Monday, January 31, 2011

When we were Kings XVIII

... we kept schtum.

In which, initial appearances to the contrary not withstanding, the author ponders the state of chess journalism.  Reference is made to current intrigues in the French chess world and the conclusion drawn that a similar incident in the 1970s may very well have been ignored by the British chess press. A mysterious feature of the 1978 Olympiad in Buenos Aires is examined (as is the even more curious absence of any mention of it in the British Chess Magazine’s coverage of the tournament) before suggestions are offered as to how the contemporary print media might save itself from an otherwise certain doom.

Karpov-Korchnoi, Game 32 Baguio 1978

... in the main lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Buenos Aires in November 1978 Korchnoi was to accuse me directly of having “sold” 6. … c5 to the Russians

Ray Keene, Massacre in Merano (Batsford, 1981)

It was all kicking-off across La Manche last week. There was naughtiness at the Olympiad in Elista apparently – or, then again, maybe there wasn't. La farce Olympienne Seani (our invisible Blogger) is calling it. For those of you who missed all the va va voom, here’s the story (so far)1:-

21st January: The French Chess Federation release a statement saying that it has begun “disciplinary action” against Sebastien Feller, Arnaud Hauchard and Cyril Marzolo relating to suspicions arising from the Khanty-Mansyik Olympiad last autumn.
24th January: Sebastian Feller denies the accusations and gets himself a lawyer, suggesting en passant that he’s been targeted for being pro-Kirsan.
24th January: The French Federation’s own Brief tells Europe Echecs that the action was “justified” given the evidence available and that Monsieur Feller’s denials were “pathetic”.
27th January: The other four members of the French Olympic team express themselves shocked at the allegations and supportive of the Federations decision to investigate.

Since the opposing camps are wheeling out the legals I think I'll say no more other than to observe that (a) there's obviously a whole lot more of the story still to emerge; and (b) until such time as Feller and the others have formally been found guilty it is only right to presume them to be innocent.

Anybody remember this?

Anyhoo, establishing what did or didn’t happen isn't as interesting to me right now as the fact that all this is being played out in public. Whether or not you consider this to be a 'Good Thing' (for the record, I feel that it is in principle, but I also find the timing/content of the French Federation’s announcements to be a little curious and perhaps even bodged to some extent), what’s undeniable is that this is different to how things used to be.

I wonder if an analogous incident thirty or forty years ago would even have been mentioned in the British chess press.  There was no internet back then, of course, so it's entirely possible that Average Joe Chesser wouldn't have got to hear about it at all. Well, not for a year or two anyway.

If most aspects of the game in the 1970s were pretty fabulous, one exception was that chess journalism was often pretty dreadful. Re-reading the old magazines in the light of what we know now, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that some 1970s chess journos, the British Chess Magazine folk in particular, would rather have eaten a chessboard than report anything even remotely controversial that had happened on or near one.

The Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1978 makes a good case study of how the BCM went about their business back in the day: there was a faithful reporting of the England team's results, but no mention of a team member publicly falling-out with the World Championship challenger (his very recent employer), no word about a rift that had emerged between him and an England team-mate and only the merest hint that while all this was going on this fellow was massively under-performing at the board.

No, anybody relying on of the BCM's coverage of the 1978 Olympiad alone would never had known about the torrid time that our out-of-form chesser - none other than Raymond Dennis Keene - had in Buenos Aires.  Re-examining the situation in the light of what subsequently became public knowledge, firstly events that preceded the Olympiad and then what happened in Buenos Aires itself, we will see just how far the BCM had to turn their necks to be able to look the other way.

Keene and fellow English Grandmaster Michael Stean had been working as Korchnoi's seconds during the World Championship match against Karpov that took place in The Philippines from July to October 1978.  Stean stayed with Viktor until the re-match in Merano in 1981 but Keene never worked with either of them ever again.  Korchnoi came to see Keene as a "traitor".  Since he had defected from the Soviet Union just a couple of years beforehand, and had plenty of mud thrown at him by his former comrades in consequence, the choice of that particular word is rather significant and makes clear the depths of his antipathy towards his former employee.

