Kingston 1 v Richmond 2, Thames Valley League division 2, Willoughby Arms, Kingston, 24 January 2022
Peter Lalic offers an in-depth analysis of a vibrant victory against the ever combative Bertie Barlow. If you read through these detailed annotations, you will get a remarkable insight into both the complexity of his concrete analysis and the playful spirit in which Peter plays his games – putting pawns on a4 and h4 on move eight in the game in part because he couldn’t resist the symmetry of the position. Chess as both science and art, war and aesthetic exercise, eventually leading here to an overwhelming attack conjured up after a sustained period in which Peter had been playing on the 10-second increment.
Uploading my games to a database for the first time has made my chess life flash before my squinting eyes. And it has not been a pretty sight
I recently embarked on the task of uploading my games to a database for the first time. This has engendered the strange feeling of my life passing before my eyes as I scroll through the games. This life review experience is sometimes reported by people when they are falling from a height to their presumed death. One theory is that this is due to “cortical inhibition” – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade” of mental impressions. Looking through my past games is stressful, indeed traumatic. I am recalling matters long since deliberately buried in the recesses of my memory. Twinges of regret are surfacing to remind me of my cognitive limitations (or, if I am being cruel to myself, stupidity).
This late-chess-life crisis all started after I had given John Nunn a lift to Ashtead for the Alexander Cup final, the Surrey team knockout championship, in 2018. In the pre-digital age, we had met in the London Under-14 championship and inevitably I had lost, but I couldn’t remember anything about the game. I went on to win the London Under-16 (ahead of a certain Jonathan Speelman) whereas at the same time John Nunn won the London Under-18. Given his prodigious talent, he won everything as a junior in England and had set his sights abroad. By the time I won the Oxford University Chess Club (OUCC) championship in 1976, he had a doctorate in mathematics and was well on his way to becoming a grandmaster.
As we wended our way back through the Surrey Hills, I nonchalantly mentioned that he was the reason I had given up chess. He seemed abashed at my unwonted revelation. I explained that it was apparent some people were so talented that there was no point in competing with them. On the principle of comparative advantage, I should spend my time doing something else. However, I was foolish; I had misinterpreted the data by observing only those around me – the “availability bias”. I had not twigged that I was amongst a special generation – two of my university contemporaries, John Nunn and Jonathan Speelman, were the core members of the England team that went on to win the silver medal at the Chess olympiads in 1984, 1986 and 1988, behind the mighty Soviet Union. I mentally placed chess in a box called “it was fun while it lasted” and embarked on a modelling career (not that sort of modelling!).
The Yugoslav Attack after 10.h4
Soon after our trip, John sent me the game we had played in the Under-14 championship in which I had succumbed to his Yugoslav Attack. I winced as I recalled my temerity in playing the Sicilian Dragon without having even read a book on it (although to be fair maybe one had not yet been written in English). The game is too embarrassing to show, at least if I am to retain any sense of dignity. What struck me was that Doccy (as Nunn is universally known in the chess community) had recorded, studied and still remembered every opponent and probably every game he had ever played. You don’t get into the top 10 players in the world by being casual; you need focused application.
I recall a conversation with Mike Truran, progenitor of the 4NCL, the national chess league, just prior to his being ensconced as chief executive of the English Chess Federation (ECF). Over an entertaining lunch at the Fleece, his favourite hostelry in Witney, he casually mentioned that we had played in the university championships. “Oh really”, I enquired, “what happened?” He had won, he beamed. I could not recall the game, let alone the result. Nor could I remember my opponent, but I was too polite to mention this – he probably wasn’t as handsome then as he is now with a trimmed goatee. It turned out that Mike had also kept a careful record of all his encounters over the board. By contrast, in those days I had seen myself as being on the grand tour of intellectual self-discovery – and, dare I admit, romance – whilst occasionally conceding to the seductive charm of chess.
It is only in hindsight that one can make sense of disconnected comments. When I resumed chess after 25 years in the “real” world, I was playing in an evening league match next to Robin Haldane, the terrific and prolific suburban competitor, who informed me that I had beaten him in a “very nice game” in the London Under-14. This was the final proof that I was in the minority of players who treated the game without the respect it deserved. I should have been keeping a record of each game. Only thus would I be able to respond to Robin with some informed pleasantry such as “but you put up a stout defence”.
