Pawns of the Game

Love, obsession, madness, and other matters of chess

"I just played for the sheer thrill of winning, and the artistic pleasure of creating something logical on the board," he says. "I never really thought about being world champion. I knew that to get better would be hard work."

Jay chooses his words carefully, as if a conversation with a new acquaintance requires as much cunning as a well-executed King's Gambit. It's difficult in any case to believe that a person who was once among the 12 best players in America, who won the U.S. Junior Invitational in 1981 and the chess Grand Prix in 1987, did not think about becoming world champion. A chess player, after all, is a person whose natural inclination is to think many moves ahead. A chess player is as involved with future possibilities as with present realities. Outcomes are planned, not awaited.

It's more likely that Jay thought quite seriously about becoming world champion, but understood, as he says, that scaling this particular peak would be hard work indeed. This is where one of Jay's personal demons lives: in his apparent fear of committing himself to being the best. Jay Whitehead, who claims an IQ of 176, advanced as a chess player through raw, brute talent. For him, it was always effortless. To make a special effort, therefore, would be to expose himself to the possibility that, at his very best, he might not be good enough.

This is where Jay's other demon lives.
"I would get extremely depressed over losing games, to the point where my whole world would collapse," he says. "This was something that really stunted my development, the way I would react to setbacks. My tendency was to become angry. I wouldn't learn from my mistakes. I suffered a lot."

To ease the suffering, Jay turned to religion. Since 1984 he has been a Hare Krishna devotee. Around the ornate confines of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Berkeley, he is called Jaya Krishna, and his unique abilities as a chess player are mostly unknown to others. When he excuses himself from lunch by saying a reporter has come to interview him, a man with a yellow stripe on his nose looks up from the floor and asks why. Jay explains, slightly embarrassed, that he used to play chess, that he was once pretty good.

Jay is now 35. Like many vegetarians, he looks like he doesn't eat enough. A misbuttoned shirt and a rubber band serving as a watch strap hint at a lack of interest in personal appearance.

Jay learned to play chess 30 years ago, first being taught the basic moves by his father and then pursuing it on his own -- as many kids did -- amid the hoopla over Fischer wresting the world chess crown from Spassky. Sales of chess sets and chess books skyrocketed in the United States, and chess enjoyed a status among Americans higher than any other time before or after. For Jay, it was just the beginning.

"Chess became my purpose in life," he says. "It gave me a focus, something to care about." This was helpful, because Jay's parents had been roaming Europe, teaching at American military bases, and Jay was feeling adrift and isolated. "Once I got back to San Francisco in 1973," he says, "chess became an obsession. It became a substitute for the natural urge to find meaning in life."

Most of all, it became a way he could cream his brother. Paul Whitehead, who is a year-and-a-half older than Jay, also learned chess from their father, and had been similarly captivated by the excitement surrounding Fischer becoming world champion. "He was always a little better than me," Jay remembers. "Then, around the early '80s, I started having better results."

The brothers were never all that close. They fought a lot, and engaged in the can-you-top-this sniping common to many siblings. "Chess was the most intense aspect of our rivalry," Jay says. "It was intolerable to be the loser. It was the ultimate humiliation." The brothers seldom see one another these days, and Jay says he's pretty much sworn off chess for good. But he's said that before.

In 1987, after losing four in a row in an important tournament, Jay told himself he couldn't take it anymore. The pain -- the humiliation -- was too severe. Losing left him battered and scarred, vulnerable to the dark forces within that no amount of Hare Krishna chanting would chase away. "I had to give it up out of necessity," he says. "It became too much of my psychological makeup. It became like a drug."

Jay shuts his eyes tight, as he has done frequently in formulating careful answers to my questions. He is playing a private game somewhere inside, working out the moves, trying to gain the upper hand. "There's nothing wrong with chess," he concludes. "But for a chessaholic, there is."

A few months ago, out of the blue, Jay decided to enter a two-day tournament in Sunnyvale. He doesn't really know why -- maybe just to flex his muscles a little, see how he'd fare against the new talent. Maybe because he had no choice. "I thought it would be easy," he says.

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