Thursday, January 13, 2011

Keene's Gambit

Keene's Gambit
Sunday Times Colour Supplement

13th January 1991
page 16-26

For more than five years Raymond Keene(left) and Tony Miles, leading figures in British chess, have been locked in a dispute so acrimonious it has threatened to destroy both their careers and, in the case of Miles, even his sanity. Report by Nick Pitt.

English chess is booming. From the turn of the century until the mid-seventies there were no English grandmasters and the England team was the whipping boy of the world. Today there are 17 English grandmasters, and the English team is second in strength only to the Soviet Union.

But all is not in harmony. The two men most responsible for the renaissance of the English game are Tony Miles and Raymond Keene. In 1976 they were the first two Englishmen to achieve the coveted grandmaster title. But Miles and Keene are deeply antagonistic to one another. Miles has accused Keene of corruption, and has spent two years trying to expose him. Keene claims that Miles is a “dangerous lunatic” trying to ruin his career, and that he has an answer to every charge Miles has made against him.

Their conflict began on the chessboard, thought it has gone far beyond it since. When chess, thanks largely to Bobby Fischer, moved into the modern era of big money and high publicity, with $1m purses for world championship matches, the financier Jim Slater put up a prize of £5000 for the first British player to become a grandmaster. Ray Keene, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, was the hot favourite to win it, but he was denied the prize by the meteoric rise of a young, very aggressive English player, Tony Miles.

Miles went on to become one of the world’s strongest grandmasters, making a particular habit of beating top Soviet players, including, twice, Anatoly Karpov, when he was reigning world champion. Miles was certainly the busiest grandmaster, for he played far more tournaments than any other leading player. But the price was an itinerant, disconnected life. His hair was always unmanageable, his emotional life in disarray, and there was hardly a spare bed or sofa in the chess world he had not slept upon.

Miles’ character is complex and apparently contradictory. He is highly strung, charged with nervous tension like most top players, but he is also, as one fellow-grandmaster puts it, “as strong as an ox”, a fighter with enormous powers of concentration and endurance. It is not the game that absorbs Miles but the struggle. He is demanding and difficult, a loner who used to exasperate the non-playing captain of the England team with demands for better conditions and better money for the team, but delighted him by being “quite brilliant, the first top board we ever had who tried to win rather than survive.”

Ray Keene, though, never quite fulfilled his promise as a player, and gave up competitive play in the mid-Eighties. He became a prominent promoter of chess in England and around the world; at first a driving force within the British Chess Federation, and later, when he had fallen out with that organisation, the founder of his own breakaway English Chess Association. He is a prolific chess author and publicist, and the chess correspondent of both The Times and The Spectator.

Keene has become a grand player in the complex and poisonous politics of chess. There are two camps in world chess: the camp of FIDE, the world governing body, and its Philippine president, Florencio Campomanes; and the camp of the opposition, whose spiritual leader is the world champion, Gary Kasparov, but whose political secretary is Keene. For some, Keene is a great and energetic chess organiser, and many of England’s best young players pay testimony to his efforts to secure sponsorship for them. For others, he is a self-server a political manipulator. For Keene, himself, there are also only two categories – those with him, and those against him. This, at least, he has in common with Miles: a tendency to view the world as a chess-board, in black and white.

The chess circus moves around the world on a tournament circuit rather like those established in motor racing and tennis. And, as in tennis, the burden of fear falls on the players, whose very living is determined by their performance and the need to maintain and improve their rankings. For to have a high ranking is to be invited to the big tournaments, to be given appearance money, free accommodation and travel. To have a low ranking is to have nothing. It is a world of confusing loyalties. Fellow players are comrades, sharing their peculiar environment and troubles; and enemies, egotistical maniacs in an intellectual jungle, knowing the alternative to killing is to be killed.

Tony Miles was one of the toughest of the tough on that demanding circuit, until disaster befell him and he began to fall like a stone through the rankings. But after two years in the wilderness, he has returned to his position as one of the world’s top 30 elite grandmasters.

What had happened to Miles? After 10 years as England’s number one, he had vanished, dropping from public view as suddenly and completely as Bobby Fischer. And, like Fischer, all he left behind were rumours. But the real story of what happened to Miles, and where his rivalry with Ray Keene eventually led, is much stranger than anyone can have imagined.