The estrangement resulted from Korchnoi's feeling that Keene had been working against his interests in Baguio. Specifically, he believed that Keene had told Karpov's team the opening that he intended to play in the crucial 32nd game at Baguio (played with the score at 5-5 in a match that would be go to the first man to score six wins) and the fact that while supposedly working for Korchnoi, Keene had also been busy writing a book2 despite having signed a contract that specifically prohibited him from engaging in such activity3.

The Baguio dispute didn't just mean the end of two working relationships for Keene, it also meant the end of his personal relationship with Mike Stean.  The two men had known each other since their junior days, had  studied at Cambridge together and had worked as Korchnoi's seconds during the most recent World Championship Candidates'  Championship cycle.  In an interview published - astonishingly - in The Sun Keene had explained that he and Stean always agreed draws when paired together in tournaments because "friendship is too important"4. After Baguio, however, the pair barely exchanged another word for decades5.

"There is no doubt that all the work Ray was doing in the Philippines detracted from his performance as a second. The terrible thing was that Viktor had always been betrayed and let down. That was why he defected. He needed people around him he could trust. I could not forgive what Ray did …."
Michael Stean: quote from Kingpin

Had the Baguio match been limited to traditional 24 games the Olympiad would very possibly have been quite a different experience for Keene and the English team.  With 24 games there'd have been no suspicions around 6 ... c5 and the match would have ended on the 19th of September.  Instead it didn't finish until the 17th of October, barely a week before the Olympiad began.

If the World Championship match had been the traditional length, then, there'd have been a cooling-off period and a chance for the tensions between Korchnoi, Keene and Stean to have eased a little. Instead the three men had to go directly6 from Baguio to Buenos Aires without a break, with none of their differences resolved and with emotions running high.

With the backdrop to the Olympiad established, we can now turn to Buenos Aires and the total (k)nightmare that Keene had there.  He would write later7 that he experienced an eight-month chess depression after it was over, such was the impact that it had on him.  Was it really that bad?  Indeed it was: an awful tournament and the complete opposite of Keene's previously glittering Olympiad career.

Keene made his Olympiad debut at Havana in 1966 when aged just 18, and quickly became a key figure in the England squad.  He played at least ten games at each event prior to 1978 and averaged nearly fifteen.  At Buenos Aires, though, he played just four times.

It wasn't just that Keene was mysteriously absent from the board; when he did play his results were, by any standard, appalling.  No wins, two defeats and two draws was his meagre haul - and that from a man who until that point had a superb record playing for England.  Consider his achievements up to that point:-

  • GM norms at the two previous Olympiads (Nice '74; Haifa '76);
  • an IM norm at Siegen '70;
  • playing through three separate events unbeaten (Lugano '68; Siegen '70; Haifa '76);
  • losing just five games out of 88 played;
  • a 'worst' Olympic score of +5 =13 -2 (registered playing top board at Skopje in 1972).

In football terms - not entirely inappropriate given that the Buenos Aires Olympiad took place just a few short months after the same city hosted football's World Cup Final  - Keene, once a Bobby Charlton, had turned into Emile Heskey; he'd gone from a man who scored at will to one who couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo.

It isn't easy to live up to an illustrious past, but Keene's record at Buenos Aires wasn't just rank compared to his previous Olympiads.  In 1978 he was the worst performing member of the squad and playing badly too.  In his game against Lein in the sixth round, for example, he simply left a rook en prise.  The move Keene found, 32 ... Qg4, is a very good candidate for the worst that he ever played.

