I have noticed that when it comes to conflict outside the chessboard, there are three types of players: ones that thrive on it (typical examples are Botvinnik, Fischer, Kasparov and Korchnoi), ones that avoid it (examples are Spassky and Anand) and ones that are indifferent, neither looking for it, nor avoiding it if it happens (a typical example is Karpov).
The duels between the above types have been telling – the conflict seeking players almost always came out victorious. The Botvinnik matches, especially his return matches when he would always try to impose some irrelevant detail (the sealed move to be placed in two envelopes – just in case one of them got lost, postponing or advancing the match for several weeks because of the weather in Moscow) in order to impose his will and perhaps create conflict with the sole idea of extra motivation; the match Kasparov-Anand, with Kasparov banging the door when exiting the playing area and Anand keeping his rage inside and not reacting; the match Spassky-Fischer, with Fischer creating conflicts long before the match began, while Spassky tried to play the perfect gentleman. The matches Karpov-Korchnoi are a bit different, where the conflict seeking player was beaten, but he was beaten by a player who knew how to thrive on conflict when required – Karpov was always very adaptive to circumstances and didn’t mind the conflict at all. From the more recent history, the match Topalov-Kramnik in Elista was an exception, where the conflict seeking player actually lost to the conflict avoiding player.
The duels between these characters were always exciting and they captured the imagination of the public. Different characters attract different people because the people can recognise parts of themselves in the behaviour of the champions.
What do we have today when it comes to character and conflict? Very little from both. Today’s leading players are probably the best players in the history of chess (taking into consideration the advances in theory and understanding), but when it comes to character I cannot say it is visible from the way they behave outside the chessboard. The atmosphere at the tournaments today is sterile, the players are all friendly between themselves, there is no conflict; in fact, they are all trying to avoid it and just play chess. Almost all of them have worked for or with somebody they know too well, it is all too mixed up – no wonder they are all friendly (can you imagine Tal being hired by Botvinnik for his match against Petrosian?) Nakamura’s Sauron comments, Carlsen’s Mickey Mouse remarks and Giri’s boasting are just too meek compared to Korchnoi’s outbursts, Kasparov’s door-banging and Fischer’s cursing in the ping-pong room.
While today’s elite lacks spark outside the chessboard, they certainly compensate for it with the chess of the highest quality on the chessboard, for which I am grateful. But I would still like to see a bit more of the good old fashioned spite and malice. It just makes for a better spectacle.