Monday, November 30, 2009

The Board Beside Me IV

I am not going to tell you who played black beside Chivers in the game that is the subject of today's piece. In fact, the blunder he produced was so bad, I'm not even going to tell you his opponent's name, nor the league we were playing in, the date of the match, the name of our two clubs, nothing, just in case some Sherlock Holmes out there works out who black was. The risk of public humiliation to my team mate is just too strong, and what a naming and shaming it would be. Thus I give you, Anonymous A versus Anonymous B - player B being on my team, sat beside me, and to move:

At first blush from the neighbouring board, this looked like a relatively ordinary if slightly awkward position - until I realised that the routine 10... e6 loses a piece to 11. f3, because the bishop will soon be trapped. What is black to do? One way or another, he is going to lose at least a pawn for nothing, and a significant pawn at that. I had the wacky thought that maybe 10... Nd5 was playable, sacrificing a different pawn to ease the pressure through exchanges, not noticing that 11. Nxg4 nets a piece for nothing. But you can make that kind of casual mistake when looking at other people's games, it doesn't matter.

What matters is what the player himself does. My team-mate B was a reasonably strong player and I felt confident he would find a way to make a battle out of it. And when he played 10... Be6, Chivers on the neighbouring board felt impressed by the audacity of the trap he was setting: seeing if his elderly opponent would blunder into the smothered mate that was not there. And lo, an unthinking white casually obliged with 11. Bxe6 fxe6 12. Qxe6+ Kh8 13. Nf7+ Kg8 14. Nh6+ Kh8, and after a few happy moments of, presumably, internal celebration here . . .

. . . he wafted his queen to her deathbed on g8. Yes, 15. Qg8+ was really played. But if only this story of the board beside me ended there.

At this point, I was now watching from behind B, and was completely elated. An early victory for my team mate! What a brilliant piece of psychology! Our team were firm favourites now to take the match, too! Player A, meanwhile, had wandered off, looking contented, deciding no doubt that the polite thing to do was to give Player B a few minutes at the board to compose himself before resignation. The egg that would be on A's face, when he returned to find the knight on g8! I walked around to the side of the board to watch B crown his fine coup with 15... Nxg8.

I watched Player B sit there, smiling away, savouring the moment. Then his hand reached out - but for the rook. My eyes ejected themselves out of my face with a hooting noise, like in cartoons. B retracted his hand. Ah! I thought, a moment's comedy for the spectators. The bluff that he was going to capture with the rook! Haha! Pints and chortles all round after this, surely. And then out B's hand came again, and 15... Rxg8 indeed was played, and mate duly followed on the next move with 16. Nf7#.

Soon B realised his mistake, since the reaction of the spectators must have alerted him to the fact something unusual had happened. I was too devastated at this point to pay much attention, but I believe he communicated something about knight not rook to his opponent, which A construed to mean that 13... Rxf7 should have been played. I don't know.

Back to my game I went, thinking only about the board beside me.

[The Board Beside ejh, I, II and III]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Middle game

A short quiz for you this Saturday on the theme of middle names:
  1. Which British International Master has the middle name Roland?
  2. Which British Grandmaster has the middle name Curtis?
  3. Which British Grandmaster has the first name Harold, but uses his middle name instead?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Arkell Interview III

We're already reaching the end of our Arkell Interview. In Part I we heard from Keith about his life in chess and Part II covered his playing style and the chess press. Today to conclude, appropriately enough, we have Keith Arkell on the endgame.

As ever, this is me and everything else will be Keith's own words.

Black to play (move 41)
Hastings 1990

Not long before Keith agreed to chat with us I’d played an email game where I stumbled into defending a KR v KRB ending. Although I didn’t have the slightest clue how to play these positions I did at least know that for the most part such positions are theoretically drawn. Necessity being the mother of getting off my lazy arse, I settled down for some endgame study – and one of the first things I learned was that theoretical draw notwithstanding, Keith wins this endgame time and again.

Keith Arkell:
… yes it's true. I have won the ending of R+B v R 17/17 times, but I have yet to play it against a GM; although I have beaten IM Lawrence Cooper in it twice.

When I mentioned Keith's response to my fellow bloggers EJH immediately responded that getting KRB v KR on the board 17 times in a single lifetime is almost as impressive an achievement as going on to win every one of those games. He inspired me to ask a question that otherwise simply wouldn’t have occurred to me - how does Keith get the ending so much more frequently than everybody else?

I've wondered that myself. I guess that the chances are increased because I am not averse to exchanging pieces in order to maintain or play for an edge. Rather a lot of my 6000 games have wound up in an endgame. The crucial explanation may be this though: it became clear during many of my post mortems that both my opponent and I were playing for the same ending - R+B v R! This was certainly the case for example in both of the games against Lawrence Cooper, and the games v Gayson, Lewyk and Daly.

To my eyes that answer makes Keith’s perfect record in KRB v KR even more remarkable. Not only is he cocking a snook at theoretical evaluations he’s also managing to outplay his opponents in positions they are deliberately heading for, hoping (expecting?) to be able to secure the draw. How is that possible? I can understand a GM notching some positive results against weaker (relatively speaking) opponents through sheer persistence but to do so as often as Keith manages it? How to explain that?

Keith began by talking how he developed his taste for endgames in general.

