Jonathan Rowson Q&A: “I would love to have been at the Fischer-Spassky match”

The chess grandmaster talks Mahatma Gandhi, Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains and an infamous Cold War chess match.

Jonathan Rowson was born in Aberdeen in 1977 and made his chess debut aged 11, becoming a grandmaster at 22. He is a philosopher and founding director of the research institute Perspectiva.

What’s your earliest memory?

Hiding a large oval rock in a cupboard under the stairs, because dragon eggs need time alone to hatch.

Who are your heroes?

My grandfather, who took me around on his scooter, and my elder brother Mark, who was better at everything and more confident. Bono featured, as did Nelson Mandela. These days I’m drawn to courage of all kinds and grateful for Greta Thunberg.

What book last changed your thinking?

Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains helped me see slavery as capitalist logic at its most insidious. Unapologetic by Francis Spufford helped me to appreciate Christianity from the inside. Both are exquisitely written.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Mahatma Gandhi. Transformative political change has to be grounded in praxis. We are awash with critique, and have some vision, but we lack method. We need a 21st-century global version of Gandhi’s Satyagraha – a method of holding to the truth.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I wonder if Mastermind perpetuates the wrong idea of what is important. What people know matters less than the manner in which they know it; their curiosity, creativity and epistemic agility.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Reykjavik, 1972. One of the best things written about chess is George Steiner’s New Yorker essay on the Fischer-Spassky match during the Cold War. I’m curious to know what I would have written.

What TV show could you not live without?

I could live without TV, but Poldark made me happy to cry.

Who would paint your …read more

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