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The case for seeking draws in chess tournaments

Being quick on the draw can be completely rational in certain circumstances and where prize money is at stake. Just do the maths

John Foley

The re-emergence of weekend tournaments has drawn attention (no pun intended) to the use of draws. Chess purists would say that you should always try to win a game. By contrast, game theorists would say that you should always try to obtain the best payoff i.e. financial outcome. This divergence of perspectives gives rise to different draw strategies. We need to set aside the emotions and make a rational case for seeking a draw as players reach the last round.  It is more rational to be realistic rather than optimistic.

Photograph: R Nial Bradshaw

Last-round strategy

Let’s say you are in the fortunate position of coming into the last round of a tournament in joint first place, you are paired against someone with the same number of points and you are both a point ahead of the chasing pack. Let’s make this more concrete and assume that the first prize is £400 and the second prize is £200, and that these are the only prizes and this is shared among those in the top places. These figures are not atypical on the English chess scene. Not a lot of money, but enough to give pause for thought for an impecunious chess player.

What is the right draw strategy?  There are three outcomes arising from the game:

You win:          sole tournament victory and £400

You draw:        joint tournament victory and £300 (being half of the total prize money)

You lose:         zero 

The game theorist says you need to consider the probability of each outcome.  As a first approximation, there is an equal chance of a win, draw or loss. The “expected value” of the game is therefore:

(⅓ x £400) + (⅓ x £300) + (⅓ x 0) = £233

It is rational to offer a draw because you are guaranteed a return greater than the expected value from playing the game out. You avoid the possibility of defeat and get a share of the pooled prize money.  You are £67 better off than leaving it to the vagaries of a contested game. To express this in percentages, you get a 29% improvement in expected prize money by agreeing to a draw early on.

Young and ambitious players may prefer to slug it out. Youth knows no fear. Or they may lack objectivity and overestimate their chess skills. More seasoned performers will assess the opposition and, unless they are clearly superior, will often seek a draw.  Tournament organisers are wise to this temptation and seek to impose measures designed to avoid early draws. Nevertheless, the economic incentive remains. 

Penultimate-round strategy

By a similar argument it can be shown that, based on a reasonable set of assumptions typical of local weekend tournaments, if the tournament leader accepts a draw in the penultimate round, their expected value of the prize money is £267, whereas if they take their chances and play out the game the expected value is slightly lower at £256. The tournament leader can thus secure a small financial margin of £11, on average, by taking a draw in the penultimate round against the nearest challenger. That’s the price of a couple of beers if you live in London.

The outcomes can be summarised in this payoff matrix. This shows that it is always advantageous to seek a draw in the last two rounds. This decision must be made prior to or at the outset of the game. Try for a win only if you have grounds for believing you can beat the odds. Once the game is underway, then this analysis is superseded and depends upon the chances in your current position. Then the conventional strategy applies: If you are ahead, then go for victory; if you are at a disadvantage, try to get a draw.

The expected value of settling for a draw in the last two rounds of a Swiss

There are more substantial benefits of taking a draw before the final game. Nimzowitsch, in an article titled “The Technique of Tournament Play”, explained how he won Carlsbad 1929 ahead of Capablanca and others due to taking short draws to save energy.  The message is to save your efforts for the last round,when you may also have another drawing possibility.

Offering a draw can also have a psychological impact. Your opponent may believe you are lacking in confidence and therefore start focusing on you rather than the board. They may lose objectivity and take a more risky line. As a result, you may outperform original expectations. It is not as if you are bluffing. You are taking a rational approach to winning prize money.

We should acknowledge the legitimate fear that taking a draw could become habitual. We all know players who have a reputation as draw specialists. They are the chess equivalent of people who hug the middle lane on the motorway – ultra-cautious and annoying.

However, what is being advocated here is highly circumscribed. Firstly, the prescription is only relevant to Swiss tournaments where there are only a few top prizes and there is a shared prize pool for people scoring the same number of points. If you are in an all-play-all, then try to win each game. Secondly, it only applies to those two or three people in the lead – if you are in the chasing pack, then try to win your game.

My Sicilian odyssey

The Sicilian Defence can go horribly wrong, but this lifelong adherent argues that its variations offer rich rewards if you find the lines that suit you and learn from the occasional disaster

Alan Scrimgour

Part 1: Alarms and excursions

“Alarms and excursions” is an archaic expression meaning confused activity and uproar. I cannot think of a better description of the Dragon and Najdorf variations in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ulysses’s odyssey only lasted 10 years, while my journey with the Sicilian Defence has lasted more than 50. I first played it in 1965 at the age of 14 and lost in 19 hectic moves. To be honest it was barely recognisable as a Sicilian. I could have safely been two rooks up, but instead I ended up resigning when about to be mated on the next move. My opponent that day subsequently became one of the world’s best bridge players. 

I decided that I needed to learn a proper Sicilian variation, and opted for the then fashionable Dragon. I played my first Dragon the following year and lost. This time I accepted an unsound queen sacrifice and then resigned, thinking mate was inevitable (it wasn’t and I should have drawn). Otherwise, I had five fairly happy years playing the Dragon before giving it up when keeping up with theory seemed too demanding. 

Game 1 illustrates a number of the common Dragon themes, especially black sacrifices on f3, c3 or sometimes e4. The game was played in a qualifying tournament for a place in the Scottish students’ team. There were four players and we played each other twice. Both of my games with David Watt were Dragons (I did say it was fashionable) and in the first I lost, falling into a Nxe4 sacrifice. In the second it was my turn to sacrifice.

Enter the Najdorf variation – theory-wise this was frying pan to fire – which I played throughout the 1970s, despite losing my first game with it. As if the normal mainline Najdorf wasn’t exciting enough for me, I chose the Polugaevsky variation, which could lead to a position where White first sacrificed a piece on e6, followed by another on b5 for a ferocious-looking attack. I had the position after move 13 three times, losing the first, winning the second and drawing the third. Game 2 shows my victory.

If this has been too exciting for you, in part 2 I will show you my experience with more solid (for the Sicilian) variations.

Part 2: Looking for a safe harbour

Spoiler alert: there isn’t one in the Sicilian (but don’t let me stop you looking).

In the 1980s I moved to the more solid Scheveningen variation, and yes I lost my first game with it. This is the variation that I have played over a longer period and with most games. Statistically, I have done better with the Dragon and the Najdorf than the Scheveningen and the Taimanov, although I do have a plus score in all of them. I estimate that overall, I have played against stronger opposition with the latter two variations. 

Game 3 gives a good example of Black’s counter-chances on the queenside, illustrating an unusual potential mating pattern.

“That is no country for old men” – W B Yeats.

So, in my old age, I started looking for a more sedate variation, hopefully where I would not be mated in under 25 moves (if only – I have actually achieved this in all four variations). This led me to the Taimanov, often called the flexible Sicilian, even The Safest Sicilian (Delchev and Semkov, 2006).

Finally, I did not lose my first game with this variation – it was a draw. The Taimanov is flexible for Black, but it also leaves White with many options. Game 4 shows how Black may succeed against one of the more ambitious attempts.