* * * * *

Shortly after midnight on Monday, September 28, 1987, the driver of a lorry making its way down Horse Guard’s Parade in London had to break sharply to avoid running down a man who had stepped off the pavement without looking. The late-night pedestrian, Tony Miles, had been making his way towards Downing Street, intent on seeing the prime minister. He was carrying a walking stick with an ivory handle, a legacy of a pulled muscle.

Miles stuttered at the driver, and then struck the windscreen with his stick. It cracked without shattering. Miles walked on, as if in a dream.

Miles continued on his way and noticed that the policeman he had previously spotted at the entrance to Downing Street was no longer to be seen. He vaulted the steel barrier and was making his way towards Number 10 when he was tackled to the ground by four policemen.

Miles’ mind, which is stunningly brilliant in certain respects, though not the most securely-fastened, had slipped its mooring from what most of us like to regard as reality.

But it wasn’t the pressures of top-level chess that drove Miles off the rails and won the world chess rankings, sending him spinning from the ground in Downing Street to a police cell, to Brixton prison, to a trial for criminal damage, and to mental hospital. Nor was he suffering the effects of overtaxing his brain with displays of blindfold chess against 22 opponents, a feat that was said to have been the ruin of some of the greatest players in history, like Philidor and Morphy.

What droves Miles mad, almost finished his career as a chess player and very nearly ruined his life, was his involvement in a scandal that has been lying half-submerged for five years, though not, until now, fully brought to light.

* * * * *

One evening in May 1985, Miles was sitting alone, having dinner in the restaurant of the Hotel Cap Carthage, near Tunis. He has been at the hotel for nearly two weeks, and was pretty miserable.

The tournament Miles was playing, an inter-zonal round of the world championship cycle, was not going well. He had drawn his first three games and had lost the fourth in traumatic circumstances. Playing against Zapata, the Mexican grandmaster, Miles was winning easily when he glanced at the clock and saw that he had a full minute left in which to make the next two moves. He paused for a few seconds, and then the flag on his clock fell, which meant that he automatically lost the game. He left the table stunned at what had happened. The next day he examined the tournament clocks and found they were of an unusual type, and that the flags of several others also fell early. The effect of this episode was that for the next few rounds, as Miles later wrote, “I played like a maniac and was fortunate not to lose the next four games.”

The venue did not help. The hotel was so new it hadn’t even been completed, and was stuck out on a peninsular on the north African coast, 20 miles from Tunis. The 18 players in the tournament, and the officials of FIDE, the governing body of chess, who were gathering for an executive committee meeting, being held at the same time, were the very first guests.

Miles has having dinner alone when he was joined by Ray Keene, who had just arrived at the hotel with his wife, Annette. Keene’s arrival was not unexpected. Before Miles left for the tournament he had been told that Keene, who in those days was not an opposition figure in chess politics but a leading insider in both the British Chess Federation and FIDE, was in charge of British attempts to put on the world championship final in London, and would be coming to lobby the FIDE executive meeting.

Miles had been offered Keene as his second. (The duties of a second are critical to the affair. Briefly, a second must be any or all of chess analyst, trainer, companion and servant, wholly at the disposal of his player.) Before Miles left for Tunis, David Anderton, a Midlands solicitor who is the international director of the British Chess Federation and the non-playing captain of the England team, had suggested that since Keene was going to be in Tunis, Miles should use him as his second.

A group of chess supporters in England had established a fund, raised by public donations and sponsorship, to play the expenses and fees of seconds to help four English grandmasters who had qualified for the inter-zonal tournaments. This fund could be used to pay Keene’s fee and expenses. But Miles turned down the offer, firmly and repeatedly, and he continued to do so when Keene himself raised the matter again on his arrival in Tunis.

It started innocently enough.

“Tony, are you sure you don’t want a second?” Keene inquired.

“Yes, thanks, Ray. Quite sure,” replied Miles.

Miles' reasons for not having a second were straightforward. When he had previously been given one (not of his choosing) by the Federation, he had found the experience difficult. His second had approached analysis quite differently and was not temperamentally suited to Miles. Afterwards, Miles had made it plain that he would prefer to play alone.

In any case, if Miles had wanted a second, why Keene? Keene was no longer an active grandmaster; and when he had been, he and Miles had been rivals. Furthermore, as Miles was well aware, when Keene had been used as a second by other grandmasters, there had been complaints. The most widely talked about example concerned a match for the world title itself. During his world championship campaign in 1978, Victor Korchnoi, the brilliantly combative grandmaster who had defected from the Soviet Union, used Keene and another English grandmaster, Michael Stean, as his principal seconds.

