Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Literary Reference : A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man

A sudden swift hiss fell from the windows above him and he knew that the electric lamps had been switched on in the readers' room. He turned into the pillared hall, now calmly lit, went up the staircase and passed in through the clicking turnstile.

Cranly was sitting over near the dictionaries. A thick book, opened at the frontispiece, lay before him on the wooden rest. He leaned back in his chair, inclining his ear like that of a confessor to the face of the medical student who was reading to him a problem from the chess page of a journal. Stephen sat down at his right and the priest at the other side of the table closed his copy of The Tablet with an angry snap and stood up.

Cranly gazed after him blandly and vaguely. The medical student went on in a softer voice:

—Pawn to king's fourth.

—We had better go, Dixon, said Stephen in warning. He has gone to complain.

Dixon folded the journal and rose with dignity, saying:

—Our men retired in good order.

—With guns and cattle, added Stephen, pointing to the titlepage of Cranly's book on which was printed Diseases of the Ox.

As they passed through a lane of the tables Stephen said:

—Cranly, I want to speak to you.

Cranly did not answer or turn. He laid his book on the counter and passed out, his well-shod feet sounding flatly on the floor. On the staircase he paused and gazing absently at Dixon repeated:

—Pawn to king's bloody fourth.

—Put it that way if you like, Dixon said.
James Joyce, Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Penguin, p.246-7. (Original date of publication 1914-15.)

[A Literary reference index]
[Thanks to Tom]

Friday, June 29, 2012

Improvement Manual I: Beginner - Intermediate

Don't expect much actual chess in this series. It's intended as quite a sweeping look at the reasons why players of differing standards reach the next level. And particularly how conscious a process that actually is. We'll cover nearly 2,000 ELO points worth of progress over the next few weeks.

"How did I beat you?"

Beginner to intermediate, that's rather a large leap. I've skipped a few stages, haven't I? Well, possibly. However, to become a better than average player within 2 years is worthy of our attention. Such steep progress is more commonly seen amongst children or those who are coached. Our case study for Part I learned at university and didn't have any formal coaching until very recently. I've been speaking to John-Paul Taylor.

Let's look at some stats. Here is the list of rated games JP played in the 2007/08 season during his first year of university. His poor run of results saw him get an initial English rating of 29, which equates to approximately 900 ELO. Even FIDE haven't lowered the rating threshold to that yet, and he was considered a bit of a laughing stock in the Warwick University chess society for allegedly being so terrible. JP remembers things a little differently though.

JPT: Well, to be fair, I was never 29 grade. I played like 11 [sic] games that season and just kept blundering a queen in good positions all the time.

PJM: Sure. But why were you blundering? And what stopped that happening?

JPT:  I probably just got more careful. Also, living with Chris [Russell] and [Alex] Mapletoft helped a decent amount too.

So we're back to the notion of environment. Richard's said it all there, but I'll broaden his words on keeping beginners motivated to the situation JP found himself in. Chris Russell is a former British Under 16 champion, and is clearly very decent. However, I reckon that, had he been any stronger, the level he played at may have been intimidating. Just how many children of Grandmasters have become Grandmasters themselves? In other words, can the quality of a learning environment simply be too rich? I think JP was very lucky to live with two players whose level was attainable, over time. Indeed, he has now overtaken Alex Mapletoft in the January 2012 rating list.

PJM: Was the improvement conscious?

JPT: How do you mean?

PJM: Well, going from beginner to about 150 [1800 ELO] in such a short space of time must've felt like an achievement. Or was it just a really easy process because you found you had a reasonable amount of natural talent?

JPT: Well, I just enjoyed playing; I was putting in the hours for fun more than anything. And I suppose the improvement added to the fun. I mean, I bought some books and videos and stuff while I was at Uni, so I was definitely trying to get better. I found studying some positional stuff - good vs bad pawn structures etc. - helped me get past the 120s [1600-1700 ELO]. It got harder and harder to put in the hours though, especially when I started my job.

PJM: Do you feel you'd be 180+ [2100 ELO+] by now if you'd been able to commit more?

JPT: I guess my improvement is more down to natural talent than real grinding. I was just naturally better than most of the people I was playing while at Uni. I think I'm slowing down anyway so no, I don't think so. Most of my hours came through playing blitz on ChessCube; not sure how much that helped my game.

Having played many games of Fischerandom on ChessCube with JP, I can vouch for his natural aptitude to the game. A lack of correlation between prowess at Fischerandom and at standard chess may suggest a lack of a theoretical basis, something that's taught rather than assimilated.

