Tuesday 11 December 2007

Kamsky vs Shirov: Back to the 1990s

It is to be Kamsky versus Shirov in the FIDE World Cup final.

Although youth has been well to the fore in the tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, it seems that the younger generation are not yet ready to claim their inheritance. In both semi-finals it was a case of "age before beauty".

The final pairing makes me think of one of those cheesy old sports movie plots where a has-been sports star comes back from the wilderness for one last improbable attempt at glory. And of course they succeed: the final scene shows the ball going into the net, or the hated rival hitting the canvas, the hero is reunited with his long-lost girlfriend... cue credits.

I would love to see this happen in chess but life is not like the movies. And of course I am way ahead of myself because the two old bruisers still have to slug it out with each other. Only one of them will get to live the dream and it may be short-lived. The formidable figure of Veselin Topalov stands between them and a world title match. Not to mention a whole minefield of politics and negotiations. Harold Wilson said that a week was a long time in politics and that is even more true of chess politics. But Alexei Shirov will be more aware of that than anybody.

I'm glad that these two have come through the knock-out competition. Not that I have anything against Carlsen, Karyakin and co, but I feel that both Kamsky and Shirov deserve another chance at glory and that their track record as match players means the clash with Topalov should be a meaningful one. One thing they have in common is winning a match victory over Kramnik. Kamsky beat Kramnik in the 1994/95 PCA candidates quarter-final, while Shirov beat him in 1998 for the right to challenge Kasparov for the title. The other major factor they have in common is that both have played in a match for the world title. Kamsky lost to Karpov in the 1996 FIDE world final, while Shirov lost to Anand at the same stage in 2000 (although the FIDE version of the championship had by then been reduced to 'Mickey Mouse' status).

One of the great chess 'wrongs' that stands a chance of being righted in this current cycle is Shirov's lost chance to play Kasparov for the title in 1999/2000. I don't suppose we shall ever know the true story of what went wrong at that time but there is no doubt that Shirov has nursed a burning sense of injustice ever since and one can only feel for him. In the end, as we all know, his opportunity passed to his beaten rival Kramnik, who went on to defeat Kasparov and enjoy seven years as world champion. Kramnik also got paid his fee for the Shirov match, while Shirov ended up with precisely nothing. Well, nothing apart from the aforementioned sense of injustice, that is. But perhaps that may yet prove to have a motivational value which will carry him through his coming challenges. I wish him well.

Kamsky's virtual retirement after 1996 seems to have been triggered by a general disillusionment with chess as a career. Perhaps it was also a necessary stratagem to escape the clutches of an over-protective and dysfunctional father. He then turned to his studies (first medicine and then the law) but began a tentative come-back in 2004. He has settled back in pretty well, rejoining the 2700 elite, but chess has changed significantly during his absence. Mastery of computer-based theory is now more important than it was and he is sometimes judged wanting in that area. But his reputation as a match player is still high, despite a loss to Gelfand in the Elista Candidates last year. I also wish him well for his coming challenge.

So now there are five. The plan is that the winner of the Kamsky/Shirov match will get the chance to play Topalov, and the winner of Topalov vs GK/AS then goes on to challenge the winner of the 2008 Kramnik/Anand championship match for the title, sometime in 2009. An enticing prospect but at the moment is no more than a plan. Four matches in two years could tax the organisational and fund-raising skills of the World Chess Federation. I wonder how many of these matches will actually happen?

Friday 7 December 2007

The Farce Brothers

Who said adjournments were dead? The appeals committee at the 2007 World Youth Championships has re-invented them. Read all about it at ChessVibes.com [partly in Dutch but the Belgian protest is in English]. They decided it was OK to get a 14-year-old boy out of his bed at 11pm, ask him to give evidence before them (I've got a picture of "when did you last see your father?" in my head) and then oblige him to sit down and, at midnight the same night, continue a game which he had thought had been finished several hours before he went to bed.

Read the full facts at the ChessVibes site by all means but to my mind the rest of the matter pales into insignificance besides the aforementioned bit of lunacy. How could the appeals committee even think to summon a child from his bed in the first place? Well, basically because the appeals committee consisted of 'The Farce Brothers' (like the Marx Brothers, only not as funny) - Azmo, Campo and Makro Farce (to give them their stage names - in real life they are Zurab Azmaiparashvili, Florencio Campomanes and Georgios Makropoulos... three of the most senior people in world chess administration - to our collective shame).

Beggars belief, doesn't it? There are three things these cretins should do immediately, in no particular order - resign; apologise profusely to the boy and to the Belgian Chess Federation; and (two of them) also apologise to Nigel Short. Why the latter? Because they recently caused Nigel Short to be reprimanded by FIDE for referring to them as dunderheads. Since we now have cast-iron, irrefutable evidence of the aptness of Mr Short's description, he should receive a fulsome apology.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Vishy's Baking Tray

The other day at the BCM Chess Shop we were all chortling at this photo which appeared on the cover of the latest New in Chess magazine. Vishy had just won the world championship and, after dressing him up like a market stall with various bits of local material and vegetation, all they could think to present him with was what looked like an unwashed baking tray. No wonder he looks slightly less than delirious.

We all had a go at dreaming up captions for the photo. One of the first was the traditional "I went to Mexico and all they gave me was this tea tray". Another was based on the speculation that a Post-It note had been attached to the reverse, which read "Dear Vishy, Many congratulations on nicking my title. I'm hanging onto the real trophy until you beat me fair and square in a match. In the meantime, you can have this tray which I took from my rest room in Elista as a memento of many happy hours spent there. All the best, see you next year - Vlad".

Maybe readers would like to volunteer their own caption...

Saturday 17 November 2007

Dogs and Cats Playing Chess

First things first... apologies to anyone who has been trying to access the BCM website which has been down all day (Saturday 17 November). Seems to be the fault of the web hosts - nothing we can do about it.

I have just enjoyed reading an amusing story on the Streatham and Brixton blog - click here - featuring the hapless fictional English GM Geoff Scorebook (a sort of chessplaying Mr Pooter) and the day he was forced to play chess against a dog.

Those Streatham guys give great blog and I exhort you to read their stuff. If you read to the end of the comments on this story you will find that I feebly try to top EJH's story with a tale about a cat that played chess (or at least one move of a game of chess). Only my story happens to be absolutely true. I thought you might like to see a picture of Scamp, the remarkable animal that once played 1 Rh1-g1, having a kip on his favourite chess set. Notice how he wraps his paw protectively round the king. He definitely knows something, that cat.

Friday 9 November 2007

ECF: One Member, One Vote?

Peter Sowray, international director of the English Chess Federation (ECF), has started a petition to change the way the federation is organised. Without further ado, click on the following link:


The wording of the petition is "We, the undersigned, call upon the English Chess Federation to adopt a more democratic approach. Specifically, we believe that 'One Member, One Vote' should be introduced for major decisions, including the election of board members and the setting of the Annual Budget."

At the moment the ECF has a federal structure, composed of affiliated organisations which have votes. This was probably quite a reasonable set-up in its day, 100+ years ago, but it is increasingly evident that the ECF's wheels just don't turn fast enough for the chess world as it stands in the 21st century. The pace of change is agonisingly slow, and over the years a number of dynamic people who might have been useful in the organisation of chess have been put off by its in-built conservatism. Note, this is not a criticism of any of the people involved, just the structure of the organisation.

Please read Peter's petition and the reasons behind it. I haven't the time today to do a full-blown blog on this but I find Peter's case admirably clear and sensible. I was havering about whether to sign myself, given that I am a 'foreigner' (a member of the Welsh Chess Union). But I live in England and am directly affected by decisions made by the federation in my work, so felt constrained (after the gentlest arm-twisting from Peter!) to append my name. What do blog readers think?

Thursday 8 November 2007

Sticking Up for Chess

I did a chess-related sound bite for a local radio station this morning (Nov 2007). I've done a fair few of these over the years and you tend to get asked the same old questions. The problem is that they are just using you to fill in a couple of minutes at the end of the hour, before the news bulletin kicks in. You are the equivalent of the 'skateboarding duck' story which is traditionally slotted into the end of TV news shows, just to raise the viewers' spirits after half an hour of depressing hard news stories. Or the 'dead donkey' which can be conveniently 'dropped' should there be a big story which needs more time. In fact, that excellent TV comedy show of the 1990s to which I am referring could, but for the grace of God, have been named Drop the Chess Story. I'm so glad it wasn't.

Anyway, you always have to expect to be asked something about the game's reputation for being 'slow' or 'boring', or about the image of chessplayers as 'geeks' or 'nerds'. Tempting though it is for an old grump like me to trade insult for insult and suggest that I cannot think of anything more boring than listening to local radio - that would come across as snooty and middle-class - you have to play the game... take a deep breath and say something frothy and upbeat which chimes in with the banter that you hear coming down the phone line from larky lads and lasses in the studio. Well, that's what I tend to do, anyway. Anyone got a good riposte that they'd like to suggest in response to the 'slow, boring' jibe ?

One idea I had but did not implement was to ask that the presenters do a bit of homework on chess before my slot. Next time I might suggest that they go to 'YouTube' and search for 'Nakamura Dlugy'...

