Monday, August 30, 2010

Chiv Chat

  • Ah, the joys of alternate universes, where maidens are wooed over the 64 squares, and demons look on. Meanwhile, ask yourself a question. What if chess had never been invented until, well, just now? That's the premise of this review from another world (thanks to Richie C):
In a definite nod to Tetris, Chess eschews any kind of personality and styling in order to emphasize its supposedly addictive gameplay. Unfortunately, that gameplay is severely lacking. For one thing, there are only six units in the game. Of those six, two are practically worthless while one is an overpowered "god" unit, the Queen. She's your typical Lara Croft-esque 1990s "me, too" attempt to attract the fabled gaming girl audience from out of the woodwork to help solidify a customer base for a game that simply cannot sell itself on its own merits.
  • Remember Dom Joly? Of Trigger Happy TV Fame? Remember he did a chess scene? Me neither. But YouTube says otherwise. Happy Bank Holiday viewing, assuming any going out is entirely rained off.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bill Hartston Coda: The Master Game 1981

As a coda to the Bill Hartston interview Jonathan has been running in the week, here's something that's recently been posted on YouTube: the audio files of an episode, if that be the right word, of The Master Game, the much-admired and influential BBC chess show which ran for a number of years, and on which Bill appeared first as a player and later as a commentator (a role originally played by Leonard Barden).

As you'll gather from the term "audio files", the original visuals are not shown and not presently available (although you can see a little of the original opening titles here) although the format wasn't dissimilar to the one we saw on Wednesday in the Spassky-Karpov game, albeit without any recourse to a demonstration board during time trouble.

So for those who were too young to see the series, the graphics employed by the estimable SearchBucket do give a reasonable idea of how the programme worked. A diagram filled much of the screen and showed the progression of the game, while the players' faces came up whenever their thoughts - reconstructed and recorded after the game - were transmitted. This seems obvious now, but at the time, it was original and sensational.

I remember this particular game very well, Short building a dominating position out of apparently nothing, then retreating the rook to the wrong square and nearly throwing the win away, until Miles' disastrous 47th made it easy for him.

Or so we thought then. But the computers, which we did not have then, can tell us different now. 42.Rf1 was not an error after all.

In the game there followed 42...Nb4+ 43.Ke2 Rc2 44.Kd1 Rxb2, which last would have been impossible (and the whole line simply losing) had White played 42.Rf2 because 45.Bxg5+ would win the rook by discovered attack.

This is all true as far as it goes, but the computer demonstrates that rather than play 44.Kd1? White had 44.Nd6!!

which wins, because after, say, 44...Rxb2 (alternatives make little difference) there follows 45.Rf7+ Kd8 46.Rxg7

and not only is the h-pawn close to queening but White is threatening 47.Rg8+ - with mate if Black moves the king. Black is entirely lost.

Moreover, as recently pointed out on Chessgames* - I'd be interested to hear of any earlier analysis - Short's error was actually the move before - ironically, precisely the move which Miles was afraid of, 41.g5.

Miles replied 41...hxg5 and on the clip we can hear that he considered, unenthusiastically, 41...Rf8 and 41...Nd8. But it transpires that he had 41...Nxd4!

which wins a pawn - for instance 42.Rxd4 Kxf7, or 42.Nd6 Nxe5+, or 42.gxh6 Nf5! or 42.Nxh6 gxh6 43.Rxd4 Nxe5+ (or 43.Kxd4 hxg5). Perhaps best for White is the obvious 42.Kxd4 after which 42...Rc4+ - presumably, and perhaps surprisingly, what the analysts and players must have missed - which regains the piece with 43.Kd3 Rxf4 44.Bxf4 Kxf7. Although after 45.gxh6 gxh6

it seems to me to be a draw, a position in which both sides are tied to their weaknesses and hence neither can make any progress. A draw which I think Miles would have more than welcomed by that stage of the game.

So what should Nigel have played instead? On the programme he dismissed 41.Be1

giving the continuation 41...Nb4+ 42.Ke2 Rc2+ 43.Kd1 Rc1+! with a fork (44.Kxc1 Nd3+ 45.Kd2 Nxf4. That's as may be, though White still looks favourite to me after 44.Nd6:

but having already carried out one monster analysis this summer I am afraid I propose to leave the Search For Truth in that position to somebody else. But in fact, after 41.Be1 Nb4+ the simple 42.Bxb4+ looks good enough to win: 42...axb4 42.Nd6 Rf8 (forced) 44.Rxf8 Kxf8 and now 45.Nc8!

should pick up a pawn and presumably the game, e.g. after 45...Ke8 46.Kc2 Kd8 47.Na7! followed by 48.Kb3 and 49.Kxb4. (47.Nd6?! Nb8! is rather less convincing, which trick is also the reason for preferring 45.Nc8! to 45.Kc2.) So Short was, it seems, quite likely winning anyway.

It was a remarkable result. He was still three years short of becoming a grandmaster: but while it would yet be several years before he overhauled Miles as England's number one, this was surely a warning that he would one day do so. A game as important, perhaps, in English chess history as Penrose-Keene. Despite its prosaic appearance, a memorable game.

It was a memorable show. I would always be amazed that my schoolfriends, who to my certain knowledge were not players, would watch the programme and then come to me and talk about it the following day. But that was an index of how good it was. The world has changed since then, but I do not see why something a little like it would not be good again.

