Friday, July 31, 2009

Benasque 4 - Absences

After the tragedy of round ten I was determined that come what may I would not lose my final game, a determination which, as it turned out, manifested itself in the grinding-out of a seventy-move win with the Black pieces to bring me up to 6.5/11, plus two, and keep the negative effects of the tournament of my FIDE rating down to sensible proportions. This being the case, I never once took the walk, usually undertaken several times each round, around the tournament hall to see how my compatriots were doing.

This, however, would not have been quite the lengthy journey it had previously been, since on my return home, when I looked up the results for the last round - scroll down and look for English flags, or just enter ENG in the Find function - it appeared only half of them had actually turned up.

Lawrence Trent won, Jana Bellin lost and your correspondent, as previously mentioned, managed to score a full point. But the other three, being FM Adam Ashton, IM Lorin D'Costa and IM Stephen Gordon, had neither 0-1 nor 1-0 against their name, nor even ½-½. Gordon, having Black, was on the righthandside of +--: D'Costa and Ashton, on the lefthand side of --+. All three had lost their last round game by default. Half the team, if we may put it in those terms.

This is not good.

The last round at Benasque, as with most international opens, is played in the morning: it starts at nine, whereas the other games, with the exception of one other morning round, take place at four in the afternoon. Morning starts are not popular with chessplayers, be they middle-aged married men such as myself, or younger players keen to enjoy the social and holiday aspects of the occasion.

Still, there are chessplaying aspects of the occasion too and one of these is that if you're playing in the tournament, you may not actually want a free point for waiting around for half an hour - regardless of the consequent improvement in your rating or the greater chance of getting a prize. You may actually want to play a game of chess. Especially if you've had to get up on a Sunday morning in order to play one.

I don't suppose any of the players involved is anything but deeply embarassed at what happened (in fact, having contacted one of them about it, I know very well that they are) and I wouldn't want to go on about it more than it merits, or to give the impression that it's a scandal. It isn't and I have no reason to think that any of the absentees would not be welcomed back next year.

Still, you don't want to get yourself a reputation and when half one country's players don't turn up for the final round there's a danger that you might acquire one. Moreover players with International Master titles do get their hotel rooms paid for and there's a case for saying that when the tournament has shelled out for your room, you possibly owe it to them to be out of that room in time to play in the final round.

Anyhow, I live here. By virtue of that fact, I sort of represent England in Aragonese chess. This being so, I thought I ought to say something. I have. This was it.

[this posting was held over from last Friday - ejh]

Thursday, July 30, 2009

S&BCCers, young uns and a lack of cash

White to play
Simon McCullough v Angus French
British Championship, Major Open (2)

We're back at the British today, starting with a position from the S&BC Blog's on-the-spot correspondent Angus French.

Angus reached the above position in his second round game.

White played 1. fxg6 and Angus, not fancying 1. ... fxg6, 2. Be6+, began to look at 1. ... Qxh2. Initially he thought the line promising because after 2. gxf7+ Rxf7 nails White's queen but was put off when he saw that White could still play 3. Be6 pinning Black's rook.

After a bit of a think Angus went for this line anyway and won the game. What did he spot? (And as a bonus question you might want to suggest how White could have avoided immediate calamity even after playing 1. fxg6).

This win took Angus to a perfect 2/2 start but unfortunately he then fell ill and took a bye in yesterday's third round leaving him with 2.5/3 and equal 4th overall. Get well soon Angus!

Meanwhile of other players with Streatham & Brixton connections (past and present), Dave Ledger is one of three players to have a 3/3 in the Major Open while Chris Jones has reached 2/3 in the 5 day morning open. James McDonnell and Michael White are, unsurprisingly, finding the going tougher in the Championship itself.

Hebden - Howell from round 2,
a game that would not end happily for The Heb

What of the S&BC favourites? Consecutive victories (see below for one of them) have seen Keith Arkell put his dodgy start behind him while Simon Williams followed up his win against Jack Rudd with another against Richard Palliser although as I write his third round game with James Cobb has just been agreed drawn. Jack, I'm afraid to say, has had a bit of a stinker thus far.

At the head of the field only David Howell and Gawain Jones have made it to 3/3 and both of them, I gather from EJH, required some fortune to get there.

It doesn't seem that long since Howell was playing the board above me when we (S&BCC Surrey III) took a trip to Ashtead although it's probably the best part of a decade now. Much more recent was my meeting with 15-year-old George Salimbeni who duffed me up barely more than a year ago in an end of season match at South Norwood. Yesterday George, rated 2020 FIDE when he played me, was sitting down opposite the somewhat more testing GM Peter Wells on the Championship fourth board. Must have been quite some twelve months for him.

Finally, another word about the live game page on the Championship website. After the horlicks that was the start of round one, things were much better on Tuesday - at first.

Unfortunately the whole thing went belly up early on Tuesday evening although earlier on some troubles with the display of Keith Arkell's game were a bit of a clue that trouble was afoot. From here,

Black to play
Arkell v Khandelwal

the official site initially had Black playing ... Kh8 (which as Morgan pointed out would have lost to Qxa5), then it took it back and moved Black's queen to e4 and then it took that back too and played ... g7-g5. As it turned out the website was displaying all the right moves but not necessarily, as Eric might have it, in the right order.

I learn from the EC Forum that the whole operation is being run on a minimal budget, two tin cans and a ball of string being supplemented by volunteer labour and equipment. Big thanks to David Clayton and Carl Hibbard for performing miracles with what they've got but once more it seems to me that the ECF have under invested in this area. David says £500 would have secured broadband facilities at Torquay - and that doesn't sound like very much at all to me when the potential size of the audience is taken into account.

Another thread suggests I'm not alone in lamenting the lack of investment in our national championship.

Well anyway the fourth round draw is up. Is it too early to suggest that Jones v Howell on Board 1 will decide the outcome of the entire championship? We shall see.

