Friday, November 30, 2012

You Should Date A Chess Player: Revisited

It's been exactly 10 months since I published this baby pastiche of an essay. Half tongue-in-cheek, half achingly earnest, it was an attempt to subvert the tired stereotype of the chess playing population being unsexy. Or, at the very least, less shagworthy than the remainder of society. And when the remainder of society includes racists, thugs and Conservative MPs, that's hardly a stunning accolade.

Not a chess player

Over the years, the reaction I've had to letting slip that I'm one of them has been varied, often hilarious. During college I was known as a geek, even though I was the only guy in my year on each of the cricket, football and rugby teams. Apparently only the intellectual stuff mattered, given it was in some way pejorative. I suppose that pattern is true of humanity in general, but I did find it particularly incredible in that instance. It would be untrue to say I didn't give a shit, because I did, and I do. It hurts when you're ostracised for no reason. Just ask Owen Hargreaves.

Not a chess player

However, it hurts most when it appears to affect the way someone I care about thinks of me. As if it muddies my character or makes me automatically less exciting. Or less caring. Or somehow less appropriate to be interested in. While saying that people who think that way aren't worth my time is true, it's still a massive ball kick.

Not a chess player

So, what can I add to the story since January? Well, not a lot. People come, people go, some get it, some don't. That I also write about chess seems to be even more bewildering, as if there isn't a story to tell. As if my jentacular chat isn't going to be worth bothering with. 

"You can build your time better when you have a passion." - Scroobius Pip

There's nothing wrong with my passion. And finding someone is part of it. Someone who takes an interest in my passion and allows me to take an interest in theirs. Someone to whom all this stuff matters, but in a good way. 

I await my fan mail. Knickers don't necessarily fit through the letterbox, mind.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Every Picture Tells a Story: Happy Birthday Hereford!

Another blog (number 22) in the series to celebrate an historic anniversary. 

200 years ago today, on the 29th November 1812, a small group of pioneering chessers established the Hereford Chess Club, one of the earliest provincial clubs in the country. So Happy Birthday, Hereford!

To mark this auspicious occasion Thomas Leeming's 1815 painting, which commemorated the event three years earlier, and which has been the subject of our sleuthing over the past couple of years or so, has gone on show again in a special display at the Hereford Museum and Gallery. It is accompanied by explanatory material courtesy of this blog.

Thanks to Sarah Skelton and Catherine Willson
Herefordshire Museum Service for their help creating the display.
Pic MS 
But that is not all.

Not surprisingly the present Hereford Chess Club can't trace an unbroken line back 200 years to 1812, there have been fits and starts along the way. But by co-incidence the present incarnation of the club is exactly 50 years old this year. So, here's a second Happy Birthday, Hereford!

The club is planning a series of events to mark both anniversaries, including an internal club tournament played in the Museum under the watchful gaze of Thomas Leeming and other six founder members.

Roger Aris and Steve Katona warm up (with Leeming's painting in the background)
for the Hereford Chess Club 50th Anniversary Tournament.

Pic HCC  
Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog sends best wishes to Alan, David, Steve, Les, and Roger (and all members of HCC) for their tournament and other events.

Collectors of chess memorabilia are even now beating a path to Hereford in the hope of laying their hands on one of these:

We've been waiting for it for 200 years... 
(And thanks again to the Hereford Museum Service for their indulgence)
Pic MS 
All the best to Hereford Chess Club for its next 50 (or 200) years.

The Leeming series sparked a thread (initiated by Ray Collett of the MCCU) on the English Chess Forum about early chess clubs, which in turn prompted Tim Harding to write an article here which puts the significance of the Hereford picture in context. See also Richard Tillet's recent mini-series on another early, and shortlived, chess club at Brasen Nose College in Oxford.      

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Looking forward, looking back

[Heads up: we'll have a bonus post for you tomorrow. In the meantime, on with the show ....]

Black to play
Abayasekera v JMGB, November 2011

It's less than a month until Christmas now. Hard to believe it, but yes, we've already reached that time of year when we start looking back and reflecting on what we've achieved since January. Chessers who've had a good twelve months will probably be looking forward to 2013 with optimism whilst those of us who've done less well will be wanting to get shot of 2012 as soon as possible and hoping that the New Year will bring a return to better times.

I'm very much in the 'mediocre year' camp, I'm afraid. It turns out that replacing a part-time job involving next to no commute with five days a week employment that requires three hours travel each day plays merry hell with your chess. Who'd have thought it?

2011 was different. In fact, a year ago precisely it was very different indeed. Back then I was scoring +0 =1 -4 in a tournament and playing the best chess of my life. No, really.

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times ...

The tournament in question was the Imperial College Open, played over Bonfire Night weekend last year. The raw results, I admit, do not look good. It was one of those weekends.  The sort where you score one draw and three defeats in the first four games and then get paired with a thirteen-year-old with a grade in the 190s (2100+ elo) for the last round. Lovely.

I'm usually rather suspicious of "I'm losing, but I'm playing well" kind of statements. Considerably more often than not they are exercises in self-delusion. Nothing more than excuses offered by those who wilfully ignore the fact that turning good positions into losing ones is actually playing badly and not the reverse.

