Category Archives: Blog

Chess is about the pursuit of perfection. It’s not a circus

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

John Foley

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.

Stop the press conferences. Let them play.

#CarlsenNepo #FIDEMatch2021

Chess rebels: inside the mind of the Covid militants

Why do so many chess players resist society’s demands that they take precautions against the pandemic?

Stephen Moss

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.

Did Spassky really want to win the match of the century?

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?

Stephen Moss

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.

Spassky v Fischer Reykjavik 1972

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.

How to power up your preparation

Using online games to plan for your opponent

Ljubica Lazarevic

4NCL – the ultimate forcing function for me to do some study

With the first round of over the board 4NCL just around the corner, I cannot wait to get going. I have grown to love playing in the 4NCL league – games are held at a more Lju-friendly time, in the afternoons and mornings. It makes a stark difference to local league chess when kick-off is around the time I’m thinking about calling it a day, never mind slogging it out for the whole evening. Let’s not forget the ever-present fear of an adjournment

The other thing that really makes me warm to 4NCL is being forced to prepare. Having never been one for doing any kind of chess study, there is something rather pleasant about finding out who I’m going to be playing against shortly, and using that as an opportunity to learn some interesting lines.

Where are all the games?

One big challenge to this idyllic plan is that as you work yourself down the rating list (you’ll find me somewhere near the bottom, just keep scrolling down), the likelihood of finding games to refer to becomes vanishingly slim. It’s a shame there’s no centralised effort to collect all league and tournament games – you have to record them anyway – but it is completely understandable. Nevertheless, this is not helping the problem at hand.

Those of you who are more inclined to look at games are probably aware of the usual haunts: Chess Results, The Week in Chess and the 4NCL website itself will provide some games to view. I trust, dear reader, you are already familiar with these. But did you know there is a little goldmine of games to explore, thanks in part to the explosion of online chess? Step forward, Lichess!

With many tournaments and leagues heading online, Lichess was one of the most popular online chess sites to facilitate the digitisation of chess events during the pandemic. As well as enabling these events to continue, conveniently we also have records of games. This proved very useful in those online events, and in this blog post I’m going to show you how to get at historical games.

Introducing the Lichess API

What’s an API!? I can almost here some of you utter those words. API stands for Application Programming Interface. It is a piece of software that enables applications to talk to each other, using an agreed language. Everything you use related to technology will have many APIs in play. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know too much about what they do for the purposes of this exercise. Lichess has a large number of APIs available, allowing you to do anything from looking at games currently being played, pull puzzles, tell you who’s online, etc. The particular API we’re interested in is exporting games of a user. This handy little API will allow us to download specific games from a user, over a given time period, in PGN format, ready for us to analyse.

For those of you having palpitations at the thought of doing this, don’t worry. There is another workaround too. Lichess does offer a search option (log in and then Tools -> Advanced Search) to find games, but this will not allow you to download all the games into a PGN format. For those of you without chess database software, it may even be a preferred route.

How to use it

The documentation is fairly straightforward to follow – you should be able to figure out how to tweak the request based on the example below. You will need to be logged into your Lichess account to be able to do this.

Let’s say I want to download the standard time control games (aka classical on Lichess) for a user. All we need to do is run the following request (which looks like a web address) in your favourite browser – don’t forget to replace {username}:

https://lichess.org/api/games/user/{username}?perf=classical

Finally, to add more filters, such as date range, etc. you’ll need to add an & and then continue. For example, if I want all X’s games and they are rated, I’d do the following:

https://lichess.org/api/games/user/{username}?perf=classical&rated=true

Enjoy!

Calling time on adjournments

How to improve chess in England

John Foley

We return to the new season and have to reacquaint ourselves with the quaint custom of adjournments. We were unfortunately reminded of this by our recent match against Surbiton. For readers outside ye olde England, an adjournment involves stopping the game, sealing a move and resuming the game on another day. Adjournments were essential when there were indefinitely long playing sessions. Competitors would stay up late into the early hours analysing the adjourned game. In elite events, they may have benefited from paid analyst assistants whose task was to burn the midnight oil. The tradition lasted for most of the 20th century until the advent of digital clocks. Bobby Fischer won the last game of the 1972 World Championships when his opponent Boris Spassky resigned without resuming their adjourned game. FIDE phased out adjournments for the world chess championship in 1996.

