One of the more justified criticisms of modern professional sport is that it has become too competitive to allow anything approaching a normal life on the part of its practitioners. To get to the very top, or even close to it, they must combine the austere dedication of a monk with the selfish drive of a monster. The age of the glorious amateur, or even of the man of parts, seems all but dead.
This might also be said of chess: grandmasters aspiring to compete for the world championship must work much harder now than the previous generation, not least because computer-driven opening theory is developing at a pace which would have astounded the old school.
There are some, however, who refuse to let their lives be taken over in this way — and the most noticeable example is the Russian champion Peter Svidler. The 35-year-old native of St Petersburg has won the Russian championship a remarkable six times, including the most recent, last August. Svidler went straight on from that to win, in September, the immensly arduous Chess World Cup, which qualifies him to play in the eight-man World Championship eliminating tournament next September.
Yet when I rang Peter to congratulate him, our conversation roamed over much more than chess: whenever he talks to an Englishman, he prefers to discuss cricket. Having been introduced to the game in 1999 by his friend Nigel Short, Svidler immediately became consumed by a passion for this most un-Russian pursuit. In fact, when I called him, he was in St Petersburg glued to a Eurosport satellite transmission of a one-day cricket match, and hugely frustrated that the Russian commentator was ignorant of the law governing stumping. During the recent Ashes series, he said, he had got little sleep because he was up all night watching the broadcasts live from Australia. He supports the English cricket team faithfully, to such an extent that his emails have the automatic sign-off "Strauss for Prime Minister".