Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Book Review: Chess on the Edge, Volume 1: 100 Selected Games of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles

Lukas Podolski recently asserted that ‘football is like chess, except without the dice’. The Yogi Berra comparisons inevitably came in hard and fast, but I rather think that Lukas and I are on the same wavelength: the element of chance that is generated artificially by the use of dice in Monopoly or Ludo or Dungeons and Dragons I believe to be dominant in our beloved game, too. If we conceive of chess as a contest between two unaided human beings then it is inevitable that errors will occur. It follows that some errors will be more serious than others, and that it is the player whose cumulative inaccuracies are punished less severely who will ultimately have an advantage. This human element of chess - as in Cabinet government - renders it a game of luck. But we can take comfort in the fact that unlike, say, life, chess is a game in which it is possible to make one’s own luck: if mistakes are all there, waiting to be made, then skill can defined as the ability to create the psychological and strategic conditions in which your opponent is more likely than yourself to blunder. ‘Given that chess is an intellectual game’ wondered the legal philosopher Carlos Nino in his 1992 work Rights, ‘is it like poker, intellectual in some sense that includes ability at psychological intimidation?’ Students of law have a tendency to ask questions to which they already know the answer, but one notable chess player who would probably answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’ is the retired Canadian grandmaster Duncan Suttles, the subject of a recent three-volume game collection by Bruce Harper and Yasser Seirawan entitled Chess on the Edge. It was Suttles, after all, who once insisted that ‘the point of chess is to trick the other guy’.

I first came across Suttles in the dusty pages of the not-particularly-good Batsford Chess Yearbook, which I had picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop in Bury St. Edmunds. It featured his remarkable win against Robatsch and although the annotations were sparse and dull, I instantly fell in love with every last aspect of his play: the bravado with which he would fling pawns forward before anything else, his preponderance for placing pieces on the edge of the board, the complete lack of interest in castling he showed and his ability to conjure up unlikely attacks that looked so scary that they worked. It was all at such right angles to traditional wisdom that I figured that this must be the correct way to play chess; certainly, it would be a good way to induce errors. Perhaps the best précis of the Suttlesian spirit came in 1970, when Harry Golombek wrote in The Times of how 'colour is well and truly back in the world of chess'. First he described the world champion to be:

In Bobby Fischer North America possesses a great master who seems to conduct his life in strict accordance with the logical principles to be found in Carroll's Alice through the Looking-glass. Once you accept these principles then everything he does is perfectly logical and yet (or perhaps therefore) he is probably the finest tournament player of our time.

Then he turned to King Duncan, who never exactly adhered to the Dodgson Dicta like Bobby:

On another level, there is the strange Canadian master, Suttles. During a tournament, or away from one for all I know, he never willingly gets up before midday. This treatment of time is on a par with his topsy-turvy methods of play over the board. For him the ideal development of his Kkt is KR3 and similarly KB2 is best for the Qkt. I once thought that, talented player though he undoubtedly is, he handicapped himself very much with these methods; but I no longer believe this. This system of play is employed rather like a red rag to a bull. His opponents, more often hypnotized by these strange procedures, usually succumb to a powerful King-side attack.
If ever there were player deserving of a games collection, then, it is Suttles. Chess on the Edge - published earlier this year, having been in the works since 1975 - contains 613 of Suttles' tournament games, a mouthwatering prospect. It would have been terrible if this Bible for which I'd been waiting so long had turned out to be a damp squib. Thankfully, Chess on the Edge is every bit as weird and as inspirational as its subject. I managed to scrape together enough pennies last month to afford the first volume, which is intended as a Suttles 'reader'. Therein lie 100 selected games, split into 20 chapters ('Rook pawns', 'Positional Sacrifices', 'Opening Disasters', etc.). The aim is to demystify Suttles' strange play somewhat, to make for an easier exploration of his games in the future. And it succeeds, partly because Messrs. Harper and Seirawan have no desire to paint their subject as infallible: in this introductory volume, in fact, Suttles loses some 24 games (!) and draws a further four. Not that this matters, as the authors explain in the annotations to Game 1, Zinn - Suttles, 1966. After eighteen moves, the following position arose:

Here white played 19.Bd3, a solid enough move that targets the weak g6 square. What he missed, however, was the attractive 19.Rxc6!, which, say Harper and Seirawan, ‘changes the picture completely. At a small cost of material, White can now use b5 for either his a2 knight (via c3) or e2 bishop, and can also play d4-d5, in order to increase his grip on the light squares, while simultaneously embarrassing Black’s a7 queen and eliminating his own weaknesses on d4.’ Is the fact that Suttles could have been undone enough to tarnish his eventual win? Not at all! The true delight of the book lies in the fact that Harper and Seirawan revel in the immanent messiness of chess. 'In the authors' view,' they write, 'the existence of this possibility [19.Rxc6!] enhances rather than detracts from the artistic quality of this game. "Correct" chess is boring - without mistakes chess is a draw, just as without asymmetry the universe itself is lifeless. Suttles was always ready to induce an error by his opponent. But some errors can be so subtle, and missed opportunities so difficult to see, as to elude detection even after the game. Without denying there must be an objective basis for artistry in chess, the fact remains that White did not play 19.Rxc6!' Zinn missed his chance, so yah boo sucks. Suttles, on the other hand, lived to fight another day.