Yet I should have been forearmed. In the OUCC championships of 1975, I played Dominic Lawson, now a distinguished journalist and the esteemed president of the ECF. Dominic played a crisp, albeit obvious, combination to win. He was surprised to discover later that the combination had been included in a compilation book (presumably for beginners). As he recounted to ChessBase in 2014, and previously in Chess magazine in the 1980s, he was pleased by this recognition and cited it as his most memorable game.
White to play and win
Dominic Lawson v John Foley (Oxford University Championship, 1975)
Although not thrilled to be on the receiving end of a published combination, I drew some comfort from the dictum that it takes two players to make a game. It is only worth publishing moves in games where there is some reasonable opposition. I noted that my repertoire had moved on from the Sicilian to the French Defence, but I could still be crushed in both. My regret in reading Dominic’s article was not that I had lost to a cheapo (the move, not him), but that I could not lay my hands on the game in which I beat him the following year on my way to the championship title. I recall I played the Modern Benoni with the f5 flourish, as made famous by Jonathan Penrose, who beat the then world champion Mikhail Tal in the Leipzig Olympiad in 1960. If only I had had that game, I could have fashioned some riposte. Actually, I have not quite abandoned the last thread of hope, because there are still some storage boxes in the attic which have not been disinterred in decades.
I fancied that a future biographer would write an encomium about how an average club player could, after years of apathy, apply himself intensively and become a grandmaster. This was more or less the theme of The Rookie, the book written by my Kingston colleague, and another contemporary at the OUCC, the Guardian writer Stephen Moss, which tracks his odyssey through chess (and life).
Yet subconsciously I had evolved almost the same attitude as Ken Inwood, one of Kingston’s strongest players for decades. Ken discards his scoresheet after each game in what appears to be a careless disregard for self-improvement. But then Ken does not have anything to prove, having won the London Under-14 and Under-18 titles before becoming the British Boys’ Champion at Hastings in 1953 and playing top board for England in the Glorney Cup. He has for many decades made a pilgrimage to the Hastings international tournament at the turn of each year to watch the top games with flask at the ready. There comes a stage when chess is played for pure enjoyment, win or lose.
At least I had the foresight to hang on to these precious documents. Wads of distressed scoresheets have been strewn in drawers and stuffed into bookshelves. The process has begun of collating and painstakingly transcribing the moves of the games I can unearth into Hiarcs, the Mac-friendly chess database and engine. Some of my games were conveniently retrieved from doubly checked online databases such as 4NCL’s. That made me realise what a terrible written record I had kept of the moves.
Note on notation: the algebraic system gives rise to reflection errors when recording: a becomes h and b becomes g; 1 becomes 8 and 2 becomes 7 etc, so there is a lot of decoding required. One must play a game out until the moves no longer make sense and then reverse back to the last reflection. Descriptive notation largely precludes this sort of error.
The main defect of transcription, however, cannot be cured by any notation system. The problem occurs towards the end of each game. When time is short, accuracy goes out the window. Distinguishing between moves and squiggles becomes impossible. In the worst case, when the remaining time drops below five minutes, it is no longer mandatory to record the moves. The end of the game is lost to history unless the opponent is obliging. Returning to a game years later, one plays through to a perfectly good position up to move 35 or so, but then the scoresheet puzzlingly records the game as a loss.
The advice for constructing personal game histories, learned late in my life, is to correct the scoresheet immediately after the game. Ideally, one should make some quick notes on the game – perhaps during the post-mortem analysis conducted by the players – and input the moves without delay.
The games I am currently inputting are from random dates in the past. I am up to game 150, which must be a tiny fraction of the games played in my chess “career”. The games are not of any theoretical importance, except that each game can trigger a personal memory or give rise to a newly perceived finesse with potential instructive value. A game fitting this latter category was one I played as Black against Martin Gruau in a Surrey v Kent county match in 2018. After a hard-fought and complex game, we reached the following position. I was so sure I was winning, and the move so obvious, that I did not think I needed to calculate my next move.
