Dec 112011

Snow stopped play from ukslim's Flickr stream

“Sac’d a piece, but it’s bulls#*t.
Will he see, no he’s missed it.
A beautiful sight,
I’m happy tonight,
Playing in a winter blunderland”
– To the tune of “Winter Wonderland”

As we get closer to Christmas so the posts on this blog will become progressively, cheesily and unapologetically more festive! Last week I launched our Christmas quiz which has been kindly sponsored by If you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look. I have extended the deadline for entries to New Year’s eve in order to give you the chance to mull the positions over after your turkey and sprouts!

It felt about time to take a break from all the match reports that have been flowing thick and fast so, today’s entry is all about blunders! This chess playing season has been a strange experience for me so far. At least half a dozen games that I’ve played against opposition that has been at least as strong as me have ended with the kind of terminal errors that you would expect to see on the lower boards of a juniors match and not the upper boards of a club match.

I can’t fathom why this might be the case. For my part I’ve been very busy and pretty stressed at work and my captaincy of the Hebden Bridge ‘A’ team has also been an unhelpful distraction from my own playing form at times. However, even taking these things into account I’ve made some pretty crass oversights.

What is even more surprising however, is the number of howlers that have been committed by my opponents. Many more than I’d have expected to be the grateful recipient of in recent years playing at my current level. One consequence of all this generosity is that I have, very often, been the first game to finish in my matches. Years ago, when I used to play fast and loose, this was not an unusual occurrence, but in recent times it has been a much less frequent event.

Here, for your entertainment, and my embarrassment, is a rogues gallery from the last 3 months.

To give you a rough idea of how unusual this selection is, I’d normally expect maybe one or two games to end in this kind of way in a whole season. Yet, here are half a dozen before the halfway mark!

All this talk of blunders sent me scurrying off to my new resource for chess related anecdotes and miscellanea, Christian Hesse’s book “The Joys of Chess: Heroes, Battles and Brilliancies”. The chapter entitled “The Worst of the Worst” seemed a good place to look for terrible mistakes! Below are the two examples he gives which should provide all those blunder prone readers of this website with some source of encouragement in that:

“The best of men have their faults, and the wisest suffer from occasion from a passing blindness”
— Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813)

In other words, if the Grandmasters can make blunders, anyone can!

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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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.

Aug 042011

For a married man like me, justifying the use of a whole week of annual leave to go and play chess is a big deal. Fortunately this year I have 5 days more annual leave to take than my wife, the British Chess Championship is taking place in Sheffield where my folks live and I’ve not played any weekend chess this year apart from the Brighouse Quickplay. I’ve built up a solid justification for playing in the British Championships this week then but it does make me think how much harder it must be for a chess player with a family to take part in this contest.

Usually, the Championships take place at a coastal destination in order to give the families of chess players something to do whilst they are feeding their addiction at the board. This year I think it unlikely that many competitors will have found it easy to persuade their nearest and dearest that a week (or even two!) in Sheffield was an enticing vacation prospect. Still I can’t complain as there is no way I would have wanted to spend the money on a week’s accommodation so being able to stay with friends and family is what’s enabled me to take part this time around.

Of course it’s always challenging for any amateur chess enthusiast to manoeuvre their chess habit into their marriage or family time. Chess is after all a fairly solitary, time-consuming and antisocial pass time. I’m sure many marital and family relationships have been put under strain because the royal game. I’ve written before about the short lived tribulations of the artist and chess addict Marcel Duchamp’s marriage. A short while ago I discovered another amusing anecdote concerning the novelist Vladimir Nabokov who was famously a chess nut (in fact his book, The Defence is about a chess master). Whilst grazing around Tim Krabbé’s endlessly engrossing Chess Curiosities website I found this quote:

“More than a few heads turned when, in the supermarket parking lot, Vèra set her bagged groceries down in the snow while she shuffled for her keys, then loaded the trunk. In the car her husband sat immobile, oblivious. A similar routine was observed during a move, when Nabakov made his way into the new home carrying a chess set and a small lamp. Vèra followed with two bulky suitcases.”

