Friday, August 31, 2007

What Are We Like?

Psychologists who studied more than 100 chess players say the game attracts sensation-seekers with a thirst for action and adventure on a par with skydivers, scuba divers, mountaineers and skiers. When men win a game, the experts say, the rise of testosterone levels in the blood is just the same as that experienced by people who go in for risky sports.
You can read the whole thing here, but I have my doubts. Although the following rang a bit more true: "competitive chess players have been shown to score highly for unconventional thinking and paranoia".

Oh, I don't know. What are we like?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The pleasure is all yours

Many years ago, when I was working in a social security office in Oxford, I used to play for Oxford City Chess Club, who met on a Monday night. This fact was known to my colleagues and one Tuesday morning, when I came into work, one of them asked me, "did you go to the chess club last night?"

"Yes", I replied.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" she asked.

The question threw me. I'd never been asked that before, not about chess. "I never enjoy myself when playing chess", I said.

She gave me a look. "So why do you do it then?"

I laughed, but it's not the worst question ever asked and I've been trying to find an answer ever since. Why do I do it? Satisfaction? Masochism? Obsession? Safety from the Big Bad World and the perils of Actual Real People? Inability to actually enjoy myself? (Did you ever meet a chessplayer who you could genuinely call an extrovert?)

I dunno. Anyway, it's still a shock to be confronted with the idea that chess can actually be enjoyable and so it was with some surprise, when I was idly flicking through the site statistics the other day and seeing how people had come across this site, that I found one visitor who had located us, from Google, using the simple search term:
Pleasure? You're joking, aren't you?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The PawnPusher

Think you've seen it all at the chess board? How about this?
Let me just describe my behaviour. I have a military haircut and a somewhat aggressive demeanor, and I wear weightlifting gloves.

I bring a duffel bag to the playing hall with me, containing my chess gear and two dumbells, one 40-pounder and one 50-pounder.

Once our game is underway I take out the 50-pounder on my opponent's time and begin to do bicep curls under the table. It's all out of sight, but from the strain on my face and the motion my opponent knows what I'm doing. Still, it's fairly discrete, so nobody complains.

After a few sets on each side (one set per move, always on my opponent's move) my opponent has obviously passed the point of objection and has resigned himself to my behaviour.

That's when I switch from the 50-pounder and curls to the 40-pounder and tricep extensions, which are obviously above my head and therefore much more distracting. But what is the poor guy to do, since he has already accepted his opponent's working out during a game?

For me, it actually helps my concentration, as I have nervous disorders which are alleviated by the exertion and adrenaline. For my opponents it may be another matter, though none have dared complain.

Now, normally with a post heavy on the quoting like this one, I'd just provide the relevant link for readers to explore further from, and that'd be it. But here, a bit more explanation is required. Bear with me, if you please...

The above quotation was originally published on PawnPusher, a website dedicated to "chess humour, sarcasm and theory". The site was written by Darren Jones and included sections such as "Amazing & Untrue Chess Facts", "Chess Metaphor Liberation Organization", and "Scumbag Tricks" - from which the above was naturally taken. However, by 2004 Darren was no longer updating PawnPusher. The url lapsed and a domain squatter moved in.

But all is not lost. The Internet Archive is a website that has recorded "85 billion web pages ... from 1996 to a few months ago". They provide a "Wayback Machine" which allows anyone to browse internet pages from years ago. Meaning, the Wayback Machine can be used to access PawnPusher from before the domain squatter moved in. And so, to cut a long story short, the rather strange-looking url for the above quote is this one. All archived PawnPusher pages can be reached from here. The first archived edition is here, the final one before the domain squatter moved in, here.

Have fun exploring...

Thanks to Kingscrusher of Chess World for the tip.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A proposition

The point at which you acquire the worse position is nearly always the point at which you think you have acquired the better one.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Good Luck, Robin

You're the lowest rated player, by almost 100 Elo points. There are two GMs, and four other titled players in the tournament mix. It's a closed, all-play-all event. And most of your fellow competitors are chasing an IM Norm. How would you fancy your chances?

The directly-named top section IM NORM EVENT - run as part of the COULSDON "PREMIERSHIP" INTERNATIONAL - kicks off today, and bottom seed and Streatham & Brixton Chess Club first teamer Robin Haldane finds himself facing that exact set up. The first round begins at one o'clock this afternoon. After that, it's two rounds per day - one starting at 10.15am and one at 3.30pm - with the final rounds on Friday. Robin's first game is white against Bogdan Lalic, the 2509-rated Croatian Grandmaster. His following opponents are Chris Brisoce (Robin has white), FM Jack Rudd (b), FM Jovica Radovanovic (w), FM Matthew Broomfield (b), Nicholas Tavoularis (w), GM Colin McNab (b), Ian Snape (w), and finally FM Lars Stark (b). The tournament details and updates can be found here. I'll certainly be following the site for updates. But for today, there's only one thing left to say.

Good luck, Robin.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A video clip

It's already 8pm and we haven't posted anything yet department...

a historic video clip.

Gazza announcing his retirement:-

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union II

V. Nabokov, 1939/1940 (?)

White to play and mate in two


I don't know how good Nabokov's puzzle is, by the standards of problems: I'm not a problemist, never been a composer nor a solver. No evaluation I make would be much use to anyone, as it would consist of no more than my personal opinion, not an opinion which would be informed or carry any weight. (In this instance I can't even say whether or not I found it hard, easy or even enjoyable to try and solve, since I knew the solution before locating the problem.)

It's a problem - how to evaluate a work when you don't have the particular experience to understand something important about it?

Nabokov would have known how good his puzzle was, though, since he knew problems. According to an article in the journal Yale French Studies:

When asked why he published his chess compositions together with his poems in Poems and Problems (1970) Nabokov remarks that chess problems are "the poetry of chess. They demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, complexity and splendid insincerity."

Nabokov, like the present writer, was fascinated with chess: and people are fascinated with Nabokov's fascination. But there's a problem with a secondhand fascination - what you are admiring is the fascination, not the subject matter. So you are likely to understand that subject matter rather less than you understand your subject*.

This is problematic when it comes to writing about the figure you admire, since you will inevitably have to explain what it was they worked on, and your explanation may expose the limitation of your understanding. Take, for instance, the passage from Chabon's novel, which was reproduced in Thirlwell's review and which describes the position above:

a messy-looking middle game with Black's king under attack at the centre of the board and White having the advantage of a couple of pieces.
But that's quite wrong, isn't it? It's not the sort of position which resembles a game at all. It's not just "messy-looking", it's obviously - to a chessplayer - not a game at all, and if it were, White wouldn't just have "the advanatage of a couple of pieces", he would be winning without difficulty whether or not he found a mate in two. The description grates: it's not just inexpert, it's the description of somebody who doesn't know chess (or not beyond beginnerhood) phrased as if it were a knowledgable commentary by somebody who does.

Now here, I too have the same problem: my knowledge comes at secondhand. I have not read the novel and therefore I can't be sure whose voice this is. Is it the authorial voice, or the voice of a character? If a character - possibly Landsman, Chabon's detective - then there may be nothing at all wrong. He may be seeing the position precisely as a near-beginner might see it, a mess in which the advantage to one side of a couple of pieces, even though one be a queen, might well mean very little. Conversely, it may be the authorial voice, but one deliberately naive, one inviting the viewer to see the position just as the viewer might, with little or no knowledge of the game.