After he had beaten Boris Spassky to reach the world championship final, Korchnoi was upset to discover that a book on the match, written by Keene, was published within days of the end of the match. Therefore, before the final against the reigning champion, Anatoly Karpov, Korchnoi told Keene he must choose between writing about the match and being his second. Keene chose to be a second and signed an agreement “not to write, compile or help to write or compile any book during the course of the match”.

But within three days of the end of the match, another book by Keene with the title Karpov-Korchnoi 1978, The Inside Story of the Match, was in the shops. Korchnoi and his other seconds were furious. According to Korchnoi, “Mr Keene betrayed me. He violated the contract. It was clear that while Mr Keene was writing one book and then another, Mr Stean was doing his work for him.” Michael Stean, who was a close friend of Keene’s, and had been a fellow-undergraduate at Trinity College, has not spoken to him since.

Given such a background, it seems rather extraordinary that Keene should subsequently be put forward as a second for England’s number one grandmaster, when Miles was bidding, with some hope of success, to be the first Britain this century to challenge for the world title. And it is hardly surprising that Miles responded to Keene’s inquiry about whether he was sure he still didn’t want a second by saying: “Yes thanks, Ray. Quite sure.”

Then came the bombshell.

“Well,” said Keene, “how would like to make some money then?”

Keene began to scribble some figures on a napkin. “According to my calculations,” he said, “there must be a lot of money spare in the inter-zonal fund. If you’ll back up my story that I was your second, I’ll split the profits with you.”

Miles was unsure what to say. The suggestion was outrageous, but he wasn’t sure if Keene was serious, and even if he was, could he, they, really get away with it?

“Well Ray,” said Miles, “the way the money was collected – all those well meaning chess players supporting the cause – I just couldn’t. I’d feel I was stealing from them.”

“You wouldn’t be stealing from them,” Keene said. “You’d be stealing from me.”

Miles was trembling between outrage and inquisitiveness. Could such a thing really happen? Would no one inquire whether he had had a second or not when it was well known that he didn’t want one?

Miles told Keene to go ahead and said he would not contradict him. If anyone asked him about it, he would just say that seconds were an underpaid species. According to Miles, though Keene disputes his version, that was the end of it. Keene did not act as his second. Nor did he pretend to. They occasionally met each other in the hotel, and had dinner together on a couple of occasions. And when Miles left Tunis having failed to qualify for the next stage of the world championship, he heard nothing more about his “second” from the British Chess Federation, Keene, or anybody else.

Three months later, at the end of July, 1985, Miles was playing in the British championship in Edinburgh when Keene casually handed him a cheque for £589. At first Miles didn’t realise what it was for. He had almost forgotten what had happened in Tunis, assuming that Keene hadn’t been serious. Then the realisation hit him. Keene’s proposal to help themselves to money from a fund that had largely been raised by public subscription was no longer a suggestion. It had happened.

* * * * *

Miles put the money into his account. But first he photocopied the cheque. He had decided to expose Keene and knew that the cheque was important evidence. But he also knew it wasn’t conclusive and that he would need further evidence to link the cheque with the inter-zonal fund.

Miles’ attempts at private investigation were pretty disastrous. He wanted to get information about the inter-zonal fund but without going to officials of the British Chess Federation. He contacted Brian Eley, a discontented former Federation officer, who after a few inquiries made a complaint about how the inter-zonal fund had been spent. The complaint came to nothing and Eley reported to Miles that his attempts to get to the bottom of the matter had been “blocked at a high level.”

It was not until the summer of 1987 that Miles grasped the nettle and confronted David Anderton, the British Chess Federation’s international director, who had suggested Keene as a second, and who also administered the inter-zonal fund. Miles asked Anderton whether or not he’d had a second in Tunis.

“Yes, Ray Keene was your second,” said Anderton.

“Was he paid as such?” asked Miles.

“Yes,” said Anderton.

Miles told Anderton what had happened in Tunis and told him that he had been given a cheque by Keene in Edinburgh. Miles also promised to return his share of the money, and made out a cheque for £589 in favour of Keene, to be paid as and when Keene returned the whole amount to the federation.

Anderton decided that a preliminary inquiry into Miles’ allegations would be conducted by two senior Federation officers: the president, David Jarrett, a stockbroker, and the finance director, Mohammed Amin, an accountant.

