Sunday, 22 September 2013

How Good is Your Chessfriend?

Have you come across the phrase 'chess friend'? Sometimes squidged together as one word to become 'chessfriend'? It is usually seen in the opening line of an email from a desperate chess club official or organiser who is trying to screw some money out of you or get you interested in playing in his grotty little tournament in some sullen hall somewhere (why is it that chess tournament venues so often remind me of Wilfred Owen's poem Strange Meeting?). Or some equally desperate magazine editor hoping you'll buy his wares. Yes, I admit, I've used the term myself.

The question is: does the coined word 'chessfriend' ring true? Can chessplayers ever really be friends with each other? OK - I realise I am laying it on a bit thick with the cynicism here - yes, of course they can. I have many chess friends... I think. But do you ever really forgive your best chess mates for those heart-breaking defeats they inflicted on you decades ago? Or, indeed, are the words of congratulation you offer them when they achieve some huge chess success and you finish on 3/9 really sincere? Be honest: somewhere deep down, underneath the grafted-on civility and rictus smile of the sporting loser, are you absolutely sure there are no vestiges of the appalling brat who used to hurl pieces and/or abuse across the room when he lost? Of course, the vast majority of us grow out of such behaviour when we start playing in public but I am so glad they didn't have camcorders and YouTube when I was a kid.


However, adulthood brings subtler, wittier ways to get your own back on your 'chessfriends'. Here's how revenge was exacted on me. I was at the prize-giving for the 1982 Berks and Bucks Congress (for those unfamiliar with English geography, that's the counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire - we provincials always abbreviate the name of our native county). I was feeling pretty pleased with myself (the adjective 'smug' would not be inappropriate), having finished a close third behind a couple of IMs in the main event. I was getting ready to step up to receive my cheque (a princely £50) from the guest of honour - who, coincidentally, was one of the two IMs who finished ahead of me, namely William Hartston.

Naturally I wanted this massive sporting achievement to be recorded for posterity and had brought my camera. When my time came to go up onto the stage to receive the cheque and acknowledge the rapturous applause of the audience, I handed the camera to my best chessfriend to take my picture. Poor chap, he had finished nowhere in the tournament, but he seemed more than happy to help out with the photography and doubtless added some kind words of congratulation on my success, being the good and true chessfriend that he is. By the same token, I've no doubt I passed on my sincerest, heartfelt commiserations to him, wishing him 'better luck next time, old man'.


A week or so later I collected the photos from Boots. At first sight they seemed perfectly fine. It was only later when I showed them to the same chessfriend - and he collapsed laughing - that I realise I'd had the Mickey Adams well and truly taken out of me. Ten out of ten to him for his ingenuity and ability to frame a photo. In the immortal words of Michael Bates as Ranji Ram in the old British sitcom It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, "it is serving me right for being clever dickie."

Here's the photo (only native speakers of British English, and possibly Aussies and Kiwis, are likely to get the joke)...

John Saunders (left) receiving a prize from William Hartston at the 1982 Berks and Bucks Chess Congress. But the photograph doesn't really need a second caption, does it?

Monday, 26 August 2013

BritBase is Back!

Yes, BritBase is back. The national chess game database which I started in 1997, that is (just in case you had never heard of it). is the address.

BritBase Home Page - Still crazily keying games after all these years...

Actually, it's never been away - it just sat there, gathering dust for a year or two, as I busied myself editing chess magazines. But now I'm retired (apart from some freelance writing, tournament report-writing, translating, etc), I'm hoping to have a bit more time to devote to what was one of my first chess projects as an amateur chess worker before I went professional.

In the meantime chess and the dissemination of chess info has continued to develop at an amazing rate online, and I am no longer sure that there is much need for BritBase to keep up with contemporary British tournaments anyway. The game scores from current tournaments find their way to consumers, usually in a prompt and orderly fashion, via a multiplicity of web sources. So I'm really focusing my attention on past tournaments which have been yet to find their way from obscure bulletins and other sources onto digital media. That said, I'm happy to take delivery of files of tournament games played in the here and now, particularly if the sender feels that it is a good way to 'get them out there'.

If you have files you want to share, or want to get in touch to discuss any aspect of this, you can comment here on my blog. (Or send an email to 'john' at the URL address you see further up the page.)

To keep track of BritBase progress (or lack of it), click on the What's New page here.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

What Did We Miss? (Solution)

Saunders - Staples
London League 1979

White to play

Here's the answer to my poser from yesterday. You'll recall that the game went 22 Ng3 Bg6, and I asked you what both players had missed.

A couple of people on Twitter suggested 22...Nxh3+ after the move played (22 Ng3) and it's a very logical try. However, this is an example of pattern recognition leading us astray. I can't recall what I was thinking about when I played 22 Ng3 but I expect I also looked at 22...Nxh3+ and decided my move was worth the risk as there is no immediate mate on the horizon. After 23 gxh3 Qxh3 24 Nxh5 Qxh5 25 Bd1! it is not at all obvious how Black prosecutes his attack.

But instead of 22...Nxh3+, Black has the surprising 22...Bf3!! which turns out to be unanswerable. White cannot take with the queen because of 23...Nxh3+ discovering an attack on the queen, while capturing with the pawn loses to 23...Qxh3 and once again White has to surrender his queen to stop mate.

Those are the main tactics but what can White do if he can't capture? The g2 pawn will fall next move and with it all remaining hope of defending the kingside. White's position collapses like a house of cards.

In retrospect I can only wish that my opponent had played it so that I could have resigned immediately and accompanied him across the road to the Old King Lud pub across the road from the (then) London League venue at St Brides' Institute in order to enjoy extra drinking time for our post-mortem session (I'm sure we ended up there anyway but pubs closed at ludicrously early hours in those days).

