There is no game of wits at which losing is more unpleasant than chess. Any game involving cards or dice involves chance. One can blame losses on the fickle Goddess Fortuna. Her constant presence teaches poker players, for example, a kind of stoic fatalism that enables them to cope with even the most unpleasant defeats.
Not so with chess. Everything is visible and therefore theoretically knowable. A loss is hard to view as anything other than a failure of one's own judgment and intellect. It really hurts, and the higher up in the chess world, the greater the mental anguish. One reason why many strong players give up the game they love is that they increasingly find that the agony of losing so much outweighs the ecstasy of winning that they almost dread sitting down at the board to play.
This is the bleak sentiment that appeared last month to have overcome Vassily Ivanchuk, one of the world's strongest players. The 40-year-old Ukrainian was taking part in the World Chess Cup, a knock-out tournament, which forms an integral part of the world championship cycle. To almost everyone's surprise, he was eliminated early on by a 16-year-old Filipino called Wesley So — a very good player, but on paper no match for the player ranked third a year ago.
After his defeat, Ivanchuk exploded with rage, declaring he was quitting chess for good: "I committed chess suicide. I was about to win...then I just went crazy. My opponent...played very badly...To my mind, I should leave professional chess now. I don't need anything from chess any more. Chess is killing me. Chess is playing against me! Chess is destroying me! Everyone is against me and I don't see the way out."
In a way, this outburst was not totally surprising: Ivanchuk is volatile and finds it hard to control his emotions even while at the board. He is also a genius. His best games show an astounding combination of power and elegance perhaps unmatched in this or any era. For this reason, chess fans were enormously relieved when only a matter of days later, Ivanchuk issued a statement declaring: "I ask the forgiveness of my supporters, friends, colleagues and chess lovers for the emotional interview. I was very upset after losing, but am not in any circumstances planning to give up chess."
We must hope that is true. But the history of chess shows that some defeats cause permanent, irreparable harm to a player's psyche. One of the most spectacular examples occurred between Wilhelm Steinitz and Curt von Bardeleben in the great Hastings tournament of 1895. When the two sat down to play they were tied for the lead, so it was a crucial encounter. Steinitz, who had lost the world championship the year before, chose this moment to play the most beautiful combination of his career. With a majestic rook sacrifice, he reached a position in which he could force an exquisite mate in 11 moves. At this point, von Bardeleben got up from the board and never returned, forfeiting the game.