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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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 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
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 inSearching 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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?
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.
In which the Welsh women’s captain takes a day off to explore the ‘real’ India – and quickly wishes that he hadn’t
Last night Sarah Kett, head of delegation, wife of strong Welsho Tim and technically my fifth player, offered to captain today’s game instead of me. I grabbed this chance to have half a day off and get some extra sleep. Sarah suggested I go for a swim. However my own crushingly stupid decision-making let me down, as so often both in life and in chess.
Today’s Namibian opponents seem much better than their flimsy ratings. Liv points out their coach is quite strong (stronger than someone else anyway), so we work on his openings in addition to theirs. Let’s hope every other team are prepping Orangutans, Chameleons and Borgs like crazy! Again they’re in strange order, Khushi playing the highest rated on four. They’ve dropped “Jolly” on one. No jollies today.
I wave the teams off, then head out in my freshly laundered outfit, proselytising to the people of Eggatur-Chennai the vital message of my black T-shirt – “MEH”. Sneaking past security, I pop next door to the mall with four tasks – camera memory card, mouthwash for all the sweeties, check out the mall, be somewhere other than the hotel or the venue.
First, the computer and tech shops: none has camera memory cards. Hmm – this may be an issue in the modern smartphone world. Another reason for me to despise the things. In the Spar supermarket I confirm there is no alcohol to be had, find my mouthwash and head to the till. They ask for my mobile number. I look confused. They examine the back of the mouthwash bottle. Suddenly it dawns on me that the thing will contain alcohol. Another member of staff comes to help read the ingredients. I’m going to be denied mouthwash, aren’t I? I mean, it’s one excuse for the dentist. Hold on, it’s all OK, and my card goes through for whatever the local price of my illicit purchase was. Tick.
I wander around the mall. It’s mally. There’s a food court, a Starbucks, an arcade, various clothes and home shops, but nothing else looking likely. The place is wonderfully lit, spacious and aesthetically pleasing, although the escalators are not the simplest (or working).
I bump into three ladies from Team Jersey, including the mother of Daisy Carpenter who remembers me from the flight out, and chessette e-celeb “Lula“. Looking her up now I realise she is another Orangutanger! There is so much we could have discussed … whole schools of potential theory lie unmined.
I congratulate them on their draw with Sudan yesterday, and on the men’s result – they went down 1.5-2.5 against a strong Tunisian team, three of whom I played many years ago in a Maltese IM norm tournament. Saris are on the menu for the Jersey women – should I be buying my female friends back home saris? Or the men? Can I add clothes smuggling to my various occupations? I’d have to lose some chess books from the suitcases, but saris are pretty light, no?
Returning to the hotel I mention my camera memory card failure at the front desk. This is a mistake. A triple question mark blunder. After much discussion, they send me out across the road with a helpful man. Crossing an Indian three-lane main road is not so simple. There’s a lot of stuff coming at various speeds. We make it safely across, and thus begins my own special odyssey. The first phone shop says no, but suggests the next one up the road. Who suggests the next one up the road. Who …
Much like Tooting or any London high street, a lot of shops are phone shops. There’s the occasional snazzy café or restaurant, but there’s a hell of a lot of phone shops. We march on, baking under the 2pm sun. The road is hot. The sun is hot. I think of the Richard Bachman (Stephen King’s darker half) short story “The Long Walk”. The journey is endless, feet follow feet, and no phone shop is going to have a camera memory card. We are told of a magical place beyond the bridge yonder, a larger shop that may have one …
I encounter my first Indian beggar child. She quickly makes her way to my side and lightly grabs my arm, making noises you’d have to be inhuman not to pity. My guide shoos her away. As a tough tube-travelling Londoner, I’m regularly cold-hearted to beggars. But this little girl is something else. Maybe it’s because this isn’t my country.
We reach the legendary pedestrian bridge which once seemed a heat mirage. Underneath, in the shade, a family have set up camp. A dog, distended nipples showing, is chased off by a motorbike. How much of this side of India we are missing. We reach the air-conditioned electronics store, my own Scheria. They tell us of another shop across the road. Of course Odysseus must reach another island. Let us hope the gods do not punish these modern helpful Phaeacians too.
My pilot guides us back across the road, where a stallholder asks me how much memory I want. He actually has one! Several! It works! And not even any suitors to massacre. I reach for my weapon, trusty card.
Declined. They must have stopped it after the mouthwash. I can do nothing but laugh/cry and apologise to my guide. Tears won’t come, because I’ve sweated them all out. The memory card comes out of my camera, and we leave to return to the hotel. In utter embarrassment I try to make conversation, which results in discussion of Indian politics. Other than Gandhi and Modi, I have no clue who these people are. Sarah suggested a swim – in my current state I probably could have fooled her.