Part 3: Epilogue

I mentioned earlier that in the 1960s and 1970s I played fashionable Sicilian variations. Game 5 was also in vogue at the time, with theory developing quickly. Just how quickly I found out the hard way.

The main reason for including this game is that, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only one of my games to feature in two books – Chess Olympiad Nice 1974 (Keene and Levy, 1975) and The Najdorf Variation (Geller, Gligoric, Kavalek and Spassky, 1976). OK, I admit it – it does allow me to do some heavy namedropping. 

It is also a game of which I am proud – it was played in round 1 of the Scottish Championship of 1974 against my old schoolmate and eventual Scottish winner that year (and several others), Roddy McKay. Roddy had recently played in the Nice Olympiad and had seen at first hand the Levy-Garcia game, with its Nd5 sacrifice on move 18. The sacrifice had been played before, but Levy found an improvement at the board. I cannot recall how many minutes (maybe 40 or 50) I took over move 18, but it was just as well that we played 40 moves in two and a half hours in those days. I also discovered later that my 21st move improved upon previous theory.

A fantastic night – except for aphantasiacs

Inspired by David Maycock’s theory that spending too much time looking at the board is inhibiting, we spent an evening playing chess in our heads … and our imaginations

John Foley

At our club night on Monday 28 March, we explored the theme of playing chess without looking at the board. The evening started with a talk from David Maycock on how he has been developing this technique over recent months. His argument is that if you can visualise the board, then calculating variations becomes much easier. As a simple example, when you are staring at the board and start to analyse a variation you might move a piece in your head but when that piece still remains in vision it interferes with the thought process and you falsely place it on its physical square rather than the square it moved to in your head.

David Maycock not looking at the deliberate mistake on the board

The argument for blindfold chess would be convincing but for the reluctance of many people to give it a try. Hence, we prepared to overcome this reluctance by means of some simple exercises devised by Peter Lalić, who is also a becoming a proponent of the “no looking” approach to playing chess. Peter prepared exercises in which players were paired with each other to play blindfold a simple pawn game on a 3×3 board. This was then followed up by a pawn game on a 4×4 board. Of course, there were no boards – all the physical equipment was removed before the exercises.

It should also be pointed out that “blindfold” does not mean that the players were wearing a mask around their eyes but simply that they were not looking at a physical board. When Magnus Carlsen was featured playing a simultaneous display against players from corporate America, he wore a substantial blindfold. However, this was more to suit the cameras than out of necessity. It looks impressive, but the blindfold is not necessary.

Some of our leading club members suffer from aphantasia – the inability to form any mental images. Stephen Moss readily accepted that he suffers from a mild form of this affliction but did manage to get through the 3×3 game stage, although the 4×4 game was going too far and he lost comprehensively, choosing the wrong one of two possible pawn moves and seeing (or rather not seeing) his opponent clean up.

We had an interesting discussion about why many of the world’s top players get up from the board and wander about. Clearly they are still thinking about the game. Sometimes they return to the board only to make their move. Our inference is that the ability to visualise the game is an important indicator of chess strength. At some point in every game, a critical position is reached. It is necessary to carry out some serious analysis. In these circumstances, it must be a huge advantage to have a clear mental vision of the board in order to construct a variation tree. Strong players are invariably good at blitz chess – perhaps this quickness of vision is also related to their visualisation ability.

Vladimir Li recalled a point made by Jacob Aagaard, the Danish grandmaster and former British champion, in one of his books: that to be an efficient mental analyst you should not keep reverting to the current position. Instead, you should analyse ahead to the critical position and thereafter use that as the staging post for subsequent analysis of variations. It would be a significant advantage for a player to be looking ahead several moves not from the current position but from a future position derivable, perhaps through forced moves, from the current position.

The evening ended with a grand final of blindfold non-consulting pairs. This paired John Foley and David Maycock against Peter Lalić and Alan Scrimgour. The pairs were not permitted to talk to each other – only to give meaningful glances which could be misinterpreted. I have never played blindfold chess previously, so did not fancy our chances, but surprisingly managed to find some moves which were not terrible.

Squeezing their brains playing blindfold chess

The four players sat alongside each other in a state of mental distress, with the display board behind us being operated by David Shalom and Vladimir Li. As we called out our moves, the assembled audience veered from fascination to amusement and finally admiration regarding the match. The game would not merit being featured on the Games section of the Kingston website but is a droll divertissement for the blog.

The art of annotation: the Lalic Challenge

Annotating your own and other players’ games is a crucial part of helping you develop your analytical skills

John Foley

At the end of last year, Peter Lalic – one of Kingston’s highest-rated players – embarked on a series of blitz chess tournaments which saw him play an intense sequence of 45 Elo-rated games in six days. He performed extremely well and won the blitz tournament at the London Chess Classic on Sunday 5 December with an impressive 9.5/11, half a point ahead of Harry Grieve and two points ahead of grandmaster Keith Arkell, who was the top-rated entrant (2398). His overall performance exceeded his prior rating. We would (perhaps self-regardingly) like to attribute this to the new disciplines imposed by Kingston Chess Club – regular opponents and very detailed game analyses.

Peter was so exhausted by his week of top-level blitz that he mooted the idea of someone else annotating his games, all of which remarkably he was able to reconstruct from memory, and the club offered this opportunity to the members as a challenge. Here are three of the annotations that resulted: by the verging-on-master Michael Healey; by me, a strong club player; and by the rather more engine-dependent Stephen Moss. With only five minutes for each player, one cannot expect deep analysis, but nevertheless each game brings out some lessons.

The other aspect which is relevant is that Peter is averse to online chess and hence has not got into any bad habits. The theory is that, by taking chess seriously, even blitz moves are of higher quality: the surfeit of online blitz may lead to a routinised form of play. Time spent studying is more useful than mindless play, and time spent analysing and annotating is always time well spent.

Annotating a game tells two stories: the what happened and the what might have been. The first story is about how one player outwits their opponent at a critical juncture. One should not be tempted to present the moves with the benefit of hindsight – all moves are played under pressure and even an obvious move may require careful scrutiny. The second story is getting beneath the surface to carry out a post-mortem (or should that be post-ludum?) where we explore what might have been if only we had played differently. Each story is important to how we perceive a game, as we balance the conscious with the unconscious.

Annotation by Mike Healey


Annotation by John Foley

I am acquainted with both players, having captained Matthew when he was a junior playing for my 4NCL team and having known Peter from when we played a memorable game in the Surrey League and subsequently since he joined Kingston Chess Club. Both are talented and even a blitz game between them is likely to be hard fought.


Annotation by Stephen Moss

Michael Basman’s love note to Bird

Legendary IM Michael Basman gave a presentation on the games and legacy of H.E. Bird

John Foley

Michael Basman treated us last night, the evening of St Valentine’s, to a lecture – more of a love note – to Henry Bird, one of the historic figures of English chess. Although primarily known as an openings innovator and chess instructor, notable for having founded the UK Chess Challenge, Basman has a keen interest in chess history, as befits a chess player who studied history at university.