32 ... Qg4, the blunder of a lifetime?
Lein - Keene, Buenos Aires Olympiad 1978

So Ray Keene had a shocker at the Buenos Aires Olympiad, but it cannot be said that he was the only one.  In writing the BCM report,  Kevin O'Connell turned in a performance that was equally abysmal.  No doubt  he wasn't acting alone - I'm sure BCM general policy had some influence on what eventually appeared in the magazine - but I tend to favour the view that a man should be held responsible for anything that appears in print under his name and O'Connell was also the BCM's Assistant Editor at the time so can't get away from his part in editorial decision making anyway.  With that caveat in place, then, let us open the February 1979 edition of the BCM (no. 2, vol. 99) and see how the BCM and Kevin O'Connell completely ignored the story at the centre of England's Olympiad fortunes that year.

"Both Stean and Keene were exhausted after the goings on in Baguio but the strain showed more on the latter ...."
BCM: February 1979, p. 55

That's your lot. Those twenty words are all you get from O'Connell on the incredible turn around in Ray Keene's Olympiad fortunes and the only hint that the aftermath of Baguio might have influenced England's result in Baguio.  The "goings on" are never mentioned again, let alone explained.

O'Connell gives the results of Keene's games - defeat against Lein (USA) in round 6; defeat against Kuligowski (Poland) in round 7; draw with Day (Canada) in round 9; draw with Jakobsen (Denmark) in round 11 - but makes no attempt to give his performance any context.  There is neither reference to Keene's previously excellent Olympiad record nor comparison to his team-mates' much better results this time.

O'Connell does not appear to notice that Keene turned up at the Olympiad two rounds after Stean and Korchnoi (or at least does not find it worthy of comment); he does not find it odd that tiredness causes Keene's poor play but does not prevent Stean from scoring +3 =7 -0 (on a higher board); he doesn't ask if a World Championship match would usually be expected to leave a second more worn down than the Challenger himself; does not ponder how Korchnoi managed to win seven games, draw four and lose none on his way to the Gold Medal for best performance on Board 1.

No, the BCM's coverage of the 1978 Olympiad doesn't ask any of these questions.  If curiosity killed the cat, O'Connell was clearly in no bodily danger.  The BCM's man on the spot just remained curled-up by the radiator, rousing himself only for the occasional lap at his saucer of milk.

Am I expecting too much?  Should O'Connell and the BCM have known about the conflict that Keene faced?   If so, should they have reported it?  "Almost certainly" and "most definitely" are my answers to those questions.

For a start, by Keene's own account (see the head of today's blog), Korchnoi publicly accused him of secretly working for Karpov - and did so in the lobby of the hotel that housed the majority of Olympiad's participants.  Did nobody witness this exchange?  Even if they didn't, it seems unlikely that Korchnoi would have kept his gob shut for the entire fortnight, or Stean for that matter.  Again, even if they had, did nobody notice that relations between Keene and Stean were suddenly frosty?  Was there no atmosphere in the English camp?

If anybody who was actually there should ever get to read this, I'd be very interested to hear some eyewitness accounts.  As somebody who wasn't present (I was 10 and sat at home enjoying the first appearances of Grange Hill on my TV screen) it seems to me rather more likely that Buenos Aires was full of talk about what had (supposedly) happened at Baguio than that the representatives of the world's chess-playing nations were walking around blissfully ignorant of such things.

However, let us be generous and assume that it wasn't as I imagine, or if it was that O'Connell wasn't there (i.e. that the Kevin O'Connell who was elected to FIDE's Commission for Publications and Information and the Commission for Assistance to Chess-Developing Countries on 10th November 1978 was either not the K.J. O'Connell who was writing for the BCM or was elected in his absence).  Let us further assume that circumstances conspired against anybody at the BCM from approaching anybody with first-hand knowledge of the Olympiad that they could pass on to their readership.  Even in that case, it seems incredible that neither O'Connell nor anybody else noticed Keene's uncharacteristically poor play.

What seems extremely possible is that O'Connell knew very well what was going on, but either he or the BCM thought it should not be reported.  Did he/they consider it a private matter and not the business of anybody except Keene, Stean and Korchnoi themselves?  An arrogant point of view, if so.

The fortunes of a national team were and are a legitimate interest to that country's chessers.  Anything that affects their performance in a major tournament, therefore, becomes a topic that can and should be covered.

