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The art of chess survival on the streets of Mumbai

How would 11-year-old Kingston junior Jaden Mistry fare at the outdoor “Chess Arena” on the seafront in India’s bustling commercial metropolis?

Malcolm Mistry

Jaden Mistry (left) takes on Raju, his first opponent in Mumbai’s outdoor chess arena. Photograph: Malcolm Mistry

A recent holiday back home in our native city Mumbai was meant to be a relaxing Christmas break with family and friends. Little did I imagine the intended time off from my demanding work schedule, and a well-deserved pause for my 11-year-old son Jaden from doing his homework and playing league chess for Kingston, would have some surprises in store.

With an estimated population of 27 million, Mumbai is the second most populous city in India after the capital New Delhi. Located on the west coast of India overlooking the Arabian sea, Mumbai never sleeps: it is the epicentre of fashion, the commercial and entertainment capital of India, and home to both the mega-rich and the poor.

As in most parts of India, cricket is the sport that defines the city and unifies people across all social groups. Chess may not yet have the universal appeal of cricket, but it is catching up. Encouraged by a growing number of enthusiastic parents, schoolchildren now take chess seriously as a sport, aiming to emulate old heroes such as former world champion Viswanathan Anand (“Vishy”) and new stars such as Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (“Praggy”).

Both Vishy and Praggy hail from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and in part thanks to their achievements chess is most popular in the south. Club chess and coaching are increasing in Mumbai, though still not at the same pace as in the south of the country, but intriguingly one can also now often find chess being played in cafés, malls and workspaces.

An interesting open-air spot along the picturesque Arabian sea where I accidentally discovered street chess being played by young and old alike was on the promenade at Carter Road in Bandra, an up-market suburb of Mumbai. The promenade itself, a mile-long walkway along the Arabian sea, is popular with fitness enthusiasts and casual walkers. Carter Road is one of the most expensive areas in Mumbai, filled with cafés, street food stalls and fine-dining restaurants.  

Strolling with Jaden on a pleasant Christmas Eve morning, we were intrigued by an array of marble tables and makeshift benches and chairs made from a mix of wood, stone, iron and steel at the northern end of the Carter Road promenade. We asked some locals about them, and were told that players and spectators were usually to be found in the evenings at the so-called “Chess Arena”, as well as occasionally in the mornings on weekends and holidays.

A kibitzers’ paradise: Onlookers loudly offer advice in a mix of languages. Photograph: Malcolm Mistry

A local resident who was himself a social chess player gave us some background on the arena. He said that, drawing inspiration from open-air chess in the parks of New York, two chess boards set in marble and stone were initially erected in 2009 by the Carter Road association, with help from the local council. Subsequent interest from visitors prompted the council to add another 14 boards, though the monsoon rains from June to September and the salty sea breeze have since corroded some of the metallic structures, reducing the number of playable chessboards to about a dozen.

Armed with this history of the Chess Arena on a promenade where I walked with my wife on our first date (on 26 May, 2007, to be precise), I couldn’t help but reflect on the positive changes that my childhood city had undergone in recent years. Encouraged by Jaden, who in a café not far away from the promenade was being told about his parents’ first date, our natural instinct was to try to play a quick morning game on one of the medieval-looking marble boards. To our disappointment, we discovered there were no pieces – and no players either. I promised Jaden we would come back in the evening with our own chess pieces.

For Jaden, the wait until evening was the longest in his two-week of holiday back home in India. When the time arrived, I don’t think I have ever seen him get ready more rapidly. Soon we arrived at the same spot as in the morning, and were pleasantly surprised to see five of the chessboards already occupied. These were serious chessplayers, though playing without clocks.

There were also a number of onlookers loudly offering advice in a mix of local (Marathi) and national (Hindi) languages. I was impressed by the focus of the players and their indifference to the banter. The post-mortems after the games were even more intriguing, with the spectators having memorised the moves better than some of the players, who generally did not keep score.

Sensing Jaden’s impatience, I approached one of the players, who had just won a close game, to see if he would play a game with my son. He agreed, and with twilight descending we moved to another chessboard nearer a streetlight. Jaden’s first Chess Arena opponent was called Raju, quite a common name in India. He said he was a frequent player at the arena and reckoned he was rated about 1500.

Raju asked Jaden in a strong south Indian accent if he was a newcomer to the arena. Jaden explained how he had got involved in club chess in a pub in Kingston, London. Jaden’s recently acquired southern English accent, accentuated by a tinge of an Italian accent left over from having spent the previous eight years in Italy, and his opponent’s south Indian accent meant each of them repeated the same sentence twice to ensure they understood each other. But the beauty of chess is that, as with mathematics, it has a language of its own. A few moves into the game, Jaden and Raju seemed to understand each other perfectly. So here we were, within no time, my son making his international street-chess debut in his birth city and opting for e4 as White.

A carnival of chess: The buzz and vibrancy of the arena will be lasting memories. Photograph: Malcolm Mistry

Faced with high-decibel traffic in this busy Mumbai suburb, and surrounded by curious and vocal onlookers, this was a spectacle Jaden had never encountered in the UK during his short chess career. He asked me if I had any earbuds to reduce the sound – not something I consider carrying in my pockets. Soon the focus of the onlookers at other boards shifted to Jaden’s game. The fact that he was by far the youngest player that evening encouraged the vocal chess engines to offer even more uninvited expert opinion. Raju politely reminded the spectators that their shadows falling on the board were dimming the already obscured streetlight.

The game lasted about 45 minutes and, after a rapid exchange of material towards the end, the players agreed a draw. The result drew applause from the spectators. One of them introduced himself as a chess player and coach, and invited me to visit his Facebook page, claiming to be a 1600 Fide-rated player and offering to coach Jaden. Raju later told me it was quite normal to be greeted by self-acclaimed chess trainers and experts, who might or might not have the credentials to coach.

As for Jaden, he appeared relieved to be off the mark in his international chess career. Inspired by his new-found confidence, he quickly made a New Year resolution to score his first points for the Kingston third team. Raju, perhaps sensing he had let an 11-year-old off with a draw, quickly asked Jaden for a rematch. The two of them ended up playing twice more, with honours even at the end of the evening – Jaden had won one, lost one and drawn one. Much to my amusement, our two hours at the Chess Arena had seen a succession of players and spectators observing and commenting on different boards in a variety of regional dialects, some of which I couldn’t fully comprehend myself.   

We visited the Chess Arena a few more times during our stay in Mumbai. I lost count of the number of games Jaden played, but what is embedded in my memory – and perhaps in Jaden’s as well – are the buzz and vibrancy around the Chess Arena. In many ways, it felt nothing less than a carnival of street chess.

Inside the wonderful world of David Navara

The Czech super-grandmaster’s games collection doubles as a memoir and is full of humour, passion, wisdom, raw honesty and an unquenchable love for chess

Michael Healey

David Navara has always been one of my favourite players amongst the elite, but I’ve never really understood why. Are his games really that interesting? Is he actually a thoughtful character? A super-nice guy? A calculation machine? A true chess artist? Turns out – yep!

My Chess World really is a most charming book, as the Roman poets would say – except that at 616 pages it’s not exactly brief. In fact due to its weight this became a bedside book, where I would read a chapter or two a night (a couple of games) stretching through 64 (of course!) games. Before nearly every game is an article about his experiences as a professional chess player.