It is possible the heat has led to some further deterioration of my physical and mental well-being. A shower and I collapse. Stretching for the laptop, the girls are doing OK. Khushi seems to be playing an exciting pawn sacrifice seen in McShane-Lalic 2003, attempting her own improvement on the England board two’s efforts. I don’t remember prepping Khushi for this, but I am very tired. Maybe I’m more of a genius than I thought.
The others look to be doing OK, all having positions much as we discussed this morning. I manage a nap. Reanimating, Hiya has won a nice, clean game. Perfect, I’m delighted for her first (non-default) win. Liv, whose opening position Stockfish disliked, has very sensibly swapped off to negate her small disadvantage. She outplays her opponent as the pieces come off. 2-0.
Khushi is having a whale of a game, Mr Fish’s evaluation bar is getting super-excited. She’s played a blinder, a really good, classical, pieces-to-the-centre-working-together crush. Khushi’s first win too, and in under 30 moves!
Kim’s opponent, clearly prepped to the eyeballs, plays a sensible opening, but White has a definite edge. A few inaccurate moves and the advantage evaporates, but now Black is starting to play. Once again I suspect Kim has had to face the secretly strongest player on two, despite a 1200 rating. Black is using her ponies in a distinctly Healeyish manner, as in our morning analysis of Healey-IM Large (Kingston Invitational best game prize-winner, thank you very much).
Black’s advantage keeps creeping up, and Kim misses little chances to equalise a complex endgame. Finally some pawns come off, and the task looks easier. Kim has managed her time as well. A draw.
So we win the match – without me! Was it because I wasn’t there? Was I holding them back, or distracting my girls? Or was my pointless death march under the Indian sun actually suffering on their behalf, the universe aiding them to balance out? Something about karma? Perhaps now is the time to build the new MEH religion.
Our hero, captaining the Welsh women’s team at the Olympiad, is completely exhausted – and his team have only played three rounds
Three rounds in and I haven’t been this emotionally drained since that Polymorph attack. How we’re meant to survive another eight I have no idea.
A routine has developed. After breakfast we have a general coaching session on the restaurant floor, followed by half-hour slots. This is partly because lifts will only go to the floor you are keycarded for, with stairs – if they exist – barred to guests. We are also supposed to call lifts using toothpicks. Eventually the Olympiad officials round us from lunch and try to shove us on buses for the venue, 30-odd minutes away, along a road white- and black-washed to form a terrifying constant chessboard. Murals, posters and mascots form a permanent passing background, the overall surreal effect akin to the film Yellow Submarine. The local governor’s photo is placed above a crappy wooden chessboard I would never let kids play on as pieces just fall over. It is in any case set up wrong. The cows and goats don’t seem to notice. There are neon signs, road bumps, waterfowl and roving gangs of dogs.
The venue itself is fairly overwhelming, a mass of people which makes the introvert feel quite uncomfortable. Also, for a game based on spatial awareness, people don’t seem to have any concept of moving slowly, stepping aside to pass, or stopping before blind corners. Doors are both ways, and as someone who pretends outwardly to be a polite Englishman you can often spend a whole minute trying to get through.
In round one, my Welsh team were up against India 2: titled 2300s all the way down. The darlings of India (well, second string of darlings). We are in Hall One, chamber of champions, the special place of super-GMs and their amateur fodder (England women are in scum Hall Two). Cameras and filmcrews, space to wander about, fans up and down the walkway pointing and staring at four suited-up national heroes, facing my four red-jacketed Welshies. In my captain’s speech, I say there’s way more pressure on them than there is on us; two of them are over 30, so more dead brain cells than alive; and 2300s are rubbish anyway. Accuracy of captain’s speech: precog.
The match starts strangely when Khushi, the Welsh board four, plays an inaccurate opening, but her opponent decides to go after a pawn. Then the 17-year-old Indian prodigy huffs. Then she puts her head down. She looks fed up, as my 13-year-old continues to play sensible moves. The 2300 is eating up time and entering what can only be described as “a strop”.
Olivia Smith on board one has the line she wanted, and her opponent is making strange moves. She must be better?! Kim on two is a bit worse, but not much against the IM. Hiya on three has exactly the position she wanted on the board, which we knew the computer said was +1. Hiya the 1600 is definitely better against the 2300 WGM! I am torn between grinning my head off and bewilderment. I can’t help but fist-pump moves, stalking up and down behind the team like a prowling tiger, hoping that aggressive energy will feed into my girls, or that my scowling will intimidate the titled women. Probably it has more the look of a hunched Winnie the Pooh, but hey – that might distract India 2 as well.
