Review of Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw

I spent much of the year 2000 working for KasparovChess writing features, generating teaching material and doing general chess journalism. The following review of a novel by Thomas Glavinic was my first feature piece for KasparovChess and now appears here with their kind permission.

Incidentally, some fine writing (not just my own!) is locked away in the vaults at KasparovChess, which at one time employed dozens of Grandmasters and chess writers. It is well worth going to the KC website and using their search engine to unearth some of it (try searching for 'Levitt' to dig up some more of my stuff).


A gentleman and a scholar: Carl Schlechter
An article incorporating a book review of the novel 'Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw'
by Thomas Glavinic.

You sit down to play a game of chess. The year is 1910 and sitting opposite you is the current World Chess Champion, the formidable Emanuel Lasker. You are a quiet and unassuming man, thirty six years of age, from an impoverished background. If you win the game you will be acknowledged as the new champion. Unknown riches and glory will await you. If you lose the game, you will die of starvation less than one miserable decade later.

He may not have known it at the time, but that was more or less the situation facing Carl Schlechter, the Viennese player and theoretician (and to some extent, problemist). What would have happened if the game had been drawn is not so clear. Schlechter was leading the ten game match with Lasker by one win to zero with eight draws as they sat down to play game ten. Some claim he needed to win by two clear points to get the title, some claim a draw would have been sufficient.

It remains an issue for chess historians to this day and I am in no position to have a strong opinion. It certainly appears from the game that both players were playing for a win, but that hardly proves anything since:
1) In the heat of the battle all sorts of things can happen.
2) The prospect of passively trying to hold Lasker, who would have been determined to win as White whatever the rules of the match, would not have been very appealing. Sometimes a player in such a situation will try to win as the best means of defence.
3) Schlechter was certainly an honourable player who was well aware that he had 'swindled' the one decisive game - game five - from a very lost position. It is possible that he thought that he did not deserve to beat Lasker unless he could win another game.

Schlechter lost the game. The match was drawn and Lasker retained his title for another eleven years (he had already held the title since 1894) until he lost to Capablanca in 1921, almost three years after the death of Carl Schlechter.

So much for the history. Thomas Glavinic's splendid novel is far more about character and concentrates on the more psychological aspects of the game. The psychological profiles of the two players could hardly have been more different:

The Players

Emanuel Lasker

Lasker was a worldly, erudite man. Tough, competitive and a deep thinker. He possessed a fearsome intellect, writing books on both philosophy and mathematics as well as chess. He wrote a book called 'Kampf' (struggle) in 1907. I suspect and hope Lasker's struggle would be very different to Hitler's struggle (Mein Kampf was written in 1923) but I have never seen a translation of Lasker's philosophical work, which is surely long overdue. Elements of his philosophy of the struggle appear in Lasker's Manual of Chess, a book I found fascinating. Many have claimed that Lasker would deliberately play inferior moves to unsettle his opponents. That may be putting the case too strongly, but certainly his approach to the game included a heavy emphasis on psychological factors.


Carl Schlechter

Schlechter was a shy, mild mannered man, thin, polite, obliging, modest and peacefully inclined. He hated accepting help from anybody. He was not very practical or worldly-wise. He was a superb opening analyst, almost certainly stronger than Lasker in this regard, and spent four years editing the eighth edition of Bilguer's Handbuch, a work of over a thousand pages.

The World Championship Match

The match between Lasker and Schlechter was over ten games and took place in 1910, split between two cities. The first half was in Vienna and the second in Berlin.

If you wish to see (or print out) the moves of all the games, unannotated, click here.

If you just wish to see the critical moments from the match, use the following links and let me be your guide...There are plenty of diagrams to enable you to follow the moves easily enough without a chess set.

The first four games of the match were drawn. The fifth game, the last to be played in Vienna, was going very much Lasker's way until he allowed something horrible...You can see what happened here.

Games six to nine were also drawn. In my view, the seventh game was outstanding, both aesthetically and as a contest. There was a complex piece sacrifice after which a magnificent battle ensued, spread out over the whole board. The games from the match have all been heavily analysed by many great players over the years, but I offer my own light notes on this game here.

I offer some easy to follow notes on the crucial tenth game here.

The Novel

'Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw' by Thomas Glavinic was originally published in German but has now been translated into English by John Brownjohn and published by the Harvill Press. I first heard about it in October, 1999, when I was invited to a discussion about the book to be held at the Austrian Cultural Institute in London. The discussion was ably lead by Grandmaster Raymond Keene, assisted by Daniel Johnson, the Associate Editor (culture) of the Daily Telegraph. Also present were the author and translator.

The evening was quite a success with some eighty people filling the place to capacity. Ray Keene was in impressive form, and clearly knew a great deal about both chess history and German literature (which he studied at Cambridge, only to pursue a career in chess after a disagreement with his tutor about one of the finer points of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice). Daniel Johnson, who once achieved a draw with Garry Kasparov in a simultaneous display (no easy task), was as erudite as ever and briefed us on the history of chess in literature. In this century the most significant works with chess as a central theme are probably Stefan Zweig's 'The Royal Game' (Schachnovelle), Vladimir Nabokov's 'The Defence' and, more recently, Paolo Maurensig's The Lüneberg Variation. Thomas Glavinic's novel, 'Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw', stands comparison to these fine works.