JP also said that simply playing lots helped massively, particularly in the 4NCL. I suppose if you really enjoy it, there's no better practice. I wonder whether the recent lowering of the standard in the bottom division of the 4NCL helps or hinders the weakest players. And that's something I'll address in Part II.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Just Barely Got Something to do with chess VI

Max Maven

This is an area that I have explored in a number of different ways over the years, but rarely have I ever done a full blown set of pieces that explore this in a deliberately progressive, structured way. And I think it's a good theme.

We all have this sense that life is so crazed and if we could only just step back and get a little better vantage point we could, as J. Robert Oppenheimer put it, "make partial sense out of this total chaos". I think we have that feeling and we all know what it's like when someone looks at something and sees more than we do.

If we look at the sky and see clouds - unless they're, like, dark rain clouds - we don't necessarily know what the weather's going to be, whereas a meteorologist can look at those same clouds and have a good chance at being right about what's coming. Or a chess guy who plays chess well can look at a board and see many moves ahead. I look at a chessboard and try to remember, "how does a rook move?" We all have something like that.

This notion that it is possible to build a vantage point - you build a ladder so you can look down and see how the whole layout is - I think it's something that people can grab on to.

... to do with chess Index

Monday, June 25, 2012

Penarth for your thoughts

It's nine months and more since I last looked at a chessboard. A real one, that is, tangible, three-dimensional, with pieces on it, in play or ready for a game.

I've not much missed it, to be honest. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I've had time for other, more rewarding things, not least trying to catch up on some of the reading I seem to have laid aside twenty or so years ago and never properly picked up again. I am sure more than a quarter of the books I own are chess books. I am equally sure they shouldn't be.

But it doesn't succeed in getting me away from chess. After reading The Mill On The Floss, and coming across the passage involving chess which I linked to above, I read JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man - it must have knocked people backwards in its time, and it's still funny if at least a little dubious today - and came across another couple of references to chess, including the recollection of one character that while under arrest at a police station he beat various people "in chess".

Immediately after that I read the book that will be the subject of Saturday's A Literary Reference and which, you can therefore assume, also contained at least one reference to chess. Coincidence, presumably. Doesn't help you feel, though, that you have escaped the grasp of chess, that it is no longer dominating your life.

For the record, this is the last game I played, in the final round of the Ciudad de Huesca tournament played last summer. (Don't be fooled by the board number, I was upfloated.) You can see why I've packed in playing seriously. Each side takes turns to throw the game to the other. I've played far too many games identical in trajectory to this.

[Event "Ciudad de Huesca"] [Date "19 September 2011"] [Round "sixth and final"] [Site "board 1"] [White "Simon Roche, Manuel"] [Black "Horton, Justin"] [Result "1-0"] [WhiteElo "2156"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Bc5 5. Nb3 Bb6 6. Nc3 Nf6 7. Qe2 d6 8. Be3 Qe7 9. Bxb6 axb6 10. O-O-O O-O 11. f3 Be6 12. g4 Bxb3 13. cxb3 Ra5 14. Kb1 Rfa8 15. a3 Qe5 16. Qd2 b5 17. b4 Rxa3 18. bxa3 Rxa3 19. Kb2 Ra4 20. Bxb5 Rxb4 21. Kc1 Nd4 22. Qa2 Nxb5 23. Nd5 Nc3 24. Qa8 Ne8 25. Nxb4 Ne2 26. Kd2 Qb2 27. Ke3 1-0

Horrid. Yet what is this? It is a list of entrants to the South Wales International Open, taking place early next month, in Penarth, South Glamorgan, and that definitely seems to be my name on it.

It's just a holiday. Is my claim. Not serious chess. No really. No preparation will be involved. Well hardly any. I hope.

Just my little bit of chess for the year, just as I make sure I go to at least one football match every season. A nice game of chess. First and quite likely only games of the year. First games, on reflection, I've played in Wales since the last round of the tournament in Monmouth in July 1993.

And how did that one go?

[Event "Monmouth"] [Date "July 1993"] [Round "fifth and final"] [White "Bacon"] [Black "Horton"] [Result "1-0"] [WhiteElo "160"] 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 Nf6 4. e5 Nd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. Nxd4 Nxd4 7. Qxd4 e6 8. Nd2 b6 9. Ne4 f5 10. Bg5 Qc7 11. Nd6 Bxd6 12. exd6 Qxd6 13.c4 1-0

Here we go again.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What's it like to be a chess player?