Photograph from the Championship website

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Swiss Toni writes for New In Chess

Nigel Short...comes across as a bit juvenile and something of a sex addict, but relatively modest for a chess genius.
Or so says a reviewer of Paul Hoffman's King's Gambit: I've not read the book but a strikingly similar thought occurred to me last month, when I found myself observing, in Nigel's commentary in New In Chess, his
liking for a certain sexual metaphor: used, perhaps, a little adolescently, giving the reader the impression that the literary effectiveness of the metaphor was less important than the author's keenness to use it.
Well, last week the latest issue arrived, including Nigel's account of how he won the Sigeman Tournament in Malmö. Wherein I was not entirely surprised to read the following:
In recent years it is well known that I have favoured the Tartakower Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined. However, playing the same opening is rather like making love to the same woman: no matter how good she is, one craves a little variety every now and again...
Hey ho. I'm sure I was saying just the other day that English chess needs to grow up about women.

Although, as I said last month: is Nigel trying to tell us something?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

They're Off

White to play and beat a GM
... mate in 8 moves

"... we can at least expect the tournament to start with a bang"

is how I ended yesterday's post, and for the first and probably last time at this tournament one of my predictions came true.

I suppose defending champion Stuart Conquest's loss to DJ Eggleston, a 'mere' FIDE Master, will probably make most of the headlines but enough of that, let's get straight to the S&BC Blog favourites.

Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer before Round one

Williams - Rudd was a truly bizarre game.

Assuming the clocks on the Championship Live Game page were accurate, Jack blitzed out his first 11 moves then took only a couple of minutes to play his twelfth, ... Qe7, to reach this position.

The Ginger GM, aka Psycho-Cowboy, was about 25 minutes behind on the clock at this stage having spent well over quarter of an hour on 12. e5.

I don't know how much time they then took over 12. Ne4 and ... Bxf3 but however long it was the battle was already effectively over. Rudd eventually threw in the towel on move 22,

possibly on aesthetic grounds as much as anything else.

A tragedy for Jack who, EJH tells me, took barely a quarter of an hour for the whole game.

IM Jack Rudd after round one

Moving on Keith Arkell, that's the Keith Arkell I was praising yesterday for his 'softly softly' approach, managed to arrive here as Black after four moves ...

against Jack Hawkins. Shows what I know!

Anyhoo on the 21st move Hawkins played Re1-c1

and then the moves suddenly ended and the result "0-1" was posted. It seemed unlikely, and sure enough a transmission error proved to be the problem rather than White suddenly deciding he'd had enough. Just as well too since they reached the position at the head of today's post just before the first time control.

All good fun, then, but I'm afraid the enjoyment was rather dampened somewhat by the pickle that the Championship website got itself into.

For a long time the official replay page had Briscoe - Hebden playing out a Najdorf that was in fact Storey - Gormally. Their game, a Trompovsky, should have appeared as Wells - Lewis, this pair having instead what was really Briscoe - Hebden's game.

The 0-1 originally given to Hawkins - Arkell turned out to have been intended to mark Hebden's victory although at that stage, and for most of the first four hours of play, that game was still listed as Wells - Lewis.

We should also mention the game replay facility's tendency to vanish whole blocks of games from time to time. It was as confusing as I imagine these last few paragraphs have been to read.

None of this is intended as a criticism of those who were running the system work down in Torquay. I'm sure they were overworked and under-resourced. Indeed Carl at the EC Forum suggests it's not even a 'they' but just one guy.

Better, as EJH said, that we get the mess in the first round and not the last one but my point is that at a time when there's a campaign to get chess on TV and even suggestions that resignations should be banned to make games more understandable for casual players, wouldn't it make more sense to get the internet presentation of our game right first?

Once more I want to emphasize I don't want to be critical of whoever it is who is in charge of IT down in Torquay. Without them I wouldn't be able to watch the games for nothing. The problem, I'm sure, is lack of time and money but if we British chess players really want to popularise the game then sorting out free high quality internet access to the games of major tournaments played here has got to be the way to go. I'd like to see the ECF make this a priority for the British championship but I'm not hopeful.

Whatever happens, the 2nd round draw is already up. Hebden - Howell makes a pretty decent top board clash. Well worth getting the live game display right for I think you'll agree.

Photograph, not the Buffy one, from

Monday, July 27, 2009

It's that time again

[The S&BC Blog's British Championship coverage starts here. For the next couple of weeks we'll be publishing a new article every day]

It doesn’t seem a year since the last one, it rarely does these days I find, but it’s British Championship time once again, the 96th edition kicking off in Torquay this afternoon.

What to hope for from this year’s event? Other than a sense of proportion from a few of our chess playing/internet dwelling colleagues regarding the small change in the title of the women’s championship I mean.

Well, for a start I’d like the champion to be decided without the need for a play-off. It would seem that in the current climate there is no realistic prospect of anything other than a series of rapid-play games should extra time be required. If you share Nigel Short’s opinion that mixing time controls within a single tournament is very much Not A Good Thing, as I do, the only option left is to cross your fingers and just hope for a result in normal time in the first place.

Champions ... 2008 vintage

Secondly, there’s the wish, extra games or not, that a deserving winner will emerge.

Once you start talking about ‘deserving’ in terms that go beyond the simple measure of scoring more points than everybody else I suppose it is inevitable that subjectivity creeps in. Nevertheless the concept of the worthy victor seems something we can all intuitively relate to, even if we would each have our own criteria for determining what constitutes a justified triumph.
Reigning champion Stuart Conquest won the title by beating Keith Arkell in a brace of rapid-play games after they’d finished the tournament tied on 8/11. At the time I described this outcome as “justice” because Conquest had played the stronger opposition (seven GMs to Arkell’s two with an opponents’ average rating of 2457 against 2403), had worn the yellow jersey from round 4 onwards and had also beaten Arkell in their individual game.

