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]


Tom Chivers said...

It's totally fascinating how many tactics they missed - pretty modest ones too.

Were players just not as on the look out for random tactics then as now? Or is it to do with the time limit? Or were they blunted by the 'need' to be didactic for TV? I wonder...

sadly factual said...

There's another reconstruction up now:

This is of Short-Byrne 1981 (Master Game)

It's not as slick as searchbucket's reconstruction but, the original content is pretty much there.