Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Arkell Interview II

We're continuing with Arkell Interview week today. If you haven't already seen it you might want to take a peek at Part I before reading on. As before, this will be me, and this is GM Keith Arkell.

A GM at work
photograph from

Last time Keith talked about his chess career over the last twenty years. I wanted to broaden the discussion a little to include off the board issues as I recalled a comment or two from Keith on the EC Forum a while back that suggested that he felt he didn’t get a fair crack of the whip from chess journalists. I began our discussion about Keith's treatment in the chess press by speculating about the nature of journalism in general and whether the process of reporting must inevitably distort the subject covered. My musings led to this response:-

Keith Arkell:
Put snooker or darts on TV and even the uninitiated will soon pick up what is going on. With chess this isn't the case. The esoteric nature of the game precludes the novice spectator from having a clue what is going on until he or she has put in many months, if not years of application.

A chess columnist, and a chess magazine editor to a somewhat lesser extent, has the task of breaking down that barrier. It is therefore natural for him to publish violent and spectacular games, which are easy to explain. Of course these are not usually the best games, but the best games often have their own esoteric nature, hidden even from the majority of experienced players.

I don’t think Keith is complaining here, just outlining the realities of chess journalism from his point of view. Evidently he can empathise with anybody who’d ever tried to explain “… the esoteric nature of chess to the layman, and the esoteric nature of certain strategic methods even to experienced players” as he puts it.

I made an entirely tongue in cheek posting on the English Chess Forum, the piece later also appearing in Chandler's Corner. I suggested that I just wait around doing nothing, and then when my opponent gets jittery, because he “wrongly” believes that I am gaining imperceptible advantages, he lashes out somewhere; and only then comes the “sting”, and I quash his premature foray.

I am simply shocked by how many people have taken this at least semi-seriously! It makes me realise that often I can be sitting there pleased with how my position is progressing, feeling like I am slowly creating something palpable, and yet meanwhile lots of players, and even some strong ones, just think I'm doing nothing except waiting for a mistake or time-trouble!

This seems like the perfect moment to talk about Keith’s style of play. Not long ago we featured two of his wins against David Eggleston from recent British Championships (2008, 2009). Is it the difficulty that many players have understanding the nuances of those kind of games (myself included – I like them but I don’t claim a full grasp of what’s going on) that generates the criticism of his approach?

Up until the turn of the century I played regularly in weekend tournaments, and paid little attention to my ELO rating. Because of my preference for keeping a tight reign on my games, and grinding out riskless wins, I more or less brought on myself the label “boring, mediocre, weekend tournament playing GM”.

As a junior I used to play through hundreds of games. The games I particularly enjoyed were the long exacting wins by players such as Ulf Andersson and Karpov. This for me was the highest form of art in chess, and requiring great precision, as I found out to my cost this last August when my own grinding came so unstuck due to the lack of attention to details brought on by my health related poor quality sleep which I referred to earlier.

As I slowly set about developing this grinding style in my own games, it honestly never occurred to me - not for many years - that the majority of players don't share my enthusiasm, and even find it boring.

The “boring weekend tournament player” label really did stick, and still does to some extent. In January this year one of the 8(!) national team selectors said to me “you need to start winning international tournaments if you want to be selected to represent England”. I didn't bother replying that I had just won 5 internationals in 5 months (English Championship, Paignton, Blackstone, Wellington College and the Empire State International Open); and another of the 8(!) wrote on, “In the British Championships Keith Arkell caused quite a surprise by finishing equal first”. Yes, “quite a surprise” if you don't get my style of play, didn't notice that it was only my 4th best performance of the year, and were oblivious of the fact that I nearly won the previous time that I played.

Keith busy surprising the national team selectors
photo from

These last remarks from Keith reminded me of a comment in Chess for Tigers where Simon Webb talks of feeling that the selectors of junior teams underestimated him because of the apparent simplicity of his play. CfT was originally published in 1978 – plus ca change!

Getting back to the press, Keith has observed in the past that his victories tend to receive considerably less attention than his defeats. I asked him if he felt that this was the result of the way he plays the game. He thought not, rather it was more a question of the perception of his style

It has been suggested that the reason why it is mostly my losses which get published is because my losses are more dramatic (and therefore “more publishable”) than my wins. Sounds convincing until we look at the evidence:

I lost a poor game against Ivanchuk and it got published in the Telegraph. One year later I won a similar length, but far higher quality game against Gawain from the same opening. This was by far the most important game of the 2008 British Championship, and yet I defy anyone to show me a single newspaper column which published this game.