Black to play and win
Martin Gruau v John Foley. Surrey v Kent, 27 January 2018
Like anybody else who has been striving for victory for five hours at the board in a chilly community hall, I was exhausted, but finally the win was within my grasp. In the diagram, Black is playing down the board. My king had advanced and pushed my opponent’s king to the back rank. I could capture the a3 pawn and then saunter over to pick up the h6 pawn, whilst the white king had to deal with the passed a4 pawn. I should be able to shoulder off the white king if it tried to race over to stop the h pawn. This much was clear and there was no need to consider any other plan. So I played 70 … Kxa3? There followed 71 Ka1! I followed my ill-thought plan and we reached this position after Black’s 75th move.
White to play and draw
I was on track but my opponent seemed confident, which was rather worrying- wasn’t he supposed to resign? I finally began to put my brain in gear and realised that I had sleepwalked into a draw. The final position is shown below. The black king is forced to the edge and cannot escape without allowing the white king to reach the drawing square h8. Dagnabbit! I dealt with the anguish by the technique of instant forgetfulness – the nostrum of choice for the disappointed player.
So as I was inputting and reviewing the game again, I noticed something surprising. I had been right to believe that I had a winning move in the opening diagram position. The finesse is to refrain from capturing the a3 pawn! I had played a pedestrian move, failing to recognise that I was standing at a crossroads. During a game one is not presented with a caption “white to play and win” which would immediately raise the level of awareness.
The crucial point is that if Black captures the a3 pawn, then the white king is given a shortcut to Black’s a4 pawn via a2 in two moves instead of the long way round via c3 and b4 in three moves. In an endgame, a tempo can make all the difference. White gains a move to advance and promote the h pawn. Black should have been counting tempi rather than material. In fact, in the diagram, remove the a3 pawn and white still draws a pawn down. A common error and one which the diligent student of the game should have been able to figure out. There may be many more such gems yet to be recovered from the past.
Reverting to the classic lunch at the Fleece (or should that be the Golden Fleece), Mike Truran, who studied languages at Oxford, vouchsafed to me a line from the Aeneid: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Classical scholars still debate the precise translation, but one interpretation is: “Someday, perhaps, it will help to remember those troubles as well.” The positive take on this aphorism is that, far from forgetting unpleasant experiences, we should instead wait and integrate them into our personal experience when we are ready. There will come a point when we confront adversity and feel more complete for doing so. The more I review my historical games collection, the more I understand the narrative of my life.
Photo credits: Sophie Triay (Mike Truran); Linda Nylind (Stephen Moss); Brendan O’Gorman (Robin Haldane)
Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 24 January 2022
At last the Kingston Thames Valley team showed its true ability and credentials as a promotion contender with a 5-1 win over league leaders Richmond. It was Kingston’s A team up against Richmond B, so Kingston started strong favourites. But Richmond like to spice their second team with a few first-team regulars, so it was by no means plain sailing.
Jon Eckert, on board six, led the way for Kingston with a swift win over Rob Hunter. Eckert grabbed a piece for three pawns and was for a while worried that his king was exposed by being unable to castle, but two bishops working in harmony gave him control and the piece advantage quickly told. Kingston were up and running.
Kingston stalwarts Julian Way and Alan Scrimgour, on boards three and four, got solid draws against highly competitive opponents, and the scene was set for the conclusion of the game of the night on top board between Kingston’s Peter Lalic and Richmond’s Bertie Barlow, who has been having a terrific season and is no respecter of reputations or players rated 240 points above him.
Barlow tends to play quickly and Lalic fell behind on the clock, but despite playing on the increment (the time control for this game was 65 minutes and a 10-second increment) for quite a few moves as the game reached its climax, Peter constructed a masterful attack, doubling his rooks and throwing in a knight to corner Bertie’s beleaguered king. Loss of a piece was inevitable but Barlow bravely tried to complicate, only to end up being mated by Lalic’s marauding rooks.
David Maycock won on board two, but you wouldn’t have known he had just secured victory immediately after the game. He had a face like thunder and said he had played poorly, getting himself into a positional tangle against a player rated more than 400 points below him. David is a perfectionist – surely a good thing as long as he allows himself to enjoy some of the pleasures of victory. Isn’t the ability to “win ugly” part of a strong player’s armoury? Not every game can be an aesthetic triumph.