Adjourned position of the 21st game. Spassky (White) had sealed 41.Bd7

Before dealing with the substantive issue of adjournments, we need to deal with the preliminary matter of time controls since the two matters are inextricably bound together. The main function of digital clocks is to implement incremental timing. This has two advantages. First, players are freed from the horror of the flag. As the deadline approaches, the quality of the moves deteriorates. The flurry of moves in the frenetic minutes before the time expires may be entertaining for the spectators but can be heartbreaking for the players. In chess, hours of building up a strong position can be thrown away by a careless move. The Germans call this critical period “zeitnot”. Digital clocks do not eliminate zeitnot, but they reduce its intensity and some of its worst manifestations.

The second advantage of incremental timing is that it enables organisers to ensure that the playing sessions are of a manageable duration. The felicitous invention of incremental time means that we no longer need to trade time certainty for chess quality. The playing session length depends upon the time control. We can choose a time control to be 99% confident that the games will be complete by the time the janitor locks up. So for the vast majority of games, we get the freedom to play as we want, to keep in the zone of flow. Only very occasionally will there be a long endgame to detain the players. In some cases, say as R&B v R, diplomatic negotiation may resolve the matter or, in the worst case, there is an extra charge for room hire.

FIDE properly insists on incremental timing in order to have games recognised for rating purposes. Adjournments are no longer part of the FIDE rules but are included in the guidelines in the appendix to satisfy the British. Incremental timing disposes of the need for adjournments, so why does England persist with this egregious anachronism? The reason is deeply rooted in the history and culture of evening league matches.

We can trace the history of evening league chess back to the arrival of suburban railways at the end of the 19th century which created commuting as we know it today. As the workers ended their long and tiring day, those who were keen to play chess had a choice. They could play near their work or they could travel back home in time for a match at their local club. Hence in London, we had a London league which started early, 6.30pm and various suburban leagues which started later at 7.30pm. It was a similar situation in the conurbations of Manchester and Birmingham. The late start combined with the need to get home and rise early for work meant that the playing sessions were limited to two-and-a-half or at most three hours. This session duration continues to the present in the London league and the leagues surrounding London: Surrey, Thames Valley, Middlesex etc.

Kingston Railyway Station 1910

The English Chess Federation tried to banish the adjournment option a few years ago (including adjudications – the cruel cousin) but was rebuffed by several leagues who control crucial constituencies in the ECF council. The problem for the leagues is that there are still players who refuse to countenance incremental timing. The fragility of club economics and the practicalities of team selection obliges captains to indulge the resistance. However, it is time to review the situation.

Adjournments cause untold damage to the operation of chess in England. The first major impact is that English chess ratings are incompatible with the rest of the world. Chess club games played under the aegis of the English Chess Federation do not receive the Elo ratings as recognised by the 192 countries in FIDE. Any federation which allows the outcome of games to be determined by chess engines and third-party analysts places its members in an invidious situation as far as international comparisons are concerned.

England has had a proud chess history but is rapidly slipping down the international rankings. It is surprising that the ECF has tolerated this situation for so many years. Curiously, instead of fixing the problem, it is being camouflaged. The latest manifestation of the ECF rating system now has 4-digits to make it look like with Elo. But it’s really not.

The English national rating system stems from a period before computers when transnational chess was rare. There was hardly any need to compare a foreigner with an Englishman. Nowadays some tournaments in England are FIDE rated because they do not allow adjournments but these are elite events such as the 4NCL. There is a disincentive to play in such events because they require paying a higher subscription to the ECF. Surely, the default rating system for England should not involve an extra fee. It is as if England revels in its insularity – pounds and pints instead of kilograms and litres, English chess grading instead of international rating. Sure you can convert, but for goodness sakes why not join the rest of the world?

The second major impact of adjournments is that they complicate inter-club tournaments. If a game is adjourned and the result of the match depends upon the game then the team captains throughout the league are in a state of uncertainty regarding the relative league position of the teams. Bear in mind that games can be adjourned again at the next session. The league tables are usually in a state of permanent incompleteness as adjournments take place in several fixtures in different clubs. Nobody knows if the next match is vital for promotion or to avoid relegation. Sports reporting has to be prefaced by a mathematical description of the possible positions as if we are living in a quantum universe.