On this occasion however, even though I'd taken a hammering I still felt that there were lots of positives that I could take from the tournament. Mostly I'd lost to people who were simply better than me and while I'd had a disaster against Tim Rogers in the third round, I'd generally fought hard. Yes, I'd come up short and lost games, but I didn't think that I'd been outclassed.

I was, then, in an uncharacteristically optimistic mood when I sat down the very next evening to play Roger Abayasekera in the Streatham v Guildford Surrey League match. It turned out to be a highly enjoyable scrap.

My opponent's grade at the time was 185 so a draw was a decent result for me. More importantly I'd had just as much as the game as him and hadn't weaselled my way to a half point. If anything it was me who had missed a chance to get an edge.

It turned out not to be a one off. Over the following fortnight I scored +3 =2 -1 against opposition with an average rating of 174 ECF (approx 2040 Elo). My only loss came against IM Graeme Buckley in a match against Wood Green.

A lucky run? Maybe so, but my results immediately before the tournament were much better than usual too. I played four times in October 2011 - against a 180, a 173, a 185 and another 180 - winning one game (see here and here) and drawing the other three. As far as club chess goes, at least, this was by far the most successful run of my life.

The other day, I got out my calculator to see just how well it had gone. At the time my ECF grade was 172 (it remains my highest ever published grade) and yet for the seven games I played after Imperial College my grading performance came out at 190 (2170) and the four games I played before it come out at 185 (2130).

We can all boost our grades by not counting our losses, I suppose. However, even when I included that disastrous tournament my grading performance for the 17 games still came out at 174. If I could play like that all the time, I'd set a new personal best!

I hear the guy on the right had been in good form prior to this game

Of course, it didn't last. For a month and a half I proved I could mix it with players a cut above my usual level, but then it all came to a juddering halt.

A year ago today I reached an extremely good, possibly winning, position against Mark Rich (then 199) on the White side of a Classical Dutch and yet proceeded to get wiped out. Shortly afterwards I was outplayed by Angus James in the final of the Slater Kennington Cup (so it is his name and not mine that now sits on the trophy alongside RDK's) and I ended the year with a truly abysmal tournament at the London Chess Classic Open.

I'm not sure any of this means that much. The upshot of this unusually fertile period in my chess career was my grade dropping five points! I haven't played well in 2012, but gradingwise I might be about to return to where I was before - unless Penarth isn't counted, in which case the games I played at the Classic will probably still be included in the calculations and my grade will tumble even further.

It all seems a little random, doesn't it? So, no, I don't think the numbers matter. Now that I'm struggling to notice one-move threats, though, it's good to be able remember it wasn't ever thus, that there was a time when I reached a standard that was a notch or two above my usual level of play.

As for next year, well those of us who are looking forward to bidding 2012 good riddance are going to be keeping firm hold of the belief that it's possible for us to hit our (relative) heights again. It may be deeply delusional, but we're going to do it. Why else would we keep coming back to this stupid game of ours?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Let's talk about Nigel

Moscow 1994 provided an altogether different, sleazy sort of ambience. The giant 'Cosmos' purported to be a hotel, but in reality was the biggest brothel I have ever seen in my life. The working-girls, numbering well into three figures, would think nothing of phoning your room or knocking on your door to offer their services. Even if one wanted to, there was no escaping them because the weather was so damned cold one didn't really wish to venture outside more than a few steps. Not a few of those who did were mugged. One player, escaping the pain of a recently failed marriage, initially found solace in the dodgy basement nighclub. That was OK, except it was very expensive. He soon discovered that the girls at the Carlsberg bar on the ground floor were somewhat cheaper. A different, less fancy bar further from the lobby, proved more economical still. By the end of the tournament his funds were depleted to the point where he had moved on to seducing the babushkas on his floor.

- Nigel Short, New In Chess 2012/7, page 69.
"Olympiads", says Nigel Short, "are all about sex". To prove it, he spent a whole column in New In Chess telling us about it. Not all about it, I should say, but we'll get on to that. But about it, anyway, and in the process, telling us rather more about himself than either sex or Olympiads.

How some grown-ups talk about sex

Nothing that we didn't know before, mind you, but that's also true of Nigel's not-terribly-interesting sex stories. It's not a great revelation that people on trips abroad sometimes engage in casual sexual intercourse. Good Lord - next thing we know, Nigel will be telling us people on holiday send postcards to their friends!

Nigel has a habit of writing, not very illuminatingly, about sex, in New in Chess - see, for instance, this and this from previous years. Not to mention his notorious sex tourism is hilarious piece, which crossed the boundary -crossed, and kept on going - that separates arrested adolescence from obnoxiousness. It's a piece he reprised, in part, last issue, but before we move on to the more obnoxious parts of the article, perhaps we may comment on the more boring parts.

You see, as I say above, Nigel's stories aren't very interesting. Legover stories, to use Private Eye's old term, rarely are, except as gossip. An anonymous four-in-a-bed story isn't all that juicy, not in 2012 (it might have been a different story forty-nine years ago) and a skinny-dipping story loses its point if the army comes past after you've finished dressing.