As far as I can remember, I first began to realise that I enjoyed playing, and had a good feel for positions in which there are only a handful of pieces on the board, when I managed to win the ending of B+N v N+P against England International Carey Groves at Jersey in 1985.

Black to play (move 67)
Hastings 1990

I do also recall though that when I won an ending of two Bishops v B+N with a few pawns on the board a couple of years earlier against a player called Zak rated 2310, Jim Plaskett said to me afterwards “Arkell, you would be an IM easily if you didn't play so many stupid games”. A typical Jim comment! However, it was during the game against Panzer at Hastings 1990 that I discovered I had an ability to accurately calculate long variations in simplified endings.

When I started outplaying strong GMs from these types of endings I began to realise that this kind of thing really was my chess strength, and compensated me for a lack of interest in opening theory, and having no special skills in using or defending against the initiative, and also my aversion to incalculably complicated positions.

At the Watson Farley Williams Grandmaster tournament in 1991, I played indifferently in the openings and middlegames, but won a very nice ending of R+R+g pawn v R+R v Mihai Suba, beat Danny King in an ending with R+3 pawns each, and also beat Robert Byrne with my R+B+ h pawn v his R+g+h pawns. There was a moment in that last ending when he turned down the chance to defend R+B v R, and later remarked that he invented the “2nd rank defence”, and would have drawn easily had he chosen to! Then there was the game against Tony Kosten in Montpellier 2002 which I won with R+B v R+N without pawns! I saw some long and pretty variations in this endgame, one of which was about 15 moves deep; although again there were moments when he could have tried to defend a difficult R+B v R position, but instead went down my main line, in which my Rook won against his Knight.

A long list of Arkell endgame greatest hits. Before talking with Keith I had assumed that these battles must have been the consequence of, or possibly the inspiration for, studying this phase of the game so deeply that he had theoretical positions, particularly KRB v KR, dripping out of his ears. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all.

Recently I was looking at R+B v R with Jonathan Hawkins, and it became clear that he was better versed than me in some of the very long and precise winning variations. I am also often not sure whether I am in a drawn or a won position, but I calculate very well when there is reduced material, and have a good feel for how to improve my position.

I have even wondered whether this for me is a kind of chess autism. What I mean is that typical autism traits include repetitive behaviour and a strong preference for a familiar environment. Chess itself is in any case attractive to people with autism spectrum Disorders (such as Aspergers syndrome) because of its well defined rules and familiar patterns, but these simple endings take the principle even further, and remove a lot of the uncertainty and randomness associated with complex middlegame positions.

Though just speculation, it may well be that my skill in these simple endings was triggered by a liking for them on an emotional level – i.e. by what I'm terming “chess autism”.

Black to play (move 87)
Hastings 1990

So it's back once again to Keith's approach at the board. Remembering his comments about his proposed endgame book (see bottom of Part I) this probably shouldn't have surprised me. I recalled a passage from Excelling at Chess - Aagaard has been looking at a number of examples of Ulf Andersson's endgame play then says, "Andersson does not do anything special at any time, nor does he show skills which cannot be understood. But every move is good - not great, just good. This is the skill one should aim for when studying the endgame."

Did that sum up what Keith was trying to do when he's got R+B v R (or any other kind of ending come to that)?

Yes, I just try to make progress and present my opponent with practical problems to solve. Of course, there are some winning positions and some drawing positions that I recognise, but in general it is about trying to increase my advantage until my opponent can no longer defend. This is both in general endgame play, and specifically in R+B v R. Even in such a simplified ending as this there are plenty of opportunities to just play chess and hope to play better than your opponent. Only computers can see everything in such endings.

I've played alongside Ulf in team events, and he once told me that he just tries to avoid mistakes, but this, together with Aagaard's simple descriptions of the way he plays belies his deep understanding of chess. I think it's too simplistic to say that he doesn't do anything special, and his skills are easily understood. For a start he knows way in advance exactly where he would like to put his pieces, and which ones he would like to exchange. Ulf very often makes progress in the endgame with finely tuned precision. All of this looks deceptively easy IN RETROSPECT for the very reason that that it all fits so logically and artistically, but to fully reproduce an Andersson game would require his level of understanding.

White resigns (move 105)
Hastings 1990

And there our interview with a Grandmaster ends. Thanks to all my fellow bloggers for assistance in the preparation of these posts. Most of all, many thanks to Keith for his time and sharing his thoughts with us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Arkell Interview II

We're continuing with Arkell Interview week today. If you haven't already seen it you might want to take a peek at Part I before reading on. As before, this will be me, and this is GM Keith Arkell.

A GM at work
photograph from

Last time Keith talked about his chess career over the last twenty years. I wanted to broaden the discussion a little to include off the board issues as I recalled a comment or two from Keith on the EC Forum a while back that suggested that he felt he didn’t get a fair crack of the whip from chess journalists. I began our discussion about Keith's treatment in the chess press by speculating about the nature of journalism in general and whether the process of reporting must inevitably distort the subject covered. My musings led to this response:-

Keith Arkell:
Put snooker or darts on TV and even the uninitiated will soon pick up what is going on. With chess this isn't the case. The esoteric nature of the game precludes the novice spectator from having a clue what is going on until he or she has put in many months, if not years of application.

A chess columnist, and a chess magazine editor to a somewhat lesser extent, has the task of breaking down that barrier. It is therefore natural for him to publish violent and spectacular games, which are easy to explain. Of course these are not usually the best games, but the best games often have their own esoteric nature, hidden even from the majority of experienced players.

