Friday, September 30, 2011


Nothing depressed him more than the moments in which he contrasted his current mental powers with what he had formerly possessed. Every day he declined in sagacity and vigour.

- Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I'm stopping for a bit.

After changing my mind every thirty minutes or so, over a period of several weeks, I finally decided not to enter the Huesca Provincial championship this year. A particular shame, since I won it last year, and I would have liked to defend that title for all sorts of reasons. But chess has been getting to me, and I decided it was better to stop for a bit. So while I haven't played my last game of chess, I've probably played my last game of chess this year.

To stop for a bit, and then, perhaps, when I start again, to pick up in a different place, and in a different way, from where I left off.

When I say "chess has been getting to me" I mean of course that losing at chess has been getting to me, since I've been losing a lot, to the extent that I've slung away something in the region of eighty Elo points in a couple of years. The Elo points don't matter in themselves, of course, not that I would say so if I'd been gaining rather than losing them, and it seems only recently that I was fantasising about getting close to 2200 rather than wondering if I'd ever see 2100 again. (Losing the game described here might have marked the end of that particular mirage.)

But it's how and why the points have been lost, rather than the fact of losing them, that matters, and it seems to me that over the past three or fours years, but increasingly so more recently, two patterns have become prominent in my chess which were not at all prominent beforehand. One is losing games to players a couple of classes of strength, or more, weaker than me. The other is a pronounced tendency to lose games after holding a large advantage early on.

Sure, everybody loses games to weaker players, even much weaker players, from time to time. I used to do so occasionally. Now it's regularly. Everybody loses games from positions where they're winning. But they also do the opposite, which I do but rarely - while the trajectory of my games is so often like that, we might as well depict it on a graph and title it My Typical Game. (I've not titled the axes: I'm sure it's self-explanatory.)

It's a hard way to lose, I think, and familiarity makes it no easier: rather the contrary. It's a lot harder to accept as a pattern than it is as an occasional hazard.

Why this has happened to my chess, over this period, I don't precisely know, and you can be sure that I don't have the time, nor do I have the inclination, to carry out the sort of exhaustive self-analysis that would likely be required, nor the extensive course of improvement that would likely have to follow. No thank you: I am forty-six years old and my future in chess is mostly behind me, and there are many better things to which I could devote my time.

Of course, being in my forties, I also recognise that Anno Domini is friend to no chessplayer, and I notice little things, outside chess, that indicate a tiny loss of focus: lapses of memory, confusion of words, a difficulty in processing and understanding statistics, a problem in grasping the logic of an argument with which I am not already familiar. In truth, I've always been better at generalities than specifics, and if the mental machinery is not working quite as well as it used to, then that tendency can, only be accentuated. And it's a fatal tendency when it comes to the point of the game at which exact calculation is required.

Presumably tiredness plays its part, too, exacerbated by working round the country and sometimes travelling for hundreds of kilometres on the day of a game, or the evening before: maybe the mind, in those circumstances, can only maintain proper levels of concentration for so long, and that length of time time not quite enough to win a hard-fought game of chess. Maybe. Maybe it plays a role. But probably not the major one.

Whatever the causes, all this leads to stress, from which I've suffered, to one degree or another, for quite a long time, presumably much longer than I really know, since there must have been symptoms of stress long before I knew them for what they were. Anyway, that stress has gradually whittled away my capacity to play, and cope with, chess.

About a decade ago, I found myself unable to complete a British weekend tournament. Instead of playing five rounds, or six, I would habitually find myself missing at least the Saturday afternoon, and the final, Sunday afternoon round. Maybe more than those: a particularly difficult-to-take defeat would normally send me home earlier than that. I've entirely cut out rapidplay, blitz, lightning: I've also cut out correspondence chess (far less enjoyable than it used to be, anyway). As for internet chess, I never took to it in the first place.

Now I'm taking a rest from club and tournament play, too: as it stands, chess isn't good for me. Better to give it a rest until such time as I know I'm missing it- and when I start playing again, to play a little less. So that I am less tried when I play. But more importantly, so that when I lose, it matters less. And so that when I play, I'm looking forward to it.

I look forward to that, at any rate. I like chess, in principle. I don't think this is where I stop playing chess competitively. But I think it might be where I stop playing regularly. To play chess less, to appreciate it more.

[Dinky graph: National Centre For Education Services Create A Graph]

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blue or Red Pill XII

White to play
JMGB v AN Other, Sunningdale Open September 2011

White, your humble scribe, to play. It's a real life BORP moment.

My pieces are looking menacing. How about I loosen up Black’s king a little with 26 e6? Something like 26 … Qb3, 27 exf7+ Qxf7, 28 Bxg6 will follow

and after Black moves his queen to cover the bishop so a discovered check won’t just win I’ll have an extra pawn as well as attacking chances. That looks pretty good.

What about 26 Bxg6, though? If Black takes on g6 he’ll drop all his kingside pawns and then his own bishop too so he only has one move. 26 … Qxg2+, 27 Qxg2 Bxg2, 28 Bxf7+

After the bishops come off, I’ll be a pawn up here too, this time with a pair of connected passers in a rook ending. That looks pretty good too.

It seems like a straight choice ...

Keep the queens on and go for an attack.

Swap them off and head for an ending.

The choice was mine. Now it’s yours.

Blue or Red Pill Index

Monday, September 26, 2011

WwwK XX: The Knights of Merano

A Candidates' Final in 1974, a World Championship match in Baguio in 1978 and a World Championship match in Merano in 1981: Korchnoi's highest achievements started at forty-three. As Mihail Marin points out in Learn from the Legends, this might have been long before the average age of elite chessers plummeted, but Old Vik was very much the exception even in his own time.

Aside from the end of Korchnoi's career at the very peak of the chess world, Merano marks the last days of the When we were Kings era (see WwwK XIX). It is, therefore, the last World Championship match in which the newspapers truly took an interest.

Actually, if you compare the reporting of the 1979-1981 Candidates' matches with that of previous cycles you can see that our favourite game's position in popular culture was already slipping. Even so, the coverage was monumental compared to what we get today. Here's how the mainstream press previewed the fight for the greatest prize in chess back when they still gave a shit.

WwwK Index

The Times
Saturday September 26th, 1981
George Steiner
Page 13

Next Thursday in Merano, high in the Italian Tyrol, the first pawn will be moved in the contest between Karpov, the holder, and Viktor Korchnoi, the challenger, for the title of world champion of chess. George Steiner considers the nature of an event in which a game of obsession irrelevance becomes the subject of grotesque politics.