Better late than never …
Arkell downs The Corporal

And let’s take my endgames. Pretty much ignored until I defend a bishop v knight position poorly against French superstar Vachier-Lagrave in the EU Championships at Liverpool in 2008. Admittedly there was an interesting study-like draw, which I failed to find due to time pressure, but given that the endgame is my speciality, where is the balance?

And finally, what happens when I do play so called brilliant sacrificial games? Well, I left pieces en prise here there and everywhere against Stewart Haslinger in the 2005 4NCL. Perhaps when Andrew Greet did his report with games for CHESS magazine he was oblivious of this game? Perhaps, with so many games to sift through, this one somehow slipped the net? Think again, because Andrew was sat at the next board to me! On the other hand, he definitely wasn't sitting next to me in the last round of the 2009 British Championship, when I was feeling completely out of sorts and lost a lousy game against Peter Constantinou in which I played like a 150. No, sorry, that's insulting 150s - I played far worse than that. But anyway you've guessed it- he certainly made sure to annotate that one for the magazine.

Keith Arkell doesn't sacrfice pieces,
and if he does you won't hear about it

But before you feel too sorry for me, I did actually once have my photo on the front page of CHESS magazine. Well ok I'm exaggerating slightly, but the sleeve of my jumper made it there in any case. It was about 1987 and the main photo was of my opponent, Judit Polgar.

I don't think that there is any personal reason for my bad chess press. I have perfectly good relations with most chess journalists, and for the most part they are not hostile people. I think it is simply due to this tag I carry around with me, and which they fail to see beyond.

I won't bore you with 20 years of examples, but just sticking with the British Championship of 2008, we had John Henderson writing "In one of the most open (and weakest of the modern era) British Championship at St. George's Hall in Liverpool, the title went to the wire and the inevitability of a tie for first place”. Err no John not “one of the weakest” - not with 12 GMs playing! Jonathan Speelman wrote “Arkell somewhat unexpectedly beat the top seed Gawain Jones”. Again no! Gawain and myself were closely enough matched that none of the 3 possible results would have been unexpected.

Finally, Barden managed to avoid mentioning my name at all in his Guardian updates on the Championship, and Pein managed likewise in his CHESS magazine editorial on the event, and compounded this by writing that it “is a little more representative than last year with David Howell heading the field”, and later wrote that the chess in 2009 was higher quality. No Malcolm! It was more tactical yes, but not higher quality; and I'm not sure that losing Haslinger, B.Lalic, Flear, Davies and N.Pert in exchange for Howell, Summerscale and Wells really makes the event more representative, despite the rating of Howell.

This sparked another memory – Ritson Morry’s BCM report of the 1971 British Championship in Blackpool that managed to avoid mentioning that Ray Keene had won! I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Raymondo, with the White pieces at least, had a style somewhat similar to Arkell and Webb. Judging from these recent comments it seems that his play also sometimes fails to receive the appreciation it might deserve.

Choosing something else at random, I'm not sure why Barden felt the need to describe my 2002 Grand Prix victory as lucky in the Guardian, and follow this up with this description of my Hastings Premier debut, in a field full of super GMs “Contrasting styles took the honours at Hastings, where Denmark's Peter Nielsen won with 6/9 and only two draws, half a point ahead of Keith Arkell who had only two decisive results. [Another similarity? Ray Keene often went through tournaments with a large number of draws and very few or no losses - JMGB] Arkell, making his Premier debut at age 42, rode his luck with the pragmatic approach which has served him well on the grand prix weekend circuit”. Rode my luck! Where? Which games? In truth I had bad luck not good luck, in that I carelessly agreed to a draw in a totally winning position against Harikrishna in response to his illegal draw offer!

Finishing on a concrete example, perhaps the most (in)famous example of Keith taking a kicking in the press was after the last round at the British Championship in Scarborough 2001. He’d agreed a draw with Black against Gallagher who therefore won the title. Had Keith gone on to win he would, as it turned out, have become champion himself.

British Championship 2001

1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nd2 Be7, 4 Nf3 Nf6, 5 Bd3 1/2-1/2

At the time Nigel Short had plenty to say about it. After nearly a decade to reflect on what happened I wondered if Keith had any regrets or would he do the same again?

This question is too difficult for a straightforward answer. I mean if you completely duplicated the circumstances, but gave me hindsight then I would have the extra information that all of the other games were drawn.

There were essentially two factors which lead me to accept Joe's draw offer: Firstly my prize would cover my mother's and my expenses for two weeks (there were no fees that year, and I wasn't exactly rolling in it); but really far more relevant was the fact that I was feeling very uneasy at the board. Between the ages of about 17 and 40 I suffered from intermittent panic attacks (they seemed to disappear after that thank goodness).