The third major impact is on league players irrespective of whether they adjourn. On arrival at a match, the players must decide from a bewildering number of time controls and finishing conditions. Typically there are options for a longplay finish or a rapidplay finish, with or without an intermediate time control. Time controls differ depending upon whether the clock is analogue or digital to accommodate players who refuse to use a digital clock or accept incremental time control.

To make it more complicated, some leagues have a rule that boards must alternate between rapidplay and slow finishes, which involves a rejigging of board reordering in order to satisfy the combinatorial challenge. Furthermore, this restriction does not apply after a certain date in the season (1 May for the Surrey League) when all games must be set to rapidplay. As if this was not enough cognitive overload, there are further options to either adjourn or adjudicate the game.

The Surrey rules stipulate that “When a visiting player arrives at a match, he or she must offer before his first move at least two alternatives of game finish method from adjudication, adjournment or quickplay. The home player shall before his next move select from those offered.” It is not unusual for a player to arrive late and then must have the procedure explained to him or her. Many players are ignorant of these alternative finishing regimes, especially those who are new to league chess or come from overseas.

The procedure continues:  “A visiting player failing to make an appropriate offer shall be deemed to have offered all three methods.  Should the home player fail to select a game finish method, the visiting player may do so.  If neither player specifies a game finish method, the game shall be subject to adjudication.” Note that if the players fail to agree to a more sensible method of finishing the game, then it will be adjudicated – the ultimate threat. This is worse than adjournment because the players have no role in the outcome. At least in an adjournment you can analyse your own position – there is still some personal connection to the outcome. Adjudications are determined by a remote master with a silicon friend.

The visiting player may wish to avoid quickplay and so offers adjournment or adjudication. This leaves the home player in a quandary. Adjournments involve a lot of hassle, but adjudications take the soul out of chess. Hence, adjournments are often chosen as the lesser of two evils. When it comes to the moment for adjournment, there is a search for a sealable envelope (ie the glue has not dried up) which all clubs are required to store. The player having the move seals his move and hands it to the opponent to hold until the resumption. 

In Surrey, the visiting player has the choice of the resumption venue. This puts some pressure on the home player to agree a draw even if they are ahead, or resign even if they have drawing chances, because they do not fancy the extra trip. Usually, contact details are exchanged pro tem so that there is a chance to avoid the adjournment in the hope that someone will resign or agree a draw. However, this can give rise to bothersome extended prevarication when one player becomes unresponsive to communications. Nobody is in a rush to resume a losing position.

These arrangements apply to Surrey where the “guidance to captains” includes the duty: “For adjourned games, check that the players who have to make a sealed move have done so and placed them in sealed and signed envelopes. Try to ensure the second session is completed within 28 days.” The players set a resumption date some weeks hence when there is a gap in the calendar not clashing with other fixtures in other competitions, public holidays, bank holidays, religious festivals, personal vacation plans, medical appointments and family events. League players who wish to know the outcome of the match will need to be extremely patient.

If, like Kingston, a club competes in more than one league, then it faces a completely different set of rules in the adjacent league. In the Thames Valley league, a player who insists on playing on shall travel to his opponent’s club premises for the resumption, unless mutually agreed otherwise. So if you are the away player at a hard-to-reach venue you have a dilemma. You reckon that you have a better position but you don’t want to travel again so, therefore, you agree to a draw or concede the game as the case may be. The burden of travelling has a big determinant on the outcome of the game. Hence the rating system is not measuring pure playing strength but instead reflects the vagaries of late-night travel options.


Adjournment envelope: its fate is sealed

In Surrey, the player sealing his move hands it over to their opponent. In the Thames Valley, the sealed envelope is kept by the person who sealed the move protected only by the signature of their opponent on the seal. Neither of these contrary arrangements seems particularly secure. The contents can be read on the one hand or changed on the other hand with a minimum of stealth. Sometimes two matches are held simultaneously at the same venue from different leagues so the adjournment regulations diverge – a rare situation but one of torment.

The fourth impact, and probably the worst in practical terms, is the headache it causes for the match captains. If playing in the match, their attention is divided by the need to attend to the arrangements at the start and the end of the match as well as if a dispute arises during play. Captains need to record the time controls played on each board and the finishing arrangements. Somehow, league chess has become byzantine in its requirements. All this information needs to be input into the online league management system. The captain needs to keep an eye on each board just in case the players get confused by the complexities of customised time controls and alternative finishing conditions.