Literature is the knowledge of how it is to be a person other than yourself, made compelling through story-telling and the artistry of the writing. Amidst the many riveting characters and fascinating works this creative endeavour has produced, chess players occasionally feature. But how successfully? And here's a question: is literature the right medium to understand The Chess Player anyway?

Nabokov's Luzhin is a certain recognizable type, it is true: awkward, introverted, obsessed - but is it convincing that such types see chess boards everywhere; in ceilings, floors, windows, doors? And the novel, at least in the translation I read, had none of the linguistic sparkliness that Nabokov's later novels written in English would go on to achieve. And frankly I found it a bit boring.

Zweig's Chess fares somewhat better. This story compares two contrasting characters: the debonair, worldly man forced by imprisonment to turn to chess; and the naturally grubby-minded introvert, shunning all that life has to offer for the sake of a game, a creature born with a hunchbacked soul, crabbed and unenviable. There's almost a comparison with how a chess game can witness a clash of style; perhaps at the highest level a battle of chess philosophy.

But what about the happy, quirky, mischevious types - Aronian, McShane, et al? What about the thoroughly barbaric extroverts -Kasparov the leading example? The humour, the mystics, the female players? If a non-player asked you: "What's it like to be a chess player?" would you reply: "Oh, read this novel - it gets it spot on?"

Well, before this week I would just have shrugged and said: you can't know what it's like to be a chess player unless you are one. But that was before I watched this video of a man, armed with his first coffee of the day, at an unnaturally early hour in the morning, powering up his computer and recording his stream of consciousness as he logs on to the ICC:

It's all there. The confusion, the hope, the passing blips of depression, the head scratching, the fight, and finally the jumping over the moon. What's it like to be a chess player? YouTube has the answer. 1-0, literature. And for the follow-up question people like to ask, "why do we play?", skip to 6:55 and turn up the volume. That's it. Brilliant. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Keeping things vague

This is bits and pieces, really. Like my colleague Jonathan last week, I was thinking of writing about the barring of arbiters from unfavoured Federations from the upcoming Olympiad in Turkey. But it never quite happened, partly because where-to-start turned out to be an unanswerable question, partly because the basic issue is one of such patent unfairness that I wasn't sure it was worth writing a long piece in order to make a short point.

So here is that short point: the barring of the arbiters is a lousy and indefensible act of petty bullying which should simply and immediately be reversed. Thank you.

A petty bully

Then there's the question of the legal action against FIDE which prompted the aforesaid act of petty bullying. In particular the following passage, which has prompted a certain amount of discussion:
Sources close to the ECF Presidency have told me that there were legitimate legal concerns at that time, regarding the attitude of the court to the funding of the case. Broadly, the plaintiffs' financial risk is being borne by Garry Kasparov (or persons connected with him - the full details are not publicly available). At the time of the ECF's AGM last October, nobody was sure how the CAS would react to this fact, and it was decided that, as a matter of elementary legal tactics, the plaintiffs should not go out of their way to publicise the situation, and thereby hand their opponents a potential legal technicality, on the basis of which to try to get the case dismissed. Legal advice was also obtained, regarding the quality and reliability of the financial guarantees, and on that basis, it was decided not to disclose details of the case to the ECF AGM in October.
Maybe. But it's one of those passages that, the more you read, the less sure you are what exactly it means. Who "obtained" the "legal advice"? We can't tell. What "basis" did that establish? It's not clear. How did that lead to a conclusion not to disclose? It's not explained. "Nobody was sure" refers to what group of people? We're not told. It's impossible to tell. It's hard enough even to guess.

Especially so, because in the course of a long discussion in the course of which, several ECF officials discussed this claim, several have said that they knew nothing of any of this. Conversely, nobody, within or without the ECF, has stepped forward to say that they were party to this information.

So the whole thing could be made up, for all we know. On which point I am generally agnostic (though, for what it's worth, if anybody is making it up I don't think it's the blogger). But the whole situation is, it should (but does not) go without saying, utterly unsatisfactory. The decision of an organisation to engage in legal action is, even on this sympathetic account, hidden from the organisation's members, after a discussion between persons unknown, due to legal advice the provenance and content of which is also unknown, with the ultimate funding of this action - "persons connected" - once again unknown.

Recall was not in fact total

Really. You cannot muck people about in this way and then tell them to like it. If you want people to sign up to a war against Kirsan - which might in itself be a very good thing - then you can't expect it to be your own private war and none of their business. So, if anybody had, in fact, received advice that they should keep schtum rather than keep ECF members informed, their response should clearly have been "sorry, but we proceed when the members know what's happening, and not before". Because otherwise, what's occurring is something that could be called deceit.