In essence, of course, chess is trivial. Whatever the aesthetic delights, mental stimulus and emotional tension or release which it provides, the activity of moving thirty-two counters across sixty-four alternately coloured squares cannot be construed to possess moral, civic or directly creative values. Chess is a game – and I shall never forget with what lucid sadness Boris Spassky stated this fact when he realised that to Bobby Fischer, his implacable, triumphant opponent in the World Championship at Reykjavik in 1972, it was not a game, but the universe, the sum of reality.

Now Fischer’s view can, in fact, be argued. If it is, in ethical or social substance trivial, chess is also inexhaustibly profound. After the first few moves, the number of possible variants is of the order of the estimated number of atoms in the universe. Though played since the seventh or eighth centuries A.D., if not earlier, it is a game in which millions of particular confrontations lead only very rarely or only by intent, to a configuration which has already occurred before.

Absolutely fundamental elements, such as the advantage – ought it not to be formally decisive? – which White enjoys because he/she makes the first move, continue to be a matter of intuition, not of proof. Not even the supreme masters – a Capablanca, a Lasker, a Botvinnik, a Tal, a Fischer – can perceive, let alone calculate all the available choices and lines of further play which spring from a relatively straightforward position.

This inexhaustible depth can generate in a human being what Captain Cousteau and his divers call le vertige des grandes profondeurs, “the dizziness of the great deeps”. At certain depths divers experience an almost irresistible desire to take off their masks, to plunge to some final centre in an ecstasy of self negation. Precisely the same vertigo, the same perhaps suicidal addiction to the absolute, can take hold of a chess player.

Chess will fill his waking thoughts and obsess his dreams. Chess theory, openings, the cold magic of the end-game, will enlist his powers of memory. He will play lightning-chess (no pause between moves) to keep eye and hand in practice. He will carry his miniature set in his pocket wherever he goes, analyzing, re-playing with and within himself the games of the masters and his own.

Chess will become the logic of the world, as it was to Marcel Duchamp, when he gave up art in order to deepen his game, as it was to Fischer. The price can be steep. The history of the game is strewn with nervous and cerebral ruin, with the advance into madness recounted in the finest of all chess-fictions, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defence.

Take two cardinal points: “triviality” – in the “humane” and social sense – and inexhaustible depth in the formal, structural, aesthetic senses. Seen together, they make of chess one apex of a fascinating triangle. It is in pure mathematic, in music and in chess that this singular duality of playful autonomous profundity is vital.

Pure mathematics constructs its own rules, its own conventions of beauty and rigour. Its theorems may turn out to have some application to vulgar reality. But such application is a contingent almost embarrassing by-product.

There is, to be sure, plenty of music which accompanies mimes or evokes human activities. But the greater the music, the more integral its self-containment, its plenitude to itself. A Bach partite is of no use; it does not picture anything in the world; it is not to be marched to or danced by. It simply is, in an existential necessity and totality which constitutes the world.

So it is with a great chess game, indeed with a single supreme move (Rook takes on h7 in Botvinnik’s epic draw with Fischer at Golden Sands in 1962). In short: there is literally infinite “matter” in pure mathematics, in music, and in chess. But its relation to common reality is, to borrow from the physicists, that of “anti-matter”.

This may provide the clue to a well-known psychological conundrum. Pure mathematics, musical composition and chess are the only three human pursuits in which we have reliable evidence of creative achievements (even of major creative achievements) before puberty. Pascal and Gauss were rediscovering for themselves, or proposing, important theorems in earliest boyhood. Games which Samuel Reshevsky played before his teens retain their classic authority. Mazart (sic), Rossini and other composers produced flawless inspired music in pre-adolescence.

This suggests the possibility that these three “autistic” activities are fuelled by neuro-physiological and cerebral centres which are independent of general, and particularly, of sexual maturity. One can be a mathematical prodigy, a musical genius, a chess master before becoming a “normal” human being; one can continue to be so without ever achieving, or achieving fully, such “normality”.

And the deep structural link may be this: in ways which we intuit but cannot yet analyse or transcribe, pure mathematics, music and chess are “internal spaces”, and configurations of energy across and within special “mappings” – the algebraic field, the acoustic sphere, the chess-board. Mastery in each of the three somehow depends on the ability to sense – at some highly abstract level of inward sight or hearing – the right configuration (figura) of symbols, notes or pieces, and to leap towards this “figure” across the intervening, plodding, step-by-step stages which separate you and me from the flash of right vision (the solution to the equation, the musical resolution, the mating position).

If such “leaps across inner space” are indeed the key to greatness in chess, and if highly specialised neurophysiological agencies lie at their base, we may have a clue to certain other aspects of the game. It has, certainly in modern times, been dominated by Jews. The rancorous embarrassment this causes in the Soviet Union, the super-power in world chess, is manifest in Botvinnik’s slippery, manifestly uncomfortable memoirs (Achieving the Aim, Pergamon Press, 1981). Such domination by a numerically insignificant, harried ethnic group may well point to a strong genetic factor.

The crucial zone of interaction between neurophysiology and “brain” may be crucial with regard also, to a second historical fact. Just as in higher mathematics or musical creation, the contribution of women to chess has, till (sic) now, been slight. There has been a handful of very strong women players. But even at the championship level, they rank well below male grand masters.

Because they rear boys, women have an unsparing eye for the strain of infantilism in even the most obsessive of “hobbies”. Because they bear life, women seem to find it difficult to deny reality, to banish the world. In number theory, in a fugue, in a great chess game, such banishment of the world and of oneself from the world, is the opening move.

It is this ideal of irrelevance, this almost crazy divorcement from mundanity in chess, which makes so grotesque the politics of the Karpov-Korchnoi match. It may well be that chess was initially conceived as a war-game (though this is by no means certain). And there can be no doubt as to the aggressions, as to the pulse of violence, which a hard-fought game can provoke. But it is an altogether different and sordid matter when chess becomes enmeshed with chauvinism and national propaganda.

The chronicle of world championships is a brief one. The title was first devised and won by the Austrian master Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. Emmanuel Lasker, one of the most attractive and rounded human beings ever to achieve chess supremacy, ruled from 1894 to 1921. The next six years were dominated by the genius of Capablanca, a virtuoso whose technical insight and exactitude of judgement continue to stun as one replays his famous wins.

Except for two years, 1935-1937, when Dr Max Euwe of Holland wore the crown, supremacy belonged to Alexander Alekhine. Here was an incomparable poet of the game, a player the sheer beauty and depths of whose combinations have not been surpassed. But Alekhine as a bitterly anti-Soviet Russian who made his home, mainly, in France and who, during the second world war, lent something of his genius and titular prestige to the Nazi order. And this is where the Karpov-Korchnoi saga really begins.

