Jun 012012
 

 

Looks like they might be about to score one of my games!

As the London 2012 Olympics approach it is well worth chess fans remembering that our royal game is a fully paid up member of the Olympic movement. Sadly, our sport doesn’t get the same recognition as the others because chess Olympiads take place seperately from the main event. However, on the plus side, at least this pinnicle of team chess events takes place once every two years and not every four.

I recently unearthed another gem of an article by our old friend Colonel Walter Polhill who makes an interesting and creative contribution to the debate we’ve been having on this website about how to score wins and draws. This article was first published in The Independent on Sunday back in 1997.

There is talk, my sources inform me, of including chess in the Olympic games. While this is, in principle, to be welcomed, we must ensure that the conduct of the event, if it happens, conforms  to Olympic ideals. That is to say, we must dispense with the one-point-for-a-win, half-for-a-draw scoring conventions and and replace them with a team of judges who assess the games for technical merit and artistic impression.

At the recent British Championships in Hove, our best Grandmasters came out on top through considerable technical merit; yet in the quest for points, their artisitc impression sometimes fell short of the highest standards. Now here is a game which I would award an undoubted 9.9 for artistry.”

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Oct 282011
 

"Bobby felt very at ease with animals and children, but not adults" - Harry Benson

Like many chess enthusiasts I was fascinated by the prospect of seeing the recent biopic about the greatest of all chess enigmas, Bobby Fischer.

I am a member of the post-Fischer generation in that I started playing long after he had disappeared from public life. Of course I’ve heard so many of my elders talk in rapt terms about his genius and one can get a feeling for this by playing through his legacy of great games.

Unfortunately, what you can’t do is get any kind of impression of the man himself or the astounding impact he made on the world (not just the chess world) in 1972 when he played Boris Spassky for the World title in Iceland. It was this aspect of Fischer, as a man, and a global phenomena that I found so enthralling about the film.

The Director, Liz Garbus, had gone to great lengths to pull together as much archive interview footage of Fischer as she could and this really gave you a feel for the kind of man he was. Quite a lot was made of his lonely and damaged child-hood. This was put forward as the predominant reason why the stubborn, self-reliant streak that helped him become so successful also transformed him into a rampant paranoid delusional in later life.

Many of the photos taken by Benson in Iceland give a real feeling for the "lonliness and isolationof the position he was in".

Probably the aspect of the film that captivated me the most was the photography of Harry Benson. He was chosen to shoot Fischer for LIFE magazine at the Buenos Aires Candidates Tournament the year before Reykjavik and became, if not a friend, then at least a companion to Fischer during that period of his life. Evidently Garbus had approached Benson during her preparations for the film and had been amazed to find that he had a large collection of photographs that had never been published. They are amazing, a real window into Fischer’s soul. Much more than the interview footage, in which Fischer always seems so guarded and defensive. After I’d watched the film I was delighted to find out that Benson had subsequently published a book of his Fischer photographs and I immediately rushed to Amazon to buy it.

I’d certainly urge anyone who has an interest in chess to see the film when you get the chance. Just don’t expect lots of involved chess content. There is plenty about the 1972 match in Reykjavik but it is covered mostly from a personal and political angle. All-in-all it’s a really superbly made glimpse into the life of this brilliant, complicated and damaged man.

On a lighter note, one famous Fischer anecdote that didn’t make it into the film is a story that Hungarian Grandmaster Laszlo Szabo must have dined out on many times. At the Buenos Aires international tournament of 1960, he and Fischer had adjacent hotel rooms. One night, someone brought a young woman to Bobby’s room. The following morning it happened that both Fischer and Szabo left their rooms at the same time and Szabo shot an enquiring glance at Fischer who responded by simply saying: “Chess is better.”

