November 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Checkmate

By Leigh Sales
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

One recent Sunday morning, Ian Rogers, the greatest chess player Australia has produced, showed up at a small tournament held at the Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club, in Sydney’s north-west. Chessboards were arranged on trestle tables in an upstairs function room; apart from the occasional crash of a poker-machine payout, the only sound came from players slapping clocks and trading turns. The participants were mostly male, although a teenage girl sat at one board. She was winning, and her opponent was glowering. His concentration probably wasn’t helped by the fact that her black bra was clearly visible under a tight white T-shirt bearing the word ‘hypnosis’ in gold glitter.

As Rogers lingered near the boards, an elderly man with sunken cheeks darted past. “Good morning, good afternoon, hello, goodbye, good player, good player,” the man muttered in a thick East European accent, scurrying to his assigned game. “That’s Johnny,” said Rogers. “He was a computer programmer in Belgrade until he had a nervous breakdown. He’s homeless, and used to live out of a shopping trolley.”

Johnny was not the only player to greet Rogers: everyone hailed the slight, bespectacled man whose white beard and mop of grey hair give him the appearance of an amiable, eccentric scientist (he has a degree in science, as it happens). Rogers has been the nation’s top-rated chess player for two decades, and in 1985 he became its first grandmaster - the highest international rank. Just one other Australian has qualified for this title-for-life, bestowed by the game’s governing body: Darryl Johansen, in 1993.

Ian Rogers was not playing at the Ryde-Eastwood tournament. In fact, he will not play competitively ever again: in July, he astonished chess aficionados by announcing his retirement. At 47, he could no longer tolerate the extreme stress of top-level competition. Rogers first realised something was wrong in April, when an agonising pain struck his right arm. “The hospital decided it was probably a heart attack, then the pain disappeared,” he recalled. Tests showed that it was referred from a worn-out bone in his neck, caused by hours of hunching over chessboards. (The condition also afflicts dentists, who bend over patients all day.) Further tests revealed that his kidneys were functioning at less than 50%. Rogers sought three different opinions, but the advice was the same: if he didn’t retire from competitive chess, the stress would kill him. “I still don’t think I’ve come to terms with it,” he admitted. “Playing gave me a real buzz.”

Rogers started playing chess when he was a boy in Melbourne, during the late ‘60s, when he lived near a Baptist church hall that hosted a chess club every Tuesday night. At the time, the American prodigy Bobby Fischer was a superstar for his epic battles against much older Russian grandmasters. Fischer piqued Rogers’ curiosity, and the Australian’s passion for the game grew during high school. At 15, he was an Australian representative at the World Cadet Chess Championship in France. He came third, cementing his reputation as a rising talent.

In 1980, aged 20, Rogers achieved the coveted title of international master. In 1982, after finishing his degree at Melbourne University, he decided to work full-time at becoming a grandmaster. He would have to post outstanding results in three tournaments, each of them featuring at least three grandmasters, along with other players of international standing. In 1985, within a nine-month period, Rogers won the necessary games. At his peak, in 1999, the Australian was ranked fiftieth in the world - one of a handful of Westerners on a list dominated by names such as Karpov, Spassky and Kasparov. (To this day, Russia produces three times as many Grandmasters as any other country.)

Elite chess is stressful indeed. Games can last for many hours, requiring great reserves of physical, mental and emotional stamina. Players must be able to calculate complicated probabilities many moves ahead, predict opponents’ likely responses and adjust strategy accordingly, often within minutes or even seconds. Each player prays the other will be the first to crack. A win is often viewed as partly the result of luck, whereas a loss is blamed entirely on one’s own inadequacy. Even the smallest slip-up invariably spells disaster. It is not uncommon to see players shaking and sweating profusely, nor is it unusual to see somebody burst into tears.

“I had volatile blood pressure for ages, and five years ago I used to take blood-pressure tablets. But I realised they were destroying my play” - his world ranking began to plummet - “because they cut out my adrenaline,” Rogers said. He also lost weight. “At the end of a game you’re wrecked, so you have no appetite,” he explained. “But beforehand I wouldn’t eat, because I didn’t want my stomach taking blood from my brain.”

Rogers was “miffed” at the minimal press interest in Australia when he became a grandmaster; his retirement went similarly unnoticed. The current world champion is Viswanathan Anand, a household name in India who has been voted his country’s top sportsman, ahead of cricketing legends Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev. A player at Anand’s level receives thousands of dollars merely for showing up at a tournament; Rogers spent much of his career dossing on people’s couches and hitchhiking between contests. “The night after I became a grandmaster, I slept on a park bench,” he told me. “The hotel had given away our room, and we couldn’t afford the other place they recommended.”

Given the sacrifices involved, why did he continue? “It’s like you are trying to create something beautiful, and you have an opponent that is trying to stop you doing it. There are games that were played a thousand years ago that people still look at and appreciate. It’s your ambition to have one of those immortal games.” Now, having abandoned the competitive life, it is his ambition to eke out a living in chess through coaching, writing and commentating.

“C’mon, let’s have a look at this,” said Rogers, grinning, and we walked towards a nearby group. Johnny had just checkmated his young opponent, and hovering players swooped to analyse missed opportunities; pawns, bishops and knights were thumped rapidly from square to square and a heated discussion erupted. “This is always fun because Johnny loves to get into a dispute,” Rogers said. “I mean, where else can you sit down with somebody who’s homeless and have a conversation that’s not about them being homeless?”

Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales anchors the ABC’s 7.30 program and has written two books.

@leighsales

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