Tuesday 16 December 2008

Bob Wade: The Father of Modern English Chess

The funeral of Bob Wade (1921-2008) was held at Eltham Crematorium on Tuesday 16 December at 10.15am. There was a very large turn out of people for this great man of chess - so much so that the stalls was soon filled and many people had to stand in the large auditorium.

I took a few photos of people who came to the funeral, and have scanned in the programme - click here

The speakers included Jon Speelman (who referred to Bob as his first and only teacher); David Anderton (who gave a warm and witty appreciation of Bob); Malena Griffiths (who spoke about Bob's enormous contribution to women's and junior chess); and Tony Gkountintas (who was a close friend and neighbour).

Amongst those present at the funeral: Murray Chandler (who travelled from New Zealand to be there), Stuart Conquest, Jovanka Houska, Michael Stean, Stewart Reuben, Malcolm Pein, William Watson, Ray Keene, Peter Wells, Jonathan Mestel, David Levy, Robert Bellin, Shaun Taulbut, Les Blackstock, Henry Mutkin, David Sedgwick, Jane Seymour, Peter and Rose-Marie Hannan, Peter Wilson, Peter Kemmis Betty, Tony Stebbings, Alan Hanreck, Bill Linton, Michael Bolan, Mario Houska, Alan Martin, Brian Smith... and many, many more. Bob's surviving brother and sister (he was one of seven children) are elderly and it was too far for them to travel.

In his appreciation, David Anderton referred to Bob as "the father of modern English chess" - and that is an excellent summary of a man who did so many things in chess. Sad though the occasion was, David's speech was peppered with wit, tailored to an audience which knew Bob well and loved him as much for his occasional moments of fatherly rage as for his (much more frequent) good humour. Looking round at familiar faces in the audience, David said: "there can be few of us who didn't feel the sharp edge of his tongue at some point" and the many chuckles in the audience confirmed the truth of this statement. As David said, "Bob was as fierce in debate as he was over the board" - but it was all geared towards the greater good of chess. David had been Bob's captain for Olympiad teams - "he was never the easiest man to tell he had been benched". But actually these little outbursts were very endearing. Bob didn't have it in him to get cross for long and within minutes he was at great pains to kiss and make up.

A very great man and completely irreplaceable. We shall all miss him. RIP

Obituary of Bob Wade (by Leonard Barden in the Guardian)

Saturday 13 December 2008

The Perfect Marriage: Chess and Cricket

It's official: chess and cricket have got married. The world's greatest sport has finally decided to formalise its natural partnership with the world's greatest game.

The ceremony was performed in Chennai on 11 December, with Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni doing the honours for cricket and world chess champion Vishy Anand representing chess. The photo shows Dhoni slipping a diamond ring on Vishy's finger. Best man duties at this, the celebrity wedding of the year, were performed by Nigel Short and Peter Svidler, while Vishy was 'given away' by FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (bravely masking his disappointment that chess had decided to marry cricket and not the Olympic Games, with which it had previously conducted a long but pointless flirtation).

OK, I'm getting a bit carried away with this skit, so here's the real story. The photo does not lie - that really is MS Dhoni placing a ring on Vishy Anand's finger. It was a present to celebrate the world chess champion's 39th birthday on 11 December. And, while on the subject, I'd like to wish Vishy all the best myself. A really great champion and one of nature's nice guys.

Rather surprisingly, the birthday celebration took place after day one of the India v England test match in Chennai. As Matthew Turner has already commented, it might explain India's woeful batting on the following day. Can you imagine England's cricket team taking time off during a test match to make a birthday presentation to Mickey Adams or Nigel Short? As Geoffrey Boycott might have said: "tha's roobish plannin', is tha'!"

Vishy was quoted as wishing Dhoni and the Indian cricket team luck in their ongoing encounter against England. “Good luck for the next four days, though I hope it gets over in three,” he said. He might yet get his wish but possibly not in the way he'd hoped. His birthday celebration could have caught the cricket team in the corridor of uncertainty.

Now, have I ever told you about the time I went to The Oval and saw Brian Statham bowl his last test-match spell? Well, it were 1965 and I were nobbut a lad and ... (continued page 94)...

[The original story and photo here]

Friday 5 December 2008

Carlsen and the Candidates Debate

Just when we thought the world championship had sorted itself out... suddenly it’s all up in the air again. The latest news is that Magnus Carlsen has withdrawn from the Grand Prix cycle and this series of tournaments looks as though it could fall by the wayside.

Before going any further, perhaps I’d better state my prejudices when it comes to world championships. The important thing for me is that the whole thing ends with a one-to-one match. Thankfully they are back in fashion and I am glad of that, though I think they should play a few more games – 16 would be ideal. I found the old knock-out system, with its scores of rapidplay and blitz games, utterly abhorrent as a world championship system and as far as I’m concerned Khalifman, Ponomariov and Kasimdzhanov were not world champions (I always use the term ‘FIDE champion’ when referring to them), and Vishy Anand only became one recently. Though Kasparov was arguably wrong to break away from FIDE in 1993, he and his successors, Kramnik and Anand, still represent the ‘apostolic succession’ of world champions and I’m not prepared to be fobbed off with any inferior alternative.

So now, with the world title match system finally repaired, it seems that we must go through the pain barrier with the next tier of the championship. My strong preference is for a Candidates competition of 8-16 players. I think I would prefer a matchplay knockout of (at least) six-game matches rather than a tournament but the latter option is probably a lot easier to organise in this recession-hit world we live in.

Unfortunately the current qualification cycle – until this week – consisted of nothing of the sort. Instead, FIDE had cobbled together a ‘system’ which consisted of a watered-down version of their old knock-out world championship (called the FIDE World Cup) and a series of tournaments called the Grand Prix. The winner of each of these would meet in a match, and the match-winner go on to play a world title match with Vishy Anand.