Still, unless and until somebody tells us that they were party to this small conspiracy - until we know that it actually existed in the form described - it is difficult to say much more.

On some occasions though it is better to keep silent

Tallking of saying much more, I'd also thought of commenting on Nigel Short's curious behaviour on that long English Chess Forum discussion, linked to above (the mysterious legal discussion is but one small part of it) in which he inadvertently demonstrates why he is not more popular than he is. But you may read it all yourself. Should you wish. Or you may have better things to to do. You may prefer to enjoy the football, or the weekend. I merely observe, I do not recommend.

But let's give Nigel one go at least. Among the salvoes he launched was this:

As ever, click to enlarge

It's that where-to-start problem again. "I will answer to ECF members", says the chap who failed to inform one ECF meeting and failed to attend the next. "Foreign stooge", says - well, if we are to talk about stooges, who is the stooge here? The ECF is a plaintiff in a legal action, hidden from its members, organised by Nigel Short. Does this make us the stooge, and Nigel's stooge in particular?

Then again, Nigel in his turn appears to be operating on behalf of Garry Kasparov. So is Nigel Kasparov's stooge? But Kasparov appears to be getting his money from somebody else. Is he their stooge? Come to that, is Ali Nihat Yazici a stooge for Kirsan?

Can you think of more than three?

You could probably make a case for any, all or none of the above. (I'd go for the first and last at least.) But, you know, stooges - what's new? Stooges, gofers, puppets, both open and otherwise, are not exactly unknown in the chess world. Even that part of it which has the Queen's head on their stamps. I mean even without asking whether every chess column in the country is always written by the person whose name appears on it, one thinks of CJ, who couldn't be more obviously a puppet if he tied strings to his limbs and had Ray Keene pull on them.

Thinking about it, I wonder whether that's why the player-sponsorship arrangements for the last British Championships were so opaque (which in turn, is partly why there was such a fiasco). Nobody knew where the money was going to, and nobody knew for sure where it came from. Which is how and why things go wrong, but that's not the point for today: the point for today is that

  • both CJ and Ray wanted to take credit for it
  • both wanted the other to be able to take credit for it too.

You can't pull that kind of trick without keeping things extremely vague. Come to that, you can't really pull that trick unless one of you does glove and the other one does waving around.

The choice is between opacity, which is the way most things in chess happen, and transparency, which is the way they should happen. Personally I reckon it would help if people remembered who they were working for and hence who they needed to keep informed. Then again, they may consider that they're working for themselves. Or for somebody else. Or they may consider that we are working for them.

What's that up my back, Sweep? Is it somebody's hand? Is it Sooty?

Bye bye everybody! Bye bye!

[Nigel image: Chessvibes]

[Nigel Short index]

[CJ index]
[Ray Keene index]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

One Year On

I'd always tried to keep chess separate from my social life. By that, I mean that the majority of my best friends were completely removed from the chess world and it remained a hobby rather than a lifestyle. That's definitely still the case, but the last 12 months have changed things somewhat. Hell, I'm now even advising the general public that their ideal spouse should play the game.

 27 year old Shak proved to be a hit

And this is because I live in a house packed to the rafters with chess players. Five of us; three titled, two of those professional. A set fairly consistently adorns the dining table and - before the analogue signal was switched off - the TV aerial perched on My Great Predecessors, Part II. Guests aren't hit by a tidal wave of black and white, but there is definitely a Caïssic ambience to our place. It's simply very cosy and familiar for me; I don't particularly study the game myself so there's no danger of overload. 

I did, however, expect my new environment to have a positive reflection on my play. Sadly though, my FIDE rating has dipped back below 2100 and my English rating went down for the first time ever. All other things being equal, this is rather puzzling, and presumably has more to do with variance and a degree of stagnation. I know that I haven't become worse.

So, in the coming weeks, I'll be investigating what it is that influences improvement at various levels, from novice to world-class Grandmaster. Over the last year, I've seen at first hand just how much work the professionals in my household put into their game. If nothing else, they've influenced me to think more about chess and I doubt you'd be reading this if our houseshare hadn't materialised. It's been a fun 12 months.

We'll get going next week.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bad book covers XXVI

Sacking the Citadel: the history, theory and practice of the classic
bishop sacrifice,
Edwards, Russell Enterprises, 2011

[Bad book covers index]

Friday, June 15, 2012

I've never played chess on my birthday

Not a serious game, at any rate: not a club or tournament game, not even a game for my school team. Comes of having a birthday in what you'd probably call the close season (in British terms at any rate) with club matches having come to an end, while most of the summer congresses seemingly wait for the school holidays to start.

