Wednesday's position was taken from the 1980 Olympiad in Malta, the top board game between Lajos Portisch and Tony Miles in the sixth round match between Hungary and England. The game was adjourned here.
In his Secrets of Grandmaster Chess (Batsford, 1997, p. 177) John Nunn explains what happened next:
During the match against Hungary, Miles adjourned in a very dubious position against Portisch. We started analysing the position in Miles's absence. Suddenly Miles joined us, saw what we were doing and advised us not to waste our time as he had sealed 'Resigns'. On resumption, David Anderton did his best to avoid a diplomatic incident by congratulating Portisch on his victory with one hand while attempting to confiscate Miles's score sheet with his other. However, Portisch was not to be denied: he insisted on seeing the sealed move. When the 'Resigns' became visible, he just grunted as if he had expected nothing else. This was one of David's few failures as captain.Maybe, though Anderton's would not have been the only failure relating to Miles' sealed resignation: neither of Britain's major two chess magazines, in their Olympiad reports, mentioned the incident at all.
The only other reference in print I can find, in English, to the incident is by Nigel Short, in a well-known obituary to which we may return at a later date. Other than that, as far as I know, nothing. Certainly, no contemporary reports.
This even led me to wonder whether the event, which seemed to have gone unmentioned for seventeen years until the publication of Nunn's book, and which I could trace neither in Geoff Lawton's book on Tony Miles, nor in Ray's effort, had ever happened. On the other hand I could see absolutely no reason to doubt Nunn's account, seeing as he was on the team in La Valletta. (Mind you, so was Ray.)
I was aware that István Bilek, captain of the Hungarian team in Malta, had written a book about the Olympiad: so if Bilek mentioned the incident, that would confirm it. I was therefore very grateful to Csaba Gerencsér, who has read the book and blogged about it, who was kind enough to check for me.
Paraphrasing what Csaba sent me: according to Bilek, Miles bombarded Portisch with draw offers during the game. Finally the game was adjourned, but when the adjournment session began, Miles wasn't present, so the arbiter opened the envelope. Together with the England captain he deciphered what Miles had written, which was presumably resigns, as the arbiter awarded the point to Hungary. Shortly afterwards, Miles appeared in the hall, with a smile all over his face. Bilek couldn't help but comment, to the England captain: "Miles smiles - but Portisch wins", expecting that the message would be passed on to Miles.
So there you have it. It happened - and Bilek's contemporary account basically tallies with Nunn's reminiscence. Good. But why no contemporary account in English? What did our two leading magazines say?
Chess only had two short reports on the Olympiad, but was able to report that Miles' fifth round game was temporarily suspended because of a dispute in the Kasparov-Georgiev game on an adjoining board, without saying that anything odd happened to Miles in the following round.
The British Chess Magazine, meanwhile, in the person of Bernard Cafferty, reported more extensively and was able to mention problems with transport, accommodation, the playing schedule, crowd encroachment and suchlike. On the Portisch-Miles game, however, there was this:
Portisch beat Miles in a high calibre game by exploiting a slight black square weakness after the original opening 1 c4, b6; (no need to ask who is Black!) 2 Nc3, Bb7; 3 d4, e6; 4 a3, f5; 5 Nh3, Nf6; 6 f3 with a later Nf2 in the style of SteinitzThat's basically it: the opening, but nothing about the finish, save the result.
One wonders why. This was not long after Belgrade and Baguio and questions of at-the-board behaviour were not considered irrelevant by the chess-watching public. This blog has already discussed the lamentable under-reporting of controversies attached to the previous Olympiad, in Buenos Aires: it seems that this habit carried through at least to the 1980 event. Not telling tales out of school was, it seems, the motto by which the chess journalist then worked.
I don't want to deny the existence of real, and understandable pressures, which would lead chess writers to operate in that way. Chess is a small world, everybody knows everybody else and the person you offend today - or their friend - may be the person you wanted to annotate a game for you tomorrow. Nor do I want to claim that other sports journalism didn't operate in much the same way (most football writers probably didn't think it their job, in 1978, to write about "politics" when the World Cup was in Argentina, and plenty didn't) and nor do I want, entirely, to judge journalism from previous decades by the standards of today. A piece of bad sportsmanship like Miles' would certainly be reported on today, but then again it would have to be, because it couldn't be hidden: it'd be all over the chess world within minutes. (Well it wouldn't, because they don't seal moves in Olympiads any more, but you take my point.) It's not necessarily that the hacks are better nowadays, it's that the circumstances are different.
That said: keeping mum did do chess a disservice, when all's said and done, because not only is it a journalist's job to tell people things, but when the press decides that it's better to to tell what you've seen, then it becomes easier to cover up scandals, and that means scandals become more likely to happen. The decade that followed the 1980 Olympiad was, in sporting terms, the high point of English chess achievement, memorable for anybody who was part of it, or followed it. But it was also a time when bad things started to happen, and one wonders how much the culture of English chess, including its journalism, contributed to what happened next.
[Thanks to Angus French, Csaba Gerenscér, Jonathan Bryant, Mark Weeks and John Saunders.]
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