Sunday, January 31, 2016

What a Crockett IV

Considering the question of the 26-losses-and-a-draw sequence suffered by Stephen Crockett, whose curious playing record we have been looking at this past week, it occurred to me that we have a precedent in a story many chess players learn soon after they learn the moves. It's described on Wikipedia as the "wheat and chessboard" problem. I'm sure most readers know how it goes.

Sometimes it ends well, sometimes it doesn't.

Now in our current example, nobody is calling for anybody's execution, while controller of the Grand Prix isn't quite "a high-ranking advisor", but let us perform our own version of the problem, just to get ourselves a starting-point figure to work with.

It is, as I say, a starting-point figure, no more than that, so to obtain it, I've taken it that we wish to calculate the probability of a random player1 obtaining such a score in a twenty-seven game sequence2 against evenly-matched opponents.3 I've neglected the question of colours and I've chosen to estimate the probability of each result as follows:

Win 40% Draw 20% Loss 40%.

Obviously the reader is welcome to employ different values and thereby obtain a different result.

A different result, that is, from 1.37 billion to one.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What a Crockett III

In the previous two pieces in this series we've been looking with scepticism at the playing record of Stephen Crockett, four-time Grand Prix champion and winner of numerous tournaments, recently retired from the circuit after questions were asked about the integrity of his results, yet nevertheless recently made controller of the very same Grand Prix.

It's only fair to observe that, following his own announcement of his retirement, he's made some effort, on his Facebook page, to provide an explanation of some of the more remarkable features of his record and to rebut charges of sandbagging. This is recorded in comments he himself has made to this posting. For the convenience of readers I have provided copies of these comments at the foot of this piece.

Mr Crockett plays down the possibility of sandbagging by observing that there is no meaningful financial incentive, in amateur circuit chess, in fixing one's own results to one's disadvantage.
The first thing to understand about the idea of 'sandbagging' is that chess would be one of the most pointless sports/games to do it in on the whole- as regrettably there just isn't any significant money to be made in it apart from at the top level (in the UK at least). The only way anyone could get a significant financial advantage from losing games on purpose would be if given one off bungs to lose a game (not common as there's no gambling on chess apart from at the very top), or for someone who was in the 'second tier'- i.e. a very strong/titled player who would struggle to win much in tournaments with super Grand Masters but could hope to take home a sizeable pot from being eligible for a grade restricted but still extremely strong- stars barred type tournament.
This is no doubt the case, although at the same time, it's not an argument that applies to a player of Mr Crockett's real or apparent strength. The point that follows, however, addresses his situation more directly.
Some people talk about graded sections lower down in chess and wonder if people may want to lose on purpose to keep in a lower section than they should do- but that's largely a red herring- there simply isn't any money in it (the costs of entering to and travelling to tournaments usually outweigh the prize money even if one is lucky enough to win the section not to mention the costs associated with all the fruitless trips you'd end up making while losing games!)- the only occasional time I could see this happening is if someone enters ay 2 or 3 local/big events which do have decent money on offer in a year and doesn't otherwise play a lot and could easily lose a few league games to 'manage' their grade.
This is the same argument as in the preceding passage - "there simply isn't any money in it" - and it's as true as it's irrelevant. Why would the motive of an amateur who cheats necessarily be money? Moreover, if our only motive is money, why would we play in the first place, since "there simply isn't any money in it"?

In reality people have all sorts of motivations for trying to win, be they some kind of glory, self-satisfaction, the admiration of others and many other things. Where those motivations exist for winning, they exist also for cheating. People do, in fact, cheat in amateur as well as professional competitions.

So if you see no reason for cheating, other than money, then you are really not looking very hard. As a rebuttal it doesn't even make it out of the starting gate.

The major part of Mr Crockett's explanation is more serious.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What a Crockett II

Yesterday we were discussing Stephen Crockett, who, although his results in the competition over a number of years have caused a deal of controversy, has been made controller of the ECF's Grand Prix.