But there is a third possibility, that Chabon is describing the position from what is meant to be a position of knowledge, either on his part or on the part of his character. I would hope not, because if that's the case then it matters that the description is a poor one. The pretension to knowledge would be false. The invitation to the reader, to see the position from within the mind of a chessplayer, would be a false one too.

I shall have to read it to find out, or ask someone who has. (For all I know, there is a diagram in the book, though that would not of course mean the description were any more valid.) Perhaps I shall, one day. I'd find out, too, if Chabon makes it clear why Shpilman calls himself Emanuel Lasker.

For as I said yesterday, Thirlwell's review does not: and it's hard to know if he does understand why. I can guess why, even without more knowledge of the book than his review has given me, simply because I know somethingof the subject by which Nabokov was fascinated. And as I know and you know, as Nabokov would have known, but as, possibly, Thirlwell does not, Emanuel Lasker was not only a great Jewish chessplayer and a world champion, but he was a refugee from the Nazis.

[* = a possible exception is this piece, discussing Nabokov's problem, which either gives an insight into Nabokov's thinking - and his genius - which is extraordinary, or makes some equally extraordinary claims without too much to back them up.]

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union I

In the most recent issue of the London Review of Books is a review, by Adam Thirlwell, of Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I've not read it! I've just read the review - the LRB is something of a labour-saving device in that respect - and I was struck, as any chessplayer would be, by the appearance of a certain name at the foot of the first column. (That's in the print edition: the review online is only available to subscribers.) The novel concerns an alternate reality in which Israel was not established: "three million Jews (writes Thirlwell - ejh) were got out of Europe in time to escape the Nazis and are now living in the Federal District of Sitka, in Alaska".

The central character is one Meyer Landsman, a detective: the novel begins with the discovery of a body. "In a room in the Hotel Zamenhof, where Landsman is living, a man who called himself Emanuel Lasker is found murdered."

Emanuel Lasker. If you play chess, you notice that name: you can't help but notice it. You'd also, I think, notice the words called himself before Emanuel Lasker and wonder why this should be: wonder why the dead man should have chosen that particular name. The name has significance, it could hardly be chosen at random: but why would it have particular significance to that particular man, such that he would choose to go by that name?

It's possible that, in the novel, Chabon directly or indirectly tells us. Thirlwell - somewhat to my surprise - does not. He proceeds to tell us that the dead man's real name was Mendel Shpilman, and givs us plenty of reasons, which I'll not go into here, to appreciate why Shpilman preferred to hide his true identity - but not why he should go by the name of a world chess champion.

This, perhaps inadvertently, raises an interesting point. If you were going to choose a pseudonym, you'd normally prefer to choose a fairly anonymous, inconspicuous one. Perhaps Emanuel Lasker may seem to be one, but given, as I say, that the name would immediately attract the attention of any chessplayer, it's not reliably inconspicuous. Certainly the name wasn't accidentally chosen by the author, since later in the review, chess is shown to play a role in the novel and an apparently important part in Shpliman's life. Certainly, an extremely important role in his death. I quote Thirlwell's longish paragraph in full:

The night Mendel Shpilman was murdered, he had been playing chess: "It looks like he had a game going, a messy-looking middle game with Black's king under attack at the centre of the board and White having the advantage of a couple of pieces." But Shpilman does not have a game going: he has been setting a chess problem for the man who will soon murder him. It is the problem Nabokov includes in Speak, Memory (my link - ejh) in which he describes "one particular problem I had been trying to compose for months...It was meant for the delectation of the very expert solver". When Chabon's murderer is unmasked, he says that Shpilman intended the problem as a way of understanding how he felt: trapped in a zugzwang, when the player has to move, but there are no good moves left. According to Nabokov, however, the problem has two further meanings. And these encode the meaning of Chabon's novel. The answer to the chess problem, Nabokov writes, is obvious... But the sophisticated person will not notice this immediately, and will instead go through an 'inferno' of avant-garde moves before finally seeing the simple, homely move that is the problem’s solution, "as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores". For Nabokov, therefore, the problem is first of all emblematic of the roundabout pleasure of art, the pleasure of plot. But it is also an emblem of exile: "The season was May – mid-May, 1940," Nabokov writes. "The day before, after months of soliciting and cursing, the emetic of a bribe had been administered to the right rat at the right office and had resulted finally in a visa de sortie which, in its turn, conditioned the permission to cross the Atlantic." Nabokov’s chess problem is a homage to the detour, in art and in exile.
I said "in full": in fact I have omitted one very small detail, which is the solution to Nabokov's problem, set up by Shpilman/Lasker on the night of his death. The puzzle is below, the condition being White to play and mate in two.

The solution will be given tomorrow, along with some further observations on the review, the strange description of the problem and the possible relevance of Emanuel Lasker.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

If you only play through one game...

... from the Staunton Memorial Chess Tournament that finished on Saturday in London, play through this one.

The nineteen-year-old new British Grandmaster Gawain Jones duffing over Loek Van Wely, one of the most dangerous players in the world on his day, with a great sacrificial attack.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who's that watching?

If you scroll down the lefthand side of this blog you'll eventually come to this symbol and, next to it, the legend Detailed, public site stats here. Click on the button and you'll find a way of wasting your time that should surely interest any chessplayer, since there are whole lists of names and numbers that you can look at for hours and hours in the hope that they'll tell you something of importance.

I won't spoil your fun, if fun it be, by going through these at any length, but there are one or two which sometimes - all right, by sometimes I mean sometimes several times a day - attract my attention.

One of these can be located by clicking on Geo Tracking and then looking at the table for Countries, which tells us - essentially - which country our visitors have come from and how many there have been (although Unique Visitors doesn't really mean exactly what it says - perhaps Tom can explain in Comments).

The UK is first, as you'd expect for a UK and indeed a Streatham-and-Brixton- based blog and the USA is second, with Spain in third place, though that particular statistic is very much skewed by the number of visits made by the present writer. Currently we appear to have had visitors from no fewer than 103 countries, though that figure is slightly inflated by the fact that while Europe is prehaps a political entity, it is not in fact a country, while Satellite Provider is neither. On the other hand we only score one for Serbia and Montenegro, which two states separated some time before this blog began. (Is there something, I wonder, that connects the desire to play chess with the desire to point out and correct every small mistake you see on the internet?) Anyway, it's a world game and a worldwide web all right. Hello, everybody! Bonjour! ¡Buenos días!

Now, if you go to Unique Visitors you can see details of the Last 20 Visitors who have accessed the blog: you click on their IP addresses for more details or, if you simply place the cursor on the flag at the right, a box should come up showing their location, or something close to it (for instance, although I live in Huesca, in Spain, the box displays Zaragoza for both my addresses). You can also find out - sometimes - why somebody has come here: for instance, as I writee the most recent visitor was from the City of London, and has come here from a website called Virtual Stoa. Occasionally I post in the comments boxes there and give this site as my homepage: so no doubt the visitor clicked on the link they found there, and turned up here. I hope they liked it.