[* Chessgames currently gives a date of 1980 for the game, which seems unlikely, although the games were of course played some time in advance of transmission. The date of transmission of this particular game was 1 April 1981.]

[Thanks to Richard for his assistance with this piece]

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bill Hartston Speaks III: What Bill Did Next

On Monday we spoke to Bill Hartston about Chess on TV and on Wednesday we had a couple of examples of his work. Today we have a natter with him about what he's up to these days. As it turns out, not all of his time is going on building towers out of chess pieces ...

Jonathan Bryant:
“So, you’re working at The Daily Express and you’re doing the Beachcomber column. Trivia, would you call it?”

Bill Hartston:
"Well, no. Beachcomber is surreal humour. Officially I’m 93 years old because the column is 93 years old. It was written by a guy called JB Morton for 50 years and he, I think, was a very profound influence on the development of British humour. You can see Beachcomber to The Goon Show to Monty Python as the development of ever more surreal humour. Morton was a genius."

“How did you get involved?”

“When I was at The Independent, for a brief time Rosie Boycott was the editor there and she moved on to become editor of The Express. I met her again at just the right moment: she was thinking of sacking the guy who was writing the Beachcomber column because it wasn’t funny and she had actually been discussing that day who they ought to get to write it. My name had come up and I met her that day.”

“You met her because she had asked you to come to see them?”

“No, it was somebody else’s leaving party at The Independent and in fact it was about three months she’d left. Quite a lot of Independent people had gone to The Express and I’d been sort of half expecting her to ring and it never happened.

Knowing she was going to be there I’d prepared the scenario: our eyes meet across a crowded room; we stride into each others arms; we hug and then I say, ‘Rosie where have you been? You never write, you never call, you never offer me a job’. Exactly that happened. To my great surprise she then said ‘Oh do you want to come on over then?’ (laughing) then told me that they’d been discussing a new Beachcomber. The next morning I had the offer of a job.”

“When was this?”


“And were you writing chess columns at that point?”

“For The Independent ... and everything else for them as well.”

“Did you continue to write about chess?”

“No. Well …”

“I seem to remember you writing for a Sunday paper for a while.”

Mail on Sunday, but I had to stop doing that when I went to The Express because they were such rivals.”

“And that was when you stopped the chess?”

“There was a brief moment when The Express had a puzzles supplement and I did some stuff for that but that’s all.”

“Do you miss that at all?”


“Not in the slightest?”


“Are you involved in chess in any way? Do you play at all?”

“I play online occasionally but mostly against computers.”

“And do you follow chess?”

“Occasionally. I try to discover what’s been going on for the World Championship matches.”

“Did you go to the London Chess Classic?”

“No. No I wanted to but there was just a busy week.”

“Are you in touch with anyone from your chess years?”

“No, I don’t think I am. Certainly none of the real players.”

“It’s something that you’ve moved on from?”

“Yes. I occasionally go to the RAC chess circle annual dinner. They’re terribly civilised.”

“It sounds like it! So, no more chess but you're involved in a website now - - that’s an outgrowth of a book that you’d written?

“I wrote a book a few years ago which was called ... well, the first edition was What’s What and the second edition was Mr. Hartston’s Most Excellent Encyclopaedia of Useless Information. For both The Independent and The Express I have at times done silly news stories and I browse the news wires every day for this kind of thing. I collect them, whether I use them in the paper or not, and I have this ever growing file of silly news stories which goes back to 1995. It’s now something like a five million word database of complete rubbish.

I’ve always been appalled at the standard of accuracy of trivia books that copy a lot of complete rubbish from each other so I thought the time had come for a proper encyclopedia of nonsense. So I did that and now the website, Wakkipedia. There are three of us basically doing it. One is the computer and internet person, one is the design person and I’m the editorial. They don’t overlap. We’re adding things all the time.

That's it for Hartston Week; we thank him for his time. We're not quite done with him yet, though. He'll be back with a little more for the S&BC Blog in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bill Hartston Speaks II: Chess on the Telly

After Monday’s ‘Chess on TV’ chat with Bill Hartston it seemed fitting that we should follow up with a couple of examples of his work today. Happily, through some kind of technological witchcraft that is completely beyond my comprehension, a couple of guys have managed to get some of their ‘videos taped off the telly’ collection uploaded to YouTube so there’s quite a few programmes to choose from.

FIDE TV World Cup 1982: Dr. John Nunn does Big Hair.

At first I was tempted to go with Seirawan–Nunn from 1982, although, if I'm honest, that was more to do with the youthful Doctor’s barnet than the chess. In the end I went for JN of a later, and considerably less bouffant, vintage. Game 6 of the Kasparov–Short '93 World Championship match is a fine battle and, moreover, the newest of the S&BC Blog’s close personal friends appears in the BBC's coverage in the role of lead commentator.

Great stuff. I couldn’t quite resist the lure of TV Chess '80s style, though, so here’s Spassky-Karpov, the final of the tournament that featured the aforementioned Seirawan-Nunn encounter. Got to love Boris lighting up before he moves so much as a pawn. Truly, it was a different age.

If you listen closely about two minutes into this clip you can hear Spassky referring to Karpov having a chance to "sacrifice the quality".

So, that's how it used to be in the '80s and '90s. These days, in contrast, there's no chess on the TV and Hartston's kind of disappeared too. Did you ever wonder what happened to him? Come back Friday to find out.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bill Hartston Speaks

Didn't They Use to Put Chess on the Telly?

