Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chess in Art Postscript: Mirror Writing

Someone has been aping our Alice! A little Italian scamp has been doing it since 1922. Like Alice he disappeared through the mirror, and had adventures with a talking chess set. Well, Gordon Bennett and Così Fan Tutti; is nothing sacred? We are not amused. Off with his head!

Massimo Bontempelli's "The Chess Set in the Mirror" (CSM) sounds suspiciously like Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" (TLG) published 50 years earlier. It was only translated from Italian in 2007 (details in acknowledgements/sources etc at the end), and literary scholars have yet to wake up and pronounce on the coincidence. But no matter; Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog is ahead of the game and will conduct its own inquiry, following on its scholarly revelations (by ejh and the British Library) about the publication date of TLG in Chess in Art XVIII, now definitively said to be precisely 1871. Or 1872.

Both CSM and TLG are all chess sets and mirrors, and both have bespoke illustrations, by Sergio Tofano (aka STO), and John Tenniel, respectively. However, while there is much the same in general terms, there are enough devils in the details to suggest that the Italian job is more than an audacious smash and grab. In this first post we'll examine the written word, the characters and their stories. We'll come back to the illustrations in a second post on the subject.

You probably read Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass many, many years ago and know, or vaguely remember, how he wove verbal treats in to the warp and weft of the books. TLG is a serial play on words and the causes of words.

You almost certainly read it in English. The Chess Set in the Mirror was written in Italian, and now 80 or so years on it comes to us in American-English thanks to a translation by Estelle Gilson. For an English-English speaker, as is your blogger, it is impossible to tell if the original Italian uses puns, rhyme, nonsense and all the devices that Carroll plays with, but even if it was voiced in velvet the Am.-Eng. trans. is cut in plain cloth indeed.

CSM just doesn't have the linguistic sparkle that enlivens TLG. Its prose is straightforward, even pedestrian. This may be fair enough for young readers finding their feet, but only so long as the yarn is rattling good - which in fact it is. In the translation there is a sprinkling of American idioms, to make our friends across the pond feel at home, and of some rather adult words that seem a little out of place in something that has the "specificity" (that was one of them, on page 45) of a children's book.

So this jury is out on the translation. Let a more youthful readership pronounce on its readability (sentences first - verdict afterwards, as the Queen of Hearts might have said) and let's turn to the plot.There is no getting away from it: Massimo Bontempelli's (autobiographical?) ten-year old is a boy; and a mischievous one at that, and unlike goody-two-shoes Alice (she's seven and half, and she's a girl) is in trouble by page five. We find him locked in a room as punishment, and bored out of his inquiring mind. Whereas prissy Alice dreams through her way through her looking glass world trying desparately to be polite to all and an army of sundries, our unnamed kid wants to punch the White King at their very first meeting. That's my boy; though his threat, in the American way, to "sock" someone, and his calling others "morons" later in the tale, takes him dangerously close to an ASBO. Evidently he is on a short fuse, in the Berlusconi manner, which is probably what got him into the naughty room in the first place.

"the king was standing next to me...almost as tall as me..."

Note: the illustrations in this Italian edition, at least, have captions; these are omitted in the English edition.

Both plots wind their ways through worlds on the other side of the mirror, with Alice struggling to play her part in an hallucinogenic game of chess, which makes a modest advert for our favourite obsession. It may inspire younger readers to sample it charms. Just. Our bambino, however, reflecting on his adventure says that "chess unnerves him" so he could never learn to play, which is not the sort of thing we want to hear. He then goes on to redeem himself by adding that "chess lovers say that this is a serious defect", which is mature beyond his years and deserving of a piece of plum pudding. He needs it. Unless I am mistaken the poor lad doesn't get a bite to eat in all 114 pages, whereas Alice and her chums are for ever tucking into cakes, bread and butter, ham sandwiches, oysters, a leg of lamb and enough tea to drown a kitten (which is something else one would like her to do in that insufferably cosy Victorian parlour of hers).

Go on Alice, put us out of our misery

Apart from the tea-breaks there is another profound difference in the realities that Alice and Boy discover on the other side of their mirrors, and what the chess sets did there. For Alice her a characters are amusing, odd, cantankerous according to how the author/Alice's unconscious invents them. They are figments, and the pieces morph and take on human personas. Moreover, they are only realised and exist behind/in the mirror, and since it's her fantasy they can do what ever she jolly well pleases, such as fall off a horse every five paces, as does the White Knight, get up, do it all over again and still get somewhere in one piece.

Boy has encounters of different kind. The characters he meets are real, or at least they were once upon a time. His grandmother, the burglar, the mirror-maker, and all the rest he bumps into on the other side, are the reflections, stand-ins, dare we say Avatars, of/for the real people who have ever looked in the mirror, captured at the time and age when they looked. After all, we do say, don't we (in English anyway; I don't know about Italian) "I caught myself in the mirror" as if to imply the reciprocal possibility: "I was caught by the mirror".