Appraising this system, one finds a couple of plus points but rather a lot of negatives. One apparent plus point – and this goes for the old knock-out system too – is that it provides a good pay-day for quite a large number of grandmasters. By the same token, it was egalitarian and inclusive. But do we really need – and can we afford – the world championship to be quite so democratic? What is the point of giving a sizeable chunk of cash to people who are inevitably going to be knocked out in the early rounds of a qualifier? A complicated system of national and zonal qualifiers made sense in the days before we had the rating list but now everybody has a rating which, by and large, is trusted and accepted as a true measure of their strength. Given that we now have 30+ players rated over 2700 and a world champion on the brink of 2800, it seems reasonable to exclude anyone below 2700 from taking part in a world championship system.

The FIDE World Cup is an excellent tournament but far from ideal as championship qualifier to a play-off match. Like most chess fans, I enjoy watching the matches online and thoroughly enjoy the spectacle. But when relegated to being a qualifier for a Candidates event it makes perhaps a bit more sense. This seems to be what FIDE is now planning.

The Grand Prix series of tournaments has a number of advantages – one being the complete elimination of rapidplay and blitz play-offs – but I think there are a number of serious practical problems which are hard to overcome. One is that players have to fit four lengthy tournaments into their schedule which can’t be easy to do. But the really big practical problem is that FIDE has to organise and secure sponsorship for six different events worldwide. This would not be easy to do even if they were more competent than they are. We now learn that the Doha and Montreux events have been called off – one can speculate that they have fallen victim to the worldwide recession – so that rather underlines the problem. Looking back, we have to say that the whole concept was ludicrously optimistic.

Another major practical problem with the World Cup/GP system is how a dethroned world champion re-enters the system. Under the old-time Interzonal/candidates system, an ex-world champion (or unsuccessful challenger) would slot in at the Candidates stage. The lack of provision for this is a glaring hole in the World Cup/GP system. How was Kramnik supposed to re-enter the fray? He wasn’t in the GP, probably because it clashed with his world championship preparations and match. So presumably he was expected to take his chances in the World Cup. This just seems preposterous to me. Can you imagine a post-2000 Kasparov playing in one of these bun-fights? He baulked at playing in an infinitely more respectable and sensible candidates event in Dortmund in 2002 so one shudders to think what his reply would have been to an invitation to a Siberian slugfest. Any qualification system has to take account of world championship runners-up and allow them to re-enter at a level which is appropriate to their status and at a time which is fair and equitable.

I can fully understand Magnus Carlsen and others being disgusted with FIDE’s decision to change the qualification system in mid-cycle and have sympathy for the situation they find themselves in. But perhaps FIDE has finally woken up to just how rotten their system was and that for all manner of reasons it has to be replaced with a Candidates competition. One tournament, to include all the main contenders, should be relatively easy to organise and fund (even for FIDE). It was quite apparent that the overly ambitious and unwieldy GP series was coming apart at the seams so they probably had to do something immediately and of course this was bound to hurt those players involved in the GP - they have my sympathy.

Re the Carlsen withdrawal: looking at it another way, perhaps the Carlsen family have simply made a pragmatic decision. They have a legitimate grievance which effectively gives them a way out of the ailing GP cycle. Having exited, they can now concentrate their energies on parachuting Magnus straight into the Candidates. And why not? Magnus looks even more like a future world champion. Not only does he play chess like Garry Kasparov, he can politick like him as well. To be a world champion one must make good moves off the board as well as on, and this looks like a pretty good one.

So who will be the Candidates in 2010? Let’s assume Vishy successfully defends his title against Topalov/Kamsky, then we will have Topalov, Kamsky, the GP winner, the next World Cup winner, the nominee of the host country plus three other guys from the top of the rating list. So long as those qualifiers and nominees include Kramnik, Carlsen, Morozevich and perhaps Aronian and Ivanchuk, we should be assured of a competition that is reasonably representative of current world title contenders. The way we got here has been fraught with bad decisions, wrong turns and hurt feelings but finally we might be arriving at the right place. I did say “might”...

P.S. Has another Fischer record been broken? Magnus Carlsen, born 30 November 1990, withdrew from the Grand Prix on 5 December 2008, aged 18 years 6 days. Fischer made his first major competition withdrawal on 13 August 1961 (or thereabouts) when he withdrew from his match with Reshevsky at the age of 18 years 5 months 4 days old.

Friday 7 November 2008

Chess on Mastermind Part 2

Well, in the end I did get to see Mark Hannon answering questions on Bobby Fischer on Mastermind tonight. Despite not having access to my own TV, I managed to watch via my computer using a TV tuner card. Isn't modern technology wonderful?

Mark Hannon did extremely well, scoring 13 points (and no passes) on his Bobby Fischer questions. I think he failed to get two of them - one, on the number of consecutive games Fischer won in the 1971 Candidates Matches - he said 20 when the answer was 13 (I think he misheard the question and added the games Fischer won at the back end of the Palma 1970 Interzonal). And he couldn't remember which piece Fischer had sacrificed against Spassky in one of the key 1972 match games (the answer was bishop and he said rook - for my part I cannot remember which game was being referred to). But 13 was a very good score under pressure (I think I got about 11 - under pressure of the glass of wine I had drunk shortly before). The questions were a good deal fairer than the last time chess featured on Mastermind. There were one or two tricky ones (where he had to remember the opening variation played in games) but he rose to the challenge.

But it was a case of "the operation was successful but the patient died." Mark piled up another 12 points on the general knowledge questions (some very tough questions in there) to score a very creditable 25 points overall. But another contestant just pipped him to first place, scoring 26. Never mind - the honour of chess was maintained.

Chess on Mastermind

Mark Hannon, a Welsh player of around 2000 strength, wrote to tell me recently that he is to be one of the four contestants of an episode of Mastermind going out on BBC2 on 7 November 2008 (Friday) at 8.00 PM. His specialist subject is "Bobby Fischer - Life and Career". Good luck with that, Mark.

The fact that Mark wrote to tell me about is perhaps an indicator that he did well, but I wouldn't guarantee it. I recall that a previous chessplayer contestant on the show in 2005 also tipped me off about his participation despite the fact that he had bombed horribly answering questions on the history of the world chess championship. But then so would most of us with some of the completely daft questions he was asked. For example, "in how many moves did Spassky beat Petrosian in game 19 of the 1969 championship?" - and I cannot think of a reply to that which isn't either rude or obscene. The number of moves played in a game of chess is an utter irrelevance - the equivalent of asking a football specialist how many throw-ins there were in the 1966 World Cup final. I would be hard pushed to tell you the number of moves played in any game of chess, either one of my own or a famous one such as Morphy versus the Duke of Brunswick, though I could probably give an approximation in many cases. Of course it is a big clue that the question setter knows little of chess and in compiling questions has simply looked up a few facts on Wikipedia.