Keene scored poorly and hardly played.  This clearly had an impact on the English team as a whole.  O'Connell, limits himself to merely outlining the 'facts' though: he tells of England scoring four wins, a draw against the Soviet Union, and then of Keene arriving and England immediately losing to the USA.  The next round he describes a "disappointing result", the following one "another disappointing day".  England's challenge falls away, but O'Connell has nothing more to say.  Well, almost nothing.

"The first of the new month brought a change in England's fortunes.  It is unclear whether this first loss should be blamed on the arrival of November or the arrival of Keene!"
K.J. O'Connell, BCM February 1979 p. 55

At this distance it's hard to tell what O'Connell meant by that remark. Just a joke perhaps, or maybe the merest hint that he allowed himself that the England camp was unsettled by what was going on around Keene? Who knows?

What is clear, however you look at this, is that O'Connell and the BCM failed - and failed in much the same way as Andy Coulson did regarding the News of the World's phone-hacking scandal. Either he knew - in which case he had a duty to tell. If he didn't know?  Well, let's just say a competent journalist/editor would have known.

Andy Coulson: didn't do anything wrong which is why he resigned from two jobs

Am I being unfair to O'Connell and the BCM?  I don't think that I am.  This very weekend the Guardian published a column8 - apparently written anonymously by a professional footballer - discussing the disdain that those within the game have for the TV pundits.  Why?  Because their stock-in-trade is "the trivialisation of what [footballers] do"; because their analysis is "lazy" and "takes you, the viewer, for a fool."  The report that O'Connell wrote, and that the BCM published, is no different and the reason why it, and that whole 'style' of 'journalism', should be condemned: it insults the reader.

It's not that I think that they should have convicted Keene (it seems quite plausible that at the time the BCM wouldn't have known for sure that Keene had broken his contract with Korchnoi - that was only established later with Stean's mother's letter to CHESS monthly - and even today I'm not aware of any specific evidence to support Korchnoi's suspcions around the 32nd game).  It's not that I think that they should have concluded that it was absolutely certain that Keene's poor form was the result of his acrimonious conflict with Korchnoi and Stean (association in time is not necessarily proof of a causal relationship, after all).  It's not that I think that they should have placed the entire blame for England's 12th-14th place finish on Keene's shoulders.

It's not that I expect any answers in particular, it's that I want the legitimate and obvious questions to be asked.  I want the whole story, not just the bit of it that some pitiful excuse for a journo thinks I should be given.  Let us not forget that by not asking them, the BCM managed to fail to address the issue of whether the World Championship match was won through subterfuge9 - which is something the average chess fan might just have a faint interest in I would have thought - although it did find room for half-a-page on the difficulties that some participants had in finding themselves a hotel room.

The future of chess journalism?

Contemporary print media publications are currently under huge pressure from the internet and this is true in the chess world just as much as it is everywhere else.  More so maybe. Curiously, as incomprehensible in its incompleteness as it was, the BCM's coverage of the 1978 Olympiad gives us a clue as to how the industry might save itself.

It seems that the BCM was in a bit of a pickle in 1979. Throughout O'Connell's article somebody, presumably the editor, had sprinkled a series of begging messages aimed at the readership:

"BOOK A SUB ... or two!" (p. 58 );
"We're still looking for that ONE elusive reader : each ..." (p. 61).

That takes quite a bit of front, don't you think?  Decide to publish an article that completely fails to tell your readers the full story and then use it as an opportunity to ask them them to pay you more to be able to receive the same privilege again at some point in the future!

As bad as it seems to have been for them back then, can you imagine how it would have been had the internet been around?  The BCM might not have had anything to say about the Keene-Stean-Korchnoi business, but it would have been all over the web - much as the French Olympiad intrigue is today.  It's hard to imagine that any publication would have been able to get away with not covering an incident/issue that was of obvious interest to a large proportion of their customers.  If they tried, at least the modern-day reader would know that the writers and editors were withholding information from them.