How Nigel talks about sex

So how do the stories fare as gossip? Not well. Because, with a couple of exceptions, no names are named. Which is perfectly OK if the intention is to respect other people's privacy and decide that it's none of our business. But if that's the idea, why bother in the first place?

However, Nigel's explanation is rather less honourable:
Thus ends my little snippet into the private lives of chess players. When my doctor informs me I have only six months to live, I shall pen a far juicier and more extensive account, names included, without fear of repercussions.
Which, perhaps makes Nigel's present account not particularly brave as well as not particularly interesting. But though there are unsubtle clues to various individuals' identities, he is brave enough to name the "morose, jealous and inebriated Danny Gormally".

Uh huh. Well, Nigel doesn't like Danny Gormally, tell us something we are interested in knowing. Thing is, not only does everybody in the world already know that Gormally chinned Lev Aronian, they also know that Gormally has apologised for his conduct, something I am not sure I recall Nigel Short ever doing. He might be a fallible human being, Danny Gormally, but as with so many of Nigel's targets, he actually comes across as a more likeable human being than Nigel.

But let us move on to Nigel's attitude towards women, and to women in the sex industry in particular. Here's another long passage from the New in Chess piece. Sex tourism is, again, hilarious:
All Olympiads have their volunteers, but Manila 1992 was unsurpassed in the sheer volume of totty. There were literally hundreds of smiling and invariably polite eighteen to twenty-something-year-old Philippina hostesses. Not a few liaisons were struck up during the course of two weeks. Joel Benjamin related to me, in a mixture of admiration and mirth, the story of a silver-haired colleague demolishing his last-round opponent before smilingly walking away hand-in-hand with his tournament amour.

- Nigel Short, New In Chess 2012/7, page 68.
Jesus. This is horrid, isn't it? Embarrassing and horrid. Hundreds of women working as "hostesses" - a dreadful spectacle - and Nigel writes about "the sheer volume of totty".

Totty. Not women. Not really people at all.

You wouldn't think Nigel Short actually has a daughter of that age, would you? But not even that is enough to make Nigel know better - nor New In Chess, who should have red-pencilled that passage and told him that if he wanted to write like that he could do it somewhere else.

Where the piece should not have appeared

Nigel concludes: "it comes as no surprise that Manila 1992 is considered to have been one of the best Olympiads in recent decades". Yes, because having so many women working as "hostesses" is such a plus point, isn't it? I believe it's the aspect of their country that Filipinos are most proud of.

if they had, actually, exercised the judgement that they do not appear to possess, New In Chess might also have cut the passage that heads our article, with its hilarious account of a hotel full of Russian prostitutes and its side-splitting recollection of some cash-strapped player forced to resort to ever cheaper whores until he was reduced to "seducing the babushkas".

Now nothing is off limits for humour. There are grimmer subjects than prostitution. You can make a joke about anything. If the joke is funny enough, which Nigel's jokes are not. Or if the joke sees people as people. Which Nigel's jokes do not.

But Nigel has always struggled to see other human beings as human beings, especially where they are anonymous and poor and desperate and women. This is pure Nigel Short, Nigel Short the bully, the Nigel Short for whom other people are there to be trodden on and laughed at.

It is a disgraceful piece. New in Chess should have seen that. They should have seen that and told him that the piece was unfit for publication. But they didn't. They never do.

Still, at least this time he didn't say he'd screwed anybody else's girlfriend.

It's a joke that hates women, Gethin

[Nigel Short index]

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mr. Rosenbaum's Chess Picture. Part 5: Pass

In the previous episode of this series on Anthony Rosenbaum’s mammoth group portrait of 47 Victorian chess clubbers (plus assorted waiters, a pantheon of deceased chess heroes, and an automaton) we encountered John Ormerod Scarlett Thursby, the first owner of the painting; his for the price of a raffle ticket – a bargain at 5 guineas. Today, after getting to know JOST a bit better, we will trace the fortunes of the picture, and the passage it followed from Manchester Square in December 1880, to North Wales in December 2012. 

To get up to speed let’s have another look at Mr Rosenbaum's tableau: this time as it appeared in Chess magazine in March 1993 in an article by Gareth Williams. It was in black and white (see the original colour - at the end of this earlier episode). Thursby is not in it, as we have noted before. But Rosenbaum is. As the original artist's key (which what I assume it to be) shows, our man is picked out as Number 13.    

Click on any image to enlarge
But who was the man who wasn't there: John Thursby? 

In spite of his youth (he was 19 years old) and, one supposes, his preoccupation with his university studies (he got a First in Political Economy at Cambridge), Mr T was already making his mark in his home town of Burnley by starting an instructional chess column in The Burnley Express in 1879, and proposing a local chess club. By 1880, he was already lauded as (with my emphasis): 
“the well-known problem composer, whose name is familiar to readers as a contributor to the problem department of The Chess-Monthly.”

