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.

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:

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...