Surrey League division 4 match played at the Haywain Brewers Fayre, Epsom on 29 November 2021
At time of writing, I am celebrating: my daughter is turning 2,000 days old! Milestones in days are tragically under-appreciated. It felt almost as long ago that we had our last Centenary Trophy match, but a mere 634 days – not even a million minutes – covers the period between our match in this league against Richmond on 5 March 2020 and this game at Epsom.
Just one player from that Richmond trip can claim to have played in both these matches. Jon Eckert was the experienced top board for this fixture, with five players new to the club this season below him. Epsom had a similar mix of experience and newcomers – it’s great to see so many new players coming to over-the-board league chess.
After an hour and a quarter’s play, all the queens were still on all the boards and the fights were raging. Soon after, Kingston’s Jake Grubb finished first, on board six, some key chances being missed in an unfortunate defeat to the hard-working Epsom captain David Flewellen. Kingston also went down on on board 5 despite a valiant fight.
Jon Eckert won on board 1, building a nice attack and keeping his cool as his veteran opponent Michael Wickham, who has slain me in our last two matches against Epsom, found numerous difficult tactics for him to see past: 2-1 to the hosts. Yae-Chan Yang on board three was living precariously, and, after dodging the mines for a while, one was triggered and his position collapsed. 3-1. Could we get a draw?
Max Mikardo-Greaves had played an excellent game on board four against an opponent who on paper was far stronger. His position was close to winning, but a knight tactic proved his undoing. Very unfortunate, but a good topic of discussion for the drive home. John Shanley, though, finished on a high for Kingston. His opponent sacrificed a piece for a dangerous attack early on, but, despite the Black king being forced to trek ignominiously across the board, Shanley kept the attack at bay. As it finally fizzled out, he got to a winning endgame and finished it nicely.
So we lose 4-2. But plenty to take away and learn from this – all the newcomers insisted they enjoyed their exposure to the rigours of league chess and the traditional journey to the away venue in polar conditions (more exposure, of an icy kind). We will, as they say, take the positives and use the experience to strengthen us for our next match. There’s less than 1,000 hours between the end of this match and the start of the next one, so the intense mental preparation starts now!
Adam Nakar, Kingston Centenary Trophy (Surrey League division 4) captain
The top board in a match is very often the last to finish and this game was no exception. The players were totally engrossed in this titanic struggle and were playing on the increment for most of the complex ending. The advantage changed hands several times, both players having eschewed a chance to take the drawing option. This win was Epsom’s only win in this knockout match and was very well deserved.
Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi are under attack for producing a string of draws in the world championship. But their critics misunderstand the essence of the game
The drawish nature of the games in the world championship is receiving adverse comment as usual. Apart from in the chess community, there does not seem to be much public interest in the match, in spite of many newspapers designating correspondents for the event. The trouble is that people don’t like draws. If presented as a sport, the public likes to hear about winning and losing, not a streak of draws.
Magnus Carlsen has played 48 games in the world championship finals, including matches against Anand (India) 2013/14, Karjakin (Russia) 2016, Caruana (USA/Italy) 2018, and the three games of the present match. Of these, 39 were drawn or 81%. By contrast, for all games in regular over-the-board competitions, Magnus has a drawing rate of 44% (per chessgames.com). So why are world championship games more drawish and should we worry?
The most straightforward explanation is that a title match is quite different from a normal tournament. The stakes are much higher and the nature of the contest is different. Both sides have teams of analysts who are working the silicon engine to wrench the minutest fraction of an advantage from the opening. The players are briefed on the latest developments and, provided their memories hold up, it is extremely rare for someone to completely surprise their opponent.
There is also the mutual familiarity of the players. They are well matched and have been jousting with each other since 2002, when Nepo won the under-12 world championship and Magnus was second. They know each other’s styles inside out. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and know what to prepare. Nepo has a lifetime plus score in classical games of 4-1 with 11 draws (69% draws). They have played more than 80 games together in all forms of chess.
On paper, there is not much to choose between the players. The betting gives Magnus the advantage, but, as the match progresses, the odds become more even because a single game can make all the difference. The match also gets more tense, so there is a greater chance of a mistake, which balances the odds.