David Navara (source: Wikipedia)

The dominant theme is Navara’s unstoppable love for chess, through ups and downs (even finishing up with a “Chess Poem”). Every page resounds with passion and strain, humour and wisdom. Despite this chess addiction, he finds time to read books (“I normally take three times as many books to a tournament as I manage to read”), partake in philosophy and art criticism, spend six years at university, follow Christianity and even have a girlfriend (on page 568 – by which time the reader has sadly already fallen in love). He also likes to take note of everything around him and find amusement everywhere.

The book is filled with stories and gossip, opinions and jokes, and one particularly surreal photo of himself with a large fish. He even has the occasional hilarious adventure, walking about between games. It may help that we seem to share a sense of deadpan humour, which of course can be a big hit-or-miss with chess books (and people.)

Navara is immensely courteous, making excuses for opponents, complimenting them, pointing out other instances when he was on the receiving end or how they proceeded to outscore him in the tournament. Before a game from his match against Nakamura, he writes about “UNPLEASANT OPPONENTS”. Is Navara about to unleash? No, he explains that certain players’ styles he finds hard to play against. The rudest he gets is a slight argument with someone who steals his seat on a plane, and remarking he has possibly heard one of Nigel Short’s stories before.

Harsh criticism is saved for himself. Games are filled with comments on things he missed, or ways he was lucky, or how computer ideas are beyond the mind of a mere 2700(!). One senses the mischievous wit of Tal, proclaiming himself the youngest ex-world champion, when Navara notes he has probably lost more chess matches than any other player (local sponsorship often invited strong players for mini-matches, which tend to go badly for him). However, he seems justifiably proud of certain stellar individual results, and team results are a source of great joy. There are moments which seem incredibly raw, and one particularly sorry comment that he used to have more supporters in the past. Everything is so honest it is impossible not to join in the emotional journey.

The self-deprecating bulk of the book comes under the title “Blog past its sell-by date”. This may be the secret of what makes this book so impressive. Navara clearly took his blog very seriously, investing time immediately after games to analyse and give his thoughts, sometimes to the detriment of the following day’s games. Through the various editions and translations, despite myriad lines I found very few errata. He gives move times, tournament placings (pre-game, post-game and final), team scores and podium scores. All this provides far more context (and interest) than your normal game collection.

Nevertheless all this would be fairly pointless if the games weren’t up to much. The 64 games chosen are obviously overwhelmingly interesting, although as Navara explains:

  1. Substantial games are interesting
  2. Substantial games require extensive annotations
  3. Extensive annotations are boring

The Navara calling card is this king march, a superb concept coming from computer preparation and practical skill.

Here Carlsen is put on the back foot with White, coming up with a clever rejoinder.

Invited for a match in China against whizz-kid Wei Yi, Navara uses a Queen sacrifice to unbalance the position.

The powerful usage (and discarding) of a queen recurs in several games, both for himself and his opponent. Sometimes Navara neglects development and defers castling. He seeks out unbalanced positions, but often with not kings at stake but better coordination of pieces. Chaos – but more treading water amidst a tsunami than running to escape a volcanic eruption. It’s never that obvious what the end goal is or what we’re avoiding, just that it’s all completely bewildering hard work. A number of games finish in unusual rook endgames, which can become remarkably engaging, even for philistines like me.

Here are two games which felt particularly joyful. The first, against Indian GM Krishnan Sasikiran, appealed to me instantly because Navara randomly picks up an opening I play and finds ideas I’d never considered – and of course there are the tripled pawns! Drama explodes from a “level” position, but is tamed by piece coordination, accurate choices and a very cute finish.

Here the future world championship challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, contributes to a wonderfully unorthodox game, where Navara has to keep an eye out for perpetuals, fortresses and … blunders!

I would thoroughly recommend this book to chess lovers. If you end up falling in love with Navara as well, that’s just the cost.

Chess resolutions for 2023

Kingston members outline what they plan to do differently next year

David Rowson: I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Why spoil the fun of New Year’s Eve by thinking of all the tasks before you? Instead, I make lists of things I need to do at random times throughout the year. The chess ones begin with “Learn how to play some openings properly”. So my resolution list for 2023 is:

  1. Learn a decent defence to 1. d4, instead of, when faced by this at the board, spending a couple of minutes regretting I still haven’t done this, thinking I no longer believe in the Old Indian Defence, and then playing it anyway.
  2. Learn how to defend against the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation and the Scotch etc, etc, instead of improvising half the time.
  3. Study the endgame (rather vague, and an old chestnut, but I’m sure it’s true).
  4. Greatly reduce the number of five-minute Lichess games I play and find something online that improves my play instead.
  5. As captain of Kingston’s first team, help our excellent squad to fulfil their potential by winning everything we can (ie the Surrey League and Thames Valley division 1 – it’s going to be tough, but we have the players to do it).
First-team captain David Rowson: Plans to work on his openings, study the endgame and play less online blitz

Peter Lalić: I will quit 1. h3. I will play faster. I will continue to study zero endgames. I will win more games in the opening. I will become a Fide master.

David Maycock: Play faster and improve in calculation.

Peter Andrews: Bit late in my career to make many changes, but after seeing some scary tracking exploits I plan to use different openings when playing online – to put those wishing to prepare for games with me off the scent.

Stephen Moss: Naturally I will stop playing the hopelessly passive Nf6 Scandinavian. I started playing it about a decade ago and got hooked because some of my opponents tried to hold on to the d-pawn with c5. I found gambiting a pawn on c6 then gave Black a very nice attacking game and chalked up some easy wins. Unfortunately, very few players do try to defend the d-pawn. Most sensibly choose to build up a space advantage and enjoy a very pleasant game while I grovel. Peter Lalić tells me I play it wrong and should never put the knight, when chased from d5, on b6, where it can get marooned. He recommends the Portuguese Gambit, and I might give that a go, but I’m tempted to junk the Scandinavian and learn the Sicilian. Nigel Short once put me off trying to digest all the theory in the Sicilian, calling it “an ocean” and implying I would drown. But, given how tedious and grovelly my Scandinavian games are, I feel it’s either that or give up chess completely.

Julian Way: My resolution is to build an all-purpose repertoire against the Sicilian Defence. I’m even thinking of writing a little book about it.

Julian Way: Aiming to develop an all-purpose repertoire against the Sicilian and pass on the secrets in a book

John Foley: I don’t have New Year resolutions. Alone amongst chess players I am not interested in improving my rating. I am content to put up a decent struggle against strong players and occasionally win a nice game. My chess ambitions are focused on chess education.

Gregor Smith: As a seasoned member of the Failed by Third Week in January Club, I am no stranger to setting unrealistic goals, and here are my usual three annual intentions, which are no doubt destined for failure again:

  1. Lose weight: I need to trim the fat. Not only from around the waistline, but I need to trim the fat from my opening repertoire. Calorific delights such as the Danish and Scotch gambits need to be banished, and replaced by lean efficiencies of the Italian and Spanish variety. I think I’ll still allow myself to indulge in some Smith-Morra on a cheat day however. 
  2. Read more books: Far from a bookworm, this is always a challenging one, and I must admit I’m still stuck on chapter 6 of Stephen Moss’s The Rookie having started last January – not a slight on the author, but a reader incapable of swapping his phone for a paperback. Next year, I think I’ll try a Chessable course.
  3. Get more sleep: This involves not playing endless hours of 3+2 into the early hours. I want to channel that time before sleep into something that isn’t sending my mind into overdrive. I’ll maybe try 10+2 instead. 

Mike Healey: As brain cells swiftly disappear, to find some openings which try to mask the decline.