Vera and Vladimir at play!

This is from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vèra Nabakov which is titled Vèra (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov) – Portrait of a marriage. Krabbé also posts the picture I’ve put into this post of the happy couple studying together. What fortitude this lady showed in the face of chess widowhood! Perhaps Duchamp also harboured dreams of enticing his wife into the study of rook and pawn endings.

Of course I can see all too clearly that some of Nabokov’s traits could become bad habits for me as well. He may have had a pocket chess set in the car’s glove compartment to fiddle with whilst poor Vèra struggled with the shopping but I have an iPhone that goes everywhere with me and on it there is an app for accessing all my correspondence games on and also the Chessbase Online app so that I can keep track of the latest opening theory. All of that is in addition to the RSS news feeds that go directly to my phone from a host of chess websites and blogs! I must admit that sometimes, when my wife is watching “rubbish” on the telly, I do reach for the iPhone. So far I haven’t yet caught myself studying a chess game on my phone whilst my wife grapples with heavy objects but it must be said that I couldn’t rule it out from ever happening in the future…

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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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!

May 132011
Looks like they had 5 player teams in Grease as well!

For several weeks now every time I’ve heard or made mention of the annual Calderdale Chess League Team Lightning Competition my internal juke box has been playing the same tune. It’s one that I’m sure you all know. So here it is then, my new lyrics for the eponymous number from the musical “Grease”. Cue John Travolta…

On Monday night down to Tod Workin’ Mens Club we all went
(Some drove there whoa some walked it)
To play in the Calderdale team lightnin’ we were hell bent
(We’re ready, yeah we’re ready)
The guys were ready for the fight it was goin’ to be some night
We all mustered up our darin’ while Dave Milton did the pairin’
It’s team lightnin!
Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.

Have a go at team lightnin but you’ve only got ten seconds a move

(Team lightning go team lightning)
Whoa it’s frightnin when you haven’t got a clue what to do
(It’s frightnin, oh it’s frightnin!)
You must be quick, for the clock ticks
At team lightnin!

If you leave your king enprise then your opponent can take it

Oh yeah!
And if you don’t move in time then you can be defaulted
Oh yeah!
Attempting skewers, pins and forks we try not to play like dorks
And we mask our apprehension though we’re tremblin’ from the tension
Team lightnin!

Have a go at team lightnin you know you’ve got somthin’ to prove

(Team lightning, oh team lightning)
Whoa it’s frightnin when you haven’t got a clue what to do
(It’s frightnin, oh it’s frightnin!)
Get in the groove and make your move
It’s team lightnin!

Todmorden Working Men’ Club
Well, I think that’s quite enough of that. I don’t believe I have any future in the song writing business! Anyway, as readers will have gathered from this tomfoolery, the Calderdale Team Lightning Competition did indeed take place on Monday night at Todmorden Working Men’s Club. The competition is the traditional curtain closer to the league season and provides a good opportunity for players from all clubs to get together for a bit of fun. The event is deliberately informal and although a number of clubs brought enough players along for several teams there were plenty of surplus players who were slotted in wherever there was a shortage and that made for some interesting temporary alliances on the night.

Before I go any further perhaps some readers would appreciate a brief summary of the format. It goes like this:

  • Teams have 5 players who are arranged roughly in strength order
  • Pairings are based on the swiss system (i.e. you play a team on the same or a similar score in each round)
  • Colours are alternated on each board and decided by a coin toss
  • There are no chess clocks used. Instead a tape is played with a beeper sounding every 10 seconds
  • Players move on the sound of the beeper and persistent moving before or after the sound can result in forfeiture of the game
  • Check does not need to be announced and kings left enprise can be captured to win the game
  • The winning team is the one with the highest board count at the end of 5 rounds

A team Captain showdown between
Alastair Wright and Martin Syrett is
regarded intently by Nick Sykes at
the end of Round 1

Hebden Bridge Chess Club entered four teams into the competition this year and the Hebden Bridge ‘A’ team closely resembled the side who had swept to victory at last year’s event collecting a record points haul of 24/25 and winning the individual prizes on all 5 boards! The only change from that side was the replacement of Nick Sykes on board 5 with Matthew Wedge-Roberts.

