Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nosher's Nashers

Last Friday I wrote about Channel 5’s “My Brilliant Brain”.

The programme included a moment when Susan Polgar talked about making ‘her’ joke about never having beaten a healthy man. Leaving aside the fact the programme presented this dishonestly – it was edited to look as if she was talking about the men she’d beaten during her first visit to a chess club as a little girl – this is hardly an original comment. Is there a chess player alive who hasn’t blamed a poor result or tournament on ill health, lack of sleep or being attacked by a swarm of killer bees on the way to the game?

It was not too surprising, then, to read of Nigel Short’s stinker of a tournament in Montreal (this blog also looks interesting) being attributed by various journalists to problems he was having with his teeth. He started with 0.5/6 and on the only day he wasn’t playing chess was forced to pay a visit to a dentist.

What was unexpected, however, was that Nigel himself, despite acknowledging the event as his worst ever (he ended up on 2/9 - good enough for last place unsurprisingly), gamely refused to blame his performance on his dodgy fangs. During an interview with chessbase Short made clear his dental difficulties were over by round three. The rest of the poor tournament he put down to … well you can read it for yourself.

A round of applause for Nosher L. Git(*) is in order I think. Perhaps we can all take a vow to follow his lead and leave those poor excuses behind us. I would but in fact I never have made up lame reasons to explain away my losses anyway. For example, that game I lost against Barry Blackburn in the Surrey Summer Individual? I really was having my brain eaten by invisible aliens at the time.

* Just in case you didn't know:- Nosher L. Git is an anagram of Nigel Short. It was invented sometime in the 1970s I believe but I've long since forgotten who deserves the credit for it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

What Is Not Chess?

Putting aside the various answers to the question What is Chess?, it turns out it's hard to be sure quite what chess is not as well. Or at least what chess is not like, according to Ryan Emmett, who put in some research into bad chess similes in order to infuriate himself. Do check out that link for the whole of his very entertaining post, but here are a few of my favourites that he found:
* Federation Cup Tennis lineups are like a game of chess
* 'Cold Reading' by psychics is like a game of chess
* Search Engine Optimisation is like a game of chess
Confused? I guess it just goes to show that nothing is black and white in chess.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Howard Staunton: The Tournament and the T-Shirt

Next month London sees the fifth and strongest so far Staunton Memorial Tournament:
The addition of Van Wely for Holland and the substitution of Jovanka Houska for Lawrence Day considerably strengthen the competition over the 2006 event.

Venue will be Simpsons in the Strand with the opening round on August 7, one rest day tbc and the final round and prize giving on august 18. Play begins in the afternoons starting 14-00 hours.

There is no charge for watching the games and we intend to have them displayed during play in the main upstairs bar at Simpsons.
Last year's tournament was a compelling spectacle for spectators, and I thoroughly recommend the event and its fascinating, evocative venue. I'll certainly be popping along again this year each day I can, the venue being five minutes from my office.

And now on to something still Staunton, but completely different. Why not stand out from the crowd at the tournament with this Staunton T-Shirt? I think it's rather dapper, and at today's exchange rates $9.99 is more or less free in Pounds sterling.

Mind you, the blurb on the website is a bit confusing:

"Once reffered to as the "OG of Chess", Howard Staunton was an English chess master and the unofficial World Chess Champion. After beating France's champion in 1843, Staunton became recognised as the best player in the world! Oh, those chess pieces you have are named after him as well. Show your Staunton support with this incredibly sexy shirt."

After extensive research on the internet, I can confirm that "OG" is short for the American phrase Original Gangsta. I'm not entirely clear on what that means in English, but I believe it's along the lines of Fine Old Fellow.

See you at the tournament, if not in the t-shirt?

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Today we have Steve McQueen letting Faye Dunaway get away with some shockingly flagrant abuse of the touch-move rule in The Thomas Crown Affair.

More chess related video clips available here.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Susan Polgar's Brilliant Brain

Last week Angus (via Tom) tipped us off that Channel 5 were going to show a programme about Susan Polgar called My Brilliant Brain. The central premise was that Polgar is a "genius" who possesses a brain that is different to those of ordinary people.

To demonstrate Polgar’s “fundamental chess ability” of “memory” they conducted an experiment where she was asked to reconstruct a chess position after just three seconds to view it. As the camera first panned over the board we saw this block of squares:-

My instant response was, “Hang on a minute that’s …”, but before I’d finished the thought the camera had moved on to another part of the board.

This distinctive formation of the castled king position and rook on e8 and the bishop back on its home square f8 confirmed that Polgar was about to be shown a known theoretical position.

When we got to see the whole board it showed a position taken from the Zaitsev variation of the Ruy Lopez. It is usually reached by

1. e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6, 3. Bb5 a6, 4. Ba4 Nf6, 5. 0-0 Be7, 6. Re1 b5, 7. Bb3 d6, 8. c3 0-0, 9. h3 Bb7, 10. d4 Re8, 11. Nbd2 Bf8, 12. a4 h6, 13. Bc2 exd4, 14. cxd4 Nb4, 15. Bb1 bxa4, 16. Rxa4 a5 17. Ra3 Ra6

So Polgar reconstructed the position quickly but it’s hardly evidence of her genius if I, an average club player, can do exactly the same thing. Indeed, when I mentioned this to Tom the following day all I had to say was “…bxa4 line of the Zaitsev” and he could recall the precise position too – and he didn’t even need to see it.