Mike Healey: Ever self-deprecating, Mike says he will look for openings that allow for his disappearing brain cells

Nick Grey: Play more Fide-rated games. Move quickly in known-to-me theory. Slow down when necessary and rely on tactics. Learn two new Black openings. Learn one new White opening. Volunteer to be reserve for Kingston teams. Allow plenty of time and arrive early. When not playing chess, talk more.

Jaden Mistry (aged 11): My chess resolution in 2023 is to improve my focus in the longer format of the game. My father, who taught me chess, always reminds me that I play as if I might miss my bus. That also means he gets little time to enjoy his Guinness at the Willoughby Arms. I therefore aim to develop my patience and focus more on the classical format, instead of the rapid and blitz that I started off with as a newbie. Since the league matches often end late in the evening, I also intend to work on my mental stamina to remain alert, and to improve my endgames. I am eager to get my first win for the club in January 2023, and subsequently perform consistently in order to improve our club’s record in third-team fixtures.

Stephen Daines: I’d like to get to 1700 by the end of 2023. I’ve come back to competitive chess after a 44-year break, and feel I’m getting back to my old form.

Mark Sheridan: I intend to study some endgames and learn more about them, because I currently know zilch. My plan is to read the highly recommended books by Averbakh and Silman.

Will Taylor: My main resolution for 2023 is to get into time trouble less, though I do make the same resolution every year. I’m also going to pretend I’m rated 200 points higher than I really am to make my approach more ambitious against players who are higher rated than I actually am.

Will Taylor: Vows to get into time trouble less in 2023, but admits he makes the same resolution every year

Max Mikardo-Greaves: I’m hoping to boost my rating by a hundred points – it’s about 1300 at the moment – by analysing games, learning Queen’s Gambit as White and the French Defence as Black.

Ian Mason: I need to do my chess homework more regularly for the Killer Chess Academy. The aim is always to improve, even though getting up to 2000 is now well above my expectations.

Sean Tay: Find time to study more chess openings and try to improve my middle- and endgames. Play more league games and achieve a rating of 1600. 

Vladimir Li: I will return to Fide-rated tournaments and hope to get the FM title.

Josh Lea: My resolution in 2023 is to take part in an actual, official chess game and get a rating. Once I’ve played 10 games I should have some idea of how strong I actually am.

Ohhun Kwon: I’ve returned to chess in my late twenties after a decade away, and I want to rediscover the passion for the game I had as a teenager. I’m wary of setting quantifiable goals because I know I just want to enjoy the game, but I would also like to start playing competitive games and climb up the ratings. I played at school and did well, but when I started university I lost touch with chess. Now I intend to start taking it seriously again and play some matches for the club.

Christmas Chess Quiz

Test your knowledge of chess with our festive quiz. We had a quiz night at the club on 19 December and the winning team got 12/20. See if you can do better. Answers at the bottom. No cheating!

  1. Forty-two years ago, Garry Kasparov won the world junior chess championship ahead of several players with bright futures ahead of them. Which of the following players finished in second place?

(a) Silvio Danailov, future manager of Veselin Topalov
(b) Nigel Short, future world championship challenger
(c) Yasser Seirawan, future US chess champion
(d) Ken Rogoff, future Harvard economist

  1. During his brief career, Paul Morphy defeated all of the following chess greats one after the other EXCEPT:

(a) Adolf Andersson
(b) Louis Paulsen
(c) Jules Arnous de Rivière
(d) Howard Staunton

  1. Which of these is the REAL title of a published book?

(a) Disney’s Chess Guide by Anatoly Karpov
(b) Fail at Chess with Putin by Garry Kasparov
(c) Vegetarian Chess by Viswanathan Anand
(d) Howling at the Moon by Vassily Ivanchuk

  1. Which of the following grandmasters is the only one to have NOT won both the World junior chess championship and the world chess championship?

(a) Boris Spassky
(b) Viktor Korchnoi
(c) Garry Kasparov
(d) Viswanathan Anand

  1. The Elo rating system was featured in the plot of which of the following Oscar-nominated films?

(a) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
(b) The King’s Speech
(c) The Social Network
(d) Parasite

  1. The Fide logo is:

(a) A red-and-black chessboard surrounded by Olympic rings
(b) A black-and-white chequered hexagon
(c) A white knight on an oval black or blue globe
(d) A black king in front of a blue or white shield

  1. This chess-related item sold for $150,000 in a September 2009 auction:

(a) The chess set used in the film The Seventh Seal
(b) A scoresheet signed by Kasparov and Karpov from an exhibition match in Spain.
(c) The original manuscript for Aron Nimzowitsch’s My System
(d) A copy of Wilhelm Steinitz’s will

  1. In which of these chess variants would you try to lose all your pieces?

(a) Crazyhouse
(b) Atomic chess
(c) Antichess
(d) Bughouse

  1. In April 2011, Viswanathan Anand achieved something that has happened to only five world champions. He:

(a) Won a Chess Oscar
(b) Lost a classical game in under 20 moves
(c) Achieved a positive head-to-head record against all his previous match opponents
(d) Became a father

  1. True or false: It is a Fide rule that the king must be taller than every other piece.

(a) True
(b) False

  1. Which of these was NOT an official rule for the 2008 Anand-Kramnik world championship match?

(a) The arbiter declares a time forfeiture
(b) A player will be forfeited if he makes multiple illegal moves in a game
(c) The players must recite the FIDE pledge at the opening ceremony
(d) The players do not have to write down moves

  1. Complete this quote from Capablanca in his book A Primer of Chess: A time limit of “between 20 and 30 moves per hour is …”

(a) “Suitable only for beginners”
(b) “A fairly slow speed”
(c) “Much too fast for proper study”
(d) “The correct pace for correct chess”

  1. In a 1992 tournament, GM Lev Psakhis accomplished something that has never been equalled:

(a) He defeated all four semi-finalists of the Candidates tournament
(b) He defeated both Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov
(c) He defeated all three Polgár sisters
(d) He played 1052 moves over nine rounds

  1. In 2015, this player was caught using a smartphone hidden in the player-only bathrooms to cheat against Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian at the Dubai Open:

(a) Stephen Moss
(b) Gaioz Nigalidze
(c) Borislav Ivanov
(d) Sébastien Feller

  1. In July 2015 the Norwegian newspaper VG reported that Magnus Carlsen had:

(a) Signed for Real Madrid
(b) earned $6.6 million in the first half of the decade
(c) received 493 marriage proposals
(d) met all three Kardashian sisters

  1. When was the first official Fide ratings system introduced?

(a) 1966
(b) 1974
(c) 1971
(d) 1972

  1. What is greatest in number?

(a) All atoms in the universe
(b) Possible games of chess
(c) Stars in the Milky Way
(d) People on the planet

  1. Which former Soviet player once got into a drunken fight over a woman at a bar in Havana, and missed the first five rounds of the 1966 Chess Olympiad because of his injuries. He was:

(a) Mikhail Tal
(b) Vasily Smyslov
(c) Viktor Korchnoi
(d) Boris Spassky

  1. What was Magnus Carlsen’s FIDE rating at 11 years old?

(a) 1645
(b) 2536
(c) 900
(d) 2127

  1. During this well-known world championship match, a blueberry yoghurt delivered to one of the players became a controversial point of contention.

