Saturday, September 29, 2012

Every man has his piece: Brasen Nose Chess Club 1810-11, part 3 of 6.

In last Saturday's blog we delved into the life of the Oxford surgeon William Tuckwell, the driving force behind the Brasen Nose Chess Club and its first president.

Tuckwell was one of six founder members who, some time in late 1809 or very early in 1810, got together to create the club. The others were Ashurst Turner Gilbert, Richard Stephens, Kenrick Prescot, John Lingard and a Mr Allen who was probably John Taylor Allen. Two further members were elected soon after: Samuel Hall in January and Ambrose Dawson the following month. Joining the club was no shoo-in: applicants for membership had to put themselves up for ballot, one black ball being sufficient, the rules tell us, ‘to decide the question against a candidate’.

The election of Hall and Dawson brought the total membership to eight, the maximum number allowed by the rules. Why only eight? The reason is ‘obvious’, we are told, ‘since at chess there are eight pieces – so in every chess club there should be only eight members – thus every man has his piece’.

Not immediately obvious to me though. But then I remembered that, as a Wikipedia entry puts it, ‘in play, the term [‘piece’] is usually used to exclude pawns, referring only to a queen, rook, bishop, knight, or king’ with the general term for pawn being ‘man’ or ‘chessman’ rather than ‘piece’. So, eight members of the chess club because there are eight chess pieces lined up on the first rank. Eight does seem to be an unnecessarily restrictive maximum for a chess club and I don’t think we’ll be applying such a policy any time soon at Streatham & Brixton Chess Club (how would we break the news to the other 48 members?).

Apart from William Tuckwell, all the members of the chess club were Brasenose men, and all went on to become clergymen, the most eminent of whom was Ashhurst Turner Gilbert, who has a Wikipedia entry here. Gilbert’s 1870 obituary in The Times records that while at Oxford he struck up an acquaintance with Robert Peel and they became lifelong friends. Gilbert was taking his MA degree at the time of the chess club and for several years he was a tutor at the college before being appointed principal in 1822. He was vice-chancellor of the university for a four-year term in 1836-40 and then became bishop of Chichester in 1842, no doubt with the approval of the prime minister of the day, none other than his old mate Robert, by then Sir Robert, Peel.

Eminent cleric: a portrait of Ashurst Turner Gilbert published in 1835. 
Mezzotint by Samuel Cousins after Thomas Phillips.

Brasenose College had strong affiliations with the North West of England, and Gilbert was one of three members of the chess club who had attended Manchester Grammar School, the others being Samuel Hall and John Lingard.

Samuel Hall graduated from Brasenose in 1809 with a first class degree and was elected to a fellowship in 1811. The Admission Register of the Manchester Grammar School records that he was employed for many years in the tuition of the students of the college, and for seven successive years was vice principal. He had something of a reputation for conviviality and is mentioned in one of the satirical Brasenose Ale verses, which were written each year and recited on Shrove Tuesday (a custom which continues to this day). In 1819 he became one of the domestic chaplains to the Duke of Clarence, subsequently William IV, and in 1831 he was appointed rector of Middleton Cheney, near Banbury, a post which he held for 22 years until his death in 1853 at the age of 66.

John Lingard, son of a Manchester attorney, had gone up to Brasenose on a scholarship and in 1810 was studying for his MA. Shortly before his early death in 1832 he was appointed curate of St Michael’s church in Liverpool by another old boy of the Brasen Nose Chess Club, Ambrose Dawson.

Dawson was also a young Brasenose graduate in 1810, and went on to obtain his Bachelor of Divinity in 1819, the same year as his chess mate Ashurst Turner Gilbert. In 1816 he was one of two ministers recruited to the newly-built (but now demolished) church of St Philip’s in Hardman Street, Liverpool, the city of his birth, where he remained until his death in 1848.

William Tuckwell held his post as president of the chess club for only one year, stepping aside at the club’s AGM in February 2011 in favour of Richard Stephens, another Brasenose scholar-turned-cleric. Tuckwell’s short tenure of office may have been a consequence of the in-fighting which by then had broken our amongst the club members (of which more in next Saturday's blog). Richard Stephens was a vice principal of Brasenose before becoming vicar of Belgrave near Leicester in 1824 where he remained until his death around 1870.

Charles Kenrick Prescot (1786-1875) took his MA at Brasenose in 1810 and succeeded his father as rector of Stockport in Cheshire in 1820 where he remained for the rest of his life.

The identity of the last of the eight full members of the chess club, named only in the minute book as ‘Mr Allen’, was a puzzle until I noticed that one of the minutes bears the initials ‘JTA’. This means he is probably John Taylor Allen (1784-1861), son of James Allen, a hatter and hose manufacturer of Salford, who matriculated at Brasenose in 1801 at the age of just 17. He was ordained deacon in 1811 and priest the following year, then had a spell as librarian at Chetham’s Library in Manchester between 1812 and 1821, as this biographical note on the library’s website tells us. He then resumed his clerical career, becoming vicar of Stradbroke in Suffolk where he served for 20 years until his death in 1861.