The controversy involved the unusual pattern of his results, specifically the way in which he seemed to score either very well or very badly, but much more rarely achieve a mediocre, mid-table score.

Using the ECF's grading database (for assistance, see yesterday's posting) I looked up Mr Crockett's standard play tournament performances for the season 2014-15 (I've omitted club games) which was the last full season in which he competed. It was also one in which he won the Grand Prix for the grading category 120-139. If I have rendered them correctly, they run as follows:


So out of twenty-one events, he was within a point of scoring 100% ten times and within a point of scoring 0% seven times. There was one score of 1.5/5, two scores of 3.5/5 (on both of which occasions, as it happens, he lost in the last round) and only one genuinely middling score, the 2/4 he achieved in the Bristol Summer Congress in August 2014.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What a Crockett

Players on the British tournament circuit compete not only for the prizes and trophies in the particular tournaments they enter, but also for the Grand Prix, a system by which players accumulate points, over a period July to June, according to their performances in those events - or their best performances if they play more than a certain number of events. The rules are here and the competition currently enjoys the support of Tradewise. I think the principles are easily enough understood.

In the halcyon days of UK chess the Grand Prix was a fiercely-contested affair with generous and much-coveted prizes. Even now, the competition carries a lot of prestige - not least at its lower levels, since there are sections for lower-graded competitors: 160-179, 149-160, 120-139 and under-120, using our eccentric grading system.

The lowest of these sections, as you can see, is the under-120, which was won, in the 2011-12 season, by one Stephen Crockett.

The following season, 2012-13, he won again.

And blow me if he didn't do the hat-trick in 2013-14.

By 2014-15 his grade was just too high for him to be entered in the under-120 lists. No matter: he won the next section up anyway.

Not everybody was delighted by this long string of success. Some time into the 2015-16 season - last October, in fact - a thread appeared on the English Chess Forum in which a lot of doubt was cast on the integrity of some of the results which Mr Crockett had achieved in the course of his four-year success story. Do read the thread if you have the time: it goes off-track round about page seven, but it's worth sticking with, especially for the last few postings.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Similar to the Oscars?

This week the movies come to chess. A reversal of our usual procedures.

Specifically, I’ll be asking what the current "Oscars Diversity Row" tells us about our game in England. We’ll take a look at the causes of the film industry’s problem with minority groups and the responses it has generated and then compare and contrast with our situation on and off the board. Spoiler Alert: I’m afraid we’ll discover that chess in England comes off worst in a direct 1-2-1 comparison with Hollywood’s orgy of back-slapping self-regard.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Certainly not when they said it was. Chess is not banned in Saudi Arabia, and certainly not last Wednesday, or as we called it last Wednesday, "today".

Well, everybody makes mistakes.

Still, before jumping to conclusions

on the basis of an old recording

and in particular, before appearing on the radio to say that Saudi players might be in danger

might it have been a good idea to check properly with the apparently threatened players themselves?

Because if you did...
Email, 21 January 2016 to

Dear Sirs

Apologies for writing in English but I do not know Arabic.

It has been reported today that "Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti has ruled that chess is forbidden in Islam".

I wondered if this report is correct or whether it is true that this report in fact relates to an old story I also wondered what effect, if any, this statement by the grand mufti has on Saudi chess.

Yours sincerely

Justin Horton'll be better informed than if you didn't
Email, 21 January 2016 from

Dear Horton,

Thank you very much for your concern. The subject referred to an old TV recording and in general all sports can fall into being religiously illegal once it involve gambling, directing players from religious duties (prayers) etc and of course creating hatred between the competitors and so on while those values are agreed on in the muslim world. More, all our activities are run as planned.

Best regards,

Yaser Al Otaibi General Secretary
which would save you having to go into reverse

later on.

Still it's not like Nigel was the only one. Some people were still putting the story about after it had been debunked.

And at least Nigel could be bothered to retract.