I thought this made Conquest a very deserving indeed although Arkell later took exception - see the comments box to the original post - pointing out that his tournament had in fact been much tougher than the raw statistics would suggest. I’m happy to accept his argument, he is certainly in a much better position than I am to judge such things, but does this invalidate the idea that Conquest was the more deserving winner? I think not. I know there’s absolutely no logic in what I’m about to say but somehow it just feels right that a player who leads from the front and beats the other contenders in their head-to-head encounters somehow deserves to win the championship more than a guy who pops his head in front right at the death having previously been done over by his immediate rivals.

Many, particularly perhaps those such as Keith who make a living playing chess, would no doubt be tempted to dismiss the idea of ‘deserving champion’ altogether with nothing mattering save for the objective reality of points in the scorebook. Your position in any tournament is decided by where you stand when it finishes and not how well you’ve done halfway through after all. Furthermore it might also reasonably be asked, why should Arkell be punished for outscoring Conquest by a full point in the ten rounds in which they didn’t play each other?
Like I say, logic is not with me on this one … and yet I still have that pull towards the belief that in some way Conquest deserved to win.

One factor I wouldn’t consider as relevant in deciding a deserving champion would be style of play. I personally have been inspired to play the Classical Dutch by Simon Williams’ victory over Chris Ward in 2004 and turn down draws after Jack Rudd’s rejection of Bogdan Lalic’s peace offer last time. However, I’ve also been encouraged to go From the Opening into the Endgame, as Mednis would have it, after seeing games like this one from Keith Arkell.

IM Jack Rudd and Buffy debate the finer points of Najdorf theory

Strength of opposition? Leading from the start? Beating the closest rivals? Playing style? Whatever ... the draw is up and the first round will include Williams v Rudd on board 5 so we can at least expect the tournament to start with a bang.

Good luck one and all.

Photo (not the Buffy one) from

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lush Life

"I, like many chess players, am somewhat prickly when it comes to the use of chess analogies, metaphors, similes...."

So wrote T.C. a couple of weeks ago.

You can certainly count me among the many - particularly since "chess", as Morgan pointed out in the comments box to Tom's post, is usually employed as a synonym for "boring".

Today, in contrast, I offer a truly excellent use of our favourite game from Richard Price or Richard "award-winning writer on The Wire" Price as he tends to be described these days ....

"Are you Eric?"

Bracing for the next shitstorm, Eric just stared at him.

"Paulie Shaw said you might want to talk."


The culture dealer; Eric needing a moment to place the name, the conversation.

A vision then came to Eric of the Eighth Precinct detectives entraping him in a dope buy to squeeze him into cooperating; of more shit in the papers, of killing himself.

"Paulie Shaw?" the possible undercover tried again.

The Picasso shirt was a nice touch.

"I don't know you," Eric said.

"All right, whatever." He shrugged, then nodded to the menu. "Can I get a table?"

An hour later Eric brought over the coffee himself, sat down across from the Halloween Frenchman.

"So, who are you?"


Eric sat there, trying to chess this through.

Lush Life
Richard Price
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008
[***** on the JB speed review scale]

Bonus Item:
Take the Richard Price link and jump to 21:40.

Friday, July 24, 2009

English chess needs to grow up about women

As many of our readers presumably know, the 2009 British Chess Championships start in Torquay on Sunday. As many may not know, an apparent change to the status of women in these championships has caused some English chessplayers to emit shrieks of protest. The change has been described as "kowtowing", as being "pushed around by politicians": a poster on the English Chess Forum added that "I had hoped that English chess might escape unscathed". Another, possibly with a problem rather wider than the one being immediately addressed, found himself invoking Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge and somebody he called "Mad Hatter Harman" in a series of responses attacking "outdated" feminism and comparing the change to proposals to change the rape laws.

What, you may wonder, is this clearly controversial change that has caused these gentlemen such anguish? What injustice, what act of positive discrimination has caused them to react so angrily? What horror of political correctness could bring them to the point where they respond in such an outraged and aggressive tone? As English chess has not, apparently, "escaped unscathed" - to what degree has it actually been scathed? Have men been barred from the Championships? Have women been awarded bonus points for turning up? Have protesting men been threatened? Been beaten up by the police? Been dragged off to prison?

None of these. Not quite. What has actually happened, as I understand it, is that the name of the title for which women players are contending will no longer be that of Ladies' Champion. We will now have a Women's Champion instead.

Quelle horreur.

Now to my mind the only genuinely noteworthy thing about this change is that nobody thought to make it thirty years ago. Ladies is old-fashioned and outmoded, and for a reason: it's the equivalent, not of Men but of Gentlemen, a term which nobody would think of using, in contemporary sport, in its capitalised form. These terms no longer describe the people for whom they were devised. That is what language does. It changes, over time, as the subjects of a language also change.

It's not so important in itself. It's just a small, overdue correction that somebody has finally thought to make. Had they not made the change now, nobody would very much have minded: they would surely, however, have made it in the end. As one sane voice on the Forum says:
While the change itself is rather inconsequential, this is no reason in itself not to do it if it's appropriate
It could not be better put. It is a small thing but an appropriate one. A reasonable one.

Except in the minds of some chessplayers - to whom, apparently, it is neither appropriate or reasonable. It is an outrage, an imposition, a piece of grotesquery, an oppressive act to be compared with relaxing the laws on rape or murder, or even with taking people off to Nazi concentration camps. These are the terms in which people have, themselves, chosen to respond. These are comparisons which they have seen fit to make.

This is hysterical. But not in a good way.

Of course, the men who have responded in this way are keen, at the same time, to stress that they have nothing against women, indeed not, and nor in fact does any other male chessplayer that they are aware of. Writes one of the loudest protestors:
chess is open and welcomes people of all sorts
and that they are
utterly unaware of any male resentment to women playing chess
Utterly unaware is a good term, here, since they are also utterly unaware of the impression they are giving of themselves.

