Check for a living?
I have deliberately separated this chapter from the pure chronology. Because it is supposed to shed light on the money aspect of chess. Certainly, this goes a little hand in hand with the successes one can celebrate (one is the other, you understand, or rather it goes without saying).
1) The royal game:
A little philosophy
Is it royal because it actually rises above the others? Or is it just called that because the king is the crucial piece to catch?
You may know that I have never invested more in any other game than in chess? I had succumbed to its fascination. There is a sporting competition. And it’s a contest using mental faculties. There is excitement, beauty and creativity. And above all, one fact seems to elevate it above the other games: The complete elimination of luck. Everything is under control. The pieces move by force of mind and with manual transposition to the places assigned to them by your guide. All luck seems to have been eliminated. I doubt this today, but I will also philosophise about the consequences of this commonly accepted fact.
There is plenty of luck in chess, I maintain. It starts with the state of the opponent. If he has a good day today, that can be your bad luck. Conversely, if he has a bad day, it’s your luck. Then there is the possibility of leading a piece to the right square by a wrong consideration. Of course, this only turns out later. You can also profit from a blackout of your opponent. Then a position can simply happen to be such that a winning combination is suddenly possible. The chess players then simply claim: “I did that intuitively. I felt that this was the right move.” Or something like that. There is even the possibility that the famous monkey, who knows nothing but the rules, leads the pieces like Kasparov simply because he knows all the legal moves. The probability is about as great as the same monkey composing a Beethoven sonata (see also chapter: “A few number games”). But it is possible.
So, the element of luck is by no means eliminated. It is just ignored. If you lose a tragic game, possible for various reasons, your interlocutor, to whom you want to tell the tragedy, is guaranteed to say, “It’s your own fault.”
But I readily admit that the luck factors are much less important than in other games. But what are the consequences now? Since there is (apparently) no luck involved, the winner can very often be predicted with a very high probability. And that leads over to the aspect of the possible money turnover or stake. I used to play chess for money frequently in the helpless attempt as a chess professional. But apart from the fact that there are very few wealthy people among chess players anyway, no one would even think of playing for larger sums in the face of obvious inferiority.
The only times I have managed to make a lot playing for money was when I was pretending. The environment must be suitable for this. So in German: no one must know me. So by my appearance I suggested to the opponent that I had no idea about the game and even during the games I did not shed my uncertain appearance and apparent perplexity. The quality of my moves was also adapted to the opponent’s level of play. But you should have seen how people who would otherwise only have played for 50 pfennigs or 1 DM, if at all, suddenly sensed profits and raised their stakes to 50 or 100 DM in the sure feeling of superiority.
That’s why I don’t have any moral qualms about having done that. Because obviously the opponent also sensed the chance to win a lot of money and the choice of means was indifferent to him at that moment. I’m better, so I’ll play high and fleece the other player, he thought.
All right, so in principle you can’t play chess for big money. And if you think about chess tournaments, the situation is similar: high entry fees (in the so-called “open” tournaments, where anyone can play) cannot be charged, because the average player has no chance of getting to the meat pots anyway. The entry fees must remain small. Otherwise, an organiser would quickly be given the bird: “I’m not stupid, I’m supposed to sponsor the grandmasters here, I don’t do that.”
So the royal game is completely unsuitable as a money game. There are only maybe 20 players in the world who can make a good living from it. Most grandmasters have to toil and struggle. Such arts are then often called breadless.
Personally, I also took the arduous path and wanted to try it. Fortunately, my chess bad luck stood in my way. And you don’t really have to think about that.
2) The pure money perspective
I still have a fond memory of a tournament I played quite early in my career. It was in October 1974, the Hermann Gulweida Memorial Tournament in Tempelhof. I was allowed to start as an “unseeded” player. There was an extra prize fund for the unseeded, although all participants played in the same field. I skipped school on Saturday to be able to play. And I actually won the (shared) 1st prize among the unseeded. And that was 125 DM! Far more than I got in pocket money at that time, which was still 20 DM per month. I immediately stashed the hundred in a book in a secret place. So much money all at once! I had only known that from my confirmation.
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that you can’t start too often as an unseeded player. Rather, only once. I had become known, at least in Berlin, from now on among the seeded.
As a youngster, however, the issue of “earning money” is actually still subordinate. If I didn’t have a fare or entry fee to a tournament, no problem. What are parents for? And anyway, you really still have board and lodging, even with preparation, washing clothes, buying new things, etc. Nevertheless, my everyday life became more time-consuming. If you spend days (or even nights) in pubs and cafés, you can’t always hope for patrons.
And the places I stayed were chosen with care: Places where you could play chess. Well, at the time I may have dreamed of even higher toleration in view of greater abilities. That soon turns out to be an illusion. You can get games for 50 pfennigs, for 1 DM, but here you also easily lose your playing partner in view of his realisation of your inferiority.
So, in short, I could just about finance the stays. But it’s also easier as a young person, because here and there you meet a generous benefactor. People who simply buy a child a coffee, a coke or a few sausages. Especially since I was always a bit interesting as a “talent”, especially in chess circles.
My tournament successes became more frequent, but still: that’s nothing to live on. But I still dreamed of a great career, or did I? There were also a few invitations to bigger tournaments. In 1977, I qualified for the German Youth Championships as the Berlin Youth Champion and even came in 4th place. Money prize? 0 DM. Nevertheless, travel costs and accommodation were paid for, that was clear, and one felt somehow “important”.
Later, however, there were also a few bigger wins here and there, which I will tell you about elsewhere. This section merely serves the purpose of showing that you can’t make a good long-term living from chess. Worldwide, there are maybe 20 players who are doing really well. Another 200 can perhaps live halfway free of worries. But to rise to that level? And even then you can only dream of “just getting by”.