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A sore loser? The American chess player, Hikaru Nakamura, pictured in 2013 (photo: Stefan64)

The glory of playing in a great open tournament, I wrote here last month, is that amateur competitors such as your correspondent can stand within a foot of the games of the greatest players, close enough to touch their pieces. At the Gibraltar Tradewise Open in February, I discovered something else: you can get close enough to hear what the grandmasters say to each other at the end of the game—which in some respects is more revealing of their personalities than the moves they play.

Towards the end of the game between the US number one Hikaru Nakamura and his closest rival for the first prize, the 24-year-old Briton David Howell, I didn’t have to be that close to understand that the American was not too happy. He was shaking his head, and furiously banging the pieces down when he made his last few moves. Actually, he was not losing. But he had been clearly winning against his much less highly rated opponent, before somehow allowing the Sussex-based grandmaster to establish a technically drawn position. At the end, after snapping “It’s a draw” (when one is supposed to offer it to the opponent), Nakamura told Howell that he had been “lucky” (preceded by an adjective not publishable here) and then made a disobliging reference to the Englishman’s chess understanding. Howell looked amazed, but otherwise retained his own composure admirably.

On the very next day, another immensely strong grandmaster was similarly confounded by a slightly weaker rival, allowing what seemed a certain win to slip from his grasp. This was the six-times Russian champion Peter Svidler, and his nemesis was the women’s world champion, 21-year-old Yifan Hou, from China. I was standing right next to the board when Hou produced an astonishing endgame trick, which abruptly destroyed all Svidler’s hopes of victory. The Russian was obviously upset, pulling at his hair as he studied the position with increasing exasperation. But then he did something rather wonderful. He smiled, and said: “Well played. Congratulations. Would you like a draw?”

There could not have been a greater contrast between the two disappointed grandmasters—although I should point out that Nakamura’s stepfather and original chess coach, the charming Sri Lankan master Sunil Weeramantry, later went up to Howell to apologise for what had happened. And in a way Nakamura’s behaviour was just the flipside of what the chess world finds so attractive about him as a player. He plays the game with an unquenchable desire for victory, never opting for safety and always on the edge: such a style takes an emotional toll.

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