It seems that most modern chess masters have been either destructive or self-destructive, impossibly arrogant or downright deranged. The great Paul Morphy was a paranoiac recluse who lived out his final years in deathly fear of poisoners. Wilhelm Steinitz had a delusion of playing chess with God and giving Him a pawn and one-move advantage. Boozy, bigoted Alexander Alekhine is said to have urinated on the floor during a match. And then there was Bobby Fischer, who gave up his world championship to pursue his many eccentricities. "You don't have to be mad to be world champion," says Nigel Short of England, "but it helps."
For a chess player, Short seems almost normal. Ranked among the Top 10 players internationally, the 23-year-old Short is outgoing and decidedly Pythonesque. He's also one of the few Westerners—his countryman Jonathan Speelman is another—since Fischer abandoned the game in 1972 to be given a chance of breaking the Soviet Union's grip on the chess crown. In August, Short will take on Speelman in the quarterfinals of the world championships. If Short wins that match and again in the semifinals, he will have a chance to challenge champion Gary Kasparov for the title in 1990.
Short is sitting in the lounge of London's Park Lane Hotel, where two years ago Kasparov made his first defense against his predecessor, Anatoly Karpov. A slim, pallid fellow, Short peers out from behind wire-frame spectacles that make him look owlish. "I hear the United States is very big, with lots of wide-open spaces," he says. "It must be frightfully windy there."
Short's conversation is laced with humor and irony. He chats and plays chess with the same relaxed nonchalance. While Kasparov is daring and bloodthirsty, relentlessly stalking his opponent's king, Short is a model of rationality and pragmatism. His game is clean, intuitive, straightforward. "I've become more of an attacker in my old age," he says dryly. "I only recently discovered how enjoyable it is to bludgeon an opponent to death."
As a kid growing up near Manchester, Short was called a prodigy long before he knew what the word meant. He picked up chess at the age of five by watching his father, David, a public relations specialist, teach moves to Nigel's older brother, Martin. During Fischer's 1972 title match with Boris Spassky, Nigel spent hour after hour playing through the games on a pocket chess set. "I thought Fischer's games were excellent, but as a person he seemed an awkward so-and-so," Short says. "I admire his awkwardness now. It's a form of self-indulgency you have to earn."
By seven, Short was so precocious that he had already drawn the attention of the chess press. At 10, he beat Viktor Korchnoi, then No. 2 in the world, in a game that lasted nine hours. O.K., so Korchnoi was simultaneously playing several other players for much of that time in an exhibition. At 11, Short became the youngest player by four years to qualify for the British championships. At 12, he defeated 10-time national champ Jonathan Penrose in 41 moves. At 14, he became the youngest international master in history and tied for first in the British championships. At 15, he had a book published about him (Chapter Three: " Nigel at Nine").
Around that time, Short learned what competition at chess's highest level can be like as he finished last in a field of grand masters in a London tournament. His career suffered what he calls a two-year hiccup. "I felt like a steamroller had gone over my head," he recalls. "All my illusions were destroyed. I'd always thought I wasn't much behind the world champion. I'd never realized there was such a gulf."
The real problem was, says his father, that Nigel wasn't working hard enough. "He was getting by purely on talent." Young Nigel had acquired a carefree image. He once played Space Invaders between matches and at a tournament in France he provoked an international incident when his smart-aleck responses to a questionnaire were printed in the tournament bulletin. Officials were less offended by his answer to the hobby query ("bearbaiting and necrophilia") than by his response to the question, "What do you hate most in life?" Answer: " France." They demanded and received an apology.
Short's frivolous behavior and offhand remarks (he once said the only exercise he got was "sex, occasionally") have been called immature by the British press. "You have to remember Nigel was brought up in the company of chess players," says David. "He didn't have a chance to mix with other children."
Short didn't excel in the classroom. Besides chess, his passion was rock music. As a teenager, he formed a band called the Chess Nuts, which later became The Urge. "We wanted something that sounded a little bit naughty," he says. With Short playing bass guitar and writing lyrics like "my feet will walk across the water of your mind," The Urge finished next-to-last in a school talent show. " Nigel wasn't bad," says his wife, Rea. "He was horrendous."