That made it 4-1 and left Vladimir Bovtromovich to finish off his game against Pablo Soriano. He was winning comfortably in an endgame that pitted rook and five pawns against rook and three, but made life difficult for himself by getting his king offside and allowing his opponent’s king and rook to get a pawn home first. Bovtromovich had to sac his rook and enter a complicated endgame where he had four pawns against rook and pawn, which sounds – and indeed looked – a little troublesome.
The position was tricky, but an active king and the fact that two of his pawns were well advanced meant Bovtromovich almost certainly still had an edge. In the event, Soriano went wrong before the full complexity of the position could be tested, grabbing a pawn in an effort to get his own sole survivor through but managing only to allow one of Bovtromovich’s quartet to queen first.
That made it 5-1, and it was time to go to the bar, which was buzzing with activity. This was the final match at Kingston in which masks were mandatory in the playing room; they will be optional from next week. The issue has been divisive and we are pleased to be through the compulsory mask phase – we hope forever.
This was the the last competitive game I played before the Covid pandemic. It was played in the World Senior Team Championships in Prague on March 11, 2020 in the 65+ match between Scotland and the team from Ukraine, Kiev Europa 2020. My opponent was the international master Viktor Dovzhenko. The match was shortly before Czechia closed its borders in response to COVID-19. The tournament was truncated after seven rounds with Russia in the lead just ahead of France. Scotland came 11th and England came 30th.
You catch me on my fifth game as Black (out of six). I have decided to show this game in a slightly unusual way – from the perspective of my trusty steed, the King’s knight, which moved 14 times. It is also a response to ‘Ask the Pieces, a Chessbase DVD by Müller and Becker. This is the Knight’s Tale.
British Boys’ under-18 championship, Hastings, 17 April 1953
The 1953 British Boys’ Under-18 Championship attracted 38 entries and was run on the Swiss System, with nine rounds between Monday evening, 13 April, and Friday night, 17 April. The winner, K. F. H. Inwood, of Tiffin’s School, was the London Chess League’s nominee; he beat T. A. Landry, of William Ellis School, in the last round, by a good king’s-side attack, after the latter had overlooked the winning of a pawn earlier. Landry and G. Jessup, also of William Ellis School, shared the second and third prizes with 6½. M. F. Collins, Sandbach School, Crewe, P. Gough, King Edward VI School, Norwich, J. T. Farrand, Haberdasher’s Aske’s, Hampstead, and A. Hall, of the same school, with P. Starling, of Middlesbrough, all scored 6. Amongst the also-rans was Anthony Leggett, who went on to win the Nobel prize in physics. In the opinion of Sir George Thomas, the general standard of play was higher than last year, but there was no boy outstanding.
Thomas Anselm Landry (19 August 1935 – 11 January 1996) went to Pembroke College, Oxford and played in the Varsity match of 1955. Tom Landry was a noted draughts/checkers player, who held the record for winning the London Championship 11 times in all and also the 1983 Northern Ireland Championship. He was president of the English Draughts Association and personally financed (and played in) the 1973 Great Britain vs America draughts match. He wrote books on the subject. He was a stockbroker and insurance consultant.
Here is the key game from the last round with both players on 6.6/8. The game shows the Inwood hallmark: first a period of calm and balance in which he is always the equal of his opponent and then an inexplicably easy finish against a defence that disintegrates.
The top four members of the England team in the Glorney Cup 1953 were recruited from the event. Ken was on top board with Landry on Board 2.
Ken, who is 86 and has been a member of Kingston Chess Club for more than 70 years, recently entered a nursing home in Woking. We wish him well.
FM Julian Way spearheads start of a monthly online club that aims to complement the weekly in-person meet-ups
Sunday 16 January saw the start of what we are grandiosely calling Kingston Chess Club Online. It does what it says on the tin: it’s the club meeting in online form, initially once a month, to back up our weekly in-person meetings. FM Julian Way, a pillar of the Kingston club for 30 years, is the driving force behind the initiative, and gave the opening talk, based on a game former world champion Mikhail Tal played against the East German international master Reinhart Fuchs in 1964.