The prize pot is €2 million, of which the winner gets 60%. So in effect, the money at stake is €400,000 (20% of €2 million). Both players are guaranteed €800,000, even if all games are drawn. There is no incentive for either player to go all-or-nothing on some risky opening. They are both comfortable whatever the outcome.
The real problem is that chess has been oversold as a spectator sport. We can be grateful to The Queen’s Gambit for stimulating extraordinary interest in the game. Chess can be played in stylish surroundings by smartly dressed, beautiful young people. However, chess has been raised on to a pedestal in Dubai, where it is exposed to the full glare of the world’s media. Journalists are looking for a story to tell the people back home.
We cannot blame the players for not playing in the 19th-century romantic style. Nor can we blame them for playing high-level, error-free, technical chess. These two players are the product of the computer engine age and will have exhaustively analysed virtually all the main openings. They don’t blunder.
It was different in the past. In 1972, Bobby Fischer was fighting the cold war against Boris Spassky. In 1983/84 Garry Kasparov was fighting the faltering Soviet system. The new generation is fighting a battle we have yet to describe. Maybe the underlying story is about which strand of artificial intelligence is going to dominate. The Red Queen evolutionary battle between, say, Stockfish and Alpha Zero is being played out by teams of computer scientists feeding ideas to the diligent seconds.
Some commentators have suggested speeding up the play – maybe one hour each for the game. This artificially enhanced excitement should be avoided. At least with slowplay time controls, the quality of the moves is uniformly high. There is no point in choosing a time control to generate more errors. I want games that are strategic masterpieces rather than resolved through tactical oversights; protein rather than sugar.
The players can never give the world what it wants, at least not as represented by the media. The public wants results, excitement, drama, a circus. In truth, chess is an inner game, a game of the soul and the mind, a striving towards perfection. If a player feels good about their game, their cognitive and emotional struggle, the ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism, and maintaining the will to win, then they have done their job. If they produce a game for the anthologies, then we should all regard that as a bonus. Chess is not for spectators and, truth be told, it is not even a sport.
In this Torre attack, Black plays passively and White induces some pawn weaknesses leading to the destruction of Black’s queenside. The outcome of this game was not important to the match as Kingston had already won.
Alexander Cup match (10 boards) played at the Haywain Brewers Fayre, Epsom on 22 November 2021
Wimbledon provocateur Paul Barasi has been complaining that Kingston’s season seems to comprise of nothing but beating up Epsom, and he has a point. After defeating them in the Lauder Trophy earlier this month, Kingston have now given their ambitious rival (revived in the past few years by Marcus Gosling and already on course to become one of Surrey’s strongest clubs) a fearful drubbing in the county’s most prestigious cup competition.
Barasi complained when, on Twitter, Kingston described the Lauder win as “epic”, doubting that Epsom deserved the epithet. But Kingston have struggled in the past decade or so, whereas reborn Epsom have been soaring, and the Lauder victory felt like a watershed. This much-anticipated Alexander Cup match was an even more significant moment, with Gosling & Co out for revenge, Epsom enjoying home advantage and Kingston captain John Foley reminding his troops that Kingston had not won the Alexander Cup since 1976.
Kingston had an average rating advantage of around 30 points a board (in the new four-digit classification), but a close match was nonetheless anticipated. Epsom, in their impressive pub venue with a quiet playing room and tables in an adjoining room for social chess, had installed a large scoreboard and bought pricey new wooden boards for what they clearly saw as a defining match. But as the night wore on and the scoreboard recorded their tale of woe, they must have wished they had kept it all a little more low key.
Alan Scrimgour, playing his trusty Sicilian on board 7, led the way for Kingston with a 22-move victory over Natasha Regan, whose ambitious piece sacrifice backfired. Epsom’s Daniel Young on board 4 tried a speculative knight manoeuvre that came unstuck against Kingston’s wily David Rowson. It was 2-0, and Epsom may already have been wishing they hadn’t invested in the new scoreboard.
Kingston were soon sprinting ahead, with a smooth win on board 3 for David Maycock over Kevin Thurlow, and a very fine victory by John Bussmann over former Kingston regular Matthew Baker. Bussmann is noted as a sharp tactician, but here he played with great positional precision in a game which chess luminary John Saunders later described as the “game of the day”. Veterans Jon Eckert and Malcolm Groom agreed a draw on board 10, giving Epsom their first half point, but the writing was already on the wall. Literally, thanks to that wretched giant scoreboard.