The competition however threatened to be a much more severe test for Hebden Bridge ‘A’ this year with their league rivals Huddersfield (who missed last year’s event) fielding two strong teams. In addition competitive line-ups were sported by Halifax and Todmorden (who both put together two teams), Belgrave and also a pretty handy Hebden Bridge ‘B’ side.

In the first round tournament organiser Dave Milton deliberately paired teams from the same clubs against one another in order to avoid any potential whiff of collusion in the latter stages. The pairings and results for each round are given below. When known the teams named first played with the White pieces on boards 1, 3 and 5.

From round 2 onwards the numbers in brackets refer to that team’s cumulative score from previous rounds.

Round 1
Huddersfield ‘A’ 4 — 1 Huddersfield ‘B’
Hebden Bridge ‘A’ 3 — 2 Hebden Bridge ‘B’
Hebden Bridge ‘C’ 2 — 3 Hebden Bridge ‘D’
Todmorden ‘A’ 4½ — ½ Todmorden ‘B’
Halifax ‘B’ 1 — 4 Halifax ‘A’
Belgrave 5 — 0 BYE
Round 2
Belgrave (5) 2 — 3 Todmorden ‘A’ (4½)
Halifax ‘A’ (4) 3½ — 1½ Huddersfield ‘A’ (4)
Hebden Bridge ‘D’ (3) 2 — 3 Hebden Bridge ‘A’ (3)
Hebden Bridge ‘C’ (2) 0 — 5 Hebden Bridge ‘B’ (2)
Huddersfield ‘B’ (1) 5 — 0 Halifax ‘B’ (1)
Todmorden ‘B’ (½) 5 — 0 BYE

Round 3
Halifax ‘A’ (7½) 2 — 3 Todmorden ‘A’ (7½)
Belgrave (7) 2½ — 2½ Hebden Bridge ‘B’ (7)
Huddersfield ‘B’ (6) ½ — 4½ Hebden Bridge ‘A’ (6)
Huddersfield ‘A’ (5½) 3½ — 1½ Todmorden ‘B’ (5½)
Halifax ‘B’ (1) 3 — 2 Hebden Bridge ‘D’ (5)
Hebden Bridge ‘C’ (2) 5 — 0 BYE
Round 4
Todmorden ‘A’ (10½) 1 — 4 Hebden Bridge ‘A’ (10½)
Halifax ‘A’ (9½) 3 — 2 Belgrave (9½)
Hebden Bridge ‘B’ (9½) 1 — 4 Huddersfield ‘A’ (9)
Todmorden ‘B’ (7) 4 — 1 Hebden Bridge ‘C’ (7)
Hebden Bridge ‘D’ (7) 1 — 4 Huddersfield ‘B’ (6½)
Halifax ‘B’ (4) 5 — 0 BYE
Round 5
Hebden Bridge ‘A’ (14½) 3½ — ½ Huddersfield ‘A’ (13)
Todmorden ‘B’ (11) 2 — 3 Halifax ‘A’ (12½)
Todmorden ‘A’ (11½) 3 — 2 Hebden Bridge ‘B’ (10½)
Huddersfield ‘B’ (10½) 2 — 3 Belgrave (11½)
Halifax ‘B’ (9) 4 — 1 Hebden Bridge ‘C’ (8)
Hebden Bridge ‘D’ (8) 5 — 0 BYE

At the end of the night Hebden Bridge ‘A’ had retained their title to see their top board player, Dave Wedge, off to pastures new in fine style. (He leaves the area to take up a new job in Cambridge over the summer and was given a “Good Luck” card signed by many of the players before the start of round 5.)
The kibitzers gather like vultures as a tense
encounter between Halifax ‘A’ and
Huddersfield’A’ draws to a close

The manner of the ‘A’ team’s victory could not have been in starker contrast to last year’s cruise however. The team (1.Dave Wedge, 2.Matthew Parsons, 3.Alastair Wright, 4.Dave Shapland and 5.Matthew Wedge-Roberts) actually started the evening in a rather sluggish fashion with a tight 3-2 win over their colleagues in the ‘B’ team (1.Pete Olley, 2. Nick Sykes, 3.Martin Syrett, 4.Neil Bamford, 5,Terry Sullivan) in which Dave lost to Neil and Alastair to Martin.