The point of the experiment was supposed to be how Polgar used ‘chunking’ to keep a chess position in her short term memory. Instead of memorising the positions of individual pieces she remembers familiar sub-formations (chunks) and reconstructs the board that way. This was confirmed when a non-player placed pieces on the board at random and she found it impossible to reconstruct the position.

The fact that a known theoretical position was used doesn’t invalidate the chunking idea, indeed the nature of my own responses seem to prove it. What it does show is the fundamental dishonesty of the programme. In truth it was Polgar’s long-term memory being tested, not her short-term memory.

Later on we saw brain scans taken of Polgar firstly while she was shown photographs of famous chess players and then while she was shown diagrams taken from her own games. During the latter she was asked to think as if she was playing chess considering her next move.

“These are the first scans of world champion’s brain playing chess.”

Well, not really. Looking at chess diagrams then thinking about a move, and actually playing chess are not at all the same thing. [And I note in passing the ‘world champion’ tag is misleading. The average person watching the programme will have assumed that meant Susan Polgar had once won the championship of the entire world and not have known it was just the female half of it.]

The programme showed the results of the scans and claimed that the part of the brain Polgar uses to play chess is exactly the same as is used to recognise faces. Apparently this is known as the fusiform face area.

Now this is an interesting finding but what is actually being said here? The programme claimed Polgar’s chess playing ability is entirely based on her ability to recognise familiar positions and formations and that her brain is actually different to everybody else.

“Astonishingly, Susan’s brain has hijacked the fusiform face area and adapted it to chess.”

What of other Grandmasters? What of me and you? Do we also use the fusiform face area to recognise chess positions or is this unique to Polgar as the programme implies?

What about those scans? The programme doesn’t make clear whether the scans we saw were taken when Polgar was looking at the familiar chess positions or when she was thinking her next move. Would scans at these different times show similar results or would there be differences?

In any event, is it so astonishing that Susan’s brain uses the fusiform face area to recognise chess positions? Even the laziest research on the internet (i.e. looking up 'fusiform' on Wikipedia) suggests this area of the brain is also used to recognise, amongst other things, words and numbers too. Not looking quite so surprising now is it?

These are the key questions in assessing the programme’s fundamental claim that Polgar is a genius and that her brain has become different to yours and mine. Sadly, My Brilliant Brain didn’t ask these questions let alone answer them. Mind you, given the programme blatantly lied about Susan Polgar being the first female grandmaster and employed numerous other half-truths and misrepresentations, I’m not sure I’d have believed it even if it had.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ten and a half questions about the "decline of English chess"

  1. It's claimed that professional chess is in a crisis in England. Is this actually true, or are there in fact more professionals than ever?

  2. How does the current performance compare to most historical periods and should the period roughly 1975-1995 be seen as a "blip" rather than the norm? If so, why did it happen and can those conditions be recreated?

  3. Is there any reason to think England significantly different to Western Europe as a whole? Where are the new Hubners and Timmans and Anderssons? Doesn't elite Western European chess - Adams aside - presently rest basically on one Danish prodigy, who is an exception more or less by definition? Is England therefore not typical rather than exceptional?

  4. Haven't most leading English players always been amateurs and haven't there always been many strong English players who've given up the game? Does Matthew Sadler's retirement actually point to some crisis or isn't it in fact completely normal? Didn't Michael Stean give up at the height of the boom? Or Ray Keene, for that matter? Doesn't this happen in most Western European countries?

  5. Does this not suggest that there are structural and cultural reasons for the inability of England and other Western European countries to produce world-class chessplayers or to provide a comfortable living for people playing a little below that level?

  6. Isn't the major reason for the so-called decline of English chess the fall of the USSR and the subsequent emergence of a great number of strong chessplayers from the former Soviet bloc? Are there not so many of these because chess culture was promoted so heavily in the Soviet years and chess therefore became far more prominent and widespread in those countries than in the West?

  7. Moreover are living standards not rather lower in these countries, making alternative careers to chess less attractive - but also meaning that prize money in Euros goes much further?

  8. Didn't the chess boom that took place during my schooldays originate with just a couple of major phenomena? I don't mean that they were enough on their own (of course a lot of people did a lot of work) but that without them, it just couldn't have happened? One of these was of course, the Fischer v Spassky match. But wasn't the other the TV show The Master Game? Isn't it likely that that show was far more influential in creating chessplayers than anybody has ever appreciated?

  9. Does this not mean that if people want the public to follow chess and take it up, it absolutely has to be on telly?

  10. Isn't it very probable that chess entrepreneurs in the UK have in fact been trying to get chess on TV, probably in the Master Game format or similar, but have failed? (I don't know this - I don't know some secret you don't know! - but I'm speculating.) Wouldn't you wonder whether the reason it's not been on telly would be the difficulty in finding TV executives who think that there would be any viewing audience for chess?

[10a. Have the ECF ever contacted BBC News Online and asked them why they have no regular chess coverage in a news service which is otherwise probably the most comprehensive in the world?]

PS This post originally appeared on Tuesday 24 July but as it was overtaken by other news that day, we've bumped it back to the top.....

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ECF Website of the Year: Winners!