(a) Karpov v Kasparov, 1984
(b) Kasparov v Short, 1993
(c) Topalov v Kramnik, 1995
(d) Karpov v Korchnoi, 1978

ANSWERS

  1. (b) Nigel Short
  2. (d) Howard Staunton. In 1858 Morphy travelled to the UK to play Staunton, but Staunton kept delaying the match and it never took place
  3. (a) Disney’s Chess Guide by Anatoly Karpov
  4. (b) Viktor Korchnoi
  5. (c) The Social Network. In one scene in the film, Eduardo Saverin shows Mark Zuckerberg “the algorithm used to rank chess players”
  6. (c) A white knight on an oval black or blue globe
  7. (a) The chess set used in the film The Seventh Seal
  8. (c) Antichess, also known as “losing chess” and “suicide chess”
  9. (d) Became a father. On 9 April 2011, Anand and his wife Aruna’s first child was born, a son named Akhil
  10. (b) False. The Fide Handbook says only that the king should be about 3.75 inches tall, and the other pieces “should be proportionate in their height and form”
  11. (c) The players must recite the Fide pledge at the opening ceremony. At the time there was no such thing as a Fide opening pledge, and, even when there was, no one has ever been forced to recite it
  12. (b) “A fairly slow speed”
  13. (c) He defeated all three Polgar sisters. During a 1992 tournament in Aruba, Psakhis beat Judit Polgár with White in round five, Susan Polgár with Black in round eight, and Sofia Polgár with White in round nine
  14. (b) Gaioz Nigalidze, who received a three-year ban and had to forfeit his grandmaster title following an investigation
  15. (b) Earned $6.6 million in the first half of the decade, more than any other chess player over that period
  16. (c) 1971
  17. (b) Possible games of chess
  18. (a) Mikhail Tal, who was notorious for his affinity with alcohol. Tal and Korchnoi were reportedly in a bar when the former was hit over the head with a bottle by the jealous boyfriend of a woman Tal was dancing with
  19. (d) 2127
  20. (d) Karpov v Korchnoi, 1978. After the yoghurt was delivered to Karpov, Korchnoi’s camp alleged that the flavour of the yoghurt (blueberry) was a secret signal from Karpov’s seconds

Michael Basman: pioneer, teacher and populariser of chess

IM Michael Basman, who died on 26 October at the age of 76, was an innovator who passed on his love and deep knowledge of the game to countless players in Surrey and beyond

David Rowson

At the start of his chess career, Michael Basman might have been seen as part of the 1960s wave of young English players which also included Ray Keene and Bill Hartston, foreshadowing the English chess explosion of the 1970s. But Basman was never just part of a movement: he was much too individual and original for that. He was a great innovator at the board, a pioneer of neglected opening systems, but perhaps most importantly he developed new ideas about the teaching and popularisation of chess.

As long-time Kingston Chess Club member Julian Way remembers, Basman was always sceptical about established principles and didn’t like second-hand received knowledge. Julian studied with Basman as a junior, and then much later he had some mentoring from him, which assisted Julian in his approach to teaching chess himself. “Mike was a very original teacher,” he says. “He approached the game like a beginner, not an expert, in the sense of having a humble, open mind. He was unafraid to question everything. He liked to read the books of the early masters, going back as far as Ruy Lopez, as he felt they had an uncontaminated approach. He was a great teacher because he valued the progress of beginners as much as stronger players.”

MIchael Basman demonstrating the games of Henry Bird at a talk he gave at Kingston in February 2022
(photo: John Foley)

Basman told Julian that he felt his life’s mission was to popularise chess. “He had the idea of putting lessons on audio tape, instead of into books, realising that listening could be a valid alternative learning methodology to reading.” He launched the UK Chess Challenge in 1996, which encouraged huge numbers of schoolchildren to participate in the game – around 50,000 annually and more than a million since its inception. Basman was very interested in how a good cadre of teachers could be produced. Julian explains, “His vision of chess teaching was to take people who knew little or nothing about chess and train them.” He was above all concerned to find people who had some teaching skills, or at least good communication skills, and direct them towards teaching chess.

Basman’s father was originally from Armenia; Basman himself studied for a time in the Armenian capital, Erevan, and won the city’s championship whilst there. However, he was a Surrey local, attending Surbiton County Grammar School and playing for several clubs in the area, starting with Surbiton as a junior and making a significant contribution to local chess right to the end of his life. He had many career highlights, including draws with two ex-world champions, Mikhail Botvinnik (Hastings 1966-67) and Mikhail Tal (Hastings 1973-74). In 1967 he led the English team at the World Students’ Championships, at which they finished third and scored a surprise 3-1 win against the Soviet Union. Basman won the top-board game against Vladimir Savon. His best result in the British Championships was first equal with Hartston in 1973, though he lost the tie-break. He became an international master in 1980.

The following is a game which Mike played against another uniquely creative player, Albin Planinc. Black’s opening is provocative in the extreme; some would say foolhardy, others brave, but it works out surprisingly well. In the 1974-75 edition of Hastings Mike only scored 5.5/15, but this included wins against Ulf Andersson, Pal Benko, Michael Stean and Jonathan Mestel, as well as Planinc. His fighting spirit is shown by the fact that he only drew one game out of the 15.

Postcard from Tbilisi: A visit to the Chess Palace

Kingston’s first-team captain has been spending the summer in Georgia. A foray to the centre of chess life there may not have been the ideal preparation for the start of the new season

David Rowson

The Tbilisi Chess Palace: The construction of a special building for chess shows its importance to the Soviet state

Unlike our cherished Willoughby Arms, the Tbilisi Chess Palace was purpose-built in the 1970s for the practice and promotion of the game. Its full name is, however, the Tbilisi Chess Palace and Alpine Club, so it yokes together two activities which are usually thought of as rather distinct from one other (the Willoughby’s combination of chess and Irish music is perhaps less unlikely and certainly less strenuous).

The construction of a special building for chess and the implication that it is at least as significant an activity as mountain-climbing indicate its importance to the Soviet state and its people. There’s a comprehensive account of the Chess Palace’s significance and of the Soviet and Georgian chess background here.

When I first came to live and work in Tbilisi in 1988, I stumbled upon the palace and was lucky enough to find that an international tournament was taking place there, with the bonus that it featured Mikhail Tal, Oleg Romanishin and … Stuart Conquest. Stuart achieved the remarkable feat of beating both Tal and Romanishin (playing Black in both games), but, as a sign of the strength of East European chess at that time, the tournament winners were the little-known Bulgarian Valentin Lukov and the Georgian Elizbar Ubilava.

I didn’t realise it then, of course, but the privileged position of chess within the USSR would soon be under threat, as the Soviet state itself weakened and finally collapsed. Many top Georgian players, having lost their state subsidies, emigrated to other countries and/or tried other means of earning a living, such as starting businesses or playing poker. Yet the Chess Palace itself remains in place and, I assume, still plays a key role in the development of Georgian chess. Thirty-four years after I first encountered it, staying in Georgia this summer I decided to visit the palace again.  

The Soviet empire that supported chess so generously may have gone, but Georgia’s Chess Palace lives on

Hovering in the empty reception area, I was greeted by a man who emerged from an office with “What do you want?” I told him I was English and interested in chess. I avoided unnecessary and complicated explanations about how I used to live in Tbilisi and had actually played in two minor tournaments here 34 years ago. He asked me to wait, and about 10 minutes later called me in to meet another man, in his seventies, who addressed me with some words of English, trying to understand what I was doing in the otherwise empty chess palace in the sweltering month of August, when all normal people had gone off to the Black Sea or to mountain resorts.

He produced a board and set, and without further talk we began what was in effect a five-minute game without a clock. Playing Black, I very quickly found myself in a tricky line of the Two Knights’ Defence, transposed from a Scotch Gambit. A few moves later I was faced with losing my queen, being checkmated or possibly both. I opted for resignation, mentally blaming my comparative inadequacy on my opponent’s no doubt rigorous training in the Soviet school of chess.