With Alekhine’s providential death in 1946, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) organised a tournament in which the five top players in the post-war world each played each other five times. The victor and new world champion was the Russian grandmaster and electrical engineer, M. M. Botvinnik. Behind his victory lay not only exceptional personal gifts – Botvinnik is one of the supreme “all-rounders” in the history of the game – but a formidable bureaucratic-political endeavour.

Chess had long been immensely popular in Russia (Tolstoy and Lenin found it equally irresistible). But Russians had not figured prominently in international encounters. Alekhine’s career and political views made this situation intolerable. Using the financial, educational, mass-media resources of a totalitarian centralized regime, the Sports Committee, with such figures the Colonel-General Apollonov, the Minister for Physical Culture, the Central Committee itself, determined to make the Soviet Union the dominant power in world chess.

Botvinnik’s memoirs give a sense of the investment of menace and reward which went into this cause. He himself seems – or pretends to be – unaware of the elephantine brutality and opportunism with which Stalinist and post-Stalinist officialdom has pre-empted the personal lives of gifted chess-players. But the programme paid off magnificently. With one meteoric exception in 1972-1975 all world champions since 1946 have been citizens of the USSR.

This exception was, of course, Bobby Fischer, very possibly the strongest player of all times. With Fischer’s abandonment of world chess and personal self-burial, the title again fell vacant. In 1975, the challenger, Anatoly Karpov of the USSR, was awarded the title by default. Among Soviet masters, no one was more bitterly sceptical of Karpov’s claims to official supremacy than Viktor Korchnoi (the score between them in the Moscow Candidates’ Tournament of 1974 reads Karpov 3, Korchnoi 2, and 19 draws).

Korchnoi’s stance towards the Soviet chess establishment soon became a matter of public notoriety. He was fortunate in being able to reach asylum in Amsterdam in 1976. Here, suddenly, was the Alekhine nightmare all over again: a fiercely dissident Russian (a half-Jew, to boot) was attacking the juggernaut of Soviet pre-eminence.

What ensued at Baguio City in the Philippines, in the sweltering summer of 1978, was one of the saddest circuses in the millennial records of a wholly abstruse and quintessentially disinterested game. It took Karpov thirty-two games to obtain a one-point victory over an opponent twenty years his senior. The quality of play only rarely surpassed doggedness. The drama lay with the political propagandists on both sides, with alleged KGB hypnotists and imported counter-gurus.

If Merano proves to be a repetition of Baguio City, chess will suffer. Fischer’s high noon brought a drastic economic change: he made of chess success (relatively) big money. Add to this the more and more rancid politics of the USSR contra mundum and you have a snake-pit of motives and styles profoundly inimical to the wonder of the game.

Behind Karpov broods an entire panoply of technical advice – invaluable when positions are adjourned -, of ideological surveillance, of patriotic acclaim. Korchnoi has cast himself dramatically in the role of hunted exile (the Soviets have refused to release his family), of the quixotic representative of the free world. What has this to do with his fineness in the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez or with Karpov’s uncanny ability to perceive and exploit minute advantages in the control of space?

In fact, a subtler but more significant shadow lies over Merano. The concept of chess-machines goes back at least as far as the late eighteenth century. It has inspired science-fiction and fantasy from Edgar Allan Poe to the present. With the development of cybernetics and high-speed computers during the second world war, the notion of “artificial play” took on reality. Charles E. Shannon’s classical paper, “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess,” was published in 1949. Only thirty years later, computer-chess had become a busy field of research and experiment. Matches between computers and players of known strengths, are now frequent.

The difficulties involved in programming a chess algorithm, this is to say a structure of decision procedures whereby a machine can register, internalize and examine a position in which every main variation can entail some dozen choices will involve the scrutiny of some seventy million positions.

The human player will calculate main variations to a depth of five or six moves. It is the virtue of the human brain to discard as much or even far more than it ponders. We have only vague, metaphoric notions as to how these intuitive preferences and economies of effort are achieved.

Yet for all the complexities inherent in the enterprise, chess computers have involved formidably. Their “memory banks,” their capacity to review and compare positions at speeds unattainable to man, the rigour with which they can be programmed to aim for simplified, and hence formally “surveyable,” configurations, have exceeded the expectations of the Fifties and Sixties.

The layman can only cite expert opinion. It is now held by a number of master-players that computers are in sight of forcing a draw against even the best of human adversaries. Botvinnik, who has devoted his energies to computer-chess since the early Sixties, puts it this way: “If a human being is really clever, then his automaton should be more intelligent than its creator.”

If the day does come when a computer can defeat or, indeed, draw against the world champion, the history of chess will enter a bizarre zone of separate lives. It will, at some levels at least, be the very first human intellectual and aesthetic activity end-stopped by artificial intelligence. This might be a sad but not altogether inappropriate finale to what is, perhaps, the most enigmatically obsessive and impertinently beautiful of contrivances.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cover version: Kings of Convenience

Kings Of Convenience, Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks, 2004)

[Thanks to Morgan]
[First in an occasional series]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Causing Offence

Black to not screw it up
AN Other v JMGB, Sunningdale Open 2011

It's a one time thing. It just happens a lot. It's not usually this extreme though.

My opponent had taken something like a quarter of an hour over 35 b6. He was busted. I knew it and I could tell that he knew it too ... and yet ten minutes later I was the one resigning.

Geller lectured me after I had lost to Jansa in Amsterdam in 1974. 'You stood better. Where? Well, show me the game, show me. I feel offended for the position.'
Genna Sosonko, Russian Silhouettes

Offended for the position, Efim? Me too, comrade, me too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sing a Song of Chess VI

About birthdays, this much I know: there's a downside and an upside to ageing.

Birthday cons:-
  • they come around sooner and sooner. I refuse to believe that three years have passed since I turned forty;
  • their importance varies in direct proportion to the number of young folk who have birthdays around the same time. My nephew Nathanial's birthday is a few days after my birthday and ever since he arrived my family have - rightly - regarded 17th September as nothing more than a preamble to the main event;
  • they expand sideways. At some point the hyper importance of a party on the exact date melts into 'nearest weekend is probably best' and by the time you hit forty-three any date in the right month will do.

Birthday pros:-
  • they multiply. Getting everybody together at the same time becomes a logistical nightmare so you can legitimately give up and have many events in many locations;
  • it becomes acceptable to buy yourself presents. Over-priced and completely unnecessary for preference, naturally.

Anyhoo, back to Nathanial. Indoctrination can't start too early, wouldn't you agree?