Jarrett and Amin arranged to meet Keene at the Great Eastern Hotel in London. Jarret opened the proceedings by saying: “I’ve received a complaint from Tony Miles that you were never his second in Tunis in 1985, that an arrangement was suggested by you of splitting the profits and subsequently money was paid by you to Miles. Can I have your comments?”

Keene showed little surprise and produced form his pocket an article he had written for The Spectator. It contained a savage attack by Keene on Miles.

After explaining that Miles, after 10 years leading the England team, had retired from the team, Keene had written: “Much nonsense has been written along the lines of how grateful we all are for Tony’s marvellous achievements in the past, what a noble team player and self-sacrificing human being he is etc. This misses the point. Miles is an egoist who cannot face playing on board three, which is now the highest board to which he can legitimately aspire … he may as well defect entirely to Andorra [where Miles owns an apartment], where he will, I am sure, hold down top board as long as he wishes.”

Keene was suggesting a connection between his article and Miles’ complaint. But, as Jarrett pointed out, Miles’s original complaint, made through Brian Eley, had long predated the article.

Keene told Jarrett and Amin that he had been expecting to second another player, Nigel Short, in a subsequent inter-zonal tournament, but had been turned down. It had then been suggested by David Anderton that he approach Miles. Miles turned him down at first, and Keene, believing that the only way Miles would be willing to have him as a second would be if he were offered money, then offered to share his fee, and Miles agreed, by telephone.

When he was asked why he had not arrived in Tunis until the midway point of the tournament, Keene explained that he had been delayed by negotiations concerning London’s bid for the world championship, but that when he arrived he had acted as Miles’s second as arranged, building his morale and helping him to improve his position after a bad start.

* * * * *

After Jarret and Amin had reported, the British Chess Federation decided to hold a formal inquiry, to be heard by a barrister early in October 1987.

It was unfortunate for Miles that by that time he had fallen out with the British chess authorities over other matters, and that it was widely believe that his allegations against Keene were occasioned, or magnified by them.

Miles had long believed that he had been excluded from the few prestigious tournaments that were organised in England; he had also suffered two blows to his chess ego, first being slaughtered in a challenge match against the new world champion, Gary Kasparov, and then losing his status as England’s automatic number one when Nigel Short overtook him. Early in 1987 he had become so disaffected that he informed the BCF that he no longer wanted to play for England.

* * * * *

As the formal inquiry approached, Miles was becoming increasingly irrational. He hadn’t slept properly for months and had become obsessed with bringing Keene to justice. He even told acquaintances that he was worried Keene would have him bumped off, an absurd idea that had casually been put into his mind, but which had taken root.

Miles’s chess fell apart. When he played a tournament in San Francisco, according to a leading American grandmaster, “he was a total nervous wreck. He was there, but he wasn’t there. He would only talk about the Ray Keene matter, and it made us all feel uncomfortable. People felt sorry for him, and offered him draws. But if he tried to win he was taken to pieces.”

Miles himself remembers that he had become frightened of the chessboard, almost unable to lift a piece. In San Francisco he was the highest-ranked player in the tournament, but finished 11th out of 12, only beating a local player who had been included to make up the numbers. When he returned to Europe, to play a simultaneous exhibition in Hilversum, Miles was seen wandering around babbling to himself.

In late September 1987, just before the inquiry was due to begin, Miles lost his reason altogether. He was flying from Amsterdam when he found himself consumed by a sense of deep morbid foreboding, a feeling that grew into a certainty that someone close to him was about to die, or had just died.

When the plane landed Miles rushed to a telephone. First, he called his girlfriend. She was all right. Then he called his parents in Birmingham. They were all right. But just as the pips went, his father said, “By the way, did you know the inquiry has been postponed?”

“No,” said Miles. “Why?”

“Because Keene’s wife can’t attend. Her grandmother has just died.”

The obsessive is always likely to grasp a coincidence and regard it as proof of conspiracy or the workings of the supernatural. For Miles, the coincidence of the death of Keene’s wife’s grandmother – hardly a central figure in the drama – was enough to take him across the narrow dividing line between obsession and delusion. At the very moment he heard the words “Her grandmother has died”, he lost his reason.

As he stood by the telephone in a baggage hall at Heathrow airport, Miles seriously believed that in some way he had caused the death of an old woman. He telephoned one officer of the British Chess Federation after another until he raised Mohammed Amin. Had he heard about the woman’s death? He hadn’t. “I don’t want to go on with it,” said Miles. “I don’t want an inquiry. I just want the whole thing to be finished.”