The game was not one of Tal’s attacking gems, but a relatively quiet positional game where he won a pawn early on and proceeded to win very simply and smoothly. A textbook example of how to exploit a space advantage, judge an endgame plus, and make a bishop count against a increasingly desperate knight. An instructive game by a great master.
The idea is that we will use the monthly online meet-ups to study games, work on openings, look at endgame studies and commission talks, while holding online club tournaments and simuls by visiting expert-level players on some other Sundays in the month. The club wishes to thank Julian for facilitating the online club, which meets by Zoom, and for offering to help run it in the future. It promises to be a hugely important addition to Kingston as it seeks to emerge from the pandemic and develop as an organisation that wants to cater for both experienced league and tournament chess players and the new generation of chess wannabes that got interested in the game during lockdown.
Kingston Chess Club online will now settle into a monthly pattern – meeting on the last Sunday of each month. Michael Healey will lead the next discussion, looking at the life and games of Russian grandmaster and former Soviet champion Yuri Averbakh, who will be 100 years old on 8 February.
Covid and its attendant lockdowns have seen a boom in online chess. Now some of this new generation of internet aficionados are looking to join real, live chess clubs. Here we offer a beginner’s guide to making that all-important move
Did you take up chess during the pandemic? Were you inspired by the phenomenally popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit? Finding yourself wiling away the hours on chess.com and contemplating your next steps? Then look no further, we’ve got you covered. In this blogpost we’ll outline what to expect when you decide to dip your toe into the world of “over the board” (OTB) chess at your local club.
Step 1: Finding a local chess club
There are many chess clubs in the UK, and indeed around the world. Your first step could be using your favourite web search engine to see if there’s a chess club in the town you live in. You’ll also discover there are many social chess gatherings springing up in libraries, pubs and other social areas. If you’re looking to just keep it friendly, have a chat and meet new people, then these are likely to be a great fit for you. If you’re looking for something more serious, then you’ll find a “proper” chess club will fit the bill.
If you don’t find something in your immediate area, have a look at your country’s national chess federation website. They will typically have a resource for finding chess clubs near you. For example, on the English Chess Federation website, you can use their “find a chess club” tool.
For those of you who are parents of children who are looking to play chess, do be aware there are chess clubs who specialise in having junior members. Many other clubs will be happy to have chess-enthusiastic children visit the club, provided there is a parent or guardian in tow.
Step 2: Visiting the club
So you’ve identified some clubs you’re going to go visit. Great work! Before popping down to the club, be sure to make contact ahead of time. Especially during this uncertain Covid period, you need to make sure there’ll be someone there to greet you. For smaller clubs, they may have home and/or away matches (more on that later), and the night you’re intending to visit, there may be nobody at the venue there to say hi, or lots of people there who are in the middle of a game and too preoccupied to give you the time of day – a common problem in chess clubs. Once you’ve got confirmation that the club is meeting, pop on over and check it out.
Step 3: Figuring out if this is right for you
Pretty much every club will be happy to accommodate your first few visits to make sure the club is a good fit for you. There will rarely be any expectation for you to pay up for membership on your first visit. However, chess clubs have many financial obligations to keep running, such as paying rental for the venue, and buying, maintaining and replacing chess equipment. This was before the additional burdens of the pandemic. If you do decide the club you’re visiting is a great fit for you and you want to keep coming, don’t forget to ask (and promptly pay!) your membership subs. Also, many chess clubs will be in pub/club function rooms. Please be a thoughtful guest, and also buy a drink or two from behind the bar on your way up to the chess room.
Differences between internet chess and over-the-board chess
There are some significant differences between internet chess and playing over the board. Let’s look at some of these, and explain each one in turn.
A slower pace Unlike playing a three-minute “blitz” game on sites such as chess.com, you’ll notice that games tend to be somewhat slower, even the friendlies. There are just more moving parts (literally!) as well as the risk of knocking things over, and just generally it seems like it takes a little bit more time to take in the physical board. Enjoy the moment.
