Good luck to Anders Breivik’s chess buddy

I’m not sure that chess is quite the right game for Breivik to be playing. It can drive you crazy.

I see the Norwegian prison service is looking to hire a “friend” to play chess with Anders Breivik as he spends the next 20 years or so in isolation. While I think it reasonable to assume the confessed mass murderer would make an, um, interesting opponent, I’m not sure chess is quite the right game for him to be playing.

Apart from anything else, it can drive you crazy, crazier in his case. Many a chess champion has cracked under pressure. When the great Kasparov took on Deep Blue and lost, he became paranoid that the computer was being secretly programmed by his old rival Karpov from a nearby hotel. Such paranoia is the reason chess lends itself to psychological warfare – Mikhail Tal’s infamous hypnotic stare, for example, or the kicks which Petrosian administered under the table to his rival Korchnoi.

Bobby Fischer, meanwhile, would freak his opponents out by turning up hours late and complaining about everything from the lighting to the chairs. Come to think of it, Fischer’s political views were about as extreme as Breivik’s, becoming as he did a rabid, Holocaust-denying anti-Semite. As Fischer showed in his epic world championship with Spassky, chess can be war by other means. In that case, the US v the Soviet Union (America won). I suppose my point is that chess is an intimidating enough game already without having to play it with an unrepentant mass murderer.

I once even managed to be intimidated by a 13-year-old. Well, he, Magnus Carlsen, was a grandmaster, the world’s youngest, which is why I had gone to Norway to interview him. Recklessly I challenged him to a game and was so rattled by his cold brilliance that I found myself moving a bishop from one side of the board to the other and ending up on the wrong diagonal. “You can’t do that,” he said, calmly. I knew I couldn’t do that. Everyone knows you can’t do that. It was just that he’d, I don’t know, done something — somehow injected Novocain into my brain. He’s now 21, by the way, and the top-ranked player in the world.

All this said, it is traditional for prisoners to play chess. In the six months between being arrested and hanged for treason, William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, played chess almost every day in his cell in Wandsworth, with his guards and the prison chaplain. He was obsessed with chess, but could only win when playing black, which explains a lot.

Colin Freeman, the Sunday Telegraph chief foreign correspondent who was kidnapped by Somali pirates and held in a cave for 40 days, also found solace in chess. He fashioned pieces out of the foil from cigarette packets. But I suppose the great players don’t need a board at all. I once asked the world champion Vladimir Kramnik whether he could manage without one if, say, he was sent to prison. He could, he said – having memorised every professional game he had ever played. Incidentally, Kramnik once criticised himself for “lacking the instincts of a cold killer of the chessboard”.

Good luck to anyone who volunteers to be Breivik’s chess buddy. It is a companionable game. Nearly every day, for 50 years until his death, Howard Austen played chess with his friend Gore Vidal. More modestly, I have been playing postcard chess via email most days for a decade with my friend Chris Lang. We like to include an insult with each move. “You are to chess what Wayne Rooney is… to chess.” That sort of thing.