By 1810 Allen had already made something of a name for himself for his essay on the subject of duelling, published as Duelling: An Essay Read In the Theatre, at Oxford, 10 June 1807, for which he was awarded a Chancellor's Prize.

Victorian gentlemen settling their differences at the drop of a handkerchief.

According to Stephen Banks in A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850, Allen's essay was an early and influential outline of the arguments against duelling.

A ninth, ‘honorary’ member was added during 1810 after someone had the bright idea of appointing a poet laureate. I’ll have more to say about Thomas Dunbar and the commemorative poem he wrote for the club in a fortnight’s time.

Next Saturday: how it all went pear-shaped.

Links to the 2 previous episodes can be found here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Great Chessboxing Swindle: Nothing Was Delivered

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. Chessboxing is back, having been unaccountably absent from the Olympics, with a show tomorrow at the Scala and another - already sold out - in a fortnight at the Albert Hall.

At the Albert Hall? Good Lord. To be accurate - and it is rare that quoting chessboxing publicity takes us towards greater accuracy rather than away from it, so let us not forego the opportunity - it is in the Royal Albert Hall Loading Bay, which sounds at first like it might be the lift, but is apparently
a stunning, underground landscape encompassing a striking and cavernous interior space, hidden from the general public for 140 years. Massive modern graffiti murals, created by some of London's top street artists, lend a dramatic and theatrical atmosphere ideally suited to staging the sport.
That's "basement venue with painted walls and bar", then. Still, the Beatles got started in the Cavern.

Our gimmick tomorrow is 4 FIGHTERS - 1 WINNER which does rather point in the direction of a freak show rather than a sport, since I rather doubt that this would be allowed in a licensed boxing event. Proper sports play to proper rules. Freak shows do not.

The Albert Hall freak show appears to be an international cast, albeit one apparently lacking (with one exception) international ratings. One assumes that right now, some gullible hack with knowledge neither of chess nor boxing is being fed easy-to-regurgitate nonsense in order to hype the Albert Hall event. In re: the Scala event, our man Woolgar has already found a gullible hack in Rosamund Urwin of the Standard, which when I left London was mostly operating as a work-creation system for cleaning staff on commuter trains.

No obvious improvement is apparent since then, not from Ms Urwin's article anyway, which introduces Mr Woolgar as
One of the men making chess fashionable again
a claim which appears to rest on something almost like chess appearing in a Prada video.

Ungenerous minds may not see this undoubtedly significant moment in social and cultural history as the new Fischer-Spassky, but perhaps they should hush their mouths, since
in London, chess is about to enjoy the kind of profile it hasn't seen since Garry Kasparov — now a Russian opposition leader and Pussy Riot supporter — took on Nigel Short for the World Chess Championship in the capital.
Personally I am almost sure I recall another world championship match in the capital since then, but the struggle of memory against forgetting is not perhaps one to be wasted on the promoter of that match, so let us perhaps suggest that if the profile of chess in London is relatively high at the moment, this may be because of actual chess events taking place in my home city, rather than freak shows such as Mr Woolgar's. Still, "fashionable"? Do me a favour.

Anyway, scroll down from Ms Urwin's churnalism and you can find various remarks from the commentariat, including one from the present writer (which reads as though I typed it wearing boxing gloves - sorry about that) and several from Mr Woolgar's friends and admirers, including the amiable Andy Costello.

I mention this, in part, because as I am sure readers recall, the line used to be that chessboxing was a fast-growing sport. Curiously that claim has shifted, given that even a fool (provided they are not also a journalist) can see that you can only sustain that claim so far when there is only one club in the country, and one promoter putting on shows featuring much the same people. So it is now advertised as

the fastest growing hybrid sport in the world
- by the way, for a professional sport, a total of fifteen hundred nicker isn't a great deal when it comes to prize money, is it? - and so Andy argues thus.
Chess and Boxing are both difficult sports to master. It stands to reason that there will not be a huge number of people who have mastered both. I guess that the are not many pentatheletes for the same reason. Is that cause to knock the pentathalon?
No, it isn't. On the other hand, the pentathalon tends to involve people who actually have mastered five events, as opposed to people who have attempted two and mastered neither. Pentathalon, my arse.

Andy reckons he was good once, though, as in this interview from 2010:
I was a junior chess champion, a really high level player.
Information as to what Andy was champion of, and what "really high level" he actually achieved, is welcomed.

