Feb 152012

Continuing with the recent anniversary theme, today we acknowledge a recent significant birthday for one of the game’s true titans.

The 10th Chess World Champion, Boris Spassky celebrated his 75th birthday on the 30th of January. I’m not going to regurgitate his wonderous achievements or indulge in any sentimental recollections about the ‘good old days’ here – well, not much anyway! There are plenty of folks out there better qualified to do that than I. Chessbase being just one example.

Boris was disappointed to see that, once again, his wife had ordered a chessboard-shaped birthday cake with pieces for candles

What I will say is that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Spassky and my feelings were reinforced when I saw the recent celluloid about Bobby Fischer. It seemed to me that Fischer was able to complete his match with Spassky in ’72 due in no small part to the Russian’s patience, generosity and sportsmanship. Spassky wanted to play that match and he put up with Fischer’s shenanigans despite the fact that they undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his psychological equilibrium and therefore his playing standard.

I could re-publish any number of Spassky’s great masterpieces. The one against Bronstein (Leningrad 1960) or the one against Larsen (Belgrade 1970) are the ones that most readily spring to mind and get trotted out whenever his masterpieces are considered. However, I’ll resist the temptation in order to bring you a less prominent encounter that may have escaped your attention.

Spassky’s 16th move of the first game in viewer at the bottom of this post was adjudged by Tim Krabbé to be the most fantastic of all “The 110 Most Fantastic Moves Ever Played” back in 1998. The game was played in the 1959 Russian Championship play-off in which Spassky and his opponent, Yuri Averbakh were competing with Mark Taimanov. I’ve put the whole game into the viewer but move 16 is the point at which Spassky (playing Black), after sadly reflecting on the misery of his situation, decided that 16…Nc6! was required. On his website Krabbé annotates this move as follows:

About his #1 greatest move, Spassky wrote to me: I have played 16…Nc6 because I did not see any other practical resources because my position was so passive. I was very surprised that Yuri Averbakh was thinking about 1 hour (!!) (55 min.) I considered that after 17.dxc6 bxc6 18.h6! Bh8 White would have two pieces up and they could manage the win very easy. Mark Taimanov: “I would rather resign the game than to make such a move…


It would be greatly amiss of me not to add that Spassky’s opponent in this game, Yuri Averbakh, was 90 on the 6th of February! I believe he is currently the oldest living Grandmaster. Chessbase also has a nice tribute and interview with him on their website.

To end this appreciation I would like to set straight a record that was recently made public by Vladimir Kramnik. I was listening to the Full English Breakfast podcast last week in which Macauley Peterson interviewed Vlad right after his win in the London Chess Classic. At one point in the interview Kramnik was talking about living in Paris (were Spassky also resides) and the fact that he hadn’t yet learnt French. He recounted thisanecdote about his illustrious countryman.

He’s been living in France since ’73 or’74 and actually his French is still not great. Once I visited him at his place and he had a big sign on the door of his bureau cabinet in Russian which was saying ‘Learn French idiot!’
— Vladimir Kramnik interviewed by Macauley Peterson for the FEB

Readers may think nothing of this apparently amusing story but, in yet another exclusive for this website, I can now reveal the true and rather more poignant origin of that handwritten note. At the beginning of last week I was alerted to the Kramnik interview by our erstwhile guest columnist, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro, who sent me this e-mail.

Dear Intermezzo,

Perhaps you will have come across the recent interview of Vladimir Kramnik by the chaps at the Full English Breakfast. In it he mentions a note stuck to Boris Spassky’s bureau cabinet that he naively assumes must have been written by Spassky himself and refers to his failure to learn the language of his nation of residence. 

Setting the record straight, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro

I say “naïve” because Kramnik clearer failed to consider some plain facts which point to the true origin and nature of the note, which I should add, I witnessed being written with my own eyes.

First of all, the note is, as I mentioned above, handwritten and if Kramnik had given it any more than a perfunctory glance he could not have failed to notice that the handwriting was not Spassky’s. Secondly, if he had taken a further moment to inspect the note he wouldn’t have missed the familiar size and stock of the paper which is clearly a score sheet from a chess game. Finally, if he had been minded to consider a potential alternate meaning for the three words in the note he might have deduced that the word “French” could in fact refer to the chess opening of that name and not the language.

The tragic truth behind that note must cause poor Spassky to suffer a pang of anguish every time he reads it. In 1977 he had qualified to play in the final Candidates Match of the World Championship cycle against Viktor Korchnoi, for the right to play Karpov. The match was played in Belgrade just a year after Korchnoi had defected from the Soviet Union. The bad blood between Viktor and the Soviet bureaucracy was just beginning. In fact some of the antics and psychological chicanery that distinguished the subsequent World title matches between Karpov and Korchnoi originated from the acrimonious dénouement of this Belgrade encounter.