I don’t think Keith is complaining here, just outlining the realities of chess journalism from his point of view. Evidently he can empathise with anybody who’d ever tried to explain “… the esoteric nature of chess to the layman, and the esoteric nature of certain strategic methods even to experienced players” as he puts it.

I made an entirely tongue in cheek posting on the English Chess Forum, the piece later also appearing in Chandler's Corner. I suggested that I just wait around doing nothing, and then when my opponent gets jittery, because he “wrongly” believes that I am gaining imperceptible advantages, he lashes out somewhere; and only then comes the “sting”, and I quash his premature foray.

I am simply shocked by how many people have taken this at least semi-seriously! It makes me realise that often I can be sitting there pleased with how my position is progressing, feeling like I am slowly creating something palpable, and yet meanwhile lots of players, and even some strong ones, just think I'm doing nothing except waiting for a mistake or time-trouble!

This seems like the perfect moment to talk about Keith’s style of play. Not long ago we featured two of his wins against David Eggleston from recent British Championships (2008, 2009). Is it the difficulty that many players have understanding the nuances of those kind of games (myself included – I like them but I don’t claim a full grasp of what’s going on) that generates the criticism of his approach?

Up until the turn of the century I played regularly in weekend tournaments, and paid little attention to my ELO rating. Because of my preference for keeping a tight reign on my games, and grinding out riskless wins, I more or less brought on myself the label “boring, mediocre, weekend tournament playing GM”.

As a junior I used to play through hundreds of games. The games I particularly enjoyed were the long exacting wins by players such as Ulf Andersson and Karpov. This for me was the highest form of art in chess, and requiring great precision, as I found out to my cost this last August when my own grinding came so unstuck due to the lack of attention to details brought on by my health related poor quality sleep which I referred to earlier.

As I slowly set about developing this grinding style in my own games, it honestly never occurred to me - not for many years - that the majority of players don't share my enthusiasm, and even find it boring.

The “boring weekend tournament player” label really did stick, and still does to some extent. In January this year one of the 8(!) national team selectors said to me “you need to start winning international tournaments if you want to be selected to represent England”. I didn't bother replying that I had just won 5 internationals in 5 months (English Championship, Paignton, Blackstone, Wellington College and the Empire State International Open); and another of the 8(!) wrote on, “In the British Championships Keith Arkell caused quite a surprise by finishing equal first”. Yes, “quite a surprise” if you don't get my style of play, didn't notice that it was only my 4th best performance of the year, and were oblivious of the fact that I nearly won the previous time that I played.

Keith busy surprising the national team selectors
photo from

These last remarks from Keith reminded me of a comment in Chess for Tigers where Simon Webb talks of feeling that the selectors of junior teams underestimated him because of the apparent simplicity of his play. CfT was originally published in 1978 – plus ca change!

Getting back to the press, Keith has observed in the past that his victories tend to receive considerably less attention than his defeats. I asked him if he felt that this was the result of the way he plays the game. He thought not, rather it was more a question of the perception of his style

It has been suggested that the reason why it is mostly my losses which get published is because my losses are more dramatic (and therefore “more publishable”) than my wins. Sounds convincing until we look at the evidence:

I lost a poor game against Ivanchuk and it got published in the Telegraph. One year later I won a similar length, but far higher quality game against Gawain from the same opening. This was by far the most important game of the 2008 British Championship, and yet I defy anyone to show me a single newspaper column which published this game.

Better late than never …
Arkell downs The Corporal

And let’s take my endgames. Pretty much ignored until I defend a bishop v knight position poorly against French superstar Vachier-Lagrave in the EU Championships at Liverpool in 2008. Admittedly there was an interesting study-like draw, which I failed to find due to time pressure, but given that the endgame is my speciality, where is the balance?

And finally, what happens when I do play so called brilliant sacrificial games? Well, I left pieces en prise here there and everywhere against Stewart Haslinger in the 2005 4NCL. Perhaps when Andrew Greet did his report with games for CHESS magazine he was oblivious of this game? Perhaps, with so many games to sift through, this one somehow slipped the net? Think again, because Andrew was sat at the next board to me! On the other hand, he definitely wasn't sitting next to me in the last round of the 2009 British Championship, when I was feeling completely out of sorts and lost a lousy game against Peter Constantinou in which I played like a 150. No, sorry, that's insulting 150s - I played far worse than that. But anyway you've guessed it- he certainly made sure to annotate that one for the magazine.

Keith Arkell doesn't sacrfice pieces,
and if he does you won't hear about it

But before you feel too sorry for me, I did actually once have my photo on the front page of CHESS magazine. Well ok I'm exaggerating slightly, but the sleeve of my jumper made it there in any case. It was about 1987 and the main photo was of my opponent, Judit Polgar.

I don't think that there is any personal reason for my bad chess press. I have perfectly good relations with most chess journalists, and for the most part they are not hostile people. I think it is simply due to this tag I carry around with me, and which they fail to see beyond.

I won't bore you with 20 years of examples, but just sticking with the British Championship of 2008, we had John Henderson writing "In one of the most open (and weakest of the modern era) British Championship at St. George's Hall in Liverpool, the title went to the wire and the inevitability of a tie for first place”. Err no John not “one of the weakest” - not with 12 GMs playing! Jonathan Speelman wrote “Arkell somewhat unexpectedly beat the top seed Gawain Jones”. Again no! Gawain and myself were closely enough matched that none of the 3 possible results would have been unexpected.