More additions to the mountain of chessboxing bullshit, like the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend. But back to reality. There may be readers still unaware that having, bizarrely, been elected last year to the post of Director of Marketing of the English Chess Federation, our mutual friend Tim Woolgar has decided, this year, not to stand.

I am not sure, to be honest, whether he actually announced his withdrawal, or whether he simply did not put himself forward. If he did go so far as to make an actual announcement, this would have been the only recognisable activity he undertook in the entirety of his period in the post.

Let's have a look at his candidate statement once again:

My priority would be to draw up and implement a strategy for communicating meaningfully
There was never any strategy, nor any drawing up of one, nor any attempt to do so.
This will involve a re-examination of all the resources at our disposal
There was never any re-examination of anything. In fact there was nothing.

Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing at all.

From start to finish, waffle and nonsense. Far from
communicating more effectively with mass media outlets particularly national newspapers and broadcasters
he never even found a single journalist to bullshit on our behalf.

Still, at least that means that the mountain of bullshit was not added to. Though his candidate statement was as big an addition as he's ever managed.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Tim Woolgar. What did he do for us?

He did nothing.

Take it away, boys!

[Chessboxing index]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

We ain't fakin

Who was Southampton's most pointless signing ever?

Mark Hughes: manager of Fulham [he isn't - see comments: JMGB], known as 'Sparky' to those who fondly remember his playing career, known as 'Mark Hughes' to me. A week or two ago he was also a man whose views on handshakes featured prominently on the sports pages. This was back when Ferdinand and Terry were the new Cheparinov and Short. (Last Sunday Suarez and Evra had a shot at becoming the new Ferdinand and Terry, but instead they chose to touch gloves)

Hughes, clearly annoyed at the way 'Handshakegate' overshadows such an important match, is still swimming against the tide in seeking to have such etiquette abandoned

Henry Winter wrote when pontificating on the subject of pre-game handshakes between professional footballers in The Telegraph.

"The people at the Premier League know my feelings," said Hughes, who expressed his reservations in the summer. The people at the Premier League insist there are no plans to shelve the ritual on the basis of why cancel a rule for the nation's elite simply because of one localised tension?


Hughes believes that respect between adversaries can be earned only during the 90 minutes not in some staged ceremony beforehand.

Ali Dia: played once for Southampton.
Came on as a sub for 53 minutes and then got taken off himself.
Still less annoying than Mark Hughes.

You know, the fact that he was one the least effective strikers that Southampton ever signed notwithstanding*, I pretty much agree with Hughes on this one. Handshakes after the game are all very well, but before? "Stop fraternising and get stuck into them, you pansies" is pretty much my attitude.

So why do I feel different when it comes to chess?

Let's cut 500 words of explanation and get right to it: it's coz it is different innit. Yes, in any other circumstance the first thing I'd do on meeting Mark Hughes would be to ask him for a refund of that portion of my season ticket
money that went to paying his wages. In the unlikely event of us ever meeting at the chessboard, though, it would be to offer a handshake.

That Ali Dia pic is internet-generic so providing a specific link seems a little silly, but I got the Hughes one from here and Bob and Boris from here

* I'd put him at least equal if not above David Speedie, Kerry Dixon, Augustin Delgado and Ali flippin Dia on that particular list.

Monday, September 24, 2012


I could sleep when I lived alone.
Is there a ghost in my house?

When someone is no longer there, they're around so much more. I wonder whether the initial grieving process would affect a chess player's ability to play more than, say, a footballer, because of the predominantly mental demands. Grief undoubtedly manifests itself physically, but perhaps the faster pace and the constant interaction would sufficiently distract from the ongoing anguish. 

I've touched on this before, albeit in a rather different context. Nevertheless, the concept of ghosts potentially affecting concentration is pertinent to this scenario, quite apart from any implicit sadness.

Paying tribute by carrying on regardless can be an extraordinary gesture. French GM Christian Bauer did it very recently. Despite losing his baby daughter mere days previously, he travelled to Istanbul and scored 50% in the Olympiad, including an impressive save against David Howell. It was an episode reminiscent of Billy Sharp's trauma last year.

Ghosts are healthy; they keep us from forgetting. But they have a time and a place. If they only appeared when we wanted them to, their pejorative aura wouldn't exist. I'm not sure if I could cope with that uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of a loved one dying. I'm not sure whether I'd be brave enough to carry on, or even sufficiently together to make any decision. Because the idea of trying to dismiss that person from the scene, that chess, or football, or whatever, is more important than them at that moment; that's an idea I think I would struggle to cope with.

Yesterday was odd. I woke up to a message saying that a friend had died overnight. Punch drunk, I then stumbled upon a minefield of ambiguity on someone else's Twitter page. Fortunately, the plethora of It's been a pleasure and I'll miss you so much type messages were there because they were merely moving abroad. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Spending the rest of the day in a funk, I had to decide whether or not I would fulfil my obligations to this column. This isn't a direct tribute, but I think he'd enjoy the fact that his passing has turned me into an introspective wreck.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Gentlemen only: Brasen Nose Chess Club 1810-11, part 2 of 6.