Did you see that chess programme on TV the other night? No? Me neither, because … well for a start because there wasn’t one, obviously.

That was how today's post was originally going to start - a pretty safe bet I thought - but jigger me backwards if the BBC schedulers didn't go and bung some chess on the box: a repeat of something from last winter. How to Win at Chess was first broadcast over Christmas 2009, and to a largely favourable reception if my non-playing friends are anything to go by, but it was the first programme devoted to our favourite game for what seems like an eternity and there hasn’t been anything since.

There was a proposal for a feature on junior chess at the recent British Championships but sadly it came to nothing. Our best chance of finding some chess on the box any time soon would seem to come from the cameras that were stalking Peter Williams in Canterbury although whether this footage will ever actually make it to the screen remains to be seen.

These days chess appears on our televisions about as frequently as Haley’s Comet turns up in the night sky. Older readers will recall, though, that it was not ever thus. The Master Game came a little too early for me but I do remember a similar series in 1986 which featured the likes of Kasparov, Short, Nunn and Korchnoi amongst others. In fact, looking back, it seems as if chess was never off the tellybox back then.

Apart from the countless editions of The Master Game, there was a programme on an Olympiad ('86 or '88 if memory serves) narrated by Stephen Fry; a Speelman vs. TV Audience challenge where the viewers phoned-in their votes to decide which move would be played; a Short-Kasparov match of six 25-minute games and the World Championship always got covered. All of these were great to watch but if I had to choose a personal favourite it would be Play Chess, a series which introduced a younger audience to the game.

It was clearly our greatest era and nobody, aside perhaps from a certain R.D. Keene, could challenge Bill Hartston’s claim to be television’s “Mr. Chess”. Although no longer actively involved in the game, back then, some tournaments broadcast late at night on ITV aside, if chess was being televised Hartston would inevitably have his fingers in the pie. I caught up with him for a chat about his appearances on TV and why the game has all but disappeared from our screens. Our story begins, as many chess narratives do, in Reykjavik forty years ago …

Jonathan Bryant:
“How did you get involved with presenting chess on television?”

Bill Hartston:
“It started in ’72 with Fischer–Spassky when I was one of a group of commentators. We did a weekly programme on the match and they seemed to like the stuff I was doing. The producer of that was a guy called Bob Toner who was also the originator of The Master Game. That came about because at the end of Fischer–Spassky he thought there was a future for chess on television.

Bob was a man whose mouth, brain and feet always seemed to be operating completely independently and often flitted in different directions at the same time - which gave him just the right short attention span needed to make constantly fascinating TV programmes. We had this meeting to discuss what to do next; it was mainly him thinking ‘it must be competitive, you must have pieces moving on their own’ and he came up with this idea of the players speaking their thought processes. He got technicians in Bristol to work on the problem because they didn’t have electronic chess graphics back then and they came up with something quite beautiful that worked.

The first two series of The Master Game resulted from that meeting. It was largely because I’d won both of them and was there throughout all of the production that I knew very well what was involved. It seemed natural that I should then move up to … well, I think in the first international one I got knocked out in the first round or something and then moved on to become commentator.”

Imagine Chess Now without viewers calling in to sexually harrass the presenters

Play Chess was different in that it was instructional and aimed at children I think.”

“Yes, very much at children. Chess was done by Documentary Features at that time and the Children’s TV department said ‘Could you do us a chess programme?’ so we made a pilot after one of the Master Games. That went down well with them so we did the series. The funny thing about Play Chess was that one year at least it was on over the Christmas holidays every morning immediately after a programme called Why Don’t You…? - ‘Why Don’t You turn off your television and do something useful’ - and we got a bigger audience than they did. (laughs)

- I was astounded to hear this. I bet everybody around my age, I’m in my early 40s, remembers Why Don’t You …? Even today, some thirty years on, the programme’s full title (“Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?”) remains etched into my brain.

It was hugely popular. We loved it even if, or perhaps because, we cheerfully ignored the programme’s central message: staying home all morning watching television was always going to be preferable to venturing out into the fresh air! Play Chess getting an even bigger audience than Why Don’t You…? was truly astonishing.

I expressed my surprise to Bill. Was it really true?

“Yes. We were getting audiences of about 2 million which was amazing.”

“The BBC must have been pleased surely?”

“Oh yes but I think that with all the chess things, for the cost of the programmes the audience was extraordinary.”

“Did you write it? Did you decide what was going to be taught and how?”

“Oh totally, yes.”

“Were you happy with the result, with what you’d created?”

“Not with my own performance but the general tone of the things yes I think we did quite well.”

‘Not with my own performance’ meaning …”

“I’m sure I’d cringe and hide under the nearest piece of furniture if I saw them again now.”

Although for a minute there I did think that David Goodman might start talking dirty to Jeremy James at the end of this bit (Check out that phone btw)

“Would it even be made these days? One of the ironies of television at that time compared to now is that today there’s 24-hour television and huge numbers of channels while back then it would have been, what, three I would imagine? Three channels?”

“Three or four, yeah.”

“Three or four. The point is there’s so much more TV and yet …”

“No chess, yeah”

“Why is that?”

“I think it’s just a question of there being no-one within the BBC who wants to do it and it’s very difficult doing things from outside. Also I think Short-Kasparov [1993 – JB] killed everything. Once you’ve had an Englishman playing for the World Championship there’s nowhere to go. Anything else would be a comedown.

“I remember that people I knew who didn’t even like chess particularly would watch that simply because it was on so much.”