The topic of the talk was unknown in advance to the assembled Kingstonian cognoscenti. We half expected a detailed analysis of some games in which Basman had narrowly failed to beat the Soviet legends Tal and Botvinnik back in the late 1960s/early 70s when Basman played for England. Perhaps we could have been treated to a discourse on the Fried Liver Attack which Basman had popularised in his early instructional pamphlets, having translated the term from the somewhat more stylish word Fegatello, an Italian dish. Instead, we were given a thoughtful and masterly account of the evolution of international chess in the Victorian period.

Michael Basman lecture

Basman devises his lectures as he devises his openings – with an element of surprise. We never know what we are going to get until it happens. There are, however, some constants. First of all, Basman is an excellent verbal communicator. He speaks fluently and authoritatively with an irrepressible wit. Given the subject matter, avian puns were unavoidable, in this case mainly from the audience sadly. Secondly, pure thought must be unadorned by technology. So the presentation notes were handwritten on loose sheets of A4 paper. The absence of staples meant that at one point the sheets inevitably got mixed up. Suddenly we had a vision of a hapless prime minister making a disjointed speech to the Confederation of British Industry. Fortunately, our speaker retrieved the situation without having to resort to ruminations on Peppa Pig.

I recall a presentation Basman gave at the London Chess Conference in 2016. The topic was “A survival guide to teaching chess”. I had expected stories of teaching chess in the classroom or of setting up a national schools chess tournament or even an academic account of chess didactics. Instead, we were given a financial survival guide based on Basman’s well-publicised dispute with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs regarding the application of VAT. Suffice to say that a pedagogue representing himself was no match for Queen’s Counsel, resulting eventually in the loss of the case and a financial disaster. Instead of Powerpoint slides, the presentation used large colourful posters held aloft by an attractive assistant. This episode was surreal to say the least. The attendees said later that they had no idea about tax law but that it had been very amusing.

Henry Edward Bird was born in Portsmouth in 1830 (or 1829 according to other sources) in a period when chess in England was in its infancy. Bird was to prove crucial in popularising chess and played a vital part in the development of the game during the 19th century. He was a railways accountant and wrote a book on the subject. The coming of the railways was fundamental to social and cultural change. Indeed, we can trace the emergence of chess in English towns to the arrival of the railways. So in his profession, Bird literally carried chess to the population (see also the Kingston railway connection).

According to Basman, Bird should be much better known. He attributes Bird’s relative obscurity to losing out to Howard Staunton (b. 1810) in what we would today call the information war. When chess history comes to be rewritten, Bird will earn his rightful place in the pantheon of masters.

One cannot help but surmise that the reason for the choice of topic is that there are biographical parallels between the lives of Basman and Bird. Both are notable chess players who arguably did not get the recognition they deserved. They are both openings innovators. Bird lends his name to Bird’s Opening (1. f4) and the Bird’s Defence in the Ruy Lopez. Basman has popularised offbeat openings (Grob, St George Defence) and his name is attached to various other openings (eg Basman-Williams attack against the King’s Indian). Bird and Basman were also both popularisers of the game. Bird had a vision of the newly emerged industrial working classes adopting chess and wrote several chess books, as has Basman.

We learned that Bird did not particularly favour the Bird’s opening. This leads us to the main takeaway from the evening: our openings repertoire is too narrow. Bird liked to try many different openings, including 1. g4 and 1. h4. His contemporaries were unsettled by this unpredictability, which was his main purpose. Eventually, 30 years after he started playing it more regularly, the Bird’s opening was credited to him in 1885.

Bird was of the romantic school of chess and relished sacrifices and attacking play. He played all the greats, including Horwitz, Anderssen, Falkbeer, Boden, Blackburne, Gossip, Mason, Macdonnell and Winawer. He played Morphy on the latter’s trip to England in 1858. Bird witnessed the rise of Steinitz and the scientific “accumulation of small advantages” school which went on to dominate chess strategy.

Bird had clear opinions on his chess contemporaries and the chess scene. He was playing before the invention of chess clocks and analysed the prospective introduction of chess time controls. He categorised players according to the time control at which they best performed. The comparison was measured in moves per hour. He warned against slow time controls as this would take chess out of the reach of the casual chess player and the working man. He recommended that around two hours was a suitable length for a game. This was a prescient observation given the rise of rapid and blitz chess in modern times. His views are completely in line with leading players of the present day. When I discussed this topic with Alexei Shirov, he told me that he wants two hours tops for a game, if only to minimise the chance of cheating.

Basman went on to look at some of Bird’s games from his book Chess Novelties and Their Latest Developments published in 1895. He handed out for inspection a first edition of this book, which had previously been in the possession of G.H. Diggle (1902-93), the eminent historian of chess in the 19th century.

Cantab v Bird 1891 from Chess Novelties

One of the games we looked at was Cantab v Bird 1891, a casual game played against somebody presumably associated with Cambridge University. It illustrates Bird’s aggressive style of all-out attack. The text uses an older form of descriptive notation which is still a pleasure to read due to its spaciousness and verbally guided placement of the pieces.

Following the talk, Basman organised a unique rapidplay Bird tournament. It comprised a one-round Swiss complete with pairing cards. The uniqueness lay in the selection of opening moves. In the spirit of Bird, and fellow traveller Basman, the players were bound to play a wider variety of openings. Basman noted that there are 20 moves available on the first move for each player. He therefore obligingly brought along isocahedral (ie 20-sided) dice, which each player rolled to randomise their first moves. Having rolled the die, we consulted the table of moves, inevitably called a Bird Table, corresponding to the number on the die. The Bird Tournament passed off in good spirit. Basman’s win on top board against Peter Lalic was offset by Pat Armstrong’s win for the opposing team on bottom board against Mehran Moini, who hasn’t touched a pawn in 40 years. “I thought we were playing for the same side?” said a bemused Basman to Armstrong when the results were totted up.

That’s not a glass of beer – it is a dice shaker.
Alan Scrimgour (in blue), David Maycock (brown)

Footnote: the idea of randomising the opening moves stems from the feeling that chess has been extensively analysed and that some changes are required to bring creativity back into the game. An alternative method, Neoclassical Chess, developed by Gabriel F. Bobadilla from Spain, involves randomising the first three full moves. Randomising the opening moves may make some people uncomfortable, but the main alternative approach is Fischer Random, which has the downside that the starting position is different.

All were happy at the end of the evening. Thereafter, it was down to the bar to play blitz.

Post-traumatic chess disorder

Uploading my games to a database for the first time has made my chess life flash before my squinting eyes. And it has not been a pretty sight

John Foley

I recently embarked on the task of uploading my games to a database for the first time. This has engendered the strange feeling of my life passing before my eyes as I scroll through the games. This life review experience is sometimes reported by people when they are falling from a height to their presumed death. One theory is that this is due to “cortical inhibition” – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade” of mental impressions. Looking through my past games is stressful, indeed traumatic. I am recalling matters long since deliberately buried in the recesses of my memory. Twinges of regret are surfacing to remind me of my cognitive limitations (or, if I am being cruel to myself, stupidity).