Khushi and Kim continue to survive. Liv’s (short for Olivia, geddit) position looks great. Hiya gets too much fury radiation, and flamethrowers insanity all over the board. Even I, the resident lunatic of London chess, am raising my eyebrows. This is savagery like I’ve never seen except in the pages of game collections. On the Indian commentary there is apoplexy at what is going on. Are India 2 going down??
Sadly the incredible rush can’t last. Khushi’s knight get trapped. Kim’s time gets low. Hiya’s flames gets dowsed. Liv remains, struggling away in an endgame, apparently drawn but beyond my feeble understanding. Instead she loses, so we gain zilch for our efforts. Harsh.
Meanwhile, Wales Open team (the boys) were drawn against fourth seeds Spain. And wow did they give them a tussle. Just seeing Shirov in person was amazing, but he seemed to have taken offence at my red bandana, focusing all the rage of his position on to my forehead. The boys did incredibly well, threatening an incredible upset, but eventually went down to the 2700s. Have a quick chat with chess writer and all-round luminary Malcolm Pein, who kindly suggests that if it hadn’t been for the Welshos’ heroics, his article would have been on the Welshettes. Great pride from today’s performances; definitely the best lost match I’ve ever been part of.
A new day. I receive an email from tournament chief arbiter, England’s own Alex Holowczak. Accreditation is to be done by today at 2pm, or there will be a fee. I reply to ask what is this accreditation? He doesn’t know, it’s just something they’ve told him to message us. Liv is desperate to get us Indian sim cards, so we can all Whatsapp each other. I use one of the lift-toothpicks to try and open the port of a smartphone I’ve brought (Hiya had to point this out to me). This does not work, so I go in search of a paperclip from reception. I do hope this isn’t actually the camera hole I’m poking.
Round two: Palau. Pretty flag. Their openings on the databases make little sense, but they can clearly play if given the chance. Suspicious board order. Location: Hall Two, near to the doors for refreshments/toilets, and close to the spectators. Captain’s speech: calm today after yesterday’s insanity. Hiya, in particular, should picture Yoshi, a Japanese gardener of Bonsai trees. Calmly and quietly, she must snip at the position. No chainsaws and flamethrowers today. “But I’m playing the Sicilian.” “He’s a Sicilian Japanese gardener,” I say. “He looks after the Mafia’s Bonsai trees.” Kim’s task is to stay ahead on time, unless she gets a position which requires time investment. Accuracy of captain’s speech: well Hiya’s board is a default, so pretty calm I guess?!
It does rankle that Hiya has to come all the way to the venue then go straight back (or not so straight, the shuttle bus system being less “every 10 minutes” and more “sitting for an hour fed up and powerless in the face of constant prevarication”). This default system seems particularly idiotic. Oh well, one to the good, even if I’d have liked to see Hiya play. The Palau team are lovely, and teach us the word Alii! (Hello!). Apparently they have no word for goodbye; Maybe they never say goodbye.
Liv wins a nice, simple game, although with one slight inefficiency distracted by the possibility of an early shuttle home. Possibly we need to move her out of sight of the clock. Khushi wins an early exchange, then proceeds to block the position up. The game seems to have been cursed: the aircon tries to blow their scoresheets and pieces off; the Palauan player forgets to press her clock, causing Khushi worry. Then Khushi employs en passant on the c5 pawn, dxc6 – only c7-c6 was the unorthodox move two. The arbiter notices, the game rewinds five moves to the illegal move, time is added but the clock refuses to restart. Opponent offers a draw; Khushi offers a draw; there is much debate; our neighbouring arbiter looking on giggling with me; our arbiter hoping to be rid of this troublesome pair. After more discussion, draw! Never mind, both are off the mark, and we’ve got the points to win the match, hurrah.
Kim gets the position we all dream of, pushing knights back and gaining a true olympian centre. But, as some wise coach once said, “With a great centre comes great responsibility”. A motorway pile-up in extreme slow motion, Kim’s position goes from optically perfect to an explosion with limbs everywhere. No one deserves this, but it is a great experience to learn from. I wince as she recovers once, twice, three times, but the final blunder is too much. Black wins. Kim is devastated, and we all feel the same. A win for the team, but in the ugliest manner possible. Drinks in the hotel rooftop bar (for those of us of age) very much needed. It boasts a view of our locale, heaving with lights and heat and noise and everything you would expect from urban India. Kim is kept away from the side.
Round 3: Belgium. We’re outrated by a cumulative 1800+ points. The Belgians play something different each and every game. Fantastic. Location: Away from the doors, but by the arbiter’s station. Spectators, children and noisy infants. Captain’s speech: Keep calm, remember your prep, if they play something odd just roll with it. Sensible chess. Accuracy: Maybe I am still speaking Palauan.