Although these are challenging times for some,  readers are fortunate to be living in a time when those who produce paper and ink based magazines have to up their game.  The old BCM way of going about things simply won't do any more.  'Facts' you can get on the internet for free, and much quicker than a printed magazine or newspaper could ever manage.  To survive, magazines will have to provide something that the internet doesn't. Results, the moves of games, even who is suing whom - all of these can be found on chess websites.  What magazines can offer is something often lacking on the internet - interpretation, meaning and, ultimately, explanation.

Quality magazines will survive, but I'm quite sure that whether it turns out that we dig its grave in the short-, medium- or long-term, old-school chess journalism is inevitably doomed.  Good riddance to it, it won't be missed. Chess is a great game.  Those who want to read about it deserve not to be treated as fools.

Many thanks to Seani for his assistance in the preparation of this post.

1. I am grateful to Sean Hewitt and other members of the EC Forum for bringing the details of the case to my attention.
2. Ray Keene, Karpov - Korchnoi 1978: The Inside Story of the Match, Batsford 1978
3. "The second will not write, compile, or help to write or compile any book during the course of the match" - Korchnoi: Chess is My Life, Edition Olms 2005.
4. "Chess Mates Bash Boris" The Sun, 21/12/1977
5. There appears to have been some form of thawing of relations more recently:  I spotted Stean in the audience at the 2009 Staunton Memorial tournament, for example, though whether or not he spoke to Keene while there I have no clue.  Korchnoi himself, of course, was playing in the event.
6. Well, as directly as international travel in the 1970s allowed anyway.  According to the BCM, Stean arrived in Argentina via Hong Kong, America and Guatemala.
7. Chandler & Keene: The English Chess Explosion from Miles to Short, Batsford 1981
8. With thanks to EJH for the tip.
9. About the FIDE Congress, 9th November 1978 sitting, O'Connell wrote, "This day also saw the first discussions on Korchnoi's protest about the World Championship match and the 32nd game in particular.  This question is now sub judice in the Dutch courts where Korchnoi is suing FIDE and Karpov".  That's as close as he got to the subject.


Tom Chivers said...

Can't believe you didn't quote this from the Guardian:

"Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside. I sometimes wonder whether it's more enjoyable playing lower down the leagues. After all, who wants to play chess?"


Jonathan B said...

I knew somebody would find it and add it in the comments T.C.!

Anonymous said...

Flippin' eck!

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of speculation in this piece. Why is it so unreasonable that Keene was simply dog tired after working two jobs for two months at the world title match? You might as well argue that Jon Mestel's brave and risky protests against the Argentinian junta during the 1978 Olympiad caused his own poor score and this should have been mentioned by BCM. Omitting speculation and rumours is not necessarily bad journalism.

Jonathan B said...

Thanks for your comment. I'll answer it fully later - probably tomorrow - but for now ...

"Omitting speculation and rumours is not necessarily bad journalism"

Indeed not, but your remark rather reminds me of an old episode of Yes Prime Minister in which Sir Humphrey complains that the press were reporting "idle, ill-informed speculation".

Hacker: "But it's accurate."

Sir Humphrey: "That's the worst kind."

Tom Chivers said...

Why wouldn't a chess magazine mention a 'brave and risky' protest by a chess player? Is the 78 Olympiad where Jan Hein Donner reported in the Dutch press how the organizers had been tortured?

Jonathan B said...

Mestel follow up here.

Jon H said...

I don't think Keene's poor performance would have anything to do with his anguish. The penguin has never shown any remorse for any of his actions. Instead he blithely continues with his merry exhibitions of avarice. That he still holds columns in respectable papers and magazines is perhaps the unlimate injustice of chess journalism.

Jonathan B said...

Some thoughts:-

I, like Tom, consider the fact that Mestel made a protest against the Junta to be reportable in and of itself. In fact I’m astonished that the BCM didn’t mention it.

