Friday, January 07, 2011

(Not) Becoming a Grandmaster: The Bill Hartston Story

You have to feel a bit sorry for Romain Edouard. Half a point clear going in to the last round at this year's Hastings, the French GM knew that a win would see him take first place and the winner's cheque of £2,000 while a draw would mean a share of first at worst (and £1,600 in prize money as it turned out). Unfortunately, though, he got absolutely spanked and ended up equal third with 'just' £750 in his pocket. That's not bad for a week or so's work, I suppose, but I wonder whether he sees it as money lost rather than money won.

Justin reminds me, by the way, that Edouard's misfortunes have appeared on the blog before, so we best move on to a regular visitor to our comments box, Richard Bates. Richard started Hastings very strongly - 4/5 including a win over a 2500+ GM - and had the chance of a GM norm until he lost in the eighth round. As it happens, he then ended the tournament with a win over Ryan Rhys-Griffiths, thereby ending the latter's hopes of an IM norm.

It seems congratulations for playing well and commiserations for ending just shy of the target are due to all three. Close but no cigar, as they say. Still, if the story of what happened to Bill Hartston at Hastings in the early seventies is to be believed, it could have been much much worse ....


It was at the Hastings Tournament of 1972/73 that it happened, or so legend has it anyway. Either a gruesome accident or a needlessly self-inflicted wound depending on your point of view, but undeniably the sort of thing that could wreck a career and come to define a man forever more. It was nothing less than a chessboard Greek Tragedy.

Bill Hartston once turned down a draw that would have given him the Grandmaster title. That's the story. That’s his story. For years I just accepted it; didn’t give it any further thought beyond a cursory, “what an eejit”. Over time, though, I began to have my doubts. Could it really be true?

The more I thought about it, the more my suspicions grew. The more I sought details, the less certain I became about what had actually happened. Fortunately, Hartston himself agreed to meet with me to satisfy my curiosity. As it turned out, however, our chat didn’t just uncover the truth about that game from Hastings so long ago, it also took in the nature of personal achievement and Bill's place in the generation that transformed British chess and took the game from a hobbyists’ pursuit to the very brink of the World Championship title.

The real Bill Hartston story, I discovered, is very different to the received wisdom. That's for later, though. Let’s start at the beginning with the fairytale.



Hart breaker?


Hastings: the early 1970s; the second-to-last round. Bill Hartston sits down to play Wolfgang Uhlmann needing just a solitary half-point to score a GM norm.

In a few short hours Uhlmann will propose a draw and, in effect, the Grandmaster title with it, but, impossibly, both will slip from Hartston’s grasp. He will think he is winning so will spurn the East German's offer only to find that his advantage is just a mirage. He will go on to lose not just the Uhlmann game but the next day’s against Larsen too. All this will come to pass and Hartston's dreams of the title will drift away on the Hastings tide.


You’ll find this story all over the place [e.g. here, here and here], albeit with variations according to who exactly you happen to be listening to. Writing for TWIC back in 2001, for example, John Henderson includes the details that Hartston miscalculated a mating-attack and had been distracted by the prospect of pocketing Jim Slater’s £5,000 reward for the first British chess player to become a GM.

The essence of the story, though, is always the same: Bill Hartston once turned down a draw that would have made him a Grandmaster. It’s a grisly tale, and one that is all the more piquant knowing that Hartston never quite made the grade and was still an IM when he retired from active play some twenty years after that fateful day.






It’s easy to see why this story became so firmly embedded in chess lore. Hartston is not so much Asamoah Gyan missing the last minute penalty that would have seen Ghana through to the World Cup semi-finals as he is Icarus choosing to fly close to the sun. This is not, after all, a fable about a man who is separated from his just desserts by the actions of those with no integrity: it’s the story of a man brought down by hubris.

It’s pure self-destruction, then, and yet, despite (or even because of?) the fact that he’s the author of his own woes, it’s impossible not to empathise with the protagonist in this morality play. "That’s it. I’m giving up." Is there anyone amongst us who hasn’t uttered these words at least once? Anyone who hasn’t vowed that their latest act chessboard self-harm will be the last? Multiply that feeling by infinity. Does it even begin to approach what it feels like to blow the Grandmaster title?

It’s not hard to imagine what such an experience might do to a man; hard not to picture Hartston as some washed-up Marlon Brando wandering around decades later telling anybody who’ll still listen that he could have been a contender. That, in any event, is exactly what I’d be doing if it had happened to me.


Could have been somebody?


A great story, then, and yet one that I came to doubt. It slowly dawned on me that for all sorts of reasons it just didn’t ring true.

