Wednesday 4 April 2018

Winning with the Reverse IAGOCOT

Like the snappy title? It's a parody of all those chess opening book titles from the 1980s onwards and a cynical attempt to boost clicks on this post by luring in opening obsessives to see what they're missing. (OK, three days too late for April Fool's Day but I've never been good with deadlines.)

1. IAGOCOT - "It's A Game Of Chess Out There"

For the uninitiated, IAGOCOT is not a chess opening. (There will now be a slight pause as we wait for the disappointed people hoping to learn something new about chess openings as they leave the blog. The rest of you are still interested, right?) It is an acronym standing for "it's a game of chess out there" and coined by famed chess writers Mike Fox and Richard James in their legendary column in CHESS Magazine, and later their book The Even More Complete Chess Addict (a wonderful read and still available second-hand all over the internet) as a tribute to all those sports commentators who insist on comparing chess with whatever it is they are reporting on (usually football).

Listen out next time you watch sport on TV, and when you hear the commentator make a comparison with chess (usually during a particularly boring passage of play when nothing much is happening and they are getting desperate for something to talk about) leap to your feet and triumphantly exclaim "ha! IAGOCOT!" Of course, if you're watching with any non-chess friends, they will think you've gone completely bonkers but, hey, if they already know you're a competition chess player, they'll think you're mad anyway.

Richard James, writing here, gives full credit for the creation of this splendid meme to his late colleague Mike Fox: "IAGOCOT was coined by the late Mike Fox and used extensively in Addicts' Corner in CHESS over many years. Eventually we wound it down... because there was just too much." That's the thing - barely a sports broadcast goes by without a reference to chess.

So IAGOCOTs aren't really news any more. For a while we chess observers cast around desperately for what might be loosely termed a semi-IAGOCOT - any ludicrous or inappropriate chess/sport comparison made by a sports person, not necessarily a commentator or writer. The ultimate accolade in this category has to go to German footballer Lukas Podolski and his legendary "Football is like chess, only without the dice." As Sam Goldwyn might have said (but didn't), it's not possible to improve on perfect imperfection. Thus the semi-IAGOCOT became obsolete, much as political satire did when Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize (Tom Lehrer really did say that one).

2. Reverse IAGOCOT (or should that be TOCOGAI?) 

But what about the Reverse IAGOCOT? By that I mean comparisons made by chess writers to other games and sports in their game annotations and commentaries. The thought came to me when I was browsing chess columns in old newspapers and came across a real doosra of a reverse IAGOCOT. You see what I did there? I just can't help myself. Let's not pretend that we chess scribblers are any different when it comes to dreaming up absurd sporting comparisons. I'm sure I've done it dozens, if not hundreds, of times and will continue to do so unashamedly until someone comes to wrest this computer keyboard from my cold, dead hands (I think I might be quoting Charlton Heston this time but I'm not sure).

BH Wood (right) tries a Reverse IAGOCOT on David Anderton in 1981

Here's the founding editor of CHESS Magazine, Baruch H Wood, writing in the Illustrated London News of 25 August 1956.

In May 1952 I observed, of a game I had given here: "This has a good claim to be regarded as the most remarkable game of chess ever played.” It was the game between Edward Lasker and Sir George Thomas in which Lasker drew his opponent’s king right across the board, finally mating it on his own back rank. The game will certainly bear repetition... 
[JS note: here BHW gives the score of the 1912 game Ed.Lasker-Thomas but I'm not going to reproduce it here as most chess players will have seen it dozens of times already - here's a link to a play-through if you want to refresh your memory of what happened the important thing to reiterate is that White drives Black's king right across the board to his own back rank before delivering mate]
It has been done again. Though certain features are missing which must be considered as unlikely ever to be seen again as Jim Laker’s nineteen wickets in a Test — for instance the queen sacrifice and the delicious concluding move "Castles, mate" — the new game has entire originality and some piquant features.
There you have a reverse IAGOCOT: BH Wood compares the legendary Ed.Lasker-Thomas game to English cricketer Jim Laker taking 19 Australian wickets in Manchester at the end of July 1956, i.e. only a matter of weeks before BHW's article was published and thus highly topical. Apologies to non-cricket-savvy readers trying to make sense of this but this record is perhaps the most remarkable in cricket history - and still stands to this day.

That wasn't the end of BH Wood's article as he proceeds to present the 'new' game he refers to which, as far as I can tell, has not found its way into any databases and perhaps deserves a wider audience. The 1952 game is not nearly as good as the 1912 classic in any respect, with chess engines being decidedly sniffy about the quality of play by both sides, but you can see the common theme. The final position is quite amusing, too.

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