JOST in 1903 (from BCM) 
In fact the mag had shown his work as early as 1879, and he is featured some years later, in March 1893, with this fulsome appreciation: 
“Young Thursby acquired his knowledge of the game during his early college days at Eton, and for his scientific training and sound style he is indebted to the Rev.W. Wayte [number 33 – MS] who at that time was Professor at Eton College. Mr Thursby had cultivated the game and the problem with equal impartiality, with perhaps, a slight predilection for the latter speciality. He represented his University in the match against Oxford in 1881 [he beat G. E. Wainwright 1.5 v 0.5 - MS]… Subsequently he furnished the reviews of our problem tournaments; whilst he supplied us with liberal contributions of his problems.”
So JOST was well-known on the chess scene: he was a precocious and prodigious problemista and had published a collection of his Seventy-five Chess Problems back in 1883, when he was only 22. Here is a selection of them: White has overwhelming force, but must use it with optimal efficiency. They are all 3-movers (solutions, should you need them, are after the text jump at the end). 

Thursby (1883) numbers 47, 51 and 53. 
In the Preface to his book, Thursby, with due modesty, says “[I do] not claim for my problems any special or extraordinary profundity, for I do not intend to set myself up as a rival to other Chess authors…” he offers them as simple “amusement and pleasure." And, he continues, he has "always been treated with the greatest courtesy by every Chess Editor with whom I have corresponded…” - hear now the silent 'but' -  “...I regret to say, with one notable exception.” 

So somebody had got up his nose good and proper, though as befits a gentleman Thursby doesn’t name names. This public denunciation, and the pre-emptive denial of unseemly rivalry, implies that beneath the luxuriant efflorescence of Victorian chess problemania was a writhing viper's nest of competitiveness and plagiarism. Even the affable Anthony Rosenbaum was to fall into this can of worms, as we'll see in the last post in the series. Sadly the bloom on Thursby's problem-setting career seems to have faded by the time of Gitten's guide to composers of the day The Chess Bouquet of 1897, and no specimens of his are on display therein. 

We now know, over 100 years later, that young Thursby had a future ahead of him, as no doubt he had been brought up to expect. He was big in the burgeoning Victorian mill town of Burnley: a captain of industry (coal, railways, banking); a civic dignitary (Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of the County, etc); and a man of sport (golf and cricket). His political ambitions, however, Tory of course, came to naught, though not for want of trying as he lost two local elections to the Liberals in the late 1880s.

For other divertissements he owned race horses and collected art, including this atmospheric work.

Peter Graham RA (1836-1921)
The Fowlers Crag (1887)
Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Burnley.
Perhaps, in this he saw himself: a rock standing proud, at the still point of a churning world. A Baronetcy and a baronial hall were his, even if by inheritance. Thus Sir John Ormerod Scarlett Thursby Bart. was very comfortably installed, a very model of a modern English gentleman, and highly esteemed by Victorian-cum-Edwardian society. Flags flew from public buildings, bells pealed, and fog horns boomed on his wedding-day in 1888. Honours and sinecures were his, as was that remarkable chess painting from 1880.   

But JOST hadn't neglected his chess. MacDonnell mentions him as an habitué of the Divan in 1882, and The Chess-Monthly noted that in the 1890s he had “taken more interest in practical play” and could be seen at the British Chess Club (
between light duties at his London legal practice) often “in a serious bout with…Donisthorpe” (number 43 above; the spot-light turns on him in a couple of weeks).

In the new century Sir John was active at regional, national and even international levels, though apparently in official, or sponsorship capacities, rather than active play: Monte Carlo 1902;  the Northern Chess Union; and from 1905 he was President of the nascent BCF until his death in 1920. He was much in demand as a Problem Tournament judge, at which, said the BCM in 1903, he proved to be “a conscientious seeker after justice” - an admirable quality, by any standard, to discover in a magistrate.  

Sir JOST Bart., cutting a dash in 1907 (from Vanity Fair)
But more importantly for our story he was, as The Chess-Monthly reported in 1893, “the owner of Rosenbaum’s oil painting of chess celebrities” - which, admittedly, we already knew -  moreover that it was “on view at the British Chess Club, Mr. Thursby having lent it to the club ever since it was established" (in 1885, by "moving spirit" Leopold Hoffer # 23)  - which we most definitely didn’t. Much credit goes to Sir John for the gesture, and his service to the chess community more generally. Mind you, seeing his preference for the turbulent cliff-scape above one wonders if he might have been well-pleased to have Rosenbaum's serried ranks on parade elsewhere.  

That was 1893. In 1898 The British Chess Club was teased by J. Arnold Green as “much less a fighting club than a great gathering-place for the wealthy middle-class chess-player, who loves his dinner as well as his game”, echoing MacDonnell's quip that "the most successful clubs are dinner-givers".  J. Arnold Green's scoff might claim corroboration from the report (The Field of May 19th, 1888) of  BCC members, playing away to the Cercle des Échecs de Paris, enjoying a "sumptuous déjeumer at Ledoyan's on the Champs Elysées, invited by Prince Balaschoff."  

(From here)
In spite of Arnold Green's dyspepsia the BCC did lay on lashings of healthy looking chess, even in London. But he had a point, and the dinner/chess connection will re-occur in this series.

There was a good deal of dual membership with other clubs (like bon viveur Donisthorpe - him again -  who was the BCC's vice-president in 1895, and indeed as Anthony Rosenbaum had been till his death in 1888), anboth the BCC and the CLCC had the same President, Sir George Newnes M.P., which “favoured the harmonious co-operation of the two clubs,” (and he, too, will crop up again in a later episode).