John Nunn

This late-chess-life crisis all started after I had given John Nunn a lift to Ashtead for the Alexander Cup final, the Surrey team knockout championship, in 2018. In the pre-digital age, we had met in the London Under-14 championship and inevitably I had lost, but I couldn’t remember anything about the game. I went on to win the London Under-16 (ahead of a certain Jonathan Speelman) whereas at the same time John Nunn won the London Under-18. Given his prodigious talent, he won everything as a junior in England and had set his sights abroad. By the time I won the Oxford University Chess Club (OUCC) championship in 1976, he had a doctorate in mathematics and was well on his way to becoming a grandmaster.

As we wended our way back through the Surrey Hills, I nonchalantly mentioned that he was the reason I had given up chess. He seemed abashed at my unwonted revelation. I explained that it was apparent some people were so talented that there was no point in competing with them. On the principle of comparative advantage, I should spend my time doing something else. However, I was foolish; I had misinterpreted the data by observing only those around me – the “availability bias”. I had not twigged that I was amongst a special generation – two of my university contemporaries, John Nunn and Jonathan Speelman, were the core members of the England team that went on to win the silver medal at the Chess olympiads in 1984, 1986 and 1988, behind the mighty Soviet Union. I mentally placed chess in a box called “it was fun while it lasted” and embarked on a modelling career (not that sort of modelling!).

The Yugoslav Attack after 10.h4

Soon after our trip, John sent me the game we had played in the Under-14 championship in which I had succumbed to his Yugoslav Attack. I winced as I recalled my temerity in playing the Sicilian Dragon without having even read a book on it (although to be fair maybe one had not yet been written in English). The game is too embarrassing to show, at least if I am to retain any sense of dignity. What struck me was that Doccy (as Nunn is universally known in the chess community) had recorded, studied and still remembered every opponent and probably every game he had ever played. You don’t get into the top 10 players in the world by being casual; you need focused application.


Mike Truran

I recall a conversation with Mike Truran, progenitor of the 4NCL, the national chess league, just prior to his being ensconced as chief executive of the English Chess Federation (ECF). Over an entertaining lunch at the Fleece, his favourite hostelry in Witney, he casually mentioned that we had played in the university championships. “Oh really”, I enquired, “what happened?” He had won, he beamed. I could not recall the game, let alone the result. Nor could I remember my opponent, but I was too polite to mention this – he probably wasn’t as handsome then as he is now with a trimmed goatee. It turned out that Mike had also kept a careful record of all his encounters over the board. By contrast, in those days I had seen myself as being on the grand tour of intellectual self-discovery – and, dare I admit, romance – whilst occasionally conceding to the seductive charm of chess.

Robin Haldane

It is only in hindsight that one can make sense of disconnected comments. When I resumed chess after 25 years in the “real” world, I was playing in an evening league match next to Robin Haldane, the terrific and prolific suburban competitor, who informed me that I had beaten him in a “very nice game” in the London Under-14. This was the final proof that I was in the minority of players who treated the game without the respect it deserved. I should have been keeping a record of each game. Only thus would I be able to respond to Robin with some informed pleasantry such as “but you put up a stout defence”.

Dominic Lawson

Yet I should have been forearmed. In the OUCC championships of 1975, I played Dominic Lawson, now a distinguished journalist and the esteemed president of the ECF. Dominic played a crisp, albeit obvious, combination to win. He was surprised to discover later that the combination had been included in a compilation book (presumably for beginners). As he recounted to ChessBase in 2014, and previously in Chess magazine in the 1980s, he was pleased by this recognition and cited it as his most memorable game.

White to play and win

Dominic Lawson v John Foley (Oxford University Championship, 1975)

Although not thrilled to be on the receiving end of a published combination, I drew some comfort from the dictum that it takes two players to make a game. It is only worth publishing moves in games where there is some reasonable opposition. I noted that my repertoire had moved on from the Sicilian to the French Defence, but I could still be crushed in both. My regret in reading Dominic’s article was not that I had lost to a cheapo (the move, not him), but that I could not lay my hands on the game in which I beat him the following year on my way to the championship title. I recall I played the Modern Benoni with the f5 flourish, as made famous by Jonathan Penrose, who beat the then world champion Mikhail Tal in the Leipzig Olympiad in 1960. If only I had had that game, I could have fashioned some riposte. Actually, I have not quite abandoned the last thread of hope, because there are still some storage boxes in the attic which have not been disinterred in decades.

Stephen Moss v a youthful Magnus Carlsen

I fancied that a future biographer would write an encomium about how an average club player could, after years of apathy, apply himself intensively and become a grandmaster. This was more or less the theme of The Rookie, the book written by my Kingston colleague, and another contemporary at the OUCC, the Guardian writer Stephen Moss, which tracks his odyssey through chess (and life).

Yet subconsciously I had evolved almost the same attitude as Ken Inwood, one of Kingston’s strongest players for decades. Ken discards his scoresheet after each game in what appears to be a careless disregard for self-improvement. But then Ken does not have anything to prove, having won the London Under-14 and Under-18 titles before becoming the British Boys’ Champion at Hastings in 1953 and playing top board for England in the Glorney Cup. He has for many decades made a pilgrimage to the Hastings international tournament at the turn of each year to watch the top games with flask at the ready. There comes a stage when chess is played for pure enjoyment, win or lose.


Score sheets

At least I had the foresight to hang on to these precious documents. Wads of distressed scoresheets have been strewn in drawers and stuffed into bookshelves. The process has begun of collating and painstakingly transcribing the moves of the games I can unearth into Hiarcs, the Mac-friendly chess database and engine. Some of my games were conveniently retrieved from doubly checked online databases such as 4NCL’s. That made me realise what a terrible written record I had kept of the moves.

Note on notation: the algebraic system gives rise to reflection errors when recording: a becomes h and b becomes g; 1 becomes 8 and 2 becomes 7 etc, so there is a lot of decoding required. One must play a game out until the moves no longer make sense and then reverse back to the last reflection. Descriptive notation largely precludes this sort of error. 

The main defect of transcription, however, cannot be cured by any notation system. The problem occurs towards the end of each game. When time is short, accuracy goes out the window. Distinguishing between moves and squiggles becomes impossible. In the worst case, when the remaining time drops below five minutes, it is no longer mandatory to record the moves. The end of the game is lost to history unless the opponent is obliging. Returning to a game years later, one plays through to a perfectly good position up to move 35 or so, but then the scoresheet puzzlingly records the game as a loss.

The advice for constructing personal game histories, learned late in my life, is to correct the scoresheet immediately after the game. Ideally, one should make some quick notes on the game – perhaps during the post-mortem analysis conducted by the players – and input the moves without delay.

The games I am currently inputting are from random dates in the past. I am up to game 150, which must be a tiny fraction of the games played in my chess “career”. The games are not of any theoretical importance, except that each game can trigger a personal memory or give rise to a newly perceived finesse with potential instructive value. A game fitting this latter category was one I played as Black against Martin Gruau in a Surrey v Kent county match in 2018. After a hard-fought and complex game, we reached the following position. I was so sure I was winning, and the move so obvious, that I did not think I needed to calculate my next move.