"I am your grandmother"

So, behind, or in, the mirror they talk, they walk, and they live their kind of normal lives so as to give the book a story and to embody the mind games that the author plays with us about the nature of what we see; the difference between people, objects, reflections (and chess pieces); what happens to them when they are aren't being looked at; and, not to be overlooked, what happens to the whole shooting match when the mirror breaks - and why that is pretty bad news all round. All in all Bontempelli creates a clever dialectic between the two sides of the mirror that makes TLG seem somewhat, forgive me, one-sided.And we mustn't forget the chess sets. In CSM, as in TLG, they are prone to belligerence (I suppose they were made that way), but in Italy they do remain chess pieces, have proper conversations and make words mean the same as everyone else - unlike egghead Humpty-Dumpty in TLG who famously insists on maintaining his own idiosyncratic Babel function and disappears into a semantic black hole. To sum it up: CSM has chess pieces and people; TLG has chess pieces as people.

So Bontempelli's little book has some delightful touches, and some teasers to ponder upon, including an echo of Bishop Berkeley's famous challenge to prove something exists when not being looked at. Bontempelli is credited with coining the term "Magical Realism" as a literary genre, but after CSM's BB moment "Magical Idealism" might be a better tag, and sometimes after a heavy session with Lewis Carroll one feels that "Magical Ideasrathertoomuchism" just about sums him up (let alone Dodgy Ideasaboutlittlegirlsism). All in all, both authors come out of it rather pleasingly (urghh...that sounds just like Alice), and so each should get an "ology": Lewis Carroll, for his word-play, a creditable Philology; and Massimo Bontempelli, for his mind-games, a whopping Epistemology.

Now please go and have a good look at "yourself" in the mirror and come back for the second post "Mirror Looking" to discuss the illustrations in the books.

Acknowledgements/sources etc.

"The Chess Set in the Mirror" written by Massimo Bontempelli, illustrated by Sergio Tofano, and translated by Estelle Gilson was published by Paul Dry Books, Inc., Philadelphia, in 2007. Find out more here. The repeated "temptation" motif in the post above is one of several charming chapter markers in CSM.

The Journey Round My Skull blog for 29/11/2009 was a source for the Italian edition illustrations, and an insight into the affection with which CTM, and STO, are held in Italy, akin to ours for TLG and Tenniel.

A good source for TLG, and other things Alice, is the Penguin Classics Centenary Edition 1998.

Incidentally, and for the record, Bontempelli's dates were 1878-1960, and Carroll's 1832-1898.

Chess in Art Index

Friday, January 29, 2010

The uncertainty principle

I was sat at the chessboard on Saturday afternoon and my opponent was not. He was late and I had the White pieces: there would have been nothing simpler, or indeed more sensible, than to play my opening move immediately, to set his clock running before he could set off in its pursuit. But, instead, there I sat, unable to decide which of two opening moves to play. No analysis was involved: no calculation, at least not in the sense one associates with the selection of a chess move. I just couldn't decide whether I wanted to play 1.Nf3 or 1.d4.

I like the knight move more than the pawn, but at the same time I have the feeling that the pawn is stronger: it's a debate I have had with myself, for years, whether to play the moves with which I feel most comfortable or the ones I think are actually best. Moreover, I have a general plan to play the knight against players who are weaker than me, but the pawn where they are stronger: but I didn't actually know how strong my opponent was, since, as not only he, but his team, were yet to arrive, I didn't actually know who he was, or who he was going to be.

So, there I sat, aware of the absurdity of trying to work out in a couple of minutes, or preferably less, what I had spent months, or years, or in truth almost an entire lifetime trying to decide. Eventually, realising that I was entering a debate with myself that could have no end other than a premature one, I screwed my courage to the sticking-place and played 1.Nf3, on no basis more theoretical than sheer gut feeling. And when my opponent arrived we continued 1...d5 2.d4, which only served to emphasise the futility of the process. As do so many other things in life.

Well, if one is to spend one's time pondering the futility of life, one will never get round to pressing the clock at all. That particular thought only occurred to me later in the weekend, and just as well, as it set off a train of thought which might have had me lose on time without making a move at all: beginning with the paradox (or fallacy) of Buridan's Ass, who, presented with two options neither of which is superior to the other, starves to death for the want of the ability to choose one over the other.