For a start, there’s the game with Uhlmann. After many years I suddenly realised that I was actually quite familiar with it: It’s in Winning with the French Defence (Uhlmann’s book published by Batsford in 1995). There’s no immediately obvious point at which White might plausibly have considered himself to be winning which is probably why it had never occurred to me that this was the Hartston game.







Secondly, there’s the man himself. Hartston became British Champion in 1973, but only after winning a play-off against Mike Basman. He'd agreed a short draw in the last round which had allowed the Basmaniac to catch him up by winning his own final game. Cautiously agreeing a draw to guarantee a play-off place at worst rather than going all-out to secure the title outright? That's hardly consistent with playing on when offered the GM title on a plate and yet that's exactly what's supposed to have happened just months after Hastings.

Finally, the Hartston story conflicts with the usual portrayal of the race to become Britain’s first Grandmaster. You invariably read about the struggle between Tony Miles and Ray Keene, the former pipping the latter at the post in 1976. If Hartston could and/or should have won the title three years earlier, why is he never mentioned as one of those who had a serious chance of being our first GM?

Many questions, then, but my attempt to find some answers proved fruitless. I found many references to the story, including one in an article I’d written myself, and yet a definitive account remained stubbornly elusive.

Clearly, if I wanted the truth, I was going to have to go to the horse's mouth. When I finally got to talk to Hartston, it didn’t take very long to find out what had really happened…



Jonathan Bryant:
It’s said that you turned down a draw that would have made you a Grandmaster.


Bill Hartston:
That’s absolute rubbish.

JB:
The Uhlmann game from Hastings.


BH:
Yeah.

JB:
You didn’t turn down a draw?


BH:
No. No. No.

JB:
He didn’t even offer you a draw then?


BH:
No. (emphatic)

It would have been the first norm. Actually at the time of the game I was leading the tournament and I wasn’t interested in … (pauses to think) … I’ve never pursued titles.

Just deciding how to play against Uhlmann’s French Defence, well, there were some lines that he played that I really ought to have been able to draw quite easily as White, and probably he with Black wouldn’t have been too averse to something quite simple, but I was trying to win the game.

There was no question of turning down a draw. None was ever offered. I missed a draw against Larsen in the last round but that’s …. (laughing)

JB:
So, you knew that you were a half point away from the norm?


BH:
Yes.

JB:
And that it would have been the first one?


BH:
Oh yes.

JB:
But you decided that you were going to try to win the tournament?


BH:
Well yeah … and possibly I felt that if I played for a draw I’d have deserved to lose.

JB:
Like Gurevich – Short from the 1990 Manila Interzonal.


BH:
Oh yes.



- So that’s that. The story is just a myth after all. It seems, though, that had Hartston got that extra half-point he would have become a Grandmaster. Not at Hastings but after he’d collected a further two norms much later in his career.



BH:
I got the IM title on the same day [in 1972 – JMGB] that I got my MA from Cambridge so I became two masters on one day. That was really good.

I don’t remember which were the norms that got it. There was a funny thing: after struggling to make the norms for years and years, once I got the title every tournament I played in for about the next two years I made the IM norm easily.

JB:
And you got GM norms subsequently? I’ve seen it said that you missed the GM title by the narrowest possible margin but I think that might derive from the Hastings story.


BH:
Who knows? I made a norm in one Olympiad, but I don’t think those ones should count (laughs). I think I made another norm somewhere. I won a tournament in Sarajevo which I think would have counted because I won the tournament but I was actually half a point short.

JB:
I think under the current regulations that you would have been given the title even without a draw with Uhlmann or Larsen because these days you can get a norm in the middle of tournaments as well as at the end.


BH:
Is that right? I don’t know.

JB:
It doesn’t sound like not getting the title bothers you any.


BH:
No, no (laughs). It never did.

I never wanted to be a weak grandmaster. Ambitions tend to be counter productive. If you’re going to try to reach a particular level, I’ve always felt that when you get to that level you ought to see the next level as attainable. I think that this is one of the reasons that the British were so crap at chess for so long. Once you’d become the British Champion there was nowhere to go. There was such a big leap between British Champion and good international player that people were just stuck at the level.

JB:
By ‘crap for a long time’ you’re thinking of which era? The '60s?


BH:
Up to and including mine. (Laughs)

JB:
There does seem to have been quite a change in the late '60s with yourself, Ray Keene, Andrew Whiteley and Mike Basman coming through.