“Yes. Well I suppose the history of chess on television is from Fischer-Spassky to Short-Kasparov. They’re nice bookends. They both had interest outside the mere chess.”

“Because … well Fischer is obvious but Short because he was English?”


What chess on TV was like in the olden days - well at least it was on TV then.

“And you were involved in the commentary for that as well. It’s the last one I remember you doing which maybe because it was the last one.”

“Yes. That was completely ridiculous because Channel 4 thought that they had bought the rights to the match which stopped the BBC covering it. The BBC were so annoyed that they had been used to push up the price that Channel 4 paid for it, though, that we did the thing. At one moment they were denying access to the games to the BBC so we had at one man that nobody knew about with a pinhole camera going into the Savoy.”


“Yes! We weren’t transmitting the pictures of course but during the first game of the match the only source we had for the moves of the game were this guy’s pinhole camera and the Channel 4 teletext. There was a BBC van outside the Savoy where interviews could be done and since they were doing one at the time we couldn’t get the pinhole camera thing because they only had one line to transmit stuff to us.

So David Norwood and I were doing the commentary for the first game and the only source for the moves we had was teletext and there was one move that was wrong. We were broadcasting as though we were watching the game live and up came this move that just made no sense. I just guessed. I looked at the ones after it and guessed what the move was, fully prepared to go back on it if necessary. It was the only thing to do and fortunately I’d guessed right and we got through.

When we finished the programme Norwood just looked at me and said ‘That was amazing. Well done.’ He said when he saw the wrong move come up on the teletext he thought ‘That’s it. We’re fucked.’ (laughs)

Then the producer came in and said ‘God that was hairy’ and he of course hadn’t been following the moves. Norwood said ‘You have no idea how hairy that was!’ It was an amazing experience.”


On that hirsute note, so ends the story of chess on British television: Fischer-Spassky 1972 to Short-Kasparov 1993 with not much to follow. Oh well. At least these days we can look up clips from the old days on Youtube.

They used to end TV programmes like this:-

We'll be back on Wednesday for a little more of Bill Hartston. Please join us then.


Bill Hartston photo from
David Norwood photo from Dr. Mark Ginsburg

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chess is a roller coaster ...

... just got to ride it.

Photos from:-

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bad book covers XIII

Who Is The Champion Of The Champions?
Baumbach, Smith and Knobel, Exzelsior Verlag, 2008

[Bad book covers index]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sixty Memorable Annotations

#1: Fischer-Sherwin, New Jersey Open 1957

7 ... Rb8

Sherwin slid the Rook here with his pinky, as if to emphasize the cunning of this mysterious move.
Bobby Fischer, My 60 Memorable Games

I got an entry form for a chess tournament in the post the other day. Alas, the weekend of 19th/20th/21st November will find me in a hammock in St. Lucia but were that not so I would definitely be heading down to Torquay for the 44th Torbay Chess Congress.

I played in this event last year and can heartily recommend the experience. The tournament is well run, the venue is excellent (extortionate price of a cup of tea notwithstanding) and Torquay makes a welcome change for those of us more used to bigger, louder and smellier places such as London.

The congress follows my favourite schedule for a 5-round Swiss: one round on Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday with games played at the relatively leisurely pace of 36 moves in an hour and a half then 30 minutes back. It also has rather tight grading bands for the individual tournaments which is something that I like very much indeed.

With an open, an u-170, an u-150 and an u-120 you're pretty much guaranteed five games against opposition of similar strength. In tournaments with fewer but larger sections you can end up trapped in a cycle of defeats against much higher-rated opposition and easy wins against folk much lower-rated which is not an especially inspiring way to spend your weekend.

The downside, I suppose, is that you can get some unusual pairings this way. Last year I started win - draw - loss but as my results deteriorated I found myself playing ever more highly rated opponenents!

Anyhoo, if you fancy a chess tournament in the Autumn you could do a lot worse than go to Torquay. You can find more details and an entry form at

Torquay, the home of
good chess and top-quality accommodation

As much as I enjoyed my weekend in Torquay, I can't say that I played particularly well. I scored 50% in the u-170 section which was not a disaster by any means but +1 would have been par and +2 would have been easily attainable had I not spent rounds two and three dropping material to one-move blunders. A fun weekend, then, but also a disapointment.

I'd done quite well in an event of similar strength in Paignton a couple of months earlier so I'd started with reasonable hopes of getting into the prizes. As it turned out, the highlight of my tournament came, long after I'd lost all hope of winning any money, when I reached this position in the final round:-

Black to play
A.N. Other v JB, Torquay (5) 2009

If I'd known anything about the theory of this line I'd have played 9 ... Nd4 but I didn't so instead I went for preparing queenside expansion with 9 ... Rb8. It wasn't the move itself that gave me so much pleasure, though, it was how I played it - and that brings me to the title of today's post and the beginning of a new series.

If you're like many (most?) amateur chessers you've probably owned a copy of Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games at some point in your life. If so, perhaps the position and annotation at the head of today's blog, are already very familiar to you.

I don't know why the aside about Black's use of his little finger stuck so firmly in my mind but for years I vowed to myself that if I ever got the chance to play ... Rb8 in the opening I would do it 'Sherwin-style'. In the last round of the u-170, Torquay 2009, I finally fulfilled this long-standing ambition.