The match started very badly for Boris who went five games behind. The main instrument of his agonies was Korchnoi’s use of the French Defence which Spassky for some reason found very challenging to overcome. In seven games across the match where Korchnoi played the French Spassky managed a score of only +1, =2, -4. Desperate for a break, in game 10 Spassky suddenly decided to consider his moves in his designated “relaxation box”, using a large demonstration board  to analyze his moves. He would only go to the board to play his moves, record them and press the clock and then return to his box. This tactic drew a protest from Korchnoi, but he was clearly unnerved and Spassky fought his way back almost to equality in the match winning games 11, 12, 13 and 14 by which time Korchnoi had begun mimicing Spassky’s behaviour to no avail.

Belgrade 1977. Spassky is the one in the sun visor!

The match descended into farce and relations between the two men had become very poor. By the time they played the 17th game Spassky had returned to consider his moves at the board but had taken to wearing a silver sun visor and sunglassed underneath a pair of goggles. He lost that game (probably because he couldn’t see properly!) and Korchnoi now needed only one more point to win the match. Fittingly, in game 18 (the second game in the viewer at the bottom of this post) Korchnoi deployed the French once more and Spassky tried the Advance Variation.

I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front row of the auditorium when this game was played and I can assure you the atmosphere was very tense indeed. Eventually Korchnoi overcame his opponent and when the formality of swapping and signing each other’s score sheets arrived I noticed Korchnoi turn his sheet over and scribble something on the back of it before passing it to Spassky. I saw that Boris took a look at the note and immediately turned pale with anger before leaving the stage humiliated.

Later on that evening, at a party held in honour of Korchnoi’s success, I got the opportunity to ask Viktor what he had written on that score sheet that had obviously distressed Spassky so deeply. Korchnoi chortled and said,

“Learn French idiot!”

I hope that this e-mail will go some way to redressing the inaccuracy of Kramnik’s statement which was in no way intentional on his part. How could he have known that this note of admonition was in fact a spur to drive Spassky’s opening studies and not his linguistic deficiency?

See you soon,


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Sep 282011
Rudyard Kipling: Somewhat less deadly than his wife

“The female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
Rudyard Kipling

“If cunning alone were needed to excel, women would be the best chess players.”
Adolf Albin

A couple of weekends ago, as I watched live coverage of the FIDE World Cup Final in Khanty Mansiysk my wife took an interest (most unusual) and asked about the lady commentator, GM Anna Sharevich. We started to talk about women in the game and I explained that there was a women’s World Champion and that most top female players played in specific, women only tournaments. Quite rightly she asked me why there were separate women’s events and titles when the game of chess conferred no physical advantage to men as it does in most sports. “Surely men and women should compete together” she said and cited show jumping (horse riding is her favourite pastime) as an example of a sport where men and women compete on equal terms.

Of course my wife is right (she almost always is I find) to point out this strange state of affairs in chess. I must admit I struggled to justify why women competed separately from men although I did point out a very significant exception to the rule. Judit Polgar. When I provided my wife with Judit’s potted curriculum vitae and went on to add that she had performed very well at the same World Cup in reaching the quarter-finals and losing to the eventual winner she simply nodded and said “Well, there you go”.

That discussion caused me to reflect a little on the differences between women and men and how they think. I don’t want to get embroiled in a gender debate and I’m no scientist but, I reasoned that physiologically, there must be some attributes that are more prevalent in one gender or the other and that those attributes must have an impact on the workings of the mind even if it’s at a trivial level. I’m fairly sure that male and female GMs approach preparation and in-game-analysis in the same way but at an amateur level, perhaps different approaches are more apparent.

Of course there was only one course of action for me to take at this point and I immediately logged on to exchange instant messenger correspondence with this website’s most illustrious contributor, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro. Our chat progressed thusly:

Intermezzo: Do you think women approach chess in a different way to men or display any attributes more or less prominently then their male counterparts?

Blunderboro: Generally I’d say no because such a blend and balance of skills are required to excel and the best players, men and women, tend to demonstrate these universally. However, remembering the words of Rudyard Kipling, I’d suggest that maybe we ladies bare chess grudges longer than men do, and, baring in mind the words of Adolf Albin, perhaps we occasionally display greater levels of imagination in our deviousness.

Intermezzo: I assume that you have examples in mind?

Blunderboro: Of course. Shall I write you a blog post?

Intermezzo: Yes please!

So now, I’ll hand you over to Lady Cynthia who, as always, has an intriguing tale to tell.

Hello again fellow chess-heads! The gender debate surrounding the royal game has long been a cause of heated discourse. Personally I find such chatter to be rather dull as generally speaking it is, like the game itself, dominated by male opinion! Questions such as “Why don’t more women play chess?” and “Why are women not as good at chess as men?” tend to be questions that men ask when they want to pontificate about the perceived masculine intellectual attributes they possess. The truth of the matter seems to be that, proportionally, we women are at least as good at chess as men. Should any of my undoubtedly overwhelmingly male readership be interested in a more balanced female perspective on such matters then I can hardly do better than to direct you to the excellent Goddess Chess website.