Some rather good news has just come my way: we have won the English Chess Federation's Website of the Year Award for 2007. This is the icing crowning the cake of an all-round excellent season for Streatham and Brixton Chess Club: in the London League our Second Team won their second promotion in two years, up to Division 2, whilst our First Team in Division 1 finished fourth despite being nearly relegated the season before; our third place in the Surrey Trophy was our best result this century in that competition; and last but not least, we finished Champions of the Croydon League Division 1, with second places in Divisions 2 and 3.

And what of the blog? Launched in November 2006, the blog has served us in more than one way: as a new way of circulating news, as a forum for chess chat and debate, as an opportunity for those of us with writerly persuasions to reach a wider audience, as a form of publicity that's helped us reach new members and so help stimulate chess activity in south London, and much else besides. But the best way to get a sense for the blog's content, if you're new here, is to sample some of it, of course. So with that in mind...

... here's a brief tour. We start with a health warning: 3.Bb5 can kill! But on a more cheerful note, you might have come closer to beating Kasparov than you thought. And even if not, we on this blog have enjoyed seeing very good players make very bad moves more than once, whilst also analysing how to use computers to make the most out of our own games. And if that's all a bit much, how about a nice, simple puzzle to have fun solving? Or you could just put your feet up and watch some chess on television? Or mix the two.

More seriously, here's my solution to the draw problem in chess, whilst here's Grandmaster Juan Manuel Bellón López's. And oh, if you're not only new here but new to chess, you might want to find out before reading on What is Chess? Those already familiar might want to find out what Bughouse is instead, and what Aronian's doing playing it. Incidentally, do you like cats? And here's some on the board detective work, and quite extraordinarily here's some off.

That should give you a taster of what our chess blog offers, the variety and diversity. You can find the rest of our archives linked to in the sidebar - here is this month's - and we update the blog more or less daily. Of course, down to earth, local posts are important to us especially, whether about stellar efforts at the top of the London League, or visiting our friends and neighbours at Streatham Chess Club. Finally, some posts are more about the comments, and a little personal bragging never hurt anyone.

I hope you've enjoyed this little introduction for new visitors - recap for our regulars - to the English Chess Federation Website of the Year, 2007!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Oooh Controversial

Test Match Cricket - the sport of the gods.

England are playing India right now, well they would be if it wasn't raining, and due to the rather tedious necessity to earn a living I've been following the game via the Guardian's ball-by-ball coverage.

During the afternoon session the conversation between commentator and readers (via email) got on to the subject of worst managed teams in sport. After a few run of the mill suggestions - Welsh Rugby Team, Leeds United, US Ryder Cup side of recent years etc - one Richard Woods wrote in to say,

"The most shambolically managed sports team is the England Men's Chess team, assuming you accept Chess as a sport ... The managers have made English chess the laughing stock of the chess world."

(see over 80 from the afternoon commentary via the link above).

Is that true? I know England used to win medals at Chess Olympiads and we don't now, but what is a realistic expectation of our national side? Are England underachieving?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

GeekOut Overdrive III

TV Programme:
Blake's 7

Previous appearances on the S&BCC blog:
Here and here.

Episode under consideration today:
Games (Series 4)

Plot Details:
Blah Blah ... Feldan crystals ... Blah Blah ... source of unlimited energy ... Blah Blah ... steal them from the Federation.

Chess content:
A computer called Gambit.
A scientist called Belkov who likes to play a chess-like game against his computer.

2:23 to 3:01
4:49 to 5:19
6:36 to 6:54

More chess related video clips available here.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Word From Our Sponsors II

Many moons ago in Showdown in Seville, a book about the 1987 World Championship match by Keene, Goodman, and Spanier, I read the following:-

... chess players huddled around the nearest TV set for the unveiling of Kasparov's commercial for Schweppes tonic water. This was ... the first ever Western TV advertisement to feature a Soviet citizen, and it also contained appearances by a blonde Finnish model and a French actor famous throughout Spain as "Mr. Schweppes" for the last nine years.

Kasparov is seated at the board when suddenly Mr. Schweppes arrives. They recognise each other and exchange greetings. Kasparov opens a bottle of tonic water with a knight he lifts off the chess board. Mr. Schweppes tries to copy Kasparov's technique but fails, and Kasparov begins to laugh. As the 20-second segment ends, the drink is described as "Kasparov's Passion".

"We decided to do a TV commercial when we realised what a very good actor he was," commented John de Zulueta, the marketing director for Schweppes in Spain. "At first we wanted to use a very serious type of story, but we changed it when we saw that Gary had such an effervescent type of personality," he added. The deal was struck by Andrew Page, Kasparov's British manager. A storyboard of the commercial had been sent to the Soviet sports committee for their prior approval.

Twenty years later I managed to find a clip of the advert on YouTube.

That's not Gazza's voice either is it? What's up with these advertising folk?

More chess related video clips available here

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Word From Our Sponsors

Imagine for a moment you are responsible for creating this advert.

You put some thought to it and create an homage to Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey (cheerfully ignoring the cynics who prefer the term "blatant rip-off").

You even go out of your way to get Kasparov himself to take part. Sure he's more expensive than some random jobbing actor but he adds authenticity and credibility. Aside from anything else you get some spin-off publicity from the Kasparov v IBM match of the late 1990s.

