St Petersburg’s Terrible Plumbing

Uniforms, sushi and shit, Michael, are the first things that most people notice. There are more uniforms here now than in days of USSR. Tank troops, paratroops, military police troops, many naval men from ships docked at Kronstadt. The sushi bars everywhere are no more than a fad. Craze imported from Moscow. And as for St Petersburg’s terrible plumbing, well Michael what can I say? Accept my apologies for the faint but slightly egregious tang of shit you’ll detect here and there about the city. It isn’t nice. Don’t drink the water. You must tell me about yourself, about the life you live now in China.

You write for your living, yes? I too have written. Words are such dirty things. Peasants with the mud still on their boots. Chess is clean. It is an empty chamber with walls of white marble. Hard. Cold and spotless as the harbour on the day it freezes over between here and Finland. You play a little. You’ll know the match I played in ’86 here with Karpov. Together we pushed the game through new limits, through many new limits. All players today grew up on these matches. It’s how the framework of modern chess was created. It was at a higher [Brief pause as waiter places menus on table].

This place is cheap but it’s the ‘genuine article’. My absolute favourite location in Petersburg? Without doubt Teatralny Most bridge. It is a delicate bridge, palest yellow, where two waters come together in eddies. Just a couple blocks from here I’ll show you. It was near there I conceived the idea used in Game Ten; the sacrifice of the rook. It came while I walked from the bridge through Mikhailovsky gardens with its twining iron bars in the shadow of the famous church. A greatest idea. Leaves were falling. It’s part of history now, an amazing game that influenced chess. Karpov’s face! Nowadays the machine would go through it in a second. Computers were too weak back then. What the machine showed then was 19.Bh6!

It’s brand new now, a new world. When I started out the most envied was the one with the greatest collection of games. It was the most valuable thing, especially in the USSR where there were few books available. Today ping! One mouse click and it’s all there. Can you imagine? Back then when Botvinnik told us any little thing we would contemplate it for ten minutes! Some say it cheapens things; you know that computers are so strong now and help players prepare such surprises. But come on, this is part of the myth. Do you know my game with black against Kramnik in ’99? At Linares? All the computers were at +3 for Kramnik. [Begins to mime moving chess pieces in an excited fashion]. He’s crashing through the centre. It looks doomed. Then I play the king-lift, the bishop comes down, sacrifices itself and it’s a draw! You see I went further, despite the computer’s evaluation. There are… situations. It’s about your nose. You need to wait a bit, look a little deeper.

You can trace those programs from the day of their birth. They have played thousands of games against other computers, hundreds against humans. You can see the evolution, the changes from Version One to Version Whatever. [Pauses to pour water from jug on table into tumbler]. Yet I feel we still can beat the machines. [Further pause for drink of water]. The experiment is whether the best human player can beat the machine on his best day. That’s it. We don’t have to play a long match. You can’t guarantee best performance on every day. under these conditions the experiment can continue. I know you’ll want to ask me about the Incident. Ask. It’s fine. I won’t get mad. It was a sad day for chess. Scientifically speaking, the match was a fake. But at the end it’s not about me losing. I did what I could. No. Ask what you want. I won’t mind.

Afterwards I’ll take you to the Hermitage. No queuing of course. They know me there. Well honestly they know me everywhere. You must check out the Matisse room, my favourite section. You can just stand there in the healthy light. I mean the rich red light that shoots out from the canvasses. [Complains to waiter in Russian about music playing on radio in background]. We are masters here of the taut higher forms. Look at the street names: on every corner a composer, maybe two. Think of the bodies straining each night in the Mariinsky. Chess’s bodiless dance between partners in cafés and public parks. Folk culture ditto. But pop remains by us completely ungrasped. Line dancing and this tinkly shit. Do you know what they’re singing? I want a man like Putin / A man who’s strong like Putin / A man who won’t get drunk and hit me.

Putin! At every turn he has moved to erase the democratic procedures from our political map. The opposition has no access to television. You can’t campaign. It’s not like politics in the civilised world. So my status can be an important entry. How is being a chess player worse than being a general? Are you ready to order? The waiting service here is unlike that you’ll have experienced in the West, especially for foreigners. Today it is different because I am with you. They know me here. You will find waiting staff discourteous, even hostile. And they’ll bring you each course when it suits them, maybe not even in the order you ordered. You must tell me about yourself. Can you make sense of your menu? The English translation’s appalling: chicken of tobacco, stake from a beef under an egg, the hen from Hungary, wing of a cupid.

—William M. Ramsell

Read the above text carefully and answer each of the following questions:

1. Identify four points made in the text about the city of St Petersburg. (10 Marks)

2. What kind of person is the narrator or speaker of this piece? Pick the three adjectives that in your opinion best describe him, in each case giving the reasons for your choice. (20 Marks)

3. Do you think it is reasonable to describe this text as a poem? Give reasons for your answer. (20 Marks)

4. The poet William M. Ramsell has never been to St Petersburg. Write a paragraph describing how this affects your understanding of the above piece. (20 Marks)

5. Read the text carefully once more. Now write your own poem about somewhere you have never been. (30 Marks)