From a Lady’s perspective, I’m not convinced that our approach to chess or the attributes we display are really all that different to men’s. Certainly I’m unable to recall any examples that would support such a theory. What I certainly can provide evidence to support is that when it comes to clear thinking, cold-blooded ruthlessness and down-right craftiness at the chess board, we ladies can behave in a most ungentlemanly fashion!

Today’s story begins in 1932 when I was 10 years old and attending St. Ethel’s boarding school for girls. Of course I was a member of the school chess team and we regularly played matches in the local chess league as well as against other schools around the country. At this early stage in my career I was not by any means an expert but the fire of competitive spirit was certainly stoked during my school days. This was never more evident than when St Ethel’s played our annual match against our great rivals, St Agnes’ Catholic School for Girls. By the time I represented St Ethel’s for the first time in this fixture it had already taken place 35 times previously and our school held an 18-17 lead. In 1932 then I had, for the first time, been offered the opportunity to defend the honour of St Ethel’s in this unfolding legend of inter-school rivalry. I was selected to play on the bottom board, board 10.

If further incentive to succeed were needed that day it was provided when I arrived for the match (which we played on a Saturday afternoon in our school library that year) and discovered that my opponent was to be Prunella DeLauncy. I knew this girl and we already detested each other. Prunella was the daughter of Sir Stephen and Lady Margaret DeLauncy who owned DeLauncy Castle, the nearest estate to my own family’s holdings. Although our families were not especially friendly we did operate in each others ambit on numerous social occasions and so I had already had numerous run-ins with this odious little girl. Prunella was three years older than me and took every possible opportunity to belittle, bully and taunt me for being smaller, weaker and younger than her. I reasoned that, on this occasion at least, her physical advantages would be of no use to her and resolved to take full advantage of the fact that the controlled conditions of the competition would prevent her from cheating. An deep irony baring in mind what was to take place that day.

When we took our seats at the board she looked at me as if I were something unpleasant and smelly that she had stepped in on the street and could barely bring herself to shake hands with me. When the handshake did come it was half-hearted and limp. At this point, as I looked along the two lines of players on my right, I noticed to my amusement that she was stationed beneath several girls who looked to be about my age whereas I was clearly the youngest in our team. This gave me a fresh injection of confidence for now I felt that my playing abilities would be a match for hers.

Sadly, on that wet autumnal afternoon I was to be disappointed and even devastated by my own naivety. The game started off well enough. She responded to my king’s pawn advance with the Sicilian Defence. I chose an anti-Sicilian line I’d been studying and elected to play it safe by swapping the queens off very early in the game. I felt confident of securing at least a draw from my enemy until we reached the diagram position below where Prunella was to play.

By now Prunella had begun to openly express some dissatisfaction with her position. Perhaps she felt that she ought to have already secured a decisive advantage against a player three years her junior, perhaps she had simply staged these emotions in order to prepare the way for what now came next. After a relatively short think of only a couple of minute she aggressively bashed out the move 18…Bc6, whacked her clock and then sat back smugly with a sneer on her face and her arms folded across her chest.

As I considered my response I noticed that her facial expression was slowly changing from smugness to concern. After a couple of minutes her face reddened, she muttered something to herself under her breath and then suddenly stood up, her chair scrapping noisily on the wooden floor as she did so, and stormed out of the room in disgust. The eyes of all the players followed her as she left. Amazed and excited at what had just occurred I studied the board again looking for the error that she obviously felt she had committed. It didn’t take long to for me to realise that she had left her pawn on f5 unprotected.

“A free pawn!” I thought. “Is there a trap?”

It took only the briefest of moments to check that after I captured with 19.Rxf5 there was nothing unpleasant that was going to happen to my king and saw that if she played 19…Rd1+ 20.Kh2 Bb8+ then 21.g3?? would be a dire error on account of 21…Rh1 mate! However, I soon saw that instead of this I could play 21. f4, or even better 21.Bf4 and would have simply gained a two pawn advantage.

“She must have missed 21.Bf4”, I reasoned and then wrote down the move 19.Rxf5, played it and pressed my clock confident that I had secured a decisive advantage.

Five minutes passed by and then another five. There was no sign of Prunella, where was she? I began to get restless, had she given up in dismay or been rendered physically unwell by her error? I was about to go and speak to the match referee when the door of the library creaked open and Prunella slowly crept back in. She looked like she had composed herself and she returned to our game tight lipped and serious. She sat down at the board, looked at my move and sighed meaningfully and then with a depressed air about her she responded as I had anticipated with 19…Rd1+. I played my only move 20.Kh2 and then she rocked back in her chair her expression completely transformed once again. Suddenly she was leering at me with a malignant twinkle in her eye. She paused only long enough to let me register that something was a miss before reaching forward and playing not 20…Bb8+ but the move 20…Be4!