Insert as many smileys here as you think appropriate.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Opposite of Chess

A beautiful move is a beautiful move: and it doesn't matter whether it is played on a glittering, giant board with human pieces dressed perfectly in character, horses et al, golden banners shimmering above, or on a battered travel set in the middle of a crowded tube with a sachet of salt standing in for the white king. As an aesthetic experience chess is a pristinely mental thing; the where, the how, the with what - uninteresting, irrelevant, beside the point. In some ways, then, the website Etsy is the complete opposite of chess: Etsy is a website whose users directly sell their home-made, one-off arts and crafts; all things individual, unique, unreproducible.

But you know what they say about opposites attracting. And lo, there's rather a lot of chess stuff on Etsy. Here are some of my favourites:

A snip at $6500:
a steampunk chess set, apparently.

Much more affordable. A $1 badge.
Splash out another 50 cents, and they'll magnetize it.

Aw. Could you ever sacrifice such a soft, sad thing?
This knight's name is Arnold.

Subtle, non-embarrassing, and chess - but $250.
Where's the IKEA version?

So. Perfect presents for the chess player who has everything? Or is all such stuff that is not the moves, mere unmattering nothings?

Thanks to my fiancée Sarah Condry for the tip.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

We are not amused VII

Now that the dust has settled on the ECF's flagship event, and its attendant controversies, it is timely to check out some of its other initiatives: chess in schools and chess for youngsters is a good place to start, even if the free chess set plan appears, unfortunately, to have gone down the Swanee.

So we broach the vexed subject of how to engage young people in the game and ask, politely, whether it is prudent to give the oxygen of publicity to such goings on in Hastings as we found on the ECF website on July 19th, when some stunning artworks were showcased. They are created by locally based Leigh Dyer at Incurva Studios (and are helpfully installed adjacent to a large, and conventional, open air chess set).

Yep. Stunning. And surely they'll be popular with the kids.

But what do these works say about the Royal Game? Don't they give just an incy wincy bit of the wrong impression? Might not the younger generation be lead to think they may finish a contest by strangling the opposition with their conger eel? Or that castling is a clammy wrestle with a giant octopus?

This, then, is not entry level chess, it's basic Ichthyology; and we learn more about the up close and personal inclinations of such creatures of the deep than, say, the preference of the rook for the open file. We even get a hint of the dark side of the octopussy's habits: in treacherous latitudes they are wont to drag stately galleons down to Davy Jones's Locker.

By Pierre Dénys de Montfort in 1801.

Judging from his sonnet the "The Kraken", Alfred Lord Tennyson also took more than a passing interest. Apart from eulogising his eight-legged friends, the poem is noteworthy for its precocious use of some latter-day vernacular, for example "wondrous grot". Actually, and strictly speaking, he had another meaning in mind distinct from our modern understanding of that effluent term, namely hidey-holes for the "enormous polypi" referenced in the ninth line - but on reflection both phrases sound like the product of an excavation by some spotty youth of the danker crevices of his person; the sort of thing he might then charmlessly flick at the cat.

But getting back to those eye-catching artworks on the ECF website: the same artist continues his marine theme in some semi-abstract pieces shown off as below in coastal settings.

It is asking a lot of a sculpture to stand up to the immense horizons of a seascape. This piece goes with the grain of the setting by evoking the swooping and soaring of seabirds on the updraught, or the swirl of the tide against the rocks. Whatever you see, your eye runs over and around it as an arresting axis on which the panorama is pitched.

And in the back rows of some fishing village this quirky piece makes a joke of a familiar scene - also making a point about street-wise bike security (lock it or lose it - no laughing matter).

Lamppost with penny-farthing and brace of pheasants.

Which suggests that the ECF's featured sculptor may have, along with his bent of seriousness, a humourous angle, and one wonders whether, if we look for it, we might find a subversive gag in his chess pieces, something that perhaps the ECF, and the good folk of Hastings, haven't yet registered.

In fact it's just possible that in those works there's an allusion, perhaps unconscious, which if headlined in the local paper might cause some hurrumphing. Look again at the eel and octopus from a different point of view. It's all in the eye of the beholder of course, but aren't those creations - to confirm Reuben Fine's worst suspicions - more than a little, ahem, Priapic?

Spare maiden ladies their blushes! Shield the eyes of children! Phone the Council! Don't they realise that this is not chessplay, but foreplay? I'd say that cephalopod was from the same stable as the blissful pair enthusiastically sharing a lady's fantasy in Hokusai's The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife.

And you can see that for yourself, if you wish, here.

The ECF should be told, don't you agree?

Chess pics by Pam at Hastings Chess. Pics of Leigh Dyer artworks from Incurva Studios website. Reuben Fine "The Psychology of the Chess Player" (1956/1967) Dover, New York.

Chess in Art Index

Friday, August 13, 2010

When we were Kings IX: Little Earthquakes

Small Earthquake in Chile - Not Many Dead

Claud Cockburn

I have a friend who lives in Canterbury. She, it turns out, had no idea that the British Championships were being played in her home town until I mentioned it to her a few days ago. As a matter of fact, she even works at the University and yet still didn't have a clue what was happening right on her doorstep. We're not exactly writing the songs that the whole world sings are we?

As EJH mentioned on Monday, the Evening Standard's decision to ditch Leonard Barden's chess column right in the middle of the British was rather symbolic of the how chess gets treated by the mainstream media in general right now. I'm not sure it's our fault particularly, in fact I'm sure it's not, but the fact remains that these days we have a bit of a problem getting anybody to notice us. The current, rather dismal, state of affairs certainly stands in marked contrast to how things were in the '70s.