Black to play and win

Martin Gruau v John Foley. Surrey v Kent, 27 January 2018

Like anybody else who has been striving for victory for five hours at the board in a chilly community hall, I was exhausted, but finally the win was within my grasp. In the diagram, Black is playing down the board. My king had advanced and pushed my opponent’s king to the back rank. I could capture the a3 pawn and then saunter over to pick up the h6 pawn, whilst the white king had to deal with the passed a4 pawn. I should be able to shoulder off the white king if it tried to race over to stop the h pawn. This much was clear and there was no need to consider any other plan. So I played 70 … Kxa3? There followed 71 Ka1! I followed my ill-thought plan and we reached this position after Black’s 75th move.

White to play and draw

I was on track but my opponent seemed confident, which was rather worrying- wasn’t he supposed to resign? I finally began to put my brain in gear and realised that I had sleepwalked into a draw. The final position is shown below. The black king is forced to the edge and cannot escape without allowing the white king to reach the drawing square h8. Dagnabbit! I dealt with the anguish by the technique of instant forgetfulness – the nostrum of choice for the disappointed player.

Drawn

So as I was inputting and reviewing the game again, I noticed something surprising. I had been right to believe that I had a winning move in the opening diagram position. The finesse is to refrain from capturing the a3 pawn! I had played a pedestrian move, failing to recognise that I was standing at a crossroads. During a game one is not presented with a caption “white to play and win” which would immediately raise the level of awareness.

The crucial point is that if Black captures the a3 pawn, then the white king is given a shortcut to Black’s a4 pawn via a2 in two moves instead of the long way round via c3 and b4 in three moves. In an endgame, a tempo can make all the difference. White gains a move to advance and promote the h pawn. Black should have been counting tempi rather than material. In fact, in the diagram, remove the a3 pawn and white still draws a pawn down. A common error and one which the diligent student of the game should have been able to figure out. There may be many more such gems yet to be recovered from the past.

Reverting to the classic lunch at the Fleece (or should that be the Golden Fleece), Mike Truran, who studied languages at Oxford, vouchsafed to me a line from the Aeneid: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Classical scholars still debate the precise translation, but one interpretation is: “Someday, perhaps, it will help to remember those troubles as well.” The positive take on this aphorism is that, far from forgetting unpleasant experiences, we should instead wait and integrate them into our personal experience when we are ready. There will come a point when we confront adversity and feel more complete for doing so. The more I review my historical games collection, the more I understand the narrative of my life.

Photo credits: Sophie Triay (Mike Truran); Linda Nylind (Stephen Moss); Brendan O’Gorman (Robin Haldane)

John Foley

Demystifying the chess club: from online chess to over the board

Covid and its attendant lockdowns have seen a boom in online chess. Now some of this new generation of internet aficionados are looking to join real, live chess clubs. Here we offer a beginner’s guide to making that all-important move

Ljubica Lazarevic

Did you take up chess during the pandemic? Were you inspired by the phenomenally popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit? Finding yourself wiling away the hours on chess.com and contemplating your next steps? Then look no further, we’ve got you covered. In this blogpost we’ll outline what to expect when you decide to dip your toe into the world of “over the board” (OTB) chess at your local club.

Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

Step 1: Finding a local chess club

There are many chess clubs in the UK, and indeed around the world. Your first step could be using your favourite web search engine to see if there’s a chess club in the town you live in. You’ll also discover there are many social chess gatherings springing up in libraries, pubs and other social areas. If you’re looking to just keep it friendly, have a chat and meet new people, then these are likely to be a great fit for you. If you’re looking for something more serious, then you’ll find a “proper” chess club will fit the bill.

If you don’t find something in your immediate area, have a look at your country’s national chess federation website. They will typically have a resource for finding chess clubs near you. For example, on the English Chess Federation website, you can use their “find a chess club” tool.

For those of you who are parents of children who are looking to play chess, do be aware there are chess clubs who specialise in having junior members. Many other clubs will be happy to have chess-enthusiastic children visit the club, provided there is a parent or guardian in tow.

Step 2: Visiting the club

So you’ve identified some clubs you’re going to go visit. Great work! Before popping down to the club, be sure to make contact ahead of time. Especially during this uncertain Covid period, you need to make sure there’ll be someone there to greet you. For smaller clubs, they may have home and/or away matches (more on that later), and the night you’re intending to visit, there may be nobody at the venue there to say hi, or lots of people there who are in the middle of a game and too preoccupied to give you the time of day – a common problem in chess clubs. Once you’ve got confirmation that the club is meeting, pop on over and check it out.

Step 3: Figuring out if this is right for you

Pretty much every club will be happy to accommodate your first few visits to make sure the club is a good fit for you. There will rarely be any expectation for you to pay up for membership on your first visit. However, chess clubs have many financial obligations to keep running, such as paying rental for the venue, and buying, maintaining and replacing chess equipment. This was before the additional burdens of the pandemic. If you do decide the club you’re visiting is a great fit for you and you want to keep coming, don’t forget to ask (and promptly pay!) your membership subs. Also, many chess clubs will be in pub/club function rooms. Please be a thoughtful guest, and also buy a drink or two from behind the bar on your way up to the chess room.

Differences between internet chess and over-the-board chess

There are some significant differences between internet chess and playing over the board. Let’s look at some of these, and explain each one in turn.

A slower pace
Unlike playing a three-minute “blitz” game on sites such as chess.com, you’ll notice that games tend to be somewhat slower, even the friendlies. There are just more moving parts (literally!) as well as the risk of knocking things over, and just generally it seems like it takes a little bit more time to take in the physical board. Enjoy the moment.

Use of clocks
A big difference you’ll find is the introduction of clocks. We are very spoilt when playing chess on the internet: yes we have to be conscious of time, but all we have to do is make our move, and the server handles all of the other details for us. Not so with over-the-board chess. You will most likely be using a digital clock, and you’ll have to remember to press the button each time you play your move. Don’t be afraid to ask someone how to set up and use the clocks. Good clock etiquette is to press the clock with the hand that touched the piece, and don’t make a move until your opponent has pressed his or her clock.

Typically used chess clock, the DGT

Quieter during longer games
For longer time controls (ie longer than blitz) you’ll find that it will be quieter during games, and there won’t be much opportunity to chat. Typically it is good etiquette to not speak to your opponent (or your neighbours) whilst longer games are taking place. Once the games are over, it’s always good fun (and an excellent way to improve your chess) to go through your game with your opponent. In chess parlance, this is called a post mortem, though the hope is that no one has died.

Writing down the moves
Another gift internet chess gives us is to automatically record the moves we make during the game. Much like the clock, another thing required of us in certain types of game (when teams from different clubs are playing each other, for instance, in games that will be officially rated – see under league chess below) is the need to write down moves. The notation used worldwide to record chess games is called algebraic notation. As well as checking out the provided link, if you’re not sure ask at the chess club and it can be explained to you. Whilst you can buy a scorebook (stationery to write your games in), most clubs will provide you with a scoresheet to record your game.