I stared at the board in disbelief. My rook and knight forked by the bishop. How had I missed it? It was clear I had been duped by an acting performance of consummate skill. She had wanted me to think that she had made an error and so all I had done was look for one. It was a brilliant diversion. Looking only for a mistake I had found one and completely missed the best rejoinder! I couldn’t even escape with 21.Ne3 as Bxe3 simply reinstated the threat.

At that point, I confess that my world fell apart. I have never again since felt so abject at the board. Playing on in a mist of demoralised inertia I continued on auto-pilot until Prunella finally ground me down with her extra piece in the end game. To make matters even worse St Ethel’s lost the match by a score of 4½-5½! My naivety had lost us the match and it took me months and months to recover from the trauma of losing that game to Prunella DeLauncy who I should add, I never played again in the annual encounter as my game improved rapidly enough to stay above her in the board order in subsequent years. Never the less, in each year that I took part I had to endure her hard, sneering gazing on me every time I caught her eye.

I thought I would never have the chance to avenge that painful defeat. But then, over twenty years later, in 1953, fate dropped an opportunity into my lap. I received a letter from the St Ethels’ Head Mistress of that time informing me that the annual chess match against St Agnes’ had reached it’s 50th edition (the fixture was not held between 1940-45 on account of World War II) and, to commemorate this, a special anniversary match between chess-playing alumni from each school was to take place alongside the traditional match for the pupils. Of course I accepted the invitation to take part as, by this point in my life, I was an accomplished player and wanted to repay in some way the chess education I had received from my old school.

The day of the match arrived. Once more the venue was St Ethel’s School Library. I had arrived early and was enjoying chatting to several old friends who I hadn’t seen for years when suddenly on of them drew my attention to the library doorway. Prunella DeLauncy had just arrived. I hadn’t expected her to attend but I would guess that she wouldn’t have wanted to miss another opportunity to flaunt her success of 21 years previously. There she was, as tight faced and smugly superior as ever. She glared at me as she made her way over to her team mates and I found myself yearning for a re-match even though I imagined that she would not be their top board player.

When we saw our Captain’s match card I couldn’t believe what I saw, for Prunella was indeed playing on board 1 for the St. Agnes Alumni team. Her game must have improved somewhat over the last twenty odd years for I was sure there were others in the St.Agnes line up who had previously been her betters. As we sat across from one another I could sense her disdain but forced myself to be polite and looked up smiling at her.

“Good luck”, I said as I shook that limp, cold hand.

For this return game I was fortunate once again to have the White pieces. My improved skills as a player in the intervening years between our encounters had given me the confidence I needed to play for a small but enduring advantage out of the opening. I played solidly, possibly too solidly and Prunella, to her credit defended staunchly, and at times, resourcefully. As the game meandered on my advantage dwindled and I began to realise that Prunella, whilst having no winning chances herself, had succeeded in neutralising my attacking potential completely.

Stubbornly, for in all other circumstances I would have offered a draw, I played on, politely declining her curt offer of a draw when the queens came off the board as the end game began. We were now the last board playing and the match was tied at 4½-4½. Vainly I scoured the position for any opportunity to create complications and managed to find a clever way of sacrificing a pawn to reactivate my pieces. I conjured up some significant problems for my opponent and she began to spend more and more time trying to solve them. Finally though, she dug herself out of trouble yet again and, with both our clocks down to their last two minutes, we reached the position below.

I had just checked the Black king and Prunella moved it with 61…Kh6. I sat staring intently at the board. The position, with equal material and opposite coloured bishop was drawn I had to accept it and offer to share the honours. My clock was almost spent. But then, a glimmer of an idea came into my mind, perhaps there was a way and I could try to win it without any risk of losing. Quickly I checked it again and glanced at my clock. One minute left. Prunella had a little more but not much. To make this work I had to blitz her and rely on her disdain of me and need to belittle me. I could use that to my advantage.

Very swiftly we now both banged out the moves…
62. Bf4+ Kg7
63. Be5+ Kh6
64. Bf4+ Kg7

I’d made a point of calling out “Check” throughout this sequence. First of all because I knew it would annoy her and secondly because it was integral to my plan. I paused here for a couple of seconds with my hand hovering over the bishop. Prunella, flushed with adrenaline looked at me intently expecting that the repetition of moves would follow and enable her to thwart me again and draw the match. However, I now played 65.Bd6 and called out “Check” again. Immediatley Prunella’s hand darted out to her king and moved it back to h6. She pressed her clock again and then said, mockingly, “That wasn’t check.”

“Sorry! Yes, you’re right. My mistake” I replied as I paused again for a few seconds. I must have had about twenty seconds left. I used ten of those to allow Prunella to realise the full horror of her mistake before playing 66.Bf8!

“But that,” I said “is checkmate. If I’m not mistaken.”

