International grandmaster Patrick Wolff has enjoyed a bird's eye view of the global chess scene for a decade or more. Now the two-time US champion has distilled all that inside information into a fascinating account of Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand's gallant but unsuccessful bid to wrest the world title from Garry Kasparov.
Mr. Wolff's book, "Kasparov Versus Anand: The Inside Story of the 1995 World Chess Championship," (in paperback by H3 Publications, Cambridge, Mass., 191 pp., $20) is a rare treat for the casual player - or even the nonplayer - offering seldom-seen insights into big-time chess and those who dominate its stage.
"I think the way tennis and golf do it is much healthier," he told the Monitor in a recent interview in his tastefully furnished apartment in East Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston.
One of Wolff's pet peeves, ironically, is that he believes too much emphasis is placed on the world championship. He thinks the game would do better to spread the glory around rather than emphasizing one big match every two or three years.
His status among the world's elite lends credibility to his words. But he hardly fits the common perception of chess players as tunnel-visioned automatons devoting all waking hours to playing, studying, or obsessing over their chosen pastime.
Wolff devotes a significant portion of his book to player profiles, a history of the world championship, a "personal perspective" based on his own involvement as a member of Anand's team, and his theories on the reasons for the challenger's inexplicable collapse in mid-match after playing the champion to a standstill over the first half of the contest.
The book is a treasure for serious chess enthusiasts, containing all the games of the "Candidates" matches leading up to the climactic struggle, all previous games between the antagonists, and a detailed analysis of all 18 games in the title match.
"I believe that his mistakes ... were mostly caused by psychological factors, not by deficiencies in preparation or chess skill," Wolff says. "In my opinion, the games show that the root cause was Anand's nerves."
Reading, writing, and playing
As a youngster, Wolff not surprisingly developed a variety of interests. Indeed, despite the demands of top-level chess, he has continued his education, albeit sporadically, spending two years at Yale shortly after high school, then later resuming his studies at Harvard, where he is completing his degree requirements as a second-semester senior.
Along with playing chess, Wolff devotes a great deal of time to teaching, speaking, and writing about the game. The Kasparov-Anand work is his first full-length effort, but he has written numerous magazine articles and is co-writing a second book, "The Idiot's Guide to Chess," due out next spring as part of the MacMillan Publishing's series of such books.
He also continues to speak out on chess-related issues and to offer his own novel (some would say heretical) solutions to what he perceives as the game's most serious problems. Rather than one grand match, he calls for "a series of prestigious tournaments, with an ongoing system of ranking the players, [so that] you don't have this obsession with 'Who is the world champion?' I think that is very bad for chess, and hurts chess. Unfortunately, a lot of people ... get trapped in this mind-set."
Women in chess
On the question about women in chess (why, with the notable current exception of Hungary's Judith Polgar, have women historically never approached the highest men's levels? can they? will they?), he also has his own ideas.
"The problem isn't that women can't play chess," he says, "the problem is that women don't play chess [in any significant numbers]. If you have one very large pool and one very small pool, you have to expect most of the top players to come out of the large pool.
"I really don't believe there's any biological reason. I think it's a reflection of deeper things in our culture - how men feel about themselves and how women feel about themselves. Most women don't seem to choose the same kind of direct conflict and competition that many men do. They don't seem to crave it."
Wolff recalls learning the moves from his father at age 5, but then basically forgetting about the game for a couple of years. "At around 7 or 8 I became really gripped by it," he says. "No one seems to remember why it happened; it just did."
A string of state titles ensued, but he quickly outgrew scholastic competition. He earned the rank of master at 14 ("I was shooting for it before my birthday, but I just missed"), and at 15 he qualified for the US Junior Championship, comprising the nation's top players under 21.
The next year he won this title in a big upset, beating out several older, higher rated competitors, and he went on to win it once more at age 19 in 1987. That year he earned the International Master designation via several successful tournaments in Europe, then in 1990 he achieved the game's highest accolade, International Grandmaster.
Wolff's US titles came in 1992 and 1995. Internationally, he led the US team to a silver medal in the 1991 Student Olympiad, winning individual gold for best Board One score. But perhaps his most impressive result yet, what he calls "the biggest disappointment of my chess career," came two years ago in the Interzonal at Biel, Switzerland - the qualifier for the Candidates matches to see who would be the next world championship challenger.
"I played real good chess, probably the best I've ever played," he says. He beat English grandmaster Michael Adams, drew two of the world's top players, Anand and Vassily Ivanchuk, and was in a position to gain one of the coveted qualifying spots. But after a beautiful sacrifice in a winning position against Soviet grandmaster Alexei Dreyev, Wolff failed to follow up correctly and wound up losing.
"He was simply lost, but I blew it," Wolff says. "The next game I had to play [former world title challenger Victor] Korchnoi, and psychologically I was in bad shape."
In the end, Wolff still achieved a plus score, but he can't help thinking about what might have been - and the chance that, realistically, may never come again.
He'll still be rooting, though, for his friend Anand to get another crack at the world title. And if it happens, don't be surprised to see Patrick Wolff take some time out from whatever new ventures he is involved in to once again join the team and lend his expertise to the quest.