Inside the wonderful world of David Navara

The Czech super-grandmaster’s games collection doubles as a memoir and is full of humour, passion, wisdom, raw honesty and an unquenchable love for chess

Michael Healey

David Navara has always been one of my favourite players amongst the elite, but I’ve never really understood why. Are his games really that interesting? Is he actually a thoughtful character? A super-nice guy? A calculation machine? A true chess artist? Turns out – yep!

My Chess World really is a most charming book, as the Roman poets would say – except that at 616 pages it’s not exactly brief. In fact due to its weight this became a bedside book, where I would read a chapter or two a night (a couple of games) stretching through 64 (of course!) games. Before nearly every game is an article about his experiences as a professional chess player.

David Navara (source: Wikipedia)

The dominant theme is Navara’s unstoppable love for chess, through ups and downs (even finishing up with a “Chess Poem”). Every page resounds with passion and strain, humour and wisdom. Despite this chess addiction, he finds time to read books (“I normally take three times as many books to a tournament as I manage to read”), partake in philosophy and art criticism, spend six years at university, follow Christianity and even have a girlfriend (on page 568 – by which time the reader has sadly already fallen in love). He also likes to take note of everything around him and find amusement everywhere.

The book is filled with stories and gossip, opinions and jokes, and one particularly surreal photo of himself with a large fish. He even has the occasional hilarious adventure, walking about between games. It may help that we seem to share a sense of deadpan humour, which of course can be a big hit-or-miss with chess books (and people.)

Navara is immensely courteous, making excuses for opponents, complimenting them, pointing out other instances when he was on the receiving end or how they proceeded to outscore him in the tournament. Before a game from his match against Nakamura, he writes about “UNPLEASANT OPPONENTS”. Is Navara about to unleash? No, he explains that certain players’ styles he finds hard to play against. The rudest he gets is a slight argument with someone who steals his seat on a plane, and remarking he has possibly heard one of Nigel Short’s stories before.

Harsh criticism is saved for himself. Games are filled with comments on things he missed, or ways he was lucky, or how computer ideas are beyond the mind of a mere 2700(!). One senses the mischievous wit of Tal, proclaiming himself the youngest ex-world champion, when Navara notes he has probably lost more chess matches than any other player (local sponsorship often invited strong players for mini-matches, which tend to go badly for him). However, he seems justifiably proud of certain stellar individual results, and team results are a source of great joy. There are moments which seem incredibly raw, and one particularly sorry comment that he used to have more supporters in the past. Everything is so honest it is impossible not to join in the emotional journey.

The self-deprecating bulk of the book comes under the title “Blog past its sell-by date”. This may be the secret of what makes this book so impressive. Navara clearly took his blog very seriously, investing time immediately after games to analyse and give his thoughts, sometimes to the detriment of the following day’s games. Through the various editions and translations, despite myriad lines I found very few errata. He gives move times, tournament placings (pre-game, post-game and final), team scores and podium scores. All this provides far more context (and interest) than your normal game collection.

Nevertheless all this would be fairly pointless if the games weren’t up to much. The 64 games chosen are obviously overwhelmingly interesting, although as Navara explains:

  1. Substantial games are interesting
  2. Substantial games require extensive annotations
  3. Extensive annotations are boring

The Navara calling card is this king march, a superb concept coming from computer preparation and practical skill.

Here Carlsen is put on the back foot with White, coming up with a clever rejoinder.

Invited for a match in China against whizz-kid Wei Yi, Navara uses a Queen sacrifice to unbalance the position.

The powerful usage (and discarding) of a queen recurs in several games, both for himself and his opponent. Sometimes Navara neglects development and defers castling. He seeks out unbalanced positions, but often with not kings at stake but better coordination of pieces. Chaos – but more treading water amidst a tsunami than running to escape a volcanic eruption. It’s never that obvious what the end goal is or what we’re avoiding, just that it’s all completely bewildering hard work. A number of games finish in unusual rook endgames, which can become remarkably engaging, even for philistines like me.

Here are two games which felt particularly joyful. The first, against Indian GM Krishnan Sasikiran, appealed to me instantly because Navara randomly picks up an opening I play and finds ideas I’d never considered – and of course there are the tripled pawns! Drama explodes from a “level” position, but is tamed by piece coordination, accurate choices and a very cute finish.

Here the future world championship challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, contributes to a wonderfully unorthodox game, where Navara has to keep an eye out for perpetuals, fortresses and … blunders!

I would thoroughly recommend this book to chess lovers. If you end up falling in love with Navara as well, that’s just the cost.