If I'd particularly wanted to find a game to play, of course I could have done so: but as it happens, looking back through my scorebooks, it appears I never have. As yet, I have never played a serious chess game on my birthday.

Steinitz did. Matter of fact he played a world championship game on his birthday, the sixteenth game of his first match against Lasker taking place on 17 May 1894, Steinitz's 58th birthday. It didn't go well.

The match itself wasn't going well, Steinitz having lost the previous game to go four points down. (This was still an improvement on the five-point margin he'd faced after suffering five consecutive defeats in games 7-11.) He had the White bits for his birthday, but he was close to lost at an early stage and would probably not have survived long past move 21

Position after 21.bxc6

had Lasker spotted the finesse 21...Qe7! 22.Be2 cxb6! (22.Bd3 Qb4+ 23. Kf1 Qb2 is the point, after which Black survives the checks to mate or win a rook) and Black is going to play ...Rf4 rolling up the centre and the game.

23...Nc3 wouldn't have been much fun for White either, but after those inaccuracies by Black Steinitz arrived at a position that White obviously shouldn't lose, though given the match score, "obviously shouldn't lose" with the White pieces may not have seemed quite enough to the birthday boy.

It was Lasker though who probably tried a little too hard to win - 31...Nxg3 looks better than his 31...Kf7, which gave White time to get at the queenside pawns, and before long the b7 pawn looked more dangerous than the one on e3.

Position after 35...Rb4

But there were to be no prizes for White at his own party, as he set himself up for the blunder to follow with 36.Rc1?! (better 36.Kf1, though the move he missed does not actually win and the move he played does not actually lose). There came 36...Nd4 setting a trap and after 37.Kg2?? (37.Rc7+ was quite necessary) Black with 37...Rb2+ 38.Kg3 Rxb7! won the b7 pawn and the game. After which I can't imagine Steinitz had much stomach for jelly and ice cream.

In the 1896/7 match between the same two players, Steinitz won the 12th game, played the day before Lasker's birthday, and the 13th*, played the day after. Losing the day after one's birthday can't be an uncommon syndrome, though it might also be that Lasker lost a little bit of focus (to use a term they probably did not use then) after being seven points up by game eleven. Whatever the reasons, those two were the only games Lasker lost.

Lasker, though, didn't actually play any games on his birthday. Nor, if I am correct, has any world championship contestant since. Which, if I'm right (and I do say "if") is, on the face of it, extraordinary.

When I say "on his birthday" I refer only to the dates on which games began. I've not taken into account adjournment sessions played on birthdays. I imagine there must be some, but that would need to be researched by somebody considerably more assiduous than I. As indeed, would calculating the odds against nobody having played on their birthday since 1894.

With some much-appreciated help from Angus French I've looked at all the world championship matches since 1886, including both sides of the post-1993 schism, the tournaments of 1948 (The Hague-Moscow) and 2005 (San Luis) and the final matches of the FIDE knockout tournaments. We've used Mega Database (2010 version) and the less-than-perfect ChessBaseLight2009** and, as stated above, it seems that, adjournments apart, no champion since Steinitz - and no challenger at all - has played a world championship game on their birthday.

Not even Smyslov, whose birthday coincided with his participation in three world championship matches and a world championship tournament. Not even Petrosian, who lost his title in a match that concluded the day before his birthday. (Did the closing ceremony take place on his birthday? What a super birthday that must have been.)

He looks happy enough. Boris less so

So, no challengers and just the one champion? Maybe, no champions at all. Because although I say "matter of fact" above, it's not a matter of fact - or not so far as can be established, since Steinitz's birthday is not known for sure. English-language Wikipedia has 17 May, all right, but the Spanish version offers us 14 May, neither page choosing to discuss the discrepancy. I can also find 18 May and (if I really drop the quality threshold) 7 May.

In his authoritative Chess Personalia, Jeremy Gaige gives (as reported by Edward Winter)
17 (14?) May 1836
and a commentor on suggests that even the year of Steinitz's birth has not always been entirely clear. But it's his birthday, rather than his age, that we're particularly interested in here. And it appears we do not really have it.

So quite possibly, no world championship contestant has ever played a game beginning on their birthday. (Magnus Carlsen, if you're wondering, was born on November 30th, Lev Aronian October 6th.) Rather play a world championship game on your birthday, I am sure, than never play one at all. But on my birthday, I have never played a single serious game of chess.