Touch move
Another key concept used in over-the-board chess, especially in the formal setting of a chess club, is touch move. The idea is simple – if you touch a piece, you must move it (unless moving that piece would result in an illegal move). Similarly, once you’ve let go of a piece, the move is complete. Don’t panic if you’re new to chess/new to over-the-board chess, for friendlies you will very likely be accommodated for a few bloopers until you get into the swing of things. However, once the serious chess starts, you’ll be held to touch move.

The handshake
It is polite to shake your opponents hand before and after the conclusion of the match (even if wasn’t the ending you were expecting …). In these Covid times, you’re not expected to continue this practice, and indeed, fist pumps, elbow bumps, toe taps, or just a nod and a wave will suffice. Whilst the handshake may not be in use, its sentiment is still there.

Getting competitive – league chess

A common activity at most chess clubs is getting involved in league chess. As the name suggests, these are leagues typically involving clubs located in the same area/region, duking it out across different divisions. Most of these league matches tend to take place in the evenings during the week. There are a few variations depending on where you play, but typically the following will stand for most clubs:

Team chess
Most leagues consist of a number of players making up a team. Typically there can be anything from six to 10 players per team per match (though county teams can be ever larger than that). Whilst chess is very much an individual person’s sport, it’s all about the teamwork when it comes to league matches. Sometimes you might need to subordinate your individual requirements to the team’s needs: accepting a draw to secure a match, for example, even though you are pretty sure you can win the game. The team’s needs come first, so why take the risk you might lose when the draw that seals the match is there for the taking?

Rated games
Most chess federations use an Elo-based rating system for games. This is used to measure a player’s strength, and is used for determining what the team order is for a match. For this, most clubs will require you to have membership of the national chess federation, eg in England you need to be a member of the English Chess Federation (ECF). As a condition of this, you will also be expected to write your moves down. An advantage of being a member of the ECF is that you will also be able to play in weekend tournaments and other events.

Long games
Whilst each league will have variations in how long a game is, they will likely be significantly longer than you’re used to when playing online. For example, each player could be allocated around 75 to 120 minutes each per game. In addition, with the advent of digital chess clocks, each player may be allocated what is called an increment per move. For example, if each player has an increment of 10 seconds, that means each time they complete a move, an additional 10 seconds will be added to their clock. If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry – it’s pretty straightforward. If you’re playing your very first competitive match, your team-mates will be on hand to help show you the ropes. Scoring and managing the clock are be a little unsettling at first, but you will soon get the hang of it and come to terms with the rhythm of over-the-board play. It is vital not to play too fast: try to get into a good position and then you will find good moves flow naturally. There is no point having oodles of time left on the clock if you lose. It’s a contest, not a race, and tortoises often beat hares.

Home and away matches
Much like football and rugby leagues, in chess leagues you have home and away matches. Most chess clubs will have a regular club night, and these will typically cover scheduled home matches. Some leagues will guarantee all teams will have home matches; for others it will be the toss of the coin. For more rural locations, it is common for clubs to organise car pooling to help get team members around to the matches. In more urban areas, people often make their way directly to a match after work, usually powered by public transport or in their own vehicle.

Wrapping it up

We’ve given a broad overview of how to take your next steps from the online world of chess into the physical, but this only scratches the surface. Your friendly chess club will be able to fill in the gaps, and if there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to add a comment or a question on this blog and we’ll get back to you. Good luck with making the move from the virtual chess world to woodpushing reality.

Don’t always be principled. Embrace the irrational

Sometimes it pays to ignore basic strategic tenets and just go wild. One chess anarchist explains how Play Unconventional Chess and Win by Naom A Manella and Zeev Zohar inspired him

Michael Healey

On the surface, the book Play Unconventional Chess and Win, seems a fairly standard addition to the “most amazing moves”/ “play creative chess”/ “break the rules”‘ school of writing. It contains 137 examples from nearly as many games (and studies), looking at the ways in which strong players occasionally play non-traditional moves and find unconventional ideas. There are almost 400 pages, but they are well spaced with large diagrams – more given to words than lines of analysis – so one can comfortably read through without a board.

Neither author was known to me, or seems to have a FIDE rating. Manella is a chess study composer and researcher on human processing of information. Zohar is an “expert” player who has researched the role of creativity in top-level play. All this may not bode especially well, but GM Ram Soffer is credited with aiding analysis, and both Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand have written short forewords. Amidst all the super-GM games, each author sneaks in a game of his own, and plenty from other Israeli players, so we can probably dismiss the notion that they are outright amateurs. 

The psychological element is key to the authors. From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the book was the bid for a new annotative symbol:

“… certain ‘outside the box’ moves have a tendency to make the opponent go wrong within the next two to three moves. Therefore we have decided to include in this book a new symbol: ‘^’. It means a challenging move, which does not refer to its objective value, but rather to the higher probability of the opponent going wrong within a few moves”.

So “^” does not represent the objective strength of the move (like “!” or “!!”) but rather refers to the effect it has on the opponent.

Now chess annotations are funny things. Some authors barely use symbols; others turn games into an ordnance survey map; while computers only seem to enjoy adding big red question marks. Many symbols look ridiculous (look up “zugzwang”), or are even irritatingly misleading (using >Bf4 to mean “better is Bf4”, contrary to primary-school teaching). Some I find very useful in my own shorthand annotations, like the triangles for “intending” and “preventing”. However “^” is a nice, simple addition to the canon, where before we would probably have used some combination of “!?/?!”. 

While the authors do not actually use their new symbol that often, here are a couple of good examples:



There are other ways in which the book is also unusual: “In this book we have put together numerous examples of games, most of them played by leading grandmasters, in which we found some weird moves, apparently contradicting the most fundamental principles. Our litmus test for the choice of games to appear in the book was simple: we only chose moves which look ‘irrational’ at first sight, or ‘drunk’ in our language – moves which violate basic chess rules.”

This use of “drunk” is the slightly bizarre theme of the book. The three sections are called “Beer” (Evaluate things differently), “Red wine” (Free your mind) and “Vodka” (King with free spirit), chapters being glasses of each. At the end of each analysis, we ask if the highlighted moves were “inspired” or “drunk”. Those who enjoy a pint with their games can certainly vouch for alcohol bringing out more … unusual moves. Dramatic language and jovial imagery are omnipresent. Humour and metaphor is always a bit hit and miss, but (apart from one particularly disturbing analysis where Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar are portrayed as “flirting”) it provides a certain silly charm. 

The chapter themes don’t make the most sense to me, but general sections cover what you might expect for a book on unconventional play – decentralisation to the edges of the board, unusual captures and exchanges, entombed pieces and walkabout kings. This example of a rook unoccupying an open file was notable:


Here Shirov decides attack is the best defence:

The heroes of the book are undoubtedly Carlsen (7.5/8) and Ivanchuk (11/14), although there are plenty of K games (Korchnoi, Karpov, Kasparov and especially Kramnik) and other creative maestros (Shirov, Morozevich, Polgar, Timman). Despite both appearing on page one (and indeed the cover), Anand and Gelfand, true to their humble natures, are victims as much as victors.