Claud Cockburn once famously claimed to have created the least interesting headline in newspaper history. I wonder what he would have made of,

Spassky Calls Off Chess Game Because of a Cold”

This zinger appeared not once but twice in The Times in December 1977 and shows better than anything else just how newsworthy our favourite game was back then. It's not just that it used to be front page, mainstream news. When we were Kings chess even got reported even when it wasn't played.

The Times
10th November 1977
page 7

Frauenfeld, Switzerland, Nov 9. – Viktor Korchnoi, the Russian chess grandmaster, was injured in a road accident last night and will have to postpone his world championship semi-final against Boris Spassky.

Korchnoi, aged 46, who defected from Russia last year, suffered a broken hand and other minor injuries when a taxi in which he was travelling collided with a Swiss Army vehicle.

The semi-final match against Spassky was to have started in Belgrade on November 15. Swiss chess officials said the two men’s managers were discussing another date. – UPI

The Times
16th November 16, 1977
page 11

Belgrade, Nov 15. – The world chess championship semifinal match between Viktor Korchnoi and Boris Spassky will start next Monday instead of tomorrow as had been planned.

Korchnoi, who injured his hand in a car accident recently, asked for a postponement today and Spassky agreed. – Agence France-Presse

The Times
3rd December, 1977
page 5

Belgrade, Dec 2. – Boris Spassky, the former world chess champion, today called off the sixth game in this match against Viktor Korchnoi because he had a cold. The game will be played on Monday.

Korchnoi is leading in the match by 3 ½ points to 1 ½. The winner will challenge Anatoly Karpov, the present champion, for the world title. – Reuter.

The Times
8th December, 1977
page 6

Belgrade, Dec 7. – Boris Spassky, losing 2-4 to Viktor Korchnoi in the match to decide who will challenge Anatoly Karpov for the world chess championship, called off the seventh game today because of a cold. The game will be played on Friday.

Each player has the right to three postponements during the 20-game match. Spassky has now exercised the right twice.

The Times
19th December, 1977
page 5

Belgrade, Dec 18. – The tenth game in the match between Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi to find a challenger to Anatoly Karpov, the world chess champion, adjourned on Friday night and due to be resumed last night, was put off until tomorrow at Korchnoi’s request. – Reuter.

See also: Trio
WwwK Index

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Best of the British

In my view, this was the best game played in the British Chess Championship 2010.

What more could you possibly want? A curious opening battle, followed by a brilliant sacrificial attack. If white plays 30.Bxc4 he will finish the game a rook and two bishops ahead - but checkmated.

Monday, August 09, 2010


How typical of doctors to find the one part of Randolph's body which is not malignant and to cut it out.

Evelyn Waugh, on Randolph Churchill undergoing surgery.
It's been some time since I read the Evening Standard, and rather longer since I paid to read it, my acquaintance with it gradually withering to the point where the only time I would ever read it was when I found a discarded copy on a train.

Even then, the only reason for reading it was Leonard Barden's daily chess column, which I would hope to find quickly, before coming across Allison Pearson or anything else that would be bad for my blood pressure. In future, it appears I need not take the risk: for Barden's column has been discontinued, in the print version of the newspaper at least. This is - or was - the oldest daily-running chess column in the world.

There are any number of reasons why this is bad news, but one of them can be seen by viewing the image below (click to enlarge, if you can bear it) in which the solutions to the puzzles are actually displayed above, and alongside, the diagrams to which they apply. Amazing. I expect the Standard will now start running film previews which give away the ending. Or crossword puzzles with the grid already completed.

The fact that this actually occurred during the British Chess Championships is a testament to how not only the Standard but the British media as a whole cover chess: to wit, they don't. Losing - so casually - the longest-running chess column we have can only make that situation worse.

However, it's not impossible that the column might be saved. The same thing happened last year, and the column was restored after a lot of people contacted the newspaper to complain. A campaign is being mounted and people are requested to contact the editor of the Standard, Mr Geordie Grieg, and ask him to reinstate the column.

You can email via or
or you may prefer to write a letter, in which case the address is
Evening Standard
PO Box 2309
London W8 5EE
but whatever you do, please do something. Please be polite (and you may wish to avoid the kind of pejorative description of the newspaper with which I began this piece). But you may also wish to remind the Standard of the role that their newspaper played, back in the Seventies, in making English chess world-class - for instance, in sponsoring the Evening Standard congresses in Islington, in which so many talented players took part.

They were happy enough to be associated with chess then, and chess was happy to be associated with them. On my desk is a copy of Leonard Barden's Chess Puzzle Book from 1977: published by Faber and Faber, it is subtitled An Evening Standard Chess Puzzle Book. These are sad days for our game.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Time, gentlemen, please

This was going to be a different posting: I had intended to close our Canterbury Fortnight by encouraging all who can to go to Sheffield next year. I understand it's looking like it'll be a a stronger Championship than usual, for which congratulations will be due to everyone involved. I recommend Sheffield - I like it very much as a city and while it's been some years since I've been to the Fat Cat, if it's as good as it used to be, then that's pretty good.

But in the meantime, back to Canterbury, and specifically back to the controversy that emerged from the tenth round in the Major Open, and the game, if game it can be called, between Francis Rayner, the veteran Welsh Olympiad team member and pianist and Angus French, longstanding Streatham and Brixton Chess Club player and personal friend of the present writer. As well as declaring that interest, I should add that I was around 650 miles away from the University of Kent while the events described were happening, and while every effort has been made to establish the facts in order to write this piece, I'd be happy to accept any well-informed correction. But enough preface: to the narrative.