All of this thinking about Bobby Fischer put me back in a frame of mind to look at some of his games and then I remembered the game and comments published by Walter Polhill in The Independent on Sunday back in the late 1990’s. Polhill selects a very unusual Fischer game that has a real splash of humour in it. Playing against Ulf Andersson, who had a reputation for labarinthine strategic and manoeuvring play, Fischer chooses to adopt the style himself and delivers a masterpiece. Enjoy!

By far the greatest player the world has ever seen, Bobby Fischer was also a superb parodist. The following victory of his is often dismissed as a mere display of attacking imagination. Yet making such an assessment would be to overlook one of the finest acheivements of the parodic art this century.”

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Aug 022011
 

Not to be confused with John Nettles who just played the part of Jim Bergerac, Gerard Depardieu played Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1990 film of the same name

You strip from me the laurel and the rose!
Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing
I hold against you all, and when, tonight,
I enter Christ’s fair courts, and, lowly bowed,
Sweep with doffed casque the heavens’ threshold blue,
One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,
I bear away despite you…
My panache.

Cyrano, Act 5, Sc. 6

That quote from Edmond Rostand’s classic play is a poetic introduction to today’s theme. Cyrano delivers this monologue in his heart-rending final speech. Everything seems to have gone wrong for him and yet, even at the end, he defiantly maintains his dignity and makes his case for immortality. In the 1990 film of the same name the script writer frames the sentiment even more succinctly: “A diamond in the ash which I take in spite of you; and that is my panache.”

Today it seems that in any given competetive setting the result matters more than than the manner in which it is acheived. “No-one remembers the runner-up” say coaches and trainers around the world. That may be true but I think we can find something even more precious in the spirit of the competitor who reaches for something more than a work-man-like victory, even if they fail to acheive it.

Today’s game is another delve into the treasure trove of articles written back in the mid-1990’s for The Independent on Sunday by Walter Polhill. The game also seems appropriate given that it was played in the great Hastings tournament of 1895. A classic tournament played on British soil. Let us hope that the current British Championships turns up a few more diamonds for us to marvel at. Today then, Colonel Polhill laments a miscarriage of creative justice.

The laws of chess carry no rewards for beauty. Some of the greatest, most aesthetically pleasing ideas have earned their creators only a zero on the score table. Take this game for example, from the great Hastings event a century ago.”
 
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Apr 122011
 

Vassily Ivanchuk looks at anything but the board!

Q – How do we know that Neanderthal Man played blindfold chess?
A – Because in excavations of their sites no chessboards or pieces have been found.”

It’s an old and rather cheesy joke but don’t let that hide the essential truth that it exploits. The physical manifestation of the game of chess (the board and pieces) only exists to help us players visualise the moves. Once you have learned chess notation and grasped of the rules you can play the game in your head. That virtually none of us practice this is an indication of how difficult it is to do. If you’ve never tried it I recommend you give it a go. It is mind bogglingly difficult! However, one skill that, throughout history, sets aside the very best chess players from us mere mortals is their ability to do this very thing.

I recently came across a very interesting and very comprehensive post by HeinzK on his Chess Plaza blog called “The big comparison” in which he associates this game we play with lots and lots of other aspects of life. It is a post which is by turns funny, philosophical, insightful and poetic. It is also full of links to other related blog posts and stories and I followed one about super Grand Master Vassily Ivanchuk which looked interesting. I ended up reading a very nice little interview conducted with him shortly after he had won the Gibraltar Chess Festival in February of this year. One answer he gave tickled me in particular and it was also the answer that had grabbed HeinzK’s attention. Ivanchuk was asked how much time he spent on chess (aside from playing in tournaments) and he answered:

It’s hard to say, because chess and the way you train for it, is quite unusual. For example it’s not even obligatory to sit at a computer, or even a chess board. I can also walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that working using such a method will have any less effect than if I sit at a computer. It depends much more on getting into a mental state that allows you to discover new ideas.”

“I can walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head.”  Woah! Ivanchuk has a reputation for being a “genius” and also for being, shall we say, one of the game’s more colourful characters. This statement certainly seems to bare that out. So next time you take your dog for a walk and spot a dishevelled looking fellow doing laps of the park and muttering to himself as he gazes somewhere into the far distance, don’t worry, he might appear to be a lunatic but it is probably just Vassily analysing an opening novelty.