I don’t think I’d have found the need to explain Mestel’s score at Buenos Aires though. He’d previously only played at one Olympiad at which he played the fewest games of all the England players and achieved the worst score. This is a completely different situation to Keene.

Prior to Buenos Aires only Penrose and Golombek had played significantly more Olympiad games than Keene and considering only the previous six events nobody could match his record. Hartston came closest, but while he achieved a similar percentage he played a dozen fewer games and one less Olympiad. There is a reason, then, to consider Keene’s failure at Buenos Aires that doesn’t exist for Mestel.

Why is it so unreasonable that Keene was simply dog tired after working two jobs for two months at the world title match?

Well, it’s not necessarily unreasonable, but that’s not what the BCM were saying. They didn’t attempt to explain Keene’s poor performance at all. If they’d have said,

"Both Stean and Keene were exhausted after the goings on in Baguio but the strain showed more on the latter because of the demands of writing a book at the same time as working for Korchnoi

that wouldn’t be a bad start to answering the question of why had Keene played so badly. As I explain in the post, the problem I have is not that the BCM/O’Connell didn’t come up with particular answers it’s that they didn’t ask the questions in the first place.

Incidentally, from the perspective of what we know today, the ‘tiredness’ thesis – even if we buttress it by acknowledging the extra workload that Keene had placed upon himself – seems rather weak to me. If it was exhaustion wouldn’t Keene’s results then have picked up when he’d had a chance to rest? In fact, as I mention in the post, we know that they did not. The full passage from The English Chess Explosion that I refer to runs:-

p. 51 “With a poor result at the Buenos Aries Olympiad just after Baguio’s conclusion a period of depression set in for Ray. It took some eight months for his play to recover.”

Sounds like something a bit more than tiredness was going on don’t you think? I don’t know what exactly, but as I say above the “what” isn’t as important as the “?”

Jonathan B said...

Some thoughts Continued ...

“There is a lot of speculation in this piece”

I suppose that is a matter of opinion and depends on what “a lot” means. I don’t feel that there is though.

What happened at Baguio is fact;
Keene’s Olympiad record prior to 1978 is a fact
The English team’s performance at Buenos Aires is a fact
The BCM made no attempt to report the depth of Keene’s poor form – that is a fact.

It’s true that I wonder about what was public knowledge at Buenos Aires and what O’Connell knew at the time of writing the report. However, as I say in the post, even if we ignore the issues and assume that he knew nothing, the lack of an account for Keene’s performance is incredible.


“Omitting speculation and rumours is not necessarily bad journalism.”

Indeed not. I wouldn’t expect the BCM or anybody else necessarily just to write “we heard X Y and Z, it must be true.” What I would expect is for the story to be followed up - to be investigated. As I said, O’Connell showed absolutely no curiosity and gave no sign of wanting to know what was actually going on.

But then again, as the Mestel story (subsequently repeated at Dubai) shows that if the BCM didn’t want to know about something they simply ignored it – even if the information came to them. This – Mestel or Keene or any other example that we could mention - wasn’t an accident. It was a deliberate policy choice for the BCM.

I call that bad journalism. That’s a matter of opinion, it’s true, but it’s not speculation.

So we agree to disagree it seems. Still, it's a piece I've been thinking about for some time, and it took me a while to write. I appreciate that you took the time to read it and comment upon it.

Jonathan B said...

@ Jon H:

I don't think Keene's poor performance would have anything to do with his anguish. The penguin has never shown any remorse for any of his actions.

Well, I don't know for sure - and as I mention above and in the original piece my real interest is not establishing some definitive truth on this point, but rather highlighting the BCM's choice to ignore the question entirely - but I tend to disagree with you. One would have to be somewhat personality disordered (in the formal mental health diagnosis sense of the term) to not be affected at all by such things.

As for your "ultimate injustice of chess journalism" - I intend to come back at some point to Keene's current chess work and contemporary journalism (or "Keene's" work perhaps that should be. For now I will limit myself to mentioning another post I'd like to find time to write - about how RDK's articles improved the 1970s BCM a great deal.