From Homeless to Chess in Recent Documentary

From Homeless to Chess in Recent Documentary

| 20 | Editorials

John Healy is an alcoholic. John Healy is a chess champion. John Healy is an award-winning author. John Healy is a yogi. 

John Healy is complicated.

Using a cold opening, Director Paul Duane dives head first into "Barbaric Genius," a documentary comprising several years of one-on-one interviews examining the dense life of the protagonist in his own words. We are hinted of a mysterious confrontation that derailed Healy's budding literary career, then we are sidetracked for some 45 minutes, first delving into his life before the publication of "The Grass Arena."


Chess fans may only get a partial stake in his life (the pieces are on display for only about eight minutes of the movie), but the role chess played in crafting the self-made man is undeniable.

Healy was born in London to Irish parents. During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, he had troubles of his own - alcoholism ravaged any sense of normal life. He lived in the streets, mostly in public parks, from 1960-1971. Healy said homelessness back then meant living like a "rat."

Healy's drunkenness lead to violence. He became so notorious that pubs refused to serve him, so he began a decade of vagrancy. "These people are mad, they're barbarians, they're crazy," he said of his daily companions. "I became one of them." Healy revisits a park he had not seen in 40 years and recounts a murder committed by the shard of a beer bottle.

The many undulations of his life unfold from there. During a stint in prison, Healy's nascent chess career started. So did his practice of yoga.


In 1971, his cellmate Henry Collins, the "Brighton Fox", taught him the basics.

"He said to me, 'What if I was to tell you about a game, where you could do all that you're doing on the street now, on a chessboard, without getting nicked (British slang for 'arrested' - M.K.) for it?'" Healy recounted. He added his own parallels between life and chess. "What is it but breaking and entering when you're breaking into your opponent's castled position, stealing his queen, mugging his king, robbing his pawns?"

The Irishman is not the most famous, or even the best chess player, to serve time. That infamy goes to Claude Bloodgood, who after murdering his mother, went on to serve out a life sentence in Virginia. His rating was near 2000 as a free man; while doing time he played in more than 700 events as his peak live rating rose to 2759, although he only played other prisoners. The USCF never allowed him to play in a U.S. Championship but did award him the title of Life Senior Master. Bloodgood died in 2001.

Healy doesn't romanticize about the game anymore, except for a very brief period. It may have saved his life, however.

"Ate it, drank it, dreamed about it," he said of chess. "It replaced everything in my mind," he said, saying that it ended his drinking. "I gave myself to her completely."

After being freed from prison, he won 10 international tournaments and claimed to beat a few grandmasters. His timeline is fuzzy - Healy claims to have given up the game in 1975, but several games of his in the 1980s can be found.

The chess component of "Barbaric Genius" is not the central focus. Duane examines the yogic mentality and daily regimen of Healy. He came across this accidentally, too, while serving a two-week spell in solitary confinement. 


The larger focus of the film is the nebulous reasoning for his blacklisting from the literary world. In the late 1980s, Healy wrote the autobiographical "The Grass Arena," detailing his life on the streets. He won Britain's most prestigious literary award and promptly had a fight with his publisher (which involved his threatening someone with an ax, which may or may not have been a real threat, and ended with Faber and Faber destroying two-thirds of the printed copies). Henceforth, he could not get any of his books or manuscripts published.

Curiously, his re-entry into the literary world and chess world coincided. In 2008, Penguin Classics reprinted "The Grass Arena." Healy went around giving simuls, taking advtantage of his sudden notoriety. "It's not something I really wanted to do. You're isolated for long periods of time, then suddenly you're in the limelight. It's a very strange experience, almost schizophrenic."


"It's not about chess," Healy said. "This is just another talent I have. It's the only thing I can exploit." His other manuscripts still sat on the shelf, occassionally being refined but never being printed. 

Then in 2010, Healy's first book in more than two decades was published: "Coffeehouse Chess Tactics." British publishers were still keeping him at arms length - the book was published by the Dutch press New In Chess.

He has gotten back into tournaments as well. In 2008, he earned an even score in the Irish Championship, outperforming his 1864 rating and tying for 13th. This game was a streetfight:

He is almost never seen in a social setting. Even during a crowded book signing, it becomes clear that his recent refound fame will be fleeting. He is more comfortable in the presence of no one. 

After the original release of "The Grass Arena," Healy related the cautionary advice of his closest friend, who died years ago: "'You're in with the middle class. They're the most dangerous enemies you've come up against yet.' She was right."

Duane's film puts chess in a mixed light. Chess saved a man, but furthered his isolation and lost out to prose in the battle for one man's ultimate love.

"Chess is a bloodsport. Defeat is always waiting," Healy says.

In the perfect world he tries to craft, Healy melds his lessons from vagrancy, chess, yoga, fame and solitude.

"All the thinking, that's a problem too. There's beauty in the stillness. There's ecstasy in it. There's nothing that you want while you're in it. Then you come back out, and bang! You want everything."

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