Finally, Barden managed to avoid mentioning my name at all in his Guardian updates on the Championship, and Pein managed likewise in his CHESS magazine editorial on the event, and compounded this by writing that it “is a little more representative than last year with David Howell heading the field”, and later wrote that the chess in 2009 was higher quality. No Malcolm! It was more tactical yes, but not higher quality; and I'm not sure that losing Haslinger, B.Lalic, Flear, Davies and N.Pert in exchange for Howell, Summerscale and Wells really makes the event more representative, despite the rating of Howell.

This sparked another memory – Ritson Morry’s BCM report of the 1971 British Championship in Blackpool that managed to avoid mentioning that Ray Keene had won! I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Raymondo, with the White pieces at least, had a style somewhat similar to Arkell and Webb. Judging from these recent comments it seems that his play also sometimes fails to receive the appreciation it might deserve.

Choosing something else at random, I'm not sure why Barden felt the need to describe my 2002 Grand Prix victory as lucky in the Guardian, and follow this up with this description of my Hastings Premier debut, in a field full of super GMs “Contrasting styles took the honours at Hastings, where Denmark's Peter Nielsen won with 6/9 and only two draws, half a point ahead of Keith Arkell who had only two decisive results. [Another similarity? Ray Keene often went through tournaments with a large number of draws and very few or no losses - JMGB] Arkell, making his Premier debut at age 42, rode his luck with the pragmatic approach which has served him well on the grand prix weekend circuit”. Rode my luck! Where? Which games? In truth I had bad luck not good luck, in that I carelessly agreed to a draw in a totally winning position against Harikrishna in response to his illegal draw offer!

Finishing on a concrete example, perhaps the most (in)famous example of Keith taking a kicking in the press was after the last round at the British Championship in Scarborough 2001. He’d agreed a draw with Black against Gallagher who therefore won the title. Had Keith gone on to win he would, as it turned out, have become champion himself.

British Championship 2001

1 e4 e6, 2 d4 d5, 3 Nd2 Be7, 4 Nf3 Nf6, 5 Bd3 1/2-1/2

At the time Nigel Short had plenty to say about it. After nearly a decade to reflect on what happened I wondered if Keith had any regrets or would he do the same again?

This question is too difficult for a straightforward answer. I mean if you completely duplicated the circumstances, but gave me hindsight then I would have the extra information that all of the other games were drawn.

There were essentially two factors which lead me to accept Joe's draw offer: Firstly my prize would cover my mother's and my expenses for two weeks (there were no fees that year, and I wasn't exactly rolling in it); but really far more relevant was the fact that I was feeling very uneasy at the board. Between the ages of about 17 and 40 I suffered from intermittent panic attacks (they seemed to disappear after that thank goodness).

Journalists were too busy making up stories that my mother had travelled from Worcester especially to watch my last round game to bother asking me for the true facts. Apart from BCM that is. In Feb 2002 they interviewed me, and if you look on page 99 I made the prophetic comment “Perhaps next year I'll arrive at the 11th round with a 6th White rather than a 6th Black. Well 'next year' became 2008, because I didn't play during the intervening years. I played in 2008 with the attitude of playing out every game. This worked to my advantage when draws were being agreed all around me in the last round.

Keith snapped at the moment he hears a game he's actually won is to appear in the press
photo from alexis harakis

Thanks once again to Keith for the chat.

Next time (Friday 27th):
Keith Arkell on the endgame.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Arkell Interview I

Today is a rather special day for us on the S&BC blog. For the first time ever we've got an interview with a genuine, honest to goodness, got a certificate from FIDE and everything, Grandmaster.

GM Keith Arkell
photograph from

If you've played any serious chess in Britain in the recent or even not so recent past then you already know who Keith Arkell is. For the benefit of those of our readers who may live elsewhere, Keith has been amongst the top English players for a couple of decades now. In fact, when I went to my first British Championship at Plymouth back in 1989 it was Keith I played in a simul down on the sea front. Although he mixes participation in international tournaments with regular appearances in events attended by chess amateurs our paths didn't cross again until I bumped into him at Paignton a couple of months ago.

I was delighted when Keith agreed to have a chat and several emails later we had an interview long enough to fill all of this week's posts. Just so we're all on the same page, from now on this is me and everything else is GM Keith Arkell.

I began by mentioning that simul all those years ago and asking Keith how his career had developed since then.

Keith Arkell:
I have drifted in and out of periods of chess ambition. I think that when we think of chess talent, capacity/disposition to work hard at the game is as much a “talent” as chess ability itself is. Studying chess vigorously, as opposed to playing through games for pleasure, is an area where I lack “talent”, and this is compounded by my having a poor memory.

I can only point to a couple of periods in my chess life when I have really pushed hard to see where I can get to. The first was after my marriage broke up in 1993, when for the first time in my life I did a lot of work, developed an opening repertoire which suited my style of play, and moved up from IM to 2545 rated GM.

Around the year 2000 I again put in a lot of effort, and the rewards came in the second half of 2001 and in 2002. During that period I really wasn't far off 2600 strength. I came 2nd in the British, 1st at Hastings Challengers, and then an unbeaten second in a very strong Premier the following year (my only ever appearance in this event!). I also won a GM tournament in Wroxham and came 2nd in Gausdal and Montpellier. In these events, and in the French league, I beat a whole string of strong GMs, and had I not rather recklessly quit serious chess abruptly at the end of 2002, I think that within 6 months to a year my rating would have reflected my playing strength at that time.