Use of clocks A big difference you’ll find is the introduction of clocks. We are very spoilt when playing chess on the internet: yes we have to be conscious of time, but all we have to do is make our move, and the server handles all of the other details for us. Not so with over-the-board chess. You will most likely be using a digital clock, and you’ll have to remember to press the button each time you play your move. Don’t be afraid to ask someone how to set up and use the clocks. Good clock etiquette is to press the clock with the hand that touched the piece, and don’t make a move until your opponent has pressed his or her clock.
Quieter during longer games For longer time controls (ie longer than blitz) you’ll find that it will be quieter during games, and there won’t be much opportunity to chat. Typically it is good etiquette to not speak to your opponent (or your neighbours) whilst longer games are taking place. Once the games are over, it’s always good fun (and an excellent way to improve your chess) to go through your game with your opponent. In chess parlance, this is called a post mortem, though the hope is that no one has died.
Writing down the moves Another gift internet chess gives us is to automatically record the moves we make during the game. Much like the clock, another thing required of us in certain types of game (when teams from different clubs are playing each other, for instance, in games that will be officially rated – see under league chess below) is the need to write down moves. The notation used worldwide to record chess games is called algebraic notation. As well as checking out the provided link, if you’re not sure ask at the chess club and it can be explained to you. Whilst you can buy a scorebook (stationery to write your games in), most clubs will provide you with a scoresheet to record your game.
Touch move Another key concept used in over-the-board chess, especially in the formal setting of a chess club, is touch move. The idea is simple – if you touch a piece, you must move it (unless moving that piece would result in an illegal move). Similarly, once you’ve let go of a piece, the move is complete. Don’t panic if you’re new to chess/new to over-the-board chess, for friendlies you will very likely be accommodated for a few bloopers until you get into the swing of things. However, once the serious chess starts, you’ll be held to touch move.
The handshake It is polite to shake your opponents hand before and after the conclusion of the match (even if wasn’t the ending you were expecting …). In these Covid times, you’re not expected to continue this practice, and indeed, fist pumps, elbow bumps, toe taps, or just a nod and a wave will suffice. Whilst the handshake may not be in use, its sentiment is still there.
Getting competitive – league chess
A common activity at most chess clubs is getting involved in league chess. As the name suggests, these are leagues typically involving clubs located in the same area/region, duking it out across different divisions. Most of these league matches tend to take place in the evenings during the week. There are a few variations depending on where you play, but typically the following will stand for most clubs:
Team chess Most leagues consist of a number of players making up a team. Typically there can be anything from six to 10 players per team per match (though county teams can be ever larger than that). Whilst chess is very much an individual person’s sport, it’s all about the teamwork when it comes to league matches. Sometimes you might need to subordinate your individual requirements to the team’s needs: accepting a draw to secure a match, for example, even though you are pretty sure you can win the game. The team’s needs come first, so why take the risk you might lose when the draw that seals the match is there for the taking?
Rated games Most chess federations use an Elo-based rating system for games. This is used to measure a player’s strength, and is used for determining what the team order is for a match. For this, most clubs will require you to have membership of the national chess federation, eg in England you need to be a member of the English Chess Federation (ECF). As a condition of this, you will also be expected to write your moves down. An advantage of being a member of the ECF is that you will also be able to play in weekend tournaments and other events.
Long games Whilst each league will have variations in how long a game is, they will likely be significantly longer than you’re used to when playing online. For example, each player could be allocated around 75 to 120 minutes each per game. In addition, with the advent of digital chess clocks, each player may be allocated what is called an increment per move. For example, if each player has an increment of 10 seconds, that means each time they complete a move, an additional 10 seconds will be added to their clock. If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry – it’s pretty straightforward. If you’re playing your very first competitive match, your team-mates will be on hand to help show you the ropes. Scoring and managing the clock are be a little unsettling at first, but you will soon get the hang of it and come to terms with the rhythm of over-the-board play. It is vital not to play too fast: try to get into a good position and then you will find good moves flow naturally. There is no point having oodles of time left on the clock if you lose. It’s a contest, not a race, and tortoises often beat hares.
Home and away matches Much like football and rugby leagues, in chess leagues you have home and away matches. Most chess clubs will have a regular club night, and these will typically cover scheduled home matches. Some leagues will guarantee all teams will have home matches; for others it will be the toss of the coin. For more rural locations, it is common for clubs to organise car pooling to help get team members around to the matches. In more urban areas, people often make their way directly to a match after work, usually powered by public transport or in their own vehicle.