Then in round 2 they made similarly heavy weather of a Hebden Bridge ‘D’ side (1.Andy Leatherbarrow, 2.Ruud Stoelman, 3.Kyle Sharpe, 4.Spike Leatherbarrow, 5.Hephzi Leatherbarrow) consisting largely of promising juniors effectively combined with a pair of seasoned campaigners. This time young Kyle Sharpe claimed the excellent scalp of Alastair Wright when Alastair placed his rook enprise in a rook and piece ending and Ruud Stoelman beat Matthew Parsons.

However, once the ‘A’s got into their stride their was no stopping them as they first crushed Huddersfield ‘B’ 4½-½ in round 3 and then hammered the leaders Todmorden ‘A’ 4-1 in round 4. This enabled them to start the final round leading by 1½ points from Huddersfield ‘A’, who had not enjoyed a comfortable evening themselves, and who needed to win by a margin of 3½-1½ in order to overhaul them. In the event Hebden beat them by the same scoreline to pull even further clear.

Halifax ‘A’ performed excellently to finish in second place having beaten Huddersfield ‘A’ themselves in round 2 and after that (as you can see below) it was all a bit bunched up.

Final Standings
Hebden Bridge ‘A’ = 18 (5/5 match points)
Halifax ‘A’ = 15½ (4/5)
Todmorden ‘A’ = 14½ (4/5)
Huddersfield ‘A’ = 14½ (3/5)
Belgrave = 14½* (2½/5)
Halifax ‘B’ = 13* (3/5)
Todmorden ‘B’ = 13* (2/5)
Hebden Bridge ‘D’ = 13* (2/5)
Huddersfield ‘B’ = 12½ (2/5)
Hebden Bridge ‘B’ = 12½ (1½/5)
Hebden Bridge ‘C’ = 9* (1/5)

(Teams with an * next to them all received 5-0 match byes as part of their scores. This does distort the final standings somewhat as there were only two other whitewashings in the whole evening!)

Board 5 Prize Winner, Matthew
Wedge-Roberts (front right) finishes off
Jon Hughes of Huddersfield ‘B’, his
3rd round victim.

Hebden Bridge certainly didn’t have it their own way this year when it came to the individual prizes. These were awarded to the players recording the highest scores on each board. Prize winners were as follows:

Board 1 winner = Andrew Clarkson 5/5 (Todmorden ‘A’)

Board 2 winners = Carlos Velosa (Halifax ‘A’) and Matthew Parsons (Hebden Bridge ‘A’) 4/5

Board 3 winners = Neil Suttie (Todmorden ‘A’), Les Johnson (Belgrave), Richard Boylan (Huddersfield ‘A’) 4/5

Board 4 winner = Dave Innes (Todmorden ‘B’) 4½/5

Board 5 winner = Matthew Wedge-Roberts (Hebden Bridge ’A’) 5/5

Special mention should go to Andrew Clarkson and Matthew Wedge-Roberts who were the only two players with perfect scores at the end of the night. Andrew’s feat was particularly impressive as it was achieved on board 1 and therefore he had to beat some of the best players in the competition including Darwin Ursal, Leo Keely and Dave Wedge in order to attain his score.

Recognition and thanks must also go to Dave Milton and the Todmorden Chess Club for hosting and organising this year’s event. The hospitality was first class and the event an unqualified success.

May 042011

The Jedi Knight School Edition

Yoda and Obi-Wan practice their over-the-board
psych-out technique regularly
Welcome to the fifth edition of the Chess Improvement Carnival where (today being Star Wars day) we are deeply honoured to welcome two very special guests to host and introduce this month’s content. That’s right. Two of the finest tutors a chess improver could wish for, legendary Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan-Kenobi are here.