It is not really, if truth be told, a discussion about whether we should say ladies or women. That would be the issue if the responses were temperate, and thoughtful, and proportionate to the importance of the act. Proportionate is what the responses are not. Nor temperate, nor thoughtful. They range to the embarrassing to the wild and foaming. Some are extraordinary in tone. They are not just unreasonable but unreasoned. They are not the tones of a discussion or a disagreement. They are the tones of resentment and fear.

It's true, the men who respond like this, with their resentment and their fear, are not bad men. Nor are they thoughtless, nor stupid. Except, that is, for the idiot who thought it would be an appropriate response to quote Pastor Niemöller. Really. Somebody actually did that. Some cretinous individual actually did that. Some cretinous individual actually thought it was appropriate to compare a change in wording of a sporting title to people being sent in their millions to Nazi death camps.

You know, I've long since abandoned the idea that chessplayers are necessarily intelligent, but even I was surprised. One sees the most extraordinary stupidity on the internet and I have seen my share in full, but even I was forced to ask myself - just how ignorant and stupid is it possible for somebody to be?

Still, with the exception of the idiot Alex Holowczak, they are not ignorant men (though given that one of them is a Sun journalist, not all have an aversion to ignorance as such.) I've seen most of them comment thoughtfully and usefully on other aspects of chess.

But though they are not ignorant men, they are men nevertheless. And it seems, as it has always seemed, that at the first hint of feminism, many men lose their heads. Or, at least, that portion of their heads which contains the qualities of thought and reason. In the face of feminism the thoughtful become fools. Foolish men, full of needless, ludicrous resentment at an enemy who is present only in their fearful imagination. Men who have no idea that their own reactions demonstrate that they, themselves, are the problem - the problem that they insist does not exist.

They think of "feminism" as "outdated". Of course they do. And they show exactly why it is not.

Is it more ludicrous than it is extraordinary, or more extraordinary than it is ludicrous? Change the word ladies to women and some men respond as if they were being dragged off to the guillotine by a horde of wild-eyed feminists with Harriet Harman playing Madame Defarge. Or to an appointment with Valerie Solanas.

Hey ho. I really ought to be old enough not to be surprised by this sort of thing, but in truth I find it depressing, and troubling, especially if I think (as I do) that it reflects attitudes that are common within chess. I'm forty-four years old (old enough, it occurs to me, to have read Marilyn French's novel almost when it came out) and I can remember what a struggle it was, years ago but lasting years, to allow women to refer to themselves as Ms, if they so wished, not Miss or Mrs according to whether or not they had a husband.

Long and loud was the shrieking whenever this small change was proposed. Great were the insults heaped upon the feminists who proposed it. Dire were the predictions of calamity for humanity if the feminists got their way. Frequent were the accusations of tokenism laid at the door of the feminists for apparently believing that all you had to do to change something for real was to change its name. (You might think that people could either be accused of tokenism or of threatening calamity, but not both at the same time. You might receive the answer: "Quite".)

Of course, the usage Ms is now taken for granted, forms and forms of address have long since changed and nobody gives a damn if anybody prefers Ms, still less expects to heavens to fall when it does. If you're much younger than I am, you probably can't imagine what the fuss was about. Good. You've grown up in a world which is more grown-up - in that respect at least - than it was before. And similarly, in a few years somebody will understand what all this fuss was about. And the people who have written embarrassing things will be embarrassed that they wrote them.

So I hope. In the meantime, I hope these people do no damage. I hope, for instance, that the sheer stupidity of using phrases like "being pushed around by politicians", when the namechange is suggested by one of the few political figures who cares about chess and has been supportive of it, does not have the effect of losing chess those few political supporters.

I also hope that I am mistaken that these clowns represent a serious current of thinking (or indeed "thinking") within chess. It is never, of course, hard to find, on any subject, a small number of people speaking high-pitched paranoid nonsense on the internet, and it is tempting to believe that they represent no-one but themselves. I do not want to think, and I do not want other people to think, that chess - male-dominated though it is - is dominated by the sort of man who behaves like this. I do not want chess to be like that. I do not want chess to be thought of like that.

But I don't know. If they react like this over something so unimportant - what are they going to be like about that really matters? If it takes something as small as this to bring fear and resentment so very quickly to the surface - what is really going on in the minds of some male chessplayers?

There was a question asked on the Forum.
What does substituting one word, "lady," with another word, "woman," actually achieve by way of improving the participation and profile of women in chess?
It's not much of a question: as a rhetorical point it is a specious one, since nobody will be put off either. But what might well put women off - and Lord knows there are few enough of them in chess - is the reaction they get from men who play chess and the impression they get about what those men are like. They know that chess is overwhelmingly played by men - but what if they decide that it is not just overwhelmingly men, but whining, bitter and resentful men at that?

What will happen is that we have fewer of the women and no fewer of the whining, bitter and resentful men. What a depressing prospect that would be.

It doesn't have to be that way. If English chess does what it needs to do. English chess needs to grow up.

[This piece replaces the previously-promised fourth Benasque post, which may or not appear on a future date]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Benasque 3 - More Coincidences

When I play at Benasque I stay in a campsite about three kilometres up the hill from the town, hotel rooms being pricier than I reckon I can afford. When I'm on my own this means about forty minutes' energetic walk, but when I'm not, it's five short minutes in the car, a difference that's particularly noticeable when it's dark, or raining, or when you're knackered.

After watching Romain Edouard's disaster in round nine we had just set off when we stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker who, though it was neither dark nor raining, had, he told us, been walking all day and didn't really fancy the last couple of miles uphill. Having said "thank you" in English when he got in, he found himself replied to in the same language - and in the conversation that ensued he was interested to hear that I was playing in the chess tournament in the town, since - though there to walk, not to play chess - he had noticed that there was a tournament on, and was, he said, a chessplayer himself.