Ulf Andersson receives his own mini-section on unorthodox defence. England is well represented, with games involving Adams (sadly 1/6), Miles, Speelman, Hodgson, Short (king walks) and Sadler, along with a Nunn study. Considering how the book initially purports to be linking computer chess to creativity, most of the games are actually from the tail-end of the pre-computer age, or even earlier, probably showing the authors’ age.

I would guess the modal decade for games is the noughties, followed by the nineties. The authors have a particular fondness for match-games (where undoubtedly the tension makes unconventional moves more effective, and resulting blunders are more likely). The studies in particular are a good addition, all simple enough to demonstrate the desired ideas.

As someone who does not particularly follow top-level chess but has read a large number of chess books, roughly half the examples were familiar to me. Some were mega-famous (Shirov’s Bh3!!!, Ivanchuk’s Qxe6+!?), but others, like this game, which I just happened to know well from the Fantasy Caro, were a bit more obscure:

My own familiarity with many positions was not really a hindrance to enjoyment – the examples chosen are all true icons of chess beauty. The aim of reading a book like this, other than pleasure, is really to inspire yourself – not only to go out and play chess, but do so creatively. In this I believe the book succeeds – I certainly played far more silly blitz than usual over New Year!

Christmas cheer for the chess returner who braved the blitz

When you haven’t played an over-the-board tournament in 15 years, it takes courage to return in a hot blitz event full of underrated juniors in the middle of a pandemic

Gregor Smith

I am not going to lie; I may have been under the influence of alcohol when I decided to enter this tournament. However, it was the Dutch courage I needed to return to the over-the-board tournament scene after a 15-year hiatus.  

I played a lot of tournament chess as a junior, but then barely moved a piece until becoming one of the 12 million worldwide who joined chess.com during the pandemic. So here I was at the “Richmond Christmas Blitz” (prize fund £3,000!) making my comeback, off a rating of 1353 given to me on the basis of a few online-rated games.

Some things were familiar – the cold gym hall filled with chess tables, the hustle and bustle when the draw sheet was put up for each round, and the usual reminders from the arbiters before each round that touch move applied. 

Other things were less familiar: a 4 min + 2 sec time control (digital clocks and increments didn’t exist last time out, and this was a bit quick for my comfort zone); random metal detector searches to see if anyone was playing with their phone in their pocket; and of course playing in facemasks, only to be removed if you wanted to offer a draw.

So how did it go? Here is a whistlestop tour of my 11 rounds. Unfortunately, unlike the phenomenal Peter Lalic, I cannot remember the exact moves in my 11 games. In fact, I can’t remember five consecutive moves in any game. It was all a bit of a blur.

Round 1: Destroyed by a titled player. Blundered a pawn in the opening as Black and didn’t get a sniff. (0/1)

Round 2: A solid victory over a (very) young Richmond Junior. Such a splendid kid – before the game he asked me if I knew the “Dragon” opening (I don’t) and then, after the game, he complimented my handwriting on the results slip (my handwriting is barely legible). His time will come. (1/2)

Round 3: A feeble attempt against another much higher-rated opponent. Rolled out my “Tiger’s Modern” opening (something I found on YouTube), but got too cramped and was slowly crushed. (1/3)

Round 4: Another loss, but a braver attempt. It was probably a drawn endgame, but I managed to blunder a pawn in time trouble and my opponent finished well. (1/4)

Round 5: Another (very) young Richmond whizz. My first big blunder of the day and my opponent had me on the ropes, but managed to flag himself on the brink of victory. I honestly felt terrible for him as he slumped back to his parents. He more than deserved to beat me. That kid will go far. (2/5)

Round 6: A nice win over a higher-rated opponent. This time I got the better of another drawn-looking endgame after winning a pawn and managing to promote my passed pawn on the flank. Swings and roundabouts. (3/6)

Rounds 7 & 8: Two crushing defeats as black for my YouTube defence against stronger opponents who didn’t put a foot wrong. I guess I don’t know the opening as well as I thought I did and continually end up with cramped positions and no plan. I decided at this point that I am never, ever playing it again. (3/8)

Round 9: A rare occurrence where my opponent played 1…e5 in response to my 1. e4 and then proceeded to accept all three pawns in my favourite Danish Gambit. These are such fun games to play; I don’t even mind losing from this position. It’s always a bumpy ride. I managed to set up a scything attack and won quickly. (4/9)

Round 10: This is where the magic happened. A first-ever victory against a 2000+ opponent, Luis Ortiz from Spain. I played the Smith-Morra Gambit (another YouTube special) and reached a comfortable position before finding a nice tactic to win a piece. I then spent the rest of the game preparing myself for the inevitable defeat. We all know that Imposter Syndrome feeling – there’s no way I can actually beat this guy, right! But I did, keeping patient and managing to fork his rooks to end up two rooks to one in the endgame before finishing it off. (5/10)

Round 11: By this stage, everyone was looking a bit weary, but thankfully my adrenaline was rushing high. So high, I even retrieved my earlier retired Tiger’s Modern from the scrapheap after my higher-rated opponent opened 1. f3!? and I didn’t know what else to do. 1… g6, 2. g3 … chess.com comes up with zero games in its database that have followed these moves, and no wonder. What followed was an extremely closed and complicated game, and my opponent strangely went into the tank for three consecutive moves and flagged himself while I still had two minutes left on the clock. Definitely weary. (6/11)

My goal for the day was to beat someone better than me, and to manage to beat three players rated higher than me made the occasion all the sweeter. But the main thing was that it was great to be back.  

Thanks to Kingston club-mate David Maycock for his constant support and words of wisdom throughout the day. He even took the time to talk me through the Philidor Defence in a five-minute break between rounds after I’d played badly against it in round 4. The great thing was I always knew where to find him between rounds – camped beside the Halogen heater!

I learned several lessons from the tournament. Eleven games is a lot of chess: don’t let early disappointments get you down. Always have a plan: too often I didn’t have one, and you don’t have time to think of many options. Even strong players make mistakes in blitz: this was a David Maycock special – always believe you have a chance of winning. My rating performance was 1605 – a considerable improvement on my starting level of 1353.

And, finally, thanks to Paul McKeown and the team at Richmond Junior Chess Club, who ran a seamless and safe tournament in memory of Rik Thomas, one of their coaches, who sadly passed away during the pandemic, and also marking the deaths of two Richmond Juniors’ parents, Suman Chatterjee and Jatinder Sian. Thanks, too, to Orleans Park School in Twickenham, where the event took place. It was particularly fitting to see so many talented juniors so enthusiastic about the game.

It’s hairy, but the Orangutan can be a handy opening amid the jungle of theory

Starting with 1. b4 looks like a piece of wilful eccentricity. But over the years strong grandmasters have played it

Michael Healey

Last Monday I gave a lecture at Kingston Chess Club on three Orangutan games I’d played. For those able to attend, I tried to explain the ideas behind the opening, along with some of the issues for both players. The games chosen were all against strong players, using two bishops and ultraviolence. Here are the firework endings:




Mike Healey
Mike Healey (Kingston)

In this blog post, I hope to expand on the opening itself. 

