Nigel Short attained the rank of Grandmaster at 19 and has won numerous tournaments and competed in the World Chess Championships, and now at age 52, he is the oldest of the world’s top 100 players.
Mr. Short visited the Cayman Islands as part of a goodwill mission to boost the Chess in Schools program, and he sat down for a question-and-answer session with the Cayman Compass on Tuesday. Some answers have been edited for brevity.
Is it fair to say chess is a young man’s game? Why does chess lend itself to so many prodigies?
It’s actually true of fields like mathematics too that people peak in their 20s. There is a physical decline that is part of it. It’s one thing to calculate for, let’s say, three hours. You generally find that older players, after a certain amount of time, their attention starts to wane. It’s different from when you are 20 years old. It’s also motivation to keep working on chess.
Actually, I think this is very important: Chess is a very demanding interest and it requires a lot of study to improve and maintain your level. If you do not give that then decline inevitably sets in. I think sometimes after a certain number of years – and it happens in many different sports – people kind of get tired of doing the same training. When you see people in tennis, you see them in the competitions. What you don’t see is all the things around that. Hours and hours and hours of work.
Was it harder for you to attain the level of Grandmaster or to remain a world-class player for decades?
I was in the top 10 players for about a decade. I’m on a different level now. However, I am the oldest player in the top 100. I am quite proud of that. In January, I defeated the [world’s] No. 2 player, Fabiano Caruana.
That’s actually a little bit why I was mildly pissed off with your [preview] article, because your very first sentence – I have a list of achievements a mile long – and you say, “Nigel Short, the guy who lost to Garry Kasparov.” It was three years of qualifying to get there. It was not as if I said, ‘Hey Garry, do you fancy a game?’ and he kicked my ass. It was a three-year qualification period and I beat people like Anatoly Karpov, one of the greatest players in history, in order to get there. I was only the second non-Soviet player, after Bobby Fisher, since the Second World War to reach the final of the World Championship, and it appears, first line: Nigel Short, the guy who lost to Kasparov. I just tell you that. But I forgive you.
How would it have affected your game to have grown up in the era of chess computers?
When I go to a tournament, I just take my laptop with me with my analysis engines. My database. Because that is the main work tool. I might also take a book or two, but in the old days, I’d be lugging books around with me. I’m not sure what I have on my database, but I probably have 6.3 million historical games that have been played. You cannot carry that around in a suitcase on paper.
In former times, you had a tyranny of distance. If you were here in the Cayman Islands with 60,000 people, you would say it’s not big enough a pool of players. You would be compelled to travel. The nice thing is you can play chess online. You do not even have to go out of your house and in seconds you can find yourself playing somebody in Australia, India or France. I think that is a tremendous blessing. It’s not, ‘Oh well, there are only a few people at the club and I’ve played them all before.’ You play someone else with a different style and different strength and that’s part of learning.”
Is it easier to become a Grandmaster now since the advent of technology?
The number of players with the Grandmaster title is now actually quite high. But that is not because standards have risen. It’s because they have lowered the qualifications for the Grandmaster title. I will not bore you with the reasons why they’ve done that. It has to do with the microfinancing of the World Chess Federation. If you get your diploma, you pay a few hundred euros for this thing. There are over 1,500 Grandmasters in the world. I just say, ‘I’m not one of the riff-raff. You may have the same title, but I do not consider myself on the same level.’ You could easily be ranked No. 2,000 in the world and still be a Grandmaster. In tennis, if you were ranked 2,000th in the world, nobody would give you the time of day.”
Do you think man or machine will ever perfect chess? Is it possible to be unbeatable, or will technology ultimately reach a point of diminishing returns before that ever happens?
I do not think chess will ever be solved as a game, like checkers, for example, has been. And that is because the complexity of chess is that much greater. There have been numerous studies to show that the number of possibilities for a game of chess greatly exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. For all intents and purposes, this is an infinite game. Computers are getting stronger all the time, so the knowledge that we have on the game is increasing. But it’s too rich. It’s really amazing when you consider that it’s only 64 squares and 32 pieces. But it’s a world of its own.
What drives you to keep playing after however many hours you’ve played in your life?
I enjoy it. I enjoy winning tournaments. Even this year, I’ve won a couple [of] tournaments. I won a small tournament in Ireland. I won the Thailand Open for the third time this year. I like the fact that I can still bite some very strong players. Beating Fabiano Caruana, the world No. 2, in January, someone who is half my age. It shows that I can still maintain a decent level, and on my day, I’m still a dangerous player.
Do you have a proudest moment in the game?
If you ask me emotionally, what is my greatest achievement, it is undoubtedly beating Anatoly Karpov, former world champion, 6-4 in a match in Spain. That was my greatest moment. But I’ve won a huge number of tournaments in different places. I believe I’m the only player to have won tournaments on six continents. I’ve certainly claimed that and nobody has disputed it or made a counter-claim.