The Last 20 Visitors page is where you get to play "Guess Who?". Given the location - can you guess the visitor? If it's Zaragoza, chances are you know it's me - but what if it's somewhere else in Spain? Some weeks ago, for instance, we had a visitor listed as coming from Sueca, which is a town south of Valencia. This intrigued me as it's not so far from where Jim Plaskett lives. I had an exchange of views with Jim a few years ago after giving one of his books a caning in a review for Kingpin. What a coincidence it would be if Jim was reading this blog now.

Then, just yesterday, I saw another visitor from Spain, with an address I didn't recognise: it was from Salt, a village close to (and essentially part of) Girona, a pretty city in Catalonia not too far from the French border. It's also very close to Banyoles, which you may remember was the location for the rowing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It's also, less famously but rather more currently, the location for a chess tournament featuring another chap with whom I have crossed swords in the past - Nigel Short. (His Wikipedia entry, I see, contains no mention of the controversy - involving Tony Miles and a certain obituarist - which was the subject of the disagreement. Nor is the Isle of Man affair, or indeed any of his many other feuds.)

Anyway, just supposing Nigel has been looking in, good health to him. I say so because I notice from the website that he's had to withdraw from the tournament for medical reasons. I know the feeling. It's what happens in your forties (Nigel is fourteen days older than I am). First your body starts disintegrating, then your mind. Que te mejores, Nigel.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Pleasure and Pain of Chess Spectatorship

One of the sometimes great and sometimes gory things about watching Master chess games live - and in the flesh, and without silicon assistance - is pitting your wits against the players sat directly in front of you. Great, because occasionally you'll spot an idea before they do. Gory, because sometimes the 'improvement' you come up with and check up on after is, in reality, a '??'.

This year at the Staunton Memorial, which finished on Saturday and which was won convincingly by Michael Adams, I only knew the pain of chess spectatorship, with most of my flashy moves making Fritz spike its evaluation in the opposite direction to that which I hoped. Others had more luck, however, such as Brian Somebodyorother whom I chatted to in the bar one time after the games. He showed me the draw he'd spotted that Jovanka Houska had missed in this position against Jan Werle, where it's white to play:

White's problem is obvious: the ominous and unobstructed a3 pawn. Seeing that 35. Ra4 is met by 35...Ree7 renewing the promotion threat, Houska instead tried 35. Rb8+, but after 35... Ke7 36. Rgg8 Kf6 37. Rb6+ Re6 38. Rb1 a2 39. Rf1+ Ke7 40. Rg7 Kf8 41. Rxh7 a1=Q 42. Rhxf7+ Rxf7 43. Rxa1 Rf2 44. Ra8+ Kf7 45. Ra7+ Kf6 46. Ra4 Rxc2 she resigned.

True, there might be improvements amongst that sequence - but in the diagram she missed a clear draw, the one which Brian in the audience had spotted. Can you find it too? I certainly couldn't.

PS. If that's your cup of tea, you might like this post too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

First game, first book?

When on holiday in Norfolk recently, I taught my girlfriend's niece how to play chess. I've never taught anybody how to play before - in truth, until the last year or so of my life I've had very little to do with children, my family being somewhat splintered and my brother and sister being, like myself, childless.

Whether teaching a child chess is actually a wise thing to do is a subject for discussion - I'm not sure that it is, but one can only give the gifts that are in one's posession and chess is what I know. Lottie - Charlotte - is six, seven next month, bright and fond of maths: precisely the sort of kid who might find themselves attracted by the game. I made sure her parents were happy with the idea before it was broached to her, bought a cheap chess set in a shop in Aylsham, and we sat down for a lesson.

We learned in the following sequence. First, the board, how many squares it has and which way round it's placed. Second, the names of the pieces and which order they go on the board (Lottie learned the order before she could remember all the names - bishop, for some reason, took some time to stick). Third, the way in which they move and the fact that they can capture one another. As this involves some complication, what with the pawns having three different sorts of move (four, if you include en passant, which I deliberately did not) it's quite a lot for a small head to take in at one sitting, but she was doing well, listening and not wriggling.

We then, fourth, learned that if you take the king, you win, which is simpler than explaining checkmate ("the king cannot escape") straightaway. You need, I think, to explain the point of the game reasonably soon, not least because as soon as they have learned the moves, they will want to play. Then I showed a simple game - 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6 4.Qf7 mate - which, as it happens, I lost in my class championship in 1976-7. It's simple, but not quite as straightforward as you might think, since it is one thing explaining that one piece takes another, but another thing explaining that it threatens to take a piece, or that it is protected by another piece, or that the king is trapped.

We had a break - I think, before I showed Lottie that game - and the lesson finished with my demonstrating (and inviting Lottie to find) a couple of simple checkmates. The next day we played a game, Lottie's first ever.

Not bad, I think, for one's first ever game - at least she didn't play the rook pawn two squares forward and then move the rook up, which is what all the beginners used to do in my day. She was happy enough, so far.

We learned that each square has an individual number and that moves can be written down and repeated: I got her to play through the first few moves of an email game I am currently playing (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nc6 5.e3 Nf6 6.Nc3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Na5) and asked her to notice that some moves were shown with an x rather than a dash, and explain why. I also asked to to tell me when a piece was attacking another piece. We then learned about pawn promotion and castling, and the three ways you can deal with a check. (I left en passant for another day.) I set up a position with a white king on b1, a white pawn on b2, a black pawn on b3 and a black queen on a white square, then set up various other configurations where Lottie could try to find ways of blocking the check, or moving the king, or capturing the checking piece. We then played another game, which Lottie, wriggling and suffering from all sorts of distraction, enjoyed rather less than the first one - which did at least enable us to learn that it was possible to "resign".

Well, that was that, I thought, now she's discovered that chess, although easy to learn, is desperately difficult to play. The chess set goes away, perhaps for a couple of years, perhaps for ever. Or maybe her younger brother will learn next year (he identifies the makes of passing cars when strapped into the back seat, which is chessplayer behaviour if I ever saw it). But the following day - in fact,when we were already packed and almost ready to leave - she asked if she could play another game. By then there was no time left and I didn't have the chance to do what I would have liked, which was to play a longer game, keeping her in it, pointing out her mistakes and letting her correct them. And now I am in Spain and she is in Norfolk and for all I know, that may be that.

Still, if it is not, if she wants to keep on learning, what can I do? I think the best I can do for now is send her a book, so she can read and learn a little for herself. But what to send? As I said, I've never taught the game before, so I don't really know. There's a book by Michael Basman - might that be best? Usborne have one which claims Johnatahn Rowson as consultant - how about that? Chandler and Milligan's Chess for Children - I've seen it but not read it. Is that any good?

I learned from the old Bott and Morrison book from which they have taken the title - Chess for Children (and its successor, More Chess for Children). You surely remember them, with the kings and queens and castles being stormed - and as I have copies of these books, I'd happily send them to Norfolk. But they use the old descriptive notation and having shown Lottie algebraic, that's not a complication I want to introduce.

So - can you help me? Do you have recent experience of teaching chess for children? What's a good first book for a bright seven-year-old? And how do you keep them interested when they've no-one - save possibly their father - to play with?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Tangled Web

I am, at present, faced with the rather grim circumstance of having to work full-time until I get to leave the real world and enter the warm bath that is academia at the end of September. God it's unpleasant.