The onomatology of the opening is more diverse than for most chess openings, the names of which are typically based on the players who – or locations which – made them famous. Originally 1. b4 was the Hunt opening, named after a Canadian doctor no one seems to know anything about. Then it became the Hunter-Englisch (Berthold Englisch was a strong Austrian player in the latter part of the 19th century). With the arrival of the hypermodern school, it became the Polish (following its adoption by Savielly Tartakower) and then the Orangutan (supposedly because “the climbing movement of the pawn to b4 and then to b5 is reminiscent of that animal”). Then its stronger, but more risk-averse, little brother “Santasiere’s Folly” (1.Nf3 d5/Nf6 2. b4) was developed, and used by many strong grandmasters (including Viktor Korchnoi and Nigel Davies). Finally 1. b4 became the Sokolsky, named after its most committed adherent, the Ukrainian-Belarusian IM-strength player Alexey Sokolsky, who used it over the board and in correspondence chess to great effect.


I will be calling 1. b4 the Orangutan. Picture an orangutan winged hussar hunting for maple syrup if that helps. [No – Ed.]

There are many big names who have dipped their toe into the Orangutan over the years (Capablanca, Alekhine, Smyslov, Spassky, Fischer), but only a few true believers – Sokolsky, Boris Katalymov and Michael Basman being the main three, each with completely different playing styles (positional, tactical, chaotic). Possibly the Orangutan does not suit the purer chess genius: Capablanca had 0/2 on both sides of b4, and Carlsen maintains a measly 2/4 on the White side. 

What are the main characteristics of the Orangutan (other than inducing laughter)?

White’s main aim is to gain queenside space, and if possible exchange wing pawns for more valuable central pawns. It is quite possible to transpose back into more standard positions, especially with Santasiere’s Folly (named after the New York-based chess writer Anthony Santasiere). 

Some Black openings (the Grünfeld, Queen’s Indian Defence) do not work that well against the Orangutan. Others (King’s Indian Defence, Dutch) transpose to fairly standard positions. However, there are many, many choices of set-ups for both sides, and a wide variety of unbalanced and unexplored positions can result. If you seek the immortality of your own opening variation, the Orangutan is an excellent place to mine.

One of the main differences between the Orangutan and the vast majority of standard openings is that it forces both sides to think for themselves from early in the game. It is quite possible for even extremely strong players to completely mishandle the opening in the first few moves. Middlegame positions are often “equal”, but slightly easier for White to play.

Early attempts at refutation (c6 and Qb6; a5; d5 and Qd6) don’t seem to work, and often rebound on Black. The most sensible way for Black to play is either to go down the main line “Open Orangutan” (1. b4 e5 2. Bb2 Bxb4) or choose a set-up they are comfortable with from other openings. 

Often the opening resembles two boxers circling, with neither army making contact. This early flexible dancing is a major characteristic of the opening. When opposing pawns do eventually meet, the results can be explosive. IM Basman has compared the Orangutan to the St George (1…. a6 2…. b5), the opening of a “counterpuncher”. This is a pertinent observation of Orangutan psychology. Black will take the initiative and the centre, but when White eventually starts hitting back it will certainly hurt. A most unusual way to play with the White bits.

What are the main problems for the Orangutanger?

White’s major headache is development, especially the queenside knight and rook. The Orangutan dark-squared bishop is either stupendous or ghastly, with little in-between. Casual White play leads to good Black positions, so White does need to know what they’re doing. Even if White plays well, the opening will seldom grant any serious advantage. Moreover, the White kingside is often attacked (not to everyone’s taste), to the extent that sometimes queenside castling becomes a valid alternative, despite our first move! And of course White will often forget the b4 pawn is undefended, especially after a couple of pints.

Why should one play the Orangutan?

(a) From a competitive perspective

Your opponent may feel insulted, become annoyed and play badly. Equally they may well underestimate an opening with a silly name they have never faced. Black will often invest time working out a system against this novel opening, which is excellent news for rapid and faster classical games. There are a tremendous number of possible Black set-ups – it is move one after all! As the opening progresses, Black is often caught between playing dynamically and strategically, aggressively and solidly, ending up with something in-between which is neither. White, if they play the opening accurately, should be able to control the pace of the game. Some players react badly to a slower game, or playing on the backfoot with little opportunity for dynamism.

From a “professional” point of view, it is another opening in your arsenal, something else for an opponent to prep against. Black might well read up on a “refutation” or “solution”, but not know that much about the resulting position. It is very easy for Black to “equalise”, but the resulting positions are often incredibly unbalanced (especially the main line), involving unique strategies and even tactical patterns, where the experienced Orangutanger should have the advantage. 

I myself use the Orangutan as a weapon against titled players – bringing them to an arena where they should know less than I do (unlike every other opening) – and where it is difficult for Black to play for a win against such insolent weaker opposition. Against weaker players, playing sensible moves, it is difficult for White to avoid draws, while there is often a risk of overpressing. However, White can keep the pieces on and create extremely tense positions, with the battle raging right across the board, which a weaker player will sometimes mishandle. 

(b) From the perspective of becoming a stronger chess player

As a chess player, the wider your appreciation of different types of position, the more universal a player you become. The Orangutan is most certainly a challenge, and one that forces you to think and to respond to your opponent from very early in the game. It teaches you to be extremely careful about development, about pawn placement, and about exchanges of both pawns and pieces which will radically alter positions. Rushing too many pawns forward will lead to disaster – the Orangutan often rewards caution, and waiting for the perfect moment to open things up. Certain patterns recur (a weak c6 square, use of an open a-file) which can win games on their own. Positions which seem to be ambling along can suddenly accelerate into dominating White positions:

As an e4 player, it is pleasant to be able to play something completely different from time to time, rather than facing the same openings again and again. I can flex strategic and chaotic neurons which a thousand Ruy Lopezes tend to dull. The Orangutan is most certainly an opportunity for creativity. Here is IM Graeme Buckley v Mike Healey: [N.B. Mike is on the receiving end – Ed.]

Whilst always trying to hack the enemy king if possible, I also get to play set-ups never reached with 1. e4, such as KID and IQP positions. Here is an example:


Mike Healey lecture at the Willoughby Arms

One valid criticism of my lecture was that the games shown demonstrated not the opening’s strength, but my own. Well, here are four impressive positions reached against extremely strong players using the Orangutan:

Healey v IM Jovanka Houska (+4 after 15 moves)


Healey v GM Chris Ward (+1.2 after 10 moves)


Healey v GM Nick Pert (+2 after 23 moves)


Healey v GM Evgeny Postny (+1.8 after 20 moves)


While we must not take Stockfish’s word for everything, the Orangutan most certainly played its part in getting to these positions; an inept hairless ape brought home 0.5/4 however!

If that was too depressing, some scalps to cheer you up (including the Polish defence with Black):

Slowplay wins v IMs x 4; draw v GM Chris Ward
Rapidplay wins v IMs x 4
Blitz wins v IMs x 4 and against GM Gawain Jones; draws v GMs Marie Sebag and Paul Velten

Not bad for an ageing 2150!