Now, the reason for going in to this business about club intertwining is that it helps to explain how the painting got from one (the BCC) to the other (the CLCC). With the demise of the BCC in or around the '14-'18 War, its members and/or its effects (Rosenbaum's picture among them) were absorbed by its near neighbour the CLCC. This was the view of E.R.G. Cordingley (1905-1962) expressed nearly seventy years ago in a letter of 18 December 1943 to the NPG (in their Archive): the picture "passed, when this club [i.e.the BCC - MS] died quietly and almost unnoticed of atrophy early in this century, to the CLCC". 

ERGC wasn't really around when it all happened, of course, and there is another account set down at about the same time as his: by A .M. Fox writing his reminiscences, in the BCM of February 1941, of the BCC as it was "50 or 60 years ago". He says that:      
"As the old habitués passed away or left London, the [BCC's] membership diminished and eventually it amalgamated with, or was swallowed by, a sporting club in St. James' Square, where chess was, to a great extent, superseded by Bridge."
Which muddies the waters a little. Perhaps, then, the BCC's rump membership, such as it was, went off in several directions, even if Rosenbaum's painting could, of necessity, go in just one. Throughout these shape-shiftings and reconfigurations we can assume that Sir John was keeping an eye on his painting, and its installation at the CLCC would have been secured by his holding office as their vice-president, according to Sergeant, until his death in 1920.  

Sir John left paintings (including The Fowlers Crag) to the town of Burnley, "a generous legacy" to the BCF, and...Rosenbaum's picture next appears in the record hanging at the CLCC in 1926. In answer to the question whether there was a formal bequest de jure from the JOST estate in 1920, or whether is simply remained there de facto: pass. Let's just be thankful to him that, because of his dedication to the institutions of chess, the painting stayed in general circulation and didn’t disappear into a private collection to be lost forever to public view. 

The 1926 reference is in the obituary of Amos Burn in the BCM that year. Later, also in the BCM, in 1932 O. C. Müller (in his reminiscences of Simpson’s) recalls “this interesting picture” and says that it “is now in the possession of the City of London Chess Club.” That’s fifty years after it was painted.

The next step in the painting’s journey (if only a mile up the road) was taken as the CLCC was de-cluttering  in readiness to merge, after nearly 90 years of existence, into the National Chess Centre. We are now in 1939. Let's now meet F.G. Hamilton-Russell (1867-1941), second son of 8th Viscount Boyne, another wealthy chap inclined to generous benefaction to whom we should be thankful. His name is now associated with the international Team Olympiad trophy, and a chess league for London Societies and Clubs (such as the RAC, the Hurlingham, etc). He was a frequent tournament competitor.             

F. G. Hamilton-Russell from BCM 1926
According to a letter of 13 June 1939 in the NPG Archive from R.H.S. Stephenson, the then Hon. Sec. of the BCF, "The President [Hamilton-Russell - MS] has just acquired from the City of London Chess Club a picture which has been hanging on the wall of the club for some years" and the two of them arranged for the picture, after cleaning, to be donated to the National Portrait Gallery later that year. Just in time. The CLCC was disappearing into the National Chess Centre at John Lewis's in the course of 1939, but in September 1940 the NCC was destroyed by fire during the Blitz and tragically a good deal of irreplaceable chess history went up in flames with it. A narrow escape for Rosenbaum's chess gents. 
Chess Magazine 1952 page 93 via WLCC
After taking possession of it the NPG had it on display. This was certainly still so in 1943 when Mr.Cordingley saw it there and wrote gently chiding the gallery for not giving the visiting public more information about the painting. He provided them with The Chess-Monthly material, of which they were unaware. The gallery's own exhibition record isn't clear after that, except that there is a record of it going to Leipzig in 1960 for a show "Chess Throughout The Ages".  R.N.Coles found it in the NPG store-room in 1980 (NPG Archive letter); and it went on display at Bodwelyddan in 1988, where you can see it now.   

And that is the story of how the picture got to where it is. The fact that it is with us at all is a tribute to the past generosity of some public-spirited figures in the English chess community.

More next week when we get up close and take a hard look at the painting itself. 

Acknowledgements etc.
Thursby's 75 Problems (1883) is an ebook here, and JOST trivia may be found here, and here. Thanks to Tim Harding for his suggestions. 
G. A. MacDonnell. Chess Life Picture (1883).
The J Arnold Green quote comes from The Living Age (Sixth Series, Volume XVIII, April, May, June, 1898), according to here.
E.R.G. Cordingley is mentioned by Bill Wall, in connection with the LCC disaster, here.   
Thanks again to Paul Timson, and to Richard James for helping with the BCC/CLCC business; also to Mike Conroy of Burnley CC for his help at second remove, and apologies for not offering more detail of his venerable club; to the staff at the NPG Archive; and Olimpiu Urcan for a comment on FGH-R.   

All episodes (forward and back) may be found via the History Index

Jump to problem solutions

Friday, November 23, 2012

Chess Is Like... The Church?

Where there's a story, there's a way to take the piss. Hot damn, I love Twitter.