To ease my distress I sought solace in consumerism and went out and bought a magic book (somewhat destroying the point of working to save money for the months ahead but there you go).

I ended up with a copy of Tangled Web by Eric Mead, a name completely unknown to most right thinking people but it has some resonance amongst the hobbyist magicians.

Skimming through the introduction by Teller, that's the silent one out of Penn & Teller, I find a discussion of why Mr. Mead gets to work for the great and the good (well, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson and the founder of

"Why does Eric get such cool gigs? ... yes, his technique is better. But the deeper reason that smart, classy people want Eric around is because he's smart and classy. He's a gentleman of erudition, grace, and wit, with just the right seasoning of mischief, frankness, and vulgarity ... This degree of sophistication is no accident. Eric reads three or four books a month. He studies art, music, science, chess, and ballroom dancing. He travels. He knows jokes. He keeps abreast of current events and sports. He is, in a word, urbane ...."

Perhaps chess is more socially acceptable than I feared a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Jacob's gladder

Belated congratulations - since the present writer has been away - to Jacob Aagaard for winning the British Championship. He held on to the title he appeared to have wrapped up early with a string of wins in the first week, despite twice trying to throw it away by losing crucial games with the White pieces in the second.

Double congratulations, too: since during the course of that first week his grading apparently touched the magic figure of 2500 which entitles him to claim the grandmaster title. He's been waiting for a long time. When I played him at Oban nearly three years ago he told me he had already achieved the required norms! But at the time his grading was only 2431, too low by a considerable distance. It has taken him a lot of time and work to make up the gap.

The game itself can be played through below. Until I put it through the computer last night I never realised how close I came to beating an IM and future British Champion. After solid defence from Black, White sacrificed unsoundly and the game was in my hands: it took a pair of blunders to throw it away. Noticing that the second and worse of these was on move 40, you'd probably assume that the mistakes were made in time trouble. But in fact the time control was on move 36 (the diagram position is after Black's 36th move) and I made it with plenty of time to spare.

Appalling, that Black could lose a position like that (let alone the even better position that he achieved a couple of moves later). Desperate, that he should do so against a titled player.

Afterwards Aagaard (who in the postmortem attributed my loss to "panic") was relieved. I was disappointed rather than devastated. Probably because I didn't have a computer to show me just how good my position had been. Looking at it now, I can't believe it. I can't believe it even though I do it so often.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Final Staunton Memorial Photographs from Simpson's

You've seen photographs of the chess players, you've seen the venue. Except... not quite. There were certain things I missed out. So yesterday I returned to the tournament to get some final photographs. And I ended up snapping more than I bargained for - including the only World Champion to visit the event, what's tucked away in Simpson's toilet, and Streatham and Brixton Chess Club's All Star Beer Grandmasters in action.


firstly, two of the Grandmaster faces that I missed out entirely in my first report, because they were so late to the venue that flash photography was no longer allowed. This time, Gawain Jones (right) was only five minutes late, and he only had to wait a further three for Ivan Sokolov to show up. Maybe Sokolov missed the time lost toward the end of the game, where he could not convert his extra pawn in a long, closed endgame. Well before that, the rest of the players were in Simpson's charming Knight's Bar, analyzing away in its comfortable chairs after their games. Left to right, here's Grandmasters Adams, McNab, Rowson paying a visit fresh from the British Championship, Adams and Speelman.

Below, John Emms chats to Eric Schiller whilst a seated Ray Keene takes a breather from it all to inspect his fingers (left), and Smeets and l'Ami relax after their games (right.)

Masters here, Masters there, Masters everywhere. But only one World Champion:

Winner of the Under 11 World Championship in Las Vegas, Emma Bentley, giving Ray Keene something to think about. Maybe in a decade, she'll be playing in the tournament room itself. Who knows?

And here's something completely different. It's another antique chess board, played on by the greats as the sign says, and perhaps one or two not so greats. This one hangs on the wall of the entrance of Simpson's, but what are the row of holes the arrow points to for? They look like they could each fit a matchstick. There was another one along the left hand side at the top, too - one for each opponent in other words. Do click to enlarge the image to take a look, and help resolve the mystery if you can.

Sometimes it seems like chess here, chess there, chess everywhere in Simpson's. Even the toilets in feature chess. Not wires in the ceiling of course; this old sign hangs in the upstairs gents:

Have prices gone up since then? Well, admission is currently free to watch the chess. But I suspect a cigar or coffee might set you back a bit more.

The Drinking Grandmasters from Streatham and Brixton Chess Club went to the pub up the road afterwards instead - your photographer being the one wearing the pink tie. I bumped into Jan Timman there to my surprise, stood at the bar on his own. Our conversation went like this:

Chivers: So! Is this where you come to get away from chess players?
Timman: Yes.

And on that note, it's probably time just to remind you that you can find out results and games on the official website here. The tournament finishes tomorrow, when the round starts at 12 noon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Magic, masochism and the marvel of speedchess

Every Wednesday on their website The Guardian run a column rounding up all the best sports related video clips of the week. Today's title, "Magic, masochism and the marvel of speedchess" caught my eye.

Now you can, if you wish, use this feature as a great resource to view some of the best historical and contemporary performances in your sport of choice. For example, this week's column includes links to clips of Greendidge & Haynes: the best opening partnership in test cricket history as well as Robin Smith getting worked over by the West Indies pace attack circa 1990.

Of course I much prefer clips like the one they have linked to showing Gavaskar throwing a hissy fit when given out LBW against Australia more than a quarter of a century ago.

I've never seen this column feature chess before. Today the video embeded below gets a link under the heading of "Not Really Sport But Worth A Look Anyway". You may be interested to know the other link in this category was to rabbit show jumping

Leaving aside the question of whether chess is a sport (we covered that six months ago, and then again a few days later), I wonder why this extremely unexceptional game was worthy of special attention. I suspect if we listen very carefully to the soundtrack we'll hear the noise of a journalist scraping the barrel to pad out an unfinished column.

Anyway, enjoy...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Staunton Memorial Player Photographs: Part One

You've seen Simpson's-in-the-Strand, the venue this year for the whole of the Staunton Memorial tournament. Now take a look at the competitors. Funny how all the photographers flock to Jovanka Houska, the only lady player in the event:

But newly-married Michael Adams, stood to the right hand side by the wall, seems more interested in the newspaper's crossword. (Six down is ravioli, Jon Speelman announced to Bob Wade moments earlier when entering the venue.)

I guess her popularity must be thanks to photographs that come out like this one:

Equally photogenic, Jan Smeets and Colin McNab:

The Sicilian evidently came as a surprise to white - no Pirc, no Modern, from one of its contemporary experts? - and cost him a lot of time on the clock. Then McNab tried a dubious-looking 'unprotected fianchetto' with Be7-f6, and white's initiative won through later in mutual time-trouble.

No smiles either for the photographers from Jan Werle or Loek van Wely:

If that picture seems familiar, this photograph from the official site might explain why.

England number one Michael Adams adjusts his pieces, awaiting his opponent:

I wouldn't fancy my chances with white. But Peter Wells seems to move order him, as here...

... Adams thought for a long time over 3...d5, which was followed by 4.d4 Bb4 and a short draw.
Was 4.e4 the potential worry?