For this, the second in a series of six blogs about the earliest known provincial chess club in Britain, we start with this picture of Brasenose College in the early 19th century:

A view of the Quad (or Old Quad as it is now called) at Brasenose College,
looking towards the gate tower with the Radcliffe Camera in the background.
From R Ackermann’s History of Oxford published in 1814.

The view of the quad is much the same today as it would have been to the members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club, except that the statue of Samson Slaying a Philistine shown in Ackermann’s view has long since gone. Most of the members of the chess club occupied rooms around the quad, and it was in those rooms that the chess club met each Thursday between January 1810 and April 1811.

At that time Brasenose was one of the wealthiest Oxford colleges. According to the history page of the college’s website, it was widely perceived as a place where the sons of gentlemen (there were no women at Brasenose in those days) got a little education and a lot of horse racing and fox hunting. Posh boys, you might be thinking.

It’s all very different today of course. Err, hang on though... that posh boy prime minister, David Cameron, wasn’t he at Brasenose? Indeed he was, though he preferred tennis to the turf and must have put in some serious studying because he came away with a first class degree. That’s something he shares with the chess players of 1810 – they were serious students too and achieved some of the best academic results of their generation.

A talent for tennis perhaps, but apparently not chess.
David Cameron (standing on the right) represented Brasenose College at tennis as an undergraduate during the 1980s. Last year he described EU treaty negotiations as ‘like playing chess against 26 different people, rather than just one person’ and added ‘I am not very good at chess anyway’.

The young gentlemen who were members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club had much in common. All were from comfortable backgrounds; most came from the North West; all were in their mid-20s; and all except one were postgraduates studying at Brasenose College.

The exception was the founder himself, William Tuckwell. He was a young surgeon who had recently moved to Oxford. According to Philip Sergeant in A Century of British Chess, he was a ‘good’ chess player and had taken lessons from ‘the great J H Sarratt, whose fee was a guinea a lesson’. There are some games of Jacob Henry Sarratt (1772-1819) here on the website and they are certainly worth a look, especially if you are brave enough to play the Muzio variation of the King’s Gambit.

Here’s a lively example, played appropriately in 1810, the year of the Brasen Nose Chess Club. No doubt the club members relished such swashbuckling chess and maybe even played through this game.

Sarratt was one of the pre-eminent players of the time and is credited with introducing into England the rule that stalemate is a draw. It’s a rule we take for granted today, but before Sarratt’s time the treatment of stalemate varied widely. According to this Wikipedia entry, stalemate could be deemed a win or a loss for the stalemating player, an illegal move, or penalised by the stalemated player missing a turn. Sarratt was also a chess author, and the members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club may have been familiar with his Treatise on the Game of Chess, which had been published two years earlier in 1808.

William Tuckwell may have been rather better at chess than just ‘good’. If his son’s account is to be believed, he was ‘famed for his excellence’ at the game, as well as being one of the best piquet and whist players in England. An Oxford hospitals website gives us some biographies of eminent past surgeons and Tuckwell merits a lengthy entry all to himself, from which we learn that he had come to Oxford at the age of 23 in 1808 and the following year was elected Surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary.

William Tuckwell, prominent Oxford surgeon
and the driving force behind the Brasen Nose Chess Club.

Tuckwell was, according to his son’s not-altogether-reliable account, the leading Oxford surgeon for a thirty-year period from 1815 until his death in 1845, a claim some other surgeons of the period might contest. He was something of an eccentric. ‘In costume and demeanour he was a survival from the more picturesque and ceremonious past. He pervaded Oxford in a claret-coloured tailcoat, with velvet collar, canary waistcoat with gilt buttons, light brown trousers, two immense white cravats propping and partly covering the chin, a massive well-brushed beaver hat.’ Apparently ‘one of the cleverest surgeons of his day’, he was also a friend to the poor: ‘During the thirty years of his celebrity his doors stood open for the first two hours of every over-busy day to the poor who chose to come, and who streamed in from the country round to be tended without a fee.’

But what was a surgeon, who was not a member of Brasenose, doing setting up a chess club at the college? We don’t know the answer to that, but perhaps he knew some chess players at Brasenose and took it on himself to get a chess club up and running.

Next Saturday: the other members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club.

Part 1: Those delightful symposiasts.
History Index 

Friday, September 21, 2012

We Used To Be Closer Than This

Separate or combine?
I ask you one last time.

While the music fraternity digested The xx's second album Coexist, an important question was raised within the English chess fraternity. It has since been retracted in the recognition of a misunderstanding, and that's fine. But I'm going to ask it again. 