Here are a couple of the best responses to the dreadful decision not to allow women to become bishops.

Image: Tom Pride

Chess Is Like... Index

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When we were Kings XXIII

21st November, 1977. Belgrade. Korchnoi-Spassky, Candidates' Final, Game 1

It should have been a few days ago. If Korchnoi and Raymondo hadn't had their accident on the way to Belgrade (WwwK V), the Candidates' final would have begun on the 15th November not the 21st. As it was the first game was postponed for a week and the 35th anniversary of the beginning of the match falls today.

The 21st November, 1977 was a Monday.  I'd have been enjoying the delights of Mrs Day's third year class at Perryfields Junior School in Chelmsford.

Landmarks in my life yet to be reached:-

  • I hadn't seen Star Wars*
  • I hadn't seen Blake's 7 (Geekout Overdrive I, II, III)
  • I hadn't seen a Cup Final on a colour television.

Things I didn't know:-

  • All three of the above would happen in the next six months
  • There was a chess match going on in Yugoslavia

It's the colour TV thing that gets me the most. Yes, the fact that Viktor and Boris stopped playing after forty moves and came back to finish off he game the next day seems rather quaint to modern eyes.  What really dates the match for me, though, is that it belongs to the same era as Harold Lloyd, World Wars and incomprehensible early episodes of the BBC snooker programme Pot Black.

Thirty-five years ago, you see, the world was still greyscale.

Old Belgrade: BCM Feb 1978
New Belgrade: Andrew Stone

WwwK Index

* I'd thought I had, but apparently not

Monday, November 19, 2012

Money: Ray replies

Saturday 17 November 2012, 14:48

Dear Justin

I only yesterday noticed your blog on the above. I would normally not disturb you but I would like to point out that the WPPF award ceremony is entirely the brainchild of 80 year old Prince Mohsin Ali Khan , a noted philanthropist. He is making awards to some very good causes and he expects to make a loss on the event which he will cover himself. His foundation is in the process of applying for charitable status and nobody in the departments he had been dealing with at the House of Lords indicated that there was any kind of problem until you unearthed the regulation in question concerning charitable status.

I would be very grateful if you could forebear from pursuing this matter. Cancellation of the event would be a serious blow to the Prince , a very fine and charitably minded individual.

It seems to me that your actions are in some way motivated by your attitude towards me - as far as I can tell we have never crossed swords directly, apart from a simultaneous display many years ago. I am more than happy to bury any hatchets which might be outstanding between us and if you would like to meet and discuss chess the next time you are in the UK I would be pleased to do so.

Might I also request that you publish this response on your blog. That would be much appreciated.

Best wishes


Monday 19 November 2012, 08:45

Dear Ray

Thank you ever so much for your email of Saturday.

I am sorry that your friend Prince Mohsin stands to lose money on today's dinner. However, I cannot be too apologetic as I do not think the event should be taking place, it not, in my view, being the proper role of Parliament to play host to networking events in the disguise of quasi-charitable functions.

Moreover, the House of Lords' own information office tells me that invitees should not be charged to attend functions, which nevertheless appears to be the case here. If no objections were raised prior to my article appearing, then I rather feel they should have been.

I will take the liberty of proposing that if in future your foundation wishes to organise genuinely charitable events (and to do so it really should actually possess charitable status) that it does so at a different venue and that it pays more attention than it has done hitherto to potential breaches of that venue's rules. It may also like to use its own bank account, a rather more transparent procedure than is the "British Diplomatic Forum". Meanwhile I am sure that the Prince's resources are sufficient for him to withstand any losses he may incur. (It is of course in the nature of philanthropy that one ends up with less money than one started with.)

I can assure you that I do not write about you motivated by any personal grudge. But I do write about chess, mostly English chess at that and you have been a prominent figure in English chess for more than forty years. Moreover your way of working does tend to generate controversy, not least because they have caused you to experience frequent problems with ethical and legal issues. As these controversies continue to occur, and old ones remain unresolved, it does mean you tend to appear relatively often in a blog which sometimes concerns itself with controversies in English chess.

I would stress though that I have no personal problem with you at all - and that in our interactions online you have always conducted yourself both as a gentleman and one in possession of a sense of humour. It would good to meet sometime, and while I will not have time on my next trip to the UK (although I do hope to drop in on Mr Pein's chess tournament at Olympia) I look forward to doing so at some time in the not too distant future.

Yours sincerely

Justin Horton

[Ray Keene index]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mr. Rosenbaum's Chess Picture. Part 4: Flog It

Here we are, back on the case of the telegraph match painting, featuring no less than 47 portraits of London chess clubbers of the 1870s - you can find out who they all are in this earlier episode

We are following the reports in The Chess-Monthly of its unveiling in 1880 and, as we are about to find out, its expeditious disposal.

©National Portrait Gallery
When the painting was revealed at the séance at Dr Ballard’s residence on the 30th October 1880, one would suppose that the feeling among the assembled London chess fraternity would have been that it should find a decent home within their ranks. But as any, and all, of those gentlemen would have fancied installing in pride of place over their mantelpiece, how then should the sale be fairly arranged, and how should they make sure that, in so doing, Mr Rosenbaum’s marathon exertions would be properly rewarded?

