Saturday, June 08, 2013

Knightmare! Scenarios: 1. Chess in a Time of Letraset

Back in the mid 1970s, as the post-war baby-boomers were hitting their stride, a group of young chessers had a dream: to put Streatham and Brixton Chess Club on the chess map (on a conventional map it is in Inner London, in the south-west corner, a district of the London Borough of Lambeth strung out along the A23)

Before the war the club had its moments, principally in Harry Golombek's day in the 1930s. Then, after some post-war decades of bumping along as usual, the 1970s infusion of youthful idealism resulted in a glorious revival of the club's fortunes. It surged to the top of the prestigious London Chess League, stood astride the Surrey League, performed creditably in the National Club Championship...the roll-call of achievements went on and on. Of course chess clubs can go down as well as up, and the purple patch lasted just ten years - but from where S&BCC is today, fielding three teams lower down the London League, just holding its own in the Surrey League, we look back in wonder…although we continue to flourish in our own modest way (new members always welcome!) and, unlike some other unfortunate clubs that have fallen by the wayside, we are still here to tell the tale.

And the tale we will tell, in a series of posts starting today and continuing over the next months or so, is of the dream that turned into Knightmare! - the fabled chess magazine produced by enthusiasts in the club for three issues in 1977, 78 and 79. It took the chess nation by storm. The series will relive those heady days: the personalities, the articles, the games, the poetry, the blood, the sweat and the beers…

Although it is invidious to single out any one personality as the prime mover in that S&BCC revival, mention must be made of Nigel Povah. There had been a long association of the Povah family with the club going back to the war: Nigel's grandfather was one time Club Vice-President...
W. Povah, Esq., one of four Vee-Pee's in 1949-50.
(reproduced in the first issue of Knightmare! )
 ...and more than anyone Nigel was the catalyst for the chain reaction that kicked off in 1974 from which Knightmare! exploded three years later. He is known to many these days because of his involvement with Guildford and the 4NCL.     

Recalling those beKnightmared! times Nigel explained to S&BCBlog that he had been a member of S&BCC since 1965, but on returning from Leeds University in 1974 found it languishing in the 2nd Division of London League. Given his loyalty to the club he resolved to do something about it, to recruit strong and promising players and so raise its game. To start with, old school chums, maybe playing for other clubs, came over - their names will crop up again in the Knightmare! saga: Mike Singleton, Roger Emerson, Chris Jones, Robin Haldane (apologies to the many others omitted in this account who played a part in that S&BCC revival).

Then 13 year old Julian Hodgson was persuaded to join, plus Leeds University alumni Charlie Kennaugh and Ken Coates. Things snowballed as Andrew Martin and Peter Lee joined and arrivals from foreign parts were attracted too - Kiwi Bob Smith and Australian Sergey Rubinraut. S&BCC's journey into the chess stratosphere was well underway. It seems that it was as much a way of life as a chess club, with discos, parties, "etc.",  and its success continued into the mid 1980s (the club won Division 1 of the London League, for the third and last time, in 1984-5), when, as many moved on to pastures new, it returned to earth - but that would take us beyond the Knightmare! years of the late 70s.

It is not clear who first had the lightbulb moment to produce a club magazine, but Knightmare! was a collective endeavour anyway. As to where the lightbulb flickered into life, this is lost in the mists of time, but the Leigham Court Arms and Pied Bull off Streatham High Road were likely to have featured significantly in the creative and planning process.

Mike and Valerie Singleton were the main driving force in turning the bright idea into a reality. Sadly Valerie, the organiser-in-chief, is no longer with us; we will have occasion here, and elsewhere in this series, to remember and pay tribute to erstwhile members and friends of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club.

Contributors were entreated, chivied, and leant on to produce copy. Pat Whitley was the dedicated and conscientious typist in those days before even Amstrad Word Processors, and her labours - together with those of Mike and Val - were crucial to the Knightmare! enterprise. Pat (not a chess-player) was famous for accurately transcribing the algebraic notation as presented, origination errors included; unfortunately, in those days such typos would necessitate a whole page re-key for the long-suffering typist. Mention should also be made of Jan and Martyn Kent for their stalwart contribution to producing the later editions.

Chris "Letraset" Jones was always on hand with illustrations and sketches (we'll see more of those, too) and remains in that line of business to this day down in Worthing.  Back then it was a different techological age, and it might be worth reminding our younger readers that it was a time when you had to use a dictionary to get the spelling rite, and if you wanted to do fancy large scale fonts you used that indispensable Letraset. 