Having played through the first three or four games of Chess on the Edge it was evident that Podolski and I shared with the authors the same basic understanding of the game, viz. that chess is a lottery which you're sometimes able to control. But although philosophical lessons on the nature of chess abound (as well as numerous divergences into military history; Bruce Harper was responsible for the absurdly complicated board game A World At War) there is no pedagogical tone to the book. One game that might have been included in the first volume is Benko - Suttles, 1964. There Suttles fights for a win with black until the very end when a draw was quite achieveable, and then ultimately implodes. However, IM Lawrence Day felt it so representative of the wonders of Suttles' play that he chose it as an illustrative example in Keene's Learn from the Grandmasters. Black confused the position so much - and from such an early stage - that it was only really clear that he was losing after he had resigned.

I was suddenly reminded of an old issue of Roy of the Rovers Monthly from 1994. Melchester Rovers have just signed an eccentric Brazilian player named Malandro, a natural talent capable of tearing whole teams apart but an unpredictable one all the same, prone to ignoring his team mates. One training session he is running rings around his fellow Melchester players, ignoring the shouts of Roy (‘Rocky wants!’) and assistant manager Duncan McKay (‘Release the ball! Release the chuffin’ ball!’). In the end he is brought down and the opposition score at the other end. ‘What d’ya think y’doin’, wee man?’ McKay fumes. ‘Y’dragged so many defenders towards ya, half yer team could have scored.’ Malandro’s reply is simple enough: ‘But it would have been such a beautiful goal.’ Had he got past that last man and slotted the ball home, nobody would have minded about Malandro’s selfish dribbling. All that would be remembered is his wonder goal. Likewise, had Suttles’ last-ditch gambling paid off against Benko, we would remember the fact that black won and white lost. Ballsy impulses to win at all costs are to be applauded, be they at the chessboard or in the pages of Roy of the Rovers.
I had not quite realised how appropriate the Malandro/Suttles comparisons were going to be until I dug out the relevant magazine earlier this week. After his bollocking the Brazilian opens up to first-team coach Merv Wallace in broken English about his upbringing in the favelas of Rio, ‘the biggest slum in the world’. It was there that he became a ‘natural at the Capoeira, “the dance of the knives”. Do the same thing over and over, your opponent will know what to expect, and you will be cut. Always you must surprise with new move, not following the rules and never to trust your opponent.’ We have here not just a fine description of Suttles’ modus operandi but the most pertinent words of advice that could ever be given to a chess player. I don't think it matters in the slightest that these words were spoken by a fictional Brazilian footballer.

Chess on the Edge is not overly concerned with biography, preferring instead to make Suttles' games the main selling point. This being the case, it is perhaps fair to review the book in the same manner. Below are five positions, all to be found in the first volume. These are not 'tests' in the slightest; some contain tactics, some involve deep strategy and some are just plain weird, but their unifying theme is their psychological impact. The move played by Suttles in each case can hardly have been expected, and if you successfully intuit at least two out of five 'solutions' then Chess on the Edge may well be you. I shall post Suttles' actual continuations in the comments box within a day or two.

a) Suttles - Letic, 1981. 31.?
b) Schulman - Suttles, 1965. 6...?
c) Evans - Suttles, 1972. 14...?

d) Filipowicz - Suttles, 1964. 15...?

e) Suttles - Schmid, 1975. 1.?

The only thing about which I'm mildly concerned is that with the publication of these splendid volumes we may seem some sort of Suttlesian prole drift. The heroes of chess amateurs such as myself tend to be the genuinely deserving: world champions, for example. But Suttles has been my little secret, and for several years now I have been muddling through the congress circuit by ripping Dunc off wholesale: ...Nh6 is usually more than enough to throw somebody in the ECF 110-140 bracket and gain a few minutes on the clock. Selfish bastard that I am, I almost wish that Chess on the Edge had never been written. As it is, however, they are all now freely available down at Speedy Malc's in Euston Road. Not only that but the first volume, at least, stands up as the most charming chess book ever published, and so I fear it's rather my duty as a reviewer to insist you all pick up a copy. Don't listen to a word of it though, they're talking nonsense.


Tom Chivers said...

Morgan Daniels, welcome to the blog!!

As for the moves, mm.

a) no idea. 31.e6 looks sort of normal, so it can't be that.
b) I reckon 6...d5, although 6...Qd7 was my other guess.
c) 14...b3 looks normal... too normal.
d) 15...Ne3 and pray, or maybe offer a draw.
e) I reckon this is a trick qusetion, and for once in his life Suttles opened 1.e4 or 1.d4!

Anonymous said...

I knew this would be you!


ejh said...

I was going to say that I remember when Duncan McKay signed in the first place, but having looked it up I have a feeling I might be confusing him with Blackie Gray. Which of them was a left-back who wore a headband?