Should Mark get one of these ludicrous "how many moves" questions I can see me getting very hot under the collar watching tonight's show. But fate has taken a hand to ensure that I don't burst a blood vessel. It so happens that my TV set will be inaccessible tonight as the sitting room floorboards are being treated for woodworm today and we won't be able to enter it for 24 hours. Probably just as well...

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Armageddon in Nalchik

I've just been watching edited highlights of the Armageddon game between Monika Socko and Sabine Foisor in round one of the Women's World Championship in Nalchik.

Monika Socko of Poland had White and six minutes to win, playing against Sabina Foisor of Romania who had Black and five minutes to get a draw. It came down to a clock-thumping finale which was caught on film by a bystander. The final minute or so can be seen as part of this report on ChessBase.

The moves were being blitzed out as a tremendous rate with pieces being knocked over right left and centre. It came down to king and knight versus king and knight and a few seconds later Foisor's time ran out ("flag fall" in old terminology, though there is no flag on digital clocks).

The arbiters on the spot ruled that the game was drawn on the grounds that White could not force a win, though it is possible for Black to allow herself to be mated (e.g. wKc7, wNb6, bKa8, bNa7 - later note: credit to Sean Hewitt for noticing that the original position I gave here was not checkmate! I have moved the black knight from b8 to a7...). However, this is not the most logical interpretation of article 9.6 of the laws of chess ("the game is drawn when a position is reached from which a checkmate cannot occur by any possible series of legal moves, even with the most unskilled play...") and the appeal committee overruled the arbiters and awarded White a win.

However, one thing that nobody else seems to have noticed so far is that Foisor could have forced a draw in the final sequence. I reconstructed the game from the video and the diagram on the left above shows a position which arose just before the end. The game proceeded: 1...Ke6 2 Nc5+ Kf5 3 Nd3 Ke4 4 Nb4?? and now we reach the position on the right, above. Amazingly, Black didn't snap off White's knight with 4...Nxb4 which would have given her the draw she needed to qualify, but played 4...Kd4?? 5 Nc6+ Kc5 6 Ne5 Kd6 7 Nd3 Nf6 8 Nf4 Nd5 at which point Black lost on time. In truth, it is very hard to see the actual moves played but I'm pretty sure they were as above. I do hope poor Sabina Foisor doesn't watch the video as she will be kicking herself for missing a 'draw in one'.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Conquest of Britain

"Mistakes... I made a few... but thereagain... too few to mention..."

Stuart Conquest did it "his way" and became the 2008 British Champion - congratulations to him and commiserations to Keith Arkell (both great guys).

At last England has a born, bred and registered champion again after ten years. Except that Stuart lives in Spain! And speaks fluent Spanish. As indeed does the new British women's champion Jovanka Houska (her folks come from Uruguay). It's been a great summer of sport for Spanish speakers, hasn't it? The football team, Rafa Nadal, the Tour de France guy - and now Stuart and Jovanka!

So I guess it's "Enhorabuena, campeones!"...

Monday 4 August 2008

Ynojosa in the national press...

Here's a link to a short piece on Felix Jose Ynojosa's British Championship challenge by Leonard Barden in today's Guardian sports pages.

Sunday 3 August 2008

British Championship - Part 3

Round six saw draws all round for the leading group of six on 4/5, which gave a chance for yet more players to catch up. However, only one player managed to exploit the opportunity, namely Bogdan Lalic. The Croatian-registered grandmaster is the main danger as regards the return of the trophy to English hands this year (though he is not the only one - Manx resident German IM Dietmar Kolbus, whom I mentioned in an earlier blog, is on 4 and could yet win the title for the Isle of Man).

So the final week will start with Stuart Conquest, Nigel Davies, Danny Gormally, Mark Hebden, Gawain Jones, Bogdan Lalic and Lawrence Trent in the lead on 4½, with a further 11 players on 4 who are still in with a decent chance of the title.

The most notable story of the first week has been the performance of the tournament's youngest player, Felix Jose Ynojosa, who is 12 years 6 months old. Something tells me we're going to see and hear quite a lot of that name in the future so we'd better establish correct pronunciation right now - it's Ee-no-HOS-a (sound the 'h' as in the Scottish 'loch' - please don't imitate the dodgy pronunciation of the BBC reporter who interviewed Felix for BBC South-East). Felix has made quite a stir in junior chess circles since his arrival in the UK and he's now being coached by GM Nick Pert (for a photo of the two together, see this page on Nick's website).

Felix came to the UK from Venezuela with his family (his older sister Angelica also plays chess) a few years ago and nows lives in Berkshire. He is registered as an English player. This page on the Berkshire Junior website gives a good run-down on his latest achievements, while veteran talent-spotter Leonard Barden identified him as one to watch in his May 31 column in the Guardian, along with the two talented London-based 13-year-olds, Yang-Fan Zhou (also doing well in the British, having beaten IM Richard Pert in the first round) and Samuel Franklin.

Leonard Barden compared Felix's London Junior performance last Xmas with that of Nigel Short at the same age, and there is another near-parallel with the English super-GM in Felix's performance this week in Liverpool. In 1977 Nigel Short, aged 12 years 2 months, made national headlines by beating ten times British champion Jonathan Penrose in the third round of the British Championship. Short's round six score that year was 2½/6 whereas Felix, just 4 months older, has already chalked up 4/6. That works out at a TPR of 2418 so far, so he could be on course for an IM norm. Felix's progress has been very impressive. After a first round loss to Jonathan Hawkins, he displayed mature technique to defeat Dave Ledger, then drew games with Steve Barrett and IM Simon Knott. In round five he comfortably defeated the Indian player Venkat Tiruchirapalli. But in round six he went one better and defeated the highly experienced and dangerous IM Graeme Buckley... What struck me about this game was Felix's intelligent game plan. Buckley has a strong preference for tactical mayhem in his games, but Felix steered him into an innocuous system (Sicilian c3 transposing to Exchange French) where Buckley couldn't generate any tactics. By move 12 it was evident that Black was far less comfortable with the positional nature of the game than his young opponent and a slip on move 19 was instantly exploited by the 12-year-old. Felix won two pawns and liquidated to leave himself with a straightforward technical win.

