towards Svidler’s king in a pincer thrust.
The white king, trapped in imminent defeat, has nowhere to run.
Carlsen moves one of the pawns further up. Check!
Svidler’s king sidles right.
The second black pawn steps up. Check! And mate!
Didn’t Svidler see the mate coming?
Of course, he did. But he allowed himself to be mated. Had he resigned, Carlsen couldn’t have checkmated his opponent, though the Norwegian, the reigning world chess champion, would still have won.
For the record books, Carlsen — 1.
For the intangible register of courtesy, Svidler — 1.
Chess, the ultimate cerebral war where the sting of defeat can burn for years on the slow fire of humiliation, had bequeathed for posterity an exemplary image.
“Magnus played very well…,” Svidler said in a post-match interview.
“It was certainly a fun game today,” laughed Carlsen, “but I can’t expect to win like that every game.”
Civility had returned, exactly a week after a mindless carnage had sought to sully the transcendental message of Resurrection — of a lonely man who died a lacerated death.
Over two hundred and fifty people were killed in suicide bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21, Easter Sunday, in a coordinated attack that targeted three churches and three luxury hotels. At least five hundred were injured.
Chess itself has come a long way, from those days of the Cold War when the board was a proxy battlefield for nuclear warheads that lay leashed in reluctant restraint.
That leash had nearly snapped in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in October 1962 before better sense prevailed.
That was a time when grandmasters; brilliant, brooding exponents of the game, would sometimes claim their rivals had brought along with them hidden hypnotists to work their spell.
If the bombs couldn’t bristle, the chessboard did.
Abiding images sometimes bring back abiding memories. The great Capablanca, the late Cuban world champion, had once reportedly told Savielly Tartakower, “You are lacking in solidity.”
Quick had come the retort from the Polish and French grandmaster. “That is my saving grace.”
At Baden-Baden too, what unfolded that Sunday after the mayhem on Easter was another moment of saving grace.