Chess Crusader by Carl Portman

A review by Ben Graff

“I am clear that the most wonderful thing about chess is the opportunity to play it, and it is my sincere hope that everyone reading this book finds something equally significant and enjoyable in their lives.”

Carl Portman – Chess Crusader

Do you ever wonder what the opponent sitting across the chess board from you is really like? Where their journey through life has taken them, leading up to your first encounter? It is inevitable that we all make judgements, approximations, but who can tell? 

Those who read Chess Crusader will be privileged to learn much about one of the foremost writers and advocates for chess today, in Carl Portman. From his chess adventures, through to his work, relationships and other passions, Carl radiates positivity, good sense, and a determination to live every day to the full.

Carl endured a terrible childhood with a violent stepfather, filling the emotional void around him with friendships, music, and a love of Aston Villa. Yet perhaps no day was more significant than that on which he first entered the school chess club and was welcomed in by Mr Lenton. “All I could hear were clocks ticking… Other than that, it was silence. Perfect, wonderful, beautiful silence… I am often asked why I play chess, and one of the things I have treasured most is the tranquillity.”

Carl was on his way. Chess would ultimately take him all over the world. He has captained an England team, met with some of the most famous figures in the game, attended garden parties at Buckingham Palace, and worked with prisoners on the margins of society. He truly knows how to build connections and bring people together. His skill as a writer enables all of us to share in these and a host of further experiences. 

Carl simply has the knack for making things happen. Can you imagine the legendary Grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky staying at your house? Well, he stayed with Carl. They analysed the then in progress second Fischer-Spassky match in Carl’s front room. From Polugaevsky’s thoughts on Fischer, through to his shock on learning that Carl drank tea in the evening, this is a lovely tale nicely told. 

Carl also befriended Patrick Moore and they played both correspondence and over the board chess. Something again that Carl had instigated, which few others could have brought off. Carl’s other adventures include playing his hero, Karpov, and being the last man standing in the simul. A night to savour. He has also been coached by Michael Adams, who shared with him the idea that amateurs would probably improve if for a whole season they played every game out and did not take draws.

There are lots of interesting anecdotes, including Short’s view that his world title defeat to Kasparov was not the pinnacle of his career – rather it was defeating Karpov in the Candidates final. I also loved Carl’s story of the time he was reflecting on Tony Miles brutal review of Eric Schiller’s book Unorthodox Chess Openings in the restaurant at the Gibraltar Chess Festival. Only for a colleague to whisper that Eric Schiller was sat at that table behind them. It could happen to any of us!

Carl includes a very funny chapter “Saints and sinners,” building on his observation that there are two types of opponents. “Those that behave themselves and those that do not.” His list encompasses the starers, the clock bangers, and the kickers (including one very famous chess author, who while not explicitly named, most readers will be able to work out from Carl’s clues.) Carl has always been known to have an aversion to opponents eating at the board. Having read the following, who can blame him? “One madman once mutilated half a melon in front of me and he only had two teeth in his head. It was ghastly, and I had nightmares for weeks.”

Carl’s work with prisoners and his life and loves away from the board also form key components of his book. He highlights that Karpov has said that “Chess gives prisoners the key to a free world.” I was particularly touched to learn about the large volume of letters Carl receives from prisoners – and the huge positives the game has brought inmates – in terms of purpose, confidence, and self-esteem. 

The story of Carl’s MoD career is also impressive and engaging. Having left school at sixteen to work as a farm hand, he would go on to build a significant career in logistics. A considerable achievement and his recollections are either funny, or in the context of his work near the site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sensitive and thought provoking. 

Carl writes movingly about his amazing wife Susan, and her brave battle with cancer. This book is a love story on top of everything else. Carl shares that, “As soon as Susan walked in my heart missed a beat – she had brought fish and chips! What a girl… She brought colour and laughter into my flat…Susan was like no other girl I had ever met.” The two would be friends for many years, before ultimately buying a house together in 2007 and marrying in 2012. As Carl notes, the news of Susan’s illness “…was of course a life-changing moment but we draw on all our strength and love to stand together and fight.” I am sure they know that many others stand with them.

This is a book with chess at its core. The story of a man who overcame considerable adversity, to achieve so much and to give even more back to others. Carl’s energy, humour, and enthusiasm for life shine through on every page. Chess Crusader is a fantastic work and another terrific contribution from a writer at the peak of their powers.