When Letraset arrived it was a great leap forward over pen and stencil, so much so it made the headlines: in Knightmare! all of them. You rubbed the self-adhesive letters one by one on to your layout grid. There were little dashy things under each one to help you get spacing spot on, although if you were really good at it you didn’t bother with them; nor did you if, like me, you were really bad. When things went really pear-shaped there was nothing for it but to reach for the "Tipp-Ex"...
Letraset - as easy as a, B, c. 
Thanks to a friendly printer that job was more or less a freebie, and all hands gathered for the afternoon in the club room to collate the edition of 300 or so - all 60 sheets of it - repairing afterwards to the local Indian. One reviewer, S.W.R., (who could that be?!) in the BCF's Chess Life of December 1977, commented that the binding had "a nasty tendency to fall apart" - although Knightmare! took this on the chin since he was so nice about it otherwise. S.W.R. also gives us a useful summary of the magazine's content. By the way, this and other cuttings come from Mike Singleton's Knightmare! archive, and also by the way, the binding was improved and my only copy of Knightmare! - issue Number 2 - remains happily intact.  
A favourable welcome for Knightmare! from an organ of the BCF  - although, to be strictly accurate, it was Nigel Rose who penned "You can't do that" (as we may see in a future blog).  
As this series will show, articles were memorable for their serious commitment to chess, and their verve, originality and lively humour, except maybe for the exhaustive reports - often painfully statistical - of club team performances (referred to by S.W.R.) but which remind us that Knightmare! was, along with other things, a house magazine and a journal of record for the club. Younger readers should also note that it was a pre-internet era, when there were no club and league websites giving up-to-the-minute results; so at the time these imposing league tables, individual performance data, etc., gave a useful summary of members' achievements in the previous season, even if of only passing interest for the subscriber remote from the badlands bordering the A23. Perhaps they also had the effect of intimidating the local opposition. They leave later S&BCC generations a warm feeling of nostalgia for when we once ruled the world, but out of consideration for other readers of the blog we will eschew any further mention of these Knightmarish! enumerations.

A final comment about the magazine's chess content: the games presented and analysed were pretty much all played by S&BCC members themselves, from the school age juniors cutting their chess teeth, through the 150s and 160s, to a seasoned IM and soon to be GMs. It was about chess as played and loved at club level - perhaps that was the reason for Knightmare!'s instant popularity, and resonance with so many other club chessers.    
The production team was energetic in promoting Knightmare! in the chess press. This was a time when London had two daily evening newspapers (only one survives), though you had actually to pay for them (and so you didn't, as is now the fashion, leave them behind treating your tube train as a subterranean litter bin). Even more remarkably: they both had chess columns. Here revered columnist Leonard Barden (still going strong today in the Guardian on Saturdays), and Kevin O'Connell welcome Knightmare! and the BCM also gives a handsome plug.

Yes, Knightmare! was an instant hit, an overnight sensation, and chessers the world over clamoured for a copy. Orders came in from Malta, Johannesburg, New York...and from James Galway (now Sir James, O.B.E.) internationally acclaimed flautist and keen player (chess is listed among his interests in Debretts) then domiciled in Switzerland but on tour in Japan.  Here we see him making music with the black pieces.

He requested that Knightmare! be posted to him in Tokyo; and he promised to pay for back numbers on his return home:

If Mr Galway ever gets to read this blog, perhaps we might delicately remind him that the cost of the postage to Luzerne is still outstanding. And the "general opinion of chess computers" back in 1977? Huh; they'll never catch on.

Dave Daddy of Hull Chess Club, a "witty and artistic bard" as Mike Singleton (now stepping up as a Knightmare! culture critic) dubbed him, also asked for a copy - in verse. Not to be outdone Knightmare! replied in kind in their second issue:

Following the Law of Unintended Consequences this tongue in cheek poetic invitation moved the irrepressible Mr Daddy to further doggerel:
I used to be a bunny, life really was a drag,
Until about a week ago I read in a chess mag,
About a book called "Knightmare", they said it was the most,
So hurriedly I borrowed £1 and sent it first class post,
Then eagerly I waited until at last it came,
I really burnt the midnight oil and studied every game.
Now I'm a grandmaster with Tony Miles and Stean,
And plan to second Korchnoi soon along with Raymond Keene.
Karpov's getting worried, his title may be lost,
I talked to him the other day, he asked "what does it cost?
To share the greatest secrets of our fantastic game,
last week I'd never heard of you and now you've earned such fame."
"Only £1, Anatoly" - I said with the greatest glee,
"Just send it to Mike Singleton, and you will surely see!"
with an associated illustration:

Quite astonishing; and for painfully obvious reasons we will now keep further "poetic" extracts from Knightmare! to a minimum; anyway we must get on with the chess - so please watch out for further Knightmare!ish episodes in this series (with a fair wind, once a fortnight) when we'll move on the real business, and much else besides. We'll be looking at games and articles from Knightmare! but if you can't wait, they are all uploaded on the Streatham & Brixton Chess Club website's history page.

We would of course love to hear (now, or as the series progresses) from anyone who remembers Knightmare! especially if, like Dave Daddy, it inspired them to greater things - whatever that might have been. The Blog comment box is at your disposal. But please, no rhyming couplets.

Thanks to Barry Blackburn, Ken Coates, Martin Cowley, Roger Emerson, Angus French, Robin Haldane, Chris Jones, Andrew Martin and in particular Nigel Povah and Mike Singleton for their help and reminiscences with this and/or other posts in the series; especially as your blogger was elsewhere in the 70s and well into a thirty year chess sabbatical.  

The Blog's History Index is here - from which you can navigate to later episodes in this series. 
Or to make it even easier, they are: 2. Alice in Blunderland; 3. Village Folk; 4. Just Rooks, Pawns and Kings; 5. Pelikan Crossing; 6. The End is High


Anonymous said...

In those days you played at the Bedford Park Tavern near Streatham station. This has been boarded up for a few years - I wonder if there any any chess ghosts about?
Joe S

Martin Smith said...

Thanks Joe.

This blog shows the grim evidence. You can almost hear them rattling around inside.