In fueling speculation, in being critical, in filling these pages, are we damaging English chess? Have I damaged English chess? Am I damaging English chess? 

An inevitable consequence of the size of the player pool is that there are fewer commentators than in other pursuits. And this means that there's more chance of only one side of a debate being heard. And this means that the subjects or 'targets' of the commentary are more exposed, and may feel completely undermined. And this means that they may fade into the wilderness. 

I'm not saying that this was the case with Andrew Farthing, CJ, or whomever, but it's certainly possible. A soapbox is designed to elevate someone above the masses, to put forward the idea that the person upon it should be listened to, perhaps that they're more important than everyone else. And a blog is simply an extension of that concept. 

A blog that is impervious to feedback but still seeks to invite it, so that material for the next wave of vitriol is forthcoming, is nothing short of a troll. A parasite that cannot create any good. But we all love a bit of controversy, don't we? I know I do. But at the expense of people who volunteer to be held accountable? Who pump their time and money into our sport because they feel it's the right thing to do. Is that fair? I don't know. Possibly. 

One argument is that elected officials put themselves on a pedestal, in a position to be unceremoniously shot down in full view of everybody. And, in writing for publications such as this one, we pompously draw ourselves to our full height, look them in the eye and tell them where they're going wrong. In an ideal world, they would rise above it, or at least meet the challenge. In some circumstances they might even be able to tell us to sit down and shut up. We love it when Paxo destroys a public figure, but isn't it actually even more impressive when he's on the receiving end?

Given ECF officials are volunteers, I'm not surprised that they don't wish to risk flying too close to the sun. Or that they immediately retreat if the political heat starts to ratchet up. Of course they should be accountable for their mistakes. And of course they should be answerable to the people they represent. I just wonder whether, of late, we've gone too far. 

I do my best to separate people from their art. Criticising someone's output shouldn't necessarily entail a criticism of that person. I suppose my primary discomfort with the issue is this, something I've been saying quite a lot recently:

Chess isn't important. Not at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


They’re back! After a triumphant opening nine years ago at Somerset House, and a world tour, the RS&A chess sets have returned to London for a show “The Art of Chess” upstairs at the imposing Saatchi Gallery.

The original five sets have been supplemented by another 11, all by artists working today. According to Julia Royse (one of the founders of the RS&A project, along with Mark Saunders and Francesca Amfitheatrof), in the Guardian on Saturday 8 September, “The chess sets were a kind of easy access to the contemporary art that these artists were making.”  But, she says, they are not going on to commission a full complement of 32. Shame! So we have to make do with this combination of 16 sets to unlock the door into today's mixed-up world of representational, conceptual, and installation art.

Strictly speaking, though, it is only 15 as Gavin Turk's is a video installation with just a single knight. The artist is masquerading as the 18th Century Turk (ho, ho!) chess automaton which  is shown cranking out (against a manic soundtrack of cogs and sprockets) a knight’s tour: it is a man pretending to be a machine pretending to be a man performing a chessic party piece – all on screen, so he/it is not really there anyway (ho, ho, ho!).

Some artists you will recognise without too much trouble: the Chapman brothers for example, who fashion their pieces and pawns as prepubescents each with signature protuberance - it could be a warning about the over-sexualisation of childhood; though, with their track record, I doubt it.

                        Pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr

A number of the sets appear to play on the well-worn Goodies v Baddies theme, though some dissolve the distinction altogether. Yet others mess with the hierarchy of the pieces and you must decide for yourself which of the items on offer you might be take to be what. You could just about play a game - of chess, that is - even with sets such as these, so long as you remember where you started.

And do any of the artists actually play? Paul McCarthy is an example of a devotee. When the show was in Moscow Gary Kasparov played a game with his found-about-the-house bits and pieces set (shades of Duchamp), and the story goes that Kasparov "said that in fact he liked the added element of the absurd as it transformed the game into an entirely unique and original experience.”  That's "absurd" as in a “copper kettle with a miniature Santa Claus head...placed in check by a tiny rubber duck” (according to Mark Saunders' interview with McCarthy, in the highly informative catalogue to the Reykjavik edition in 2009).

If Matthew Ronay plays with his set, then it must be outdoors, dodging the showers. His “Over There in the Bushes”, spread out on a pretty pink gingham table cloth, takes the biscuit. Just don't invite Rueben Fine.

Sometime bad-girl Tracey Emin might also have enjoyed that bit of nudge, nudge. But she is now a proper Royal Academician, and from a distance her own chess-in-a-cabinet display comes up most fittingly demure. It has hand-moulded plasticine pieces in an approximation to a decent Staunton, and she has crafted a roll-up patch-work board. But get up close, and it's personal. Typical of our Tracey: it's about her - art as autobiography. On c6 there's a wee sketch of her (it could only be her) arching back, legs akimbo, and there's a "very wet" patch at c4. Same old Trace: shouldn’t it be called “Every Man I Ever Played With”?