The conventional recourse would have been to a private auction, but that might have given an unfair advantage to those well-heeled members with the ready means. It would also set one colleague against another, and leave to fate the ultimate sum realised, risking red faces all round. Surely a more reliable, and egalitarian, mechanism had to be devised.        

The Chess Monthly explained what would happen...
 “Mr R. also exhibited autotype proof copies, retouched by himself, in monochrome, size 25 inches by 13, of which only 40 will be published at £5 5s. each. Other copies will shortly be published at £2 2s, £1 1s and 5s each. The picture will raffled among the subscribers to the 40 £5 5s. plates – id est, each purchaser of a copy receives a free ticket in the raffle”.
…which was fair enough. Fair enough, that is, for anyone who could get their hands on the five guineas necessary. That's a cool £500 at today’s prices: a lot for a raffle ticket by any standard, even if you got a sort of Victorian-style photocopy thrown in. However, as long as all were sold it would provide Mr R a tidy reward for his toil, and honour would be satisfied.

“Considering that the picture, without reckoning that the three years’ labour, cost Mr. R. close on £100, this arrangement met with so much satisfaction that already over 30 names are on the list, and that it is therefore very probable that before another fortnight elapses, and the ultimate possession of the picture decided, the last copy will be allotted.”

As indeed it was. By the day of the raffle, the 3rd December, five weeks after its unveiling at Dr Ballard’s, all the copies had been sold, the raffle tickets had been thereby allocated, and Mr Rosenbaum would have grossed (by simple arithmetic) at least 200 guineas (that’s £25K, or $40K, today), handsomely covered his costs, and be paid for his labour. Capital.

The picture had been on display at Simpson’s and by four o’clock everyone was foregathered at Mr Gümpel’s residence in Leicester Square for the raffle. In a proper and business-like manner a committee had been constituted to determine the procedure for the draw, and very ingenious it was too:
 “Instead of the usual method at raffles –  thirty-nine blanks and one win corresponding to the forty names of the ticket holders – Mr Cubison suggest a simple and more interesting mode of procedure, which was accepted, viz, to draw only the names, the name drawn last to be the winner.”
This provided for lengthy and tantalising fore-play during which all would be on tenterhooks, amid feverish and mounting tension, until the fortieth, and successful, name was climatically released from the hat: exquisite gratification, deliciously delayed, satisfaction guaranteed. Compare that with the dull fare of so many village fêtes the length and breadth of the land where you had to make do, after a perfunctory rummage, with a first-dip quickie.  

And so the fun began.

And for some it fizzled out, and prematurely… 
“..Dr Ballard senior headed the thirty-nine unfortunates while his dutiful son followed the lead soon afterwards.”
…but let's leave the gents at it for the moment. While The Chess Monthly prepares to tell us who wonreflect on the fact that, as we mentioned last time, there is no mention of the ladies having been invited to the party. Indeed, not one has appeared thus far in this series (save for one from across the pond who has occasionally joined us in the comments box, and is most welcome). But the mention of the Ballards (confusingly both father and son were "William") does, however, give us the opportunity to introduce a modest corrective. The host, Dr Ballard Junior (1848-1933) - you can see him trounce Bird, on an off-day, here - had a younger sister: Louise Matilda (1850-1931).       
Louise Matilda Ballard Fagan,
from her obituary in BCM 1931.
Better known under her married name of Fagan, she was a strong player, good enough, as her obituary explained, to come second to Mary Rudge in the Ladies International Tournament of 1897, and to win a club tournament against 12 chaps in India (she had married an Irish Bombay Lancer), playing her games elsewhere as she was banned from the premises (membership was, as is now familiar, strictly “men only” and rules are rules).

She was, so the BCM said in 1897, "a prominent worker of the Women's Emancipation Union...she is a woman of broad sympathies and profound convictions...and is a member of the Fabian Society". And indeed here is a record of her Fabian Society membership from 1890. Note that the address is 26, Manchester Square, the Ballard residence, where the painting had been unveiled ten years previously. 

This all makes a refreshing change from the politics of the other company that we have kept in this series. In the game below she chews up an unfortunate male of the species, George Richmond, in 1897 (maybe).

By the way, back at the Fabian Society, notice that five of those 16 names are female - not 50%, but a good deal better than the typical chess club of the day whether in India, or England. And there's a nice footnote: you may have heard of illustrator Walter Crane (whose name appears near the top of the same list), well here is his contribution to chess in art, an illustration for The Tempest, published in 1893, sadly too late for Shakespearean scholar Howard Staunton to enjoy.


Now, where were we...

Back at the raffle. Where, even if your name was pulled out of the hat early in the proceedings (the fate of both the Williams Ballard) there was still hope of a satisfactory outcome by way of a wager on the eventual winner: 
“…selling and buying chances and some brisk betting were freely indulged in, and kept up the excitement.”
The final moment was near: 
“Thirty-six names being drawn it was curious to note that the holders of the four remaining were absentees thus giving a flat démentie to the proverb “les absents son toujours tort.” This time they were right. The last two rivals were Mr Hirschfeld and Mr Thursby"

From The Chess-Monthly  

and, yes, it was…
                          ...Mr Thursby who “carried off the coveted prize.”