One rook and one knight
One bishop too
One queen and one king
Another bishop true

Sing a song of chess Index

Monday, September 19, 2011

Seinfeld, muffins and last days

Who was it who said you shouldn't play chess on your birthday? Korchnoi? Botvinnik? Bronstein perhaps? Whoever it was, the idea, as I recall, was that chessers who are in the middle of celebrating getting another year older are simply not in the right frame of mind for a tough struggle over the board.

My experience at Sunningdale at the weekend rather makes it look like our mystery man might have been on to something. A loss and a draw on the Saturday was not at all a great return and certainly compares unfavourably with my win and a draw against stronger opposition the day after.

Perhaps it had nothing to do with my birthday, though, because I seem to have developed a bit of a history of doing well at the end of tournaments. In the five events I've played in this summer (Sunningdale Major; Gatwick Open; Benasque; Twyford Challengers A; Sunningdale Open) my final day scores amount to +4 =5 -0 at an ECF of 194 (that's equivalent to around 2200 elo) - 20 points higher than my published grade.

There was an episode of Seinfeld - series 8, number 21 I believe - when Elaine suggested that since it's the top bit of a muffin that people most like to eat, somebody should start a business baking muffins that are only the top part. I wonder if, likewise, somebody could see their way clear to organising a chess tournament that is entirely made up of last days.

Seinfeld consultant: Peter Lalic
baked goods: RAW Baking

Saturday, September 17, 2011


... at forty-three, you don't make plans to dabble in different lives. At forty-three, what you are, what you know, is about as far as you're going to go in this life; about the most you can hope for is a little fine tuning and a pay hike or two.

Richard Price, Clockers

Try reading that when you’re a few months shy of your forty-third birthday. Try reading it when you’re just short of the point at which it becomes impossible to deny that you are nearer to fifty than thirty-five.

RP: Look around you BloggerBoy.

JB: And …?

RP: This is all you’ll amount to.

JB: Really?

RP: Ever.

JB: I’m not so sure I like the sound of that.

RP: You don’t get a vote.

It’s May. I’m forty-two. I’ll hit the wall on 17th September.

I look around. I think about chess.

Prophet of doom

Time ago.

Being forty-three isn’t at all bad for chessing. At forty-three you are in your prime.

Time passes.

Kasparov takes the World Championship aged twenty-two. He rocks the chess world then quits just before he reaches the Ominous Age.

Gazza's legacy?  A new narrative. Forty-three means French-fried. Forty-three means fucked. Forty-three means f.i.n.i.s.h.e.d.

Forties are favourite becomes a chessboard non sequitur. Kids dominate chess now.

Which way for quitters?

I look around. I think about my chess.

Twenty-five years in. Moderate results on permanent loop.

I start hearing “All you can hope for …” everywhere I go. Destiny denial doubles. I engage in clutching practice. I keep my eye out for straw.

Role model

Until Kazan.

The average age of the Candidates who contested the right to challenge for the World Championship between '66 and '69 was touching 40. The average age at Kazan is barely more than 30 and would be lower still if Carlsen had shown. Still, Boris Gelfand, the oldest man, wins.

Righteous redemption rules. Boris has a World Championship match coming and will be forty-three when he plays Vishy Anand.

The Gelfand riff: shitcan fine tuning.

The Gelfand vibe: different-life dabble delirious.

It’s September 17th. I’m forty-three.

Richard Price redux:

RP: This is the most you can hope for Bloggerboy.

JB: Really?

BG: I’m not so sure.

JB: I like the sound of that.

BG: You get a vote.

I have tournaments coming. Maybe I'll finish them frayed, frazzled and forked or maybe I won't, but, either way, Price's providence will be paid no heed. I'll choose Gelfand's gift instead. Maybe a different chess life is out there. Maybe one day I'll get to dabble.

Sunningdale here I come.

Richard Price from
Kasparov from
Gelfand from
Cake from RAW Baking

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bad book covers XXI

The Gruenfeld Defence, Shamkovich and Cartier, Hays, 2001

[Bad book covers index]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I've often wondered why chess isn't more photogenic: geeky practioners with an interest in technology, the parallel lines of tournament tables meeting at infinity, the basic black and whiteness of the game, the pseudo-symmetries on the board building and breaking, not to mention the thousand micro-expressions of shock and heart-ache that each overlooked move makes; surely the sheer visual richness the game unintentionally generates should be splashed on the front pages every day, with technically superb photographs the norm in the specialist circles.

But, no. Take Pinterest - a nice newish website dedicated to sharing photographs. Very few chess photographs, and even the good ones don't really capture much about the game. As evidence here's two of the better photographs:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Killer Endgames - A Review

Part two: DVD II - contents and coverage of king, rook & bishop v king & rook

Why study the endgame? I've asked this questions a few times before. The other day EJH suggested an answer that until he mentioned it had never occurred to me: learning curves.

For many (most?) of us, studying the opening will mostly be a case of adding a little knowledge to a large amount. Studying the ending, however, will be the reverse. Gustafsson and Svidler might not agree, but, looking at it in terms of learning curves, switching our attention to endings could actually be a very efficient way to spend our chessic training time.

In that light, perhaps it's about time to get back to my review of Killer Endgames - the two-part DVD set presented by GM Nick Pert under the GingerGM banner. For those who haven't already seen it, review part one can be found here.

Killer Endgames volume II is very like KE volume I in many ways. It can be watched on a standard TV/DVD player, runs for around four and a half hours, divides the material by rating category rather than ending type and concludes each of its sections with a series of puzzles for the viewer to solve.

In contrast to the first DVD, however, the test positions are much less likely to relate to the endings that have just been taught. Also, while on volume I the allotment of the material to the various rating categories is a pretty good indication of what chessers of different standards can handle/need to know, here the structure is more a narrative device than something to be taken literally. Well, you can wait until you are challenging for the World Championship before you watch the video on rook plus f & h pawns against rook if you want to, but I'm not sure that it's absolutely necessary! KEII is definitely much more demanding than KEI, but I doubt that chessers around my level (172 ECF; 2049 Elo) or a few notches below will find that there's anything on the DVD that's beyond them.

One of the Pert twins. Hopefully the right one.