... two grandmasters playing one-minute chess whilst heavy rock music plays around them. After watching that, could they still legitimately ask me whether chess was slow or boring?

Of course, the real reason a lot of people think chess is boring is because they have never had contact with anyone who can play it competently. They think they know what chess is, but they don't. Most games and sports tend to be slow and boring when played by the untutored or the incompetent. Even reasonably competent sport, as practised by parks footballers, is not particularly stimulating to watch when played in front of two men and a dog.

Here's a little experiment: next time you watch TV football, try watching with the sound turned down. Dull, isn't it? It makes you realise that a huge part of the fun comes from the noise made by the crowd and the commentators. Much of the appeal of TV sport lies in being sucked into this state of mass hysteria which a lot of us find irresistible. It wouldn't work quite like that for TV chess, of course, but there are other, subtler ways of getting people involved in things presented on the box.

As for the 'geek/nerd' jibe: my standard reply is to tell them about someone like Simen Agdestein, grandmaster and pro footballer. And now star of the Norwegian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Although that particular answer is almost as trite and done-to-death as the question it purports to answer, it's a way of trying to tell them that chessplayers come in all shapes and sizes (although it has to be admitted that an unhealthily large proportion sport a 'y' chromosome) and that, amongst the geeks and nerds, there are 'jocks' and 'dudes' and 'babes' and 'alpha males' and 'brats' and 'fogies'... in fact, virtually every kind of revoltingly-named social stereotype that one can think of.

How do readers of my blog respond to the geek/nerd jibe?

Whilst looking round for some online video action showing Agdestein playing football, or even doing the paso doble (haven't found anything as yet), I came across some soccer action featuring another chessplayer, Torkil Nielsen, who was reputedly the chess champion of the Faroes Islands and has a rating in the mid-2100s so he's a decent player. He was the Faroe Islands soccer player who scored the winning goal for his country against Austria in one of the biggest international soccer upsets of all time in a European Championship qualifying match in 1990. Here's the video...

... or at least, here it was, until those spoilsports at UEFA denied us the pleasure of seeing it on YouTube. Had it still been available, I would have warned you to turn the sound down on your computer before watching it - the commentator goes completely berserk. "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!! Ludwig Wittgenstein!! Sigmund Freud!! Kurt Waldheim!! Arnold Schwarzenegger!! Can you hear me, Arnold Schwarzenegger!! We gave your boys a helluva beating!!" Well, he could have been saying something like that, couldn't he?

Enough of the chess, it's nearly time for the news headlines...

This has been John Saunders...
At three minutes to eight...
BBC Ambridge...

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Guardian Chess Book of the Year

The Guardian, in the shape of GM Daniel King and his co-columnist Ronan Bennett, is running a competition for 'best chess book of 2007'. You can read their three most recent articles here, here and here, in which they nominate their own favourite books of 1907 - Karlsbad 1907 and Silman's Complete Endgame Course being two titles singled out - and invite readers to nominate their own favourites which will be added to the short list for the judges to consider. Dan and Ronan are inviting readers to nominate two more titles and want them to email their choices.

The two books with the most nominations (closing date November 12) will be added to the short list. Dan King and Ronan Bennett will then team up with two other members of the Guardian Chess Club, Stephen Moss and Sean Ingle, and they are proposing to announce the shortlist of six on December 3. Everyone who makes a nomination will have their names put into a hat, and the lucky winner will receive a copy of the winning book.

Here's the important bit: the email address. It is chess@guardian.co.uk

Vishy v Vlad 2008: Pre-Match Skirmishes, Round 2

Well, that didn't take long, did it? No sooner had I started deconstructing the rules of engagement on my blog than Vishy produced his second volley. Chessbase, bless their hearts, has all the relevant info. In reality the match has now begun, with every utterance of the two contenders likely to be analysed, distorted and whipped into a souffle by chess hacks worldwide - and, hopefully quite soon, the general media too. They will have to watch their every word: even a polite request for directions to the nearest gents could be mistranslated or misinterpreted as another toiletgate accusation.

I'm beginning to wonder whether the match should really be billed 'Izvestia v Hindustan Times', those being the two organs through which the rivals' latest pronouncements have been filtered. Then, of course, there is the secondary filter, ChessBase itself, which has been known to place a spin or two on chess news. Their headline - "Anand blasts FIDE's 'political patronage' of Kramnik" - shows they enjoy reading UK tabloid newspapers. The word 'blast' is beloved of the UK press - it's nice and short and Anglo-Saxon and pulls in the punters like no other. It's just a tad stronger than 'rap'. A 'rap' criticises in relatively polite terms (like a ticking-off from your mother) but I always feel a 'blast' really lets it all hang out, and maybe slips in a vulgar insult or two. Or am I thinking of 'slam'?

Well, anyway... as you excitedly read the text of a blast-headlined article for some full-blooded criticism, you usually find that what the 'blaster' (or 'rapper' or 'slammer') actually said, tucked away in a few lines somewhere in the third paragraph after the writer has had a go at exaggerating and interpreting the actual words, would barely offend an elderly dowager at a garden party. What a disappointment! Still, the press is trying hard and this is exactly how these things are supposed to play out in order to whip up a bit of aggro. 10/10 for effort all round.

Going back to the 3 November edition of the Hindustan Times article: the writer kicks off with "Long after the bitter days of rivalry between Kasparov and Karpov, another chess star war seems to be in the offing." Already we can see where he wants to go with this story. The first direct quote from Anand, quite a bit further down the page, is: "He is trying to make the most of the political patronage he enjoys from the FIDE. Kramnik's position seems like a legal explanation of a situation arising from the political patronage." Not exactly a 'blast', is it? Nevertheless Anand is making quite a significant criticism here, not so much of Kramnik as of FIDE for showing favour.

So there you have it: the second bit of FIDE-bashing from Vishy. As I said in my earlier blog, this is always a good move to make in a game of chess politics. Notice Vishy seems to have had two moves in a row. There is no rule about each player making alternate moves when mud-slinging. Kramnik doesn't have to move at all if he doesn't want to. There is no zugzwang in chess politics. I'm not surprised Vishy has made this pair of moves but they strike me as coming a bit early in the piece. I would have expected him to manoeuvre, playing the political equivalent of pawn to a3 or h3 for a while before launching a flank attack of this magnitude. But it is too early to judge its effectiveness. The position is either level or unclear (select whichever cliche you prefer).

Vishy's next quoted utterance - "Who the best player in the world is decided on the board" - well, that's more like it at this early stage. Just a minor developing move. You or I could have found that platitude without the slightest difficulty.

In the final para of the article, Anand is said to have 'refuted' (good chess term, that) the claim that the match would be held in Germany in September 2008 and that nothing had as yet been decided. Excellent! Any notion that agreement had been reached on dates and venue would be ruinous for this traditional area of off-board conflict, which ideally needs to be left unresolved until the last possible minute. In 1972, we didn't know if there would be a match at all until we saw Bobby Fischer descend the steps of the plane in Rejkyavik - which was picture that greeted us on the TV news that night. How's that for brinksmanship - and newsworthiness? I doubt that we could ever again enjoy that sort of cliff-hanging tension but the pot needs to be stirred for a few months yet.

On 5 November the Hindustan Times ran a story on Vishy Anand shifting base back to India. Apparently he has bought a house in Chennai and is talking about training young Indian players. "I have bought a new house in Chennai and will be staying more in India. Earlier, I used to stay for about two months in India and six-eight months in Spain. But now it could be the other way round." The maths doesn't quite work there. Where was he the rest of the time? On the road playing chess perhaps? But I suppose it could be interpreted as a political move in the build up to the Kramnik match. The fact that he lives most of his life abroad slightly detracts from his status as a national hero.

It is interesting to contrast this move with that of the Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton who, on becoming a British national hero, has decided to go and live in Switzerland because he cannot walk down a British street any more wthout getting pestered. Most of us cynics assumed the real reason for the move is because the Swiss tax man helps himself to less of his dough than his British equivalent. I wonder if Vishy has some ulterior motive in this move?

You would have thought that Vishy would have the same problem as Hamilton when trying to walk down an Indian street. But perhaps his privacy has to be sacrificed in order to benefit from the extra political muscle his vast and powerful home country can bring him - the 'India v Russia' angle. Akin to a playground dispute and the traditional chant of "my dad's bigger than your dad". I certainly get the impression that the Indian press could be a major influence in the coming struggle. The fact that they publish in English could be a plus factor in the Anand campaign.

Yes, it'a all shaping up nicely...

Friday 2 November 2007

Vishy v Vlad 2008: The Hype Has Begun...

As we all know, Kramnik and Anand are due to play a world championship match some time next year (there is now talk of Germany in September). But it is not unprecedented: they played a ten-game match a few years ago. Anyone remember it? Thought not. To be fair, it was only rapidplay, at Mainz in 2001, and ended 5-5 with just two decisive games. Anand won a blitz decider 1½-½.

The only thing I remember about the 2001 match was a comment made to me afterwards by a chess journalist who had witnessed it. “They arrived for each game practically hand in hand!,” he commented rather disgustedly of the all too obvious friendliness of the two players to each other.