Paul Gibbons, playing his first match of the season for Kingston, secured a draw on board 8 that took the running points total to five, and soon after Peter Lalic, on board 2, produced a spectacular double-piece sacrifice to force checkmate and take Kingston over the finishing line and into the semi-finals. The Lalic game was a truly extraordinary one, with Peter playing a characteristically imaginative and challenging opening which completely bamboozled his opponent, Michael Dams. Saunders points out that there is no precedent among ChessBase’s new Mega DataBase 2022’s 9.2 million games for the first two moves played in this encounter: 1. Nc3 e6 2. d3 Bb4. And it got crazier from there.
The match had been won, the champagne corks were already popping back at the Willoughby Arms – metaphorically speaking that is: in reality Greg Heath was having another beer and the ascetic twentysomethings following the match via WhatsApp were sipping their glasses of Diet Coke – and all that remained was the mopping up. At Epsom, not the Willoughby.
John Foley won a queenless middlegame with a precisely calculated pawn advance against Robert Hamilton on board 6; Will Taylor (having nobly made the trek down from Walthamstow) drew with Epsom president Marcus Gosling on board 5; and, in the last game to finish, IM Peter Large won a roller-coaster struggle with Mike Healey to record Epsom’s sole win of the evening, drawing Healey’s king into a mating net with Large’s own king and two bishops. Healey thought he had drawing chances if he had traded his rook for one of those killer bishops, but went for glory and paid the price.
By then, though, the match was long over and Kingston were celebrating, with a final result of 7.5-2.5. Gosling promised there would be a painful post-mortem – he threw an imaginary punch as he said it – and next year Epsom will be back even stronger. Their ambition knows no bounds, and good for them. But for the moment, Kingston had the spoils and Foley’s dream of winning the Alexander Cup for the first time in almost 50 years was still alive.
John Saunders, erstwhile editor of Chess magazine, thought this win by John Bussmann was the game of the match. He writes: “Admittedly his opponent made a couple of positional howlers in the opening, but John’s exploitation of the opportunity was immaculate. If someone had shown me the score of this game and told me that Mickey Adams or Keith Arkell had been Black, I would have believed them.”
Why do so many chess players resist society’s demands that they take precautions against the pandemic?
Are chess players naturally libertarian? Given that many players – often men of a certain age, sedentary, not very fit, sometimes large of stomach, with a passion for beer and fried breakfasts – are in the vulnerable group for Covid, and indeed quite a few people from the chess community in the UK have succumbed to the pandemic, you might think there would be an across-the-board (in every sense) commitment to vaccination, mask-wearing and other anti-Covid measures.
But you would be wrong. I heard from one club official that when he raised the subject of mask wearing at a committee meeting just before the return of OTB chess, he was mocked for mentioning the possibility of playing in masks. People just wanted to get back to the board as if nothing had happened, despite the fact that thousands were still being infected and hospitalised and hundreds dying every day.
The discussions on the English Chess Forum have been instructive. The respected chess arbiter – and decent player – David Sedgwick started a thread labelled “Facemask openings”. “I am looking for an opening repertoire for games where I am obliged to wear a facemask and therefore want to get the game over quickly one way or another,” he wrote. “Does anyone have any suggestions? Dubious but not hopeless gambits or counter-gambits are one obvious possibility. So are lines which more or less force the opponent to acquiesce in a draw.”
Other contributors did have suggestions, including the rude (a not uncommon phenomenon on the forum) “play your usual stuff”. But what was interesting, to me at least, was that no one seemed to question Sedgwick’s premise: that mandatory mask-wearing was an imposition that should be resisted, or at the very least mocked by playing a style of chess that would guarantee as quick a finish as possible.
There is a huge thread on the forum called “Chess life returning to normal” – it currently runs to a whopping 159 pages – and while there are some naysayers who argue that we are still gripped by a pandemic and have to tread very warily, mostly you sense a desperate desire to return to the world we knew pre-Covid – a world without restrictions, and, in the case of the libertarian chess wing, without masks or Covid passports or any of the paraphernalia of what they would see as the nanny state. People calling masks “nappies” is a sure sign of this privileging of personal freedom over public safety.