[* ChessBase Light has this game finishing on move 38, on move 40. Which, if either, is right?]

[** if, for instance, I click on any game for the 1969 world championship, it favours me with the score of Estrin-Baranov from the 1952 Moscow Championship. Several other matches, when searched, give similarly bizarre results.]

[I have taken "world championship matches" as not including women's world championship matches, world junior championships etc.]

[1969 image: via Jan van Reek, Chess Analyses]
[Other pages consulted include: Wikipedia: Campeonato Mundial de Ajedrez 1993 (FIDE), Wikipedia: List of world championship matches and IndonesiaBase: FIDE World Chess Championship Karpov-Timman Rounds of 13-21, Jakarta 1993]
[Thanks to Roger de Coverly]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Double Six

[I'd like to be writing something about the ECF-Turkey-FIDE cobblers today. I'd like to, but I don't have time. Whether that's good or bad luck - either for me or for you, dear reader - I leave you to judge.  Either way, I'm going to stick with what I originally planned.]

"It went my way," Anand commented afterwards, admitting that a fair share of luck had been involved

It's what we say, isn't it? When we've won - or when we haven't - and it was close. I/he was lucky. He/I was unlucky. It's what people say, and I say it too. I'm not at all sure it's right, though.

Gelfand's take on the World Championship match is rather different.

Q. What was your biggest emotion after the last game?
A. I was remembering of course Barcelona-Chelsea. You had the advantage, then you didn't take your chances and then the opponent takes his chances. I think for me it's very similar.

Chess Vibes (again)

That sounds closer to the mark to me, although football isn't quite the same as chess as far as turnarounds are concerned. In footie however far behind you might be you'll still be playing with the same ball on the same pitch as the opposition. If it were really like chess you'd have to take a guy off the field every time the other team scored.

Still, I get it. I get why people think escaping from a losing position in chess must involve luck. What I don't really understand, though, is why they don't apply the same logic getting a winning position in the first place. That takes mistakes from the other guy too and yet the narrative, albeit rarely if ever one that is stated explicitly, is that advantages are created by skill and lost by luck.

One of the aspects of luck that Ed Smith explores in his book is the question of why some people, particularly those of who have reached a position of some eminence in their field - don't much care for the concept of chance when describing sporting outcomes. One reason, he says, is the widespread belief in the principles of meritocracy that underpins - in theory at least - the political philosophies and socio-economic relationships that dominate life in the modern Western world.

According to Smith, the Sacred Cow that says that 'people (should) get what they deserve' prevents us from accepting that sporting outcomes could ever be down to mere chance rather than, say, trying hard or hours/days/weeks/years of practice or simply having more talent. There's another side of that coin, though, even if Smith himself doesn't address it: when something that appears manifestly unfair is the outcome that we observe, the cultural norm of the meritocratic ideal makes it very hard for us to conceptualise what we see as anything but the result of bad luck.

You're winning, but you don't take the opportunity to finish the game. Your opponent snatches victory from your grasp (or do you drop it into their hands? - language is not neutral here). What is that? Be it football or chess, what do you call that?

Is that luck? Well, not for Boris Gelfand it isn't.

It's sport. You should accept it, but of course you know you could do much better.

Not luck, then, but sport which, by it's very nature, can go either way.

Whatever Ed Smith might say, luck has a part to play in chess, but games going from winning to losing (and maybe back again) isn't it. That's just what happens sometimes. That's playing.

Or, to borrow a phrase from Jacob Aagaard - one that I wrote down in my notebook immediately before going to play the first round in that Sunningdale last year, in fact -

There are no promises, no justice or fairness, only the game.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Beautiful Game

If Peter Drury's to be believed, chess and football are pretty much the same thing. And, at last year's European Team Championship, you could have forgiven such commentators for saying so. To paraphrase Crisp Man:

"Chess is a game for 8 people that sit down, move some pieces, and one arbiter who makes a slew of mistakes, and in the end Germany always wins."

Gazza ate Golden Wonder instead

So, in true Question of Sport style, here's my Chess XI. I doubt they'd get as much as a throw-in at Euro 2012, but perhaps that's a good thing. These chess similes in football commentaries need to stop. I'd keep Hodgson as manager though. Julian, that is.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Friday, June 08, 2012

Memento V

We have come to the end of the Memento series, by which I mean we've reached the beginning.