Obi-Wan: Welcome to “Jedi Knight School” my Padawans. We will begin our studies by considering the works of a great Jedi master, Dr Emanuel Lasker. Padawan Blunderprone has studied the career of Dr Lasker and shares his thoughts across a most excellent series of four posts. In his first article “The Beginnings of the double sacrifice” Blunderprone illustrates that this legendary Master was even prepared to make a double-Jedi-Knight sacrifice in order to achieve victory. During his win over Mieses he sacrifices one knight to trap the enemy king in the centre and then a second to gain the time he needs to bring his second rook into the attack. Exemplary!

Yoda: Yeesssssss, very strong in that one, the Force was. Master Lasker was it who said: “When you see a good move, for a better one look”. As in his writings Padawan Intermezzo shows, for alert Jedi students these wise words still hold their truth. Awww.

Obi-Wan: Sadly all Jedi Masters, even the greatest, must one day meet their nemesis. Dr Lasker met his when he fought the Sith Lord Capablanca in 1921. Padawan Mark Weeks has spent long days studying their great battle and extracting interesting lessons for all of us to consider.

Yoda: With the help of analysis by the great Jedi Kasparov even, complete understanding of the endgame position he his studying Padawan Weeks struggles to find. Mmmmmmm.

Obi-Wan: Young pupils, we must continue to consider and learn from the wise writings of the great Jedi Masters which every student knows to play a most important part in improving their skills. This month we have included presentations from two experienced Jedi scholars who advocate slightly different approaches to their learning.

Yoda: Awww. Most diligent and thoughtful a student, Padawan Bright night is. Begun a new training regime he has. Call it “The Woolum Experiment” he does. Using Al Woolum’s “Chess Tactics Workbook” a methodical approach he takes. Helped him achieve significant progress it has. Herh herh herh.

Jedi Master John Nunn ponders and teaches

Obi-Wan: In addition, Padawan Chess Tiger reminds us of the significant literary contributions made by Jedi Master John Nunn and asks us to look at them afresh. He reminds us that what can at first seem to be indigestible and remote transpires to be of infinite value on closer inspection. Padawan Chess Tiger goes even further and explains how he has incorporated Master Nunn’s teachings into his daily contemplations and gives some useful practical examples.

Yoda: Difficult and arduous task can learning to teach young Jedis be, but also very rewarding it is. Doubly so is this when the student in question your own child be. About a critical lesson every young Jedi must learn Padawan A Chess Dad writes. “Part of the cycle of continuous learning and improvement” he explains failure is, and to a most useful resource reinforcing his point he directs us.

Obi-Wan: From a distant and troubled world The Closet Jedimaster still finds the time to contemplate the abundant ruminations that he finds on the web and illuminate them for us so that we can increase our own understanding.

Yoda: Been pondering the lessons we can learn from the little ones, he too has. Explain in his post he does how “ignorance virtue is” when considering creativity. Mmmmmm.

Star Wars Chess (Flickr/origamiguy1971)

Obi-Wan: Be mindful of what you see my Padawans for every true master knows that having sight of the board and pieces can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes looking at the things you can see can prevent you from perceiving the things you can’t.

Yoda: Learn to visualise the board and play the game in his mind, a young Jedi should. He free himself from the disability of sight and find the true path, only by doing this can. Herh herh herh.

Obi-Wan: In his “Don’t look now” post Padawan Intermezzo considers the benefits of learning to play without seeing and illustrates his point using examples from the works of two great Jedi masters, Tal and Ivanchuk.

Yoda: To the delirious ramblings of Padawan HeinzK, at last we now come. To a new Dutch word this month he introduces us all: “geestverruimend”. Awww. For the mind the same thing as psychedelic drugs, he goes on to suggest that chess playing does. Taking drugs himself I think he has been! Agree with these methods I do not, yet to provide us with great entertainment and instruction his games of online blitz chess continue. Hmmmmmm.

Obi-Wan: So ends our Jedi Knight class for today Padawans. All that remains is for me to bid you farewell and say “May the 4th be with you!”

Yoda: Next time see you we will. Herh herh herh.

A big “Thank you” to all those bloggers and surfers out there who contributed material for this edition of the Carnival. Keep your ears to the ground for information on next month’s edition.

