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?