Bf3, to win the g2 pawn, is quite an unusual motif, and what made it harder to see was the distraction of a more familiar idea which needed analysing. I'll have some more examples from my old scorebooks very soon.

Friday, 24 May 2013

What Did We Miss?

Saunders - Staples
London League 1979

White to play

I was browsing some of my old games recently and came upon this one. I was White, with a positionally poor game. I decided I needed to do something about my vulnerable kingside and played 22 Ng3, to which my opponent replied 22...Bg6 to preserve his useful bishop.

Before long I got into time trouble, blundered my d-pawn and eventually lost. But what had both players missed in this sequence? Answer tomorrow.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Nice Finish from Gawain Jones in the Bundesliga

The German Chess Bundesliga (not to be confused with the football league of the same name) provides a feast of chess entertainment, thanks to the rather splendid software interface they use to broadcast the games (which is now used for other major events, notable the FIDE Candidates' Tournament and the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters). And, of course, it is notable for the excellence of the players who take part in it. Former world champion Anatoly Karpov was there today, drawing comfortably with recent championship candidate Peter Svidler.

Here's the link to today's live action:

Most of England's active GMs play in this event and a game played in today's 15th round by GM Gawain Jones featured a very nice finish. I was a bit sorry to see that German GM Sebastian Siebrecht was the victim as he is a very nice guy whom I always look forward to meeting on the chess circuit but we all have to take our turn at being on the wrong side of a brilliancy.

Gawain Jones (left) and Sebastian Siebrecht

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

2013 Candidates: Some Stats...

One thing not featured on my blog yet is a full crosstable of results. Here is the table from the official site (which I thought was excellent, by the way)...

Carlsen qualified on number of wins - 5 to Kramnik's 4

Crosstables often tell a misleading story, of course. When we look back at the above crosstable in the future and see half a point separating the first four players, we may forget that there was a 1½ points gap between the first two names and the next two before the final round, and that Peter Svidler was never really in the running for first but had a late rally.

Now let's have a look at crosstables of the two separate cycles of the event...

Two very different tables! The main difference between them is that the players would have been very much more tired when they played the second cycle. Or you would have thought so - and yet it was the relative youngsters Aronian and Carlsen who did best in the first cycle, with the older players doing very much better in the second cycle. Perhaps the tension and pressure was more important than physical fitness, and the old guys proved to be made of sterner stuff?

Kramnik's resurgence in the second half was the most noticeable, of course, but Svidler and Gelfand did pretty well too. I suppose you could argue that Carlsen wouldn't have gone out on a limb in his final game had the tournament situation not demanded it, so he might have finished joint second with Svidler and Gelfand in the second half; but Kramnik would have been unlikely to have lost against Ivanchuk, so he would have made either 5½ or 6 - a remarkable score against such a field.


The first cycle featured 8 decisive games out of 28, with Carlsen and Aronian winning 3 each, and Radjabov and Svidler winning 1 each. The second cycle, with the tension growing, was much more bloodthirsty, with 17 decisive games in total, and all of the players bar the fading Radjabov getting at least one win on the scoreboard.

That makes 25 decisive games out of a total of 56 played in London = 44%. A very high proportion for a super-GM event: let's compare it with Linares 2009, which was also an eight-player double-cycle a.p.a. and featured five of the same players as played at London 2013 - it saw just 15 decisive games.

R.I.P. Match-Based Candidates Format: Dead and Buried...

Of course, the principal prize in London - a prestigious (and hopefully highly lucrative) match for the world title - provided the extra motivation. But such motivation has not always lead to more decisive games in Candidates' competitions. We only have to cast our minds back two years to the Candidates' matches played in Kazan in 2011, which produced a miserly three decisive classical games out of 30 played! That was probably the death knell for a match-based Candidates qualifier, certainly for the foreseeable future, and the 25 decisive games played in the tournament-based London Candidates will have driven the last nail into the coffin.

... But Bring Back the Interzonal!

So I guess that is it for the foreseeable future - a Candidates' tournament followed by a match for the world title. I'm happy with that. Gradually, inexorably, the tried and trusted ways of organising a world championship have come back into fashion, and the madhouse of Ilyumzhinov knock-out tournaments consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

You have to go back to Curaçao 1962 to find a precedent for a proper Candidates' tournament like the one we have just witnessed in London. Candidates' matches, as played from 1965 onwards, weren't a bad innovation in the days when FIDE was capable of running them properly, getting sponsorship and setting a respectable duration for them, but they eventually fell into disrepute and became unworkable.

With that in mind, perhaps it is time to think about euthanasia for the FIDE Grand Prix and World Cup system. These events have also proved to be unworkable (as well as eminently forgettable), with the federation's resources and limited competence being stretched to the limit trying to organise a motley collection of events all over the world (though by default they usually end up in Kirsan's backyard - Khanty-Mansiysk, Elista, etc).

We still have Zonal qualifiers, as of old - so why not have one big interzonal of 24 players, as in the good old days. I suppose the objection to that will be that FIDE can't use it as a cash cow, with weak players from obscure corners of the globe having their chance to get smashed by super-GMs in round one of another Siberian extravaganza. Well, I guess a couple of them could be squeezed in alongside the genuine contenders in a 24-player event.

It would have the advantage that just one big tournament would need to be funded and organised - but it would have much greater prestige and prominence than the existing system. It could be a cracker of a sporting event, just like London 2013, and provide a chance for a player to make a name for himself, like the guy who won the last of the 24-player interzonals in 1970: Bobby Fischer. Preceding him, Larsen, Smyslov, Spassky, Tal, Kotov... (Bronstein, Tal and Fischer won two of these mega-events). Surely an aspirant super-GM would give his eye teeth just to get on an honours board with those guys. Do it, FIDE!