She and a number of the artists reframe the game: chose your medicine in one; meet your shrink in yet another - a prescription taken literally by Yayoi Kusama's, whose set was born of her own therapy (and is obsessively focussed, perhaps as a consequence).

But in only one of the 16 works does the artist seem to engage with, or play upon, the process of the game itself, and so make the set play second fiddle. On the wall above Barbara Kruger's Bauhaus-style pieces you get a video of a real game - it’s a 19th century knockabout (allegedly*) – with a voice-over in the headphones. Each pawn has six recordings encoded in it, and each piece has a hundred. The game proceeds as normal but in parallel one side randomly generates a question as it moves, and the other a gnomic "answer": all heard (in this version) via the 'phones.

                                          Pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr

It models the game as social interaction, unfolding in real time, with the same infinite and unpredictable possibilities. Kruger says, in her Reykjavik interview, that "conversations" seem to emerge pertinent to the action on the board, though whether her sources were chess players isn't known (she isn't, btw). It’s a nice idea, even if it’s a bit clunky in execution at the Saatchi, and you seem to get a demonstration of just one such chat show.

However, you may not get the subtext at all of this, or the other sets, as there are no explanatory notes. You have to try and work them out for yourself, which may let you miss the point an artist is trying to make. You the viewer, and they the artist, may pass like opposite-coloured bishops on the diagonal, and that could be counted a loss for both.

It is also a shame that the show as a whole is definitively positioned as art - don't touch the pieces! Compare this with the Somerset House event in 2003, which was as much a celebration of chess-as-played as chess-as-art-object. This time though, BBC radio had the wit to invite GM Jonathan Rowson to comment (listen via the link at the end of the post). But let's not look a gift horse…it's fun! Get along to the Saatchi Gallery... it’s free! And see for yourself. It finishes 3rd October.

While you are there don’t miss downstairs Gallery 1, because by the door you'll find a bonus set, an arresting piece by Korean/American artist Debbie Han. It shows 32 ceramic Venus heads : 16 victims of  oppressive effacement and, opposite, 16 casualties of disfiguring "enhancement".

It's a cultural face-off, a "Battle of Conception". Unfortunately the gallery hasn't overtly signposted the connection between the sets upstairs and this one on the ground floor.

In this year of prolific chess-art (remember the Royal Academy?) there was also a garden version of Yoko Ono’s “Play it on Trust” at the Serpentine Gallery. Whatever you might have made of her work inside, this outdoor installation catches the eye, and conveys a maximal message with the merest switch of black to white. 32 pieces, but a one bit wonder. And, you may play with it.

This couldn't have been Yoko’s original version as one pawn is, imperfectly, a tad small (it happens, here, to be on 'a2'). Such is the nature of contemporary art that this set is a re-creation, upon which she was unlikely to have laid a finger. But it’s the thought that counts. Trust me.

Listen to the short BBC interview with Jonathan Rowson at around the 10 minute mark here.

[Sk├íklist. 32 pieces: The Art of Chess. Reykjavik Art Museum 2009 ]
[The Art of Chess. Gilbert Collection. London 2003]
[Thanks to Jonathan B, and ejh for tips]
[*See the thread on the ECForum]
[Unattributed pics by MS. They let you take photos at the Saatchi - hurrah! For a good view of all the sets see the RS&A site]

Chess in Art Index

Monday, September 17, 2012

A likely customer

If you were reading the internet a couple of weeks ago, you may recall the strange case of RJ Ellory, the crime writer who was shown to have given himself favourable reviews on Amazon under a pseudonym designed to obscure his identity: a practice known as "sock-puppeting". This echoed another relatively recent case, that of the previously-reputable historian Orlando Figes.

Personally I found it rather strange that anybody should do such a thing. Do people actually buy, or consider buying, a book on the basis of reviews on Amazon? Presumably they do. But I wouldn't. Anyway, however serious or trivial you think it is, it's clearly poor form, and a little bit sad to boot.

If you're anything like me you may have wondered if anybody had ever behaved like this* in the normally respectable and responsible world of chess book publishing. But who, possibly, would do such a thing?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Those delightful symposiasts: Brasen Nose Chess Club 1810-11, part 1 of 6.

When, why and how did chess clubs first start to appear outside London? Readers of the series Martin Smith and I wrote about Thomas Leeming’s paintings of the gentlemen of the Hereford chess club may recall our reflections on early provincial chess clubs in Britain. We knew from an inscription on the back of one of Leeming’s pictures that the Hereford club was founded in 1812, and after some digging around in the ECF chess library at Hastings we concluded that the Hereford club was the second earliest reference we could find to a club outside of London.