I asked him his name – “Roman”. Clearly not Roman Dzindzichashvili (actually “Jinjikhashvili” would be a shorter and more accurate transliteration, but would spoil the spectacle of all those consonants together) as he was thin and wiry, the opposite of the once famous Georgian grandmaster (and US champion). He eluded my question about his rating, and tactfully made no comment when I told him mine. I noted that he didn’t ask me if I was interested in playing for the local first team, or any other team, for that matter.

For our second game I sought the security of my beloved King’s Indian Attack. Attack it was, on both sides of the board, him on the kingside and me on the other. He sacrificed the exchange and the position was very double-edged, so I bailed out by giving back the exchange for perpetual check. I hoped he hadn’t decided to go easy on a clueless foreigner. I had the feeling that if I could play him every week I would become quite a decent player, but he’s probably too busy doing the organisational work for the next generation of Baadur Jobavas and Nona Gaprindashvilis.

The palace is dedicated to Georgia’s former women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili, the first female GM

Searching for answers at Caissa’s high temple

The Olympiad is over and the exhausted Welsh captain is in reflective mood. Yet incredibly, he says he might be willing to do it all again in two years’ time – if the next Olympiad actually takes place that is

Michael Healey

Healey and the captain’s lanyard that has become part of him over the past fortnight

Round 11 brings a change, an end-of-tournament 10am start against Fiji. I have a quick look over my team’s opponents, create a file for Kim on 1. e4 Nc6, and finish up my latest blog post; no sleep, as per usual in India. I’ve suggested an entertaining (temporary) opening line queen sac to Kim, but Liv is against it. Kim becomes a meek little Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Liv the venerable master Ben Kingsley, and of course I’m Laurence Fishburne. 

Kim’s looking at the line on the shuttle bus. I’m trying to convince her – what a way to end the tournament, her opponent will totally collapse – but it’s no good. She’s afraid. Later I’ll get entranced by a rook sac on f2 in Liv’s game, which she correctly passes up during a long think. Turns out street hustling don’t win no tournaments (the Kingston Invitational could have taught us that one!).

Some final wandering around Scum Hall. I won’t miss the bobbly carpetting and flimsy result signs which shake as you go past, making those of us sensitive about our weight feel like Godzilla taking on the skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo. There are so many teams I have interest in now. I bump into Tunisian Zoubaier Amdouni and complain he’s not yet an IM; “Covid, Covid – but soon!”

Both the Irish board four and the Jersette board one have ventured last-gasp Orangutans – good thing I taught my team that anti-Orangutan set-up! In Lula’s case she had promised me this one was coming, so the smile I expected. It’s a joyfully saccy game, and even though the reward is only a draw she’s now a provisional WCM. Elsewhere for the men Jersey could get some titles, but Wales’ Tim Kett needs just a draw. His opponent, needing a win, declines a perpetual, overpresses and Tim becomes an FM. He has performed at 2296 throughout the tournament, but this special Olympiad achievement is unlocked by getting over 65%. Everyone’s delighted.

Liv wins a calm game where she never looks troubled, deadly efficient with the tictacs; anyone facing her should properly fear that Petrov. Kim finds a nice opening win of the f7 pawn with check and converts. Hiya plays her new opening well, but underestimates a lightning attack. Maybe this game has come a bit too soon after yesterday’s heroics. Khushi is today’s heroine: the two players on bottom board have a joint rating under 2500, but if you’d told me this was a GM v GM game I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s major pieces and opposite-coloured bishops. I was talking to one of the team about this; was it Khushi? The initiative, go for the king!! I’m back being Vinnie in the park.

Khushi’s opponent plays the losing move so lackadaisically we’re both thrown. Surely Qf8 is mate? How tired am I? Khushi heptuple, octuple checks – while I doubt my sleep-deprived vision and ability to quantify time – before delivering checkmate. What a way for Wales women to finish up.

‘It’s been a cultural whirlwind’: Seashore temple in Mahabalipuram. Photograph: Ragu Clicks

The boys have had a tough time against some real heavyweights, but achieve their seeding rank of 96 exactly. Three draws with GMs, but it could and should have been so much more. The girls lost a cumulative 100.4 rating points against the underrated world’s best, but somehow placed 86 off their 90 ranking. That captain must be some kind of genius.

The Jersettes offset the men’s troubles with more good news – at their first ever Olympiad they come fourth in rating group E. Indian WGM Vantika Agrawal, who Liv let off the hook in round one, has gained an IM norm. Clearly that near-disaster woke her up.

You probably know more about the big boys and girls than I do. We hear various stories (Polish Oliwia is doing slightly better than Welsh Olivia), but mostly I’ve been too tired and chessed out to show much interest. Kim regales us with tales of her chess crushes, Fabi and Magny and Davey H and all the rest. Instead I seriously wonder how super-nice-guy David Navara ever gets to the bathroom with all the door-holding us polite types have to do.

It’s been a complete whirlwind, and a sort of world tour as well. From the sizes and shapes (from tiny Nepalese to giant Sudanese), the outfits, the mannerisms, from holding hands to bare feet, choral singing on the coaches to masking up, the lack of respect for personal space and inability to lift the toilet seat to pee – it’s one giant cultural exchange. The African nations in particular, with their great competition for best-dressed team, are a joy; but they’re also fiercely competitive. Many an evening we’ve discussed how that Zimbabwean board three got on today – Jemusse Zhemba is certainly a name for your future fantasy chess leagues.

There’s a lot of stuff I don’t quite get: the politics, the myriad dignitaries having jollies, the very very important persons (VVIPs), the rules for nationality and country representation, what’s going on with China and Russia. But basically this is the best of the best from around the world in one place. Countries either at or verging on the point of war – Ukraine, Kosovo, Chinese Taipei – all sit and play happily, shades of Buenos Aires 1939. Covid hasn’t been a big thing here, a massive relief after the past two years. We’ve had daily temperature checks at the hotel, and some countries are permanently masked up (the Asian and island nations mostly, but also Australia and New Zealand, and of course all the staff and volunteer helpers, poor sods); for most it’s just a normal tournament. 

The sun goes down over Mahabalipuram: Will the next Olympiad also be held in Chennai? Photograph: Novi Raj

Will this be the last great Olympiad? In two years the venue is supposed to be Budapest. Placed between two geopolitical hotzones, with waves of pandemics, a coming financial crash, green aviation taxes and a European black market supposedly filled with Javelin missiles, perhaps the betting on a return to Chennai isn’t so unlikely. Hungary would be nice though. 

Will I be there? Well some Welshies have jokingly asked if I’d do it again, but I presume next time, with a stronger team, they’d want a stronger coach. It’s been a lot of fun, but I have felt like a caged animal at times, unable to sub in and contribute over the board. I’ve been lucky with my team (let’s face it, most teams probably would have either sent me home or be preparing to sue me for defamation at this point) and the strangely subdued expectations. Or maybe I could switch federations, and use my 1/8th heritage to create a Romany team.

Top-level women’s chess, even in Scum Hall, has really impressed me. It’s solid, even towards the lower end. Hiya is a young lady after my own heart, while Khushi and Kim clearly love a sac; watching Liv’s games up close has forced me to appreciate the nuances of chess strategy, conditioning, intense preparation and determination. And sleepiness.