Obviously at first I assumed he meant he knew how the pieces move. This assumption was upgraded when he asked me what my rating was, since you'd have to be a serious player to ask, and was entirely obliterated when he said that his was 2323, a sizeable distance above my own. His accent wasn't entirely English, having a large component of Australian, but given that he said he had been busy on the English circuit twenty years before - and indeed had a couple of IM norms outstanding from that time - I said I surely had to know his name. I did. By extraordinary coincidence, driving uphill from a tiny Pyrenean town we happened to have picked up a hitch-hiker who turned out to be Erik Teichmann.

I remembered the name from my youth, if not much more than that: I don't think we ever played, not surprisingly since Erik was several classes above me as a player, his name presumably familiar from the top boards and prize lists of tournament where I probably didn't even play in the top section. But I did remember him, and I was also half-sure I had seen it again more recently, though precisely where I didn't know. He said he had been playing a bit more recently, after a long largely inactive spell, and that he'd won a couple of tournaments: indeed he had so perhaps I may have seen his name in a report somewhere.

Anyway, what with those titles Erik's rating is on the up - not bad for a guy who's forty-eight this year, albeit probably the healthiest-looking forty-eight-year-old man I've ever seen, even by the standards obtaining in Australia, where he lives. Erik is now a qualified "life coach" and it appears his old norms are valid, as he thought, so that title too, may yet be his.

Well, you never know who you'll meet on the road, so my advice is: always pick up hitch-hikers. It was a pleasure to meet and talk, so if Erik is reading this - best wishes and best of luck for the future, in chess and elsewhere.

But what's this I hear about a long beard and a single long fingernail?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Benasque 2 - Coincidences

In the second round at Benasque I was drawn against the German grandmaster Henrik Teske, whose rating, at 2536, was just one point below that of the English international master Stephen Gordon, also competing in the tournament. They therefore found themselves at adjacent boards, though with opposite colours: or put another way, I was facing Henrik Teske and had Stephen Gordon immediately to my right.

I opened, as I do habitually, with 1.d4 and after 1...Nf6 employed my Benko-avoiding favourite 2.Nf3 which was followed by 2...c5 3.d5. Teske then played 3...b5, a Benko of sorts nevertheless. Not one I have a name for (so I shall here and now coin the name Benko Deflected) but one I had faced before, in the 4NCL some years ago, a game which Chessbase Online Database informs me was played against Adeyo Dasaolu. I remembered the game and that I had lost it after establishing a certain advantage early on: but I wasn't entirely sure how it had gone, other than being fairly sure that after 4.Bg5 Black had played 4...Ne4 and 5...Qa5+.

Anyway, I got up - the position being that in the diagram at the top of this piece - in order to say goodbye to my wife, who is in the habit of watching me play for the first few moves and then occupy herself with the not impossible task of finding something more interesting to do.

When I returned to the board Black was, in fact, in the very act of playing his knight to e4, and I was about to sit down and try to remember whether my bishop went to f4 or h4 (I thought the former, but I was not entirely certain) when I noticed that the chair was already occupied. Specifically, it was occupied by the English international master Stephen Gordon, who was just that second putting his black-squared bishop on f4.

We were playing the same unusual variation, side-by-side. Or side-by-side provided I sat in the right chair.

I moved my bishop to f4. Gordon's opponent played 5...Bb7, not the move my 4NCL opponent had played. Teske, for the while, did nothing.

What are the ethics involved in situations like this? We're familiar with the famous occasion at the Gothenburg Interzonal of 1955 where three Soviet players defeated three Argentinian players in games that were identical until Black's move 13 (and in two cases, until White's move 23). Can you copy? Should you copy? Moreover, if you choose to play the same moves as your counterpart because you think they're the best ones, will people assume that you are copying? Especially when you're not only graded almost four hundred points below him, but share his nationality?

Gordon replied to 5....Bb7 with 6.a4. Meanwhile, Teske was still to move, and didn't, in fact, move, for about ten minutes. I was not entirely sure why - it was intrinsically unlikely that a player of his class had reached our position without knowing what he wanted to do next - but he told me afterwards that he was concerned that Gordon's opponent might copy him and for that reason wanted to allow the other game to get ahead of us. Eventually, though, he did play, and chose the same move, 5...Bb7.

And I thought, for perhaps twenty minutes.

We were now in a position I had not been in before, and I felt it was an embarrassing position to be in. I really didn't want this to be happening. It was quite obvious that it would be wise to copy Gordon's moves: they were likely to be better than the ones I would choose unadvised. And I was being advised. Every move, unasked and unwanted, I was having a strong international master say to me "this is what I think is the best move here - what do you reckon?"

I didn't want that help. I was playing a grandmaster, something I do once a year if I am lucky, and I wanted to play my own moves. I didn't want any help and nor did I want the appearance of help. I also knew that sooner or later Gordon's opponent would make an error, Teske would play something else and that if I then, as was almost certain, went on to lose, I would give the appearance of having copied Gordon's moves for as long as I possibly could and then having caved in as soon as I'd had to make my own moves.

No - I wanted to be the one to diverge. But of course, that meant trying to find alternative moves to those being selected by a player almost four hundred rating points my senior.

What should I do? I decided to play any alternative move which seemed to me a good one and only play Gordon's move if I really thought it was the best - and therefore spent those twenty minutes trying to make 6.c4 work but eventually I was forced to concede that 6...bxc4 looked like a good reply. So I copied Gordon with 6.a4. Teske replied with the same move he had already seen at the adjoining board, 6...b4.

He said in the post-mortem that he felt there was nothing else, and it certainly seems that 6...Qa5+ is struggling after either knight to d2, while 6...a6 likewise suffers after two captures and 9.Nc3! when White has the centre, better development and no more weaknesses than his adversary.