The Major Open functions as a qualifying event for the British Championship. There are various ways one can qualify for the Championship, but one of these is to attain a certain score in the Major Open. Any player who scored 7.5/11, or more, in the 2010 Major Open would have a place reserved for them in the 2011 Championship. There was also a first prize of £1000, a second prize of £500 and so on, down to £100 for fifth.

When the tenth round was drawn Angus, the long-time leader of the tournament, had lost to Caius Turner in round nine and the two of them shared second place on 6.5, half a point behind Paul Talsma and half a point ahead of six players on 6.0 including Francis Rayner. That's the players' positions relative to one another: but perhaps more important was their position relative to the magic score of 7.5. Angus, who had never qualified for the Championship, was a point off that target, so for him, a win would clinch qualification. Francis was a point and a half away, so for him, a loss would render qualification impossible.

Francis Rayner

Angus, who had the black pieces, arrived at the venue. The clocks were started and when the half-hour that represented the normal default time had elapsed, Francis had not yet arrived, though he did so very shortly afterwards. Angus claimed the game: Francis played his first move and pressed his clock. The arbiters conferred and declared that play should continue, a decision against which Angus then appealed.

It transpired that Francis had phoned, prior to the normal start time of the game, to say that he was going to be late. It is not 100% clear to me who he spoke to, nor what exactly he was told, nor on what basis he was told it - and so, though these things are of some importance, and in each instance I have a good notion, I won't pretend to know for sure. What is clear is that, for whatever reason, nobody communicated this information to Angus. He was not told that Francis had called. He was not told that he was going to be late, nor that this might result in the default time not being applied.

The consequence of this failure was that when that default time arrived, Angus had an entirely reasonable expectation that he had already won the game (and, not unimportantly, achieved qualification for the 2011 Championship). Moreover, his opponent, then arriving at the venue, apparently had a reasonable expectation that the game would be allowed to start. Clearly the two are irreconcilable.

Angus then had to submit his appeal in writing, which naturally meant that the game did not in fact continue. Nor did it do so while the Appeals Committee were considering his application. The Committee decided that Francis should not be defaulted, but that instead, he should be awarded a half point, while Angus should receive the full point. Among the consequences of that decision was that a game which should only have yielded a point yielded 1.5 to its two participants, something which, very understandably, did not entirely amuse all of their rivals for the prizes.

I don't want to paraphrase the Committee's reasons for making their decision, not having spoken to any of them or having the text of the decision to hand. For what it's worth I think they probably did their best with what, for reasons I'll enlarge upon below, I think was a stupid and impossible situation that should not for several reasons have arisen.

I'll also leave, for now, any discussion of the obscure but nevertheless comprehensible decision to pair the two players again in the eleventh round (though the comments box is available should other people wish to go into it) and I'll mention only briefly that that eleventh round game was a draw, which meant that Angus, with 8.0, came second in the tournament while Francis, with 7.0, missed out on Championship qualification by half a point and finished fifth, shared with five other players.

But what of the impossible situation which had arisen? As I've said above, I do not know exactly what Francis Rayner was told, nor who told him, nor the reasons for saying whatever was said. It appears that he was told that there would be no default: certainly he seems to arrived at the board under that impression and the decision of the arbiters not to enforce the default tends to back that feeling up. So does the decision of the Appeals Committee not to default him.

If he was told this, though, I do not think he should have been. It was certainly within the powers of the arbiters not to enforce the default: the relevant clause (under INFORMATION FOR COMPETITORS) reads
Default time:- Players arriving 30 (10 for Rapidplay) minutes or more after the start of a session shall lose, unless the arbiter decides otherwise. Repairing will normally be offered after that time.
Shall lose, unless the arbiter decides otherwise. Or put more briefly, does unless it doesn't, or will unless it won't. It's a real crock of a clause, saying, effectively, nothing at all, giving neither competitors nor arbiters any guidance whatsoever as to what circumstances will cause the default to be applied, or otherwise.

However, let us try to offer such guidance, albeit retrospectively, and suggest what should have been taken into account. There are, of course, very different philosophies when it comes to the framing, interpretation and enforcement of rules, whether these relate to default times, or start times, or mobile phones, or players' behaviour, or any of a myriad of situations and circumstances that may arise during a tournament.

I probably tend to the stricter end of the spectrum in most instances, partly because I believe that that way, people know where they stand and partly because otherwise, I think people who manage to comply with the rules are penalised for doing so, to the benefit of people who do not. Be that as it may, I accept that not only are there legitimately differing approaches, but that the rules of this particular competition gave particular scope for different approaches to be taken.

However, my view is that no assurance should have been given to Francis Rayner (if indeed it was) that the default time would not be applied, because such exemptions should only be made in exceptional circumstances, and these would be circumstances which are wholly beyond the capacity of the player to anticipate. His reason for phoning was, as I understand it, that he had missed his train because a cashpoint hadn't been working.

Which to me, is not within a mile of good enough. It is really up to the player to get to the venue on time. It is up to him or her to anticipate that traffic jams may occur, that trains may be late or cancelled, that cashpoints may not always operate, that there may be queues at the ticket office. Ash clouds causing the cancellation of your flight? That would likely be good enough, provided that there is space to reschedule your game. Hurricanes, blizzards, plagues of frogs? Fair enough. But "the cashpoint didn't work" is about as good, as an excuse, as "the dog ate my opening preparation".