The sheer numbers of young female players from non-western countries is either encouraging, or a bad sign – are they just coming the once, as teenagers, then going off for life and careers and marriage? Is chess a phase they’ll evolve beyond, forcibly or not? Beyond me, but currently they all seem teens to this old git. 

Were I to do this again, I’d certainly transfer more stuff to databases (and maybe not take 44 [!] chessbooks in my luggage). Prep is so important, it’s like winding up a phalanx and letting it loose at the enemy line. If it hits, success. Should it veer right and miss, doom. It’s incredibly hard to beat even 1200-level players – they may make inexplicable opening mistakes, but give them enough time and they’ll find the best move in most positions. Overpress and you get sucker-punched.

Will I miss India? Well, I don’t really feel like I experienced much of it. Alex Bullen and Liv are off travelling for a bit, whilst Hiya is visiting relatives in Kolkata. I’ll miss the curries, and the awkward stardom; not so much the daily shuttles, the limited alcohol and the muzak blaring in the hotel lobbies. Dreary London is calling. I’ll sleep well on the 5am flight. And drink as much of BA’s whisky as allowed.

How far did you say it was back to London? Signpost in Chennai. Photograph: Haseeb Modi

Raving heroics

The end of the Olympiad is in sight, the Welsh women’s team have reached round nine, and their captain is mildly hysterical at the prospect of facing Ecuador

Michael Healey

¡Dame tu mano
Y venga conmigo!
¡Vamonos al viaje para buscar los sonidos magicos
De Ecuador!


I wake up even earlier, in an even colder sweat from the obscene aircon, than normal.

ECUADOR!
doop doop, de doop de doop doop

These chiquitas can play. Looking over their games it’s all fabulous; one replies to Nd5 with Ne7-c8, intending c6. I’ve been playing chess 30 years and I’ve only just clocked that manoeuvre exists. 

ECUADOR!
doop doop, de doop de doop doop

They all play a bajillion things. Their board two, as previously reported, is insanely good. The best I can do is pick some of their more obscure lines and prep something simple. Fully rational terror combined with an internal pounding 90s dance anthem is quite something, let me tell you.

On the plus side we finally get a South American country, which means we’ve pretty much collected the set (barring North America and Antartica). Our arbiter is Spanish, so for once we have the feeling of being left out of the linguistic banter. Hiya is deeply mistrustful, while Liv will later claim her dairy milk chocolate (one of my main jobs as captain is to nick as many as possible, as often as possible, from the heavily guarded dispensary), has DISAPPEARED.

I’ve been to Quito, but Liv’s actually lived there for a couple of months, working in a children’s hospital. Their board two, Anahí Ortiz Verdezoto, who is gaining elo points like nobody’s business, is training to be a doctor. Board one has a knight tattoo on one hand – something evident on several chessplayers here. One Lithuanian, keen that no one miss her backless outfit , also has a chess queen tattooed on her upper back. Many have got henna tattoos. Indeed, after learning the Jersey captain got someone to come round specially to the hotel for all the girls, my team point out yet another of my deficiencies as captain. Sigh.

Liv plays a Petrov (or anti-Petrov, which doesn’t really make it anti-boring for those sitting next door), and gets a position we’ve looked at but where the nuances mean little to me. Hiya’s opponent sidesteps our prep with a Catalan. Khushi’s prep goes fantastically well, and she’s better and hacking away delightedly. Kim’s opponent has gone g7-5 early in an Italian, and I smile to myself – not something we looked at and this ain’t gonna be good. Kim replies with g2-4, in front of her castled king. She later complains I never told her g5 was a thing – having spent most of my chess life preaching the power of The Holy Move, I find this amusing.

Welsh board one Olivia Smith’s draw against Ecuador averted a whitewash. Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Khushi gets overexcited and drops her e4 pawn, Hiya drops her d5 pawn, Kim is … whatever she’s doing, and Liv’s position is not helping with my serious issues drifting off. I dramatically stand up, shake the arbiter’s hand, and head for the 5pm shuttle. First however, I want to hit the Expo and see what’s happening there. 

It’s Sunday in India, and the crowds for the traditional day off are mental. There’s a queue going round the courtyard to get in for a view of Champion Hall. Everywhere are people, especially lots of purple lanyarded VVIPs. Whilst looking at some particularly uninteresting computer displays and soulless chess sets, I get huddled out back into the heat for my second interview of the day (back at the hotel a swarm had descended on my prep session with Hiya). Yes, everyone’s very friendly, I like the food, I expect everyone will be back to Chennai since it’s about to become chess capital of the world (Gukesh D is on 8/8, having knocked Caruana out of the top 10 yesterday). Now will I make this shuttle?

I feel a bit guilty, as I should, for abandoning my team so early. Fortunately Caissa punishes me with a shuttle which takes two hours to get back, going all round the different early finishers’ hotels. Khushi will last past move 50, showing incredible fight, and still beat me back, along with Kim and Hiya. While Liv’s game goes to and fro, I am accosted by a tiddly Tanzanian girl, who is delighted to practise her English on me and seems strangely taken.

Mariam tells me she only started playing in December, her life not going too well at the time. A distraction turned into a tournament, which led to an invitation to travel to another tournament in Kenya. Someone dropped out of the Olympiad team, and now she’s travelled here, her goals being to get a rating and win at least one game. Not only will she gain a rating, she’s on 4.5/9! I’m blown away by her story, as well as her constant questioning and smiley nature. When she leaves I ask how she’s going to spend the evening? “I have learned so much from chatting to you. I am going to work out how to keep you!”

Back at the hotel Kim is down, so I join her for our second KFC at the mall next door; being of Malaysian heritage, Kim thinks UK KFC is done wrong. I don’t know about that, but my popcorn chicken biryani is the hottest thing I’ve had since I got here. In pain I squeeze a ketchup satchet into my mouth, only to read the back – “Contains spices”. I nick a limey ice drink no one wants, containing lashings of masala. I can’t taste anything. The ice is cold though. The mall is unbelievably packed. There’s even a little train going round for toddlers. I try to get some pashminas, but my haggling is slightly dampened by someone holding a bag of KFC at the entrance to the shop. Having managed to get only a small discount, I once again become the moron who spends too much money. Liv has drawn, but could have won. Another whitewash averted.

The next morning Nick Faulks informs me Wales are safe. Nick is my source for Fide gossip and this is voting time. There are lots of controversies, one of which is a proposal to have non-International Olympic Committee countries removed from the Olympiad. It is defeated, so Wales, the Jersey girls and the rest live to fight another day.

Captain Healey prepares board four reserve Sarah Kett for battle with Malta. Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Our next match is against Malta. Kim has the day off, so we are deploying our secret weapon – head of delegation Sarah Kett.The morning is spent training her in the Hippo, reckoning this gives her the best chance of long-term survival. Khushi manages to sit at the wrong board, forgetting she’s been promoted. Whilst wondering just how much trouble we’re going to give this arbiter, whom I previously joked with over Khushi’s en passant game in round two, one of the Thai girls near us collapses. Another medical emergency? No, she’s been trying to hide from a photographer and fallen off her chair backwards. It’s going to be a silly round isn’t it?

Khushi has a fine position, but tactics go wrong and she gets ground down. Sarah reaches a position where f7-5 will completely dominate the kingside, but she’s been told not to push her f-pawn. I smile and return to my book, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Hold on, I espy an f5! Wow, she might win this!? Oh, but now the b-file has opened. And White can play Rxb7, winning a bishop. Never mind, two and a quarter hours’ survival is pretty good going. 0-2. Liv gives us a point. Now, it’s time for Hiya the hero!