KEII has a total of 21 video lessons and 16 puzzles, the lessons covering the following topics:-

1800 – 2200
  • rook & pawn v rook – checks from the side
  • bishop and knight v king
  • bishop, knight & pawn v rook
  • Lucena
  • rook & knight v rook
  • queen v rook
  • king and pawn

2200 – 2400
  • queen v rook & pawn
  • rook & 4 v rook & 3 – pawns on the same side
  • rook & 4 v rook & 3 – distant passed pawn, attacking rook behind the pawn
  • rook & pawns v rook & pawns – distant passed pawn, attacking rook in front of the pawn
  • rook & 4 v rook & 3 – distant passed pawn, attacking rook in front of the pawn
  • rook & 3 v rook & 2 – pawns on the same side
  • rook ending – rook v pawn

2400 – 2600
  • rook & bishop v rook – practical example
  • rook & bishop v rook – 2nd rank defence & Philidor position
  • rook & bishop v rook – king in the centre
  • queen & pawn v queen

World Championship
  • Rook + f & h pawns v rook
  • two knights v pawn
  • rook & pawn v rook

While KEI spent the biggest chunk of its time on king and pawn positions, here, as you can see, attention shifts to rook and pawn endings. These are frequently said to be the most common endings in practice so the focus is in no way excessive, but it does inevitably mean that other areas are given less consideration. There are no lessons and just one puzzle devoted to bishop endings, for example.

As with the first DVD , the material is taught well. In fact, my only quibble with the presentation - the only thing that I've ever disliked about a GingerGM production, actually - is the onscreen chessboard: it's upside down. For reasons that are completely lost on your humble scribe, it's the black pieces that are shown playing from the bottom of the board upwards. I’ll have more to say about this in part III of this review, but for now I'll give you my speed conclusion: this ‘feature’ of the DVD is more than somewhat annoying, but although it certainly detracts from the presentation I did find myself getting used to it. I wish it wasn't there, but I wouldn't avoid this DVD simply because it is.

For the remainder of this part of the review I'll take a closer look at how KEII teaches the (in)famous rook and bishop against rook endgame. Doubtless Keith Arkell – 18/18 and counting with this allegedly drawish ending – has little to learn from the DVD. For those of us who have been adopting the ‘cross fingers and hope it doesn’t come up’ approach, though, a little study of KRB v KR is unlikely to go amiss.

Pert covers the rook and bishop against rook ending in three separate video segments which run for a combined total of 32 minutes.

VIDEO ONE: features the conclusion of Nick Pert v Nigel Povah, Sunningdale 2010, Pert demonstrating how an initially drawn position turned into a win and then back again before a final slip by Black handed him victory.

VIDEO TWO: is also a game fragment, Hawkins – Gormally from the 2008 British Championships, but is a much more technical lesson. Here Pert explains the second-rank defence and the Philidor Position – a set-up from which the rook and bishop can force a win.

VIDEO THREE: Pert uses another of his games (against Efimenko, Hastings 2004) to show the defender trying to keep his king in the centre for as long as possible. This is a key defensive technique because, as John Nunn observed in Secrets of Pawnless Endings, if you drag things out as long as you can, even if something goes wrong later on your opponent may run out of moves before s/he can deliver mate.

Upside down board aside, the material is well presented and clearly explained. One of things I particularly like about these DVDs is that Pert often starts the lessson before the technical phase begins. The first KRB v KR video commences from the following position, for example:-

This gives the viewer some hints about general endgame play as well as teaching them the specific techniques that it is necessary to master to be able to play the various endings correctly.

It is also very much to KEII's credit that KRB v KR video one shows the two players getting it wrong. If former prodigy and later super-GM Judit Polgar can balls it up - witness how she struggled to find the right plan against Dominquez Perez at the World Cup last week (Nalimov says it's mate in 15 from the starting position) and had to resign just a few moves after achieving a standard drawing position when on the weaker side of KRB v KR in a game from 1990 - the objective assessment of this ending is clearly only half the story. For most of us in most circumstances this ending is simply too hard to play correctly, and it's helpful that KEII reflects that.

In contrast to the messy practical reality of KRB v KR shown in the first video, the second demonstrates  some specific attacking and defensive techniques that the endgame student can, and perhaps should, learn by heart.

White to play +-
Black to play =
Philidor 1749

This is the famous Philidor position. Pert analyses something that is very close to it - the differences are entirely inconsequential - as part of his coverage of Hawkins-Gormally. Although he doesn’t say so, the winning method given is essentially that published by the old Frenchie two and a half centuries ago. I think it’s probably a mistake not to have drawn attention to this. Aside from the general principle of credit where it’s due, giving a position a name is a good way of assisting the viewer recall that it is this particular set up that they are aiming for (or trying to avoid if they are defending) should they reach rook and bishop against rook in their own games.

Pert demonstrates the win clearly enough – no mean feat considering that the correct strategy is virtually indistinguishable from random shuffling about – but what those new to KRB v KR will not learn from the DVD is that if you shift the position left or right things begin to change.

With White to play one of these positions - initially published by Lolli (1763) and von der Lasa (1843) - is drawn and while the other two are still winning, the lack of width means that the weaker side has defensive resources that are not available when the pieces are set up on one of the central files.

In terms of defensive technique, KEII teaches the second-rank method as employed by Luke McShane when he held Vlad Kramnik to a draw at the London Chess Classic last year. The other standard drawing scheme, the Cochrane defence, is not mentioned. In fact, at one stage Pert comments,

As soon as you start moving your rook behind the bishop and the king, normally you allow White to win.

and while this makes sense in context, it is nevertheless rather misleading. True, Judit Polgar lost in the game above, but she botched it on move 81 instead of following Cochrane's drawing method. Folk who know nothing of this ending other than what they learn here will be rather surprised when they find out that many many games have ended in draws after the defender uses this strategy.

Transparently made up fact of the day:
Nick Pert and Simon Williams do backing vocals on this album.

So Killer Endgames II is not comprehensive, but then it's a DVD so it's not going to be is it? I wouldn’t expect a DVD - any DVD - to cover both of the usual methods for defending KR against KRB nor that an outline of all the Philidor-like set ups mention earlier would be given. There simply isn’t time for such material to be included.

What the DVD format loses in detail, however, it gains in accessibility and for the person who is new to KRB v KR in particular, and endings in general, Nick Pert makes the material very accessible indeed. Those who have an unshakeable preference for the printed word will probably not be converted by this disc, but anybody who would rather watch rather than read, or who finds books like Secrets of Pawnless Endgames comprehensive but intimidating and difficult to learn from, will want to consider adding Killer Endgames II to their list of future purchases.

Killer Endgames is available direct from the GingerGM
and Malc's Chess & Bridge shop

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Buried Treasure, Part 2

Number 18 in the series. This one mainly by Martin Smith.

As we explained in the last episode, it was our old friend Mario Praz, in his An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration, who put us on to another, perhaps better known, chess picture: Johann Erdmann Hummel’s Schachpartie in the Palais Voss of 1818-19. In fact we first mentioned Herr Hummel (1769-1852) a long time ago, in episode two, when we promised he would return, and here is his chess painting.