This sent me off on a trail to find out more about the earliest known provincial club, the Brasen Nose Chess Club, which was founded a couple of years before the Hereford club. Most, though not all, of its members were attached to the Oxford college we know these days as Brasenose.

I was able to track down, with some valuable assistance from chess historian Brian Denman, four printed sources of information about the club.There was a brief mention in Philip Sergeant’s 1934 chess history A Century of British Chess, another reference in an article by B Goulding Brown in the British Chess Magazine of October 1932, and two, more extensive, accounts of the club published in the 1890s by the Reverend William Tuckwell (1829-1919), the son of the club’s founder whose name was also William Tuckwell.

The Rev William Tuckwell,
chronicler of the Brasen Nose Chess Club, photographed in 1905.
Not to be confused with his dad of the same name who founded the club.

The Reverend Tuckwell merits his own Wikipedia entry, from which we learn that he liked to be thought of as a ‘radical parson’. He was known for his experiments in allotments and his advocacy of land nationalisation and the teaching of science in schools. He wrote about the Brasen Nose Chess Club first in an obscure publication called Our Memories: Shadows of Old Oxford published in 1891, then a few years later in his book Reminiscences of Oxford where he gives a quirkily charming, if not entirely reliable, account of the club and the people associated with it.

He describes the members as ‘delightful symposiasts, with their powdered hair and shirt-frills, their hessians or silk stockings, their sirloins and eighteenth-century port’. Lovely word that, ‘symposiasts’, but what does it mean? I think Tuckwell may not be using it in its current (if rarely used) meaning as a participant in a conference, but as a member of a drinking party – a now obsolete usage. Which is not to say that conference participants cannot be symposiasts in both senses of the word...

Tuckwell tells us much about the club, but what no-one seems to have investigated since his time is its actual minute book. Brian Denman tipped me off that this might still survive and an email to the Bodleian Library in Oxford quickly established that it does indeed reside in the library’s special collections section and can be examined, though you have to do some serious form-filling before they’ll let you near it.

Tuckwell himself had inherited the minute book, then passed it on to his pal Falconer Madan, a Bodleian librarian and Brasenose alumnus, with a request that it be preserved in the library’s collections. Madan was a strong chess player who, as his Wikipedia entry tells us, represented Oxford University in matches against Cambridge University during the 1870s. Madan’s chess papers are also held at the Bodleian.

Falconer Madan was the Oxford board 4 in the first ever face-to-face match between Oxford and Cambridge universities in 1873 (previous matches had been by correspondence) - this picture appeared in the Illustrated London News.
According to one contemporary account, the match attracted upwards of 700 spectators. Tim Harding has written a fascinating account of the match here.

Earlier this year I visited the Bodleian to examine the minute book. My expectations were not high, as I had already been to the London Metropolitan Archives to look at the minute book of the London Chess Club, founded in 1807, which turned out to be a rather lifeless record of payments and not-very-interesting rules. But I was in for a surprise: the Brasen Nose ChessClub minute book is full of fascinating detail and tells an extraordinary story which has never been told in full.

Although William Tuckwell tells us much about the club’s brief life in his writings, he gave no explanation as to why the club had lasted for such a short time – it seems to have faded away after less than 18 months.

But now all can be revealed. Over the next five blogs, to be posted on the next five Saturdays, we will look at who the club members were, the fierce rules that were to be its undoing, the fallings-out, the grand dinner on the club’s first anniversary, and the ode to the goddess of chess, Caissa, specially composed for the occasion by the club’s poet laureate.

Yes, really, Brasen Nose Chess Club had its own poet laureate. Those were the days.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Doctor No

A mildly irksome feature of contemporary chess life is the practice - the occasional practice - of referring to the greatest living English chessplayer as "Dr Short".

As far as I am aware this practice seems to have originated with Ray Keene and CJ de Mooi, which is something less than a recommendation. But it seems to have become a touch more widespread recently: I heard Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam address Nigel thus during the commentary to the first game in the world championship match.

It's true that "Deadeye" Dirk is rarely last in line when there's obsequiousness to be engaged in, but as Nigel is very particular as to how he is addressed* it is surely worth a moment or two to make sure that this form of address is actually proper and correct. It's certainly unusual, insofar as I can offhand think of no other example from the chess world of someone being addressed as "Doctor" when in possession of an honorary degree (for such is the qualification that Nigel received in 2010).

Doctor John Nunn

There are, naturally, many chessplayers who are medical doctors and many others in possession of academic qualifications entitling them to the title of Doctor. John Nunn (Doctor of Mathematics, University of Oxford) might be the best known in the English chess world, but he is very far from alone: one might mention, for instance, Dr Morgan Daniels, occasional contributor to this blog and recently awarded a PhD in History by Queen Mary, University of London.