But it meant I had to choose again - copy or diverge - and I could see that Gordon had already gone for 7.Qd3.

I hadn't thought of that move although - as the game had proceeded to 7...Nf6 8.e4 - I could see that it was good.

Of course Black can go 8...Ba6 and even follow up 9.Qe3 Ng4, but although White's queen is being kicked around Black is neither threatening its survival nor developing any new pieces. White's pawn centre is important: the possibility that he will be unable to castle, rather less so. But still, I was surprised by 7.Qd3 - it's not a move, I felt, I would have thought of. So if I were to find an alternative, I'd prefer to play it.

I wanted to put a knight on d2, but that would leave the d-pawn hanging - without that fact, Black would simply be much worse - and then it occurred to me that I could challenge the knight by putting mine on g5. If he swapped, that was mission accomplished: if he followed the pattern, if no longer the letter, of the other game in retreating to f6, I'd have time for 8.c4, propping up the menaced d5 pawn. It seemed all right to me: I played 7.Ng5. At last I was playing my game and not somebody else's.

I was all right, too, as it turned out, play continuing 7...Nf6 8.c4 h6 9.Nh3 g5 10.Bc1 e6 11.g3 with an eccentric but basically equal game in which I blundered on move 20 and shortly lost. Gordon, of course, went on to win.

7.Ng5 is, however, certainly not the best move. I don't want to investigate it thoroughly here, not least because I have no intention of playing it again. Not because it's weak as such, but because it's clearly not the best. In contrast to Gordon's 7.Qd3, which keeps a nice advantage in space and development, it leaves White struggling - and having to come up with tactical tricks - to maintain himself in either department.

It's not as strong as Gordon's move, nor as practical. And the thing is, I knew this. It wasn't just inductive reasoning - his move is likely on any given occasion to be better than mine - that led me to believe this, it was having looked at the position it gave him and noticed that it was comfortable for White. But I preferred to go my own way.

I don't know, really, whether I did the right thing. Of course the overwhelming likelihood would have been that I would have lost, whenever our games had finally diverged. And thinking about it, I didn't lose anything compared to not having the same game going on beside me, because I don't believe I would have played 7.Qd3 and might not even have found 6.a4.

But at the same time, there it was: my once-a-year chance to take on a grandmaster and I was offered, free of charge, a nice, comfortable edge with the White pieces.

All I had to do was copy the moves of a strong player who - just as if it were How Good Is Your Chess? for real - was sitting alongside me. And would that really have been any different from what we do, when we copy the theory?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Benasque 1 - Tragedies

I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget.
Horton-Hernández [2326, FM] Benasque 2009, round ten.
Position after 51...Ke5-f5. Can you detect Black's threat?

Before we get on to the diagram above, from a game in the tenth and penultimate round of the Benasque Open, I'd like to tell you about the top board game in the ninth round (a game readers of Chess Today will already have seen me describe.) The players were the experienced Romanian grandmaster Mihail Marin and the rather younger French grandmaster Romain Edouard. I played a longish game myself in that round - my last three games went to 49, 77 and 70 moves respectively, though all would have been half the length had I seen the wins available - and so I was somewhat surprised to see play still continuing on the top board when I finished my post-mortem. I was more surprised, though, by what was still to come.

When I arrived among the spectators, almost four hours into the session, the game had, I believe, reached the following position, Black having played 56...g5 and hence elected to keep his last pawn and the winning chances that went with it.

At the same time, in doing so he gave White two connected passed pawns. However, he might have picked one of them up after the following moves 57.Re8 Re3 58. Kg2 Bg3 59.Re6+ Kh7 60.Re7+ Kg8 61.f6 Kf8 62.Rg7

since the computers feel that 62...Bh4! wins at least one of them (e.g. 63.Re7 Re2+ 64. Kh1 Bf2! 65.Rg7 Be3 66.Re7 Bd4).

Instead he won the h-pawn after 62...Bf4 63.Re7 Rg3+ when Marin decided not to risk 64.Kh2 and selected 64.Kf2?. Then came 64...Rxh3 65.e5

Position after White's 65th. Does Black have a win?

and now Edouard, instead of playing for the win which appears to be there (and which readers are invited to find) played 65...g4? and found himself in trouble after 66.e6. Not that much trouble, as he can draw easily enough, and in fact turned down a chance to do so by repetition after 66...Rf3+ 67.Kg2 Rg3+ 68.Kf2 Rf3+ 69.Kg2, punting 69...Bh6. Now 70.Rf7+ Kg8? (70...Ke8 and it's a draw) 71.Rd7! and suddenly Black has to explain how he's going to stop the pawns.

In fact he can't, and after 71...Rxf6 72.Rd8+ Kg7 73.e7 he had to give up his rook to stop the last one: 73...Re6 74.e8=Q Rxe8 75.Rxe8.

This should, however, have been anything but fatal: though obviously the chance of winning was long gone, it should be absolutely elementary to hold bishop and pawn against rook, provided that the pawn can be reached and defended. Which after 75...Kf6

it obviously can be.

(At this point I might add that there was a huge crowd around the board, although I don't suppose the players were aware of it. I stepped back a bit to allow the shortish Finnish FIDE Master Markku Hartikainen to see, only for his view shortly to be blocked by some other chap barging to the front. A tap on the back produced no response more positive than a shake of the head, something I might have understood had I known that the gentleman was an arbiter, which in turn is something I might have understood had he bothered to wear his badge. Benasque has a couple of genuinely objectionable individuals among its arbiters: this guy is one of them.)

Play proceeded - although the game was of course completely drawn Marin had no reason to accept this until he felt like it - and Edouard succeeded in moving the pawn to a Black square, which should really have clinched it. However, and - in any sense beyond the psychological - inexplicably, in this position

Edouard put his king on f4.