Meanwhile, Jan Timman waits and waits and waits for the whoppingly late Ivan Sokolov.

Behind Timman stands Bob Wade: he was a young gun too, once upon a time. But he will still wave his stick at photographers who get too close.

(Incidentally, if you would like to see any of these photos in more details - just click them, and the larger, original versions will open. You might ask yourself, for instance, if Adams is doing a crocodile impression with his newspaper, in the photograph to the right behind the seated Speelman.)

And.... that's it for now. You can find all the results, games and standings here. I'll be back on Thursday to try to snap those players too late or too far away to come out properly, and also a few of us from the club will be going out for drinks after; all are welcome, however.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bitsevsky Maniac

The Bitsevsky Maniac. Sounds like a great name for a chess opening to me, perhaps a 1. d4 system where White throws in an early g2-g4 or something like that, but alas it's nothing of the sort.

On the Daily Telegraph's website I read news of one Alexander Pichuskin who has appeared in a Russian court. They don't make clear when, so if they're following speedy Malcolm Pein's lead it could have been any time since 1917 but no matter, let's have a look at what the DT have to say.

"Officers who raided his flat last year reportedly found a chess board with a coin representing each victim placed on all but two of the 64 squares of a chessboard."

Now people in glass houses shouldn't lob chunks of masonry but that sentence strikes me as rather clumsy - and it might not even be true. The Guardian say Mr. Maniac claims 63 victims and make no mention of coins on a chess board (or 'chessboard' - if the Daily Telegraph can't make up their mind I don't see why I should).

Journalists eh. Don't you just love their tireless search for accuracy?

The Guardian's account does explain our new favourite serial kiler, "played chess under the trees" in Moscow's Bitsevsky Park, hence the nickname he acquired in the Russian tabloid press.

Anyway, chess is back in the news and that can only be a good thing for those of us who contribute to blogs such as this one, especially since I get to point out we at the S&BCC blog scooped The Telegraph by running a story linking chess boards (chessboards) and death some four months ago.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Step into Simpson's...

The historic chess venue Simpson's-in-the-Strand is currently hosting the Staunton Memorial chess tournament. For those outside of London or unable to make it into the centre, I thought I'd post up some photographs of the venue and from the event. This post is of Simpson's in general; I will provide photographs of the players later on in the week. One last thing before I get going: The photos here are mostly fairly small - but if you click on any individual photograph, you will be able to see the image at its original large size, where you should be able to make out many of the details.

First off, above is the famous entrance on the Strand. Just around the corner is The Savoy, as well as The Savoy Theatre where Kasparov demolished English World Championship hope Nigel Short in 1993. Sixteen at the time and still living with my parents in Portsmouth, I was able to visit one afternoon thanks to a friend from my local club who had a spare ticket. I also dared to sneak into Simpson's for a second or two, and glimpsed in the lobby a famous old board, played on by many of the old greats. More on that later - but at the time I missed the fact the entrance has a chess position on it. The lobby floor is a chess board too.

A little further in is this display case, full of chess and Staunton-related memorabilia, old and new:

Now, you have a choice of two lefts at this display. Left and up the stairs leads to the tournament playing hall. But what's round the corner by the display case itself?

A staircase leading downwards, lined with more chess treasures and intrigues:

At the bottom is some kind of function room. It, too, is not without its chess content. Here is a photograph of one wall, which includes a similar board to that in the lobby:

And who played on that board? Let's take a closer look:

The names start with those of Howard Staunton, Paul Morphy, and Wilhelm Steinitz. The final one is that of Doctor Emanuel Lasker. Chess is blessed with such vivid ghosts; moves made hundreds of years ago still gleam and shine like new gems. But here the ghosts are that bit closer. Their fingers moved those pieces.

But upstairs, the venue is getting ready for its modern games:

And below what it looks like in full-swing...

... but that's it for now. More photographs including those of the players in a post later on.

Unfortunately my photographs of the board in the lobby did not come out; neither did my photos of the Knight's Bar in Simpson's, where players analyse after their games - and where there is a video feed, a few boards, and commentary provided for spectators. I will try to get some more photographs later in the week. (In fact I will be visiting this remarkable chess venue again on Thursday evening, so anyone around for a drink after should let me know.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Just plain weird

Betty Boop ... what a gal.

And a chess player too.

Of sorts.

Is it just me or does the Black king look like Jim 'Great Smashing Super' Bowen from Bullseye?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hot Off the Press

So Jacob Aagaard has won the British Chess Championship. Well he has if you read Leonard Barden's chess column in today's Guardian. If you rely on Malcolm 'up to the minute' Pein in today's Daily Telegraph you'll be labouring under the delusion there's one round to go and it's all up for grabs.

Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised at speedy Malc. Not long ago he published his predictions for the first round of the candidates matches after the event had actually finished.

I look forward to the DT's chess column on Monday. I hear it's going to be carrying some shock news as to the outcome of the big Alekhine-Capablanca match.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pattern Recognition II

If you haven't already read Tuesday's Pattern Recognition post then go there first. You'll get more out of today's if you do.

For the rest of you, here are the diagrams provided as 'typical responses' to the chess position memory test from players of varying standards. The squares highlighted in green show where errors were made - either by forgetting a piece, including the wrong piece or adding in a piece where there shouldn't have been one at all.

Typical Master Response

Typical Expert Response

(yes I know there's something wrong with the pawn on f3. Bug in my graphics programme that I don't seem to be able to fix. Looks weird doesn't it?)

Typical average player response

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Staunton Memorial: First Round Impressions

A grubby homeless guy haunts a tube entrance, a limousine lumbers by. A sleek courier glides through the growls of snarled traffic. Pizza chains blithely squat beneath the unabashed grandeur of ancient mansions, now part of the same tourist circuit. The windows of a bank you've heard of advertise the usual stuff; the one opposite which you haven't offers you-don't-understand-what. Somewhere a wallet is being stolen. Somewhere a fortune being made. Somewhere a heart is broken by text message in a foreign language. A camera flashes from the top of a bus. Every third shop sells coffee and sandwiches.

The usual London just outside my office, in other words. Except not this week, at least not for me. Tuesday afternoon, half one. A five minute walk from my office and I push my way through the old, heavy, creaky wooden doors of Simpson's-in-the-Strand, and enter another world. I've not been here for just over a year, when I watched the last Staunton Memorial. But not much has changed. And not much will. There's still the display case of slightly random chess memorabilia in the hallway. And still that remarkable 19th century chess set in a case of its own, bearing a plaque with the names of those whose hands lifted its pieces. The first three are: Howard Staunton, Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz. You can't but feel a tingle every time you read it. That close. That far away.

Through the double doors is the Grand Divan. The famous old booths lining its side like railway carriages. The silver-domed carver trolleys, ready to wheel out to your table. Do the chandeliers date from 1828, the year Simpson's opened? Maybe. The snows of an ended empire seem never to have reached this unchanging room of Imperial style, where grand old men can still cradle their last moments, like the light they cradle in their brandy glass. But I am not here to wine or dine in this antique environment. Upstairs is the chess tournament.