There are, I'm sure, applications of the paradox in the early history of computer chess. But I think it may be Paolo Maurensig's The Lüneburg Variation which tells of a chessplayer who, after their professional career is over, and confined in a psychiatric ward, occasionally stares at a chessboard, with the pieces set up in the starting position, for twenty minutes or so, pushes a pawn to c4, looks at it for a while and then takes it back. The more you know, the more you realise that you know, for sure, so very little: the less certain you become, the harder that it is to act, until, perhaps, your uncertainty overcomes entirely your capacity for action. Knowledge isn't, necessarily, power. It can even be its opposite.

There's a celebrated Alan Moore story, I'll Never Forget Whatsizname - part of The Ballad of Halo Jones - in which a character (the Glyph) recounts how, having changed their mind as to which sex they wished to be no fewer than forty-seven times, eventually ceases to know which they are, or even to be perceptible to other people for any length of time at all.
People stopped listening to what I was saying and didn't seem to notice I was there. Everybody forgot about me. I wasn't a boy, I wasn't a girl. I was just a cypher, a sort of glyph.

Life's very difficult when nobody know's you're there. I couldn't get a job because ten seconds after the interview they forgot about me. Also, it was impossible to get served in restaurants.

Finally, my landlady forgot I was living in my apartment and leased it to another family. I protested, but they didn't notice.
I like this very much as a metaphor for our indecision in chess. Changing our minds over and again about which openings we want to play, eventually we cease to have any idea what to do, or what we want, at all. And if you can describe our character, as chess players, by reference to our opening repertoire, then eventually, like the character of the Glyph, with all those changes of mind, it disappears entirely. We end up without characteristics. Knowing nothing.

I'm not there yet. But I wonder if I am on the way, after forty years of playing chess, to losing the capacity to decide. And when it's gone, it won't, I think, come back. All that is left is the uncertainty.

The strangeness didn't end when I played my move, or when my opponent entered and replied. He had used up six of his ninety minutes when he played his first move, but with a thirty-second increment he'd got a minute back by the time he reached move five: 2....Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Nc3 O-O

but over the next five moves he slowed up, and had used up twenty minutes on the clock - that is, another fifteen, plus used-up increments - by the time he reached move ten. 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 Ne4 8.Bxe7 Qxe7 9.Rc1 c6 10.Bd3 Nxc3

By the time he played his last theoretically-approved move, his thirteenth, he was well past the half-hour mark, which given the increments meant he'd taken about forty minutes thinking time - to reach a position which has been known to the books since at least 1984.

That's not so bad, you might be thinking. Just because it's in the books doesn't mean he knew it was there. Perhaps he had to work it out himself. Quite so, in principle. Only thing was, that I'd reached the position after White's thirteenth - 10.Rxc3 dxc4 12.Bxc4 Nd7 13.O-O - once before. A year ago, in the same round of the same competition, against precisely the same opponent. The only difference had been that on that occasion, my opening two moves had been played in the other order. Other than that, it was exactly the same.

Same player, same variation, same position. He had been there before. He must have known it. Repertoire or preparation, he must have known it. And just as curiously, on the previous occasion he had played his tenth with ninety-one minutes - all his original time plus another minute - on the clock. This time, seventy. I can't understand it: the forty minutes or so he used on his first thirteen moves could have been closer to forty seconds.

He was down to a couple of minutes by move thirty-three, when he missed two chances, one at least of them simple, to draw. Just one or two of those forty minutes ought to have been enough.

Position after 33.Qb3

So what was that about? What - in every sense - was he thinking of? Whatever it was, it wasn't worth it. It made no sense. Whatever reasoning he was using was false. Pointless. Erroneous. Fallacious.

So, as it happens, was Buridan's. I once tried out his thought-experiment on a cat I knew, giving him two identical options, two bowls of food of exactly the same size, to see how he would approach the problem of which option to take when neither could be meaningfully distinguished from the other.

As it turned out he did not waste to death while the dilemma failed to resolve itself. He suffered no misfortune either physical or philosophical. There was no reflecting on futility. Matter of fact, there was no delay at all. He attempted to resolve the problem by trying to eat them both.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blue or Red Pill VIII

Today I'd like you to join me at the Surrey - Middlesex county match held at Ashtead Chess Club last Saturday afternoon. Following the game we will have a lift home from Paul Archer to enjoy that will include the uncertain delights of an interminably long anecdote from fellow passenger Paul Barasi, the central theme of which will be that he has not 'been' for three days. For the moment, though, all that is in the future. Right now we've got some chess to play.