Hiya’s position on two, against Maltese chess maestro Clarence Psaila’s wife Uranchimeg, is very blocked. Hiya seems to have dropped an exchange – or is this a genius trap, realising in this position the knight outdoes the rook? She plants the most tentacled octopus knight you will ever see on e4, before white grabs a hot pawn. Hiya concentrates, calculates and finds the way to cause her opponent the most difficulties. Time dwindling, White drops a queen. Then a bishop. Eventually White concedes. I never had any doubt – Hiya’s aristeia

After that late game we shuttle back to the hotel, eat and meet up for the final time in the rooftop bar. It’s a bit of a sombre occasion. Apart from anything else, the boys are lamenting missed chances against an Estonian side who arrogantly seem not to have prepped them. Two draws, including one for Alex Bullen against a GM, but it could have been more. 2-2 was kind of the perfect result for us today (not that I wanted Sarah and Khushi to lose). Instead of a harder final match and 1/2, we’re on for 1.5/2 and a tournament 50%. The men have Jersey of all teams, while we’re going back to Oceania – Fiji at 10am.

Wales’s Alex Bullen soaks up the adulation after almost downing an Estonian GM. Photograph: Fide/Lennart Ootes

Lions and elephants and bulls, oh my!

A morning spent sightseeing provides a fresh burst of energy, and the Welsh women’s team captain claims an unlikely scalp in the strangest of chess-playing settings

Michael Healey

A frieze in the temple complex in Mahabalipuram: A rest day allows a taste of historic India

On leaving the tournament hall I am asked by the Jersey girls whether I’m going to the Bermuda party; I suggest we don’t need a second English chessplayer making international headlines for partying violence. Despite sharing a hotel with Bermuda, it has nothing to do with them any more. Some of the Welshies attend and return in the wee small hours. The music is loud, the people many, the alcohol mixerless and the banquets of food completely unnecessary. Lorin D’Costa, the England women’s coach, manages to hospitalise himself. Otherwise I don’t have much gossip to report; find a cooler blog. 

I had intended going (even brought a suit out from the UK), but felt too fed up after the Tunisia match; especially as the party involved bussing back to near the tournament venue. I find myself up at 6am, my usual time in India to fret about the next day’s prep, and wonder why the aircon is so fricking cold. However, today I’m thinking about team morale. An Olympian friend back in the UK has suggested cake and alcohol. So I should make my semi-teen team alcoholic full-on diabetics, if Indian desserts haven’t already accomplished this. Such is chess. 

On the rest day, Liv is keen to Uber to the local Mahabalipuram temples early before the trips arrive. I agree to join. The Ketts and Greg Toczek, top board in the Welsh Open team, complete this daring dawn expedition. Everywhere are granite statue shops; before lockdown the sound of chipping was apparently 24 hours a day. Now things are quiet: a couple of tour guides, a few motorbikes and some stray dogs. The element of surprise has been achieved. Liv negotiates our tour guide’s price down, while I look embarrassed. The temples are in three sections, the Rathas being the most impressive. There are five separate temples in different styles, as well as an elephant, a lion and a lovely bull – all carved from one single rock. Properly impressive.

Practising at being statues: Olivia Smith, Mike Healey, Sarah Kett and Tim Kett

The cave temples are pleasant, with some very interesting carvings. The guide informs us of all the different gods and their families, but I’m more interested in the chimaeric ones. There are supposedly four different styles of lion; when I point out that one seems to be a griffin, that’s clearly not in the script. We move on to more temples and a big balancing boulder, which I decide would make a decent photo. I pull out my ever-present set from my sweat-covered backpack and invite Tim to play: then an Indian lady shows interest, and I suggest she plays instead. 

It turns out this is none other than the missing fifth India 2 player, their board two rested against my girls in round one, IM Padmini Rout! We have a quick game under the rock, and I recover some pride from that whitewash. Padmini is lovely, from a different part of India and has always wanted to visit these famous temples.

The rock: Healey playing (and winning!) an offhand game against Indian IM Padmini Rout

When we finish, a local journalist is keen to take my details – not the first time I’ve had to spell out WALES. I rejoin the others, and such is my glee at winning the game I spend an obscene amount of money on a local bit of tat by an interesting up-and-coming artist – a display of dancing gods, with hidden sections of what can only be described as “doodles” of animals and … well, porn. I can’t stop smiling, but Liv is livid with the price, quality and pornographic nature of my purchase. I explain that it means something different to me: forever after, when I flick through these crude pornographic sketches, I’ll remember my victorious rook endgame against Padmini.

The final temple, the largest, is by the sea. It is quite the “Thalatta! Thalatta!” moment; Trapped in the cruel circuit of hotel-venue-hotel-venue, we’ve only seen the sea from certain hotel room windows. Here it is for real, a beach with sand and waves and salty breeze. We have a paddle in the Bay of Bengal, whilst Greg strips off to his boxers and goes full Daniel Craig. We pose for photos with locals. How different life will be when people don’t think I’m incredibly famous. (To be honest, the pretty, freckly, blue-eyed Liv is probably the real photo target, but I grin just the same.) It’s been a great morning, and as we leave stuff is opening up, the tourists proper a-coming.

Thalatta! Thalatta! For a week the sea was a mirage glimpsed from the hotel, but at last it is real

In the taxi back, Tim sets a Kobayashi Maru test. Should a captain prioritise:

1. Team result

2. Individual title possibilities

3. All-round team happiness through squad rotation and balanced colours

Thank goodness this wasn’t on the job application! First thing to note is that these are mutually exclusive, and that they can’t just be sorted out by muddling through ex tempore. I’ve heard enough about Olympiad teams dramatically imploding, causing players to refuse to play, leave, be banned or even switch federations. I acknowledge 1 and 2 are very important, but would prefer a happy team which will live to fight another day, rather than one which falls apart with several rounds left.

Thankfully with only four players proper, I don’t have to worry about colours, rotation and all that jazz. Back at the hotel one of our assigned volunteers is astonished not only that we met national heroine Padmini, but that I got a result against her. When she is shown my precious porno purchase, I quickly return to laughable moron status. It’s what I’m most comfortable with.

We are up against Saudi Arabia in round seven. They are a completely ungraded team, and we have little idea what we’re facing. Liv decides to chance a king’s gambit, the Saudi coach placing a hand over his face at 2. f4. A 14-move win. Hiya offers a draw to stop the rot, and we’re 1.5-0.5 up. My prep nearly works for Khushi and Kim; Khushi gets a fantastic position, but Kim’s opponent plays a sideline. After a frankly inexplicable game, Kim wins – she was due a bit of luck – but Khushi can’t convert and loses another endgame. At least my prep worked. More important, it is a win – a palpable win!

Round eight pits us against Ethiopia. Massively underrated, the top two boards can clearly move the bits; indeed their board one, Lidet Abate Haile, is having a fantastic tournament and took a WIM to rook versus rook and bishop. In the morning, Liv and I teach Khushi an entirely new system – which works! Unfortunately having got to a decent middlegame, she promptly misses Qd6, intending Qxh2#. It’s been a long tournament, and she’s had so many great games. This is pretty much her only big blip. Hiya as so often comes out of the traps at full speed, and then continues to absolutely railroad her opponent. A great show of dominance, proving what she can do.

Kim faces an early h6?!, which completely frazzles her. Soon her position is a mess, and she drops a piece. Instead of resigning, she shows Healey-esque lack of respect and goes into full-out cheapo mode. Her opponent is inattentive, and finds herself bizarrely losing either a rook or queen, then succumbs to the re-energised Chong.