This was actually Felix's second win against Buckley, whom he beat in the King's Head Rapidplay earlier this year on his way to first place with 5½/6. Later, at the May Richmond Rapidplay, Felix added another IM scalp to his belt by beating Malcolm Pein in the second round on his way to 4/6 in what was an extremely strong one-day tournament. He obviously has a huge talent. It will be very interesting to see how he fares in the second week.

Saturday 2 August 2008

British Championship - Part 2

Despite telling you previously that I am not so keen on following week one at the British, I must confess that there have been some fascinating struggles in the last couple of rounds. Going into round six, we now have six players tied on 4/5, with no fewer than 30 players still within reach of the 'magic score' of 4/6 which means they still have chances of finishing first. Perhaps, as in the golf Open, there should be a 'cut' after six rounds so that all those out of contention for first prize can go home (and save hotel expenses). By the way, the 30 in contention still include 100% of the female contingent. Susan Lalic, Jovanka Houska and Meri Grigoryan are all on 3/5 so the competition for the women's title is still wide open.

Susan Lalic nearly went one better in round five when she had top-rated Gawain Jones at her mercy at one point. Of course, I speak with benefit of Fritz: it was a very complex position and far from easy to find the winning sequence, but our German friend seems adamant that Susan was close to victory.

I'm not proposing to analyse any of the top board games here but just have a quick look at some of the thrills and spills further down the board order. The two diagrams above have something in common. In both cases the player to move tried a piece sacrifice to expose the enemy king to attack. But there the comparison ends. In one case, the operation was successful but in the other it was the surgeon (and not the patient) who died.

In the top-left diagram, play continued with 14...Nxb2!? 15 Kxb2 Na4+. At this point White should have played 16 Ka1 when computers find nothing decisive after 16...Nc3 or 16...c6 though it is fairly clear that Black would get a useful kingside attack. Instead White decided to walk the plank with 16 Kb3? but was shocked by 16...c6! 17 Bxb5 Qa5!! - as powerful a zwischenzug as you are likely to see. White resigned since it is mate in three.

But, for every published combination, there are probably 1,000 unpublished miscombinations. I'll try to restore the balance by showing you what happened in the game shown in the top-right diagram. White is fairly well placed here. He had previously played a useful exchange for pawn sacrifice, though he had then missed a much stronger follow-up which might well have won. However, things are still looking good: 21 Nc5+ is strong, when 21...Ka8 is answered by 22 Bd3! and the resultant complications seem to favour White. Instead, White thought he could lure the black king into the open and win with 21 Ba6+ but let's see what happened: 21...Kxa6 22 Nc5+ Ka5 23 Nb7+ Kb6 24 Nxd8 Rxd8 25 d5+ ... when you see a discovered check resulting in a double attack on a piece at the end of your tactical analysis, you understandably get excited. But, sadly for White, his analysis ended too soon... 25...Kb7! - the only good square for the king. White resigned. The point is that 26 dxc6+ is illegal because the pawn is pinned and that 26 Rxc6 allows 26...Rxd5+ and 27...Kxc6. Life is unfair.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

British Championship - Part 1

I must confess, I have got out of the habit of watching British Championship games during the first week of the competition. It always reminds me of one of those bizarre pursuit cycling races where the competitors pootle round the velodrome like Miss Marple going to the vicar's tea party, reserving their energy for a frantic dash in the final couple of circuits. The main contenders in the British Championship usually end up with approximately the same number of points after six rounds - so what's the point in getting excited about it at this stage? That's not to criticise the tournament. The final rounds usually provide more by way of entertainment.

Slow starts are not always the order of the day, of course. Back in the 20th century, we were sometimes treated to the spectacle of Julian Hodgson or Jonathan Mestel storming through tournaments to make 9/11 or even more. But since 2000 (the last time Julian won, incidentally), the eventual winners have usually made relatively modest first week scores. Go on - have a guess at the commonest first-week score of the eight winners from 2000 to 2007. Did you guess 4½ or 5? Those sound the likeliest answers but they are wrong. Four of the eight winners made do with just 4/6 the first week (that's Hodgson in 2000, Gallagher in 2001, Ramesh in 2002 and Rowson in 2006). Two champions (Kunte in 2003 and Rowson in 2005) scored 4½/6. The only two 21st century champions who could consider themselves front-runners were Rowson in 2004 and Aagaard in 2007, who both blazed into the lead with 5½/6 (and they both nearly paid for their early exertions by having slightly shaky second weeks). So maybe the 'Miss Marple' pootling policy is best...

This year, after three rounds, it looks like most of the leading contenders are taking their places for the cagey cycling pursuit race of the next few days. Maybe even Richard Pert is not yet without hope despite his calamitous 0/2 start; after all, he can still reach the magic score of 4/6. I could be wrong about what is about to happen, of course. Nigel Davies will celebrate his 48th birthday tomorrow in the sole lead with 3/3 and maybe he will hack his way through the opposition in Hodgsonesque style to finish on some massive score. All things are possible. But don't write off the people who reach 4/6.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Kamsky Interview

GM Gata Kamsky was at the top of a six-way tie for first recently at the National Open (June 5-8), part of the Las Vegas International Chess Festival. In this eight-minute interview with Macauley Peterson of ICC Chess.FM, Kamsky discusses his time in Vegas and his thoughts on the upcoming World Championship candidates match with Veselin Topalov, scheduled for November in Lvov, Ukraine.


(Sorry - I think that link has long since gone to web heaven - JS) 

My thanks to John Henderson of ICC for sending this through.

Thursday 29 May 2008

A Few Snippets from My Former Blog...

I have just visited an old blog (which I no longer maintain) for the first time in many months and found a few comments of interest there. Rather than linking to it, I'll give the items here (in no particular order)...

