It has been twenty-five years since the two greatest chess grandmasters of the twentieth century last met; a quarter of a century since Anatoly walked out on a match, conceding defeat but denying Garry victory, and destroying their friendship in the process. Now they meet again, in an intense battle of wills and ideas.
The opening, with just the tick of the chess clock and no words, cleverly sets the scene – and the two men’s characters begin to be defined just from the way they enter the room and play. Anatoly, the host, is nervier; Garry is his guest and cockier, but they both play with intensity and have the ability to discomfit each other with their moves. As it is with chess, so it is in life, once they begin to speak.
This play is a dense web of ideas, analysed over the background of a failed friendship, and the cleverness of Mark Reid’s script is that it works on both an intellectual and emotional level. Intellectually, it ranges over the importance of rules; of how breaking them makes chess meaningless, but can make life more interesting. It debates, too, the nature of morality and friendship, and whether those concepts are more like chess or politics.
Time and again Anatoly and Garry approach these questions from different angles, speaking volumes about their personal relationship. And on this more emotional level, the play contains a sadness similar to watching a marriage that has ended; the issues are as you would expect – a loss of trust that cannot be recovered – but the tragedy for each of them is that neither can find an equal anywhere else.
The acting is wonderful. At the end of a long Fringe, perhaps there is a loss of energy at times, but Ben Rigby as Anatoly and Nick Pearse as Garry entirely embody the characters they play. Pearse is impressively physical, impatient, looking to the outside world for the challenges he once found in chess. Rigby, meanwhile, gives us a man only comfortable at the chess board – but it is this game-playing that prevents him from making the human connections he craves. His palpable disintegration is mesmerizing, and provides the emotional heart of the play.
The staging is subtle. A table, two chairs, a chess set and a clock focus attention on the sense of competition, while their constant drinking reminds us that this is not actually a chess competition; they are at Anatoly’s home. Their dress highlights their similarities – both in grey suits – but also their differences: Anatoly’s in a white shirt and tie, Garry sports an open neck.
I saw this play two years ago in Buxton, and what struck me then was the intellectual battle of ideals. Without any loss of that element, this time I was also touched by the emotional heft of the performance – the sense of personal tragedy when a friendship is lost that neither can match elsewhere. I won’t give away the ending here. But considering how many plays struggle to finish well, I will point out that The Gambit’s final move is the perfect one.