In the US last spring, this battle between the health lobby and the libertarians found a lively focus in chess. The famous Marshall Chess Club, on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, banned members who had not been vaccinated against Covid from using its historic premises and said you could only play there if you could show you had been vaccinated – if, in other words, you carried a vaccine passport.
The club’s stringent policy led to demonstrations outside the venue, a lovely townhouse bequeathed by former US chess champion Frank Marshall. The demos were organised by longstanding member Anthony Kozikowski, who considered the banning of anti-vaxxers to be authoritarian. While some of his fellow members were trying to play quietly inside the club, Kozikowski led a raucous rally against the restrictions in the street outside, and in response the Marshall revoked his membership for five years.
“I am heartbroken that I have been thrown out of this club,” the New York Post reported him as saying (shouting actually) at one of the demos he led, “but I would be thrown out of this club 10,000 more times if that’s what it takes to stop vaccine passports in this country. I will not live in a country of vaccine apartheid.” The club president, Noah Chasin, was unabashed. “Our sincere desire lies in ensuring the safety of the club for the greatest number of people,” he wrote to members, “and at this time we believe that guaranteeing an environment exclusively for vaccinated people is the most prudent way to begin the transition back to business as usual.”
It is a classic battle between liberty and those who argue that liberty can sometimes become licence. You are not free, say those who demand tight restrictions and precautions, to put the health of others at risk. Chess is uniquely a game that pits healthy 17-year-olds against vulnerable 70-year-olds, and, worse, puts them in close proximity for three hours or more. Yet chess players, who you might think would be alive to the dangers of being dead because of Covid, are often among the foremost opponents of what they see as the heavy hand of state bureaucracy.
The question is why. Chess is a game with carefully laid down rules and conventions, built up over hundred of years, so players are clearly not anarchists, even if their awful behaviour at the board can sometimes veer towards to anarchic. But chess players are also natural rebels. When I was researching my book The Rookie, I played at the Marshall Club and in Washington Square Park. Chess in New York, indeed throughout the US, is aggressive and money-oriented, with lots of trash talking. Many of the players, especially the hustlers in the squares and parks, are tough nuts who are set apart from conventional society. Chess, certainly in the US and I suspect elsewhere in the world, is the preserve of rebels and free-thinkers, contrarians and trouble-makers, who have disconnected themselves – or perhaps were already disconnected – from conventional life. They are living life on the margins, and see every action of the state as an imposition.
I would like to claim this as a profound observation which I arrived at entirely on my own, but it was really prompted by reading Arnold Denker’s amusing memoir, The Bobby Fischer I Knew, on an Amtrak train from St Louis to a tournament in Chicago. “As I mentally rummage through the years and try to capture with memory’s eye the great players of the last several decades,” wrote Denker, “I find one characteristic common to almost all of them: a bitterness about and rebelliousness against the inequitable social and economic conditions of the real world … For them, playing the royal game was a purely personal statement against social injustice.” The royal game, in other words, is actually the plebeian game: cast out of the “real” world, chess players have created their own world, an esoteric, enclosed landscape in which they have mastery.
In the memoir, Denker tells a funny story about the chess and poker hustler Jacob Bernstein, one of a rich cast of characters active on the New York chess scene from the 1920s to the 1950s, a period summoned up evocatively by Denker, a US champion who died at the age of 90 in 2005. Bernstein was at a Woodrow Wilson-for-President rally. “Mr Wilson, is it true that if you’re elected, every man will have work?” asked Bernstein. “Yes”, replied Wilson. “But Mr Wilson, I don’t want to work!” Spoken like a true chess pro, many of whom have spent their whole lives scraping a living from the 64 to avoid the rigours of more conventional labour.
Alexander Cockburn, in his 1974 book Idle Passion, made this rejection of convention explicitly political. “Chess is par excellence the pastime of a disinherited ruling class that continues to crave political domination but has seen it usurped. Just as, in psychoanalytic terms, chess is a way of sublimating oedipal conflicts, so, in social terms, it is a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by the player over his pieces is consolation for lost power.”