You arrange to put the advert out for the first time during the half time break of the Superbowl - the most expensive air time in the calendar and therefore the most prestigious occasion to release a commercial.

Hmmmm ... then you suddenly realise Gazza's (perfectly clear to everybody else) accent sounds a bit, well, foreign and decide to get the aforementioned random jobbing actor to do the two lines of dialogue and dub-in his voice instead.

So I guess you have to ask yourself, have you got a very low opinion of the audience of Super Bowl watchers or is it just that you're a total feckwit?

In the words of the late Bill Hicks:-

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing ... kill yourself. Thank you, thank you, thanks. Just a little thought, I'm just trying to plant seeds. Maybe, maybe one day, they'll take root - I don't know. You try, you do what you can.

Kill yourself. Seriously, though, if you are, do. Aaaah, no really, there's no rationalization for what you do, and you are Satan's little helpers. OK? Kill yourself, seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No, this is not a joke. You're going, "There's going to be a joke coming", there's no [rude word]ing joke coming. You are Satan's spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are [rude word]ed and you are [rude word]ing us. Kill yourself. It's the only way to save your [rude word]ing soul, kill yourself.

Planting seeds. I know all the marketing people are going, "He's doing a joke." There's no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tailpipe, [rude word]ing hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend - I don't care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil [rude word]ing machinations.

Have a good weekend everybody.

More chess related video clips available here

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mate in three

After beating the 2477-rated Kuzhuharov in the second round at Benasque - easily the strongest player I've ever beaten and one of the world's strongest players without a master title - I went down to a Georgian grandmaster, not without a fight, the following round and then, expecting a relatively easier game in round four, found myself paired with the legendary Ulf Andersson, still rated 2520. The game was somewhat one-sided: one really shouldn't mess about in the Symmetrical English against someone who knew its intricacies before I learned the moves. Mind you, the imbalance in chessplaying ability may also have been a contributory factor.

Position after 25...Nd3-e1

The game ended a little ignominiously: I played 26.Ne2 to threaten the knight and prevent Qd4 check, but neglected to observe that 26...Qg2 was mate.

Checkmate is rare, of course, at tournament level, even among club players. Bent Larsen once wrote that he was amused how players would play on in hopeless positions until the last move before mate, and then resign. We laugh, but we all like to avoid it and I think that's the first checkmate I've suffered in a serious game since Adam Hunt did it to me in a Kidlington congress not far short of a decade ago.

Anyway, next round I did have a slightly easier opponent, one Aranzana, rated 2001 (it's hard to translate Spanish players' grades directly into ECF but I'd estimate 2000 as roughly equivalent to 160). Easier though it might have been, and despite a good opening, I made heavy weather of the game and spent much of the middlegame hanging on for a draw, but eventually my opponent seemed to lose his way and I found mine again.

Position after 31...Qf6-h4

It ended faster than I thought: I was just contemplating how I should reply to a move like 32.Qd2 when he put the queen on e5 instead, interfering perhaps with plans to check on h1 but also creating the possibility of 32....Qf2 mate.

Two checkmates in consecutive games: not so much unusual as practically unheard of at this level. Indeed, if any reader has had two consecutive competitive games end in mate since their earliest junior days, I'd be interested to hear of it.

But there's more. In the next two rounds I drew, both times against players I was expected to beat comfortably, and in the eighth round, against Camarero (rated 1981) I once again played very poorly but benefitted from my opponent's attempts to win the game when he had a draw for the taking. After 25...b5? (this game and the others can be viewed below) it all went horribly wrong horribly fast.

Position after 32...c3-c2

I think Black believed he was still in the game here, though reality had mostly dawned when he took twenty minutes over his thirty-first move and there are, in fact, a variety of ways for White to win. Anyway, my choice was 33.Rxg7+ Kh8 34.Rg8+ Qxg8 35.Qxg8+ Kxg8 36.a8Q+ Kf7 37.Ra7+ and now the inevitable can only be delayed by one move with 37...Rb7 but he played 37...Kg6 so I played 38.Qe8. He still didn't realise quite how completely the picture had changed: he sat there for maybe a minute working out where to hide the king before realising that there was nowhere to hide it and he was, in fact, in checkmate.

Three checkmates in three consecutive decisive games in a serious international tournament: have you ever seen the like?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Double Bishop Sacrifice III

Recently (first here then here) I’ve been looking at double bishop sacrifices.

In many of the examples I’ve found the combination runs something like

1. Bxh7+ 2. Qh5+ 3. Bxg7 4. Q (g-file somewhere with check) 5. R (to third or fourth rank ready to swing over to the h-file).

It’s not always like that though. Take a look at Alekhine- Drewitt from 85 years ago.

Black resigned because after 22. … Kxg7, 23. Qg4 mates in short order.

But what happens if instead Black tries to hang on with 22… f6?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Like a game of chess

Who, in 1983, made the following claim?