It was his eightieth move and I reckon he might be eighty before he plays another move as bad as that. I can only imagine that he was suffering the delusion that rather than blocking the defence of the g3 pawn, he thought he was reinforcing it: perhaps similar to the apparent belief of an exhausted Efim Geller in this game

that he would be able to take the g3 pawn and thus uncover an attack, by his king on f5, on Fischer's f1 rook.

Fine writes of the pawnless rook v bishop ending:
in the general case....this is a draw...

....the Black King should head for the opposite corner
(i.e. one of the opposite colour to the bishop, so that in the event of, say, WK a6 BK a8 and BB b8, rook to the eighth rank produces stalemate - ejh) as fast as his legs will carry him, and once arrived there nothing can happen to him.
In principle, perhaps, this may be true, but in practice bad things can and do happen. There are still tricks and in the particular practice of this game - given what had already happened and the consequent state of his head - Edouard, though he did indeed head for that corner, was always likely to fall for one of them. White can, for instance, annoy and unsettle Black by refusing to let him settle in the corner square: after Black's 97...Be5

White proceeded just so, playing 98.Ra7+ Kb8 and then harrassing the bishop with 99.Re7 Bd6 100.Rd7 Bc7 101.Rg7 Be5 102.Rf7.

Black is still drawing (as Nalimov will confirm) in all sorts of ways, but none of them are 102..Bd6?? as played, because White has 103.Kb6! and now Black can't get safely back to a8, although he tried with 103...Ka8. Because this time, when the king is driven out of the corner with 104.Ra7+ Kb8
  1. the placing of the White king on b6 means that there is still a mate threat ; and
  2. the bishop has no check to drive the king away.
Hence after 105.Rd7

Black resigned.

After he resigned, he got straight up, scribbled his name on both scoresheets as fast as he could, grabbed his carbon copy, clutched it into a ball and started to run out of the hall, obviously in a state of some distress. Halfway down the aisle he tried to drop-kick the ball of paper, missed and then stopped, putting his head on a nearby table as if to start beating his forehead against the surface.

By coincidence my wife had picked precisely that moment to come into the hall and therefore had the best view of anybody: she told me later that her impression had been of a young player behaving petulantly. But I don't think it was, not at all. It was an individual in a state of distress, somebody who in a situation of high mental tension had inflicted a torment on himself, somebody starting to run because he wanted to and then stopping because he didn't want to, somebody who - from his face - didn't know whether to cry or whether to scream and who therefore did neither. It was somebody who really didn't know what to do. And I really felt for him.

Anyway, having had a poor start to the tournament and a couple of small disasters on my own account, I had trudged my way up to +2 and the next day I played my game a little closer to M. Edouard. (Indeed much closer, since the previous day I had played on the blind/partially-sighted tables, down the very far end of the hall.) I was on board 45 (of 208) against the Peruvian FIDE Master Iván Hernández, rated 2326, more than a hundred and sixty points above me. And I played him off the park.

It was also, for nearly four hours, one of the most exciting games I have ever taken part in. I turned down a draw offer after twenty moves, not just because I knew he would not have offered it were he not worse, but because I knew he was worse. I missed some probable wins but didn't lose control of the position until move thirty-five: and even then I got it straight back, saw some tactics that he did not and, as Marin had done the day before, picked up a rook in exchange for an advanced pawn.

But in reality it was Edouard's role I was playing, not least, but not only, because I also picked up a bishop - and entered the endgame with a piece up. In this instance, for absolutely nothing. A piece up for nothing against a FIDE Master, graded 2326.

In retrospect - or possibly not even in retrospect, because despite having played fearlesly I could sense my fears beginning to make themselves felt - I probably panicked, partly through relative time shortage, partly through not seeing clearly how I could make my extra piece count and being aware that the pawns were starting to be exchanged. Having probably saved me earlier on, the Fischer clock now began to work against me: with just a small increment every move rather than a large addition at a time control, there was no real opportunity to clear my head and think about how to sensibly win the game. (I suspect that had there been such a time control, Hernández would have resigned.)

In truth - one kind of truth, anyway - everything was, in fact, a great deal more under control than I knew, and after Black's fiftieth move we came to the following position

where my 51.f4+ was a perfectly good move. It did, however, have the demerit of taking away the support for the knight.

As inexplicable as Edouard's blunder of the g3 pawn? I can't really explain it, because the moment you look at the position at the top of the column there is no question. You see immediately what the problem is. You cannot miss it.

Maybe, as Tom has suggested to me in a discussion of the game, because I had just attacked the king I forgot that it, too, is an attacking piece. Maybe, because my king defends the knight it didn't seem undefended, just as, because Edouard's king "defended" his pawn, he maybe failed to appreciate that in fact he had rendered it undefended. Maybe I was just thinking about his plans to attack my pawns and it never occurred to me that I might have an endangered knight. But most likely, I didn't notice the threat because I had created it myself.

But, whatever the reasons, after 51...Kf5 I thought for two of the three minutes I possessed and played 52.h3??. And he took off the knight with check - and in an instant, everything had gone. The win, one of the best of my life, had gone. The game, one of the best of my life, had gone. Even the draw had gone.

I played another twenty-five moves before I resigned. When I finally gave in, I didn't say anything. He did: he said "I'm so sorry". He said it again: "I'm so sorry". But I didn't say anything. I don't think I could have said anything. I didn't screw up my scoresheet. I didn't run out of the hall. I just sort of sat there and closed my eyes.

But really, I could have cried.

[Note: this is the first of four postings this week on the Benasque tournament.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Greatest Contribution to Chess

I believe I'm correct in saying that in America, players bring their own sets and clocks to tournaments - that the organizers provide nothing of the sort.

I'm all for this. Personally, I think electronic chess clocks are highly overrated. I'd revert to egg-timers if I could, the kind with sand.