In the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Mario (we feel we should now be on first name terms) discourses at some length about Hummel and his picture, and he is worth quoting:
“Some painters delighted in rendering, down to the slightest detail, the effects of light, especially in the evening….. Johann Erdmann Hummel ……specialized in effects of perspective (he was nick-named Perspektiv-Hummel) and optical effects (again the local wits invented a whole nomenclature for him: Kaloptrik, Dioptrik, Antoptrik, Hyperoptrik, Kaldioptrik, and Anthyperoptrik...). He portrayed the mysterious, magical tricks of reflected light with a sensitivity …..In his Chess Game at Count Ingenheim's Home [aka Palais Voss. MS] Hummel has given us a nocturnal atmosphere of great effect, repeating a famous experiment of Raphael's, contrasting artificial light with moonlight.”
For amico Mario it’s the interior décor that got the picture into his book, and the moon-glow shows it up nicely. But not so in the other version created by “Perspektiv-Hummel”, this time with a crescent-moon. Yep, two versions, and where have we seen that before!

In the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover

Here again Hummel shows off his “fondness for light effects” (as Praz puts it in Conversation Pieces, with some understatement), though now the décor disappears in the gloom, and naturally Mario passes over this version in silence in An Illustrated History.

The Neidersächsischen Landesgalerie Museum in Hannover, who have the crescent-moon version, kindly sent us their relevant catalogue entry, albeit in German (Babelfish and The Institute of Leeming Studies have done their best to make sense of it; all misunderstandings are our responsibility). We think it says it depicts a chess club, and so starts an uncanny series of coincidences between the Hummel Schachparties and the Leeming Gents pictures, beginning with the fact of multiple versions (coincidence number 1), dated around 1818/9 (coincidence number 2) which is when Leeming showed the “Greenlees” version at the Royal Academy. As we have not seen a Leeming for some time in this series here is the Hereford version again, complete with dog.

In the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery

All keen students of the Chess Gents of Hereford will claim that its three versions trump the mere two versions of the Chess Gents of Berlin by Hummel. But, alas, not so fast. As the Berlin Museum has kindly pointed out (to be fair, without any hint of triumphalism) there are four versions of the Schachpartie - the two already mentioned, a third in private ownership, and a drawn sketch also in Berlin - and as they are all definitely by Herr Hummel, Leeming supporters have to retire hurt.

Coincidence number 3 is that both Leeming and Hummel painted precise portraits of their chess circle, including themselves (we have given the full list of German characters in a Note at the end). However, unlike Leeming there is some contention as to which of the figures in Schachpartie is in fact Hummel (assuming we have understood correctly the Catalogue note that Hannover sent us). Hummel, the artist, is either the one at the back by the window, or the loser at the board on the right. But as with Leeming’s effort, the standing figure strikes a slightly awkward note, suggesting it was the artist himself who, logic dictates, could not have been waiting there in situ to be painted. Thus Hummel standing at the back à la Leeming gives us coincidence 4.

There is also a hand over the middle of the board as if playing a move (number 5). The German catalogue says it is giving mate, but we aren’t so sure, especially as the full moon illuminates an empty board (save for a lone king). In the gloom-filled version with the crescent-moon we can only see a position that is, shall we say, “unclear”.

Oh, and, there’s a dog (number 6).

So there is an astonishingly high degree of thematic correspondence between the two sets of paintings, though there is no evidence of collaboration between the artists. It is unlikely that Leeming ever went to Germany, and there’s no mention in the literature that Hummel came to London. But nothing would surprise us anymore, and some kind of influence – perhaps by good report – may have been at work.

We did ask the German galleries if the Hummels has ever been exhibited together, and they weren’t aware that they had. So here they are, side by side, and as with the multiple Leemings you can play “spot the difference” (click-on to enlarge).

Interestingly it is the version on the left, now in Hannover, that is actually the larger of the two at 117cm x 141cm; the Berlin version on the right is much smaller at 38.5 cm x 44 cm. Berlin says there is no record as to which was painted first (coincidence 7 - though on other grounds we are 90% confident Leeming began with the Hereford version).

Hummel, like Leeming, didn’t confine himself to chess pictures, though we’ve found only one portrait miniature (Leeming’s strong suit) by him . Praz’s commentary in his Illustrated History mentions one of Hummel’s pictures featuring in a short story by E.T.A.Hoffman. This is quite an accolade. Usually illustration works in the service of the text, and not the other way round. If you want to try and enjoy Hoffman’s story you’ll find it here, and we wish you the very best of luck.

Praz also mentions another work by Anthyperoptrik-Hummel (whatever that moniker means) which again shows off his skill applied to light and reflections: The Great Cup of Granite in Berlin of 1832.

In the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Quite a tour de force of a painting, and the vessel must have been something to behold too (in fact, you can still see it today). But there is no coincidence here with Leeming: as far as we are aware he didn’t do any over-size bird-baths.

Together with Part 1, our previous episode, this completes our survey of the chess pictures we have encountered along the way in our Leeming research. We have a few further odd and ends to share with you yet, including a further Leeming surprise, next time.

The characters in the Hummel chess circle are: The architect Hans Christian Genelli (with a pipe); archeologist Aloys Hirt ("one of the most beautiful men in Berlin" apparently); Gustav Adolf von Ingenheim (son of King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Countess Voss); painter Friedrich Bury; the artist himself (at the window); Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (son of King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Countess Doenhoff). The Hannover Gallery catalogue suggests that the painting (or one of the versions, anyway) was commissioned by Queen Wilhelmine of Holland who insisted that Count Friedrich was included, even though he wasn’t a chesser.
Leeming wouldn’t have put up with that!

An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau by Mario Praz (Thames & Hudson, 1964 reprinted 1982).
Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America by Mario Praz (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).

With thanks for their assistance to Dr. Bastian Eclercy, Curator of Old Master Paintings, at Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, and Ms Simone Arndt, Intern at the Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.

For more on the "Berlin Soup Bowl", see here

Every Picture Tells a Story index

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Great Chessboxing Swindle runs riot in King's Cross

The freak show is back!

The chessboxing circus is back in town tomorrow, specifically at Scala in King's Cross, a show that promises four bouts to the paying public. This features, naturally, the usual selection of invented-by-Tim-Woolgar titles, including something known as the Bobby Fischer Belt and another calling itself the Women's Commonwealth Middleweight Decider. Woolgar's own British heavyweight title appears, however, not to be up for grabs.