Life is like a game of chess.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The March of the Machine

Ever since I got my copy of Fritz, I have renamed computer chess programmes collectively as The Destroyers of Dreams. That Bxb5+ sacrifice which took you ten minutes to spot, another ten minutes for your half-shaking hand to play, and soon a crunching victory was yours!- you come home grinning, but twenty seconds later the computer flashes up the forced draw your opponent failed to find, you too in the post-mortem after. Or you arrive home thinking, I positionally outplayed him, it went from equal to plus-equal to +/- and then I mastered that endgame; such a nice, smooth game. But the evaluation graph shows mountains and valleys, up and down like a hyperactive yo-yo - for in the midst of your vague shuffling, each of you missed dramatic pawn breaks all over the board. Your smooth game has been turned into the battle of two blind toddlers, each armed with drooping swords, dripping with rust.

Personal vanity aside, chess computers are busy destroying broader chess dreams too. The most conspicuous is the idea humans are good at it. That with our intuition, imagination, fighting spirit, understanding, we transcend brute force and formulas and at our best, make an art out of a game. Of course - we can make excuses for each of mankind's losses to the computers - Kasparov was distracted by the possibility IBM were cheating, Kramnik's mate-in-one blunder was a total freak, and how it all might have been different, and so on. But the fact is, we have to make these excuses every time, not just as a one off.

The latest not-just-a-one-off, which finished last week, was nonetheless an interesting encounter. As previewed, the computer Rybka would take on Grandmaster Jaan Ehlvest with considerable odds. An opening book only going to move 3. No tablebases. Black in each game. Half the starting clock time, a third the increment. Quite good odds for the human, you might think?

Not really, as it turned out. Ehlvest drew three and lost three. You can find the often-interesting games, a brief report and comments here on the Rybka Forum, whilst hopefully Ehlvest will update his blog with more comments than currently there. Finally, there was a particularly interesting interview at chessvibes with Rybka's creator Vasik Rajlich and Larry Kaufman, who organised the match. Here's one choice quote from many:
any match between a human and Rybka where Rybka doesn’t give a material handicap must be played with a tiny Rybka book just to keep things reasonably competitive. Even this doesn’t seem to be enough, so probably, we will look in the direction of material handicaps now.
Perhaps rather than destroy dreams, a different dream is emerging: that the Romantic, amateur, café-based era of chess will be reborn - but instead of a human defeating ten opponents at once, each at pawn-odds, and with a game of whist on the side, a little laptop performs this miracle instead, and the line of patzers-victims consists solely of super-Grandmasters.

Or is that a new chess nightmare?

PS, for our UK readers. If you prefer chess on TV to chess with computers, there is a programme called "Make Me a Genius", part of the My Brilliant Brain series, on Channel 5 tonight from 9pm to 10pm. It's all about Susan Polgar, and The Radio Times says: "This episode focuses on 38-year-old Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, whose incredible story suggests that genius does not always have to be innate, but can be taught. How has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree?" The rather odd thing here is that Susan Polgar is not a genius, so her story actually suggests the exact opposite conclusion: no matter how much training someone has, you need genius to be a genius. Thanks to Angus for the tip-off.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chess on the Telly II

Frasier gets an antique chess set ...

... plays chess with his dad ...

... then conducts a post mortem in the coffee shop. Watch out for the unlikely reference to the Panov-Botvinnik attack.

PS: Check our video index for more clips

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Chess on the Telly

George Constanza from Seinfeld is my favourite comedy character of all time. Here we see him playing chess with his girlfriend ...

... then discussing it with Jerry.

The chess content of the second clip is over in seconds but I've included it because the 'what am I doing with my life?' conversation is one I often have within my own head while I'm defending those slightly worse positions on the black side of the Queen's Gambit Declined.

PS: Check our video index for more chess related clips.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A couple of !! if it's sound

Justin's away at a tournament in Benasque.

When he's back he'll be giving us a full report of his experiences - including how he came to be mated by a veteran of those SuperGM tournaments from the 70s. In the meantime, here's Justin's 2nd round win against a guy who, despite a rating over 2400+, has no kind of title whatsoever.

Today's title comes from Justin's own annotation of his 22nd move. He also points out the checks towards the end of the game were caused by the time control being 90 minutes plus 30 seconds per move and he was down to just four minutes by move 25 - at which point he was assuming the game would end in a draw.

Have a good weekend everybody.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Of Jams and Mists: County News

The finals of the 2006/7 English Chess Federation County Championships took place last weekend, with two Surrey teams competing in the Open and Under 175 sections. Traffic jams on the M40 rather affected the Surrey turnout - with one car arriving around tea-time, another breaking down so badly its occupants were left stranded in Warwick overnight - the net result being two defaults for each team. Still, battle hard the depleted teams did - with the Open team going down 10-6 to Lancashire, and the U175s pipped narrowly 8½-7½ by Middlesex.

Three Streatham and Brixton Chess Club players took part on the day. Robin Haldane scored a win for Surrey on Board 2 of the U175 team, whilst Antony Hall was representing Hertfordshire on Board 1 in the U150 Final - where he was on the better side of a draw, but saw his team lose by 8½-7½ to Lancashire. Steve Ledger meanwhile was on the winning team as Bedfordshire beat Norfolk by 8½-7½ in the Minor Counties competition. You can find the rest of the results in the ECF Report.

In brighter news for Surrey and Streathamites, the Middlesex Individual Summer Tournament 2007 (MIST) finished on Tuesday night. I finished joint second alongside Peter Ackley on 4½/6, whilst the tournament was won outright by Robin Haldane on 5/6. Here are our contrasting games from round 4 of the competition. Each feature a pawn sacrifice - but in a very different chess style...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Double Bishop Sacrifice II

Yesterday we looked at the double bishop sacrifice that occurred in Miles-Browne, Lucerne Olympiad 1982.