That may not be the most generous view ever taken. But why should it be? This wasn't a mid-table, end of season fourth division club match. This was the tenth round of the Major Open, with qualification for the country's most important tournament at stake. There was too much to play for it to be treated trivially, If, in the British Championship itself, in the penultimate round, on a high board, one of the players had phoned in and said they were going to be late, does anybody imagine that this would have been accepted and a default not applied? I do not think so. So is there really any reason for treating the qualifier for that competition so very differently?

I think Francis Rayner should have arrived at the venue under the clear impression that if he was not there within the stated time, he could expect, subject to appeal, to be defaulted. But he didn't. And if he didn't, if he was definitely and clearly told, by an arbiter, that this would not happen, then he was quite right to have the expectation that he would be allowed to play. Otherwise, the arbiter's word means nothing. But if that was the case, then plainly, for all sorts of reasons including basic courtesy, the player who was waiting surely had to be told. Angus wasn't.

Angus French

This is incomprehensible to me. It blows my mind. I can imagine no good reason for it. None. Even if Angus left the board after thirty seconds and came back to it after twenty-nine minutes and forty-five seconds, I can imagine no good reason for his not being contacted. [EDIT: but see comment from John Saunders which may very well provide a good reason.] Nothing better than "gross incompetence", at any rate. At the very least, if a player is not at the board and can be nowhere seen - and these are very sizeable ifs - it is quite possible to leave a note on their side on the board saying something like


Is this not the case?

I appreciate that arbiters have many things to do, but I do not believe that in half an hour - or more, assuming that the call came before play began - it is impossible either to contact a player who is present either at his board, or elsewhere in the venue, or to leave him a note. I can only conclude that if he was not contacted it was because it was not considered necessary to do so.

If that's the case - and believe me, I'd be glad to be informed of any circumstances which somehow made it impossible or undesirable to contact Angus - then the arbiter responsible made a rod for their own back. Because they put two players in a position where they were entitled to expect opposite, mutually exclusive things, and they put the subsequent Appeals Committee in a position where they had no way of resolving this without being unfair to somebody.

To summarise. Francis Rayner called an arbiter, and asked if it was all right if he was late.
a. If they did tell him it was all right, they should not have.
b. If they didn't tell him it was all right, he should have been defaulted.
c. If they did tell him it was all right, they should have informed Angus French of the situation and of their intentions.
I would fault, and fault seriously, the phrasing of the rule relating to the default time, the decision (if such decision was made) to allow late arrival and - perhaps more than anything else - the failure to inform Angus.

I wouldn't fault the Appeals Committee. What could they do? They could have told Francis that he was to be defaulted, but if he was given an arbiter's assurance, that would be very harsh. (If he wasn't, then he should have been defaulted, end of story.)

They could have told Angus to play, but given that he had done absolutely nothing wrong, and had arrived at the default time with every legitimate expectation that he had won the game, it would have put him in a completely unfair psychological position. He was present at the default time, his opponent was not and he had been given no reason to think that the default time would not apply.

They could have instructed the players to play, or they could have suggested that half a point be awarded to both players unless both were willing to play. That would have been possible. But that would have posed the problem of treating both players as equally responsible for the situation, whereas one had arrived on time and one had arrived more than half an hour late.

It's a common cop-out, in all sorts of situations, to wave one's hand and say "let's split the difference" regardless of whether all the parties concerned are equally responsible, and to my mind the Committee are to be commended, rather than criticised, for not taking that easy route. In the end they seem to have said that one player should have won on default, hence he gets a point: the other should have lost, but was unwisely told that he would not, so we'll give him half a point.

This of course, neglects the question of the interests of their rivals, who were penalised themselves, at least potentially, as a result of 1.5 points being awarded for a game when only 1.0 should have been available. In the event, I think the only adverse consequence from their point of view was that a five-way tie for fifth became a six-way tie. Although you could argue that had the Committee decided to split the point (which I think would have been wrong) the two players who shared third and fourth would have shared second to fourth with Angus instead.

Either way, it is an an absurd situation whereby 1.5 points have to be awarded for one game, actually or potentially penalising players in other games, players who have played within the rules and arrived within the stipulated time. This is why you have clear default times - so that everybody knows the rules. If you don't apply them, that is when you cause problems for everybody else. If you bend over backward to accommodate people who are late, you penalise other people as a result, people who have managed to comply with the rules. This is why it is weak, and wrong.

I would hope that lessons are learned, and that this doesn't happen again in the future. Specifically, I would hope:
  • that the rules relating to the default time are rephrased ;
  • that they are tightened, and that it is made clear that a player will in normal circumstances be expected to arrive within the default time, i.e. that the phrase "default time" has real meaning ;
  • that on any future occasion where a player's reason for arriving late will or may be accepted, their opponent is informed as a priority ;
  • that the concept of the 1.5 point game does not become commonly applied as a get-out clause to cover bad arbiting practice and decisions.

I've no desire to get on anybody's back about what happened, partly because I think it turned out all right in the end, partly because arbiters are people who give their time to enable the rest of us to play - and often do it for plenty kicks and little thanks. But at the same time, when there is so much at stake, there really cannot be this kind of circus. For some players, qualification for the British Championship might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. That has to merit better practice than occurred last Thursday.

[Francis Rayner photo: Gibraltar Chess Congress]