Wrapping it up
We’ve given a broad overview of how to take your next steps from the online world of chess into the physical, but this only scratches the surface. Your friendly chess club will be able to fill in the gaps, and if there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to add a comment or a question on this blog and we’ll get back to you. Good luck with making the move from the virtual chess world to woodpushing reality.
Sometimes it pays to ignore basic strategic tenets and just go wild. One chess anarchist explains how Play Unconventional Chess and Win by Naom A Manella and Zeev Zohar inspired him
On the surface, the book Play Unconventional Chess and Win, seems a fairly standard addition to the “most amazing moves”/ “play creative chess”/ “break the rules”‘ school of writing. It contains 137 examples from nearly as many games (and studies), looking at the ways in which strong players occasionally play non-traditional moves and find unconventional ideas. There are almost 400 pages, but they are well spaced with large diagrams – more given to words than lines of analysis – so one can comfortably read through without a board.
Neither author was known to me, or seems to have a FIDE rating. Manella is a chess study composer and researcher on human processing of information. Zohar is an “expert” player who has researched the role of creativity in top-level play. All this may not bode especially well, but GM Ram Soffer is credited with aiding analysis, and both Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand have written short forewords. Amidst all the super-GM games, each author sneaks in a game of his own, and plenty from other Israeli players, so we can probably dismiss the notion that they are outright amateurs.
The psychological element is key to the authors. From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the book was the bid for a new annotative symbol:
“… certain ‘outside the box’ moves have a tendency to make the opponent go wrong within the next two to three moves. Therefore we have decided to include in this book a new symbol: ‘^’. It means a challenging move, which does not refer to its objective value, but rather to the higher probability of the opponent going wrong within a few moves”.
So “^” does not represent the objective strength of the move (like “!” or “!!”) but rather refers to the effect it has on the opponent.
Now chess annotations are funny things. Some authors barely use symbols; others turn games into an ordnance survey map; while computers only seem to enjoy adding big red question marks. Many symbols look ridiculous (look up “zugzwang”), or are even irritatingly misleading (using >Bf4 to mean “better is Bf4”, contrary to primary-school teaching). Some I find very useful in my own shorthand annotations, like the triangles for “intending” and “preventing”. However “^” is a nice, simple addition to the canon, where before we would probably have used some combination of “!?/?!”.
While the authors do not actually use their new symbol that often, here are a couple of good examples:
There are other ways in which the book is also unusual: “In this book we have put together numerous examples of games, most of them played by leading grandmasters, in which we found some weird moves, apparently contradicting the most fundamental principles. Our litmus test for the choice of games to appear in the book was simple: we only chose moves which look ‘irrational’ at first sight, or ‘drunk’ in our language – moves which violate basic chess rules.”
This use of “drunk” is the slightly bizarre theme of the book. The three sections are called “Beer” (Evaluate things differently), “Red wine” (Free your mind) and “Vodka” (King with free spirit), chapters being glasses of each. At the end of each analysis, we ask if the highlighted moves were “inspired” or “drunk”. Those who enjoy a pint with their games can certainly vouch for alcohol bringing out more … unusual moves. Dramatic language and jovial imagery are omnipresent. Humour and metaphor is always a bit hit and miss, but (apart from one particularly disturbing analysis where Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar are portrayed as “flirting”) it provides a certain silly charm.
The chapter themes don’t make the most sense to me, but general sections cover what you might expect for a book on unconventional play – decentralisation to the edges of the board, unusual captures and exchanges, entombed pieces and walkabout kings. This example of a rook unoccupying an open file was notable:
Here Shirov decides attack is the best defence:
The heroes of the book are undoubtedly Carlsen (7.5/8) and Ivanchuk (11/14), although there are plenty of K games (Korchnoi, Karpov, Kasparov and especially Kramnik) and other creative maestros (Shirov, Morozevich, Polgar, Timman). Despite both appearing on page one (and indeed the cover), Anand and Gelfand, true to their humble natures, are victims as much as victors.
