Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Battle of Trafalgar

Thanks to Angus French for this and all other photographs/video clips in today's blog.
Click on the pictures for a closer view

From Martin Smith:-
Poor old Nelson had his back to it. A chess spectacular, surely the nearest thing yet to chess as a spectator sport: the huge six foot pieces, glinting in the fading sun, dragged mercilessly around the board; the glowering storm clouds answering the blood and thunder of the game; the commentary like a fairground prize fight; the tourist throng uncomprehending the chess but relishing the visual drama as the game lurched from full board to just three pieces left standing: sharp opening! sacrifice! combinations! discovered check! attack the Kings! passed pawns! promotion to Queen! spots of rain! passed pawn against a rook again! sixty five moves! mate!

Drama and farce when the f pawn made it to promotion and the bewildered but forgiving staff had to wheel the black queen back on to the board, only for it to be despatched forthwith; oh, and the final act looked a picture, too – after an hour and a half of hand to hand combat a minimal mate in a remote corner of the board.

It was one of those games where it’s a shame that someone won, and if my opponent ever reads this (Ian Henderson of Leeds University, a really nice chap) I’d like to say thanks for the game and for taking part in something that felt, to me anyway, as if (forgive the analogy) one was a pawn in a game of a higher deity who, a bit bored that Saturday afternoon, stooped to lay on a bit of entertainment for the earthly mortals. It was hardly a flawless game (to put it mildly) but it could have helped London’s tourist appeal no end.

Martin psyches himself up for the contest by staring out a lion

[JMGB hereafter]
I read T.C’s announcement of the giant chess set to be placed at the foot of Nelson’s column back in August but I must admit I didn’t really pay it much attention at the time. It was not until I rolled passed Trafalgar Square around midnight last Thursday and saw the board and pieces lit up, a truly spectacular sight, that the event caught my interest. When I received an email from the S&BC Blog’s Art Correspondent Martin Smith the following day saying that he’d been selected to play a game with the outsized pieces I immediately promised my support.

I was sure that Martin would win at a canter. In fact I was so confident that he would be paired against some no-hoper who barely knew how to move the pieces that on arrivial I immediately abandoned my self-appointed position as Chief Second and disappeared to the pub for a swift pint to fill the half hour before the game began. I got back a few minutes after kick-off to see White whipping out 7. f4 and 8. Bb5+ against a Benoni and my expectations of an easy ride immediately vanished.

Float like a butterfly ...

Martin was obviously up against an experienced opponent and was under pressure from the start. A knight soon disappeared with Martin only getting a pawn or two back in return, but then, even with our worm’s eye view of the board we could see that that pawn cover around White’s king had disappeared. Blunder or sacrifice? A bit of both perhaps but either way it was clear that Martin was in no mood to recapture the material when given the opportunity, spurning first an exchange and then a knight in a bid to keep his remaining pieces active.

He played with spirit but yet even the most biased of observers had to admit that the course of the battle was not going Martin’s way. White defended well and when the queens were forced off the prognosis looked as gloomy as the London skies. The hour allocated for the game was almost up and Angus suggested Martin's best chance might be to play for rain … but the heavens refused to open and our guy was on his own as the crowds looked on.

... sting like a bee

A flurry of exchanges left Martin a clear rook down. He had one haymaker left in his locker – connected passed pawns on the fifth – but it was impossible to see how he was going to be able to use it. He was on the ropes and taking a pounding. The end looked nigh.

And then came the miracle. White followed an extremely risky attempt to grab another pawn with a hasty king move leaving his chin dangerously exposed. The greatest don’t need second chances and within the blink of an eye Martin delivered the knock-out blow. His dangerous pawns rolled down the board to leave White sprawled on the canvas, the return of the extra rook to prevent Black making a new queen was just the desperation of a defeated man being counted out. The subsequent ending was a trivial win for Martin since his last pawn was going to queen while White’s could not. The mate was just a formality.

It’s was a great exhibition and a marvellous way to spend an hour and a half. It didn’t matter that the commentary was entirely redundant. It didn’t matter that the references to bishops on d4 and pins on f6 were entirely pointless - non-players having no idea what d4 meant and regular pawn pushers not really being able to see what was going on anyway. It didn’t matter that the PA system for the commentary was barely audible unless you were standing right next to the board nor that it was regularly drowned out by a street performer doing his stuff 50 yards away in the piazza in front of the National Gallery. It didn’t even matter that the commentary was delivered with all the passion of men auditioning for a job reading Radio 4’s shipping forecast.

What mattered was the spectacle. I overheard countless conversations from tourists and Londoners alike who’d wandered over to see what was going on. Do their companions play chess? Did they know the rules? Did they like the game? That is what people were talking about in Trafalgar Square last Saturday evening.

The numbers watching were a clear testament to the success of the event, but will it lead to more people actually playing chess, either casually or even joining a club or entering a tournament? Maybe, maybe not but it certainly can’t have done any harm ... and next time I shall make sure my own name goes into the hat for people wanting to play.

The steps leading down to the Square from the National Gallery were a popular place to sit

A special team of young folk were employed to move the pieces into position once the players announced their moves

The woman on the fourth plinth would have had a good view ...

... but she was busy taking a fitness class ...

... it's hard to do aerobics and take photos at the same time but Angus managed it.

Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. South or Southwest 5 to 7. Increasing gale 8 at times. Moderate or good, occasionally poor later.


Tom Chivers said...

Epic win Martin. Well played!

PS. See also!

Anonymous said...

Nice one Martin! I went yesterday and arrived when Cherniaev had a strong position against Williams. However Williams ignored the attack and just moved Nd7-b6-c4xb2 (white had castled queenside). My iphone chess app gave Williams +4 advantage and a few moves later this had gone down to about +2 where they agreed a draw. Interestingly the draw was agreed bang on the hour. They weren't getting paid to play for a certain amount of time were they?

Jonathan B said...

Don't know about being paid Andrew but the games were scheduled to last an hour with, Martin tells me, the players being given instructions to get things over with inside 60 minutes! His game was allowed to go on an extra 20 minutes or so though.

ejh said...

Didn't they have gigantic clocks then?

Ian H said...

No clocks, we just tried to move quickly (the actual moving of the pieces took up a fair proportion of the time ;-)). I'm sure an artistically-designed giant clock would have fitted in well though.

Something I think would have been good was a demo board or some other way for spectators to see the position more easily.

I really enjoyed the game, lots of fun. Nice blog btw!

Martin S. said...

Didn't they have gigantic clocks then?
- a couple of Big Bens, for tourist interest, perhaps.

Nice to hear from you Ian. Yeah, something was needed: demo board, or Big Screen with the moves, and intercuts of the combatants in action maybe!