[English grandmaster Geoff Scorebook writes a regular column for the Streatham and Brixton blog. Geoff is well-known as a hardworking professional and a regular on the European club and tournament circuit.]
I tell you what, I need a drink. I won't be having one in my local for a while, though, not after last night.
I was struggling with a problem in the Slav - I lost a game with it at Hull and as a result I finished just out of the prizes. The more I looked at it, the less I thought I understood it. I could play this move, but then the other guy plays that and he's got a draw if he wants it. I can play another move instead, put then he's got a nasty little check, like the guy played at Hull. So maybe I have to play my first idea instead. So I look at it for a few minutes before remembering I've already gone through that, he's got that drawing move, so I have to play something else and then he's got the check and....
....round and round it went. Wouldn't get out of my head. I tried to think of a different move but all my mind would do is switch between the two alternatives I'd tried already. If A, he goes B. If C, he's got D. So I play A but then B. Driving me up the wall.
So I thought I'd give it a rest and watch the telly for a bit, but I still couldn't clear my mind enough to take a fresh look at it, even watching A Place in the Sun which ought to be enough to empty anybody's head. OK, I thought. I'll go for a walk in the park, that's what Botvinnik liked to do. A nice walk and when I come back I'll have a mug of hot chocolate and go to bed and try again tomorrow.
So off I went, round the corner and up towards the park. It wasn't a bad evening, if a little cold, but of course I'd forgotten that the park closes early when the nights draw in. Well, I never really knew, to be honest, I don't go out a lot. So I wasn't sure where to go to carry on walking and just at that moment, two things happened: the wind got up a bit, and I noticed a pub on the corner, the Chequers. Too cold to stay out, I thought, and besides, when did I last have a pint? With Keith and Simon and their lot at the 4NCL a couple of months ago....more than a pint, I'm sure, if only I could remember it. I can remember the quick draw the next morning and the sponsor being none too pleased. Next time, he said, could I maybe manage to get more moves on the scoresheet than I had drinks on the bar tab? Fair enough, I mumbled. Which is all I could do, to tell the truth.
The next 4NCL weekend, a few days ago, I stayed on the wagon just in case anybody was watching, so I thought, looking at the pub, it's about time I had another one, so in I went. It was mostly empty, a couple of blokes playing darts and another two or three watching a match on the telly and that was about it apart from the barman. "Pint of best", I said, and just as I ordered, I noticed that they had a chess set behind the bar. I shouldn't, I thought. You've had enough for one evening. Just watch the match and drink your pint and then it's home for hot chocolate and a good night's sleep. But it was too late, I said it automatically: "could I borrow your chess set?" And the chap handed it over, I took it over to a table with my pint and set up the pieces.
There were only thirty-one of them, plus a draughts piece to take the place of a missing black pawn, but that was all right because in the variation I had been thinking about a couple of pawns go off early anyway. So I went through the moves from the starting position, off went the draughts piece and when I got to the position I'd been looking at....yes! Maybe there was something! Playing through the earlier moves, instead of staring at the same position for hours, suggested a sequence that might just be promising. If I maybe tried....
"Are you winning?"
It was one of the blokes who'd been playing darts: him, and a dog, a little terrier thing who didn't seem to be on a lead. I don't like dogs, never have done, certainly not since I got bitten on the leg when giving an open-air simul at the Lambeth Country Show: some hippy's dog seemed to think I was threatening his master when I reached out to shake his hand. "Sorry mate, normally he only does that to policemen", the bloke had said as he took me, hobbling, to the first-aid tent while his friend kept hold of the dog, saying "good dog, Spliffy!" rather too enthusiastically for my liking.
So me and dogs don't get on and I was too busy looking at the dog, in case it went for my ankles, to reply to the bloke's stupid question. Not that I hadn't heard it a million times before, or a million and one times now, as he asked it again:
"Are you winning?"
I could have said something to the effect that this was the funniest thing I'd ever hard, truly brilliant and more than that, truly original, even better the second time he said it, and was the gentleman a professional comedian, but something told me that he mightn't take it well and neither might the dog. So I said "well, I don't know really".
"You don't know", he said, gesturing with his head towards his mate with a sort of come-and-watch-this-we've got-a-right-one-here sort of look. His mate joined in:
"If you don't know, why not ask the bloke you're playing? The Invisible Man." He came over, leaned over the table from my side and looked ostentatiously into space, then waved his arms about on the other side of the board as if trying to see if anything was there.
"Nothing!", he exclaimed. "He must be playing the empty chair", pointing as he said it to the chair on the other side to mine. "Must be an unusually talented chair."
"Dunno what it's doing in this pub then", said the first man. "Either that or this bloke isn't very good. Can't even beat an empty chair."