1. [comment on thread about chess venues in London...] Here are the answers gentlemen: The Wargrave Arms [40-42 Brendon Street, W1] has a resident chess team and there are competitions every Tuesday, Bread & Roses [68 Clapham Manor Street, SW4] carries a whiff of old-school Socialism along with their chess boards and The Museum Tavern [49 Great Russell Street, WC1] has held boards behind the bar since Marx was a regular. Haven't visited this page before, but send me an email anyone who knows of any other good chess-playing pubs or cafes. alexowenwilliams@gmail.com

2. On a related theme (chessplaying venues in major cities), a 'Barcelona citizen' sent me the sad news that, as of 2003, Barcelona's 'Oro Negro' ceased to be a games-playing bar and is now a restaurant. A pity: I remember playing endless games of blitz chess there in about 1976/77. Some very strong players used to put in an appearance (e.g. Antonio Medina). But my thanks to the 'Barcelona citizen' for letting me know.

3. Posted under the title 'GOOD NEWS' on 21 April 2008 (and it does seem to be very good news)... Since 12 months ago, I have been setting up a number of UK venues where the public can walk in and play chess free of charge, the sets being supplied by the management. Mainly South Midlands, but we are looking further afield. Some venues are already set up, we are aiming for a dozen by end-2008. For details, please contact me, Tony Robson, via email: tonyrobson@solve360.com.

My thanks to those posters.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Spassky at Hay-on-Wye

Above photo shows Marina Spassky, Boris Spassky and interviewer Ronan Bennett. (c) 2008 John Saunders.

On Monday 26 May, former world champion Boris Spassky gave a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival in Wales. We don't get many world champions visiting our shores these days (more's the pity) so I decided to go along.

In fact, Spassky had been in action there the day before, giving a 20-board simul in a local bookshop. I didn't attend that but I understand he won most of the games but conceded a few draws, including one to Ian MacNab, a chess-playing scientist who was playing remotely from Antarctica. Also amongst his opponents was the comedian Dom Joly and a Welsh MP, Peter Black.

I am grateful to Stephen Moss for contributing the following observation on Spassky's technique for encouraging players to resign in the simul: "... his rival is two pawns down in an endgame (king and six pawns v king and four) ... Spassky would approach the board, look at it with a frown for 30 seconds as if it was the hardest position he'd ever seen, then look up at his opponent and say in that lovely, lilting Russian voice 'But where is your army?' Worked every time. I think he scored 15 wins and 5 draws in the simul."

On the Monday, the interview was conducted in a large marquee on the tented festival site, some half a mile west of the town proper. Unfortunately the weather was absolutely appalling, with wind and rain whipping around the site. The marquee managed to remain standing but at times it was difficult to make out what was being said on stage for the sound of wind upon canvas. So I hope you will forgive me for any misquotations in the following...

The great man appeared on stage, suitably attired against the elements, with his wife Marina who was there to aid his English comprehension when needed (which was not very often). Spassky's interviewer was novelist, screen writer and journalist Ronan Bennett. Ronan Bennett is also a keen chessplayer and weekly columnist (with GM Daniel King) for the Guardian's G2 'Bennett and King on Chess' feature. During the interview Bennett occasionally glanced at his copy of Bernard Cafferty's Boris Spassky: Master of the Attack (having also written a few prepared questions on the inside back cover). He was an excellent choice of interviewer for the occasion, and he struck a well-judged balance between topics which would be of particular interest to the initiated and more general ones which would be more comprehensible to a large (and largely non-chessplaying) audience.

Asked about his early chessplaying experiences, Spassky recounted how he was (like all of us) the victim of Scholar's Mate. As he climbed the chess ladder, he described himself as a "beggar" in his early days, but it was evident that his love for chess carried him through in what must have been the highly competitive world of Soviet chess. He was twice asked why he loved chess (both by the interviewer and a member of the audience at the end) but he could only describe this as "an enigma". Asked why he thought he thought he was so good at the game, he simply pointed heavenwards and smiled.

Many of the questions centred round the man to whom his name will be linked for ever - Bobby Fischer. Spassky simply doesn't have a bad word to say about his 1972 adversary. The two men billed as 'Fischer versus Spassky' in their professional life had long since become 'Bobby and Boris' - good friends. Spassky revealed that in recent years they were in regular email contact. On one occasion Spassky consulted Fischer on some question about rook endgames and Fischer sent a message back saying that Russian grandmasters' endgame play had improved since the publication of the Levenfish/Smyslov book on rook endgames. Spassky was visibly moved when he mentioned his last email from Bobby: "he was full of... conviviality", I think Boris said, as he broke off and, for a moment, nearly broke down.

The nearest he came to being critical of his former rival was in the discussion of what happened before the 3rd game of the Reykjavik match, when play took place in the room behind the stage. Boris admitted he was upset by Fischer's brusque treatment of match referee Lothar Schmid. That was a turning point in the match as Spassky could quite justifiably have insisted on the match being played in accordance with the previously agreed regulations (which might well have resulted in a Fischer walk-out). But he acquiesced and allowed the match to take its historic course. Mentioning that his name means 'saviour' in Russian, he commented that he saved the match, although sacrificing himself in the process.

Spassky was not always as diplomatic as he might have been with his Soviet colleagues. He told one story of a conversation with Botvinnik, the so-called Patriarch of Soviet chess and (unlike Spassky) a loyal party man. Spassky told him that the best example of the Soviet School of Chess was... Bobby Fischer. "Michael did not like that!", admitted Spassky ruefully.

The outcome of the 1972 match was not a tragedy for him (although he had to endure the later inquest by his fellow Soviet grandmasters). He emphasised to the audience that he "did not like to be the king" and that the years during which he held the title (1969-72) were the unhappiest of his life. He felt he was past his best in 1972. "I was perhaps number one from 1963 to 1971."

When asked about an early Fischer comment, to the effect that all Soviet GMs were members of the KGB, Spassky told us that he had raised the subject with Fischer: "When I become a colonel in the KGB, I will invite you to eat in the best restaurants!". To which Fischer had replied: "Yeah!". Spassky tried very hard to reproduce the authentic Fischer pronunciation of the word "yeah!", much to the amusement of the audience.

