Interview with Nathan Divinsky

By Suleman Jamal

SJ: How did you get involved in chess?

ND: My father used to play with an uncle. I used to watch them when I was three or four.

SJ: Were there specific things that interested you about the game?

ND: It was fascinating. I could create, instantly. I didn't have to learn a lot of details and facts and formulas. I could start moving pieces and geometric beauties began to multiply on the board and I loved beating people, especially older people and when you're five, most people are older. (mutual laughter).

SJ: So do you see a relationship between mathematics and chess?

ND: Unfortunately, yes. There are similar creative activities. That is why if you're in mathematics you don't get any relaxation or change when you do chess.

SJ: Yeah, I've kind of noticed a logical relationship, but, some mathematicians are good chessplayers and some chess players are bad mathematicians... I mean, I don't see a correlation between the two.

ND: No, no that's true, it's an artistic temperament but a lot of young people who started out studying mathematics gave it up and became chessplayers... how they would have made out as mathematicians is not clear. Richard Reti studied mathematics. Suttles studied mathematics, Biyiasis ... they all abandoned math and became grandmasters. The only one who persevered and finished was Lasker. He became a math professor.

SJ: The last time you played in a tournament was...

ND: Long ago. I'm trying to remember. I played in Bognar-Regis in 1966

SJ: Good lord

ND: And I came ahead of Golombek and Wade... They were all very surprised. I played on the Olympic team in 66 in Havana and when I sat down to play, Boris Spassky came over, looked at me and said, "You mean you play also?"

SJ: That's hilarious.(Combined laughter). That seems like a promising chess career. You were on the Olympic team twice?

ND: Yanofsky was clearly stronger than me and that convinced me that I didn't have a future as a chessplayer...and in the 1930's when we were young, it was drummed into our head that nobody made a living from chess, and in those days nobody did. Lasker died penniless,Steinitz died penniless. These are the world champions. It was not a happy time. And the second level grandmasters starved to death. And I wasn't even in that category. So I was taught and accepted the idea that I had to do something for a living, apart from chess.

SJ: What happened to Canadian Chess Chat?

ND: Well MacAdam started it in the Maritimes. And we took it over here in late 59 and John Prentice had a printing plant and he agreed he would print it for us for nothing. So from 59 till 72 we broke even on the postage. I enjoyed doing it. At first Macskasy used to help me out but he's Hungarian and he was energy challenged. In seventy two the printing plant was closed and that arrangement came to an end. Frank Jarka in Hamilton agreed to run it as a business. I think he lost a lot of money but he ran it for 5-8 years...So the natural course of events was that Chess Chat died...

SJ: Some questions on Warriors of the Mind: Is it realistic to mathematically rank the top players in history?

ND: You're never gonna have precise answers. Even with players that meet over the board. When Lasker played Fine, Reshevsky and Flohr in the thirties, he was 70 and they were 25. What we would like it to mean is Lasker at his best playing Reshevsky at his best. That never happens.

SJ: But you account for it using mathematics?

ND: As best you can. You use a lot of differential equations and what is called the maximum likelihood function. We have a professor who wrote several research papers in connection with Warriors of the Mind...this is hot stuff. But to come out and say that Kasparov is better than Fischer ... you don't have accuracy, but it's a lot of fun and you have a reasonable guide. It's like going to a doctor ... often they don't know what they're doing, but if you're lucky they won't harm you and in some rare cases they'll help. I have better numbers and more accurate results in my newest book that came out last month ... Life maps of the great chess masters...oh fascinating. Kasparov is sensational. (pause) Oh, I 've been lucky, I've had the opportunities to analyze with Tal, Petrosian, Spassky and Fischer. Petrosian wouldn't analyze variations. He would have one set of pieces set up and then he would say well, thirty moves later, we'll probably come to this ... he would jump thirty moves. He would already see where and why and how and what to aim for. Tal was, I think, the most brilliant. And he enjoyed it the most. When he won the world blitz title in St. John and he was in his mid-fifties, I took him around the room, he was drunk as the lord and I was yelling, "Our generation beat the hell out of you young (pause) bums.

SJ: You were the BBC commentator for the 86. How was that?

ND: It was magnificent. Somehow, my joking caught the public eye because the British are very uptight. The first program I was on, I could see the director of the program in the sound booth tearing his hair out.

SJ: Can you tell me about some of your experiences with chess's elite?

ND: Well, I was with Kasparov, I went to his mansion in Regents Park at the end of the match for lunch, and he had not been nailing Short as much as I thought he should have, because Short would ruin his pawn structure at the beginning, and we all thought he was dead lost and then Kasparov would accept a draw. Turns out that he had just had his wisdom teeth pulled, and his wife had just left him. So he wasn't really a hundred percent. But he still smashed Short up pretty bad. He's an arrogant guy but he has every right to be arrogant. What I can't stand is people who are arrogant who have no business being arrogant. He has a talent. He can crank up the engine a notch whenever he has to. He is just amazing.

