Friday, April 19, 2013

What Jean Stean had seen

As far as I can recall, the last time before Kramnik that anybody played the Pirc in such a vital game, Viktor Korchnoi had the black pieces, it was the thirty-second game at Baguio and his seconds were Michael Stean and Raymond Keene. It didn't turn out any better for Korchnoi than it did for Kramnik.

For me, it was the greatest chess contest that there's even been - perhaps even my favourite sporting event of all time. I remember hearing that Korchnoi had lost the game - and the match - on the headlines on the PM programme in the car as we got home. Those were the days.

Soon after it was over, I read Ray's book about the match. At the time, I didn't realise there was anything untoward about it: I just enjoyed the light annotations ("too late, too late, she cried, waving her wooden leg") and the rather more extensive commentary on backstage events by somebody who had actually been there.

I can't have been reading CHESS too carefully in those days, because a controversy involving the book broke out shortly after its publication, which itself took place very shortly - three days - after the end of the match.

In CHESS for January 1979, an interview which Korchnoi had given to L'Express was quoted from extensively. Talking of the seventh match game, which had been unexpectedly agreed a draw immediately on resumption - in a position some commentators had considered won for Karpov - Korchnoi said:
...there is another hypothesis. Did Karpov get to know of my discovery [a strong move leaving the position unclear - ejh] before we resumed? One of my English seconds, Keene, was writing a book on the games throughout the match, in breach of his contract. He was telexing copy to London continuously. Somebody might have spied on the transmissions. One of our rooms was bugged and there was even a little spy-hole through which we could be watched.
The interviewers then moved on the the last game, with the Pirc: introduced a new move which has not been mentioned in any book. Karpov replied instantly...?

I had prepared that move with my assistants for several days. There was a leak. Too much money was circulating. I know who had been bought, but I don't want to say.

Bugs, spy-holes, unspecified people allegedly leaking information for money. Wild, unsubstantiated, great stuff for the interviewers and the readers but not believeable on any reasonable grounds. Except, perhaps, for one part of it, which was clear, definite, with a name attached to it.
One of my English seconds, Keene, was writing a book on the games throughout the match, in breach of his contract.
That would be the book that I (and everybody else in British chess) had been reading. According to Korchnoi, that book was written in breach of contract. Ray, while he was supposed to be assisting Korchnoi in a world championship match, was actually stabbing him in the back.

A serious allegation, amidst a shower of other serious allegations. Ray replied - sort of - in a letter to CHESS which appeared in that magazine's issue for May 1979.

In the piece, headlined RAY KEENE REBUTS, Ray did indeed rebut a number of the allegations made by Korchnoi, including the claim that information had been leaked regarding the line of the Pirc selected for the thirty-second game. He also exhibited his knowledge of the variation, producing a 1964 Tal game in which the line had been played and showed that, far from having "not been mentioned in any book", the book on the Pirc that he himself had co-authored gave that very move.

Ray also admitted, "freely" in his words, sending material to the Spectator during the match, but
I categorically deny transmitting any information whatsoever before the game had ended in a draw.
Fair enough, and I believe him. But what Ray didn't categorically deny was writing a book in breach of a contract binding him not to do so. He didn't deny it, because he didn't so much as mention it.

Ray did find time and space to mention that he had been appointed to a very important commission to "study the World Championship regulations" and invited readers to send him, c/o the Spectator, suggestions that "might help to avoid some of the more curious incidents from Baguio". Whether or not anybody wrote to suggest the adherence of seconds to their contracts, I do not know.

Still, although Ray might have overlooked the question of his book and his contract, CHESS had not. Right after Ray's letter (and the accompanying game by Tal) the magazine, then edited by BH Wood, carried a section headed Disquieting rumours allege... which went on to detail some of those disquieting rumours.

Aside from Ray having allegedly written a book when having contracted not to do so, it was also alleged that once ads for the forthcoming book began to appear, messages to Korchnoi alerting him about this failed to reach him, at a time when Ray, by his own account, "was vetting Korchnoi's correspondence".

The magazine concluded by announcing:
We have told Ray Keene we should be happy to publish his answer to these allegations too.
Such an answer never apparently arrived, though what did arrive -and appeared in the September 1979 issue - was a copy of a letter Korchnoi had sent to Stuart Milner-Barry.

This letter (which amusingly, given what happened earlier this month, appeared after another deploring the existence of a tie-break rather than a play-off for the British Championship) accused Ray of leaking information and of owing him money. It also raised the question of messages having been sent to other members of his Baguio team but having failed to reach them. But most importantly, it included the text of the contract which Korchnoi and Keene had signed.

Crucial was the second clause:
(2) the Second will not write compile nor help to write and complie any book during the course of this Match.
This, one would think, was straightforward enough.

Not straightforward enough for Stuart Milner-Barry - or perhaps too straightforward, since Milner-Barry's response, published in the October 1979 CHESS, chose not to address the issue of the contract.