[Thanks to Jo Webb]
[Nigel Short index]

Friday, January 22, 2016

Les Chesseurs Britanniques de Paris: Part 1 The Club

Apologies to our French readers: "chesseurs" is probably as maladroit in French as "chessers" is - strictly speaking - in English. But it is so much simpler than "joueurs aux échecs" (I wonder if the Académie Française would let it in). [But please see footnote added 24 January 2016]. And so we go cross-channel for a mini-series on the long-forgotten British Chess Club of Paris (BCCP) 1926 to c.1938, continuing an Anglo-French theme that emerged in War Game 9 (where we reported on Lt. Maxime Chauvet, a French soldier who played chess here in the early years of WW2).   

Before we go any further, though, I would like to express my gratitude - yet again - to Dominique Thimognier of Heritage des Échecs Français for the generosity that has made these posts possible. 

Not only has Dominique shared with me the material that he has been able to dig up in the French chess, and national, press on the BCCP, but he has also, with great courtesy and forbearance, put up with the mauvais français that I have occasionally inflicted on him by email (his English, by contrast, is impeccable). Having said that: all errors, imprecisions, and misrepresentations made, and liberties taken [especially with the French language - see footnote], in these episodes are the responsibility of the author on this side of la Manche.  

The story of the British Chess Club of Paris begins with a meeting "in a small first floor room of a café in a side-street close to the Opera" on March 12th 1926. The quote comes from a two page article in the BCM of April 1935, pp166-7, which gives an abbreviated history of the Club to that date - it was written by "A Correspondent". The article is, obviously, an invaluable source of information; however, it doesn't tell the full story. For that you will have to follow this mini-series...  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Not especially of big concern for us

Here's some interesting archive footage I was passed by Jon Manley. I can't embed it here, as far as I can see, but click on the link and watch the video - it's only three minutes of your time. Three quite interesting minutes.

Here's a familiar face, for instance. Hello Kirsan!

Kirsan was hosting the 1998 Olympiad, something of a disaster for the England team which was seeded second, but finished eleventh, a long way out of the medals. Here's two more familiar faces, belonging to Matthew Sadler, who played on the team, and Chris Ward, who captained it.

And here's a somewhat less familiar face. It belonged to Larissa Yudina, who was killed in Elista three months before the footage was taken, in an assassination linked to the owner of the first face in our series.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Chess goes to the Movies: Casablanca

Chess has been going to the movies a fair bit of late (see Cgttm: The Hateful Eight) so now seems like as good a time as any to have a look back at some of the classics. We’ll start this week with one of the most famous of them all.

Casablanca. It’s not just one of the best known chess scenes in film. It may also be unique.

Let’s start with the kind of film that Casablanca is. In principle, I suppose, chess could appear in any kind of film about any kind of subject. There seem to be three genres in particular though, to which chess seems particularly well-suited:-

Casablanca, needless to say, is none of these. It’s a love story. It may be set during the war but it’s not a war film. What it's about is the triangle that develops after Ingrid Bergman accidentally cops off with two dudes - Bogie and Paul Heinred - at the same time.

A central narrative focusing on a female character having to choose between risky excitement and dull worthiness is a cliche that Hollywood fails to avoid like the plague, for sure. Chess appearing in a romance, however, is pretty rare to say the least.

So much for genre, let’s talk about theme. As far as why chess appears in a particular film goes - the function it serves - we’ve seen a whole spectrum in Cgttm so far.

We’ve had chess …

We get some of this in Casablanca too. Rick is bright and devious. He manipulates various pieces - Nazis, French authorities, the criminal underworld and business competitors - in the dangerous game that he plays and he'll come out a winner.

So we discover a good deal about about Rick from one glance of him at the chessboard. More than that, the chess game also gives the scene a little visual texture. The audience has something to look at whilst Peter Lorre sets up the story with his … blah blah … two German couriers ... blah blah ... letters of transit … bit

Casablanca also gives us something extra, though. Something we don’t see in any of those other films.

As the story unwinds we find out Rick is a loner. He has no countrymen - he’s an American living in North Africa - he doesn’t have friends. He has acquaintances. He has staff. He has business rivals. He has people he’ll deal with. He has enemies. What he doesn’t have anybody with whom he’s genuinely close.