Woolgar and co seem to be having more difficulty these days persuading reputable journalists to reproduce their nonsenses without scepticism (although Woolgar did manage to get this into Time Out, reminding this particular reader how much he used to prefer City Limits). Conceivably Private Eye may have played their part in drawing hacks' attention to the invisibility of the Emperor's New Clothes. Still, one anticipates that on Monday morning, a Google search may locate fresh and depressing examples of journalistic gullibility.

As it stands, though, where reputable journalists are not available, disreputable ones will have to do, and in this instance the disreputable journalists are a bunch of liggers and wannabees - or, it says here, "writers, agitators and culture enthusiasts" - calling themselves Run Riot, an online listings service which puffs the events it lists. As a writer, agitator and culture enthusiast surely would. Indeed on this occasion it's actually co-presenting the event, having been, it reckons, a "massive fan of Chessboxing since 2008". To this end it carries an interview with the Emperor himself, Tim Woolgar, written by one Anne Kapranos.

Oddly, the keen-as-mustard Kapranos doesn't actually feature among that list of writers, agitators and culture enthusiasts, which may be because she's not actually a journalist of any description but rather the Managing Director of Essence Communications - click on "who we are" - who are in fact a PR firm. The piece, mysteriously, fails to mention who she is, still less who she's working for.

Kapranos (right) at Hurlingham 

The piece naturally reproduces the usual Woolgar claims, including the unlikely statement that "chessboxing is incredibly popular in London", which makes me wonder how many spectator sports will muster fewer total spectators in London over the course of 2011. Let alone fewer competitors.

Talking of whom, among the scrappers this time are Ben "The Rumble" Robinson and Mark Lech, who Kapranos (or Woolgar, if you prefer, since the claim is surely his) reckons are "two very experienced chess players". That's as maybe. But neither of them has a rating to prove it. Possibly they play on the internet? So, one imagines, must most of the other competitors, since of the fifteen chessboxers on the two cards Woolgar has mustered this year, twelve appear to have no rating at all that I can trace. Including all eight from March's Boston Dome affair, another chessboxing event featuring non-boxers and non-chessplayers - and thus combining, perhaps, not both disciplines, so much as neither.

This time not all the pugilists are unknown to the competitive chessboard. Of the eight fighting at Scala, one - Andrew McGregor - appears to posses a USCF rating, albeit a very low one, while the fight between Chris Levy and Mike Botteley actually features two genuine chessplayers, with real ECF ratings (Levy's Rapidplay, Botteley's Standard). What neither of them appear to possess is an Elo rating. Strangely, perhaps, given the basis on which the bout is being advertised.

Well, what can you do: these people make their own rules so they might as well make up everything else. If you really feel that you need to give them your money, it'll cost you fifteen nicker (or twenty-five for a VIP ticket) and the show starts at seven pm. And who knows where it may lead? Although Woolgar's previously-expressed ambitions to have his "sport" included in the Olympics appear to have fallen through, the Kapranos piece says optimistically:
Having set up The ChessBOXING Organisation, the first United Kingdom chessboxing institution, Woolgar is now campaigning to Sport England to have Chessboxing officially recognised. If successful, the sport will both have a governing body and receive necessary funding.
So, before we go to Scala, let's pay a visit to the Sport England website and see how much of this stands up. What's this we read?
Sports council recognition of a national governing body is not a guarantee of funding
which means that when it's claimed that official recognition would mean the sport will receive necessary funding, this isn't true. Simple as that.

But come to that, what about the claim that encompasses it?
Woolgar is now campaigning to Sport England to have Chessboxing officially recognised.
That must be true, surely?

But true, it is surely not. I emailed Sport England, to ask. An official replied:
I can confirm that Sport England has not received any recognition applications in respect of chessboxing.
Maybe it's lost in the post. Must be. Because otherwise we might have to conclude that Tim Woolgar was making it up too.

[Kapranos photo: Chisholm And Moore]
[Chessboxing index]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

How long?

On Monday I mentioned that I faced e2-e4 in just one of my four games with Black at Twyford. It was a draw against Gorak Rajesh who, after already reaching 152 ECF by the age of ten, will be making quite a name for himself if he's still playing in a couple of years.

Anyhoo, I answered the young fella's king's pawn opening with 1 ... e5. It's not that I've abandoned the French entirely - I had an Interesting French Exchange only a few weeks ago - it's just that I've been trying to expand my horizons a bit recently. Or re-expand, given that I played virtually nothing but open games in response to 1 e4 throughout the 1990s.

I'm hoping that having played 1 ... e5 quite a lot, albeit a decade or two ago, I should be able to get up to scratch with the opening much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. True or otherwise, as I was pondering the question of how long it takes to learn an opening a passage in the essay on Efim Geller in Genna Sosonko's excellent Russian Silhouettes floated into my mind:-

At the Olympiad in Lucerne in 1982 I talked to him about expanding my opening repertoire. Geller advised me to include the Closed, Chigorin Variation of the Ruy Lopez. I asked him: 'And how much time would be needed to master it?' He thought briefly. 'At your level?' - I used to play regularly at Tilburg and at Wijk aan Zee, the strongest tournaments in the world. 'To compile everything, process, understand and apply it? Well, a year and a half ...'

Monday, September 05, 2011

Am I normal?

Already a week gone by since Twyford. Not to worry. There'll be another one along in a fortnight.

I've been filling the time between tournaments by having a look at my recent stats. One of the things that I've noticed is that there's been an imbalance in the opening moves that I've been facing when I've had the Black pieces.

In my four Blacks at Twyford I had 1. d4 three times and 1. e4 just once. This came after my two 1. d4s, one 1. e4 and one flank opening at Benasque and three queen's pawn openings and one flank opening in the Slater Kennington. Gatwick and my previous Sunningdale went the other way - combined I saw 1. e4 three times, 1. d4 once, flank openings once - but that still leaves me with a total of five games against 1. e4, nine games against 1. d4 and three games against flank openings out of the 17 tournament games I've had with Black since the end of the league season back in May.

As it happens, club chessing in 2010/11 gave me completely the opposite result: nine games against kingside openings, five games against queenside openings and two games against flank openings. Also, when I looked at my games form 2009/10 I noticed that although the numbers were smaller, the pattern was similar. In the season before last I saw four 1. e4s and three 1. d4s in tournaments (Paignton and Torquay) and four 1. e4s, two 1. d4s and one flank opening in club chess.

So, have I been getting these results because tournament chessers are more likely to open with the queen's rather than king's pawn? Am I normal? Or am I merely normally distributed?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Dadd. Oxford. Saunderson. Who's next?

In the previous post in this evolving sequence we added the name of Reginald Saunderson to those of Richard Dadd and Edward Oxford on the roll-call of chess players in Broadmoor Asylum. Who will turn up in this episode? Read on.
The story centres on the Coombes family.