It’s fairly straight forward to visualize the main variation as played in the game. Much more difficult, for me at least, is to see in advance what will happen if Black tries to throw a spanner in the works, say with … f6 at some point.

The potentially problematic points are when White plays Bxg7 and when he takes time to bring his rook forward preparing to swing it over to the kingside to join in the attack. Unlike much of the rest of the combination, neither of these moves are check so Black’s reply is not forced.

So the combination runs 18. Bxh7+ Kxh7, 19. Qh5+ Kg8, 20. Bxg7+ Kxg7, 21. Qg5+ Kh8, 22. Qf6+ Kg8, 23. Rc4 1-0.

But what happens if Black declines the second bishop and tries to avoid mate with 20. … f6? Similarly, Miles could have omitted 22. Qf6+ and gone straight for 22. Rc4. Why didn’t he do so?

It’s perhaps not so difficult to work this out when you get there but you need to know for sure at this point because if you’re a couple of moves into the sequence and suddenly find Black has a sideline that works for him you’d already be committed with no way back.

Finally, playing through the game you may have noticed the moves before Miles launched the first sacrifice were 17. 0-0 Rad8.

Given could have avoid the combination, with 17 … Bxe4 say, as a final exercise you might like to work out why Britain’s former leading player didn’t go all in before castling.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Double Bishop Sacrifice

Not long ago I wrote about an old episode of Blake’s 7 which featured a game of chess that ended in perpetual check following a double bishop sacrifice.

In an old Pergamon book, Master Chess: A course in 21 Lessons, Geoff Chandler gives a very simple example of the combination taken from Miles – Browne, Lucerne Olympiad 1982.

1. Bxh7+ Kxh7, 2. Qh5+ Kg8, 3. Bxg7 Kxg7, 4. Qg5+ Kh8, 5. Qf6+ Kg8, 6. Rc4

Chandler quoted Tartakower as to the circumstances required for the idea to work

“The defending king must be exposed and his pieces not readily available for defence. The attacker’s rook must serve a double purpose; to prevent the king’s escape to the other wing and to take part in the final assault without any loss of time.”

then went on to call such sequences, “a fairly rare occurrence in over-the-board play ….” (a phrase he may well have lifted from Tartakower and Du Mont’s classic book, 500 Master Games of Chess).

Fairly rare? I'll say. I first learned to play chess nearly 35 years ago and I've been playing club chess for more than two decades - but in all that time I’ve only twice played Bxh7+ immediately followed by Bxg7, and both of those were in casual blitz games.

As I mentioned before, one of those games was a draw against Justin. The other time was actually on the very first evening I ever came to Streatham & Brixton Chess Club. I don’t remember too much about the game other than it was a 3. … dxe4 French Defence and my opponent took both Bishops allowing me to mate him a couple of moves later.

So has anybody actually played this double sacrifice in a real game?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Miracle Mongers

I’ve heard it said that 35 years after Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer is still the most famous chess player in the world.

I mention that for two reasons.

Firstly I wanted to start with a mention of our favourite game because the chess content of today’s blog is going to be a little while coming. Stay with me dear reader, we’ll get there in the end.

Secondly, it’s a similar situation with magic. The mostly widely recognised name of any magical entertainer is not Paul Daniels or David Blaine - it’s Harry Houdini.

The difference there, I suppose, is that while most people will have heard of Houdini, he’s invariably remembered as an escape artist. That he both started and finished his performing career as a magician is largely forgotten nowadays. What’s even less widely know, even amongst conjurers, is Houdini was an avid historian of magic and compulsive collector of memorabilia related to the performers who came before him.

I mention that because I’ve just finished reading Houdini’s book Miracle Mongers. He wrote it, he said, to,

“… commemorate some forms of entertainment over which oblivion threatens to stretch her darkening wings.”

These were acts on the fringes of what might be considered magic – even more obscure today than they were back when Houdini was writing.

Houdini spends the early chapters of his book recording the history of fire eaters and heat resisters. These were men who entertained their audiences with feats such as walking on burning coals, dipping their arms in molten lead, licking white hot metal and drinking boiling tar.

The leading performer of this kind was a Frenchman called Ivan Ivanitz Chabert (“the only Really Incombustible Phenomenon” as he billed himself) who found fame during the first half of the 19th century. Chabert’s signature piece was walking into an oven heated to 220 degrees holding a quantity of raw steak then emerging several minutes later with perfectly cooked meat in his hands.

Chabert, like any other successful performer, spawned any number of imitators all of whom tried to create their own gimmick or angle. Each one of them tried to add something different to the 'heat resistance' act in order to separate themselves from the crowd. Houdini records one such man to be a W. C. Houghton who performed in Philadelphia in 1832.

I mention that because, and I’m finally getting to the point here, Houdini reproduces a piece of Houghton’s publicity material on page 19 of his book:-

“W.C. Houghton has the honor to announce to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia, that his BENEFIT will take place at the ARCH STREET THEATRE, on Saturday evening next, 4th February, when will be presented a variety of entertainments aided by the whole strength of the company.