The real point I guess, is that this extraordinary ability to visualise games and positions is both a blessing and a curse for the chess professional. On the one hand it helps them develop their astounding powers of calculation and concentration, on the other it means that their minds can never truly be free of the game that dominates their lives. The truth that Ivanchuk reveals by being unable to provide an answer to the interviewer’s question is that lots of his chess is played in his head and so it is impossible to keep track of how much time he spends on it.

I’ve seen it mentioned in several sources that Ivanchuk (and some other players) frequently sit at the board and calculate variations without spending much time actually looking at the pieces themselves. On his blog, Tim Krabbé suggests that this is actually quite a logical way to visualise future positions because “the mental pieces are often on different squares than their wooden counterparts.”

To illustrate this point (in a post that is interestingly titled “The handicap of sight” – scroll down to post number 86) Krabbé references an incident involving Mikhail Tal which is taken from Psychology in Chess”by Nikolai Krogius. You can see the critical position and notes in the game viewer at the end of this post.

I’d like to end this post on a slightly lighter note. As I read the interview with Vassily Ivanchuk I also remembered that our old friend, Colonel Walter Polhill (RTD), had written an article for The Independent on Sunday in which he referred directly to Ivanchuk’s ability to find brilliant ideas without looking at the board. I am willing to risk prosecution to bring you that article (and the illustrative game which is also in the viewer below) for your amusement.

You can tell great players by their eye movements. An average club player’s eyes dart about hopelessly, never knowing quite where to look for the best move. A Grand Master focuses rapidly on the critical area of the board. It is a rare genius that looks, as Vassily Ivanchuk does for much of the game, at the ceiling. And when he is not perusing the ceiling, he often stares blankly at the audience. His 24th move in this game however, surely came from the ceiling.”

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Feb 222011
 

Valeri Salov: "Not a man who takes his luncheon seriously!"

In today’s post we welcome back Colonel Walter Polhill (RTD) to our humble blog. The Colonel wrote a series of erudite articles for The Independent on Sunday back in the late 90’s and yours truly has excavated them, dusted them down and now presents once more for your enlightenment. In this article the Colonel tackles the knotty issue of opening theory and reveals the real reason why so many Grand Master games follow the opening books for so many moves.

The true value of opening theory is not generally understood. Studying the opening to such a degree that one may reel off a dozen or 20 moves by rote is, above all, an aid to digestion. Some tournament organisers, for reasons best known to themselves, insist on starting play in the very early afternoon. This presents a stark choice: forgo lunch, risk indigestion by attempting to think too soon after a meal, or rely on opening theory until the meal is digested.”

 

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Dec 122010
 

Colonel Walter Polhill examines a very early edition of ECO

Today I’d like to introduce (or perhaps for some of you who are very well read, reintroduce) Hebden Bridge Chess Club members to a new guest columnist; Colonel Walter Polhill (Retired). The Colonel’s editorial was first published in The Independent on Sunday back in the mid to late ninties and he mainly concerned himself with the moral code associated with the game. In today’s regergitated post he debates whether or not standards of decency at the board may be on the wane.

I was reminded of Colonel Polhill’s articles (and the one below in particular) when I played a fun game (the second one in the viewer below) on the Chess.com website. If you want to see a game with pieces being placed and left enprise in the most outrageous fashion then there is no better opening line to study than this bloodthirsty line of the Classical Sicilian.

Now, over to the Colonel who introduces the first of the two games in the Chess Tempo viewer at the bottom of this post.

“There is an unhealthy mood of bravado laced with machismo running through modern Russian chess. In the old days, captures were met with the politeness of a recapture and any player with pretensions to be considered a gentleman would retreat a piece that his opponent had attacked. Such old formalities, however, are no longer observed, as the following game attests”

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