From the journalistic/PR point of view there is nothing worse than a cosy relationship between two sporting competitors. It doesn’t matter for run of the mill events but when you are trying to generate some publicity for a high-profile match that might catch the eye of the general media, you need there to be at least some degree of aggro between them. Ideally, you want to be able to quote a few spiky comments made by one about the other. Just imagine, in soccer, if the managers of Arsenal and Manchester United spent the afternoon before their teams played having a round of golf together. It wouldn’t do at all, would it?

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the 4NCL has a bit of an image problem at the moment. The league was at its zenith a few years ago when we had Slough and Wood Green fighting for supremacy. There was considerable personal animosity involved between the two clubs, but it only served to enhance the competition, with the two rivals hiring ever more exalted grandmasters in an armaments race to overpower the other. Later, Wood Green and Guildford had a less heated rivalry; but when you pump all that cash in, you want to win and the competition becomes intense. These days we have the less than enthralling rivalry between Guildford-A&DC first team and... Guildford-A&DC second team. Doesn’t set the pulse racing, does it? There is a world championship precedent for this: the 2004 title match between Kramnik and Leko, where both players had the same manager. Not a trace of ill-feeling between the players could be discerned before, during or after the match. In his recent book, Topalov described that as the “most boring world championship match of all time” and he has quite a strong case.

Anyway, back to Anand versus Kramnik: in a recent interview with Izvestia, Kramnik laced his answers with some slightly barbed comments. See Steve Giddins’ commentary on this at the ChessBase site. It is also noticeable that Anand has been more outspoken in various comments to the press since becoming champion. Of course, they now have more at stake than first prize in a relatively trivial rapidplay match but it looks like the PR machine for VVV ’08 (Vishy versus Vlad 2008) has now started in earnest.

Just a small sample from the Giddins article: “When it was put to him that Anand was surely the strongest player in Mexico, Kramnik replied that the situation is like tennis: ‘Federer is better than Nadal, but cannot compete with him on clay. Everyone has their strong side. Mine is match-play, whereas Anand’s is tournaments. He is very even and stable, and can draw with the top players and beat those lower down.’” Not an unreasonable comparison, but with just the right amount of needle. Can Vishy hack it as a match player? Vlad has flung down his challenge.

Looking at it from the PR angle, Vlad mixed in just the right amount of edginess into his answers, with a view to building up interest in the match. It may be slightly artificial, of course. If he overdid it, we would know straightaway that it was faked, because it would be so out of character. So he has to do it in easy stages. After all, if he came out with bland stuff about "Anand won fair and square, I've no arguments", etc, etc, it would hardly stir the blood or whet the appetite for a showdown. A degree of aggro has to be introduced into the equation and gradually developed between now and September 2008 otherwise the general media will be unable to find an 'angle' and will end up ignoring the match completely.

Of course the source of any difference between them has to be credible but at the moment it is quite understandable for Vlad to be bitter and twisted. Unseated world champions are never the happiest of souls and he must still feel very irritated at being dragooned into the Mexico tournament so soon after he had won a tough match to reunify the world title. Karpov and Kasparov would surely not have caved in to any amount of federation pressure to make them put their title at stake so soon, and in a format which didn’t confer some tangible advantage on the holder. Kasparov, one feels, might have wormed his way out of the obligation in some spectacular way, and then used his influential friends to bang the drum on his behalf and drown out all the negative publicity. He did this sort of thing more than once in his career. But Kramnik would have needed a bigger rating (and an even bigger helping of chutzpah) to pull that one off.

We’ve seen how the Kramnik PR machine is shaping up but there is evidence from recent interviews in India that Vishy's camp are also working on policy. Vishy has grumbled about the forthcoming world championship cycle. This is always a good opening move in world championship politics (just like starting a game with 1 e4). Just as Vlad has made it plain that he is not looking forward to a possible future defence against Topalov, Vishy doesn’t see why FIDE granted Kramnik a Botvinnik-style return match at all (and that it was just a vote-winning stratagem during the FIDE elections). Since 1972 this general air of hostility towards the federation has arguably become a staple ingredient of major world championship matches. A bit of judicious FIDE-bashing from Vishy and Vlad could do wonders for PR.

Of course, if one side attacks FIDE, then the other must reply immediately in the same vein (1...e5!) in case anyone gets the idea that FIDE might favour one player over the other. Perhaps we should call this two-pronged anti-FIDE strategy the ‘Campomanes Attack’, after Karpov and Kasparov both attacked the then president of FIDE after he terminated their 1984 match. “Termination favoured Kasparov because I was leading the match!,” bellowed Karpov. “No, it favoured Karpov because I was finishing the stronger!,” howled Kasparov in reply. Not direct quotations, of course, but it gives you an idea of how this strategy plays out. But FIDE-bashing must be conducted with some finesse: the last thing anyone wants is another break from FIDE as in the quintillion question-mark Short-Kasparov breakaway blunder of 1993.

Kramnik's jibe about Vishy drawing with the big guys and beating the lesser ones in Mexico is one step along the road to saying "Ha! You big bully! Let's see you pick on someone your own size!". This seems quite a fruitful avenue for building up the hype but the two sides need to be careful and keep their sparring on the current gentlemanly level. If they start using street language or ‘doing a Danailov’, we’ll know they’re faking it. Keep it clean, guys.

Vishy’s political TN compared to previous world championships is that he considers a tournament to be a worthy way to decide the title. From a recent interview in an Indian newspaper: “I think what we had in Mexico (2007) and San Luis (2005) are the best. First of all, it’s attractive to have four games (involving all eight players) a day. If you have one game and that fizzles out, spectators have to come back two days later. Not a dream format, in my opinion.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? I suspect that most of his ‘great predecessors’ would disagree with him. Spectator appeal has rarely been at the top of their agenda (and Fischer did his best to have rows of spectator seating removed from the playing hall in 1972). Even though I disagree with Vishy (and suspect him of preferring the tournament format purely and simply because it favours him), it is good to have something different to haggle over. The chess world would be a dull place if we all agreed with each other and at least it provides another bone of contention to chew over in the long months until September 2008.

Whatever happens, I think we can assume that Vishy and Vlad won’t be skipping into the playing hall hand in hand this time round.

Monday 29 October 2007

The Move That Killed Dracula

Naisortep (or can I call you Nargit?) has asked to see the move that killed Dracula (see previous post). The position is from Anand vs Kasparov, in the final of the PCA/Credit Suisse Knock-Out Rapidplay in Geneva, 1996. Their rapidplay encounters ended 1-1, so two blitz games were needed to break the tie. The first was drawn and this is the position in the deciding second blitz game after Anand's move 33 Rc1-e1. On the face of it he's completely busted, having lost two central pawns in a middlegame melee. However, his last move sets a trap and this is, after all, a blitz game. Kasparov thinks he can simply exchange material and win the endgame so he plays the move you see in the clip - 33...Qxe3 - but it's a horrible, horrible blunder. The next thing you see is Vishy's hand hover over g4 and in that instant Kasparov realises what's coming and his eyes blaze with horror... 34 Qxg4! ... as Vishy later wrote: "The face-pulling he did now rivalled anything he has ever done!". With his queen and c8 rook attacked, Kasparov soon played 34...0-0 but it is quite clear from his histrionics that he knew he was dead and buried.

Here's the complete score, with the position set to one half-move beyond the diagram shown above:

Sunday 28 October 2007

Dracula Sees the Sign of the Cross

Long radio silence here at my blog. Apologies. After my busy time in the Isle of Man, I went down with a bad cold, then it was time for the November BCM...

... excuses, excuses. You don't want to hear that stuff, do you? Well, here's an oldie but goldie. I think this must be my favourite chess video clip of all time...

This is from a big 1996 rapidplay tournament. 22 seconds of pure joy for all of us (with one notable exception). Kasparov makes a capture but, as Vishy Anand's hand momentarily hovers over his reply, realisation dawns for Kasparov. Just look at those eyes - like Christopher Lee's Dracula as he sees Peter Cushing's sign of the cross. Kasparov throws himself back in his chair, mad eyes still swivelling in their sockets. As a victorious Vishy said immediately after the game: "Did you see his reaction? It was BEAUTIFUL!!".

Indeed it was. And they say chess is not televisual. When Kasparov played chess, it was always worth watching. How we miss him.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Dunderheads in the East, Dunderheads in the West

I shall start by admitting that we all make typos, all of the time, but there are times when you simply have to check, double-check and make sure you get it right. It's Sunday morning and, as the vicar of St. BCM's, my sermon today is on the subject of getting it right when it matters...

Exhibit A: the pairings page at the official website for the world championship. I had a look at this to check when various people were due to play each other and was appalled to find that the pairings for the second half of the tournament were all over the place. In most cases they replicate the pairings of the first half, so that players are shown playing the same opponents with the same colours. For example, round eight looks OK but in round nine the same guys play each other again with the colours reversed. The first free day is listed as Sept 11 when it should be September 17. In short, muchos problemas. Anyway, I tried to be helpful and email the webmaster. I found the contacts page, which had a contact email address for the webmaster, so I penned him a quick line, in English and rusty Spanish, indicating the errors. But - as you've probably already guessed - the email bounced back to me, recipient unknown. Mas problemas... I wonder, could it happen... could one of the world championship contenders rely on what he found on the website, prepare for the game and then turn up to find himself facing someone entirely different. It couldn't - could it? Anyway, I have just extracted 'Speckled Jim' from my pigeon loft, attached a message to his claw and sent him on his way to Mexico City.