And so it was that on this occasion it was Prunella who was left devastated. My vengeance felt very, very sweet and my team mates crowded round to congratulate me on my play. Later on, at the local pub they also congratulated me on my gameswomanship. The ultimate compliment.

As a post script to this story I should add that recently I was most surprised to find this last little set piece (listed as being played by NN and NN) in Christian Hesse’s new book “The Joys of Chess:Heroes, Battles and Brilliancies”. The position features in a chapter named “Gamesmanship” and I will end this article with a quote that features at the beginning of that chapter which seems very appropriate to the subject and an object lesson for all chess players regardless of their gender.

“As a medium for demonstrating one’s mastery of the game the board and pieces are, in fact, most unreliable.”
William Hartston

Addendum: 01/10/2011
Since I published this post (by a bizarre coincidence) Chessbase have put up a very interesting related article on their website which I would commend to all readers interested in the gender discussion. It turns out that some research now suggests that there are differences between men and women when it comes to how they approach their chess playing. Or, rather, there are differences to their approach when men play against attractive women! Evidently a man playing a game against an attractive woman is much more likely to essay an aggressive opening system and take more risks to try and win the game. On the other hand, women are unlikely to change their approach when playing against men, regardless of whether or not they think they are attractive! So, there you go, some kind of answer to the original question I posed in the introduction to this post.

May 252011
The Duchess is back!

Today I am delighted to welcome back to this blog our resident chess historian, Cynthia, the Duchess of Blunderboro. Readers may remember that on previous visits she has revealed who won the famous game between Lenin and Hitler as well as explaining the origins of the “hardest chess problem in the world”. After the success of that last post she e-mailed me saying:

“If you liked that one I have another, even older tale, from the life of my Great Grandfather that your readers are sure to enjoy”.

Of course I couldn’t resist such a tempting offer and immediately replied to confirm the commission of the post below. I leave it to the Lady Cynthia herself to explain further.

“Greetings chess fans. Let me start this column by asking you to consider the diagram position below. Some of you may be familiar with it as it is one of the few chess problems that has become so legendary that many chess players have heard of it by name. It’s called “Excelsior” and it was composed by the American problemist Sam Loyd and first published in 1861.

“Excelsior” by Sam Loyd, 1861

“What’s so special about this problem?” you may very well ask. In reply I will draw to your attention the fact that most chess problems are given names by their composers but there aren’t very many of those names that the average club player is likely to have heard mentioned before unless they have spent a lot of time studying chess problems. By contrast think about some of the famous chess games that have been given names such as “The Evergreen”, “The Immortal” and “The Game of the Century”. They are all renowned for their enduring beauty.

This is one of the few chess problems that could be considered to be an “immortal” and the tale I have to tell you today is the interesting and amusing story of its creation.

Let me begin my account in the school holidays of December 1935. I was 13 years old and passing some time studying a book of chess problems in the drawing room at Blunderboro Hall cosied up in front of an open fire. I think that the book may have contained some rather light-weight challenges for I recall that I was starting to feel like they were all a bit too easy when suddenly my Father burst into the room red-faced from his morning ride and chortling over some joke he had just shared with my elder brother who had accompanied him that day. When he saw me he stopped and afforded me one of his broadest smiles.

“Well, someone is taking their chess studies seriously I see.”

He ambled over, hands on hips and peered closely at the position I was studying. It was a mate in 3 puzzle.

“Chess problems today is it? What do you make of them?” he asked me, pointing at the book.

“To be honest Father, I’m beginning to think they are a little ho-hum” I sighed.

“Ho-hum!” He exclaimed and then laughed. “Why do you say that little one?”

“Well they just seem to me to be a little too contrived. The positions aren’t always natural and that can lead to a situation where the key suggests itself.”

As I said this my Father straightened and fixed me with a look that was a mixture of seriousness and surprise. He really hadn’t realised how seriously I was taking my studies.

“Go on,” he said “explain what you mean”.

“Well, in this position for example (see below) it seems obvious that the rook on f4 is the piece White must move first if he is to give check mate in three moves.”

White to play and mate in 3

 “Explain how you reached that conclusion,” my Father said as he pulled up a chair on the other side of the board from me.

“Well, first of all, it’s a mate in three puzzle so White doesn’t have much time. Because Black has threats of his own, such as Rxg2+, that rules out any sort of sneaky creeping moves such as 1.Kh2. That tells me that the solution must involve forcing moves, probably checks. Most of the checks in the position simply lose material and so already there are only two plausible candidate moves. 1.g4+ or 1.Rh4+.”

“That’s very good thinking” interjected my Father. “Keep going”.

“1.g4 looks tempting but then it is easy to see that the Black king will move to h4 and it will be impossible to mate him in 3 moves, if at all. No, the only way to achieve checkmate must be to use the White pieces to drive the enemy king towards the White king and pawns. So after 1.Rh4+ Kxh4 White can play 2.g3+ and now I can see that mate will be delivered by the White knight moving to f4 whether the Black king moves to h3 or h5. It’s a pretty solution but not that difficult.”

