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Monday July 2, 2012

Math professor spent his life seeking truth

'The two roles that were most important to him were father and teacher,' said former prime minister Kim Campbell

Special to The Globe and Mail

Nathan Divinsky inhabited that plateau where high-level chess and mathematics intersect. So it should be little surprise that he could be arrogant, brash and over-the-top provocative. But those traits were also what made him so compelling.

Divinsky was a colourful character even by the standards of worlds that produce, almost as a prerequisite, colourful characters. A professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia for 32 years, he was a master at both bridge and chess, twice captaining Canadian teams at the Chess Olympiad. From the 1950s onward, he played key roles in chess organization in this country, serving as Canada's representative to FIDE (the World Chess Federation), from 1987 to 1994, and as president of the Chess Federation of Canada. In 2001, he was inducted into the Canadian Chess Hall of Fame.

He did much to raise the game's profile through prolific commentaries in the media. He founded and edited the magazine Canadian Chess Chat for 15 years and authored several well-received books on the game (as well as on math and fine dining), including 1989's Warriors of the Mind, co-written with British grandmaster Raymond Keene.

Among British chess cognoscenti, he became a household name in 1986, when the world championship rematch between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov took place in Moscow. Divinsky attended as a chess tourist but was snapped up to become the star commentator on the BBC's nightly coverage of the match. He pronounced the British "uptight," and gleefully recalled how his joking manner made the show's director nearly tear his hair out.

"Divinsky made such an impact ... that "I Love Divinsky" badges swiftly proliferated among the thousands of fans thronging the venue," noted his obituary in The Times, written by Keene.

For a time, Divinsky was a school trustee and a municipal councillor in Vancouver, experiences which served to reinforce and mesh his blunt views on politicians and the politics of chess. "All the bright successful people who become doctors, lawyers and financiers, they're never going to go into politics," he observed dryly in 2004. "That's why our politicians, in my opinion, are mostly third-class charlatans, and the people who end up in chess organizations are relatively weak players who have no great satisfaction from other forms of life. They're essentially incompetent."

On his blog, Canadian chess grandmaster Kevin Spraggett was equally direct. "I can't say I ever liked Nathan, though his charms often compensated for his defects. Many of his actions and political standing inside the chess world did more harm to Canada's reputation and influence than they did good, but I will always respect Nathan's courage for speaking his own mind, regardless of consequences or of who was listening."

Divinsky was 86 when he died in Vancouver on June 12. Those with sharp memories may recall that he was once married to Kim Campbell, Canada's 19th prime minister. The couple had met when Campbell was an undergraduate 22 years his junior at the University of British Columbia in the late 1960s. They married in 1972 and divorced in 1983.

"He did many things in his life but I think the two roles that were most important to him were father and teacher," Campbell told The Globe and Mail. "I think he was an extraordinary father. If there was something I learned from him - because I also taught in my early career - it was his approach to the integrity of teaching. Teaching was a deadly serious business for him. Part of his role was to express to students the joy of using your mind - that it's serious business but can also be a source of enormous personal happiness.

"Both of those roles he approached with absolute devotion and dependability and integrity."

Divinsky's passion for chess seemed bottomless, though was he not consumed by it. For him, chess was a mystical combination of beauty and struggle. Quoting a German master, he said the game, "like love and like music, has the power to make men happy."

And what about a little crazy? He rejected the chestnut that the best players are so brilliant they cross the line into a kind of madness. In fact, "chess players are more normal than the average rung of society," he told an interviewer. "The stronger the player, the more serious and sensible."

But there was a living to be made and chess didn't offer one. "When we were young, it was drummed into our head that nobody made a living from chess, and in those days nobody did," Divinsky told British Columbia Chess Scene a few years ago. World champions had died penniless and even second-tier grandmasters barely scraped by. "And I wasn't even in that category. So I was taught and accepted the idea that I had to do something for a living, apart from chess."

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