Ulf Andersson receives his own mini-section on unorthodox defence. England is well represented, with games involving Adams (sadly 1/6), Miles, Speelman, Hodgson, Short (king walks) and Sadler, along with a Nunn study. Considering how the book initially purports to be linking computer chess to creativity, most of the games are actually from the tail-end of the pre-computer age, or even earlier, probably showing the authors’ age.
I would guess the modal decade for games is the noughties, followed by the nineties. The authors have a particular fondness for match-games (where undoubtedly the tension makes unconventional moves more effective, and resulting blunders are more likely). The studies in particular are a good addition, all simple enough to demonstrate the desired ideas.
As someone who does not particularly follow top-level chess but has read a large number of chess books, roughly half the examples were familiar to me. Some were mega-famous (Shirov’s Bh3!!!, Ivanchuk’s Qxe6+!?), but others, like this game, which I just happened to know well from the Fantasy Caro, were a bit more obscure:
My own familiarity with many positions was not really a hindrance to enjoyment – the examples chosen are all true icons of chess beauty. The aim of reading a book like this, other than pleasure, is really to inspire yourself – not only to go out and play chess, but do so creatively. In this I believe the book succeeds – I certainly played far more silly blitz than usual over New Year!
Surrey League division 4 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 10 January 2022
Chess made a tentative return to the Willoughby Arms on Monday 10 January when Kingston B, captained by Adam Nakar, took on a strong South Norwood B side. It had been touch and go in the week after New Year whether the club would resume playing matches, but in the end the committee agreed they should resume with two important provisos in the face of the Omicron surge: masks should be worn, by players and spectators alike in the playing area unless an attendee was medically exempt, and, where possible, players and supporters should do a lateral flow test to ensure they were Covid-negative before coming along.
In the event, the match went off without a hitch: many thanks to David Howes and his team for complying with good grace. Everyone wore a mask, though some occasionally slipped beneath the nose, and no one complained about the inconvenience. It can be done! These rules are in place subject to a continual review by the club committee.
As usual, it took about 10 minutes to untangle who wanted what time control and to set the clocks accordingly: quickplay, slowplay, Fischer increments, adjournments, adjudications. We had three different sets of playing conditions across the six boards. The Surrey League seems to be oblivious to the fact it is making a laughing stock of itself with all these variations: please just establish one time control for evening chess – 75 minutes with a 10-second increment will do very nicely. The Thames Valley League, with its variable playing session lengths, is even worse. You need to be an international lawyer to understand the league rules and fathom all the possible permutations.
Anyway, on to the match itself. South Norwood were stronger on paper, as Nakar continued with his bold policy of blooding some of the new players who have joined Kingston since we started meeting again last summer. Two of those newbies lost to experienced South Norwoodians on boards five and six, but neither game was a hammering.
Another Kingston newcomer, Yae-Chan Yang, beat the 1660-rated Kaddu Mukasa on board three – a terrific result for Yae, who had travelled down from Cambridge (where he is studying physics) to play in the match. He looked suitably delighted, though was still quivering somewhat after constructing a mating attack in an attacking game where no prisoners were taken. Yae does like to play seat-of-the-pants chess.
Gregor Smith, fresh from his triumph in the Richmond Blitz just before Christmas, was on top for most of the game against South Norwood’s Mr Solid, Ken Chamberlain. The game went to adjudication, but Gregor was two pawns up in a rook-and-pawn endgame, and a few days after the match Ken conceded rather than trouble the adjudicators.
On top board, Vladimir Bovtramovich won a fine game against the dangerous attacking player Ron Harris, breaking through with rook and queen and forcing Harris to sac a bishop in a last desperate bid to survive. The effort was unsuccessful and Vladimir’s attack became irresistible. On board two, the experienced Martin Cath proved too strong for the Kingston captain, outmanoeuvring Adam and demonstrating all the positional skill he has built up during 60 years or more of competitive chess.
So, with the adjudicated game going Kingston’s way, the match stood at 3-3 and the league points were shared. A very satisfactory result for Kingston, who are trying to give new players match experience rather than win promotion to Division 3 (that’s our story and we are sticking to it). Above all, the match was a demonstration that chess in masks is practicable, perhaps even enjoyable – especially if you win. And it helps that you can dispense with the mask in the bar downstairs, it being deemed difficult to drink beer through a mask.