Exhibit B: the ACP proposal for the standardization of time controls. Now, for once, I shall not go banging on about how idiotic I think modern time controls are, how I loathe it when they are described as 'classical', etc, etc: I will merely draw your attention to section 1 of this document where the writer (Polish GM Macieja) lists the so-called 'long classical' option. He first lists it in time limit gobbledegook as (100'/40+50'/20+G-15')+30" ("the longer") and then attempts to decode as
[90 minutes for 40 moves, then 50 minutes for 20 moves, then 15 minutes for remaining moves, with an increment of 30 seconds per move, starting from move 1]. Unfortunately it has become garbled in translation since the first talks about 100 minutes and the second 90 minutes: a typo which might be forgivable in many contexts, but here it goes to the heart of the matter. As lawyers like to say, time is of the essence. It seems to me that this failure to get it right completely undermines any confidence we can have in this entire proposal and the thought that has gone into it. Together with the vague generalisations about who wants new/fast and who wants old/slow time controls, it looks like a botched job.

P.S. Sorry to be so cynical on this bright and sunny Sunday morning but it is hard not to presume that the ACP has agreed to roll over and have its tummy tickled in this way in return for some FIDE bribe or other.

Saturday 15 September 2007

Krambo Runs Amok

I tuned in to watch the tail-end of round two of the world championship and was hugely surprised by Kramnik's play in this game. It was totally out of character when compared with his post-2000 safety-first style of play. My first reaction was that this Tal-style approach was either a ploy specifically aimed at Moro (demonstrating that he was ready to go out and meet him on his own messy territory) or that he recognises the need to play more sharply in a tournament scenario in order to keep pace with the likes of Anand. It probably won't be good enough just to "do a Dortmund" and get +2, he may need +4 or +5 to retain his title.

Kramnik has just issued a DVD called 'My Path to the Top' (available from a chess shop near you) which provides considerable insight into Kramnik's planning and approach. Having spent a few hours watching the videos recently, the reality of his round 2 game came as quite a shock. In his DVD Kramnik explains how he adapted his game in the late 1990s, under the influence of his (then) coach Dolmatov, to make it more positional and less overtly aggressive. Has he changed styles again? Are we now seeing (K)rambo 2, a born-again attacking chessplayer? This makes me wonder whether he has managed to time publication of the DVD to coincide with a deliberate wrong-footing change of style.

Anyway, as sporting surprises go, Kramnik's rush of blood to the head rivals that moment earlier in the week when England defender Rio Ferdinand suddenly thought he had turned into Cristiano Ronaldo, did a little shuffle and then whacked the ball past the Russian goalkeeper.

Of course it could all have gone horribly wrong for 'Krambo' had Morozevich reacted better. I shan't attempt a discussion of the moves (just too complicated and I'm not sure even the computers can do justice to it) beyond saying that Kramnik had already committed himself to a razor-sharp struggle when he played 8 0-0 or even 6 Ne5.

On the official site they are showing an article on round one by Leontxo Garcia which has been translated from Leontxo's usual florid Spanish into rather stilted English. Leontxo castigates Kramnik and Svidler for their first round draw ("frustrating the worlds' fans with an attitude that should be prohibited") but this has now been overtaken by the more dramatic events of round two. There are various bleatings lower down the website about problems with transmission. It seems that even world championship websites can suffer from "round one syndrome".

Saturday 8 September 2007

UK 2½, China 5½

"Oh young Miss Hou,
What shall I do?
I've got those
Chinese chessplayer Blues..."

(apologies to George Formby)

Dunderheads vs Nigel Short (Part 2)

So the official verdict is that Nigel Short shouldn't have called Makro and Azmai 'dunderheads'. On reflection that seems to be quite correct. Makro may well be a dunderhead (e.g. his preference for the FIDE time limit) but I see Azmai more as a thug than a dunderhead. In future Nigel should choose his insults with more precision.

Thursday 6 September 2007

Chinese Cracker in Liverpool

One of my oldest chess friends chided me over my overlong silence here at the BCM Blog, so I thought I would write something of my Tuesday trip to the UK vs China match at St George's Hall, Liverpool.

First of all, I was impressed by how easy and convenient it is to get to Liverpool by train and then find the venue. 2½ hours direct from Euston to Liverpool Lime Street, and then you cross the road ... and you are at the venue. Couldn't be simpler. The train ran to timetable. And, thankfully, the Northern line of the underground was unaffected by the tube strike so that part of the journey worked like a dream too.

At two o'clock we had the opening ceremony, which was a very informal affair in which the Lord Mayor of Liverpool was presented to the two teams. The local press photographer dragooned all the players into position either side of a long table at which the Lord Mayor (who had apparently been promoted to board one for the UK) faced China's youngest (and already most famous) player, 13-year-old girl prodigy Hou Yifan. Then of course the photographers urged the Lord Mayor to make a move, which he promptly did - 1 h5. Yes, he had the black pieces and made the first move. If Hou Yifan was surprised by this remarkable TN, she didn't show it but continued to smile sweetly. In fact, after further languageless gesturing from the assembled press corps, she was persuaded to continue this chessboard travesty with a white move. I thought this demonstrated considerable sang froid and flexibility of mind on her part. The abundant evidence that she had travelled halfway round the planet to be confronted by people who appeared not to have the slightest clue as to how to play chess did not faze her one iota.

We then moved to the speeches, with the Lord Mayor (Councillor Paul Clark), organiser David Robertson, ECF chief executive Martin Regan, UK captain Jon Speelman and the Chinese head of delegation (whose name I did not catch) all speaking. Jon Speelman told us that he had arrived on the Sunday expecting to be match commentator but, in the absence of a room suitable for commentary, he had instead been appointed the UK skipper. This reminded me of the frequent occasions on which I have turned up to various chess competitions thinking merely to spectate and then being induced to stand in for a missing player, or generally help out in some administrative capacity. Of course, GM Speelman is a kindly and solicitous soul and it was good to see him busily ministering to his charges, whilst also finding some time to explain to us less gifted occupants of the back room what was really happening on the boards.

The opening ceremony and photo-shoot dragged on rather and, at its close, the Chinese team begged leave to put the start time back by half an hour: a perfectly reasonable request which was agreed to by the organisers, though it may have nonplussed the web audience somewhat as they settled down to watch.

St George's Concert Hall is a splendid venue for a prestige event such as this, and the organisers had laid on supplementary lighting so that we were bathed in light (it was noticeable that pro photographers dispensed with their flash guns when taking pictures - a very good sign). One awkwardness was the lack of room on the stage. Though it accommodated the eight boards of the match perfectly easily, the space required for the Open meant that a few boards from the Open were placed at the back of the stage which left insufficient room for the match players to move about. I wasn't present for rounds two and three but I imagine this has since been sorted out.

But I'll cut short any quibbling about the arrangements and minor niggles about the set-up - none of it matters in the general scheme of things and what will be remembered in the years to come will be the chess. And the chess has been excellent. The match has lived up to its advanced publicity. The first two rounds were a wake-up call for the British squad, with the Chinese squad playing a brand of feisty, fighting chess which rocked them back on their heels. To be fair, the British probably knew what they were in for and saw themselves as underdogs before the start - though the Chinese claimed this status for themselves. Anyway, round three came as a welcome shot in the arm for British chess. Mickey Adams played like... Mickey Adams. He is the rock around which British chess is currently founded and one gets the impression that his team-mates derive inspiration from his calm countenance gazing impassively at the board as he gradually throttles the life out of his opponents. Nigel Short has been having a bad trot recently but he was back to playing a real opening today and the juices seemed to be flowing again. Bu Xiangzhi tried to loosen his grip by stirring up a big mess but Short is perfectly at home in a tactical quagmire and emerged with the point.

Not everything went swimmingly for the Brits. Jonathan Rowson was up against the most Adams-like member of the Chinese team, Wang Yue, and on the wrong end of a grind. Nick Pert became the first British player to find out why the Chinese had brought along the shy, sweet-faced little girl with the hair grips. It is still hard to believe that this 13-year-old moppet (who looks more like about 8) packs a 2500-rated punch but the baby-faced assassin gave poor Nick a bloody nose in this encounter. Hou loves ya, baby.

ECF selectors, please note: England could have the makings of an Olympiad team if Adams and Short manage 2/2 and Jones and Howell can then chip in with 1½/2 as happened today. Nice going, against opposition of 2681, 2685, 2624 and 2649. Jones and Howell both had long and bruising encounters but both came through pretty well. This is all excellent team chess experience.

The women's match so far is now +2 in favour of the British women, with both wins coming from the Arakhamia-Shen Yang mini-match. Ketevan seems to have too much experience for her 18-year-old opponent, despite a slightly lower rating. Ding Yixin is both younger and lower rated than her teammate but is proving a tougher nut to crack. The British team may be relying on its apparent superiority in this component of the overall match to get a result.