I believe that I should have been selected to represent England in the Olympiad in 2002, but I think I was barely considered because the selectors had a fixed opinion of me as an average GM who focused on weekend chess.

2002 was evidently quite a year for Keith. I asked him if his break from chess was connected to not making the national team.

No, nothing to do with not being selected for the Olympiad. That didn't really bother me, apart from feeling a mild sense of injustice. On balance I get more than my fair share of invites, for example look at those lucrative matches against Hebden and Rowson (I lost both, but still earned 1500 pounds a time!).

There was some stuff on the EC Forum about selections last year, and it seemed like the general consensus was that “my face doesn't fit” whatever that means! All of these things have some aspect of 'who your mates are' about them, and sometimes you're on the inside and sometimes you're on the outside; and by the way, I had no problem at all with the selections last year. In my opinion any two from Jones, Conquest and myself would have been ok.

Which leaves the question of what Keith was doing after he left chess behind.

Let's just say I was doing some kind of trading, and in the long run it didn't work out too well, to put it mildly.

I can't say I wasn't curious but the conversation moved on.

I came back to full time chess in 2007, and was progressing along nicely until a bit of ill health wrecked my sleep and cost me 60 Elo points in August, but I still have long term hopes to continue to improve my game. This shouldn't be too difficult, because my weaknesses stick out like a sore thumb!

Arkell coming (2007) or going (2002), I'm not sure which
photograph from

“… back to full-time chess ….” For a long time I assumed that all those guys who became GMs in the 80s and 90s must have been full-time players (for a while at least) but not long ago I noticed Nigel Davies saying that he’d never been more than semi-pro. What about Keith? Was “chess professional” the right label for him?

Yes absolutely. I've spent 85% of my working life playing chess for a living. I don't write much, beyond occasional magazine articles, and don't coach much. My income has come almost entirely from prizes, appearance fees, club chess, simuls, and matches, enabling me to support myself and any dependants, obtain mortgages from the bank, pay tax and National Insurance contributions, and pay my bills, etc etc without any state help. This by any definition makes me a professional chess player. I doubt I'll get rich from it, but luckily for me I have no desire to buy properties in the Algarve, or luxury yachts to park just off freshly purchased exotic islands.

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Morphy got cross whenever anybody referred to him as a professional chess player so I liked Keith’s evident pride in the tag. Given that he returned to the game it’s obvious that there must be an upside to the life of a chess pro but what about the other side of the coin?

The best bit? Doing a job which I enjoy. The downside is the economic uncertainty (i.e. we're underpaid!)

… although it’s notable that unlike some of his GM colleagues Keith had not been tempted to supplement his income by writing books or DVDs. I asked him why that was.

Up until recently I just haven't had any interest in doing those things. Watch this space though because soon there just might be a “My Life on the circuit” type book in the boiling pot, and the long awaited “Arkell's endgames”. The latter will focus on my thoughts and analysis at the board, because I don't think that my theoretical knowledge of endings is any better than that of any other GM. I think my strength in that area is in my practical play.

Personally I'd love to read an account of the life of an 'ordinary' grandmaster (an oxymoron of course). I wondered about the stories Keith had collected over the past twenty years then quickly found myself imagining buying a copy of his book, travelling back in time to that Plymouth simul and showing it to the younger Keith. Would he have been surprised at how things turned out for him?

I would have liked to have demonstrated an ELO rating of 2600, but knowing that I didn't possess the natural ability of Short and Adams, and that I lacked the capacity or desire to really immerse myself in chess, there was always the possibility that things would go pretty much as they have done.

photograph from

Thanks of course to Keith for being generous with his time. Thanks also to my fellow bloggers Tom, Justin, Martin, Sean and Morgan for assistance in the preparation of this article.

Next time (Wednesday 25th):-
Keith Arkell on his playing style, the chess press and that draw with Joe Gallagher

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Harry Brown

Last weekend I nearly went to the cinema. I ended up having a quiet night in instead which was just dandy but if I had gone I'd have seen Harry Brown which had just started playing at our local picture house.

Part of the aforementioned QNI was spent fielding accusations from She-who-believes-writing-a-chess-blog-is-not-a-hugely-productive-way-to-spend-your-time that I only wanted to go because there was a chess scene in the film. I pleaded not guilty and said I'd thought a dose of vigilante violence and Michael Caine running around saying things like "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off" would end the week just nicely. As it happens this was even true as I hadn't known that chess got a mention in the film until She told me.

Perhaps we'll go this week instead.

Still, since we're here, let's get chess geek medieval on its ass.

- "In the seventh match"?

- "black concedes the centre of the board in expectations of a counterplay"?

- "rook to knight up"?

and finally

- "Fischer won"

Not the seventh game he didn't, that was a draw. So, incidentally, was the seventeenth game which was the one where Fischer played the Pirc.

I always find it curious that films will go to so much trouble to try to get things right then bugger it up with really elementary mistakes. Mind you, now I think about it, that sounds a bit like actually playing chess I suppose.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's Only Kingpin

Rejoice, for issue number 40 of Kingpin is out only two years (and a handful of months) after issue 39.