The mere mention of the 1992 rematch with Fischer brought Boris to life. "Ah! That was different! It was a festival, like this!," he said, gesturing to the surroundings of the book festival. By 1992, of course, Boris was a free agent and the Yugoslav match an unexpected bonus - a protracted pay-day in the Adriatic sun. He agreed that the standard of play was much lower than in 1972. He started to tell a story about game 6 (he wasn't sure himself) where he had set out to play for a draw but Bobby had surprised him by playing some very poor moves. He mentioned the time controls of the 1992 match as being problematic, with games dragging on endlessly to eight or more hours. "After one long game, Bobby was like this..." and Boris got up from his chair and lumbered unsteadily about the front of the stage, in imitation of Fischer's exhaustion after this particular encounter.

A member of the audience asked Spassky who his chess heroes were: "My heroes were all tragic!". He mentioned them by name: "Morphy, Alekhine..." - here I missed a couple of names but SonofPearl (see link below) recalls Chigorin and Steinitz. And then, as an afterthought he added "Pillsbury". "All tragic people!", he reiterated.

After the session of audience questions had ended - some were excessively long and complicated, and politely deflected by a tiring champion - Spassky was treated to a warm round of applause from an appreciative audience before leaving the stage. But I confess that I wanted to meet Boris in person and 'invited myself' backstage. Luckily Ronan Bennett was on hand to save me from being ejected by some security people and he was also kind enough to introduce me to Boris. I was able to shake Spassky's very large (and slightly intimidating) hand. On hearing that I was editor of 'British Chess Magazine' (which, by the way, he still receives regularly), he was kind enough to comment that "it is a very nice magazine". Now I can die happy...

Some links to other coverage of the Spassky talk:
Stephen Moss at Guardian Unlimited
SonofPearl's Blog

Tuesday 27 May 2008

R.I.P. Patrick Taylor

Some very sad news: Patrick Taylor, managing director of Monarch Assurance and generous sponsor of the Monarch Assurance Isle of Man International from 1991 to 2007, died on Friday 23 May 2008, aged 74 (he was born on 8 December 1933).

Patrick Taylor was a very hands-on sponsor who, despite not being a keen player himself, loved the game and the people who played it, and liked to visit his tournament as often as he could. At the opening ceremony of the tournament it was quite often his way to greet all the leading grandmasters with a handshake and a few words, and I am quite sure he would have extended that to all the players in the tournament had time permitted. He was very much a "people person". He was also a sponsor of the Manx Operatic Society and became their official Patron some years ago.

Everyone who ever attended the Isle of Man tournament, grandmasters, rank and file players and officials alike, will remember Patrick with deep affection and will be saddened to hear of his passing. I received the news from the tournament's long-time director, Dennis Hemsley, and I know Dennis particularly feels the loss of the remarkable man who was so instrumental and so generous in helping him to realise his dream of an international tournament in the little town of Port Erin. R.I.P.

Friday 9 May 2008

Mike Truran - Open Letter, 8 May 2008

The following open letter was sent to me for publication by Mike Truran and he has agreed that I should display it on BCMBlog. To put you in the picture, Mike was until a few days ago a non-executive director of the English Chess Federation. In conjunction with a number of other directors of the federation, he decided to resign from his post last week. The background to the ECF crisis has been summarised elsewhere on the web and I (JS) don't propose to summarise it here (though I may say more at a later date). Links to various background material: SCCU Report of the ECF Council Meeting of 26 April 2008 - Debate at the ECF Forum - Debate at the Atticus CC forum.

Here is Mike Truran's open letter in full:

There is a story (apocryphal or otherwise) of how the Chinese army once decided to establish a military garrison in the middle of the Gobi desert. The garrison was built, supply lines were established, soldiers were dispatched, all at ruinous cost. It apparently took some years for it to dawn on people that nobody, friend or foe, was particularly interested in the middle of the Gobi desert. The point of the garrison was the garrison’s own existence.

Sometimes I’m reminded of the story when thinking about the ECF. It’s as if the main purpose of the ECF is to raise enough funds to perpetuate the ECF. Certainly its purpose doesn’t seem to be to be to sort out the woeful state of chess in this country. The ECF president only a few days ago was apparently heard to say “The ECF is about more than chess”. Let’s hope that’s right, because it sure as hell isn’t particularly about chess.

There has been a lot of speculation about why four of us recently resigned as ECF directors, with many fanciful theories raised on various forums. I speak for myself on this, although I believe that my fellow directors share similar although not necessarily identical thoughts. I resigned because I have lost faith in the ability of the ECF as it is presently structured to take meaningful action to sort out English chess – or indeed in the ability of the ECF to even understand that there is an issue.

When I signed up to Martin Regan’s ticket and agreed to stand for re-election as a non-executive director I genuinely believed that there was at long last an opportunity to revitalise English chess and embark on a radical programme that would restore English chess to its rightful position in the world. I now believe that the vested interest lobbies in Council and on the Board will all they can to prevent meaningful change, and that even if Martin and his team had been able to force through the changes needed the resulting fall-out would have made life intolerable.

I’m a senior business executive in my real life. Time is a valuable commodity for me. That said, I’m willing to give my time for free when I see goodwill and a genuine intention to make things better amongst my colleagues. What I’m not prepared to do is to waste my time pushing water uphill. Life’s too short and I have better things to do.

Have you ever been to an ECF Council meeting? If you ever get invited, run like hell in the other direction. There are, I know, good and competent Council members who recognise that there is a problem with English chess and would like to do something about it. Meeting after meeting these members’ voices are drowned out by a vociferous minority who either bang on about arcane points of order and constitutional minutiae or about their own particular hobbyhorses, which usually involve some variant of the “What does the ECF do for me?” or “What’s the Board trying to slip past us this time?” themes – and usually (which I find more soul-destroying than anything) without a scintilla of doubt as to the correctness of their own opinion and with an absolute refusal to countenance the possibility that there might just possibly be valid points of view other than their own. Most of the subjects discussed involve operational matters which should be within the Board’s remit and so not even on the agenda. The atmosphere typically ranges from the unpleasant to the poisonous. No meeting passes without some confrontation or other between Council and the Board. I recall on one occasion overhearing one Council member saying to another member “I wouldn’t trust this Board as far as I could throw them”. On no occasion can I recall any strategic discussion about how Council thinks the ECF (and the Board on behalf of the ECF) should be developing and improving English chess. The ECF discussing strategy? Don’t make me laugh. It’s much more exciting to discuss whether game fee increase should be 1p or 2p.