The author came across as a very pleasant young man (he is 27). Sincere and genuine as a writer but not taking himself too seriously. In the question and answer session, somebody asked the author, somewhat pretentiously, if his writing had been influenced by the music of Schönberg and von Webern (or two such composers, I forget who exactly). Glavinic carefully avoided embarrassing the questioner by answering in his reasonable but not perfect English, 'perhaps, but no more than by the music of The Velvet Underground'.

Another questioner asked why he had chosen to write a novel rather than a play (the back-cover flap of the book claims the author is also a playwright). Glavinic answered honestly, exposing the publisher's hype, that he had written a play ten years ago as a schoolboy but is no playwright.

The novel looks at the childhood and development, both in terms of character and as a player, of Carl Haffner. The novel is wide in scope and even engages its reader in the history of the Haffner family over several generations. Interspersed with all this (the story has two main parallel threads, set at different times) is the build up to the World Championship match of 1910, followed by detailed description of the match itself.

The novel evokes the mood and atmosphere of the match brilliantly, or at the very least, plausibly. The tension of the games is well conveyed, although one or two of them are skipped over quickly, including my favourite, seventh game, (see above). You may well be wondering by now 'who the hell is Carl Haffner?' He is the central character of the novel, and may safely be identified with Carl Schlechter. Lasker and several other characters from the chess scene of the time appear in their original names, although one or two others have also been given name changes (Marco becoming Hummel, for example).

Why all this chicanery? Probably because changing the name of Carl Schlechter to Carl Haffner frees the author from the confines of historical accuracy. Added characters, like the free-thinking journalist, Anna, can be freely introduced without fear of historical compromise. The disadvantage is of course that the reader does not know exactly what is 'true' and what is imagined.

Indeed at one point in the book I was deceived into thinking that Schlechter had been involved in an incident at the Cambridge Springs tournament of 1904. The incident actually involved Vidmar, but the author has deliberately reworked it with Schlechter for added dramatic value. (Vidmar adjourned his game against Marshall in a probably lost position. Marshall failed to turn up for the resumption of play and was about to be defaulted when Vidmar...resigned. He didn't want to win in such a fashion when the position was lost. This resignation was once described as 'the greatest move ever played'. It captured the imagination of the chess public and has now become quite famous as an anecdote.)

Wanting to know more about the historical accuracy, I put this to the author in an e-mail asking, for example, whether it was really true that Schlechter's mother was a toilet attendant, as is suggested in the novel. He replied in some detail as follows (I make no changes to his English, the meaning of which is clear enough):

'No, Schlechter´s mother wasn't a toilet attendant. Nothing is known about her except poorness. To collect what I have done: All FACTS we know about Schlechter and his family are in the book, but there are not many facts known. I even found the grand-nephew (?) of Carl Schlechter in Vienna and he told me all he knows, he loved his aunt Lina very much (yes! Lina Bauer, Carl´s half-sister) and used to make music with her at home. I read Warren Goldman´s Schlechter-biography (which is not very great in my humble opinion) and I talked to historians for hundred of hours I guess. It is well-known that Schlechter was a very modest and shy and fragile man who didn't like to accept help from other people. The most interesting historian I talked to, Michael Ehn in Vienna, said that he suspects that Schlechter has been homosexual AND loved his half-sister... but as you see, the border between facts and speculations is not clear. So I decided to write a book, a NOVEL, a FICTION book about Carl HAFFNER, not Schlechter, you might read it as a biography, but it IS NO biography.'

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. There are a number of insights into both chess and human nature. The author has something to say and says it well, keeping the suspense and making the reader keen to turn the pages and read on. It has a balanced view on chess. The author maintains some passion for the game (he was a strong Austrian junior, about 2100, before more or less giving up playing for writing), but does not go over the top. Indeed, with its ultimately sad tale of the life of one great chessplayer (Carl Schlechter), the novel stimulated a number of thoughts in this reviewer of the real value of a life spent in chess. Glavinic is clearly well aware of the artistic limitations of our noble game.

Perhaps I should digress from my review of the novel and clarify what I mean here since it is a tricky subject. While I have absolutely no doubts about the aesthetic and artistic element of chess (expressed most strongly in composition, but also to some extent in real play), I, along with the majority of chessplayers that I know, have always regarded the game as primarily a sport. Chess is chess and of course one need not get involved in needless categorisation, but 'sport', rather than 'science' or 'art' is the dominant feature of a competitive player's experience of the game.

If you doubt that, ask yourself what can you really communicate by playing chess?
The game is well-suited to conveying such sentiments as the following:
'I want to beat you.'
'I have a slight advantage, your d-pawn is isolated and I'm going to sit on you for the next three hours and make you suffer.'
'I am a strong player.'
'I am a very, very strong player and I want to grind you into the dust'. But is it capable of expressing the higher emotions of great art?

Maybe to a small extent it is. Anyway, does it matter? It is a great game, full of fabulous ideas. It is a source of pleasure to millions, a mental gymnasium, a wonderful educational tool for children...Need we worry if it cannot express certain things as well as say, good writing? Definitely not!

Do read the novel. My final thought is that it would make a great film. Anybody out there in the film business?


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