So, J.O.S.Thursby Esq., not yet twenty, and still a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, was informed by “wire” of his prize, leaving the remaining gentlemen smiling paternalistically, one imagines, at the good fortune of the young whippersnapper who, having the spare cash for a ticket (should we be surprised: he was an ex-Etonian) had won the raffle, even though he hadn’t been present and, more galling still, even though he wasn’t in the painting.

You’d need a drink after that, and The Chess-Monthly coyly reported that a dozen of the gents trooped back to the Divan for a “little dinner party” - its two editors (Hoffer and Zukertort) chief among them, and we can suppose that Mr R, with 200 guineas in his back pocket, was called on to pick up the tab.  

But what of John Ormerod Scarlett Thursby: the lucky winner? We have a lot to thank him for, as we’ll find out next post, but in the meantime ponder this: there is a reference in the above account that is worth your pause, viz: 40 "autotype proof copies, monochrome" were made of the picture, sold at 5 guineas a piece, and possibly a number of cheaper ones as well. So, it is reasonable to ask: do any still exist? And if so: where might they be now? Could it be that somewhere, in a bottom drawer or library basement, some might be awaiting discovery?

In fact: does one hide, at this very moment, in the depths of your Club’s equipment cupboard?

Go. Look. NOW!

Acknowledgements etc.  
Thanks to Giles Wright, Membership Officer at the Fabian Society, for his generous assistance; and to Sarah Beth for some Mrs Fagan hints.  
Illustrations to Shakepeare's Tempest by Walter Crane 1893 is on-line here 

See the three earlier (and subsequent) episodes via our  History Index

Friday, November 16, 2012

Chess goes to the movies: Star Wars

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers]

Alfred Hitchcock said that the difference between an American film and a European film is that a European film can open with a shot of clouds, cut to another shot of clouds, and then cut to a third shot of clouds. If an American film opens with a shot of clouds, it must cut to an airplane, and if by the third shot the airplane hasn't exploded, the audience is bored.

Denny Martin Flinn, How not to write a screenplay (Lone Eagle: 1999)

OK, first things first. It's Star Wars. Forget that A New Hope cobblers. It was Star Wars when I saw it at the Chelmsford Odeon in 1977 and it's Star Wars now.

Second, the fact that Star Wars (see?) opens by making the audience read a yard and a half of preamble not withstanding, Flinn clearly has a point. Films, especially mass market movies like Star Wars (see??), tend to get on with it. There's rarely any flab on them. Not even the bad ones.

Which rather begs the question of what the minute and thirteen seconds of chess that you see above is doing in there. In Saturn 3 the chess is essential to the plot, in The Thing it's about character development and in Blade Runner it's both. So why is that scene in Star Wars (I think I've made my point) if the chess neither enriches the story nor tells us something we didn't know about one of the characters? The answer comes in the phrase, "a bit of business".

Bollocks to Snickers

The story so far:-
It is a period of civil war. Grand Moff Tarkin (Dracula) and Vader (The Green Cross Code man) have just destroyed Alderaan whilst tricking Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) into revealing the location of the rebel base. The Death Star is about to trap the Milenium Falcon in a tractor beam and Obi-Wan (Alec Guiness) is using a spot of light sabre training to teach Skywalker (Mark Hammill) about The Force.
Clearly the interaction between Luke and his mentor needs to be there.  It sets up the big finale where Farm Boy switches off his computers and fires a couple of missiles up the Death Star's back passage using nothing but The Force for guidance.

The chess, though, is an completely different kettle of sci-fi. It doesn't advance the plot one little bit and the audience has long since discovered that C3PO is a prissy, pompous scaredy cat and that a wookie is not to be messed with. Why bother with it at all? Why not finish the film one minute earlier? Because while the chess in Star Wars isn't strictly necessary it is needed.

What's important about the scene is not the chess per se, but the humour (or light relief, at least) that flows from it. The laughs, such as they are, sit between the downbeat mood left by the destruction of Alderaan and the drama that will follow with the capture of the Falcon. They also break up what would otherwise have been the rather dry passage of exposition that explains the concept of The Force to the audience.

If the chess gives the film an emotional texture it wouldn't otherwise have, it also provides a signpost to the viewer. If they actually read that stuff at the beginning like George Lucas asked, they'd remember that this is all happening "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", but the chess scene reminds everybody that the Star Wars universe is futuristic even if it's not of the future.

We see a game that is recogniseably chesslike and yet it's not chess. It's got a chequered board, yes, but it's round and not square and the pieces move all by themselves. They even fight.  These little snippets really help sell the movie's premise, and are all the more important given that Skywalker's barnet stamps Star Wars as absolutely, positively, made in the 1970s.

The Star Wars films have suffered a great deal of fiddling over the years, not to everbody's pleasure. Despite all the changes, however, the importance of the chess scene remains its lack of significance. It meant nothing but gave the film that something extra. Thirty-five years on, a little of our favourite game still goes a long way.

Chess goes to the movies
Chess goes to the movies: Saturn 3
Chess goes to the movies: The Thing
Chess goes to the movies: Blade Runner