White to play
JMGB v A.N. Other
Surrey v Middlesex, 23/1/10


1. O-O

Can't be bad. Complete your development and then get busy while Black tries to move his bishop, get his king safe and find a square for his queen. Got to be good for White and yet, on the other hand there's also,

1. Nxf7

Looks very tempting doesn't it? Might there even be some mileage in a follow up sacrifice with 2. Bxe6+ Kxe6, 3. Ng5+? Not that you have to throw the bishop in as well. Perhaps just give up one knight then check with the other? 1. ... Kxf7, 2. Ng5+ Kg8?? is going to be mate and if Black goes elsewhere the very worst you're going to end up with is a couple of pawns and Black's king stuck in the centre in exchange for the piece. Does it matter so much that it's not immediately obvious how you're going to get the rooks into the attack?

To sac or not to sac? That is the question.

BORP Index

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ray Could Play IV

one of the strangest games i have ever played

Ray Keene on RDK v E. Holt, Blackpool 1971

Last Wednesday I mentioned in passing that Ray Keene produced a whole series of exceptional performances when competing for the British Championship. Anybody even vaguely acquainted with Raymondo's playing career will know that he won the title itself in 1971 but what's not so well known, at least I wasn't aware of it until I took a closer look at his life at the board, was that he played 49 games at the national championships before he was beaten* [EDIT: 48 games without defeat then he lost the 49th - see comments box]. The chess scene was very different back then no doubt but playing through four and a half British Championships without defeat is pretty impressive any way you slice it, especially if they're your first four and a half.

When he sat down opposite one Eric Holt for number 25 of those 49, the third game of his championship winning tournament at Blackpool, RDK must have thought himself to be quite an experienced player and ready for whatever the British might throw at him. However what he got was quite unlike any game he played before or since and one that would leave me puzzled when I discovered it all these years later.

Baffled? You will be.

Our hero, playing White, emerged from a cagey opening with an edge and by move 34 he was able to capture Black's rook's pawn,

34 Qxa4

securing a big advantage. The position is hardly resignable just yet but after much pushing of wood Keene temporarily gave the material back to open up the kingside,

98 Bxf5

and now things are looking genuinely dicey for Black. Holt wasn't ready to throw in the towel though and neither did he surrender when one of his passed pawns dropped a couple of moves later ...

101 Qxg2

nor when Raymondo responded to a desperate bishop sac by forcing the queens off ...

105 Qa4

... when he was able to let his last piece fall ...

113 Kxb6

... when he got his first new Queen ...

117 e8=queen

... or even the second one.

124 d8=queen

I wonder how many other times RDK has been two queens up? I imagine by this point he was expecting Holt to play on to the bitter end which was exactly what happened.

128 Qef2 checkmate!

It's true that nobody ever improved their position by resigning but I think Black's failure to take any one of 127 opportunities he had to hoist the white flag would have raised a few eyebrows even in the middling divisions of the London League in which I play let alone at British Championship level. You'd have thought that since Holt had been looking at that rotten position for so long he'd have wanted to be shot of it as soon as possible but apparently not.

Holt's determination to keep things going isn't the game's only oddity. There's also what Ray was doing between moves 77 and 93:-

[Dunno why the Red arrow pops up for some of Black's moves. Do drop me a note in the comments box if you can explain it to me - cheers, JMGB]

Marvellous. Samisch - Nimzowitsch, Copenhagen 1923 may be the very definition of "zugzwang" but Raymondo has got himself a lock on "shuffling about" with that methinks.

So why did Holt play on for so long and what was Keene up to with the extended king stroll? Could there be a connection between one question and t'other?

Over at RDK says that Holt was "incredibly pissed off" after the game. Even before I read this I was wondering whether Holt might have been irritated by RDK's lackadaisical approach and hadn't resigned through sheer cussedness but then neither was it obvious to me that Ray had been taking the mickey. It seemed just as likely that he'd been trying to build up time on the clock to be able to plan the decisive breakthrough properly although as it turns out neither 'wind-up' nor 'clock management' is actually the right explanation.

Over to Ray once again:-

finally i reach a q+ b endgame where i have to break thru-my first plan was to march the king to the q side and break thru on the kside-then i thought it might be easier to break thru on the q side so i marched the k back again. then i realised i had been right the first time so i walked the king over to the q side again before making the decisive g4 thrust-however-having been there twice before i had to march my king along a route the third time round which avoided threefold repetition-

So there you have it - Ray was just having trouble making his mind up. That just leaves us the question of why Holt played on so long. Sadly, unlike Raymondo, he doesn't have a chessgames page so I suppose we'll probably never know the answer. Still, that he did so means we have definitive proof that no matter how lengthy the game Ray could play.

Ray Keene Index

* By Craig Pritchett at Eastbourne, 1973 (round 5)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

We are not amused VI

An elderly and resolute gentleman sits on a park bench with his stick and his chess set. The vacant seat beside him invites you in for a game.

Jan Karski (2002) Georgetown University.

Sculptor: Karol Badyna. Photo by John Weiss.