It's twenty minutes until the round starts. Ray Keene is wondering where the programmes are, explaining to someone that they're priced £2 not in order to actually sell them, but so that those people who snaffle lots of them will feel guilty. Arbiter Eric Schiller - who looks dressed for a Californian beach, albeit the hot-dog rather than surfer end - goes chirpily about setting the clocks. They're electronic this year. A first for this tournament, a first for Simpson's no doubt too. It's the same room as last year, with its subdued splendour: the ceiling not miles away, the lights gentle rather than blinding, the carpet comfortable rather than lush, the columns intricate rather than brutal, the wall paintings more background than eye-catching. A few improvements: the playing tables are better angled for the spectators, and water is provided for us too this time.

Two o'clock and Keene gives a little speech, thanking those to be thanked, going over the particulars, and recounting the story of how the Immortal Game was played here. Immediately after it finished, he says, spectators sprinted off down the Strand to telegraph Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky's moves around the world, or what they thought were the moves. Is that true? I can't be the only one to wonder, but it doesn't matter. The story fits the nostalgic mood somehow.

He announces another improvement on last year: all of the moves will be broadcast live. This sounds good, I think. Last year none were broadcast live at all, not even one. Well, Keene says, broadcast on a rotating basis: two of the games will be broadcast live, then a little while later, another two, then the final two, and so on rotating through out the afternoon. Broadcast, that is, via a video feed of the display boards - not PGN, not MonRoi. And .... broadcast where to? To the aptly-named Knight's Bar in Simpson's itself, just across the hall and around the corner, where Bob Wade will lead the conversation about what's happening on the boards. And that's it. The rest of the world is not amused, but it's hard to know if this is genuinely lackadaisical, or deliberately acommercial, or passively-aggressively out-of-date - or more just a throwback to a more stately pace of life, a more intimate organisational ethos.

Ray says he's confident the system will work. But then points out, the system also requires the display boards in the playing room to be right. And then the fellow whose job this is interrupts Ray - saying he agrees, and how he remembers the comments from last year. It's obvious Ray suddenly remembers too: The display boards were more or less a shambles throughout the tournament last time around. Ray starts to repeat, more than once, how important it is they're right this time. Really important, because of the video relay. Vitally important. Big job, Alexander. As it turns out, today Adams's display-board king will stay on g1 for several moves more than it actually did, but apart from that I didn't spot another error in the half hour I was able to stay in the early afternoon. A big improvement on last year, trust me, when captured pieces stayed on the board whilst others fell off arbitrarily, and so on.

The Orange Dream Team, as the Dutch team are called, waft in collectively first - this by accident rather than design, with the British drifting in soon after. Gawain Jones is one of the last; but at nineteen, is a brand new GM. Strapping is the only word, and still growing too one presumes: his trousers are two inches too short. (He will do well to hang on to draw in the first round, after his opening looked to go really quite wrong against Jan Smeets.) Amongst the others, there's the usual chess player mishmash of clothing styles, from jeans and hoodies to suits and ties. Surprisingly Jon Speelman is one of the smartest: not only wearing a suit, but this year also not bringing his belongings with him in a supermarket carrier bag.

A sign of more circumspect things to come than 2006's over-the-board disappointments? Fast forward to the end of the first round: He and Jan Timman certainly produced one of the most intriguing games, an original encounter I don't pretend to fully understand - nor why Timman who beat Speelman last year agreed a draw at the end. The best game of round one however would stem from the most surprising result: Colin McNab's victory over Ivan Sokolov, a piece of hypermodernism that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Reti game from the 1920s. An especially fine achievement given the rating difference, and that Sokolov ran away with the tournament last year without losing a single game. Meanwhile the opening in the game between Erwin l'Ami and Peter Wells looked entirely violent and with various bits hanging as if anything could happen. But it suddenly petered out to a flat draw - like an amusing balloon parping fleetingly around a party, only to collapse and crumple quickly in the corner. Jovanka Houska seemed to lose the plot in a double rook endgame against Jan Werle, but perhaps there was more to it than that.

Newly-married Michael Adams was content with a short draw against Loek van Wely - 15.h3 is perhaps the definition of limp - which probably indicates something of his tournament strategy: draw against anyone who might have a chance of beating him, try to win against the rest. van Wely won't mind presumably such a gentle first round draw with black, and against the only player in the tournament rated higher than him as well. Here are the best two games from the round:

McNab-Sokolov: 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Bg4 3. Bg2 Nd7 4. d3 e6 5. Nbd2 Bd6 6. h3 Bh5 7. e4 c6 8. O-O Ne7 9. b3 O-O 10. Bb2 a5 11. a3 f6 12. Qe1 e5 13. d4 Qc7 14. c4 Bxf3 15. Bxf3 exd4 16. exd5 c5 17. Qe6+ Kh8 18. Ne4 Nc8 19. Bg2 Ra6 20. Nxd6 Nxd6 21. Qe2 a4 22. b4 b6 23. Bxd4 Raa8 24. bxc5 Nxc5 25. Rae1 Nb3 26. Bc3 Rae8 27. Qh5 Qxc4 28. Bb4 Nc5 29. Rc1 Qb5 30. Rfe1 f5 31. Rxe8 Rxe8 32. Bf1 Qd7 33. Bxc5 bxc5 34. Rxc5 Ne4 35. Bb5 Qd8 36. Qxe8+ Qxe8 37. Bxe8 Nxc5 38. d6 Kg8 39. Bxa4 Kf7 40. d7 Ke7 41. Bb5 f4 42. gxf4 Ne6 43. a4, and black resigned.

Speelman-Timman: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. Nc3 Bb7 5. Bg5 Bb4 6. Nd2 h6 7. Bh4 Nc6 8. e3 Ne7 9. Bxf6 gxf6 10. Qb3 c5 11. O-O-O Nc6 12. Nde4 Na5 13. Qc2 cxd4 14. Rxd4 f5 15. Nd6+ Bxd6 16. Rxd6 Rc8 17. Qd2 Qe7 18. Be2 Nxc4 19. Bxc4 Rxc4 20. Rd1 Bd5 21. Rxd5 exd5 22. Qxd5 Rc6 23. Qxf5 Qe6 24. Qd3 O-O 25. Qxd7 b5 26. Qb7 a6 27. Rd4 Rc4 28. Rxc4 Qxc4 29. Qxa6 Qf1+ 30. Kc2 Qxf2+ 31. Kb3 Qxg2 32. Qxh6 b4 33. Na4 Re8, draw agreed.

Rewind in time, and back to my office after half an hour and the opening moves I go.

But after work I return again, and on this visit a few programmes lie around the tables. So what else to do? I pick one up and start reading it. No-one asks me for money, no-one notices; it's mine now. Flimsy, in parts ineptly written, cheaply produced, with a terrifying image of Staunton on the cover - he looks completely demented - and I start to wonder if even free is too much. But gratitude becomes me, and a closer read later locates in it the odd intrigue. As an off-hand example, here's two quotes from the programme's biographies that might act as circumstantial answers for some of the questions here: "Jan [Smeets] became a grandmaster in 2004 and dabbled for a while at being a full-time professional, but cited the unexciting periods between chess events as a reason to become a full-time student in economics at Rotterdam University." Similarly, GM Jan Werle, the programme reports, "tried going professional for a year but did not care for the lifestyle and is now a law student in his home town of Groningen."