ECF Board meetings are little better. The late lamented John Dunleavy once said to Martin Regan “Well, Council have at least given you half a ticket”. As Martin commented recently, that wasn’t enough. In the end, it seems to me that the Board split right down the middle between those who sought radical change and those who wanted to preserve the status quo. In business a divided Board never achieves its objectives. This Board was no different, and I think that in the end Martin and his team recognised that the drag on the reform and modernisation agenda from those who looked to block substantive progress at every turn was going to be insuperable. In any event, as with Council, getting the Board to discuss anything other than trivia was always difficult. As a for instance, I recall one memorable occasion when we spent an enthralling quarter of an hour or so debating whether one particular job title should be “…………Manager” or “Manager of…………”.

So where are we now? An organisation with the turnover of a fairly large Cotswold tea shop has a business plan it has neither the resources nor the skills to deliver, seemingly living in a fantasy world in which all manner of lofty ambitions are signed up to year after year with no discernible will to provide the finance to achieve those ambitions. Any meaningful debate about what the ECF should be delivering as opposed to what it actually delivers is immediately hijacked by lobbyists complaining about the cost of chess in England. All Martin and his team wanted to do was to get the debate out on the table. We really didn’t care whether membership was pitched at £2 or £50. What we wanted to flush out was a vision from Council, the elected representatives of chess organisations in England, of what the ECF should be doing and where it should be going. If Council just wanted the ECF to produce a grading list, with no office and a skeleton service (£2?), that was fine. If Council wanted the ECF to run properly funded international teams to represent England, provide appropriate conditions for our top players to play in the British Championship, invest properly in junior chess, have a properly resourced and skilled office delivering proper value added services for members etc etc (£50?) that was fine too. Once the vision was agreed, the costs would follow. We couldn’t even get the debate started.

Well, I’ve said my piece and, having said it, can hardly be excused from the obligation to offer some thoughts on how matters might be improved. So here goes, for what it’s worth…………

• The ECF needs to tear up its present structure and start again. Council in its present form is unworkable, and the Board is emasculated by the need to refer any meaningful decisions to Council. To my mind the present Council structure should be replaced by a small number of shareholders, duly elected by their constituents – in effect the shareholders who hire or fire the directors. As a starter for ten suggestion, these members could, for example, be representatives of the regional unions and/or the major leagues, with the unions/leagues taking responsibility for the democratic processes whereby these members were elected. I recall writing to Gerry Walsh before the BCF morphed into the ECF suggesting that the change of legal status was a golden opportunity to get the structure fit for purpose for the 21st century. True to form, nothing happened.

• The ECF needs to allow its Board to get on with things, as would be the case in the real world. The Board, as Council’s appointees, needs to be able to set the overall strategy for the ECF and then to set about delivering it. If Council isn’t happy it should get rid of its directors and appoint new ones, not seek to second guess them at every turn.

• The ECF should work out what it is for and what it should be doing by way of core activities and value added services. Once that is decided, the chess playing public should fund that level of activity and service on a non-subsided, break-even basis. Whether that is done by way of membership fees or game fees isn’t the issue. The issue is what the chess playing public wants and what it is willing to pay for. Nobody is going to sponsor the ECF in current circumstances, even if the ECF had a brand worth investing in, or indeed any sort of compelling proposition with which to convince potential sponsors. We can’t expect any of this to be funded by sponsorship under current circumstances, and if we think it will be we delude ourselves. Anyway, sponsorship should be used to fund the “icing on the cake” over and above properly funded and resourced day to day activity. Chess players are going to have to be prepared to stump up themselves for what they want. If they are only prepared to pay for a skeleton service that perpetuates the downward spiral of chess in England, so be it. If they want to pay the money needed to re-energise chess in England, that’s fine too. What they shouldn’t do is pretend that they can get something for nothing. What they should do is have the debate about what they really want and what they are really prepared to pay.

• Finally, the ECF needs to get some competent people onto the Board – and that I fear includes replacing some of the present incumbents. Whether you agree or disagree with the views of Martin and his team, it would be pretty hard to argue (based on what they have delivered in the real world) that they were not competent to do the job. With their loss I fear the ECF has missed another golden opportunity. Nobody is irreplaceable, but I suspect the ECF will have to work quite hard even to find people of the calibre of Martin, Peter and Claire, let alone persuade them to act as ECF directors. The ECF’s reputation is just too low.

It distresses me to see how English chess has declined over the last couple of decades. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I compare chess in England with the buoyant state of affairs in countries like Germany, France, Turkey…………I could go on. I suppose we could wait for the old guard on the Board and in Council to die off before we try to put things right. I suspect that by the time that happens chess will be completely moribund in this country.

We really do need to start over. But I’m not holding my breath.


The other day I was leafing through “Chess Monthly” for 1991 (!) and came across the following (concerning, I believe, something called the Edwards Report which had been commissioned by the then British Chess Federation to “review all aspects of chess activity and organisation in the UK, taking into account the various interests of all levels and groups of players, both amateur and professional, together with organisers and sponsors”). I quote:

“The committee was unanimous in agreeing that the BCF is designed for a structure of British chess that is largely superseded. It recognised that the cumbersome structure with an unwieldy Council and Management Board was ill-equipped to handle the increase in professional chess of the world’s number two chess nation. Difficulties in recent years in finding and keeping sponsors have resulted from the lack of professional commercial management.

The major recommendations of the report are:
1. To appoint a competent, professional, full-time General Secretary.
2. To start a National League.
3. To reform the management structure of the BCF to simplify the organisation and improve communication to members.”

Progress to date:

1. Not achieved.
2. Achieved, but not by the BCF.
3. What do you think?

Seventeen years on we’re still waiting. I had almost forgotten until “Chess Monthly” reminded me that we used to be number two nation in the world. Does anybody in the ECF care any more?