It is an unlikely tribute to a Polish war hero, brought to our attention by Mark Weeks via Tom Chivers, whereby we can enjoy this poignant sculpture and pay our respects to its subject.

Jan Karski (1914-2000) was in the Polish underground resistance to the Nazis. He risked his life to alert the Polish government in exile, and the Allies, to the Nazi genocide against Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and extermination camps. His heroism was belatedly recognised. After the war he settled in the USA and was a professor at Georgetown University where this memorial is installed.

The life-size statue shows the modest Karski siting unassumingly on a bench. There is no bombast or heroic gesture, no sense of triumph, maybe because his selflessness was in vain. The horrors of which he warned happened anyway, for whatever complex reasons, in the maelstrom of WW2.

We aren't used to seeing a chess set saluting a war hero. As a symbol it doesn't seem quite adequate to such self-sacrifice and bravery, except as a gesture to his humanity. But it is there beside him, the person who confronts you: it is about him, and what he stands for. The walking stick reminds you also of his ordinary frailty, and he sits with a straight back determined to be unbowed by evil.

The sculptor was Karol Badnya. An article in 2003 by Jalenta Antecka about the artist, and the subject, says that Karski was a keen chess player. Sculptor Badnya taught himself the moves so as to create a chess position for the work where, if you accept the invitation to sit down and play, Karski will win in all variations! Evidently, like the rest of us, he didn't like losing at the board. Cast in bronze he never will.

We could try and check out at the position, but unfortunately the good students and/or citizens of Georgetown, Washington DC have borrowed some of the pieces, for trophy paper-weights perhaps (from a memorial to a war hero? We are not amused):

Photo by Kevin H.

Undaunted we could go to New York to look at another edition of the sculpture, unveiled later in 2007 at Jan Karski Corner outside the Polish Embassy. It has the bits intact, apparently, photographed here by Sheena, but even with all the pieces it is difficult to figure out the position (help, please!).

Or go to Kielce in Poland to check out another edition..

Photo by Pawel Ciesla

....dedicated in 2005, but where they have put Karski's citation on a bronze newspaper blown in on the wind. I'm not so sure that this touch enhances the sense of repose in the work, which otherwise gains resonance from its placement opposite the site of another anti-Semitic outrage.

It is sobering to see so many chess sets in so many places honouring the memory of a quiet hero.


Photos (in order):
John Weiss; Kevin H.; Pawel Ciesla .

"Monuments" by Jolanta Antecka in "Dziennik Polska", October 25, 2003. Referred to here.

Chess in Art Index

Friday, January 22, 2010

It's The Sam Wot Won It


Sam Collins v Tim Spanton

Hastings Masters, 2009/10


1. e4 e5


2.Nf3 Nc6
3.Bb5 Nf6
4.0-0 Nxe4


5.Re1 Nd6
6.Nxe5 Nxe5
7.Rxe5+ Be7
8.Nc3 Nxb5?


9.Nd5 0-0??




11.Qh5 g6
12.Qh6 Re8




[from an original concept by Jonathan B]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ray Could Play III

Hutchings – Keene, Barcelona Zonal 1975
Black to play and win

So as the new decade begins Raymond Dennis Keene finds himself to be the subject of articles in Private Eye and Kingpin* once again. Plus ca change I suppose, although judging by this post (the ninth photograph down is highly amusing, Sean Marsh's enthusiasm for the role of Ray's Latest Bitch less so) the man himself doesn't seem to be too troubled by the current turn of events. Anyhoo, this seems like a good time to get back to Raymondo the chess player (previously: RCP, RCP II, RCP -I) where much of interest awaits us.

One of the curiosities of Ray Keene’s playing career is that he never managed to qualify for an Interzonal tournament. He finished 11th-12th of 16 (+3 =11 -3) at the Caorle zonal in 1972 and 4th of 8 (+2 =4 -1) at Barcelona in 1975 which although far from disastrous performances were nevertheless a little disappointing when compared to his exceptional results at countless British Championships and Olympiads. It's true that British qualifiers from zonal tournaments were a rare breed back in the early 70s, Raymondo himself wrote at the time** that the last home player to succeed at a zonal was Harry Golombek in 1952 (!), and yet lesser players than Keene managed it. If David Levy (English but representing Scotland) made it through from Praia da Rocha in 1969 [he didn't - see comments box] and Gennady Sosonko won in Barcelona a point and a half ahead of RDK despite being 35 elo points lighter, then our man could certainly have hoped to have made at least one Interzonal appearance.

Ray never got the chance for a third bite at the cherry because by the time the Amsterdam zonal in 1978 came around he was busy helping Viktor Korchnoi prepare for his World Championship match against Karpov later in the year. When he looks back on this aspect of his playing career perhaps it is some consolation that his game against Hutchings won the prize for the “best attacking combination” at Barcelona.