My Father sat silent for a moment looking at the board deep in thought and then he nodded as if he has just reached an important decision.

“Your solution is absolutely correct of course and much of your reasoning is also sound. Building up such reasoning skills is the main benefit of studying these kinds of problems. However, I’d advise you to be careful about jumping to hasty conclusions about thinking all chess problems contain the obvious signposts to their solutions. That isn’t always the case. In fact, your Great Grandfather once came to the same conclusion and it cost him a slap up dinner.”

“I should like to hear that story” I said enthusiastically. I loved hearing stories about my ancestors and Father was such an excellent raconteur.

“Then I shall tell it my darling” my Father beamed. Then he quickly cleared the chess board and set up a new position. The one I gave at the start of this post.

“It’s probably about time I gave you some more challenging problems to study and this one is certainly that. Before I ask you to try and solve it though, I’ll tell you about how your Great Grandfather was ensnared by it’s trickery.

In 1858 your Great Grandfather, Herbert, was in New York. For some time he had been involved in establishing new trade opportunities between the United States and Great Britain and he had spent a large portion of the previous few years in New York which was an essential trading hub at that time. New York at that time was an exciting place to be for a chess enthusiast. Just the year before this story takes place the First American Chess Congress had been held at the St. Julien Hotel on Broadway and the winner of the tournament was none other than Paul Morphy, one of the greatest players of all time. He had emerged from obscurity to become a great celebrity of the day and after winning that tournament he travelled on to Britain and France where he was hailed as the best player in the world.

Sam Loyd, 1841-1911

Morphy had spent some considerable period of time in New York before during and after that First American congress and as a result the already burgeoning chess scene enjoyed a real golden age. This was the era just before the New York Chess Clubs were founded and so the St. Julien was the place to meet and play chess at that time and many of the best players in the states as well as visiting European stars spent time there when they were in town. Your Great Grandfather spent a lot of his recreational time there and got to meet and know many of the important characters on the scene including Morphy himself and the owner of the hotel, a great patron for chess in New York, Denis Julien. He also befriended the man who composed this problem a young fellow called Samuel Loyd.”

“I know that name” I interjected.

“And well you might” my Father responded. “Sam Loyd became a famous puzzler and not just in chess circles. He also invented that puzzle I showed you last Christmas. ‘The Trick Donkeys Problem’.”

“I remember that”.

“Well, Loyd was still a youngster when your Great Grandfather met him. However, even at the age of 18 he was already a very successful composer of chess problems and a reasonably accomplished player. One night Loyd was playing, chatting and making merry at the St. Julien Hotel with a group of players of which your Great Grandfather was one. The topic of their conversation turned to problem composition and solving and Herbert said that he found most chess problems to be rather easy to solve. Sam asked him why he thought that was the case. In answer Herbert made a similar case to the one you gave a few minutes ago saying that it was usually all too easy to find the piece that was the key to the solution. Immediately Loyd offered to wager that he could design a problem in which Herbert could not pick the piece that was the key to the checkmate. Herbert readily agreed thinking that the task was an impossible one and the stakes were agreed as being the cost of a dinner at the hotel.

After that evening a few weeks passed by and Herbert didn’t see Sam at the hotel. He thought that he must have become engrossed in one of his many projects and had forgotten about the bet but then, three weeks later, as he played a friendly game in the hotel someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a beaming Sam Loyd who told him that, when he’d finished his game he had a present for him and that he hadn’t eaten all day and was starving! Your Great Grandfather quickly agreed a draw in the game he was playing and hurried across the room to another table were a gathering crowd of a dozen or so kibitzers parted to let him take a seat across the board from Loyd. On the board in front of him was this position.”

“Excelsior” by Sam Loyd
“White to play and mate in 5 with the least likely pawn or piece.”

“It’s White to play and give checkmate in five moves,” grinned Sam. “But my challenge to you Herbert is to pick a piece, any piece, that doesn’t give mate in the main line.

“So, now my girl. Can you meet Sam Loyd’s challenge and find a White piece that doesn’t give mate?” Chuckled my Father. “I’m going to go and bring myself some breakfast and so you have some time to think on it.” He stood and left the room leaving me rapt in thought.

After five or ten minutes he came back with a plate of eggs and bacon and a steaming cup of coffee.

“Pick your piece young lady” he said.

“I chose the pawn on b2,” I answered, “I’ve looked for tricks and traps but I can’t envisage how it can be involved in the solution in any way. Besides this to avoid being captured it would have to be the first piece to move and I can’t see how it contributes.” My Father’s laugh boomed out.

“Well, that’s exactly what your Great Grandfather Herbert thought and I’m afraid it cost him the price of that dinner. Not only does the b-pawn have a role to play in the solution, in the mainline it actually delivers checkmate!”

I could do nothing but stare at him in amazement.

“Let me show you how”, chortled Father.

