Chess and marriage

by on June 26, 2009

Last weekend David Vigorito, aka “Fluffy,” one of my co-conspirators at ChessLecture, got married. Mark Ginsburg has pictures in his blog, and he mentions several prominent New England chess players who were at the ceremony. I wonder if chess sets were banned? I can just see those chess players going off into a corner and playing on ICC while the other wedding guests are getting drunk, dancing badly and doing the other things that you are supposed to do at a wedding …

Anyway, this event made me curious about what happens to chess players after they get married. I can tell you what happened to me. I got a life, in more ways than one, and I had less time for studying chess. (My wife had no intention of becoming a “chess widow”!) To judge from my rating, I basically stopped improving. On the other hand, my chess career has had plenty of highlights since then, and I have come to appreciate other facets of chess, such as teaching and blogging (!). Also, the rating thing is a little bit misleading: I was 30 years old by the time I got married, and probably had reached the limit of my chess abilities anyway.

What marriage does do, unequivocally, is force you to re-examine your priorities. Whether chess goes up or down on that list, or stays the same, is hard to predict — but certainly your life will not be the same.

Yesterday, Bill Wall posted a long list of “Chess players and their spouses” in his blog at www.chess.com. The timing is, I think, a complete coincidence; the discussion below his post indicates that he has been compiling this list for years. It was very interesting, and it was amazing how many top chess players have chess-playing spouses. I thought that was unusual, but it seems to be the rule.

Curiously, Bill’s list is incomplete where it comes to world champions. The following list could make a good trivia question:

What do Wilhelm Steinitz, Emmanuel Lasker, Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, and Vishwanathan Anand all have in common?

The obvious answer is that they were all world chess champions. The not-so-obvious answer is that they were all married at some point in their lives! That’s right, not a single recognized “classical” world champion has been a lifelong bachelor. Obviously the one who came closest was Fischer; he got married in 2004, although some might say it was a marriage of convenience. A few champions married more than once; Alekhine was married four times, Kasparov is up to three times so far. Some of them married only after becoming world champion: Lasker, Capablanca, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik. But the others all married before becoming champion, which goes to show that you can balance marriage and life at the top of the chess world.

A more difficult question is whether getting married actually helped any of these champions. I found a fascinating, in-depth article in the Sports Illustrated archives, about the Tal-Botvinnik match of 1960 (Who knew that Sports Illustrated covered chess back then? They certainly don’t now…). Tal and his wife, according to the article, were still as giddy as newlyweds.

I have always heard it said that Tal did not stay world champion for long because he had health issues. But I wonder if perhaps he was inspired to play his most creative chess in 1959 and 1960 because of the “honeymoon effect”?

Arguably, another player who has been helped by matrimony is our current world champion, Vishy Anand. I found some articles online that describe his wife, Aruna, as being extremely supportive of his career, and she in fact handles a lot of the negotiating over terms for matches — thereby freeing him to concentrate on his chess.

Aruna and Anand got married in 1996. Of course, if you have a more cynical outlook, you can say that he was already #2 in the world by then, and so the main thing he needed was for Kasparov to get out of the way. But that would, I think, not give enough credit to the steadying, calming, and grounding effect that a happy marriage can have on you.

I will leave the last word with a professor of mathematics whom I knew slightly in graduate school. Supposedly he told one of his students (who had just gotten engaged), “Is good thing to get married. A year from now, you prove great theorem!”

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc June 30, 2009 at 8:56 am

The prioritization effect of marriage is NOTHING compared to that of having children. The funny thing is that my chess has actually improved through the experience of marriage and children. WIth less time, I’m forced to be a lot more efficient. I play far fewer games (and certainly no tournaments!), but they are better games, and my analysis is much more critical.

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admin June 30, 2009 at 10:19 am

Marc,
I can certainly believe that, although I don’t have first-hand experience. The good news is that later on, you can perhaps get your kids interested in chess, and then your chess time will *presto* be family time, too!
You know, dads are really what keeps chess going. It seems as if almost all the kids in my chess club, not to mention the adult chess players I talk with, say that they learned the game from their fathers.

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Makayla Gonzalez May 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Marriage is one of the most sacred ceremonies that we humans experience. Being married also gives us happines.`-*

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Dixinho February 9, 2011 at 2:48 am

An interesting fact: Romanian GM Liviu Dieter Nisipeanu was talking on the phone with his soon to be wife every day during the 1999 Las Vegas World Championship, where he finished fourth, as an outsider and with the lowest rating from the final four going into the semi finals, losing to the eventual champion, Al. Khalifman.
That doesn’t mean actually that talking on the phone with your loved one is really the key, but rather the strong feelings he had for her at that time.

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