All hugely enjoyable: the match isn't over yet, and already I want to see another one. We've had 24 games of which 14 produced decisive results, and most of the draws have been mighty battles too. All credit to David Robertson and his team for setting up the match and chasing after the money, to the Chinese squad for being a really classy squad of chess fighters, and to the British team for rising to the challenge. More!

Friday 10 August 2007

Danegeld - Another £5,000 Paid Over

"The Danegeld was an English tribute raised to pay off Viking raiders to save the land from being ravaged by the raiders. The expeditions were usually led by the Danish kings, but they were composed by warriors from all over Scandinavia, and they eventually brought home more than 100 tonnes of silver"

... and the English are still paying. I've witnessed a lot of similar payments over the years. There was a period when another Viking raider, Tiger Hillarp Persson, sailed round various islands around Britain scooping up sackfuls of cash. Done with a smile and no need for the sword and horned helmet. Then Simen Agdestein came to the Isle of Man and carried off the loot a few years ago. One of the first thing he said in his victory speech was "we used to own this place!" - a reference to the fact that the Vikings used to hold dominion over the Isle of Man. I'd never heard a territorial claim made in a chess tournament winner's speech before so this was a first. Judging from the look in his eye and the generally sturdy appearance of the young Norwegians in his party, they could have taken the place back, there and then.

Notice, these Viking chessplayers are always more at home when they are near the coast. It's an atavistic thing - they sense the nearness of their long ships, left on the beach to carry away all the plunder to their villages back in Scandinavia. The ECF should take notice of this and stop holding congresses in seaside towns - it only encourages them. Find somewhere well inland, or well up an estuary where they don't feel as safe... London, say...

Jacob Aagaard wrapped things up with a nice, fighting effort against Glenn Flear. He always gives the other guy a chance, does Aagaard, but his brand of fearless chess did him proud these past two weeks. One thing sent me scurrying to my record books - the fact that he lost two games. It is quite a long time since that happened last. It was in 1988, in Blackpool, when Mestel lost to Chandler in round five and Flear in round nine but still won (with 8½/11).

Gibraltar 2008

Thie briefest of brief blog entries...


... the new website for the 2008 Gibtelecom Chess Festival is now live. You can download the brochure and check out all the details.

Traffic Jam in Great Yarmouth

As the last round of the British Championship starts this afternoon, eight players still have realistic chances of becoming the champion. However, this afternoon's round may not be decisive in its own right. The only way we can have an outright champion now is if either Aagaard or Gordon wins and the other doesn't. The players on 7/10 will know that they will have more work still to do even if they win this afternoon's game. Remaining scenarios lead to more than one player in the top score group. Aagaard and Gordon both winning would leave them tied on 8½, while we could have as many as four players tied on 8/11.

Here are the pairings:

Gordon (7½) vs Kosten (7)
Flear (7) vs Aagaard (7½)
Rowson (7) vs N.Pert (7)
Hebden (7) vs Haslinger (7)

Results between other players have worked out very well for the reigning champion Jonathan Rowson. With two losses to his name he could have expected to be out of the hunt by now, but he could still win his fourth successive championship if he wins today, two other results work out in his favour and he comes through a play-off. That's three "ifs" but they could quite easily happen. He is rated significantly higher than the other players and has acquired the Penrose touch at the championship, so it is hard to bet against him. But his opponent today has become very hard to beat in recent years, so it should be a good contest. Last year Nick Pert lost his last-round game to Keti Arakhamia when also on 7/10 so he will be looking to improve on that.

Like Mark Hebden, Glenn Flear and Tony Kosten have reached the veteran stage (they are 48 and 49 respectively), but neither has been as frequent a British championship competitor as Hebden. Flear's first appearance pre-dates Hebden as he debuted in 1977; he last played in 2002. Kosten's last appearance was as long ago as 1999. Perhaps this infrequency of appearance is because they both live in France. Kosten is also French-registered; were he to win, he would be the first French-registered player to do so, though I don't think he has the true Gallic genes possessed by another former champion, Matthew Sadler.

On my old blog last year, I wrote a piece on Mark Hebden and his championship career. He is one of the eight contenders in 2007, and a win this afternoon would bring him up to 8/11 and his best score ever, at his 26th appearance in the championship. Just to recap his championship stats: he made his debut in 1979, when he scored 7/11. He has scored 7/11 on eleven occasions, 6½/11 five times, 6/11 once (in 1990) and 5½/11 twice (before he got really strong, in 1980 and 1981). His best score to date is 7½/11, which he has achieved six times – in 1989, 1992, 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2006. Since his first appearance in 1979, he has only missed the tournaments of 1987, 2003 and 2005. It would be rather fitting if Hebden finally chalked up a championship as it would mean he would turn 50 (next February) as champion. That would make him a couple of months older than Bob Wade was when he won the title in 1970 but a good deal younger than Stefan Fazekas was (59) when he won in 1957. Hebden has white against Haslinger this afternoon.

That just leaves the three players who have made most of the running in what has been a closely-fought and worthy championship: Aagaard, Gordon and Haslinger. Whatever happens this afternoon, all three can all be proud of their achievements over the past fortnight.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

The Final Furlong

Just two rounds to go now, and Jacob Aagaard has reestablished a sole lead on 7½/9.

I don't suppose he is superstitious but he may be relieved to have finally broken the run of results which mirrored BH Wood's ill-starred championship campaign of 1948. They matched all the way until round 9, at which point Wood had drawn a game but Aagaard has now won his game.

It is always interesting to see what sort of score wins the British Championship. Luckily we can compare like for like as 11 rounds have always been played. Until (and including 1948), the championship was a 12-player all-play-all but since then it has always been an 11-round swiss (with a varying number of players). In fact, the foregoing is not quite right - it has either been 11 rounds or zero. How so? This is the 94th congress, but rather fewer than 94 have featured a championship as such. For various reasons there were no championships played at the BCF Congresses of 1919, 1922, 1927, 1930, 1939, though all five of those figure in the numbered sequence, so the 2007 British Championship will only be the 89th to produce a true British Champion.

The winner's score has been as low as 7 and as high as 10. A score of 7/11 was good enough to win the championship for George Botterill in 1974 though only after a seven-way play-off in Llanelli later that year. 10/11 was Julian Hodgson's magnificent winning score in Plymouth in 1992. He won his first three games, then drew with Jonathan Mestel and Mark Hebden, then reeled off six straight wins.

9½/11 has taken the title eight times: Yates (1914), Atkins (1925), Yates again (1926), Mir Sultan Khan (1933), Yanofsky (1953), Alexander (1956), Jonathan Mestel (1976) and Nigel Short (1987). There was a ninth instance of 9½/11 - Blackburne in 1914 - but he was unlucky enough to lose a play-off to Yates, making that the highest ever score that didn't win the title. Spare a thought also for Theodore Tylor (1933) and Frank Parr (1956) who both scored 9/11 to finish second. Mestel holds the record for the best start - 9/9 in 1976. In fact, that effectively ended the tournament as he could no longer be caught (the next best score being 6½/9). With nothing left to play for, he drew with Haygarth in round 10 and lost to Whiteley in the last round. Had he the motivation, he could probably have made it 11/11. Like Hodgson, Mestel is also a phenomenal front-runner in tournaments. I remember playing in the same Under-18 Championship as him (in 1971), when he went through the opposition like a knife through butter, scoring 10½/11 and only conceding one draw to a Scots player called Tudhope. After a few rounds, we nicknamed board one in that event "the board of death" where you went to be put to the sword by Mestel (I didn't score enough points to warrant summary execution).

9/11 has won the title 14 times, all of them outright wins which required no play-off. Julian Hodgson has two 9/11s to his credit, to go with his 10/11. One curiosity is that the man with the most championship titles - Jonathan Penrose, who won the British Championship ten times - never exceeded 8½. His titles were won with eight 8½/11 scores and two 8/11s. There was a mini-vogue for 8/11 wins between 1969 and 1972, when chess was in the doldrums, but from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, as British chess took flight, the average British-winning score hovered at around the 9/11 mark for a number of years. Like Penrose, Michael Adams also has a maximum score of 8½/11 in the British.

8½/11 is the commonest winning score: it has happened 40 times, including the last five championships (2002-2006). Seven times it has led to a play-off. 8/11 has won 23 times, also with seven play-offs (two left unresolved). The last time 8/11 was scored was in 2001 when Joe Gallagher won the title. 7½/11 has won just once (Atkins in 1907) when no play-off was required.

It will be interesting to see what score wins this year. The safe bet would have to be 8½ but if Aagaard and Haslinger slip up there could be a pile-up on 8. By the same token, if Aagaard keeps up his momentum then 9/11 is achievable.

But the real interest must lie in whether the Scottish streak can be extended to four years, and the English drought to seven years with no title. It reminds me of one of Michael Palin's "Ripping Yarns", in which a fanatical football supporter whose team have been losing every match goes out and rounds up an elderly bunch of players who had played successfully for the same team some years before. Perhaps the ECF will have to do something similar: dust off its fifty-something grandmasters and former champions and persuade them to come back in 2008 to wrest back the British Championship from the North British. Nunn, Mestel, Speelman... and what about Littlewood, Watson, Hennigan, Plaskett? Where are they when their country needs them?

Monday 6 August 2007

At Last! The 1948 Show!