In the aforementioned match against Surbiton, there were three different time controls over six boards and a diverse set of arrangements for finishing the games. This bureaucracy means that captains are estimated to perform 200 points less than their official rating. This is one of the deterrents to being a match captain. In Kingston, the number of teams we enter into leagues is constrained by the reluctance of people to volunteer for captaincy.

The period of Covid has allowed time for reflection. The world seems changed in so many ways and it has certainly become more digital. Chess clubs including Kingston have seen some older players retire from active play due to age and the need for caution in public spaces. Previously, hardly any club players knew how to set digital chess clocks. As Generation Z players have started to join the club, we have experienced the converse issue – some don’t know how to set an analogue clock.

The places where chess is played have also been changing gradually. In the cities in particular there is a premium on property prices and convenient meeting places have been disappearing. Community centres, sports centres and church halls were once the social infrastructure which enabled clubs to thrive. However, the insatiable demand for housing and the incessant privatisation of community spaces have made it difficult for chess clubs to secure suitable venues. Many clubs are resorting to pub venues which are mutually keen to secure regular clientele given their perilous financial position.

Pubs are not usually ideal for chess from the point of view of noise, although Kingston is fortunate in having a soundproofed room upstairs at our disposal. Of more concern is that pubs are far from ideal for juniors, and the future of chess-playing culture is open to question. However, another consequence of so many clubs migrating to licensed premises is that there is no longer a tight deadline at the end of the evening. The publican smiles on those who feel thirsty. Hence, the traditional justification for fixed time controls has been dwindling and now is hardly relevant for the typical venues embraced by our leagues.

The time has come to abolish adjournments. They cause considerable disruption to players and captains and impair the management of the game. The English Chess Federation should decline to rate any games which are adjourned or adjudicated. There were once valid reasons for adjournments, but the historical justification no longer applies. Clubs will need to finally switch to digital timing, a policy that should be welcomed by all chess players.


John Foley is chairman of Kingston Chess Club, has captained all of the club’s teams at one time or another, and was formerly the inter-club tournament director for the Surrey County Chess Association and a non-executive director of the English Chess Federation. @ChessScholar

Never lose faith when you have opposite-colour bishops

Adam Nakar

As someone who is quite adept at getting himself into difficult positions, I can be quite adept at creating difficulties for my superior opponent.  One of my favourite saves comes from opposite-colour Bishop endgames, where the game may be a draw even if two pawns down. As an example, consider this position (A Nakar vs M Shurmer, Kingston vs Surbiton 2, TV2, 2/11/21) black to move:

This is clearly losing for White, as Black is a piece up and it’s only a matter of time before the a, c and/or e pawns fall. However, here Black went for an option that he was sure he could win:

29 …Nxa4?!

The idea is that Black gets three pawns for the Knight, and it should be easy to promote one of those extra pawns. White has nothing better than to accept this:

30. Bxa4  Rxc4 31. Bd7  Rxe4

White to move now has a defensive resource: opposite colour bishops! To enter into such a position is always very risky for the stronger side, as the fact there are colours that your piece can’t control and the defender can makes pushing the extra pawns challenging. This is still losing for White, mind – but to prove how difficult it can be to win, here’s the position a few moves later:

Black has lost one pawn on the kingside, unable to cover all those on light squares.  However, he’s still 2 passed pawns up, and even has the right Bishop covering the outside passer, so how hard can it be?

Actually, things are already very difficult.  The a-pawn cannot be defended, and the d-pawn’s progress is covered by the White Bishop.  Black decides to play:

43….Rb2+ 44. Rxb2  Bxb2

Now we have an opposite colour Bishop ending.  Black, two pawns up, is thinking this will covert in just a matter of time. 

White, however, plays to four principles:

  1. Use the King and Bishop to blockade the pawns.
  2. Also use them to ensure Black’s King cannot get in a position to shepherd the pawns.
  3. Be stubborn! Play on, not to win, but to draw.
  4. Be patient. What do you think your opponent will do if you offer them a draw?! You have to play calmly, carefully, hold firm, and wait for your opponent to accept that they have no way through. 