In the closing decade of the 19th Century they'd have appeared to the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court as typically working class. They rented a terraced two-up two-down at 35 Cave Street in Plaistow to the east of the City, where the Docks loomed large over the neighbourhood. Robert Coombes Snr., the man of the house, was a “steward on board ship” (the S.S. France was his current posting) and so he was often away at sea, when his wife Emily would be left wearing the trousers – not that easy with two high-spirited sons: Robert Jnr., known affectionately as Bob, aged 13 ("very clever for his age" at school), and his brother Nathaniel, or Nattie, aged 12.

There was family nearby: Robert’s brother and his wife Edith in West Ham a mile up the road. It was a community where kith and kin were always on hand, neighbours looked out for each other, and the shop-keepers on the high street knew their customers by name.

Cave Road (as it now is titled, not Street) in Plaistow, might have looked like this,
if you ignore the cars. This photo is of nearby Hackney.

With Robert away so much an extra pair of hands was always useful, and John Fox stopped by to do odd jobs at Emily’s request, and with Robert’s agreement: helpful chores such as chopping wood and sweeping out the backyard. He was friendly with the boys, and at 40 years old was perhaps some kind of influence. Well-known around the docks, occasionally kipping on the waiting ships, he was reckoned by Mr Prarson, a Chief Officer of the National Steamship Company, to be “not very bright as to intellect”.

The S. S. France of the National Steamship Company,
on which Robert Snr. served as a steward.

So, as often as not it fell to Ma to keep discipline in the household, and young Bob was a bit of a handful, having run away, albeit briefly, a couple of times. She had given Nattie a good hiding on the Saturday, or Sunday, or maybe both, for stealing some food – he had been naughty, as he later admitted. She had promised Bob a beating too, but otherwise Emily was said by all, Nattie included, to be kind to her boys.

Edith, the sister-in-law, said to the court that the last time she saw brother-in-law Robert was in the evening of that particular Saturday, the sixth of July, when Emily appeared “in good health”, and the boys played quite happily in the garden. Rosina Robertson, wife of the landlord next door at number 37, looking out in a neighbourly way, had also seen Emily, “in good health”, on the evening of the next day, Sunday the seventh .

Edith didn’t see John Fox about the place on Saturday 6th, nor on Monday 8th when she called round again. Indeed she didn’t see anyone. There was no reply, because that day, and the next, the brothers had gone, without a care in the world, across London to watch the cricket at Lord's, where they would have seen the legendary W. G. Grace hit a captain's century for the Gentlemen's XI.

The original Bearded Wonder,
"WG" reveals his opening preparation.

Edith did eventually encounter Fox a week later on Monday 15th when she knocked again at number 35, this time with her friend Mrs Burridge in tow. She wanted to talk to her sister-in-law, on whom she had not laid eyes for over a week. Fox opened the door, but barred her entrance. The two boys fetched up and explained that Ma wasn’t there, she had gone away to Liverpool to attend to the affairs of a recently deceased aunt rich enough to leave them a lot of money (or perhaps it was the rich uncle in Africa who’d passed away, as it was put in another telling).

In the meantime, as Nattie told the court, they pawned Father’s gold watch and some of Ma’s bracelets, and shared the money with Fox. He was now sleeping-over at number 35, bringing food and also, on Bob’s say-so, wearing some of Father’s clothes.

Edith goes round again on Wednesday 17th first thing in the morning. No answer. She calls on Mrs Burridge to come with her again, and they bang on the door at twenty past one in the afternoon. This time some man – she doesn’t know who – opens it. She barges her way in to discover the boys and Fox playing cards. “Where’s your Ma?” “Round at Mrs Cooper’s…” says Bob, “…I’ll take you to see her”. “No.” says Edith, suspecting something, though she doesn't know what. “She’s here, and I’m staying till the Police come”.

Nattie legs it. Emily’s bedroom upstairs is locked. Edith rushes next door to get a key from the Robertsons. She bursts open the door, and finds Emily. She had been stabbed to death ten days before.

The trial began on the 9th September 1895.

The boys and Fox were charged, though no evidence was offered against Nattie in court.

Robert had bought a knife at Mrs Brett's shop on the Barking Road at the beginning of July, and because he was more brave (or something) than his brother, had, on the agreed signal in the early hours of Monday 8th stabbed his mother twice. He admitted it, and said it was because of Nattie’s beating on the Saturday, and the one he himself was expecting. Fox was found to be ignorant, or uncomprehending, of the whole thing.

Robert's behaviour while on remand during August was abnormal , and George Edward Walker, the Medical-Officer of Holloway Prison and Newgate, noted periodic attacks of mania, diagnosing a history of the affliction. The verdict was handed down:

Robert entered Broadmoor as a "Pleasure Man" that same month in 1895.
He arrived there six months or so after Reginald Saunderson, the Jack the Ripper fantasist from the last episode. Saunderson was already an adult of 22. Coombes was still only a boy of 13.

Reginald was a decent chess player. He knew enough about the game to play in correspondence tournaments against opponents outside the Asylum, so quite possibly he taught Robert the moves. A bright lad, Robert would have picked it up quickly. By 1902, Robert could, as a note on his record shows, play “an excellent game of chess and billiards”.

The collaboration was a fruitful one. Both Reginald Saunderson and Robert Allen Coombes played in the 1903-4 Ireland v England Correspondence match – albeit on opposite sides: Saunderson lost on board 40 representing Ireland, but Coombes won his game on board 42, helping England to an emphatic victory.

From the Weekly Irish Times, Saturday 7 May 1904

Robert seemed to be getting on to an even keel (a metaphor his seafaring father might have warmed to), and he was conditionally discharged from Broadmoor in 1912, aged 30 after 17 years inside, to the care of the Salvation Army. Let’s hope he might have played the odd correspondence game with his old sparring partner Reginald Saunderson, who remained in Broadmoor and died there in 1943. I can't find a mention anywhere of a date for Robert's death.

Our Roll-Call of Noteworthy Broadmoor Chessers now reads: Richard Dadd (1817-1886); Edward Oxford (1822-1900); Reginald Saunderson (1873-1943); Robert Coombes (1882-?).

Who else? Find out next time.

Note added 27 June 2016: For an update on the Robert Coombes story see here: Robert Coombes' Comeback

Thanks again to Dr. Tim Harding for pointing us towards Saunderson and Coombes; and Mark Stevens at the Berkshire Record Office for his help and advice.

The full Coombes trial transcript is here, but it makes uncomfortable reading.

How To Beat Your Dadd At Chess

And see our Asylum Index