If you were wondering about the title, there used to be a TV comedy show in the 1960s called "At Last! The 1948 Show" with some of the comedians who later gained fame as Pythons and Goodies taking part. We are currently running the chess equivalent here at the BCM Blog, where Bernard Cafferty follows up Leonard Barden's contribution of yesterday on the 1948 British Championship. We haven't taken our eyes off the 2007 version, by the way, and I note that Jacob Aagaard has just reached 6½/7 after beating Simon Williams. He is still in parallel with BH Wood since BH also had that score in 1948. Or did he? Actually it was a tad more complicated than that, as Bernard Cafferty explains...

"Reference in the Hastings CC to the austerity-sized October and November issues of BCM and CHESS of 1948 indicate that the situation was not as clear-cut as indicated by a retrospective account of the round-by-round scores. Games needing two adjourned sessions to establish a result seem not to have been played off as quickly as one would expect. I assume from the narrative that there were no morning adjourned sessions. Perhaps Bishopsgate Institute was not open in the morning? Or could it have been that there was morning play, but no evening adjourned sessions?" (note - Bernard was not present at the 1948 championship but perhaps Leonard Barden or Bob Wade could comment? - ed)

"In the October 1948 CHESS, page 1, BHW states that Alexander and Sir George Thomas were spoken of as leaders in the first week - though in retrospect it was actually Barry Wood, who started with 6½ points from his first seven games! There had been a 'partial clearance of outstanding games on the Sunday'".

"When Broadbent and Wood faced up to each other in the last round, each had a score of 7/9. The former still had to play the second session of his 7th(!) round game with Ritson Morry, BHW had do likewise with his 10th game with Milner-Barry."

Bernard goes on to describe what happened in the two adjournments, but let's first have a look at the key round 11 game between Broadbent and Wood.

BH must have thought he'd spotted a mate and played 28...Qh4. There followed 29 Rxf8+ Kxf8 30 a7 Qh2+ 31 Kf1 and Black must by now have realised that 31...Qh1 is not mate because White has the simple bishop retreat 32 Bg1. Black had to resign a couple of moves later. What he had missed was 28...Bh2+ 29 Kxh2 Rxf1 winning the exchange and the game. After 30 Bf2 Qe7 keeps the a-pawn at bay. That would probably have sewn up the title without reference to the adjourned game from round 10. Now, back to Bernard...

"The Broadbent-Morry game was thought to be a draw, as it turned out to be in fact after 74 moves; the Milner-Barry-Wood game depended on Wood’s sealed 57th move, after M-B had sacrificed a knight just before adjournment, as both sides went for a win. As Wood commented in his magazine '…an unsatisfactory situation, which really should not be allowed'".

"Milner-Barry had White, in a French, and the position was as shown above. According to Bob Wade’s account, analysis by others established that Black could win by 57…Kb5 58 e8Q Bxe8 59 Kxd5 Bc6+ 60 Ke6 h4! 61 gxh4 Bf3 and …Bh5. BHW chose 57…Kb3 and lost after 58 Kc5 Ba4 59 Kxd5 Kxb2 62 Ke6 Be8 53 Kf6 Kd4 54 Kf8 ….1-0 in 72 moves."

"BHW gave a flare-up of his duodenal ulcer trouble, first incurred during the war, as his reason for falling back as the event progressed. Doubtless the fact that he knew he had sealed a losing move weighed heavily on him, adding to the tension of the last round."

If you'd like to play through these games, I've now uploaded a file of all extant 1948 British Championship games to BritBase. There are only 15 complete games out of 66 but there are also a few fragments of games culled from BCM. Click here to play through the games.

Sunday 5 August 2007

When 5½/6 Wasn't Good Enough...

I've just received a most interesting message from Leonard Barden, who tells me about an occasion when 5½/6 in the first week wasn't good enough to win the British Championship. It was in 1948 when the championship was played at the Bishopsgate Institute in London - in fact, this was the last time the championship was ever held in London.

The unlucky man was BH Wood (see photo), founder and editor of Chess magazine. In the first week, he won his first five games (versus W Winter, RH Newman, W Ritson Morry, G Wood, CHO'D Alexander) and then drew with reigning champion Golombek in round six (a spooky parallel with 2007 - I hope Aagaard isn't superstitious). His second week started well with a win against JM Aitken, but then it all fell apart: 0 v G Abrahams, ½ v Sir George Thomas, 0 v PS Milner-Barry, 0 v RJ Broadbent. That left Broadbent the winner on 8½, while BH Wood was in a multiple tie on 7. But BH could have won the title had he won that final round game.

Those are the facts. Here is Leonard's commentary:

"BH Wood had paid for several weeks of special training beforehand from Paul Schmidt (who had been No. 2 to Keres in 1930s Estonia and held his own with Alekhine, Bogolyubov and Junge in German wartime events) and had some sharp theoretical lines prepared. He was impressive in the early rounds, much to the dismay of Golombek."

"In the second week BH got nervous and dropped a few points, but he was still only half a point behind Broadbent at the start of the final round. BH was worse, then he had a late opportunity to win game and title, then he blew it."

"I guess if BH had won with the extra kudos from being champion at that time it might have sunk the BCM, since both BCM and Chess were struggling financially at the time."

"I can vouch that 5/6, which I had in 1954, 1957 and 1958, is a psychologically vulnerable score. I recall Penrose asking me meaningfully as we went for a stroll during the weekend at Plymouth 1957 'What does it feel like to be leading the championship at the end of the first week?' The answer: a burden. You have the free day on Sunday to fret and Sunday night to be sleepless..."

"I watched the 1947 and 1948 all-play-alls (controversies with selections, exclusion of young talents) and competed in the first Swiss in 1949. Those early Swisses around 1950 were strictly limited to 32 players and I think they were the best answer, very competitive events with hardly anybody outclassed. It's the later expansion to fields of over 50 players which has caused the imbalance."

Many thanks to Leonard for letting me use his comments on my blog. It's great having a former British Champion contributing to the debate. The reference to the 1948 championship reminded me that Bob Wade had commented on this when I interviewed him for BCM back in 1999. Here's what Bob said about that cataclysmic last round against Broadbent (Bob, like Leonard, was in the room and saw it happen). "There was a famous last round where the establishment were terribly worried that BH Wood had a winning position - but then he got flustered and blundered..." At that point I asked Bob what he meant by "the establishment". He replied "Oh, BH Wood was regarded as anti-establishment by people like Alexander and Milner-Barry".

Great Dane Off The Leash

Great Scot! The Great Dane is still off the leash...

Scores after Week 1 of the British Championship:
Aagaard 5½/6, Flear, Gormally, Haslinger, Kosten, N.Pert, Rowson, Williams 4½...

A pretty amazing performance by Aagaard so far. He must be buoyed up by getting his GM title at last. And this is of course his first appearance in the British Championship. I think a number of players have won it at the first attempt. One such won it first time and never entered again. A clue: he was editor of British Chess Magazine. The answer is not Golombek (who did win it but not at the first attempt) or Murray Chandler (who never won it), but RC Griffith, famous for being one of the founding fathers of Modern Chess Openings. He won the British Championship in 1912. Anyone answering "J Saunders" gets 10/10 for obsequiousness, but 0/10 for knowledge of chess history (and should probably also get their head examined at the earliest opportunity).

However, Aagaard should be aware that, in recent years, people who lead after one week have seldom gone on to pick up the championship trophy at the end of the second. Let's look at what has happened since 2000, giving the first-week leaders followed by the eventual winner in brackets:

2000 Hebden/Ward (eventual winner Hodgson)
2001 Seven players tied on 4½/6 (Gallagher was not one of them, but won)
2002 Ten players tied on 4½/6 (RB Ramesh was not one of them, but won)
2003 Z Rahman / Motwani (eventual winner A Kunte)
2004 Rowson (and he won)
2005 Ward (Rowson won)
2006 N.Pert / Hebden (Rowson won)

So Rowson is the only player this century to lead week 1 and win overall. However, I am withholding a significant statistic. Like Aagaard this year, Rowson in 2004 had a score of 5½/6, while all the others mentioned as first week leaders had 5 (except for the major pile-ups of 2001 and 2002 when 4½ was the leading score). Going back further, Hodgson in 1999 also had 5½/6 and went on to win. So having 5½/6 could be the clincher. I haven't been able to look back further (it's a bit of a chore on a hot Sunday afternoon) - could anyone tell me if anyone starting with 5½/6 has ever failed to win? I do know that CHO'D Alexander scored 5½/6 in 1956 and he only just won the title despite getting an almost as impressive 4/5 the second week. Frank Parr ran him close, scoring 4½/6 the first week and then 4½/5 the second.

Friday 3 August 2007

The Long Ships Are Coming...

Look out! A Danish (sorry, Scottish) pirate is on the loose! See the photo, taken by me while I spotted him marauding in Manx waters a couple of years ago*.

What was I saying about "nothing to write about"? Even as I clicked the 'send' button on the blog, I read that Jacob Aagaard has beaten Nick Pert with Black. And Jonathan Rowson beat Steve Barrett on board three. That constitutes something to write about... how the Scots players continue to dominate the British Championship. Aagaard is now a point clear of the field on 5/5, while Rowson is amongst those on 4. I remember writing something about 'the English challenge to Rowson' but it now seems as though the main threat to his chances of a fourth successive title could come from his own side of the border.