Of the position at the top of today’s blog Keene would later write,

“The concluding combination is not very difficult, but what influenced the prize judges was probably the logic of a dark square counter-attack beginning with 13 … Ng4 ….”**

‘Not very difficult’ for a soon to be grandmaster perhaps, if trickier for the rest of us, but an attractive finish nonetheless. 13 … Ng4, by the way, was an original RDK idea. A theoretical novelty, moreover, that Informator (21) considered to be one of the most significant innovations of the year.

The usual move in this position is 13 … O-O intending to answer 14 Bh4 (idea: 15 Bg3 to exchange the bishops) with 14 … Nh5. At first sight Keene’s 13 … Ng4 looks rather childish in comparison. The transparent threat against h2 is easily parried and in doing so White seems to force Black either to waste time retreating the knight to whence it came or accept busted kingside pawns by going back to h6. In fact the latter is exactly what Keene had in mind.

The point behind the apparently frivolous knight manoeuvre is that the White can only mangle Black’s pawn structure at the cost of giving up the g5 bishop which inevitably reduces his ability to counter Black’s dark-square strategy mentioned in the quote above. There are less co-operative ways to play than Hutchings’ response but still it’s surprising how easily Black built up a massive attack on the kingside after 14 h3 Nh6, 15 Bxh6 gxh6***. Surprising to me anyway, and to Hutchings it would seem, but evidently not to RDK who had clearly prepared the line most carefully.

So we're back to the puzzle position where we came in. Black to play and finish off a fine attack. He may be better known for off the board issues these days and he may have underachieved at zonal tournaments but nevertheless this game, the brilliancy prize and the important theoretical novelty prove that Ray could most certainly play.

Ray Keene Index

* Both concerned allegations the details of which, along with many other things can be found at

** Becoming a Grandmaster, Batsford 1977
(I have translated the descriptive notation of the original into algebraic)

*** Ray’s notes suggest 15 Bxh6 is “a near fatal error”. He recommends 15 Qb1 instead whilst Santos – Keene, Algarve 1975 continued 15 Rc1 O-O, 16 Re1 Nf4 (0-1, 25 according to my database although the final position given doesn’t look to me like one White would resign)

Monday, January 18, 2010

How real life doesn't imitate chess

Here's a chess quote that surely deserves to be better known, on the subject of how real life doesn't imitate our fantastical game. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 3rd edition, page 98, if you must know) put it like this:
the problem about real life is that moving one's knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net.
And to those like Kasparov who argue that in fact life does imitate chess, all I can say in reply is - game, set, and checkmate.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bad book covers X

2010 Chess Oddities, Dunne, Thinker's Press 2003

Bad book covers index

Friday, January 15, 2010

Shameless spivvery

My Private Eye has been late arriving in this snowy weather, or snowy for most of you at any rate. Fortunately I have been sent the Ray Keene Bit in time for readers who want to buy the magazine for themselves to do so, should they wish. If they do not wish - here, with thanks to my correspondent, is the clipping.

The newish Kingpin website is not of course entirely devoted to matters Penguinoid, though you are invited to view anyway. Still available, too, is the relevant issue - if I may, perhaps, engage in a shameless piece of spivvery.

[Ray Keene index]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


“Can we do chess Uncle Johnnie?”

This is what my niece Freya – three years old as of yesterday - says when she wants to play.

Three or four months ago I noticed that Freya seemed to be very curious about the clipboard chess set that I’d left lying around one day so I opened it up and showed her the board and pieces.

“What is it?” she asked.

“That’s chess Freya.”

“What does it do?”

At first I thought I’d have to make up some kind of game for her to play to keep her interested. Pairs seemed to be a good idea but Freya seemed to find it difficult to distinguish the pieces and in any event I soon discovered the set itself was more than enough. She really enjoys just moving the pieces around and making up patterns.

On Boxing Day I was checking my games on Red Hot Pawn and Freya took one look at the screen and exclaimed “That’s chess!” Pretty soon she was playing through one of my games on chessbase, quickly grasping how to move the pieces back and forth using the arrows on the keyboard.

I’d assumed that Freya's fascination with chess would wear off pretty quickly but when I saw her the other day she was really upset that I’d forgotten to bring my set with me. I did have my laptop with me but after a quick go on chessbase she asked,

“Can we do proper chess now?”

I guess she likes being able to put the pieces wherever she wants them rather than being constrained to pre-existing patterns.

I suppose at some point Freya will be ready to learn the moves. I've no idea when that will be or how I’ll go about teaching her. I imagine I’ll just play it by ear, perhaps starting with Fox and Geese as suggested on a recent ChessPub thread.