Now, it is fair to say that parts of Idle Passion are rather pretentious, and some may choose to write off Cockburn’s psychoanalytically inclined musings as twaddle. But I find that phrase “empty omnipotence” telling. Chess players are often hugely intelligent people who have decided to devote a large chunk of their lives to shuffling wooden pieces around a board. Albert Einstein berated world champion Emanuel Lasker for wasting his mathematical genius doing just this. Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree countered by insisting that chess was a game “beautiful enough to waste your life for” – a bitter-sweet conclusion if ever there was one.
Chess players have either made a conscious decision to opt out of conventional life or they feel as if society has excluded them, done them down in some way, is a hostile force from which they must protect themselves. Either way, they are marginalised and see the 64 squares as a form of protection. It is little wonder that when society fights back and demands they obey the norms of conventional living, they resist the routine restrictions they are being asked to accept. Their whole life has been lived in opposition to normality, and they are not about to start conforming now. The only norms they are interested in are GM norms.
A provocative article in Chess Magazine attempts a starkly revisionist reading of the world champion’s match against Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. But should we take the extraordinary claim that he never intended to win the match seriously?
The latest issue of Chess Magazine contains a fascinating/diverting/ridiculous (delete according to your view of whether the arguments really stand up) article about the 1972 world championship match between Boris Spassky, the suave Russian champion, and Bobby Fischer, the abrasive American challenger. The event is of course the foundation stone of modern chess: certainly in the UK where the match, which was a global news sensation, inspired a generation of players who propelled England to No 2 chess nation in the world behind the Soviet Union.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable match, which has already spawned countless books, films and even a musical – Chess, by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. There will no doubt be plenty more coverage next year when we relive the match all over again. The fact that this defining event will not go away is double-edged: it’s great for the game to be in the news, but less desirable that all the general public really know about chess derives from a 50-year-old contest and a deranged chess genius who barely played after he won the title and died more than a decade ago.
But back to the article in Chess Magazine. The writer, Stewart Player, who as far as I can see does not appear to be a chess historian of any standing (apologies to Mr Player if his oeuvre has unaccountably passed me by), argues that Spassky was far from disappointed to lose. Indeed, Player goes further than that; he says “Spassky had no intention of winning the match”.
Player’s argument is that Spassky didn’t prepare properly, bent over backwards to accept Fischer’s ever more extreme demands regarding conditions – including, Player says, “agreeing to play game three in a janitor’s broom cupboard” – and was above all concerned that the match was played to a conclusion, so he got his cut of the fee. “The main thing as far as Spassky was concerned”, says Player, “was that the match went ahead and that he must not lose his erratic opponent.” He argues that Spassky was already planning to leave the Soviet Union and anticipated “lucrative return matches” once he was based abroad. Player cites in his support an incendiary quote from former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik alleging that Spassky “threw” the match, but I would like to know the provenance of this. There is no footnote giving the source or context in which Botvinnik made the alleged remark, nor is the original Russian given. It doesn’t feel quite right: do Russians even talk about “throwing” a match? Something may have been lost in translation, and we surely need to see the original text for this crucial – and perhaps rather un-Botvinnik-like – allegation.
Player suggests that Spassky had a carefully worked out game plan – just not for this match! “By proving pliable and not antagonising Fischer,” he argues, “the likelihood of future million-dollar ‘title’ matches would remain, as in subsequent interviews both Spassky and Fischer talked about rematches outside FIDE jurisdiction. And these would be in the US, with Las Vegas the most oft-quoted venue.”
So, fascinating, diverting or ridiculous? Not quite fascinating because Player’s evidence is thin and rather circumstantial. He says at one point that Spassky’s long-time coach, Igor Bondarevsky, may have split with him because Spassky told him it was his intention to grant concessions to Fischer. But not a shred of evidence is offered to back up this claim. Player is just guessing that “in an argument, in his [Spassky’s] cups”, such an admission might have been made. Sorry, that’s at least one might too many. Such bold revisionism needs something more substantial to back it up.