Milner-Barry wrote:
I do not feel that it would be at all appropriate for the B.C.F. to become involved
since it wasn't really our business, old boy, but
a dispute over arangements privately negotiated between two Chess Masters in the ordinary course of their professional business
though just for the record, Mr Keene is a good egg
we, by no means, accept your assessment of his character...the B.C.F is indeed, grateful to Mr Keene for his help...and looks forward, if the occasion arises, to making use of his services in a similar capacity in the future.
so, with kind personal regards, we would like you to get stuffed.

What would actually happen between Ray and the BCF "in the future" is a matter of record. At the time, though, we were treated to an early example theme that would become common in Ray's career - his well-placed friends helping him out by looking the other way.

If Milner-Barry's letter was not enough, one from Max Euwe was to follow in the number for January 1980.

Euwe wrote:
I have witnessed Keene's performance as second especially in Belgrade and Baguio, and I am convinced that he acted quite honestly on Korchnoi's behalf.
What his grounds were for being so convinced, he did not say, since he, too, preferred not to mention the issue of the contract at all. His judgement was based on other, less objective grounds:
I simply cannot believe that the other allegations Korchnoi makes are correct.
At this point, quite likely frustrated by the spectacle of Ray Keene's influential friends refusing to see what was in front of their eyes, Wood added the short statement you have already read at the top of this piece.

Quite. But to my knowledge, that simple denial never arrived.

There was one more letter, though, in the February 1980 issue. It came from Michael Stean's mother, Jean, who had never headed any important chess federations but who had, it transpired, actually typed the contract, the existence of which Ray, Milner-Barry and Euwe all preferred not to discuss.

The points it made were simple, obvious and clear. They did not need to be otherwise.

It's tempting - and not, I think, wrong - to see this incident as setting the tone for everything that was to come in Ray's career. Not just in Ray getting away with it, which with very rare exceptions he almost always has. Nor just in tthe failure to answer straightforward questions, the casual cheating, the turning of blind eyes by Ray's friends, by the chess establishment and much of the chess world generally, to all of which we have become accustomed.

But also in the sheer pettiness of it. Here was a man with the opportunity to help win the world championship for Viktor Korchnoi, something they almost succeeded in doing and something which they would have been closer still to doing had all their energies been directed to that goal. The world championship. Ray went out of his way to put that prize in jeopardy. Why? To write an instant book.

To write an instant book. Ray deceived his friends, gave a low priority to the goal of winning the world championship and set himself on a lifetime course of tawdriness - in order to write an instant book.

Ray studied Goethe at Cambridge and writes about him often. I wonder if he ever reflects that Faust never sold himself for anything so petty.

[Thanks to Richard James and Jonathan.]
[Ray Keene index. We've been here before but never previously done the whole story!]


Anonymous said...

You seem somewhat obsessed with Keene. By his own admission he has knocked out his piss-poor quality books in a weekend so allowing a week for this one seems more than generous. Why can't you accept that he started work on it after the match finished? Character references from Sir Stuart Milner-Barry and Max Euwe would satisfy most people.

Anonymous said...

I had a look to see what the Batsford Botterill & Keene book had to say on 6 .. c5. It's very brief, just saying that Black is left with an inferior ending after 7. dxc5 dxc5 8. Qxd8 Rxd8 9. Be3 . Korchnoi's "novelty" presumably was to dispute this.

It's easy enough to see that by 7. d5, Karpov reduced the novelty to a move order trick, since with 7 .. Na6, you just transpose to the Lothar Schmid Benoni, a point made by the book itself a couple of pages earlier. It is suggested the reader refers to Hartston's Batsford on the Benoni and by way of an illustration quotes Keene's own game as Black against Kottnauer from Hastings 1969.

ejh said...

That first comment can be filed under "precisely the sort of thing we're talking about", can't it?

Anonymous said...

I thought the story was that the opportunity to write and publish the book after the match finished as both Keene and Stean were members of the English team at the Olympiad in Argentina, an event that had already started before the Baguio match finished. Airline connections were poor between the Phillipines and Argentina at that time and the contemporary reports talk of lengthy journeys by the English pair and Korchnoi who turned out for Switzerland.


SD said...

Thanks for another lucid and revealing account. Still awaiting the book title, "How to cheat your chess friends" by Ima Kadd :)

ejh said...

I notice that by coincidence, my Chess Café newsletter for today devotes its From The Archives to an old Tony Miles column from 2000. (Those URLs probably won't get you the full column for very long, but it's available in a zip file.)

Replying to David Levy's question: "Have you really reached a point in your life when nothing is more important than making money, not caring how you make it or who you hurt in the process?" Miles says:

"Well, as far as I am aware the answer to this question is yes, and a long time ago. I recall it being suggested to Ray some years ago that he had sold his soul to the devil. He actually quite liked that idea, and probably considers that the devil paid way over the going rate."

Presumably he had, indeed, made the comparison with Faust.

Anonymous said...

The first comment on this article is odd. I am not aware that Ray Keene has ever claimed that he started work on the book after the match had finished.