Memento asked whether Black could allow White to force a king and pawn ending by playing ... Re1. As was quickly pointed out by one anonymous reader (or would have been had I not cut that comment) the position was taken from a Piket-Kasparov game played on the internet at the turn of the century and Gazza's attempt to keep the rooks on with ... Ra2 instead was the subject of Memento II.

If Kasparov had played ... Ra3 instead of ... Re1 a couple of moves earlier we'd have reached Memento III if White had played Rc7 in response. Well, almost. If you look closely you'll see the rook was on a2 not a3 in the position given there.

Memento III was taken from a game that Michael Stean and Bill Hartston played at the British Championship in Brighton more than a quarter of a century before Piket and Kasparov duked it out on the internet. Two almost identical endings played twenty years apart. Actually the position of Piket-Kasparov at move 46 is exactly the same as Stean-Hartston at move 41. This is, not coincidentally, where Memento started.

Memento III could have come from either game - it not making the slightest difference whether Black's rook is on the second or third rank. Memento IV, however, could only arise in Stean - Hartston. Piket's rook was on c2 for a long time so Gazza never had to decide whether or not to try to snatch the pawn on h2.

So we started off at move 46 of a game played in 1999 and after we wound back a few moves we ended up at move 37 of a game played in 1972. What are the chances, I wonder? What are the odds of two entirely different games reaching an identical position so late on? Does anybody know of any other examples of this happening?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Memento IV

Black to play

If Black plays 1 ...Kg7 it leads, after 2 Rc7, to Memento III. Is 1 ... Rxh2 a better idea?

This is the End Index

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Memento III

Black to play

If Black tries 1 ... Re2 here it leads, after 2 Re7, to Memento II. Does s/he have any better ideas?

This is the End Index

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Memento II

Black to play

If Black tries 1 ... Re1 here we reach Memento. What happens if s/he plays 1 ... Ra2 instead?

This is the End Index

Monday, June 04, 2012


Black to play

What happens if Black plays 1 ... Re1 here? Does 2 e6 work?

This is the End Index

Sunday, June 03, 2012


God Save The ... oh wait. Before I begin I should say that if you came here looking for your usual weekend Chess in Art fix you should click HERE for Richard (and Martin's) post yesterday: the latest instalment in their excellent series on the gentlemen of Hereford Chess Club.

Now, where was I? Ah yes. God Save The Queen.

For the benefit of our readers from overseas, I should explain that today Britain celebrates sixty years of a German family living on state benefits in an enormous house in the centre of London. I'm not sure why exactly, but it's certainly got a lot of people rather excited. When I strolled down Regent Street yesterday there were so many Union Jacks on display I thought I'd slipped through a rift in the space-time continuum and ended up in a parallel universe where the BNP had taken charge on the same day that we'd won the World Cup, a war and the Eurovision Song Contest.

Well, at least we've got an extra bank holiday out of it. A four-day weekend could drag a little, though, so if you're not playing in a chess tournament, or watching one, let us entertain you. Tomorrow, Tuesday and every day next week in fact, we at the S&BC Blog will have a puzzle for you. Yes, I know you've come to expect and - dare I say it? - enjoy an almost complete absence of chess on this particular chess blog, but we all knew we'd have to get back to it sooner or later.

Anyhoo, whatever it is you're doing this weekend do have fun ... and for those of you who can't wait for tomorrow, here's a special bonus edition of one of our long-running series to be going on with.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Every Picture Tells A Story: A Tale Horrid to Relate

Blog Number 21 in the series, in which we bring the story of Thomas Leeming’s painting of the gentlemen of the Hereford Chess Club up-to-date with a report from Richard Tillett, with some additions from Martin Smith.

The grinning figure of Death embraces a suicide victim
– an engraving of 1785.
In September 1817 the Morning Chronicle carried a grisly story about a ‘melancholy suicide’ in Ireland:
"Cork, Sept. 15 – Yesterday, about one o’clock, the door of a bedroom in the Royal Mail Coach Hotel, Patrick Street was forced open, in consequence of the person who slept there for the last eight nights, and who was in the habit of rising at or before nine o’clock every morning, not appearing, when horrid to relate, he was discovered in bed, covered with blood, having discharged the contents of a pistol, which he held in his hand, through his head, a little above the right ear, which was supposed to have caused instantaneous death. Another pistol lay on the bed to be used in case the first should not have accomplished his fatal purpose.”
An inquest was held and the coroner declared that the deceased ‘came by his death by a pistol ball, fired by his own hand in a fit of mental derangement’.

