Not all chess players are crazy. I'm willing to venture that. But not much more. Eccentricity does reign in our precincts. In my 20s, I used to hang out at the Boston Chess Club. The front of the club was a bookstore in which you'd mill around, choose a partner, put your money down with the manager and go to the back room -- 20 or so boards set up in utter barrenness -- for some action. (At five bucks an hour it was cheaper than a bordello, but the principle seemed disturbingly similar to me.)
I remember one back room encounter quite vividly. The stranger and I sat down to the board together. I held out my hand and said, "Hi, I'm Charles." He pushed his white king's pawn and said, "I'm white," fixing me with a glare that said, "Don't you dare intrude into my space with names." It was dead silence from then on.
A psychiatrist colleague of mine came by to fetch me a few hours later. He surveyed the clientele -- intense, disheveled, autistic -- and declared, "I could run a group in here."
Don't get me wrong. Most chess players are sane. In fact, a group of the saner ones, mostly journalists and writers, meets at my house every Monday night for speed chess. (You make all your moves in under nine minutes total, or you lose.) But all sane chess players know its dangers. Chess is an addiction. Like alcohol, it must be taken in moderation. Overindulgence can lead to a rapid downward spiral.
Vladimir Nabokov (a gifted creator of chess problems and a fine player, by the way) wrote a novel based on the premise of the psychic peril of too close an encounter with "the full horror and abysmal depths" of chess, as he called its closed, looking-glass world. (Nabokov's chess champion hero, naturally, goes bonkers.)
Chess players, says former U.S. champion Larry Christiansen, inhabit a "subterranean, surreal world. It is not the real world, not even close." So what happens when a creature of that nether world seizes political power?
Impossible, you say: Sure, there have been dictators -- Lenin, for example -- who played serious chess, but there has never been a real chess player who became a dictator.
And no wonder, considering the alarming number of great players who were so certifiably nuts they'd have trouble tying their shoelaces, let alone running a country. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first world champion, claimed to have played against God, given Him an extra pawn, and won. Bobby Fischer had the fillings in his teeth removed to stop the radio transmissions.
Well, in some Godforsaken corner of the Russian empire, Kalmykia on the Caspian, where the sheep outnumber people 2 to 1, the impossible has happened. A chess fanatic has seized power. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former boy chess champion, current president of the International Chess Federation, was elected president of Kalmykia two years ago on the promise of a cell phone for every sheepherder and $100 for every voter in his destitute republic.
Naturally, nothing came of these promises. But once elected, he seized all the instruments of power including the police, the schools and the media.
Result? Ilyumzhinov calls it the world's first "chess state." God help us. Compulsory chess classes in all schools. Prime-time chess on TV. And in the midst of crushing poverty, a just erected "Chess City," a surreal Potemkin village topped by a five-story glass-pavilioned chess palace where Ilyumzhinov has just staged an international chess tournament.
This scene (drolly described by Andrew Higgins in the Wall Street Journal) would be Groucho running Fredonia if it weren't for the little matter of the opposition journalist recently murdered after being lured to a meeting where she was promised evidence of Ilyumzhinov's corruption. (Ilyumzhinov denies involvement. Perhaps it depends on how you define the word "involve.") Kalmykia is beginning to look less like Woody Allen's "Bananas" than Nurse Ratched's "Cuckoo's Nest."
Ilyumzhinov rides around in his Rolls-Royces, presiding over a state that specializes in corruption and tax evasion. The Washington Post reports that he paved the road from the airport to the capital and painted every building along the way, but only the side that faces the road. So now the world knows what chess players have known all along: A passion for chess, like a drug addiction or a criminal record, should be automatic disqualification for any serious public activity. Column writing excepted, of course.