Journalists were too busy making up stories that my mother had travelled from Worcester especially to watch my last round game to bother asking me for the true facts. Apart from BCM that is. In Feb 2002 they interviewed me, and if you look on page 99 I made the prophetic comment “Perhaps next year I'll arrive at the 11th round with a 6th White rather than a 6th Black. Well 'next year' became 2008, because I didn't play during the intervening years. I played in 2008 with the attitude of playing out every game. This worked to my advantage when draws were being agreed all around me in the last round.

Keith snapped at the moment he hears a game he's actually won is to appear in the press
photo from alexis harakis

Thanks once again to Keith for the chat.

Next time (Friday 27th):
Keith Arkell on the endgame.


Anonymous said...

Journalists are not worth worrying about (even Chess ones) especially when they put in print comments they would not say to your face, giving you the chance to rubbish them.

Angie baby

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you're reading this Keith, but don't worry it's not just you! It applies lower down too.

To give one example of many at the South Herts Open 2001 I scored 4/5 for a c230 performance, clear second, half a point behind Bogdan Lalic, including positionally outplaying Andrew Webster with the Black pieces, but losing horribly to Bogdan after an opening error.

Malc's report was pretty much as follows.

'Bogdan Lalic swept aside the opposition at the South Herts Congress. Here is an example of his crushing play.

Paul Georghiou 0-1 Bogdan Lalic
1 e4 etc'

No mention of my score, position, performance, win v Webster (a more interesting game than my game v Lalic), or that my game v Bogdan turned out to decide the victor of the tournament. Just 'here's Bogdan crushing a patzer'.

Incidentally I was unaware of the article till I went to a tournament the following week, and people were sniggering at me. The article had been pinned up on the wall right next to the Open pairings.

Also let's not forget my only appearance in the 4NCL. I scored 5.5/6 over the first three weekends, getting one a half games published by Richard Palliser in Chess. Notwithstanding this in my absence on weekend four, in a Saturday evening bar discussion I was voted as the worst player of all time - by my own teammmates. Funnily enough I've yet to return.

I could go on...

Paul Georghiou

Tom Chivers said...

All of which begs the question, why is Michael Adams the exception to the rule?

Jack Rudd said...

I fear I may have added to Keith's problems in this area by publishing one of his losses in my latest 4NCL report.

Of course, given the circumstances, it's understandable why I did so...

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Probably Mr. Arkell's mistake was in leaving the pulpit to the journalists all these years. Books, articles, videos -- wasn't the GM title made for splashing on the byline?

"My Best Short Wins" by GM Keith Arkell.
"Haslinger Bites the Dust", etc.

If the press is against you, make your own press.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Is the link in Arkell downs The Corporal correct?

Looking forward to the next in the series.

Jonathan B said...

Link is correct O CP. The chappie in the picture is Corporal Jones from an old British sit-com Dad's Army.

It amuses nobody but myself I'm sure but I like to refer to Gawain Jones as 'The Corporal'.

A rather British-centric reference I'm afraid (and probably for the over 40s too).

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Actually I barely glanced at the picture! Reading "Arkell downs The Corporal", I clicked on the link expecting to find the game. After browsing through the recent archives I can now guess that the game is actually on the main page just below that heading. But what I see instead is a blank white spot.

I couldn't play through the games before, either. (Last time I visited, circa July, you were looking for a new way to embed games.) But at least I could see a visual that there *was* a game. I also appreciated the links to where I could get the pgn. (But in the case of Arkell-Jones I don't even know which game to look for. Or is it Jones-Arkell?)

I don't suppose you could place some kind of alt text like: "This is where the game would be, except you're too knuckle-headed to install the plug-in."? Using Firefox on Ubuntu, with all plug-ins disabled except the "default" plug-in. Hey, don't laugh! As late as 2001 I was still browsing with Lynx.

Jonathan B said...

Oh i see.

yes, you're right the game is in the blank space (we use chessflash - like a lot of people and until now I thought it was working well). I didn't realise the games didn't show up for some people. We'll deffo have to have a look at what we can do about this.

Thanks for pointing it out.


keith said...

Hi all,
thanks for your interest!

Paul,I can understand how you felt when you read the S.Herts report.It wouldn't have been personal against you though,of course.Just a quickly rushed off piece with all the focus on the winner.
Re your 4NCL anecdote,surely it was tongue in cheek was it not? Insensitive it certainly was!

Jack,no problem at all with you publishing our 4NCL game.It was very interesting.I would have liked to have seen your notes,but I can't get my computer to open the link :o(


Dan Scoones said...

Keith, it's time to start your own blog! I would read it for sure...