Rejoice and spend money, for there is much to read. But among the contributors is one Justin Horton, whoever he may be, with some book reviews and a piece entitled It's Only Chess. What can I say? To produce pearls there must always be some grit.

Kingpin is available from chess shops - or contact the magazine directly.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When we were Kings IV

Last time on When we were Kings we left Spassky in game fourteen of the 1977/78 Candidates Final with Korchnoi about to up the weirdness ante in a match that had already seen a voodoo blunder and Boris himself refusing to come to the board.

What happened? Ray Keene takes up the story:-

“Spassky now caused an uproar in the audience by appearing on the stage wearing, for the first time, a large bright silver-white sun visor. Korchnoi reacted by demanding the curtains be drawn across the stage, thus screening the players from the audience which had been thrown into tumult by Spassky’s behaviour.”

Of all the bizarre things that occurred in Belgrade, surely the strangest was Spassky’s decision to don eyeshades for the last third of the match. That’s ‘eyeshades’ plural because he wore three different kinds during games fourteen to eighteen, the sun visor not the most outlandish amongst them. I’d be very happy to be corrected on this point but I’m willing to bet that Boris Spassky is the only person ever to have played a competitive game of chess wearing swimming goggles. Yes, swimming goggles - a “pair of skin-diver’s aquatic goggles” to be precise!

In searching for the motivation for Spassky's unorthodox (to say the least) behaviour we will once again investigate the usual suspects - aid to concentration? cynical ploy? – but as last time we will find these explanations lacking. Sherlock Holmes would say that once you've eliminated everything else what remains, however improbable, must be the solution to the riddle. That may be so but, as we shall see, with the Candidates Final of 1977/78 what remains appears to be very improbable indeed.

The most straightforward answer to questions of what Spassky was up to is the argument that there is in fact no mystery to solve. It is known, after all, that Boris had not found the theatre’s lighting to his taste and had earlier asked for the chess pieces to be replaced after finding the originals to be “too shiny”. In these circumstances perhaps the use of eyeshades can be seen as a logical outcome and not something unexpected or unusual?

I struggle, nevertheless, to find the “bright light” thesis credible. For a start, by game fourteen Spassky was analysing from the demonstration board so the chess set in use, “shiny” or otherwise, couldn't really have caused the need for eyeshades of any sort. There's also the obvious point that even if for the sake of argument we accept there was a need for Spassky to shield his eyes, the application of swimwear is hardly a proportional response to dazzle related nuisance. I can see how somebody might come to wear a sun visor after experiencing problems with lighting but swimming goggles? Surely after weighing up the pros and cons of that solution any reasonable person would conclude that on balance putting up with the glare was a preferable alternative to making oneself look a bit of a tit in public.

No, I'm afraid on the available evidence the idea that Spassky took to wearing the sun visor and swimming goggles to help himself concentrate really won't do. On the other hand, the suggestion that Boris's water repelling specs were simply an attempt to put Korchnoi off doesn't seem too plausible either. Even David Levy, connected to Viktor’s camp via his association with Keene, acknowledged that prior to the match Spassky was thought to be “one of the greatest gentlemen in international chess” so it’s not as if Boris had form as a practitioner of the dark arts. What’s more, even the most unsympathetic reading of the match reports show that Spassky was himself genuinely troubled in Belgrade.

According to Raymondo, towards the end of the match Spassky came to believe that Chief Arbiter Bozidar Kazic was “continually staring” at him and had caused his defeat in game seventeen. The accusation might seem laughable, reminiscent of Constable Savage arresting a man for 'looking at me in a funny way' even, but it’s clear that Boris was deadly serious. Spassky apparently repeated his protest against Kazic after game eighteen was adjourned and immediately after the match ended. He felt that Kazic “did not observe the indispensable attitude of neutrality” and that he [Spassky] “realised during the eighteenth game that I was in the presence of dishonest people….”

a good try from Vassily but, like much else in chess,
bizarre headgear was better in the seventies

photo from chess vibes

A reasonable observer might think that a man playing chess wearing a sun visor and swimming goggles should expect to be looked at but could cause and effect be the other way around? Is it possible that Boris wore his various eyeshades because he believed that somebody was looking at him?

It sounds too ridiculous to consider and yet see how Korchnoi describes Spassky’s behaviour at the end of the match:-

“In personal conversations he accused everyone, in particular me and Kazic, that he had been hypnotised and prevented from thinking, and he quickly left Belgrade.”

and goes on to describe a conversation they had a decade later. Spassky, he says, asked him,

“Do you remember, Viktor, how I accused Kazic of disturbing me, and how he once prevented me from placing my knight on f5?”

and then stated that the hypnotist wasn’t Kazic after all but his second, Igor Bondarevsky.

If Spassky thought he was being hypnotised could it be that he wore the sun visor and swimming goggles in an attempt to deflect hypnotic rays or other forms of paranormal activity? It sounds far-fetched I know but while such theories are by nature hard to disprove, this hypothesis does at least seem to be rather more consistent than any other explanation.

It’s a great shame that Boris hasn’t given his own account of the Belgrade shenanigans, or if he has I’ve yet to come across it. I’d love to hear his side of the story though. Perhaps one day somebody will ask him and we’ll find out what he was really up to. Given everything else that was going on during those few short weeks in Belgrade, nothing he said would surprise me, absolutely nothing at all.