Reminder to English chess fans: the last of your fellow countrymen to win the title was Julian Hodgson in 2000 (which was technically in the 20th century, remember?). When will England produce its first 21st century British chess champion?

* incidentally, I did not digitally insert that skull and bones flag into the photo, it's a real flag. Jacob posed with it so he could use the photo for a book cover!

Swiss System Blues

There was a spate of short draws between the highest rated players in round five of the British Championship today. As another chess journalist put it to me: "they have reverted to paying appearance fees to titled players at the British this year - their reward? These short draws."

The fault is probably the swiss system format itself. It is flawed because it only gets truly competitive and interesting on the final run-in. Accidents suffered in the early stages can easily be remedied. I'm reminded of one of those cycling 'pursuit' races where they seem to spend most of the race pootling around the track like elderly district nurses and then only pick up speed and race properly on the final lap.

It doesn't have to be like this, but some experienced players appear to exploit the inadequacies of the swiss system. It is possible to aim for a score of around 6/8, and then bank on a good run-in over the last three rounds to get 8 or 8½. How you get to 6/8 doesn't matter, and they don't knock themselves out trying to beat other leading players when there are plenty of lower-rated players available to play against. Draw against a big guy, beat a little one = 1½/2. Multiply that by five, add one for luck, and you've got a championship-winning score. Well, that seems to be the plan, anyway.

A few years ago Julian Hodgson and others used to try and blast their way to the title by going for it in almost every round. I think Jonathan Rowson sets out to do this as well, but he tends to have accidents along the way (another famous Jonathan - Penrose - had a similar track record). Each of Rowson's championship wins has included one loss, but his determined approach seems to bring its own reward in the final stretch. All three of his title wins have been richly deserved.

We put up with the swiss system out of necessity. To be fair, it's not a bad way to produce a winner and I've got nothing better to suggest. It's just that the order of the also-rans tends to be meaningless, and it also allows strong players to coast to a runner-up prize without fully exerting themselves until the last lap. Consequently, at the moment I cannot think of anything very inspired to say about the British (other than to congratulate the various 'Davids' who have defeated 'Goliaths') but of course things should hot up eventually and I look forward to a lively second week.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

FIDE Ethics Commission: Short Case Decision "Imminent"

Re the FIDE Ethics Commission case against Nigel Short: latest reports indicate that Rustam Kamsky has been co-opted onto the tribunal. We have also heard a further unsubstantiated rumour that former women's world champion Zhu Chen (see photo) could be involved in some capacity. The verdict is said to be "imminent".

Sunday 29 July 2007


The Montreal tournament ended much as it began, with another loss for Nigel Short. He tried a weird line of the King's Gambit (which is probably a better bet than the Ponziani) where White gives up the queen for not too much. For a while there was the impression that he might bamboozle the young Canadian Bluvshtein but it was not to be and he went down in flames.

So it was 2/9, a 2427 TPR and a 29 point rating loss for Short. What went wrong? Frederic Friedel of ChessBase asked this question of Short and an article appears here on the ChessBase site. As suspected, it appears to be a combination of things. Dental trouble (but only for the first two rounds), the presence of Kamsky (as we surmised), but also an assortment of other hassles and problems which seem to have undermined the English no.2's singlemindedness. He also makes the fair point that he is a less consistent player than his English rival Michael Adams. But in the final analysis he is at a loss to explain the enormity of the disaster. Probably he should just forget about it and concentrate of doing better at his next event - which I believe is the Liverpool Summit Match, where he represents a British team which plays matches with China, India and a composite European Union team.

Vasyl Ivanchuk duly despatched Harikrishna to take first place. This was his fourth tournament victory in a row, giving him a 2858 TPR, and enough rating points to take him to the number two spot in the world rankings, behind Anand but ahead of Kramnik and Topalov. Which makes it all the sadder that he will not be appearing in Mexico for the world championship tournament. Ivanchuk is now reaching the sort of age (38) when a number of other players have started to lose their edge, but quite the opposite seems to be happening with him. He doesn't seem to have become involved in any other distractions along the way (such as journalism, politics or poker-playing).

Ivanchuk looks to have all the hallmarks of a Korchnoi-style longevity, if for different reasons. The main clue to Korchnoi's longevity as a player is probably the fact that he has remained a rotten loser all his life. In Ivanchuk's case, the key factor is probably his eccentricity; one gets the impression that he is really only fit for playing chess and would be out of his comfort zone doing anything else. The key factor that they share is the fact that neither of them became world champions despite coming desperately close. It is still not too late for Ivanchuk, of course, and I would not discount his chances.

Saturday 28 July 2007

A Close Run Thing

In the end the Monroi Women's Grand Prix was won by Pia Cramling. Well done to her, but it was a very close run thing. She will know as well as anyone that she came perilously close to losing her last round game.

Here's the position with Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant (White) to play

White to play and win the Monroi Women's Grand Prix...

31 Bxe5?

Sadly, that's not the right way to do it. The answer turns out to be 31 Rg3! immediately. I sat and stared at this for a while, wondering what would happen if Black played 31...d6 but White then has the lovely finish 32 Bxh6! gxh6 33 Rg8+ Kh7 34 Qg6+! Nxg6 35 fxg6 mate. If Black doesn't play d6, she has no good way to stop White's queen from infiltrating at f7. 31...Qxc2 32 Bxe5 fxe5 33 Rg1 and Black is powerless against the threat of Qf7 (if the bishop moves, 34 Qxg7 mate). Finally, if Black tries a bishop move, e.g. 31...Bd6, White has a pleasant choice between 32 Rxg7! and 32 Bxh6!, both of which lead to a swift mate.

31...Qxe5 32 Qf7 Bd6 33 Rg3 Rg8 34 Qxd7?

White's back rank is just too vulnerable to allow her the luxury of taking this pawn. 34 Bc4 holds White's position together by anchoring the f1 square.

34...Rbd8 35 Qb5 Bc7

Fritz thinks White is now beyond salvation and it is not hard to see why. There are too many pins and skewers to deal with and, once the g8 rook comes into play at e8, the back rank is under too much pressure.

36 Qc6 Rge8 37 Kg1 Bb8 38 Qc4 Re7 39 Kf1 Rxd5! 40 Qxd5 Qe2+ 41 Kg1 Ba7+ 0-1

A bit sad, that, for Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant. Jovanka Houska drew her last-round game, so that meant that Pia Cramling took first with 5/7 and Jovanka Houska second with 4½.

V for Victory

Though there is also a big event on in Switzerland, all eyes have been on Montreal this past couple of weeks, with two interesting events running side by side. The 8th Montreal International is a ten-player category 16 event with a fascinating mix of top names and young aspirants. Meanwhile the Monroi Women's Grand Prix Final runs alongside, with some British interest as England's Jovanka Houska and Scottish resident (and British women's champion) Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant are in the hunt for the first prize.

Sergey Tiviakov has been the leader in the main event for much of its course but he lost on Friday and allowed Vasyl Ivanchuk to overtake him with one round to play. If the Ukrainian super-grandmaster stays ahead in the last round, it will his fourth big tournament victory in a row (Havana, Foros, Odessa, Montreal). He has been a huge star for over 15 years, and one of the few players who could frighten Garry Kasparov, yet has never found this level of consistency before. His latest run means that he has broken into what we've been calling the 'big three' (Anand, Kramnik, Topalov) as a quick calculation of his rating shows that he will be ahead of Topalov after the final round even if he loses. If he wins, I think he will actually go ahead of Kramnik, despite the world champion's victory in Dortmund. Their July ratings are Anand 2792, Topalov and Kramnik both 2769, Ivanchuk 2762. Kramnik gains 10 from Dortmund, while Ivanchuk gained 9 from Foros and would gain another 9 or 10 from Montreal if he beats Harikrishna in the last round.

That eventuality would make it Anand 2792, Ivanchuk 2780, Kramnik 2779, Topalov 2769. Whatever happens, it's pretty clear that we should be talking about a 'big four' these days. And, in the post-Kasparov chess world, the initial letter 'K' in the surname is no longer as magical as an initial letter 'V' in your forename.

A win, by the way, is by no means a formality for Ivanchuk in the last round. Harikrishna already has the scalps of Short and Tiviakov to his credit so far in this tournament and he is in excellent form. He could win the tournament himself by beating Ivanchuk.

Which brings me to the main talking point of the Montreal event: the dismal showing of Nigel Short. He got off to an absolutely dreadful start, 0/4, which became ½/6 (thereby equalling his ½00000 start at the 1980 Phillips and Drew tournament when he was 14 years 10 months old). It is reported that he was suffering from dental problems, which is indeed unfortunate, though I'm also told that Alekhine had similar problems in the early stages of his world championship match against Capablanca, had six teeth pulled out and went on to become world champion.

I am struggling to think of another stellar player of any era who has scored so few points in a similar context. It has happened in matchplay, of course (Taimanov/Larsen v Fischer, Adams v Hydra, Miles v Kasparov spring to mind), but not in tournaments with sub-2700 opposition available.