The unfortunate fellow was a young man, around 26 years of age, who had been travelling under a false name, Mr Browne. He was on the run, having absconded from his employers, the Hereford Bank, the previous month after defrauding them of a substantial sum of money. A reward of £100 had been offered by the bank for his apprehension.

His real name was Samuel Beavan, a name that may be familiar to readers of previous posts in our Every Picture Tells a Story series about Thomas Leeming’s painting of the gentlemen of the Hereford chess club.

We think that the Samuel Beavan who committed suicide in 1817 is the same Samuel Beavan portrayed in the foreground of the 1815 version of the painting. We cannot be certain about this, as there were other Samuel Beavans in the Hereford area at this time, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling.

This is a detail from the picture showing Beavan on the left playing Edwin Goode Wright, owner of the Hereford Journal which carried the same story of his suicide a few days after it appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and this is the picture in its entirety:

By kind permission of Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, Herefordshire Heritage Services ©
We didn’t know much about Samuel Beavan when we last wrote about him, and some of our speculations have turned out to be mistaken. However it does seem likely that he came from a prominent family of Beavans which had military and landowning connections in Herefordshire and the Welsh border country, as suggested by David Whitehead, Honorary Secretary of the Woolhope Club (the long-established Hereford society that investigates the history, geology and culture of the area).

The discovery of the suicide appears to have solved one of the mysteries surrounding the two main versions of the painting. We wondered why Beavan was the only sitter in the 1815 version to be replaced when Leeming came to paint the picture again for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1818. Now there’s an obvious explanation - the Beavan scandal of 1817 and his suicide would have so appalled Hereford society that he had to be removed from the composition and another sitter found. The convenient solution was James Buckton, the thoroughly respectable lawyer who in 1819 married Eliza Link, sister of Thomas Leeming’s wife (as we recounted here). The substitution would have been easy to arrange as Buckton was based in London and could have sat for Leeming at his studio in Park Street, Mayfair.

Samuel Beavan’s replacement James Buckton
- in the 1818 version of the picture
None of this would have emerged were it not for the historian and President of the Woolhope Club Dr John Eisel. Martin and I met John in March when we gave a talk in Hereford to the Club about Thomas Leeming and his work in the city. John brought the Beavan suicide to our attention, as well as giving us further valuable information about the chess gents in the picture. Thank you John - and thanks to the fifty or so members of the Club who came along to the Shire Hall to share our fascination with Leeming and his works.

Another mystery solved
We’ve long been puzzled about Thomas Leeming’s origins – all we knew was that he was a Lancashire man. Now we’ve found the answer, in the British Library’s ever-expanding online database the British Newspaper Archive.

In 1822 the Lancaster Gazette carried a brief mention of Thomas’s death, noting that he was the brother of John Leeming, a bookseller in the town. This confirms that Thomas was the sixth of seven children born to Ann and William Leeming, variously described as a letter case maker, bookbinder and stationer. John was the oldest of Thomas’s brothers and by 1812 had a bookselling business and circulating library in the town.

We can speculate that Thomas Leeming’s entrée to Hereford society came through the Allen family who, like the Leemings, owned a bookshop and circulating library. John Allen Junior is one of the sitters in Leeming’s picture of the Hereford chess club and was the subject of an earlier post in our series.

And finally...
It is possible that there are more revelations to be discovered in the Thomas Leeming saga, in which case, dear readers, you will be the first to know. There is also the forthcoming bicentenary, in November, of the inauguration of the first Hereford Chess club, commemorated in Thomas’s painting – when we expect that Hereford Museum and Art Gallery will put their version of the picture (the one reproduced above) on public display. But, otherwise and for the time being, the Every Picture Tells a Story story has been told.

Death claims a suicide pic comes from here
Every Picture Tells A Story Index

Friday, June 01, 2012

Chess Is Like... Poetry?

Not the first mention of poetry we've had on the blog (who could forget this little piece of perfection? Or, this?) -
There’s something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems, and that is my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old and over the next few years became good enough to beat not just all the kids my age, but many of the grownups in the neighborhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. Already then, I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both sides are reduced to a few figures each and in which every single move is of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call it “God”) that outwits me nine out of ten times, I’m not only in awe of its superior intelligence, but find my losses far more interesting to me than my infrequent wins. The kind of poems I write—mostly short and requiring endless tinkering—often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.
- but certainly the most serious. That quote is from writer Charles Simic, in the New York Review.

I have to admit I have never been particularly taken by Simic's writing, poetry included. But then again, maybe I'm more of a hacker than a tinker.

Chess Is Like... Index