Doctor Morgan Daniels

Nigel, however, received his honorary doctorate - according to his old school - along with
other well known figures including Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce.
Funnily enough I've not seen anybody referring to "Doctor Allardyce" (though perhaps now he's got West Ham back into the top flight, that may change) but it's true that the practice of referring to even the holders of honorary doctorates as "Doctor" is not entirely unknown, as the relevant Wikipedia section attests. (Its title, in truth, a tad ironic, given that its first claim comes with a "citation needed". Come to that, its first footnote misspells the name of the institution that it cites.)

Not entirely unknown. But not exactly common, either. And not exactly respectable.

Perhaps the best thing, then, would be to look at the Regulations and Procedures applied to Honorary Awards by the University of Bolton, the very institution that honoured Nigel two years ago. What do we find? We find this:

Nigel Short

So there you have it: "it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary". If we're going to use it, we need to insert a rider, e.g. a little (h.c.), thus "Doctor (h.c.) Short".

There's a reason for this: it's so titles don't become devalued. It takes a lot of time, effort and skill to get a doctorate, as it does to get a grandmaster title. You don't get either just for turning up.

It's Nigel Short, International Grandmaster. But Doctor? No.

[*I've not heard him use the "Doctor" prefix, I should say.]

[Dr Nunn image: Absolute Astronomy]
[Nigel Short image: Bolton School]

[Nigel Short index]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Blue or Red Pill? XVI

Funny how sometimes things seem to come full circle. It started - at least it started for the S&BC Blog - with a failure to draw any kind of line between a public role and private activity. It ended with the announcement of a "position" which was felt to be "incompatible" with being El Presidente of the English Chess Federation. So it might have been a long and rocky road, but at least it's one that seems to have led to a deeper understanding of the phrase 'conflict of interest'. Small mercies, my friends, small mercies.

Before we put this episode to bed, though, let's join Phil piggy backing on Joey Stewart's Time Changer thread on the EC Forum and consider what might have been. Could it have all worked out differently?

What if ... well, what the ECF as a body had voiced some concerns right at the start? What if they'd said something like,

"Look CJ old boy, we're sure you don't mean anything by it, but if you're going to run a private event that you say is nothing to do with the Federation it's probably as well that you don't begin the invitation with, 'English Chess Federation President, CJ de Mooi, cordially ....'  It's not that we think you're up to no good you understand, it's just that if you have a public position, and especially if you're raising funds for a public event, accounts and accountability are, like, really cool yeah?"

What then?

It would have made toss all difference.

We'd all still be living happily ever after.

The choice, as ever, is yours.

BORP Index

Monday, September 10, 2012

What Didn't Happen Next

Before it was ruthlessly derailed, this thread on the English Chess Forum was one of the best. We all like a bit of whimsy. I certainly do, and this book, written in the same style, piqued my interest in both satire and football history as a child. 

80s child much?

Which leads us to this. Makepeace - Kosten, Great Yarmouth, 2007. It's Round 4 of the British Championship. Black is a Grandmaster playing a young upstart rated 1978, who's muddled his way to 2½/3 and Board 5. And Kosten isn't having everything his own way. However...

60. Kf1?

Black played 60... Nf5 and the threat of 61...Ne3+ meant the g4 pawn was immune from capture. Kosten went on to win and ended up depriving IM Stephen Gordon of the title in Round 11. Another IM, Jacob Aagaard, won his first and only Championship. Makepeace finished on 4/11.

But let's rewind.

What if it went like this?

60. Kg1 


Exhausted after a 6 hour grind to no more than a draw, Kosten plays a fresh Gordon in Round 5 and loses. Makepeace, inspired by an appearance on a demo board, holds Glenn Flear in another epic, attracting widespread admiration and scrutiny alike. Following a further draw against Chris Ward on the Saturday, it is decided that enough is enough. 

Makepeace is strip-searched by the local Constabulary. With the exception of his dignity, nothing is found. In protest, everyone who draws or wins against the odds during the Sunday rapidplay immediately drops trou. Headlines such as 'NAKED KNIGHTMARE' and 'DIANA HAD ANOTHER AFFAIR' appear in the tabloids. The story is discussed across the radio and TV networks. David Mellor adds little of interest.

Distracted by the media attention and the amorous advances of ELO-hungry women all around Norfolk, Makepeace eventually finishes on 5½/11. Kosten recovers to 7½/11, drawing with Aagaard in the last round. Gordon beats Flear to win the first of six consecutive titles. 

Makepeace returns to Bucks a hero. Dispatching the minor celebrity lifestyle, he moves to Shropshire. A few years later, he is living in London with GMs Tom Rendle and Gawain Jones and spends a reasonable amount of his spare time talking bollocks. 

What could have been, eh?