When we were Kings


‘“Spassky now caused an uproar in the audience ….”’
Ray Keene, Korchnoi vs: Spassky: Chess Crisis, Allen & Unwin: London 1978 (page 27)

‘That’s ‘eyeshades’ plural because he wore three different kinds ….’
Ray Keene, BCM, vol 98 #3 (March 1978)
- a sun visor, a pair of swimming goggles ... I've yet to discover what Spassky's third eye shade was.

‘a “pair of skin-diver’s aquatic goggles”’
Ray Keene, BCM, vol 98 #3 (March 1978)

‘... Boris had not found the theatre’s lighting to his taste.... ’
Chess vol 43 #785/786 (January 1978)

'... had earlier asked for the chess pieces to be replaced'
Chess vol 43 #785/786 (January 1978)

Spassky had the chess set replaced for game eleven. Kazic agreed to Korchnoi’s request for the original pieces to return for game twelve onwards precisely because Spassky wasn’t intending to actually look at the board.
- appeal decision from
Bozidar Kazic published prior to game twelve (reproduced in Chess Crisis).

'... the logical outcome of an earlier problem?'
Chess cited Australian Cecil Purdy as a precedent for chess players using sun visors to deal with excessive lighting

'... simply an attempt to put Korchnoi off ....'
Many contemporary accounts of Belgrade 1977/78 appear to assume gamesmanship was the motivation. E.g. Chess (vol 43 #785/786 - January 1978) cite German magazine Stern describing the goggles as Spassky's “latest distraction-manoeuvre” while in the BCM (vol 98 #3 -March 1978) Ray Keene observes the Belgrade spectators’ noisily incredulous reaction to Spassky’s various eyeshades and concludes that this was exactly what Spassky had hoped to provoke (the din, not the astonishment).

‘Even David Levy ... acknowledged that prior to the match Spassky was thought to be ….’
David Levy writing in the Spectator magazine – article reproduced in BCM, vol 98 #3 (March 1978)

‘... towards the end of the match Spassky came to believe....’
RDK, Chess Crisis

immediately after the match ended.
interview with the French News Agency cited in Chess Crisis

‘He felt that Kazic ….’
interview with French News Agency

‘A reasonable observer ….’
Raymondo makes precisely this point in Chess Crisis

‘... Korchnoi describes Spassky’s behaviour at the end of the match ….’
Viktor Korchnoi, Chess is my life, Olms: Zurich 2005

‘“Do you remember, Viktor ….”’
Viktor Korchnoi, Chess is my life

‘… this hypothesis does at least seem to be rather more consistent than any other explanation.’
- the hypothesis being that Boris believed he was being hypnotised and was trying to take defensive action, not necessarily that he was being hypnotised.

‘It’s a great shame that Boris hasn’t given his own account ….’
- as Angus pointed out in the comments box last time.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I once heard an established poet instruct his young protégé to put away the poem he'd newly written, and not look at it again for at least six months. Only after finding the crumpled pages musty at the bottom of a half-forgotten drawer, the poet explained, only after rediscovering the words afresh, reading the words anew, almost as if a first time reader - only then would the protégé be able to assess whether his poem was worth reading, whether it really expressed what he thought it expressed, whether it was worth sharing, publishing.

With my chess games, as a rule it doesn't usually take me six months to dismiss my efforts as uninteresting to others. A few days later I see the strategical problems that gripped me on the board and I failed to solve - the tactical sequences that tortured my little grey cells until I blundered through them - the resignation that caused me a nightmare or two - or the smile that stays until morning with victories - I see all that effort and emotion - the game and everything - as nothing but the thuds of wooden swords, waved about haphazardly by toddlers pretending to be titans, fumbling impersonations of the grand battles that characterise truly great chess; a glib and obvious limerick that I dreamed a grand treatise or perfect sonnet, if you prefer. How quick the dream shatters.

But rules have exceptions, and today I'm going to proudly declare a loss I suffered last week against Redhill's Michel Abbink as: actually quite interesting. Or at least, featuring several interesting moments. The first occurred as early as move 6, with myself as black to play:

Not so interesting, you might think - obviously an off-beat line in an already off-beat Sicilian. Except the surprising 6...Qxe5!? is possible, since after 7.Qxe5 Nxe5 8.Bxd5 Nd3+, black is winning back his material in one way or another. After a long think, I decided not to play this, thinking that the relatively closed position after 9.Kd1 Nxf2+ 10.Ke2 Nxh1 11.Bxh1 wouldn't have suited my bishops and rooks:

Maybe, maybe not. But had we reached the endgame, the second interesting moment wouldn't have occurred. That came after the further moves 6... e6 7. f4 g5 8. Nh3 Be7 9. Na3 gxf4:

Now, I had played 9....gxf4 after a good 15 minute thought, and after about 15 seconds he replied 10.gxf4. The interesting line I'd spent all that time calculating, however, would have come instead after 10.Nb5 Qxe5 11.Qxe5 Nxe5 12.Bxd5 exd5 13.Nc7+ Kd8 14.Nxa8:

A very unbalanced position that in my quarter of an hour I decided was perfectly playable for black. The computer agrees with this human assessment, given a minute or two, eventually evaluating chances as even - albeit only if black can find the further moves 14...Nd3+ 15. Ke2 d6. Curious that the first interesting moment saw Qxe5 propel a black knight to h1, the second saw that same move lead a white knight to a8.