I know one thing though – since Freya has the bad/good (delete as you feel appropriate) luck to be born to non-playing parents I’ll have to be taking my responsibilities as Chess Uncle most seriously :-).

She didn't solve it.

Freya's brother Nathanial ...
not yet 18 months old and still to be bitten by the chess bug.

It turns out I'm not the only Uncle Chess at S&BCC. Here's a picture of Angus' nephew also taken at Christmas.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mid Season Rapidplay

It’s slightly later than planned but today we have the final report on the S&BCC mid-season Rapidplay which took place on Tuesday and Thursday last week.

Congratulations go to Alan Hayward who scored three wins out of three on the second day to finish a point clear of the field on 5.5/6. If you play all your nearest rivals and you give up just a solitary draw there’s little doubt that you’re a deserving winner. Last summer Alan was leading the club championship going into the fifth round but then came up against the John Bennet Gambit and his challenge rather faded away. I’m sure his victory last week will more than make up for that disappointment.

The final scores were ...

5.5 – Alan H
4.5 – Martin S, Andrew P
4.0 – Jan K
3.5 – Morgan D
3.0 - Jonathan B, Gary S, Ash K
2.5 – Robert B, Dave H
2.0 – Angus F (3 games), Barry B, David S, Stan R
1.0 – Dean L-M (3 games)
0.0 – Marc P

Aside from Alan’s win we should give an honourable mention to Jan’s third place finish. I’m pretty sure it’s the best ever performance of one of the library players at one of our rapidplay events. As for the leader at the half-way stage ... well let's just say your humble scribe failed to trouble the scorers in the remainder of the tournament.

One of the things I had trouble with, both in our event and at the Richmond Rapidplay on Sunday, was striking the right balance between the need to think and the need to move. Take the following position from my round 4 S&BCCMSR game against Andrew Ponting ...

Black to play

This is a fairly standard position from one of my pet lines in the French. The only difference is that the light-squared bishops have already left the board which should in principle favour Black. Anyhoo, Andrew has just played 12. Bd2 leaving me with the choice of trying to snatch the c-pawn or castling.

Taking on c2 is often suicidal in this line but I felt it should be possible here although I also thought it would be risky. A few minutes of reflection didn't change this assessment in the slightest so I decided to go 12. ... O-O as the safer option. I should probably have just done that straightaway, either that snap off the pawn and trust my intuition that I'd be able to find some moves for Black regardless of how White would respond. Either way I would have been able to move more or less instantly. I certainly would have been glad to have the extra time on my clock later on.


From the diagram above, one possible line of play was 12 ... Qxc2, 13 Rc1 Qe4+, 14 Ne2 O-O.

White to play

Now 15 f3 doesn't trap the queen (as I'd thought it would at the time) but how about 15 Rc7? In fact although it looks pretty dangerous the tactics seem to work out and Black's fine.

How does Black respond to the rook invasion?

So not the greatest second half of a tournament for me but that's the nature of quickplay events I suppose. There will always be plenty of ups and downs in this form of chess and it certainly could have been worse for me.

Take this game, one of the very last to finish in the whole tournament. With both flags hanging it seemed that either side could lose on time at any moment.

Black to play

If "!" means good move and "?" means bad move, what's the symbol for "oh dear"?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

We are not amused V

Quite a lot not to be amused about in this post, including another example (as a postscript to We are not amused) of overprotective photo interdiction, this time at the British Library, with a snapping ban at their current exhibition on the early days of, fer Chrissakes, photography. The show is called "Points of View"(note 1). Well, you've just had mine.

And on the subject of overblown prohibitions, note en passant the predilection of the French authorities for keeping you off their pelouses. Back in October, I was conducting some field work in Paris (well, someone's got to do it..) on the blog's behalf into Germaine Richier's Grand Echequier in the Tuilerie Gardens, hoping to get a close up, when I was confronted by a Grand Non! Consequently her gargoyle chess set looks a bit remote, but you can just make it out:

Back to the British Library, where "Points of View: Capturing the C19th in Photographs" displays (until March 2010) "maybe the earliest chess photo ever taken" - an appellation discussed in Edward Winter's Chess Notes last year (note 2). It's a shame you can't snap this historically and chessically significant pic. for yourself, so, as if to emphasise the oddness of it all, you have to make do with a reproduction of a print of the image of maybe-the earliest-chess-photograph ever taken, on the BL's own definitive website, and it's reproduced below:

The game of chess c1844-5.

Photographer: Antoine Francois Jean Claudet (1797-1867)

Put that date in perspective: Howard Staunton was then just approaching his prime, and Paul Morphy wasn't yet ten years old. But Claudet's study wasn't of Mr. Staunton, it was, according to the British Library, of himself. He's on the right. It is difficult to say who is his opponent under the topper, but it must have been one of the other pioneering photographers in the circle around Claudet's collaborator, the better known William Henry Fox Talbot.