We get that in the first scene. Rick is playing chess. Alone. A commonplace activity for us, perhaps, but when does that ever happen in film? Never as far as I know. Roy Batty fiddling with the pieces in JF Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runner doesn’t count. He’s on his own, perhaps, but there’s an opponent - Tyrell - albeit one who isn’t present at the time.

Rick won’t drink with Ugarte and he certainly won’t play chess with him. He doesn’t play with anybody. Unlike Harry Brown - where Michael Caine gives up the game when he loses his regular playing partner - Rick doesn’t have an opponent and he doesn’t need one. He plays chess how he lives his life.

He doesn’t care. Rick likes it that way. This is all clear. And yet, perhaps we also sense something more than a man who’s only interested in himself. Maybe there’s also a hint that he’s lonely. We’ll understand that a little more when of all the gin joints, in all the towns in all the world, Ingrid walks into his.

Is Casablanca a unique case? I’m not aware of any other major film which uses chess in quite the same way but it’s entirely possible somebody out there knows better. If so, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments box.

In any event, we’ll be on to another classic next week.

Chess goes to the movies Index

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bad book covers XXXIV

Ivan's Chess Journey: games and stories, Sokolov, Thinkers, 2016

[Bad book covers index]

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bible Says

Michael Bible's Sophia is "contemporary fiction" - as of 2015. It might be your cup of tea. It must be someone's. He's from North Carolina it says. "Originally." Where now, we aren't told. For good reasons maybe. "Southern Gothic for the Twitter generation" says the Indy on Sunday (3rd Jan). It has chess it said. Which is why I took a look; not being a Tweeter myself.
Published by Melville House. Brooklin and London
(The rest of this post contains a moderate spoiler.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Not OK computer

I found it hard to write anything for today. You'd think I'd be fresh after the Xmas break, bubbling with new ideas and all, but truth is I wasn't, at least not until Nigel popped up at the weekend. Hard to say exactly why, but I think I realised, a few weeks before Xmas, that - at least temporarily - I'd lost my enthusiasm for chess. For playing chess, at any rate.

I'm not sure exactly why, or at least why now - it's been several years since I stopped playing chess regularly, i.e. throughout the year, and settled into a pattern of playing one or two tournaments each summer. Last year there was Sitges in July and a Golders Green weekender in August. It's probably not the way to keep yourself in tip-top form, but it's quite a good way to stop yourself ruining your weekends for most of the year. I'm sure, though, that the feeling you're not giving of your best doesn't help you retain your enthusiasm for playing, but as I say, that's been true for a few years now. But in previous years I haven't felt the same ennui.

Maybe it has to do with also realising how much of a drag it is to look at opening theory. This never used to be true, but then again, I could always previously see the results on the chessboard (results in terms of good positions out of the opening, mind, as opposed to actual results on the scoreboard). Now I'm not playing much, I'm not seeing those results, I'm just seeing the slog involved in trying to keep up - which, it seems to me, I have to do more, rather than less, in order to refresh my memory, since the positions I'm looking up aren't appearing on any actual real chessboards in any actual real games. And naturally, since I'm past fifty now, I can still see lines I looked at more than thirty years ago more clearly than lines I looked at just last week.

So there's that. And there's this and that and the other thing. Perhaps most importantly, there's this.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Chess Goes to the Movies: The Hateful Eight

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Not the most original way to begin, I grant you, but as far as chess going to the movies is concerned, that’s exactly how things were at the fag end of 2015.

The telly execs of our times justify not putting our game on the box on the grounds that nobody cares, and yet chess continues to be part of cinema’s go-to imagery. The 64 squares made a cameo appearance in three of the most popular films of the last couple of months alone. That’s the good part. The downside is that two of the three films weren’t tremendously good and two of the three chess scenes - a different two - were less than thrilling.