SJ: How about parapsychology?

ND: That's a bunch of bananas. Korchnoi believes in that. He is still playing his game with the ghost of Geza Maroczy.

SJ: No. (disbelief)

ND: Oh yes.

SJ: Chess is known for producing some pretty eccentric personalities. Do you see any relation between chess and neurosis?

ND: Not at all. On the whole, chess players are more normal than the average rung of society. The stronger the player, the more serious and sensible.

SJ: What are your roles as president of the CFC?

ND: I think the main role is to be attacked by every chessplayer in Canada (jokingly). It really feels that way sometimes. It's normal human nature. The main aim is to make sure that not more(money) than what flows in flows out, that tournaments are organized by well established and secure organizers, and that our best players are encouraged. I know that there is always a struggle between the top players and the average player. The average player feels "Why should my money go to help the strong player?" The strong player feels, "We represent Canada, we're the cream of Canadian chess, we work hard, and we can't make a living. The least the Federation can do is give us a trainer, extra money and comfort (at the Olympics)". But top players don't want to take administrative jobs. And the weak players who are prepared to take these jobs are, as we say, shit upon from great heights. Some times there are two roads and you've got to go down one of them. You can't cut yourself up to your rear end and send one leg here and one leg there!

SJ: Your opinion on the FIDE split?

ND: There are good and bad to both sides. FIDE has been living way beyond it's means for many years and the money has been coming from their share of the world chess championships. There have been what five K-K matches? Each one contributes a good portion of a million US dollars to FIDE. A lot of people believe that FIDE shouldn't be spending so much money. They don't believe the president of FIDE should be getting two hundred thousand plus per year. The top players, especially, Kasparov, feel, "I'm generating the money, why have I given Campomanes five million over this and I don't even like him" (Campomanes stopped the first match). But again, he was the president and he took a road. It's not surprising that both Short and Kasparov decided to split from FIDE.

SJ: The thing with the PCA is that #1 is a multimillionaire and number 15 gets a couple of thousand dollars.

ND: They have been able to raise a lot of money through Intel. If they continue to do that all the top chessplayers will naturally play in their tournament. FIDE, on the other hand, without the money from Kasparov, looses 2-3 hundred thousand a year. I would have thought that Campomanes should treat Kasparov with more gentle hands. No one questions the fact that he is the best player in the world. So I blame Kasparov you know -they did it in an unfriendly way at the last minute-that was not nice. However, Campomanes is not entirely clean either. They are both to blame. This is what I have been trying to do behind the scenes is make peace, try and bring FIDE back together with the PCA. Kasparov is willing as long as Campomanes is no longer there. There will be an election in December. For chess, in the world it would be much better if Campo, in dignified stature, resigned and let the younger generation take FIDE over. Then I am certain we can have peace between Kasparov and FIDE. With that peace and Intel's money, we will have a much happier arrangement. Maybe this open war, in the end will work out for the best.

SJ: Are you still FIDE'S rep for Canada?

ND: No, Phil Haley is this year. In July, both he and I are interested in the position. And my feeling is that if you have two experienced, sensible people interested, the CFC should use both of us. It would be silly to say you and not you. And we have two very natural positions: We have the FIDE representative and because we are a single zone, we have a zonal presidency. The US has both.

SJ: Is there enough work to keep a zonal president busy?

ND: Oh yes. The work happens only once a year. In the week at the annual FIDE meeting, the first few day, the central committee meets-the zonal president sits there. While that goes on there are also committee meetings which perhaps the FIDE rep can go to. Then there's the general assembly where the FIDE rep sits. There's so much going on that having two people there is no problem at all and then there is letter writing during the year when you're in contact with other FIDE reps, other politics, etc.

SJ: What were your functions for the Vancouver School Board? And as alderman?

ND: I tried to get more programs for gifted children. When I became chairman, we did in fact introduce programs. They (administrators and teachers) seem to think that democracy is such a wonderful thing that it should be introduced everywhere. In education, democracy is irrelevant. Although people should be given equal opportunity, they are not equal in abilities. To teach a midget to play basketball, is not in the best interest of society. If they want to do that, let them do that but to finance it and to spend the limited energy you have on some idiot Divinsky to get into grade 7 instead of quitting at grade 6 instead of doing something for a kid who has enormous talent and can contribute something to the world...a lot of these kids suffer in school -- they're bored! Teachers often resent them. I don't like when some pimple faced kid with thick glasses comes up to me and says, you made a bad move idiot. It's crushing but we have to overcome that. The old adage that bright kids always land on their feet is nonsense. I have seen so many bright kids ruin their lives and collapse for factors beyond their control. You can't even the playing field. If I'm tone deaf, you can't teach me music!


Copyright © 1997-2000. Mark Barnes

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