BH:
I think we were the intermediate generation. There was the Penrose-Golombek-Alexander era which had no way of competing with the top Eastern Europeans and just got completely overtaken by them in the '50s and '60s. Then Keene and I, and Basman maybe, we introduced a sort of professionalism without being professional: professionalism in terms of attitude to the game. I think that sort of set the road to the next generation of Miles and Short, Stean maybe, just to completely overtake us.

JB:
You didn’t consider yourself a chess professional at the time?


BH:
I never considered myself a chess professional, no. I never earned enough money from chess to consider myself a chess professional.

JB:
Not getting the grandmaster title didn’t lead you to give up active play then?


BH:
Oh no, no no. No, in a way I think it was probably good for me not to get the title because I would have probably played much more and not moved on to other things.

JB:
And earned a lot less I would imagine.


BH:
Yes. (laughing)



- As we came to the end of our chat I wondered whether I would have wanted to have had my cake as well as eaten it: to have had a successful post-chess career and the GM title to look back on. I'd heard that a few years back Ray Keene organised a campaign to get Hartston the GM Emeritus title. I asked Bill about it, but, he seemed far from enthused.



BH:
I’d say ran a campaign is a bit strong. He may have written an article or two in The Times or Spectator saying that we [Hartston and Penrose – JMGB] deserved it, but he was just trying to curry favour rather than running a campaign. I once received a letter from I think Stewart Reuben asking if I would be interested in the BCF pursuing something with FIDE to try to get the title for me and I said 'Not remotely'. (laughs)

JB:
It feels slightly like a posthumous award without having to die first.


BH:
You know the famous line of Korchnoi to Gufeld when Gufeld became a Grandmaster and said, ‘Now we are colleagues’? Korchnoi replied, ‘No. Now you are a colleague of Damjanovic.’ If I’d have been given an honorary Grandmastership I’d have been a colleague of Golombek’s (laughs).








Interview Index

Bill Harston Speaks
Bill Hartston Speaks II: Chess on the Telly
Bill Hartston Speaks III: What Bill Did Next
Chess Tower





Bill Hartston photo from chess.co.uk


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bill comes across as a really nice bloke with a great attitude. I spoke to him once at a party and I got the same impression then.
Andrew

Jonathan B said...

Indeed Andrew. We met in a cafe and Bill insisted on paying for my tea.

Anonymous said...

Eduoard got £340 for 3rd equal, not £750. £750 would have been outright third. With hindsight the "pre-arranged" draw between him and Istratescu in round 8 was the worst of the three results they could have produced. An Edouard win would have guaranteed 1st place, and an Istratescu win would have reversed their scores, with Istratescu importantly have white in the last round. So they might as well have played a game.

I beat a "2500+ GM"... who was also the joint winner! ;)

I'm not sure quite why Hartson mightn't have thought he was winning the Uhlmann game, regardless of whether he was offered a draw or not.

Richard

Jonathan B said...

Thanks for the correction Richard. I read the table on the Hastings website and thought it was £750 each for each of them not shared between them.

That just makes it an even more costly duffing up he got in the last round then.


RE: Hartston - Uhlmann. So you think Hartston was winning at some stage? It's not clear to me but then I@d trust your judgement on that over mine.

What about your narrow miss of the GM norm, then? Are you left with the disappointment at an opportunity missed or are pleased with a good tournament result?

I had my own patser-level experience with this at Golders Green rapidplay yesterday. I was leading one of the minor events by half a point with one game to play.

After about half an hour I was dead level/possibly even slightly better but completely self-destructed.

On the tube home I was only thinking about the opportunity missed. Still am to a certain extent but a day on I'm starting also to see that I played a good tournament for 5 and a half of the six games.

Jonathan B said...

PS:
The pre-arranged draw in round 8 does rather erase some of the sympathy I had for a French friend.

Anonymous said...

I don't think needing 2/2 against 2480+ opposition and failing at the first hurdle really counts as "narrowly missing a GM norm". I once needed to beat Michael Adams with black for a GM norm and that was arguably a narrower miss, which puts it into perspective. I'm just pleased to have got my rating moving in the right direction again (as well as enjoying the feeling of temporarily becoming invincible with the white pieces!)

I've no opinion on whether Hartson was winning. Just that having briefly flicked through the game it looked like the sort of position where it was possible for the white player to think, if misguidedly, that he was doing well.

Personally I wouldn't concern yourself about the draw - Edouard and Istratrescu seem to be close friends and/or train together so a draw between them is hardly unexpected. The irony was just that the expected outcome probably wasn't in their interest!

Richard

Anonymous said...

It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that had i won in round 8 (and i didn't come remotely close) i wouldn't even have played an opponent against whom a norm was even possible.

Richard