First up we had Spectre, the disappointing James Bond film that was at least three-quarters of an hour too long. Readers who were with us in the summer may recall that I consider most films to be outstaying their welcome when they get to the 100-110 minute mark and two hours is the absolute top whack. Spectre rolled in at a snore inducing two hours 30 minutes but, hey ho, at least it had a chess scene, right?

What we got was Mr B pitching up at some mountain shack and suggesting that he and the occupant sit down to have a chat. This they proceed to do although, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, they have their chinwag sitting on opposite sides of a dusty old chess board. A chess scene? In a visual sense it was, I suppose, but not one with a sliver of meaning.

Next up was Bridge of Spies, the most recent Tom Hanks vehicle. There’s not a lot to detain us here except the pay-attention-or-you’ll-miss-it appearance of chess about halfway through. Look closely and during one of Forest Gump's visits to Mark Rylance in prison you’ll see a pair of inmates pushing pawns in the background.

Finally there was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I liked this film a lot. Not the least of the reasons why was that it was respectful of the source material. For our purposes let’s consider Finn finding himself at a round chequered table on the Millennium Falcon and accidentally switching on the hologram chess game that R2D2 and Chewbacca were playing in the original. Like the original scene it’s not a big plot point. Not a big deal at all, in fact. It was, however, another pleasing little bit of business that showed that the makers of The Force Awakens cared about their history.

So much for last year. What of 2016?

For a start* last Friday saw the release of Tarantino’s** latest, The Hateful Eight. It stars Kurt Russell a man who can boast a previous CGttM appearance in The Thing, a film which Quentters has cited as a creative influence - and it features chess too.

Sounds pretty good so far, doesn’t it? The trouble is it also has a running time of over three hours. Even the ’short’ version is two and three-quarter hours long. That’s are-you-having-a-laugh? territory even by Tarantino’s bloated self-indulgent standards. It’s certainly I’m-taking-a-packed-lunch-and-maybe-even-a-sleeping-bag by mine.

Ah well. At least there’s chess in it. Best of times, worst of times and all that.

* Or possibly not. A few days before The Hateful Eight I saw Joy. Perhaps I was hallucinating, but I think that when Jennifer Lawrence arrives at QVC you can see giant chess pieces being packed into a box in the background during one scene.

** In Quentin’s previous appearance on the blog - The Decline of the "The Decline of English Chess" Article -  he claimed that Django Unchained started people talking about Slavery - you know, just like Stephen Moss started people talking about the Decline of English Chess.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Speaking as an outsider



Who else?

Poor old Nigel. People just can't help being horrid to him. Especially women.
There was a woman on NZ television... calling me a twat...does she know what a twat is? That's pretty damn rude.
You know, I suspect that she does know what a twat is, and I suspect that she also knows what Nigel is. In some ways, perhaps a little better than Nigel does himself, or is ever likely to - not while he continues to be baffled as to why he's in a fight that he's gone out of his way to pick himself.

Because I suspect that as long as he keeps using terminology like "mad feminist" or "shrill feminists" or "tyrannical feminist lobby" or indeed refers to women as "totty" or "trained monkeys", then he's never going to run short of women to insult him.

People can be unfair like that.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Chess in Art Postscript Supplemental: Shemzatic Thinking

Posted by Martin Smith

There has been rather a drought of new chess-art in the recent period, so it's good to be able to get another look at Anwar Jalal Shemza (1929-1985), who popped up with his Chessmen paintings in a Postscript back in May 2012 and who is currently making a welcome re-appearance at Tate Britain. Hitherto we had to make do with just one or two of his pictures, but now there is a whole room of them (but not all, by any means, chess-related) occasioned presumably by the 30th anniversary of his death in 2015 - and they will be there well into 2016. Now we can get a better, more comprehensive, look at the artist; and take the opportunity to supplement our earlier post.

Chessmen One (1961)
Anwar Jalal Shemza (1929-1985)
Tate Gallery

This is the work by Anwar Jalal Shemza with which we are most familiar: a rather intriguing chess set. This post will try and make some sense of it, and the artist himself.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

And we’re back

Because we didn’t spend enough of the last fortnight stuffing our faces ...