That evening Miles was arrested in Downing Street.

What Miles didn’t know was that the inquiry wasn’t called off by him, but by Keene. Keene wrote through his solicitors to the British Chess Federation informing them that he could not attend the inquiry on the appointed date because his wife’s grandmother had died; that he would not agree to attend on any future date; that he would sue anyone who repeated the allegations made by Miles; and that he hereby resigned from the BCF.

* * * * *

The next day, Keene informed the press that he had resigned from the Federation in order to establish a new organisation, the English Chess Association. According to The Times, his own newspaper, “Mr Keene denies reports that his resignation was spurred by a complaint lodged with the BCF against him by Tony Miles ….”

The British Chess Federation called off the inquiry, a decision which suited everybody except Miles. But Miles at the time was in a mental hospital in Birmingham, undergoing sedative treatment, and under medical advice not even to think about the affair for fear of a relapse. His parents were also advised not to raise the subject. It was as if Miles had disappeared. There were newspaper articles alluding to his “defection” from the British team, but no reaction from Miles. In his absence, his weekly chess column in The Sunday Telegraph was written, by a supreme irony, by Ray Keene.

It was only much later that Miles, who was discharged from hospital after two months, but who returned as an out-patient, found out what had happened to the inquiry and determined to raise the matter again. He also discovered who had been writing his chess column.

In the summer of 1989, Miles sent a letter to a small-circulation chess magazine giving his version of what had happened in Tunis. Soon afterwards, Miles’s father sent him a packet of documents that had been sent to Miles in September 1987, and which, following the medical advice, he had not passed on to his son. They were the documents which the British Chess Federation had gathered for the inquiry which never took place. The included a number of statements, correspondence, and Keene’s claim for payment as second and expenses. The documents convinced Miles that if the inquiry had taken place, he must have been vindicated.

As Miles took up the cudgels again and began to bombard officers of the Federation with demands for information about the inquiry, and how and why it had been called off, his form as a player returned almost miraculously.

For a year and more, the effects of the drug treatment had made good chess impossible. He had tried to play, but had got nowhere. One English player who came across Miles at a tournament in France during this period found that “his eyes were vacant, the fire had gone.”

Today, Miles is again a force to be reckoned with. He has married for the second time, and has set up house again in England. He has intimated that he might be prepared to return to the England team. But there is still, he insists, the unfinished business of the-second-that-never-was.

And what of that case? What would the inquiry have found out, if Keene had allowed it to proceed?

Keene has given the following account of events in Tunis to The Sunday Times: “When, on my arrival, he (Miles) surprised me by saying he didn’t want a second, I simply took this as a cue that he wanted me to make him an offer, which I did, by offering to split my fee with him. I have never made any secret of this, and our discussion took place openly in the hotel restaurant.

“When I made the offer to Tony I told him very clearly that I would be available at any time to help him, and I was. I watched every game he played, and these can last up to five hours at a stretch. Considering that I arrived after some rounds had been played I must have watched around 10 such games. I helped him analyse his adjourned games, though I think he had only one or two of these, and they were very simple; I stayed in the hotel each evening to buy him drinks and boost his morale. At the time of my arrival he had been doing badly, and looked isolated and depressed. After I arrived, my wife and I spent a lot of time with him, in the evenings and at meals.”

But one witness who was present in Tunis, the American grandmaster Larry Christiansen, is convinced that Keene never was Miles’s second. “I don’t believe Ray was Tony’s second,” he says. “Tony spent most of his time with me and another American grandmaster. Ray seemed to spend his time politicking and sitting by the hotel pool with his wife.”

Despite the strength of British chess the Federation is now riven with discontent and faction-fighting. Rumours and allegations of maladministration and financial mismanagement, of which the Miles-Keene affair is merely the most colourful, are prevalent. Two county chess associations, Yorkshire and Lancashire, have threatened to secede because they are unhappy with the Federation’s management. David Anderton, the international director of the BCF, who was deeply involved in the Miles-Keene affair – it was he who suggested that Keene second Miles, he who set up the investigation, and he who decided that the inquiry should be dropped when Keene refused to cooperate with it – has resigned his position, insisting that his decision has nothing to do with controversies within the organisation.

Anderton and the BCF, who must have reckoned without Tony Miles’ persistence, hoped that when they called the inquiry off that would be the end of the embarrassing affair of the second-that-never-was. How wrong they were.

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