Since then Short has drawn with Kamsky (playing the Ponziani - a great rarity at this level, but a long-time favourite opening of the BCM editor) and then beating Elyanov in round eight. He still has a chance to avoid the wooden spoon if he beats Bluvshtein in the final round (they drew in a Petroff in the recent Canadian Open incidentally). A final score of 3/9 would hardly represent a Topalovian come-back but that would at least pull back his TPR to 2522 and a rating loss of only about 19 points.

One cannot help wondering whether the dental problem was the only reason for Short's debacle or whether yet another airing of his ancient grudge against Kamsky after round two may have been a contributory factor. The English grandmaster has an elephantine memory for slights and disputes from the past and his inability to keep a statesmanlike silence could perhaps be his Achilles heel in a tournament context. It was noticeable how he occasionally liked to dust off and rehash some old vendetta in one of his newspaper columns whenever there was a slow news week in chess. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes offensive, but he no longer has this conduit for his pent-up aggression. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened between the Kamskys and Short all those years ago, he should surely have channelled all the remaining aggro into their individual game in Montreal and let the pieces do the talking. And, if I might be permitted to patronise the former world championship finalist further on his selection of opening (just this one time - I promise it will never happen again): the Ponziani is not a good choice if you want to play for a win with White. Believe me, I've tried and it's not up to the job.

One thing about this tournament that I definitely don't like: the time limit. They've got a great field of players, playing one round a day, and they foist FIDE's rotten time control on them. Why? Oh, and why the early evening start? It was going to be 6pm but then (after the players understandably grumbled) they moved it back to 5pm. But that still seems too late in the day to me. 1pm to 8pm, proper time control (or incremental equivalent) should have been used.

Meanwhile in the women's group, Jovanka Houska went into the lead when she defeated US owmen's champion Irina Krush, only to lose to the reigning British women's champion Keti Arakhamia in the following game. Both are very much in contention for the honours (although I'm struggling to find the current table on the official site. Both are sharing the lead: finally tracked down the table on the chaotic Monroi site here. Arakhamia, Cramling and Houska lead with 4/6, one round to go. Actually, looking at the table, this tournament has been mainly about seven players beating up the little Canadian girl Myriam Roy but then drawing with each other - apart from Jovanka Houska, who has been easily the most combative of the group of seven. She plays Cristina Foisor in the last round, while Arakhamia and Cramling play each other.

Monday 23 July 2007


I've just been reading an article on the ChessBase website, which is a big promotion for some music composition/accompaniment software called Ludwig. It ends with the statement "Ludwig will be available as a ChessBase product in October this year".

Music software? ChessBase? I checked everywhere for signs of a spoof. Not dated 1 April. I was a bit taken aback when I saw photos of a sheepish-looking Vladimir Kramnik joining in an impromptu musical recital and playing some strange-looking percussion instrument. Rather undignified, I thought, and not to be compared with such semi-pro musicians as Taimanov, Smyslov and Portisch giving one of their rather impressive mini-concerts. "That's the world chess champion standing up there, holding his maraccas", I said to myself, losing the internal battle against cheap innuendo. Has it come to this for our chess heroes? You couldn't imagine someone persuading Botvinnik to get up on stage and play a version of "Camptown Races" on the spoons, could you? Whatever next? Bobby Fischer, the ever-so-slightly un-PC stand-up comedian? Garry Kasparov, stage magician, sawing lovely assistant Judit Polgar in half? 'Tapdancing Tolya' Karpov showing us his ballroom moves on Celebrity Come Dancing?

So have I been spoofed? I don't think so. It appears it is not just the poker players who are deserting the professional game for easy money, our friends at ChessBase are also diversifying. Will they rebrand as AnythingforadollarBase?

John Saunders
Editor of British Chess Magazine, also part-time clown and acrobat, children's parties and barmitzvahs a speciality...

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Dunderheads v Nosher - When?

I'm getting impatient waiting for the great chess event of the year. No, not the Mexican world championship; I mean the hearing of the FIDE Ethics Commission, when Nigel Short is called on to answer for comments he is alleged to have made in relation to Messrs Azmaiparashvili and Makropoulos. If you need to refresh your memories of what I'm talking about, check out my entry on dunderheads and also this one where I introduced the subject.

Earlier today I became quite excited when I saw something about FIDE Ethics Committee hearings in Athens on 28 July on FIDE's website. Sadly, it only turned out to be a case about some Moroccan arbiters which scarcely interests me, scheduled for 10am that morning, and the (admittedly rather more interesting) charges to be answered by Topalov and Danailov (relating to alleged comments made against Kramnik during and after the Elista match) at 4.30pm in the afternoon. This makes one wonder precisely how long the committee expects the hearings to take. Are they intending to resolve the Moroccan issue by lunchtime and the Bulgarian case by dinner-time?

But no sign as yet of the Dunderheads v Nosher case. When the time comes, I do hope we are going to be able to enjoy live video transmission across the web. Hopefully those enterprising people at ChessBase can ensure someone is present with a camcorder. The Moroccan and Bulgarian cases are listed as "public hearings" - so why shouldn't we all get the chance to watch via the web? If Short is subsequently convicted and required to drink hemlock (the punishment meted out to another great Athenian philosopher, Socrates, some 2,500 years ago when he was found guilty on trumped-up charges of "corrupting the youth of Athens" - the two cases are remarkably similar), then presumably execution of sentence will also turn up on YouTube...

Sunday 15 July 2007

A Little Gem from the Emerald Isle

Here's a poser for you - WHITE TO PLAY.

This position is from the game Nick Pert vs Gavin Wall and was played in round six of the recent Irish Open Championship. White has just played a fairly standard sacrifice to break through on the queenside: Bd3xa6 followed by Qa4xa6, but Black has replied Rc7-b7 and it is not at all obvious how White pursues his attack. Can you find the right plan?

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Various Items

My goodness, it has been a long time since I last blogged. There has been so much going on in terms of major chess events. I've been avidly following the action in Dortmund and Foros, but never quite found the time to comment on them. Of course there will be coverage in the August issue of BCM. One of the reasons for my erstwhile silence has been my involvement in various other chess projects.

I seem to spend huge amounts of time chatting with people on Skype. I guess most of you will be aware that this is one of a number of ways of talking to people across broadband internet. I've been using for some time but it seems to me that it has recently taken off in a big way. Personally I use it more and more to talk to chess contacts round the world, or even have business conferences. Audio quality is usually very good and the remarkable thing is that it is free (well, once you've bought a computer and paid for your fast internet connection, that is). I cannot believe that the world's telephone companies will allow this to go on indefinitely so I'm getting my (lack of) money's worth while I can. Actually, the fact that Skype is free is becoming a problem: I end up spending hours yacking with people, and suddenly the day has gone by.

As well as conducting business deals across Skype, I have also been interviewed via Skype for ChessFM's online radio show 'John Watson on Books'. I must say it was an absolutely joy being able to chat with John Watson on his show. He is one of the world's most respected chess authors and the calm, rational, good-humoured person that comes over in his books is exactly the way he is in real life. I have never met him in the flesh and we have only ever corresponded via email, but after a while I felt so relaxed talking to him that I almost forgot that our conversation was being recorded for online transmission. Our only minor difficulties were that John had to remind me that some of my British slang ("taking the mickey") fails the transatlantic test (I think John himself understood the expression but I had to explain for the benefit of US listeners that it has nothing to do with Mickey Adams) and that the elderly, obscure and out of print books which predominated amongst my selection of favourites might baffle a largely young and American audience. If you want to listen to the show, it should still be available online at the ICC until 6 or 7 July. I don't see it in their online list of on-demand programmes - you may need to download free osftware programs Blitzin or Dasher to gain access to it, and you may also need to be a member.

My only chess outing in the past few days has been to Hastings Chess Club where they were celebrating the club's 125th anniversary. I have already written this up in detail, and with photos and video clips elsewhere on the BCM website. It was very enjoyable to celebrate this occasion with Hastings CC members who are obviously immensely proud of their club - and rightly so. A huge amount of work has gone into organising their club over a century and a quarter, and without all this selfless, voluntary activity it couldn't hope to have survived so long.

Perhaps someone at Hastings could do us all a favour and write a chess book called Secrets of Chess Club Organisation. In the long run, this would be vastly more useful than 100 books on how to play the Sicilian Defence. Without legions of volunteers and helpers, competition chess would simply disappear. As someone who has played a part in trying to run a chess club (looking back I don't think I was very good at it), I know that it is damnably difficult to keep a club running for 5 or 10 years, let alone 125. Of course, there are other splendidly-run clubs elsewhere in Britain as well as Hastings but I don't there are as many of them as we need and I know for a fact that clubs can die for want of a bit of common sense in their organisation. Now that our cadre of professional players is dwindling down to a handful, it may be time for a 'back to basics' campaign so that we can attempt to rebuild British chess from the bottom up.

Incidentally, I had a look on the ECF website for something about setting up a chess club and found a link to 'advice' near the top of the left-hand column. I clicked on that and found some reasonable stuff about (for example) catering for junior players at chess clubs, and the basics of how to set up an 'event' (presumably a tournament or simul) but nothing particularly detailed about setting up and running a chess club. Maybe this is something for a website in its own right - a gap in the market for some enterprising soul...