The following moves, whilst not perfect, are far from unreasonable, and do illustrate how hard it is for Black to make progress, especially as the time ticks down towards the end of a long game: 

North v South of England: An epic encounter from 1892

A unique match took place on 28 September 1892 in the Great Western Hotel in Birmingham. Each team comprised 106 amateurs from their respective county organisations. The significance of the event is something which social historians will perhaps explain in time. There must have been a confluence of circumstances which led to the decision to organise the match. Terrestrial communications were better than today – the train system reached all corners of the land and punctuality was assured; letters sent by the Royal Mail were delivered promptly and would bear favourable comparison with today’s performance. It is remarkable that the défi from the North to the South was formally submitted on 20 August, leaving only five weeks to conclude the event. One wonders how long such an event would take to organise in this age of instant communication.

There was an emerging sense that sports should have the participation of the general population rather than being left to the aristocracy. The Football Association had recently been consolidated and the leading teams – from the public schools and the army – were soon to be eclipsed. 1892 was the first year in which the FA Cup Final was played in a purpose-built football stadium, Goodison Park, rather than on a cricket ground. The Victorian middle classes began to exert their influence by founding the governing associations of the popular sports we still play today. The Lawn Tennis Association was set up in 1888. Even the venerable County Cricket Championship only started in 1890.

The Victorians did not share the modern sense of nationhood. The organisation of chess was from the bottom up. The metropolitan chess clubs formed into county associations which then grouped together to form regional associations. The Southern Counties Chess Association was founded in the same year as the match. The British Chess Federation was not formed until 1902. This description was increasingly strained and as the constituent national chess organisations (Scotland, Wales) were established, the BCF in effect became the English Chess Federation in 2005.

It is arguable that the weakness of the European nation states had led the British to seek their own internal challenges through the self-organising middle classes. Italy did not become a modern nation until 1861 and Germany was not in the modern form until after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). European borders were fluid and passports were not required. In 1892, the Americans opened Ellis Island in New York to process the millions of Europeans seeking a new life.

In England, chess could not move too far down the populist track. After all, it is a game of the intellect and intellectual pursuits were (at that time at least) a respected characteristic of English gentlemen. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle were about to be published, marking the triumph of rationality over intuition. In the match, traditional sources of authority prevailed. The top board for each team was assigned on the basis of social position rather than merit: each was a Cambridge-educated vicar who had developed their chess skills at Simpson’s Divan in the Strand.

Amos Burn v John Owen (in Liverpool)

For the South, the Reverend William Wayte (aged 64) was an Examiner at London University and had just published his monumental Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Wayte had enjoyed his best year as far back as 1855 but had more recently won the Counties’ Chess Association tournament in 1884. For the North, the Reverend John Owen (aged 65), a prominent member of Liverpool Chess Club, had been vicar of Hooton near Chester for 31 years. He had been at his peak some two decades earlier and had beaten the legendary Paul Morphy in 1858 in which he deployed the eponymous Owen’s Defence (1.e4 b6).

Joseph Blake was one of the strongest players in England for over 50 years

J.H. Blake, the formidable Kingston player, who played board three for the South, was stronger than anybody else in the match (according to EDO retrospective ratings) and was at the zenith of his long career.

Samuel Tinsley (Hastings 1895)

Blake’s game below was annotated by Samuel Tinsley in the British Chess Magazine of February 1893. Tinsley was an excellent player himself who went on to beat Bird (of the eponymous opening) and Chigorin (of the eponymous defence) and did not disgrace himself in one of the greatest tournaments of all time, Hastings 1895, won by the American Harry Pillsbury. Tinsley took the view that Blake had the advantage for most of the game. However, modern computer analysis shows that his opponent, T. H. Billington from Wolverhampton (who was a substitute), actually held the advantage for much of the game but pushed too hard and his position fell apart.

The game was critical because the South won by the narrowest of margins: 53½- 52½. The South won on the top boards, weighted by players from the strong metropolitan clubs. Billington went on to play an attacking game at Birmingham in 1906 which found its way into the chess anthologies (see second game below).

John Foley


T H Billington v J H Blake, Birmingham, 1892, C45 Scotch Game, Schmidt Variation


Billington v Spears, Birmingham, 1906, C67 Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence, open variation