Instead of all that, play continued with 10... Bh4+ 11. Kd1 Be7 12. Nb5 Qb8 13. Bxd5 exd5 14. Nd6+ Bxd6 15. exd6+, and here I decided that rather than sacrifice the exchange with 15... Kd8, I'd sacrifice my queen for a rook and a pair of pawns with 15...Kf8, thinking the resultant position was far from clear after 16. Re1 Qxd6 17. Qe8+ Kg7 18. Rg1+ Qg6 19. Qe3 d6 20. Rxg6+ hxg6 21. Nf2 Rxh2 22. Qg3 Rh5 23. d3 Bf5:

The computer doesn't quite agree, suggesting that white has a clear advantage. But from a practical point of view, the white position is not very easy to play at all - awkward, undeveloped, and with the expectation based on the material situation (and indeed the glances of some of the spectators) that the win should be straightforward. The game continued 24. Bd2 Rah8 25. b3 Rh2 26. Kc1 Ne7 27. Kc2 Be6 28. Qf3 Nf5 29. Rh1:

This is the final interesting moment of the game, interesting for all the wrong reasons, interesting psychologically, depressingly so. Faced with both chess and psychological problems in the conversion of his advantage, white has just blundered. But black is not free from psychological problems either: feeling a mixture of tired after a long evening and pleased with my creative play, I had at this point simply stopped calculating, my tactical radar hardly spinning, and I unthinkingly played 29... Rxh1, going on to lose. If I'd seen the position as a puzzle on a blog, say, I would have found the correct move in no time, I am quite sure.

Still, at least the game was interesting . . . Or should I have waited six months before deciding to publish this post?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Run that by me again

Sometimes you're just casually reading a chess book, without looking at a chessboard, when you notice something....

Exhibit A:

"Sometimes Black attempts to neutralize the active bishop by means of 6...Be6 and, it must be said, he has been fairly successful:

7. Nd5 Bxd5 8. exd5 h6! (after the weaker 8...Nd4 9. Nxd4 Bxd4 10. c3 Bb6 11. Bb5+ Kf8 12. Qf3 h6 13. Bd2 White's chances are preferable, Womacka-Schone, Germany 1992) 9. Bxf6 Qxf6 10. c3 O-O with equal chances."

Eduard Gufeld & Oleg Stetsko, The Giuoco Piano, Batsford, 1996, p. 23.
....and you wonder what on Earth they think they're on about....

Exhibit B:

"12. e5?! is imprecise due to 12...b4! 13. exf6 bxc3 14. fxe7 cxd2+ 15. Nxd2 Qxe7 and the compensation for the pawn is non-existent, since White has as many weaknesses as Black, Dreev-T. Petrosian, Moscow 2006."

Reinaldo Vera, Meran Semi-Slav, Gambit, 2007, p. 75.
....and, whether, perhaps, it was written casually, without looking at a chessboard.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Board Beside Me III

This position appeared, early last Saturday evening, on board six in the individual championship of Huesca province, seventh round. It will give you an idea of what a disastrous time I am currently having on the chessboard if I tell you I am the highest-rated player in the tournament by 150 Elo points - yet nevertheless I was playing on the adjacent board.

I had a little glance to my right very early on and noticed that the game had begun 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3. By the time of my second glance the position in the diagram had appeared, much to my interest since it was probably the first theoretical line I was ever aware of, having seen it more than thirty years ago in my father's copy of David Hooper's A Complete Defence To 1-P-K4.

Play had obviously continued 2...Nf6 and then 3.d4 exd4, both unfashionable moves, the first having been displaced by 3.Nxe5 and the second, on those occasions when 3.d4 is played, by 3...Nxe4, the pawn capture having been seen in the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov match but not a great deal since.

Still, just because the supergrandmasters don't play it much any more doesn't mean it isn't perfectly playable at club level, just that it normally isn't played at club level. So, 4.e5 having followed, and not having seen the position on a chessboard for perhaps two decades, I looked forward to seeing what would develop after the near-compulsory 4...Ne4 and then 5.Qxd4 d5 6.exd6 Nxd6, as thus the line normally proceeds, or at any rate used to. Interesting of Black, I thought, to dig up this old, but sound, continuation in his preparation.

Be that as it may, it seemed that Black's preparation had, in fact, come to an end, since his reply took a little time a-coming. So while I wondered whether he was, perhaps, thinking about moving the knight to d5, I turned back to my own game where I had found myself in an unfamiliar position on move two (1.c4 e6 2.e4) and by the time I looked to my right again, Black, eschewing the symmetrical pawn structure and slight inferiority of the main line, had opted for a tactical solution with 4...Bb4+.

What he had hoped to gain from this was - and remains - unclear to me, since White had replied with the not wholly unforeseeable 5.c3

which gave Black the choice of losing either his bishop or his knight.

He opted to send the bishop on its way and indeed after 5...dxc3 6.bxc3 Bxc3+ 7.Nxc3 Qe7 8.Be2 Ng4 9.Qd4 he chose to go on his way too, leaving White free to spend the rest of the evening playing billiards and the present writer speculating as to what Black had been up to in this game - whether he forgot his knight was attacked, or thought White would recapture on c3 with his knight. Or even whether he'd even placed his knight on e4 already in his head.

Who knows. Conceivably he doesn't know himself. Conceivably he never did.