A tap on the shoulder: an old friend. We gesture to go outside to have a chat, and as we do so a phone goes off somewhere in the room. A few heads shoot up sharply, but then all turn to smiles. Jan Mol's phone. Jan Mol, generous sponsor and more or less host. Jan Mol, darting out looking only a touch sheepish. He can make whatever noise he wants, we suppose - but we can't, and our chat leads us out to the nearest pub; the price of drinks in Simpson's itself are firmly not rooted in the past.

It's almost seven when I return to check on the games - and, nothing. The arbiters and officials are all departed; a few chess players casually analyse in the bar, where the scent of the first of the evening meals deliciously circulate through the luxurious chattering air. The lights are out in the playing area, but I push through the doors anyway, to have a poke around, one last look for today. The final positions are up, and I raise my eyebrows at more than one. Jones drew? Sokolov lost! Timman and Speelman agreed a draw there? It's strange to wander through the chairs and the boards and the clocks alone, as invisible as a ghost.

No-one has stopped me coming here, asked me what I'm doing or where I'm going. But no-one ever checks anything like that in Simpson's. If only the grubby homeless guy knew how easy it was, I think stupidly to myself, to find oneself amongst this rich and refined corner of quiet and comfort. But he'd never get through the revolving doors.

Not confident they'll appear on the website, I decide to jot down the final positions from the display boards. Black, gold lettering, triangular - one of the Simpson's pencils left by one of the boards looks rather dapper. Feeling entitled I start to write with it: and accidentally jab my finger. Blood and a sharp prick of pain come quick. Underneath such a casually charming appearance, it turns out to be as sharp as hell.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

God moves the player and he, the piece

I'll be away from this blog for a week and a half - how odd, still, to think of coming back to England as being "away" - so here's your last taste of Spanish chess until my return. Or rather, Spanish-language chess, since the poem below, Ajedrez ("Chess") was written by an Argentine, José Luis Borges. Enjoy. Hasta luego.

En su grave rincón, los jugadores
rigen las lentas piezas. El tablero
los demora hasta el alba en su severo
ámbito en que se odian dos colores.

Adentro irradian mágicos rigores
las formas: torre homérica, ligero
caballo, armada reina, rey postrero,
oblicuo alfil y peones agresores.

Cuando los jugadores se hayan ido,
cuando el tiempo los haya consumido,
ciertamente no habrá cesado el rito.

En el Oriente se encendió esta guerra
cuyo anfiteatro es hoy toda la tierra.
Como el otro, este juego es infinito.


Tenue rey, sesgo alfil, encarnizada
reina, torre directa y peón ladino
sobre lo negro y blanco del camino
buscan y libran su batalla armada.

No saben que la mano señalada
del jugador gobierna su destino,
no saben que un rigor adamantino
sujeta su albedrío y su jornada.

También el jugador es prisionero
(la sentencia es de Omar) de otro tablero
de negras noches y blancos días.

Dios mueve al jugador, y éste, la pieza.
¿Qué Dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
de polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonías?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pattern Recognition

My recent blog article on the memory test channel 5 gave Susan Polgar in ‘My Brilliant Brain’ stirred a memory of my own.

I dug out one of my old undergraduate text books (‘Psychology’ by Gleitman – Norton 1986) and began flicking through it. Sure enough there was a short section regarding the study of chess and how that contributed to the understanding of thinking processes.

“De Groot, himself a chess master, posed various chess problems to [ players of varying standards] (including two former world champions) and asked them to select the best move. Contrary to what might have been expected, the grandmasters and masters did not look further ahead. They considered about the same number of moves and calculated about as far into the future as the lower-ranked players. Their superiority was not in quantity, but in quality. All of them chose continuations that would have won the game, while few of the other players did.”

An interesting finding I think.

The book then goes on to discuss the key idea of the Polgar programme – that chess positions are memorised in blocks rather than as individual pieces.

“Players of different [abilities] were shown various chess positions for five seconds each and were then asked to reproduce them a few minutes later. Grandmasters and masters did so with hardly an error; lesser players (including mere experts) performed much more poorly … This is not because the chess masters have “better visual memory”. When presented with bizarre positions that would hardly ever arise in the course of a well-played game, they recalled no better than voices. Their superiority is in the conceptual organization of chess, not in the memory for visual patterns as such.”

Here Gleitman does give us a diagram of one of the positions used, which enables us to re-create the experiment here.

Scroll down until you see the chess position, look at it for five seconds then scroll down again until you reach the text that follows:-


just five seconds now then scroll on...





















OK, now you have to wait for a few minutes so go off and make yourself a cup of tea or distract yourself for a moment. You may well want to spend the time going off to get a chess set or at least a pen and paper so you can scribble down your answer to the question that's coming.

While we’re waiting I shall take the opportunity to tell you I’m writing this at Nouveaute, my current favourite coffee shop. It’s upstairs at the Habitat in Regent Street and does a very good blueberry muffin. Failing that I’d recommend a slice of their chocolate brownie. Happily Nouveaute is very convenient to reach from Streatham – the 159 bus runs straight there from the High Road and even stops almost right outside Habitat.

Anyhoo, are you back now?


So, your task is simple. Just try to reconstruct the chess position you saw above then compare your answer with the actual game.

How did you get on?

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Future of Chess is Electronic

- and, in more than one way. Three of which are featured in this post.

First off, chess e-books. At least according to Dan Addelman of chess publisher Everyman:
As trade publishers bemoan the slow uptake of their ebooks, Everyman Chess has had quite the opposite reaction. The publisher launched its first e-books on 14th July and is already selling up to ten copies every day, around the world.

Not only are the ebooks universal but Everyman Chess ebooks have extra value compared to that of the standard pdf ebook which most publishers produce – they are interactive! The publisher is convinced that this is the way forward for ebooks.

In anticipation of the launch, Everyman Chess has been trialling the project since January this year by making one chapter from each title available as a free download from its website,

Already over 15,000 chapters have been downloaded.
I'm struggling to think of a disadvantage of the interactive e-book against a normal chess book...

But how about the game itself? I have long wondered if the future of chess is Freestyle Chess. This form of chess consists of a fairly quick on-line tournament, where the rules for each individual player are: anything goes. Want to hire Bobby Fischer and have him on your side? It's allowed. Kasparov, too? Sure. Plug in three Rybkas, as well? And how about that tablebase, or Fritz's opening book? Yup, no problem.

The various attractions of this "Wacky Races" form of chess for various parties are not entirely inobvious. The issue of cheating in on-line competitions is removed, since anything goes. Amateurs can compete with pro's; anyone with an internet connection can enter. There is room for both chess specialists and computer specialists - and both on the same team. The short time-frame of the tournaments - a few days - is exciting for spectators (as compared to, say Correspondence tournaments which feature a similar integration of man versus machine.) The quality of the games will always be very high. There are various opportunities for advertisers and sponsors - from micro-advertising on the playing server itself, to companies promoting their specialist equipment by entering it. World Champions may visit the toilet as often as they wish. And so on.

Where can you hear about Freestyle Chess? The answer for a long time now has been Chessbase. But their reports have never really been quite my cup of tea: too much off the board stuff, not enough about the games or what it's like to play this form of chess. So it was intriguing for me to read GM Tony Kosten's insider's account of the latest Freestyle tournament in the latest issue of KingPin. His excitement is palpable and he includes two pages of annotation. But for my purpose here, just a quick quote:

"It [Freestyle] is certainly a different type of chess, maybe the chess of the future..."