Mr. H. in addition to his former experiments will exhibit several fiery feats pronounced by Mons. Chabert an IMPOSSIBILITY. He will give a COMPLETE explanation by illustrations of the PRINCIPLES of the EUROPEAN and the AMERICAN CHESS PLAYERS. He will also (unless prevented by indisposition) swallow a sufficient quantity of phosphorous, (presented by either chemist or druggist of this city) to destroy THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL.”

Now that’s what I call a variety act. Unfortunately, though, no clue is given as to precisely what these principles were - nor why they might alter as one crosses the Atlantic!

In any event, it certainly sounds like a fun night. Think of W. C. Houghton next time you attend a chess lecture or simultaneous display. Taking on 30 players at once is all very well but can our current crop of IMs and GMs after setting themselves on fire? Sadly, I rather think not.

Miracle Mongers. Truly, as Houdini says, a dying breed.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Need for Speed.

Last weekend saw the inaugural Four Nations Chess League (4NCL) Team Rapidplay tournament take place in Milton Keynes, with a prize fund of £1,000. Second seeds Barbican scored 18/20 to claim outright first prize, closely followed by Hilsmark Kingfisher on 17/20 for second, with 3Cs Oldham on 14/20 coming third.

Streatham & Brixton Chess Club first teamer Robin Haldane also played, his team Celtic Tigers finishing 12th from 15. The event was evidently rather strong. Robin's opponents ranged from 2260 up to 2490 FIDE Elo - against whom he scored 4/7, despite having two whites and five blacks. Here he is in action against Gary Kenworthy:

Now, has that got you in the mood to blitz out some chess violence? If so - you don't have to wait long, as Sunday week sees the Richmond Rapidplay return in its 72nd (!) reincarnation. The Surrey Rapid Chess website has all the details, plus results and photos from previous competitions.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


A few months back, Tom wrote about Chess Now - a television programme about Chess that's so bad I'm tempted to steal the words, "Great God! This is an awful [show]" from Scott. In fact, I rather think he got off lightly. He many have frozen to death in the desolate wastelands around the south pole but at least he never spent half an hour watching the monstrosity that is Chess Now.

We didn't think we could do any worse so Tom and I decided to make our own video to teach chess to the masses. Apart from anything else we thought it time that our non S&BCC readership found out what we looked like.

Here we are in all our glory.

While I'm here I might point out that if you look closely at the sidebar to the left (at the bottom of Our Archives, just below the Blunder and Puzzle Index) you'll see Tom has added a Video Index to enable us to keep track of all the clips we show on the blog.

I'll be keeping it updated so if you want to watch anything from Korchnoi playing chess against a cow to little girls explaining the finer points of King and Pawn endgames (or "ending games" as she prefers to call them) that's the place to look.

Happy viewing.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Close. Very close

I'm off, tomorrow, to play in the annual tournament in Benasque, the scene of my best game of last year. But the scene also of the game in which I came the closest I have ever dome to standing up to a grandmaster: the veteran Davorin Komljenovic of Croatia, pictured here celebrating. His rating actually appears to have gone up since then, a commendable feat for somebody in their sixties: probably not entirely because he was able to overcome the present writer, but every little helps.

My other games against grandmasters - there's been, I think, fewer than half-a-dozen - have been totally one-sided affairs. They include a trouncing by Tony Miles at Wolverhampton when he was, I believe, number 52 in the world, and a similarly unequal struggle against Mark Hebden in a final round at Coventry after I'd beaten an FM the round before. I did nearly knock over Jacob Aagaard once, but although he had achieved three norms his rating fell (and still falls) below the level required to receive the grandmaster title.

This one, though, was different - hard-fought, tight, the identity of the amateur and the grandmaster not evident from the moves alone. It was played on the same day as the World Cup Final and like that match, it was decided only at the very end. My girlfriend, who knows little of chess, said to me afterwards that she knew it must have been close - because there were so few pieces left on the board.

I must have been better coming out of the opening, perhaps much better - and in the ending, I missed a draw. Komljenovic was a relieved man at the finish. "Close", he said to me, in English. "Very close."

[Playthrough removed due to malware. I'll insert a new one one day! - ejh 15 August 2016]

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"I beat Aronian," says Andrew Stone. "Sort of."

Take a closer look at the photo to the right, which you can click to enlarge, and you might notice one or two things that will surprise you. Isn't that one of the strongest chess players in the world sat on the right at the back, looking a touch worried? And aren't the positions on the boards rather wild and wacky? If not downright impossible?

Ah, but this is not chess. It's Bughouse. Last weekend saw the annual albeit unofficial European Bughouse Championships take place in Berlin. Streatham & Brixton Chess Club first teamer Andrew Stone was there, and yesterday provided us a report on how the tournament went. Today, he describes what happened when Levon Aronian turned up to join in the fun - including two videos of their head to head encounters. Here's Andrew's report:

In my report yesterday on the annual Berlin Bughouse Tournament, one thing I failed to mention was that chess world number five and Berlin resident Lev Aronian played in the tournament two years ago. Then he partnered someone of similar strength to myself, and came second. And you also might know that Lev also regularly plays bughouse online - chess permitting - being a popular and friendly member of the FICS community.