I’ve never forgotten the feeling of total surprise and joy I felt when my Father revealed that solution to me. I’m sure that Herbert must have felt the same way back in 1858.

That then, is the story of how Sam Loyd won a splendid dinner at the St. Julien Hotel from my Great Grandfather. It is also the story of how a legendary chess problem was born. In fact the mystique of this puzzle has embedded itself so vividly into chess folklore that any chess problem which involves a pawn making consecutive moves from its home square to reach promotion is said to utilise the “Excelsior” theme. What a wonderful puzzle by one of the great puzzlers!

Feb 012011

Hebden Bridge Chess Club members will be well acquainted with my passion for digging up chess curiosities from across the ‘interweb’. Recently I came across the perplexing puzzle below. It’s White to play and mate in 1.

White to play and mate in 1

Yes, in 1! Try putting that one through your computer and it will fry it’s chips before it finds the answer. If I told you that the solution is a VERY unusual move that is no longer strictly within the bounds of the rules of the game then that might help you a little bit. The solution will be revealed at the bottom of this post.

Anyway, the legend around this particular problem is shrouded in mystery. No-one knows who composed it, nor do they know when, but it is evident that this puzzle pre-dates the publication of FIDE’s official rules of the game (another little clue there).

As usual, I was not satisfied with this lack of provenance and so, having tried to cultivate a lead from the internet and failed, I turned to this blog’s old friend and oracle on chess history, the Duchess of Blunderboro, to see if she might be able to provide me with a clue. So, last week I sent her an instant message with the problem attached. Here is how our chat developed:

Intermezzo: Hi Duchess. Any idea who composed this problem?

Duchess: Oh yes! That one is one of Grand Fathers. It’s a funny story actually.

Intermezzo: Wow! Care to elaborate for me? How about a blog post?

Duchess: Certainly!

So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to the Duchess, who will explain all.

The Duchess of Blunderboro

“I first encountered this position in June 1937 and I was 15 years old. It was a warm summer’s day. I had taken my chess set out to the conservatory and was thumbing through one of my Grandfathers old score books in a bid to convince my Father that I was taking my chess education seriously. I had idly played through several games without taking too much time to consider the ideas behind the moves when I reached the final stages of the game in which the position in question appeared. Noticing that the game lasted only a few moves more I paused for a moment to visualise them as I couldn’t be bothered to play them out over the board. As I did this a voice from just behind me said “There’s an amusing story behind that position”.

Jumping with the shock of the sudden interruption, I turned to see that Daddy had sneaked up behind me and was smiling at the recollection of some long distant memory. “It looks like a perfectly straightforward position to me. Black should really have resigned long ago” I observed a little put out that I was being spied upon.

“I’d have to agree with you,” said my Father as he moved round the table to sit down opposite me. “But how about if I told you that Granddad had missed a very unusual and extremely witty mate in one in this very position?”

A cursory glance at the board told me that there was no such mate in one. “Impossible!” I announced. There is no way for White to mate in one move, even by some such sneaky means as an under promotion.”

“Again, I agree with you,” my Father beamed back, “and so did Granddad. But when you’ve been told that there is a mate in one by non-other than the great Adolf Anderrsen, you have to take it seriously.”

“What? “ I spluttered. “Anderssen saw this game and found mate in one?”

The Cafe de la Regence

“Indeed he did,” confirmed my Father. “Your Granddad played this game in Paris at the Café de la Regence in 1878. It was a casual game against a fellow of no particular consequence but, as was his habit in those days, he recorded the score so that he could study the game at a later date. It just so happened that there was a big international tournament taking place in Paris at that time and consequently several of the world’s best were taking their leisure in the café which was renowned as a venue for chess playing. Anderssen, who was nearly 60 years old at that point and competing in what turned out to be his last tournament, happened to be one of small group kibitzing Granddad’s game right at it’s very end and had had a joke with him at it’s conclusion saying

Adolf Anderssen in later life

“Did you know that you missed a very amusing check mate in one a couple of moves before the end?”

Your Granddad had been dumbstruck as he well knew who Anderssen was but was totally convinced that no such mate existed so he didn’t know how to respond. Anderssen had quickly set up the crucial position on the board again and then said.

“The solution really is most unusual. In fact I’d say it would make a striking problem. Check mate in one move. Can you find it?”

Your Granddad told me that he, his opponent and the growing group of kibitzers stared in stunned silence for a couple of minutes trying to find the answer. After a while it became evident that they couldn’t do it so, quietly, Anderssen reached across the board and pushed the White pawn to b8. He then picked it up and replaced with… a black knight!”

As he said these words my Father replicated the great man’s actions, under promoting the pawn to a black knight. He chuckled merrily as he did so. I starred open mouthed in amazement for it was, undeniably, checkmate.

1. b8=N (black) and check mate!
“But, surely that’s illegal,” I stammered.