Finally, the rise of chess videos this year is not an undocumented phenomenon, one flagged first by About Chess. These videos differ from their 20th Century predecessors that took a month to arrive in the post, were over-priced, and perhaps a bit dull. Instead they are short, produced by passionate amateurs, and available for free via youtube. So what? Old news? Ah, but what London players might not know is that Tryfon Gavriel of Barnet Chess Club has started to produce his own. (If you're outside of London, you might also know of Tryfon - but this time as the amiable webmaster of correspondence site Lets Play Chess, where he plays as Kingscrusher.) He generally analyses classics or well-known games, in a style perhaps aimed more at intermediate players than advanced players well-schooled in the history of the game. But enjoyable and entertaining they are - popular on youtube too - and you can find them all here.

Reading, playing, communicating, more - the future of chess is electronic. Maybe.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

D (cup) List Celebrity and a Memory

I have, dear readers, a regular Sunday hobby I don’t usually talk about too much. No, it’s not charriddee work.

At some point every Sunday I make my way to a newsagents to peruse the front pages of the tabloids. I don’t actually pick them up mind – I wouldn’t want to stain my fingers either literally or metaphorically – I just look to see what they think is the most important news of the day. OK, it's not something of which I'm particularly proud but as dark shameful vices go it’s got nothing on Chris Langham’s I think you'll agree.

Today, I can tell you, the Sunday People have chosen to use their most prominent story to accuse Kerry Katona’s current beau of only staying with her for the money. Now for those of you who prefer EJH’s erudite deconstructions of Ingmar Bergman films, Ms. Katona is a former member of a formerly popular ‘girl band’ (why are groups of people who do nothing but sing now called bands rather than choirs? I shall let the matter rest for now) Atomic Kitten. Suffice to say Ms. Katona is now famous for nothing more than:-

1. her ample frontage;
2. her ability to remain in the news despite an absence of any discernable talent whatsoever (well other than the above).

So Mark Croft's interest in the two-time Celebrity Mother of the Year (no, there really is such a 'title'. The Queen came fourth the last time Kerry won it) is purely cash related? To seasoned Kerry K watchers this will hardly qualify as a news sensation. Indeed were I to have taken further leave of my senses and actually opened the alleged newspaper I fully expect I'd have found follow up scoops on the Pope being catholic and the locations where bears most like to take a dump.

If you’ve stayed with me so far, and frankly I doubt that very much indeed, I’m rather suspecting you’re wondering why the hell this is appearing on the S&BCC blog. Well, firstly it’s already gone tea time and nobody else has stepped up to the plate as yet, and secondly in the Roschach Inkblot Test that is my brain when I don’t give it something constructive to get on with, the Kerry Katona headline reminded me of an incident that happened to me a couple of years back.

I was starting a new job and was introduced to a woman who was to become one of my work colleagues for the next few months (I’ve never been very good at holding down long term employment). We were going through the usual getting to know you formalities and she asked me some variation of the ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ question.

“I like chess", I replied, at which she looked at me rather strangely and went quiet for a moment.

Now I am, of course, totally used to rampant apathy as a response to an expression of interest in the game of kings/under-socialised geeks but outright hostility was something new to me. My confusion was eased just a few seconds later, however, when it became clear she’d thought I’d said, “I like chests”.

At the time I was happy to set the record straight although subsequently I’ve often wondered which in reality is less socially acceptable as a pastime.

Hmm. Tabloid Combing and now 500+ words on a topic somewhat less substantial than an ice cream left out on this hot summer’s afternoon. In the ‘having a life’ stakes I fear I may not be achieving my full potential.

Hey ho. Enjoy the sun everybody.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


After Kasparov's 2001 themed Pepsi advert, today we have the real deal...

I really must watch this film again sometime, if only to satisfy my curiousity on one rather bizarre point. Does it really contain Rigsby from Rising Damp playing a Russian called Smyslov or did I dream that?

More chess related video clips available here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Is this the third most drawish variation in the world?

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 Be7 6.O-O O-O 7.Nc3 Ne4 8.Nxe4 Bxe4

I was alerted to the potential of this variation when looking for something negative to play in next season's Aragón Championships, in which, as the minimum entry requirement is an Elo of 2100, I am liable to find myself seriously outgunned.

It's not the first time I've taken an interest in the Queen's Indian, though previously I've been more attracted to the lines involving 4...Ba6: but they appear to be a bit too lively for my present purposes. It was with no small pleasure, then, that reading Yrjölä and Tella's Queen's Indian (Gambit, 2003) I came across the following comment:

8. Nxe4 Bxe4 is a totally drawing variation. There are more than a thousand games with this move [sic] in our database but during the last ten years there have only been a few games that have lasted more than 15 moves.
Go on, you've got my attention...

There is nothing White can do to change the drawing nature of this line.
This is what we want! So let's look at the stats.

Using our usual criteria and searching Chessbase Online Database for games between opponents rated 2400 and above, we find 73 games, of which 68 were drawn, the remaining five being split with three wins for Black and only two for White. This is a draw percentage of 93.15, only marginally behind the 93.28 achieved in the Cozio variation of the Petroff. Winners with Black include Colin Crouch, Keith Arkell failing where Tom Chivers succeeded: those drawing with White include not only Ivan Farago - six times, plus another one on the Black side - but Bellón, who obviously isn't too proud to have a nine-move draw with the White pieces provided the opponent (Evgeny Ermenkov) is the one to make the offer.

Oddly, the search results only include games going back to 1998. It's possible that Elo grades weren't available - or just weren't entered - for games before this date, as I imagine that (to take one example of many) both Lajos Portisch and Anatoly Karpov were some distance above that figure when they treated themnselves to a seventeen-move draw at Skara in 1980. (They'd managed twenty-five in Tilburg earlier the same year, perhaps the more aggressive positioning of the rook on f1 having encouraged White to continue.)

Not bad seeing as the queens are still on the board and there's no open files. Still, 8.Nxe4 isn't compulsory - Black also has to be aware of 8.Qc2 and 8.Bd2. I notice that discussing the former move, the authors give three games in the same variation played between Andersson and Karpov in 1983 and 1984. They were drawn in 21, 25 and 17 moves respectively.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Kingpin #39

If you did not already know that the new Kingpin is out, then never mind, for I am telling you now: at last the UK's most interesting and most irregular chess magazine is available again.

Among the masters and grandmasters writing in the new issue are Tony Kosten, Gary Lane and Tibor Karolyi: among the rest are Martin Regan, new head of the English Chess Federation. There is a long article about (you will be surprised to hear) the Penguin and a piece about the toilet-related dispute at the last World Championship match, the author of which is the present writer.

I also contribute some book reviews - which are followed by a piece from Amatzia Avni complaining about negative reviews, which suggests that he won't much have liked what I've written about his latest book.

Buy it now and subsidise my lifestyle. A single issue will cost you £5.95, a UK sub £16 for three issues or £30 for six. Cheques payable to Kingpin: send to 54 Hamilton Road, Oxford OX2 7PZ. Online orders via here.

Better value than investing in your pension, and not likely to arrive before it does.