Now, this year chess commitments meant he couldn't play in the tournament proper, but he did come along on the Sunday and Monday to the hotel where most of the players stayed. He is a mix of a superstar and a normal very sociable guy, offering everyone he has met before (and those he hadn’t) warm greetings on his arrival. He played for a couple of hours on the Sunday, where he scored around 50% against arguably the best player in the world - and possibly this opponent had a slightly stronger partner, too. Lev returned on Monday, when I managed to play about 10 games against him. Some specialist bughouse players have a style that veers the game away from normal chess-like positions, but Lev has a more chess-based style. This means I can cope with his play to an extent, especially if I have the white pieces. Here is a longish video of a complete game:

The play was pretty even until the latter stages when his ever-present good natured “trash-talk” became even more intense: takes piece “thank you”, takes another “thank you”, takes yet another “you are very friendly today”! Then after six or so games I partnered the organiser Daniel - responsible for making the whole event happen - who was stronger than Lev's partner. This meant we were able to register some wins, and you can see the end of one of them in this video:

This put a halt to the trash-talk ... momentarily. But as with all good trash-talkers, a selective memory enables them to start up again as soon as the pieces have been set up for a new game! After these games, Lev played a few more - in the photo at the top of this report, he's in a spot of trouble against one of the top players, a Swede with the handle Firefly - and then the bug players moved on to a beer garden for more games. But, the airport instead beckoned for me. And that completes the story of my weekend playing bughouse in Berlin, for this year. If anyone fancies giving bughouse a try, I can help show you the ropes at FICS (as I have already done for Tom), where my handle is FantasticCat.

Who knows? You may also end up playing in Berlin in 2008!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Introducing The Berlin Bug, 2007

Chess isn't the only game that Streatham & Brixton First Teamer Andrew Stone plays. He's also one serious competitor when it comes to the four-player, two team, two chess-set game known as Bughouse. Last weekend he was in Berlin for the annual Bughouse tournament there, and has kindly sent in a report of his adventures in two parts. Today he briefly introduces you to the nature of the game and the scene, and then describes how his team got on in Berlin, and the overall outcome of the event - at the end of today's report you'll also find a remarkable video of the final in action. Tomorrow, meanwhile, we'll have a taste of what happened when one of the strongest chess players in the world turned up and joined in the fun...

But first things first, here is today's report from Andrew:

Last week I travelled to Berlin to play in the (unofficial) European Bughouse Championships. But first, what is bughouse, I hear you ask?

Well, you may have played it before yourself - perhaps under the name Exchange Chess - where a team of two players battle against another team of two players across two chess sets. Wikipedia can explain all the rules for you, but in essence you play sat next to your partner, who takes the opposite colours to you on his board. Then when you take a piece on your board, you pass it across to your partner. He can then place it on his board in lieu of a "normal" move, when he chooses. It's important to understand that the ability to get even a lowly pawn, say, from your partner to “drop” on the board can often be crucial. This in turn means that the ability to wait for material - called “sitting” - is vital. But, you can only sit if you have more time than your partner’s opponent. So this means that most bughouse games are played at a lightning pace, in an attempt to be ahead on the clock. Hopefully this gives you some impression of how bughouse is played, and there is a video at the bottom of this report of a game, too.

Now, most bughouse is played on the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS) and indeed players from FICS made up the majority of the 22 teams. This is the fourth consecutive time I have played at Berlin, as has been the case with many other players. As such I have made many good friends from all over Europe, and even the US, with most players staying at the same hotel and come for about 3 or 4 days. The tournament is played on the second day, with most of the rest of the time being filled with ... friendly bughouse games! And as the photo shows - even on a pleasant boat trip in Berlin some (most?) of us were more interested in playing bug.

This year I had a partner from Finland, whilst in previous years I partnered people from Russia and Germany. My partner is a strong online player, although his form has suffered a bit from pursuing a successful semi-professional poker career, where he can be found playing as many as 28 games of poker online at the same time! Last year my team came fourth, but this year the opposition was much stronger- there were 5 teams clearly stronger than us, with another 2 or 3 of a similar strength. The format was 9 rounds of 4 games (white and black against both opponents) followed by an 8 team knock-out stage. Being a veteran of these tournaments I realised the key match was the last round- it was vital to avoid a strong team. Our form was not great in early rounds- this did not matter as much apart from it meant we were avoiding the top players. Unfortunately this increased our chances of a tough pairing in the last round, and we got one. Last year’s champions. A 4-0 loss saw us freefall down the table from about 8th to 15th.

At least after that we got to play the B Final - “the losers' cup” as one “great” Dane, who takes delight in trying to wind me up, declared after my team won it 2 years ago! After an embarrassing first round 2-0 loss, we rallied to end with 19/22. This gave us joint first, but after a 1-1 drawn play-off, the others were awarded first on the tiebreak of finishing higher than us in the main tournament.

The final proper saw two Swedes take on two Lithuanians. Whilst many bughouse players are only around 2000 chess strength, all 4 finalists here were around 2350. Remarkably, the youngest was a 14 year old Swede called Nils, who achieved an IM norm 3 months ago. Mind blowing if you are English, hardly worth mentioning if you are Russian, Indian or Chinese! After a tense match the Swedes triumphed 7-5. The video will show you the lightning pace top players play the game at:

A disappointing result for us perhaps, but I will be back next year and for many years to come. Berlin is a great city and this is a great event!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bobby on a Bench

"I'm not afraid of him. He's afraid of me."