Liv on one has outplayed her opponent in the opening with Black, pinning her up against the first rank wall; but White won’t give up. Liv overpresses in the centre, and things are going wrong. In time trouble the Ethiopian player makes a few unchoice moves and falls into a mating net. 3-1 from 0-1 down!

Those of age retreat to a hotel room and celebrate with some illicitly smuggled beers, kindly donated by Khushi’s dad. The Welsh women’s team is back from the dead!

A song of ice and fire and drizzle

A match that looked like a certain victory suddenly turns, and as the Olympiad goes beyond its halfway point the Welsh women’s team hits rock bottom

Michael Healey

Loss Win Loss Win – the predicted yo-yo-ing is in effect, and we’re at par thanks to the result (sans moi) against Namibia. As reward, next up in round five are the strongest chess nation on Earth (proportionately) – Iceland! Captained by international chess celeb and occasional London visitor Ingvar Johannesson, this will be a tough test. They’re all rated higher, have a WGM on top board, but they’ve been underperforming a bit.

Today brings the excitement of umbrellas – yes more free goodies, on top of our goody bags back at the hotel (set, cap, book, heavy ornament, badge, mask, hand sanitiser, XXlarge shirt, which presumably is in Indian sizing). Every arbiter of every match is receiving a dozen umbrellas, trying to stack them on their chair without rolling or dropping them, as if we’re about to enter some amazing musical number. Well almost every arbiter – the two countries surely most in need of umbrellas, Iceland and Wales, get nothing. Possibly they’ve realised these are really sun parasols; after two seconds of North Atlantic rain that lovely Chennai logo will have been obliterated. Liv is super-excited by the prospect of more free stuff. With my deeply mistrustful nature, I’m guessing they’re expecting rain.

The match against Iceland starts off well enough: their board one Lenka Ptacnikova sidesteps our prep, but the position is about equal. Kim on two has a near-repeat of her round one game, but might be playing it a bit more effectively. Hiya on three has a fairly level Scandi as White. Khushi makes a couple of early strategic mistakes and is making a quick exit on 4 against a WIM.

I’m reading The tale of Sinuhe and Other Egyptian Poems, a nice switch from the problems of chess captaincy to the problems of pharaohs, famine and death. The book seems quite popular; not only do I come back from a wander to find one volunteer engrossed, but later another asks my permission to read it.

Kim Chong earned her first win, beating a player rated 200 points higher: Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Hiya’s game gets interesting, and she once again threatens to cause an upset. Kim is finally playing a position she’s comfortable with, and slowly outplaying her opponent. The WGM is looking concerned. Ingvar is looking concerned. He’s also looking damn cool as a fan comes up to ask for his autograph.

It’s all kicking off now. Liv is (over?)pressing. Kim is looking groovy. Hiya is finding some snazzy manoeuvres. A man is reading my book. No one asking for my autograph.

Hiya goes wrong, then wronger, but she’s still alive. Kim’s opponent is imploding, but so is Liv. This is tense. Hiya refuses a rook endgame, but that was by far her best bet to draw. Within a few moves it’s over. Liv goes down meekly. Kim finishes her game and gives me an exhausted hug after her well-earned first win – “Fiiiiinally”. I congratulate Ingvar, who complains about all these crap teams only giving Iceland a tough game, but collapsing against all the other seeds.

Back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the last day before the rest day. After my unrestful rest day the previous day, I’m quite looking forward to vegetating. We’re all ecstatic for Kim, who had suffered so badly. Everyone is up and running; we can smash up whatever poor team faces us next.

From ice to fire. Tunisia, coached by Mehdi Bouaziz, who I played years ago in a Maltese IM norm tournament. The Tunisians were using it as a warm-up for the Olympiad, and would come to play dressed in pyjamas, agree a draw in their games, then go back to bed. The other three are still in the Open team across Scum Hall, one now a GM. At the time I scored WDDL, although one was a shamefully prearranged “grandmaster draw” to help Zoubaier Amdouni successfully obtain an IM norm. He still seems to be an FM however. I have to live with the guilt for nothing.

We’re not quite sure what to make of Tunisia. They clearly know how to move the bits, but sometimes they play some truly bizarre stuff. We definitely don’t know about the board three, as her last three games (and indeed this one) don’t transmit. Perhaps she’s just super-clumsy with DGT boards?! Is this how teenage chessette rebels rebel?

I’m forced into some team photos. It’s drizzling a bit. Excellent. Wales will have home conditions today.

Captain Healey aboard an auto-rickshaw with his youthful Welsh team: Photograph: Fide/Lennart Ootes

Liv has deliberately chosen a dull Petrov where she can bore her opponent into submission. Kim has played a gambit, and obtained yet another optically magical position. Hiya has played exactly our prep, and must be a bit better as Black. Khushi is doing wonderful things on bottom board, playing with some real vim in the opening stages.

My next book – Balzac’s the Black Sheep (make your own Welsh jokes) – is not really doing it for me, so I go for a wander, well pleased with our progress. This might be 4-0! I always like to look over the teams we’ve played and the UK teams (those in Scum Hall anyway), but also those we’re staying with. Zimbabwe in particular I’ve been impressed with, while Chile and Bolivia are clearly doing really well. Given that hotels are allocated on performances in the Open (men’s performances basically), it’s possible that the chess gender disparity is less in South America. Ecuador’s WIM Anahi Ortiz, whom Kim and I met on the flight out from Heathrow, is having a good tournament. Indeed, English women’s captain Lorin D’Costa warned me she had been with him, Ed Player and Stefan Macak in Barcelona, smashing up 2200s like they were nothing.

Time to mosey back. Wait, is this the same match? Kim is using up a lot of time on simple moves. Hiya is throwing pawns forwards. Liv is looking drawish. Khushi is still better heading into an endgame, but misses a little spite-check nuance. This is not going well.

Hiya decides to jettison a piece rather than put up with a bit of grovelling in an endgame – that might work on juniors, but this is a step up in class, with 30-second increments. Kim decides to exchange pieces a pawn down with a space advantage, and her lovely position is coming apart at the seams. Liv is winning, but her opponent stubbornly keeps going, knowing her defiance is helping her team-mates. That first decisive game can act like skittles in these matches. Khushi has a winning endgame, but does she know how to go about winning it?

A bad (k)night but you have to keep smiling! Mike Healey, Kim Chong, Olivia Smith and Khushi Bagga

Hiya loses. Kim loses. Liv’s opponent eventually downs tools. It’s all up to Khushi, who knows what she has to do and heroically turns down draw offers. Play on both sides alternates between perfect and … imperfect. But now White has a pawn on h6; she can do this! And her opponent is worrying away her time.

Back on the shuttle home the Welsh men are watching this game, saying as long as Khushi doesn’t do such and such, which would lose, she should win this. (Elsewhere a certain Surbiton-based journalist, not noted for his powers of analysis, thinks it’s a dead draw.) I’m doing my best to psychically project the moves into Khushi’s mind.

She doesn’t do such and such, she does this and that, finding another way to miss the win. From a pawn up to a pawn down, it is now a dead draw. We lose the match, a shame for Khushi but … There’s a stab of pain in my chest and I audibly inhale. Khushi trades rooks. She’s completely and utterly busted.

Khushi is crushed. I’m furious with Kim and Hiya. Back in the hotel lift a friendly Ugandan chessette asks how my team got on. “Well, two are being shot in the morning.” The yo has not yo’d. There are tears before cocoa all round. In a movie, this would be that dramatic all-is-lost moment.