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".


  1. He's going to take some catching now.

  2. BH Wood also had 6½/7 in 1948 and only managed another ½/4. You're probably right, but maybe Haslinger has what it takes. Like Aagaard, he is going for the rating threshold of 2500 for his GM title and I think he might now be very close. He's 2468 on the July list and unofficially I made him gaining +21 from the South Wales International and he's +8.8 after seven rounds in Great Yarmouth. That would be 2497.8 so he is agonisingly close to 2500. I imagine that may be on his mind but he could have bigger fish to fry in Great Yarmouth (I hear the fish are very tasty there).

  3. Incidentally the live games site is now billing Aagaard as GM, Jacob Aagaard. Is that correct, or does one only become a grandmaster upon official ratification? A pedantic point to be sure, but that's what the internet is all about.

    Will Haslinger now have Black against Aagaard? I'd have thought the latter could wrap it up with four draws from here and if Haslinger is so close to the title he'd surely think carefully before taking a risk.

  4. Strictly speaking, it cannot be right to bill Aagaard as a GM until FIDE have had a chance to ratify or otherwise, but the organisers are probably keen to 'big up' the tournament as finding a sponsor is a major issue right now. We insiders all know that the GM title doesn't mean what it used to, but potential sponsors are impressed by these mysterious titles that chessplayers like to give themselves. Or so people try to tell me... perhaps we should rename the world champion 'the Grand Wizard' and get him to wear a tall conical hat with stars and half-moons all over it and that would impress sponsors even more...

    I'm afraid I'll have to duck the question about pairings as I've never really learnt how swiss pairings work. As a player I just play the person listed on the pairing chart and never join in the traditional pre-game moan about how the arbiters have messed up the pairings, downfloated someone they should have upfloated, etc etc. I would probably notice if they gave me three straight blacks but otherwise I'm almost 100% swiss-ignorant.

  5. Well i'm going to challenge the view that the GM title, as a measure of objective strength, does not mean what it used to (obviously with exception made for those who have bought their title in dodgy tournaments in unnamed countries). As a start perhaps you could name a UK grandmaster today who wouldn't, given sufficient opportunities, have become a GM, say, 20 years ago.


  6. I think I'll decline the invitation to name names. There were nine British GMs in 1987 and there are about 40 today. I think some of the guys who were top IMs in 1987 were better players than some people today who already have the GM title.

    However, leaving to one side rating inflation (which means that people get their title sooner than they used to), I think it is true that the bar representing objective strength has been raised a couple of notches in that period of time and that worldwide there are more strong players around today than there used to be (probably because chess knowledge is more plentiful and gets around faster than it used to). When it comes to numbers of GMs, 'more' doesn't mean 'worse', it just means 'less significant'.

    On a personal note, when writing about the proliferation of GMs (rather a hackneyed theme, I fear), I find it salutary to remind myself that I've never even had a sniff of the FM title! This helps put things into perspective for me and maintains my respect for individuals who have qualified as GMs.

  7. Good God, Haslinger's done it.