I wasn't going to stand for that. "Actually, I'm a grandmaster", I said.
"Oooooohhhh!" said the first man, and everybody started laughing. A grandmaster. He's a grandmaster. Can't beat an empty chair, but he reckons he's a grandmaster."
I wasn't going to rise to the bait, so I just shrugged my shoulders and turned back to the board. But they weren't going to leave me alone. "You're a grandmaster, you say", said the second man. "That's a really good player, yeah?"
"Yeah", I agreed.
"Well, if you're so good, how come you don't even know if you're winning?"
I could see that no answer I gave was going to do me any good, so I didn't give one. But that wasn't the end of it. The bloke with the dog started on me again.
"All right then, Mister Grandmaster", he said. "You reckon you're a grandmaster. Well I tell you what. Play my dog."
His mate cracked up. But the first man held his hand up for silence. "No, seriously. Play my dog. Take him on if you fancy your chances. We'll believe you're a grandmaster if you can beat my dog."
"That's a good idea", said the barman. "Him against the dog. And then the chair can play the winner!" Now everybody cracked up, except me, and I could hear people saying things like "winner stays on" and "my money's on the dog".
I didn't know what to do. I could see I was going to have to make a fool of myself one way or the other, whether I agreed to play the dog or refused to. Meanwhile the dog had already bounded up into the chair opposite. "Oh, the chair and the dog can play in consultation then", I said brightly, but this time nobody got the joke. Or nobody wanted to laugh at my jokes.
So I put the pieces back in the starting position, the draughts piece out of the way on a7, and I put pawns of either colour in my hands. Feeling like the whole world was looking at me and laughing, I got up and held my hands out in front of the dog. Much to my surprise he jumped onto the table, licked my left hand and went back to his chair. I opened my hand and there was a black pawn in it.
So I had white. Everybody in the pub had gathered round the table. I sat down again. What should I play against a dog, I wondered. The Orang Utan? The Bird's? Better play something sensible, I thought to myself, God alone knows why. So I reached out and played the d-pawn two squares forward as I normally do.
"Nice one", said one of the spectators. "You've got him now", and his friends laughed again. The dog leaned forward and hung his tongue out of his mouth. There was silence except for the football commentary in the background. I had no idea what the dog was going to do. Knight f6? I found myself wondering whether to play a Tromp or just put a pawn on c4 as usual. Then I realised, this is insane. You're wondering which part of your opening repertoire to use against a dog.
I waited. The dog stayed exactly where he was. Nothing and nobody moved for at last a couple of minutes. But eventually I turned round and looked at the dog's master. "Is he going to play or not?" I asked him.
"Of course he's not", the man said. "He's a bleedin' dog, isn't he?"
More hilarity among the spectators.
"Well, I win then, don't I?" I said, and started to get up.
"Hang on a minute, mate", said the man. "Has he resigned?"
"Has he what?" I shouted.
"Has he resigned?" asked the man, not raising his voice. "Has the dog resigned?" His friends were beside themselves with laughter. "He's not in checkmate, is he? Even I know that. So he can't lose unless he resigns, can he?"
"He could lose on time", I said, realising, immediately I spoke, the obvious reply. "But you haven't got a clock, have you?" he said, triumphantly. "So you can't win on time either, can you?"
"Perhaps it's an Invisible Clock", said his mate who'd been looking for the Invisible Man, and repeated the routine, waving his hand about to try and locate the clock, before looking under the table to see if he could find it there instead. The spectators were doubled up. They started slapping one another one the back, and one even slapped my back as if I, too, was enjoying the joke.
"Shall we call it a draw?" the dog-owner said. "No point in staying here all night. Well, obviously there is", he added, "but not to play chess. We'll call it a draw. Can't say fairer than that. Come on Freddie", and he walked away. I looked back at the dog, only to find that while I'd been arguing about the result, he'd leapt back on the table and had started drinking from my pint. Before I could complain, Freddie jumped down onto the floor and followed his master out of the door.
"Is he going to sign the scoresheets?" I asked under my breath, but everybody else had gone back to the bar, still laughing, and saying "grandmaster!" to one another, which made them laugh even more.
Well, I thought, it's not been a total disaster, at least there's that new idea in the Slav I thought I'd spotted. I'd thought I'd spotted....but what had it been? I couldn't remember. It had gone. I was going to try and run through the moves again, but everybody was pointing at me and laughing. I got up and ran out of the pub, using a different door to the one the man and his dog had gone out of. I kept on running till I got home, slammed the door and went to bed without even having my hot chocolate first.
Never again. I still can't remember what it was. Every time I try, as soon as I move the white pawn to d4, all I can think of is that stupid dog.
Who'd be a grandmaster?