Apr 192011

Today dear readers I would like to introduce you to a new columnist for this blog who I hope will be making regular returns to these pages. Wishing to be known only by the nom de guerre of “The Swashbuckler”, he will hopefully provide some inspiration for any player who wants to introduce an air of swagger and panache to their games instead of dour, avoid-losing-at-all-costs solidity. He promises that his columns will be less about self-improvement and more about developing a playing-style for those of you who want to play like neanderthals! I’ll let him explain more:

Yes I do always where this outfit at the board!
The Swashbuckler #1: Rules of Swashbuckling

Welcome readers to my first column for the Hebden Bridge Chess Club website. Hurrah! Today, in anticipation of the mouthwatering scraps and adventures that I have in store for you, I would like to set the scene by defining the philosophy that I play my chess by and which will dictate the tone and content of my future postulations. Perhaps the best place to start would be to define the term “Swashbuckler”.

The dictionary definition of a Swashbuckler is:
  1. A flamboyant swordsman or adventurer
  2. A sword-wielding ruffian or bully
  3. A dramatic or literary work dealing with a swashbuckler

For our excellent purposes we can discard the third of these meanings although I hope that the word “dramatic” will be applicable to all the games I share with you on this blog. I should like to expand a little on the first two meanings however because in modern culture it seems that our interpretation of the term at hand is influenced by many of the books and films of the last century that have fixed an image of ‘swashbucklers’ and ‘swashbuckling’ so vividly into our imaginations. Whilst our first instincts here are useful I don’t want to lose sight of some of the original meaning of the term. Time for a bit of etymology and here I’d like to quote directly from an excellent blog that I discovered during my research called “The Pirate King”:

“Although you and I may associate “swashbuckling” with pirate stories and Hollywood movies, the term was originally anything but complimentary. A “swashbuckler”, when the word first appeared around 1560, was a swaggering braggart, bully or ruffian. “Swashbuckler” actually came from the antiquated words “swash” (to make a noise by striking) and “buckler” (shield).
A “swashbuckler” was originally a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passersby to duels, and just generally acting like a jerk.”

So, from this information, what can we deduce should be the defining characteristics of the chess-playing-swashbuckler (CPS)? I’d like to offer the following profile for your consideration:
  1. A CPS is, first and foremost, defined by their bravado. They delight in displaying naked aggression and revel in their flamboyant style even though their bark is almost always more potent than their bite
  2. They are adventurers in the field of opening theory selecting unusual, old-fashioned, eccentric and rococo systems that others deem to be at best unclear and at worst diabolical
  3. CPSs are, to use a modern term, ‘flat-track bullies”. The weaker their opponent is the more absurdly insulting the opening system will be that they deploy and the greater level of risk they will be prepared to take during the middle game. Endgames simply tend not to occur in the score books of dyed in the wool swashbucklers.
  4. They value the means as greater than the ends and would rather suffer a glorious and blood soaked defeat than a turgid and attritional victory. 
  5. CPSs are, by their nature, disruptive. By this I mean that they will take every opportunity to create disharmony at the chess board. They strive to create material imbalances that are terrifyingly hard to assess and may play moves that flout the conventions of orthodox chess teachings

Well, that will do for a start though I reserve the right to add further defining characteristics to this profile as I see fit.

Now that I’ve defined the raison d’etre for this column I think it’s only right that I tell you about the format that I have in mind. In each column that I publish here I will introduce readers to either; a “Swashbuckling Hero” from the annals of history, many of whom will be plucked from relative obscurity; or an opening system that I deem to be suitable for budding swashbucklers to add to their repertoires. In either case I very much hope that the games I share with you will inspire you to introduce just a little bit of ‘swash’ and ‘buckle’ to your chess life for, as I like to say to all my students: “Life’s too short for endgames!”

By way of prologue to the themes I’ve introduced today I’d like to share a game I played online recently:

Thanks for reading folks. Please do give your thoughts on this game and/or the swashbuckling methodology I’m advocating in these columns. See you again soon.

The Swashbuckler

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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