Since I have chosen to write about Player’s article, I suppose I am admitting that the re-reading of the match is not wholly ridiculous. Clearly, Spassky did not prepare hard enough; did offer Fischer too many concessions in terms of conditions – perhaps giving the challenger a psychological edge; did miss Bondarevsky; perhaps thought too much about money rather than focusing entirely on beating Fischer, who on the strength of their previous encounters he may have underestimated; may even already have been thinking of life outside the Soviet Union – he moved to France in 1976 and became a French citizen in 1978. But all this is far from proving Player’s central contention that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match”. Let’s then file the piece under the non-committal heading of “diverting”.
David Edmonds, co-author with John Eidinow (whose name Player misspells) of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, is not willing to be quite so charitable. He dismisses the new reading of the match out of hand, and is not best pleased that Player damns his and Eidinow’s book with faint praise, calling it “very useful on Spassky’s background … while never straying too far from the routine narrative”. “There is absolutely nothing there,” Edmonds tells me, “not a single piece of evidence. My initial reaction is to be surprised that they [Chess Magazine] have given this claim column inches. This should be making international headlines if true. What a scoop! Presumably he has a response from Spassky?” Spassky, of course, is incapacitated by a stroke, and has made no response to Player’s claims.
“The idea that the best way to maximise his future income was to lose is risible,” Edmonds argues. “Why would there be more money on offer for a rematch if he was the challenger rather than the champion? His [Spassky’s] income, following defeat, took a predictable hit. He had also seen what had happened to Taimanov after losing to Fischer. Why would he risk that?” Fischer beat Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates quarter-final in 1971 – a humiliating reverse that the Soviet authorities believed must have had a “political explanation”, leading them to reduce Taimanov’s salary and ban him from travelling overseas.
Edmonds insists his and Eidinow’s book was far from routine. “The standard narrative until our book was that Spassky, though indeed a gentleman, was a Soviet stooge,” he tells me. “That’s how he’s presented in most of the press coverage and the books that emerge in the immediate aftermath of the match. Our interviews and Soviet documents revealed the tensions in the Soviet camp and the authorities’ dissatisfaction with him.”
Edmonds says that if the claim that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match” was true, then even now Spassky should be looking for a publisher for a tell-all memoir. “If Spassky was really so motivated by money, ” says Edmonds, “then he could sell this story, even today, for a skyscraper high pile of dosh. It seems to me to be pretty irresponsible to make the sort of claim this article makes without a shred of evidence.”
I asked Richard Palliser, editor of Chess Magazine, about Player’s piece. He doesn’t go quite as far as his author in suggesting Spassky never intended to win, but he does believe there were psychological factors at play that could have undermined Spassky before and during the match. “My take on the piece wasn’t that Spassky threw the match,” Palliser tells me, “[but] rather that he wasn’t too unhappy to lose. [I] suspect he still fought tooth and nail in every game, but at the back of his mind was the realisation that losing would have some benefits. Surely every chess player has been there at some point?”
Perhaps the crown was weighing rather too heavily on Spassky’s head. Might he have been seeking the freedom to go back to being an ordinary chess player, rather than a standard-bearer for the Soviet system? It may be that the book we need most of all to mark the 50th anniversary of the epic encounter in Reykjavik is a comprehensive biography of Spassky, one that examines his true motivations back in 1971-72. What did he really want out of the match? How did he see the future? Did he underestimate Fischer – his preparation was indeed woeful and discounted the possibility that Fischer might play 1. d4 – or was he subconsciously willing his own destruction and that of the Soviet chess machine, perhaps even of the Soviet Union itself? So many millions of words have been devoted to Fischer. Now we need to pay some attention to his adversary in that magnificent, myth-laden match.
Boris Spassky vs Robert James Fischer
The famous 13th game of the world championship match showed each player striving to win. Spassky gave up a pawn to obtain space and mobility. Fischer used a tactic to exchange queens and reach an ending where he had a preponderance of queenside pawns and then sacrificed a bishop to march these pawns forward. Spassky stoutly defended the complex and unbalanced endgame until he had to make a crucial decision which way to check Fischer’s king. It was a 50:50 decision with four minutes to play four moves, but the path he chose allowed Fischer to break through.
World championship match, Reykjavik, Iceland, 13th game, 10 August 1972 Alekhine Defence: Modern, Alburt Variation (B04)
A talk through video by Antonio Radić (Agadmator) gives more details on the game.