Edward Winter's Chess Notes credits Michael Clapham of Ipswich for providing a source for a comment that the picture "brilliantly captured the tension that prevails during a chess game". Well, maybe and maybe not, as we'll see in a moment. The source also says that the pic. was Fox Talbot's handiwork (though dated to 1840).

Mr. Winter also reproduces another picture, which comes via the late Ken Whyld, which was "ostensibly taken on the same occasion":

Double exposure?

Yes, the same occasion surely (in spite of the date given in the legend of 1846), with again Fox T's claim, or attribution, of authorship, which by the way is also given in Chess magazine in November 2009, in an article by Gareth Williams (note 3). But if we stick to the British Library's guns (and, don't forget, they have the original), and go with Claudet as having the legitimate claim, then we can say that he not only took maybe-the-first-ever-chess-pic, but was also maybe-the-first-ever-victim of an airbrush conspiracy - quite an achievement.

But double-take now on the second picture, and consider another reason not to be cheerful: the two protagonists are obviously playing to the camera, rather than chess with each other: Claudet insouciantly reverses his chair, and his companion adopts, to my mind, a very unchessic posture whilst fiddling with his pieces.

Doesn't this give the game away? If the two pictures are from the same sitting, then it appears unlikely they were playing high-tension chess at all, in either picture, including the first one, in what is after all a photographic studio. It was all a pose.

And why did they bother? My first guess is they created the the black and white chess set-up as a stiff test for their new-found photographic skills, using the black topper as a striking tonal contrast to the blond tresses of M. Claudet - just like a primitive T. V. test card:

All of this jiggery-pokery and context-trickery makes it especially ironic that the BL website has a comment (note 4) by John Berger, author of classic Ways of Seeing (note 5), that seems to take the exhibition picture at face value as a serious chess game. Claudet, and his collaborators, Fox T. included, might have been amused: they set up a (bogus) scene portraying the psychological dimension of the game, and then cash in its cultural resonance to show (and this is my second hypothesis as to motivation) that photography could compete with painting as a vehicle for serious, proper, art.

But there is more to all this even than that. The BL exhibition dates Claudet's "maybe the first" chess picture to c1844-5. But, remarkably, on display is an even earlier one, dated July 1842 (inscribed on the print), showing a certain "Sir David Brewster playing chess": that's two years further back! And it's by Fox Talbot!

Four quick points to make: first, there is no reproduction of the picture in the exhibition catalogue or BL website so you will have to get to the BL to see it, or make do with my sketch.

Second, as you can see, it shows only Sir D., with no opponent, so the Claudet two-player pic. trumps it on that measure. Third, fascinatingly, Brewster was a Scottish enlightenment tail-ender; a rationalist and polymath who (a) invented the kaleidoscope, (b) discovered a law of light reflection now named after him, (c) demonstrated how the the Turk chess-playing automaton could conceal a man and avoid discovery.

And the fourth point? In the BL pic. he poses in a dark dress coat and trousers with with the white pieces counterpointed against his sleeve, test-card style. So: a study in black and white contrast, a precedent for Claudet, and a successor perhaps to this amusing piece:

Eine Schachpartie 1755.

Johann Raunacher (1705 -1757)


1.British Library : Points of View, Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs.

2. Edward Winter, Chess Note 5977, 29 January 2009. Where you will find references, and sources, for reproductions of these pictures, in considerable detail.

3. Gareth Williams, Collector's Corner. Chess, Vol. 74, no. 3. His source for the picture is Chrisitina Hole, "English Sports and Pastimes", Batsford 1949, which also apparently gives 1840 for the second picture. Mr Williams says "that Fox Talbot (sic) probably chose chess players as sitters, due to their ability to hold pose for the long period of exposure time necessary..". The British Library exhibition caption to the first picture also goes with the chess players "remain...immobile" assertion. Well, (a) Claudet was a photographer not a "chess player", other than a casual one, (b) chess players fidget when playing and aren't especially endowed with a talent for immobility - ask any life-class model. So (c) they used chess for other reasons.

4. 'A game of chess, like a game of cards, begins anew, offering pristine open choices. Thus, such games differ from life, where the continuity of cause and effect is endless, and no-one can ever return to start again at a beginning. This partly explains the deep and universal appeal of these games. The camera, conceived to interrupt endless lived time at "a decisive moment", is unequipped to enter the discrete time of games. It can take pictures of the players but it can't enter the time-field of their game. Claudet's photograph shows a camera placed at a frontier beyond which the camera cannot go.'

5. John Berger. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books 1972. Reissued 2008.

Chess in Art Index