And think of the benefits to the environment, by keeping down the amount of plastic in circulation. And in fact, why rely on plastic or wood pieces at all? When this kind of thing is available, I mean:-

Yes, that's right. Chess sets made from nuts and bolts. Surely, this is the next step in the evolution of the chess set. Surely, this is the end of the Staunton design.

And I'll go one step further. Surely the day will come when you can cycle to a chess tournament, dismantle the nuts and bolts from your bike, and use them as chess pieces. Or for drivers, why not a detachable sun-roof checkered with sixty four squares?

I think this might just be my best idea ever!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Probably Got Nothing To Do With Chess VI

"In the final days of the Second World War, Michael Rogan, a young American soldier, is brutally tortured by Nazi officers and left for dead. Vowing revenge, he begins a quest to track down and kill each one of his tormentors."

Or so it says here.

Stephen James - The Rook

William Guy Carr - Pawns in the Game

Malorie Blackman - Checkmate

Qiu Xialong - A Case of Two Cities

Stephenie Meyer - Breaking Dawn

Friday, July 17, 2009

Department of A Likely Story : Bobby Fischer

Yesterday's Independent treated us to one of those hastily-cobbled-together list items in which a couple of the less senior hacks in the office are obliged to compile a list of the all-time most significant happenings in any given sphere suggested by a given news story. The Ten Most Ridiculous Celebrity Funerals, perhaps, or Top Twenty Latin American Coups, compiled with the expert knowledge of the journalists, or more likely their expert knowledge of how to search the internet.

One day I might do the Top Ten Inaccurate Newspaper Stories About Chess, assuming I can whittle it down to ten rather than settle for, say, a hundred: yesterday's piece is at least a candidate for the longlist. Simon Rice and Jimmy Leach offer us The Worst Losers in Sport: beginning (perhaps unfairly) with Ricky Ponting and eventually arriving at number thirteen, who turns out to be Bobby Fischer.

The piece on Fischer reads, in full:
During a chess match between Spassky and Fischer in 1971, Bobby Fischer refused to allow any of the spectators to eat fruit yoghurt in the auditorium because he suspected secret messages were being transmitted to Boris through which flavours they were eating!
Since we're making lists: readers are invited to do precisely that and list every mistake which the piece contains. Because I think it may include more errors of fact per word than any other passage about chess I've ever read. Where did they get it from?

[Thanks to Angus for this]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Place oddity

Here's an oddity I came across after reading about the Foxwoods Open in the latest New In Chess. The tournament was won by Darmen Sadvakasov in a play-off after, so NiC reporter Loek van Wely tells us, catching up the leader in the final round with a win on the Black side of the Exchange Slav.

Now there are few variations that interest me more than the Exchange Slav, particularly if Black actually manages to win, so I went looking for the game score and found a pgn file with the relevant game. However, scrolling up to find it, I found myself distracted by a different game, also in the Slav, in which White lost very quickly in a variation known to be a draw.

The game appears at the bottom of this report and was played in the final round between IM Justin Sarkar and GM Julio Becerra Rivero. Both players began the final round on the same score, 5.5/8.

The game went as follows:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 e6 7.f3 Bb4

This line was popular at super-GM level in the Nineties: later 7...c5 was tried in the Kramnik-Topalov match. Rather than 6...e6 the variation with 6...Nbd7 is more common presently, especially if Black has any interest in playing for a win.

8.e4 Bxe4 9.fxe4 Nxe4

Sarkar had had this position at least once before, in the 2006 US Championships against David Vigorito, in which White continued with the normal 10.Bd2 and play continued 10...Qxd4 11.Nxe4 Qxe4+ 12.Qe2 Bxd2+ 13.Kd2 Qd5+

giving a much-explored position in which White's piece is now generally judged to just outweigh Black's three pawns, although the line remains perfectly playable (indeed I play it myself) provided Black is prepared to accept a draw.

I say this because not only is the main line difficult to play for a win if White is not in the mood for a contest, but in fact White has an alternative tenth move which makes it almost compulsory for Black to accept the draw: and this move, 10.Qf3, is what Sarkar played.

This threatens mate on f7 and the knight on e4 and thus (unless Black just wants to be a piece down) forces the response - played by Becerra - 10...Qxd4 which was met by 11.Qxf7+ Kd8

and now 12.Bg5+ is the move, after which 12...Nxg5 13.Qxg7

and now it's considered that Black should accept the draw with 13...Bxc3+ 14.bxc3 Qxc3+ 15.Ke2 Qc2+ since the alternatives (13...Qe3+ and 13...Qh4+) are unpromising. I won't go into the variations here - the interested might like to see Burgess, The Slav, Gambit 2001, pages 234-236 - but at the very least, if Black wishes to avoid the draw, 6...Nbd7 is certainly a much safer, more reliable and more combative way of going about it. It's most unlikely that a master would expect to play for a win, against another master, after 10.Qf3.

However, Becerra got one. Because Sarkar didn't take the draw: instead, he took on g7 immediately, 12.Qxg7??

which loses, and lost, immediately after 12..Bxc3+ 13.bxc3 (13.Ke2 Qxe5) 13...Qf2+. And White resigned, having apparently overlooked this simple capture, check and mate.

Odd, that this should happen to an International Master with a 2400+ rating and prior experience of the variation, but such things happen, even to the greatest of us: meanwhile the lucky Becerra came fourth and took home $668.40, a rather greater prize than either player would have won in the event of a draw.

Luckier still given his apparent willingness to accept the draw for which he didn't, as it turned out, have to settle. An odd preference in itself, given that although he had the Black pieces, his rating exceeded White's by around two hundred points: given his greater strength and the prize money on offer, he surely had every reason to play for a win. Maybe he expected White, too, to play for the win, but found instead that Sarkar called his bluff - so he had no choice but to settle for a draw. Or so it seemed. Until a stroke of fortune came his way.

But such things happen.