“Yet again, I must agree with you,” laughed my Father. “But in fact, at the time this game was played there was no specific rule stating that a pawn had to be promoted to a piece of the same colour!”

So, this then is the story behind the position which has since become known a chess problem of unknown origin. For myself I like to think that the origin was Anderssen himself for he was a renowned composer to chess problems and had said himself that the position would have made a striking puzzle. Being as he died not long after the Paris tournament I often imagine that this position might have been found amongst his documents after he died unpublished and uncredited. This is fanciful of me perhaps, but it’s plausible.”

Thanks, as ever, go to the Duchess for bringing us this ‘exclusive’ story. As a final note on this, the hardest of chess problems, I should add that FIDE’s official rules require that a pawn on the eighth rank must promote to a piece of the same colour

Nov 182010

Did Lenin and Hitler face off over this chess board?

Like many chess enthusiasts I was interested to see some news coverage (just over a year ago) about an etching from the 1900’s of Hitler and Lenin playing chess together. Well, the story has now been resurrected from the bowels of the internet by Telegraph journalist, Guy Walters. Evidently both the etching, and the chess set that the two men are supposed to have contested said game upon, are being auctioned by Mullocks in London today. If you have a spare £10,000 or so, you might fancy bidding.

For the historians out there I suppose that the debate about the provenance of these artifacts is all very interesting but as a chess player what I’m really interested in is the missing piece of the puzzle. I am talking of course about the scoresheet for the game which would surely refute any lingering doubts about the authenticity of the other items. Not only would the missing scoresheet add exponential value to the board and the picture it would also answer the crucial questions that every chess player really wants to know the answers to. “Who won the game and what moves were played?”

Fortunately for you dear reader the answer to these tantalising questions is close at hand for, in the year or so since the story first came to my attention, I have been conducting my own investigations into this fabled over-the-board encounter. I must confess that for a long time my best efforts were totally ineffectual but then, quite by chance only a few weeks ago, after a pleasant exchange of banter with someone I played a game against online, I stumbled across our humble blog’s first exclusive scoop!

You see, the person I had been playing against turned out to be none other than Lady Cynthia Blunderboro whose Father, Horace (the 4th Duke), was instrumental in organising the game and was actually present when it was played. Most importantly of all however, he kept Hitler’s copy of the score sheet! A player of no little ability herself, Lady Cynthia has kindly agreed to re-tell the story of the game and provide some commentary on the moves exclusively for this blog.

I must confess that I was rather surprised when Intermezzo mentioned the sudden appearance of the Lenin and Hitler etching and chess set during the course of our online chat. I say this only because I had hitherto assumed that the encounter was common knowledge. Daddy first told me the story when I was a teenager and I remember the morning vividly. It was the 31st of January, 1933 and Adolf Hitler had just swept to power in Germany. Daddy had almost choked on his toast when he read the story about it in that morning’s newspaper.

“Good God!” he spluttered “who would have thought it possible?”

Naturally, I had enquired as to the nature of his outbourst and he quickly explained that “young Addy” had been an acquaintance of his during his time at the British Consulate in Vienna during the early 1900’s. He went on to recount that they had met at a chess club (he forgot which!) and played a few friendly games. Despite the fact that Daddy described the then 20-year-old as “an uncouth and loutish layabout with absolutely no class whatsoever” the two of them became regular playing partners. In fact I suspect that Daddy only tolerated Hitler’s company because he was rather easy to beat.

On one such night of contemplation Hitler prevailed upon my Father on the subject of political dogma which, even then, was a favourite hobby horse of his. At some point, quite inadvertently, Daddy found himself proclaiming that some of his “best friends” were political thinkers. By the end of the evening (and, I fancy, rather too much schnapps!) Daddy found that he had agreed to introduce Hitler to Lenin the next time the latter was in town. Never one to let anyone renege on a promise, Hitler pestered my Father remorselessly until the meeting had been arranged, the more so when he discovered that Lenin was a keen and very proficient chess player.

Finally, and after much pulling of strings, Daddy managed to arrange for the pair to meet and play a game of chess as the pretext to an “intellectual discourse” on the merits of Bolshevism. I should add that in order to achieve this he had to considerably over-inflate both Hitler’s chess playing strength and his intellectual regard for Lenin. The two men met at the home of a prominent Viennese Jew who knew Lenin well and who owed my father several quite large favours. Daddy described to me that on the night of the encounter, after the exchange of some brief and rather stiff pleasantries, it was agreed that the game of chess should take place immediately.

By means of a closing remark I should mention that Daddy only saw Hitler once more after that night in 1909 and on that occasion Hitler went so far as to cross the street to avoid having to talk to him. Daddy later told me that he didn’t even recall having kept Hitler’s scoresheet from that night until, many years later, he was turning out the pockets of a very old smoking jacket in search of a telegram from the King that he had misplaced. His search for the telegram was unsuccessful but he did turn up two fluff covered lemon drops, a saucy picture postcard and Hitler’s scoresheet.”