Morgan Daniels said...

ejh - McKay was the left back with the headband; Blackie Gray was a midfielder/striker whom I believe was ultimately appointed player manager at some point.

tom - I'm not going to comment on a) to d) yet but I'll give you this much: e) isn't a trick. There was nothing unusual about Suttles playing 1.e4, either; before moving on to 1.g3 he played 1.e4 hundreds of times, because it allowed for the same basic principle that he applied as black in the Rat, viz. mega-overprotection of the e-pawn. He referred to the Closed Sicilian (as white) as 'one of my favourite openings'.

Nick - Wotcha. Do you check in here often, then?

Anonymous said...

a) Obvious wacky moves don't seem to work so Rd8

b) ...d5 yes!

c)...Nxg4 splat! ...Bxg4 similar.

d) Ne3 Nf2 similar. Better than resigning.

e) a4 and S.Reuben steps in and defaults White for bringing the game into disrepute!

ejh said...

My father used to have a copy of the tournament book from Palma 1970, probably published by The Chess Player. I am sure at least one opening was given the title Suttliana.

Tom Chivers said...

Anonymous must be right about c)... As for e) I guess I'll change my vote to 1.Nh3 then.

ejh said...

Is 14...Qxd2+ playable in (d)? Did he play it even if it isn't?

Morgan Daniels said...

Well you're all on the money with b): 6...d5 was indeed played. A mad move presumably just for kicks.

d) 15...Ne3 is right too. From the book: 'The notes in Chess Chat give this a "?!", but since Black's alternative is to resign, that hardly seems fair! Perhaps the whole variation is dubious for Black, but moves like 15...Ne3!! don't come along every day.'

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see a photo. I'd always imagined him to be a hippy type, like his friend Lawrence Day.

Morgan Daniels said...

All hippies are Canadian chess players, not all Canadian chess players are hippies.

Lawrence Day is sound as could be.

Jonathan B said...

Roy of the Rovers Monthly? Used to be weekly when I first started buying it. It cost 7p.

Welcome to the blog Morgan.

Anonymous said...

Three minutes into extra time! Inside to Lofty Peak! Gooooooooooooooal!


Jonathan B said...

Merv Wallace used to be the right-winger, Melchester Rovers always playing 4-2-4. Perhaps something to do with the fashion of the time, perhaps something to do with the fact that they only seemed to have 12 players in the club.

Jonathan B said...

b) ... f6
c) ... Kf8
d) ... Qa6

Morgan Daniels said...

Tom - Suttles did play 1.d4 once, against Gligoric in 1972 ( As Lawrence Day writes in the introduction to Chess on the Edge:

'Suttles prepared while staying at Vlad Dobrich's "chess commune" in Toronto where producing the Chess Canada magazine sufficed to pay the mortgage. As "resident analyst", Duncan asked if I'd spotted any way his chess could be improved. I pointed out a few positions where he had declined opportunities to advance d3-d4 even though, as he admitted, it seemed to be the best move. If that small aversion to advancing his d-pawn was obstructing his progress, he determined to blow it away which he did, in typically radical fashion, by opening 1.d4 against Gligoric in the first round in Texas. He lost that game, but the new, well-rounded Duncan Suttles was even scarier than before and he went on to score the required Grandmaster-level performance at San Antonio.'

So, the answer to e) is not 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.d3, 1.a4 or 1.Nh3. In fact Duncan came up with the more accurate 1.a3, which would have been fine were it not for the fact that he followed it up with the most un-Suttlesy 1...d5 2.Nf3?. Then came 2...g6 3.b4 Bg7 4.Ra2...

Tom Chivers said...

Very interesting and useful to know, thanks Morgan.

Btw, related to the Lukas Podolski quote, this is worth reading and does a nice job on the traditional commentator's wisdom that "snooker is chess with balls."

Tom Chivers said...

Well you're all on the money with b): 6...d5 was indeed played. A mad move presumably just for kicks.

There's actually a comparable variation in the Grunfeld which goes something like 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Bg7, with the idea that after 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.Nxd5, just 6...Bg7 and pressure on the d-pawn from will follow once the knight is kicked, or 6.cxd5 c6 with compensation (I think).

I think in the Suttles position the case is actually even clearer. After 6...d5 7.Nxd5 e6 black looks ok because d4 will fall, but after 6...d5 7.exd5 Nf5! he looks fine too. This leaves 7.e5 and a relatively normal-looking position results where, ok, black has lost a tempo, but his position is not too uncomfortable - he can castle, play f6, that kind of thing. I'd be interested to know what actually did happen.

Anonymous said...

This is a great website!

I won't give away the answers to the quiz.

The website for the Suttles books is

and invite people to post there as well.

I thought the review was great, by the way, and it's always good to see there are other players who think there's more to chess than the Slav Defence...

(Of course, I very much like seirawan-chess, with the extra two pieces, but I think of Suttles' games as a transition between normal chess and s-chess...)

Bruce Harper

ejh said...

Yeah, there's the Semi-Slav as well.

Har har har har har....

Incidentally, what did Suttles do for breakfast? The one period in my life when I consistently got up around midday - my first year as a student, would you believe - I breakfasted on pie and beer....