Let me finish with a quote from David Norwood, then the BCF’s Publicity Director, also from 1991:

“The BCF……is simply the sum of its parts: individuals, clubs and counties. If what is commonly termed the ‘grass roots’ then continually demands: ‘What does the BCF do for me?’, as if expecting immediate benefits from above, there is something intrinsically wrong. The BCF can only be what its members make it.”

Thursday 8 May 2008

Kasparov's Long-Lost Brother?

I saw the fellow on the left on the TV and thought he looked rather like Garry Kasparov. He is former Brookside actor and TV presenter Simon O'Brien. What do you think?

Monday 5 May 2008

Isle of Man Update (of sorts)

I have heard that there might be an Isle of Man tournament of sorts some time in the autumn. If it happens - and I stress it is only a possibility at the moment - it is probably to be a two-day rapidplay tournament and in Douglas rather than Port Erin. Some time in the autumn. Maybe (did I already say that?). Watch this space.

Friday 2 May 2008

Isle of Man - On or Off?

Yes, it has been a very long silence here at the BCM Blog, hasn't it? My last piece was on Bobby Fischer's death so perhaps I've been in mourning for the late, great world champion. But if so, it wasn't a conscious thing.

The reason I break the silence is to talk about the Isle of Man tournament. Is there going to be a 2008 Isle of Man tournament? As long-time tournament webmaster, it is a bit embarrassing to have to answer that with the words "I don't know". At the last tournament we had a meeting to discuss the 2008 event and various semi-official announcements were made via the website, talking in terms of a 2008 Manx International, but I haven't heard a thing since.

The prognosis is not good. Monarch Assurance's generous sponsorship ended with the 2007 event so it was already known that new sponsorship would need to be found. Since then, there has come further news that the venue, the Ocean Castle Hotel, closed for business on 31 December 2007 (and it is likely to be scheduled for demolition). At that point, hotel manager Jean-Pierre Depin - who is also tournament director - retired to Ramsey. I understand that all other possible venues in Port Erin are booked for the requisite time so the tournament would have to move town as well as find new money.

Various things appear on the web about a 2008 tournament but they look a bit sketchy and out of date. Does anyone out there know what's happening? If you do, please me know...

Friday 18 January 2008

R.I.P. Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer (9 March 1943 - 17 January 2008)

Just two hours ago, BCM heard the desperately sad news that former world chess champion Bobby Fischer died yesterday, with initial reports indicating that it was as a result of kidney failure. BCM carried the news of his chronic kidney condition in the January issue so this was not entirely unexpected news.

It's unprecedented for us to show you a front cover before it has been formally finalised but here is a mock-up of the February British Chess Magazine front cover which is likely to go to the printers later today. It shows the 19-year-old Fischer playing Rivera at the Varna Olympiad in 1962. We prefer to show Fischer as he was in his prime (actually a little before his prime) rather than the way he appeared in the later stages of his life after he had long since abandoned chess. And that is also how we prefer to remember him. R.I.P.

Thursday 17 January 2008

The Kome-Back Kid and his Kome-Back Dad...

Just seen this at chessusa.blogspot.com... click here

Rustam Kamsky - father of Gata - has emerged from a long-time silence to sound off about the world chess situation, how his son has been badly treated by the chess establishment and why he needs state support in his forthcoming match against Topalov.

The interesting thing is that he is still alive and taking an interest. Whether he is speaking on behalf of his son is a moot point. It may be an embarrasment for Gata for all we know. But it does make one think - will Rustam be there for the showdown between his son and Topalov? Rustam vs Danailov... now that is a confrontation I would pay money to see.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Dawn Corus

Well, it's a very long time since I last blogged... I thought I'd better say something in case you thought I had been rubbed out by the avenging 'Farce Brothers' after my previous comments about them here. Or perhaps you thought that I had made a new year's resolution to quit pontificating about chess.

Sorry to disappoint you - neither of these things came to pass. It was just that I decided to give chess writing a miss for the duration of the Xmas/New Year holiday in order to recharge my batteries. I did think about writing another of my alphabetical annual reviews of the year: I got as far as 'A is for Anand' (a no-brainer) but couldn't think of anything funny to say... then 'B is for'... boredom. Yes, the creative juices simply failed to flow so it was time to give up on that idea and get back to the mince pies.

Hastings didn't rouse me from hibernation to any great degree. I usually go there on the final day so that I can take photos of likely winners for photos, but that had proved to be a mistake last year. The leaders had decided to draw their games instantly and I missed a couple of them before they had exited the tournament room. Tip to chess photographers: make sure your camera has a really fast shutter speed to catch those ultra-fast last-round draws. I thought I'd fool them this year and go down for Round one (when they'd surely sit at the board long enough for me to get a decent shot). It was pleasant meeting old chess friends as it always is, and there were a few decent games to watch. But the course of the tournament wasn't terribly exciting. Sometimes the new, premier-less Hastings can be good when someone like Belov lights up the Hastings sky with a string of wins, but it was a case of 'Asbestos on Board' this year - a few middle-income GMs intent on a steady little earner.

But today was round one of Corus: the real first day of the chess year, when everyone gets to show off their shiny new January rating for the first time. Unfortunately for me it coincides with a heavy workload and a brisk deadline as I get the February BCM ready so that I can travel to Gibraltar in a week or so's time for the other big January event. I haven't found a really interesting chess story to write about this year yet, but Corus had a goodly helping of surprises, right from the off. I thought about writing a preview of the tournament, but then decided I didn't really have a clue what might happen. Will 2008 be another good year for the more mature players (as 2007 was) or will the Carlsens and Radjabovs finally start to elbow them aside? Who knows? Today's games provide evidence of the latter but it's only a tiny sample. Besides which, as I pointed out in the January BCM editorial, last year's Corus did not provide a reliable indicator of what might happen during the rest of 2007. Aronian, Topalov and Radjabov tied for first place... and all three had a sub-standard year. It turned out to be Ivanchuk, Anand and Kramnik who came out on top by December.

No, great though Corus is as a tournament, I wouldn't read too much into what happens there in terms of who is going to be at the apex of world chess by the end of the year. Anand and Kramnik will probably go careful in Wijk. They don't want to pig out on the hors d'oeuvres because they know they have a substantial main course to find room for later in the year. Tournaments are all right but it is matchplay which really sorts out the men from the boys. Roll on September...