A little Vietnamese woman barges me out of the way, a new system of sticky red dots having been introduced. Everyone must have a red dot. I ask if tomorrow we will getting a different coloured dot? She looks at me as if I’m mad. Dot the dot lady whizzes around the hall, the first wave of stressful distractions today will offer.
Barely have we started and I storm off into the tournament hall, absolutely furious with myself. In prepping Khushi, I have overwhelmed her with lines and ideas, but failed to cement the basics of her opening. Within half a dozen moves Bxf7+ has won a pawn. The fury of round one is back, but now turned inwards.
Hiya seems confused by her opponent’s offbeat try, getting herself in tangles and repeatedly moving her queen. Kim has gone for a Benko, backing herself despite never having played it before, convinced her opponent will repeat some innocuous line we briefly practised rather than take the pawn. I presume Liv’s secret prep is working; her opponent seems a bit thrown. But now she is eating time. Is there really a d6 pawn on?
It takes me a long time to calm down from my utter failure this round, stalking around Scum Hall grinding my teeth – more good news for the dentist after my constant intake of Indian sweet things. Thankfully, matters improve. Khushi’s opponent is trying to finish the operation, but using not a scalpel but some kind of washcloth. Kim is again eating time, but at least she’s in the game. Liv is playing wonderfully, her experienced opponent playing some inexplicable moves. Hiya has stabilised the position, and her opponent is looking very worried. I resume my round one hulking presence between occasional mini-naps. During one snooze there is a tap on my shoulder. A member of the spectators is leaning over the barrier – can he have that bottle of water?
During one of my waking-walking moments, I look up to a gasp worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe. One of the male players, 50 metres away, reaches out across the board in agony, his hands clenched in frozen agony. He collapses over the board and spills on to the floor. A crowd forms. There are no shouts for a medic; no clocks stop. The tournament continues more or less as normal, and I can see the man’s legs shaking. I offer up a prayer, hope, and try to extend a spiritual forcefield around my girls. Hiya’s lust for victory in a position I suspect was dynamically level has led to her being checkmated. I take her off to watch Liv, away from rescue operations.
It is hard to know what to think. I’m well aware that this has happened before at Olympiads, but playing on like this seems callous. My players barely seem to notice, which is good I suppose. Out of the corner of my eye I see a spectator grinning, up on tiptoes trying to see what is happening. In fact they’re all standing up now, trying to get a look. I feel quite ill, sip my Coke and close my eyes. Eventually the man seems to be taken out by wheelchair. Thousands of volunteers and police officers, but where had the paramedics been?
For the second time, a Belgian male player turns up on our side of the table. I walk up to him, flick his badge, angrily bark “Belgian” like a Teutonic officer of old, and motion for him to go around to the other side. He looks confused. I point again and explain, forcefully – he is Belgian, this is our side, he should be behind his team not facing them. This registers and he apologises. I have a new batch of angry energy to feed my girls. Adam Hunt, the Welsh Open captain, is amused by this encounter. It’s not often you get to tell a 2400 off.
Khushi finally folds, her longest game ever by a wide margin, holding off her opponent rated over 500 points higher for nearly four hours. Kim also concedes, having battled to a rook endgame but playing much better than yesterday. Liv is left, and I wander off to try not to distract her. The position seems winning, her opponent short of time, but there are many paths to examine.
I wander over to the Welshos. At one point they had looked extremely good again, against Paraguay’s GMs. They go down 4-0, a terrible score from the positions they had. Well Liv will win, then we’ll have outscored the men at least … Idly wandering back Liv is clutching her king. And I can see why. Somehow Black has fluked a tactic, and, when the king moves, a bishop sac will see a pawn through. She later tells me she was not only in shock, but continued to hold her king because she couldn’t recall which square it was on. Her rictus grip seems to last forever, and I swear into the emptied myriad rows of boards.
Thankfully all is not quite lost. Liv recovers, and makes a draw against her higher-rated opponent. Apparently for tiebreaks just one draw is better than a whitewash, so we go out happier, ready for our nightly arguments with the hotel shuttle service. Next stop Namibia, whose players include “Jolly” and “Patience”. This might just be the match we need right now.
A Kingston star is captaining the Welsh women’s team in the Olympiad which has just got under way in (or, rather, near) Chennai. Here is the first of his regular(ish) reports from the pinnacle of team chess
A “failed-to-deliver” message has just appeared in my inbox, from the Indian visa agency, presumably bumping around for days in cyberspace screaming for my attention. Thankfully I am already here in Chennai, visa-d up at the last minute. Serves it right to get ignored, after seven hours of internal screaming and a desperate last-ditch, hopeful rush on my part to get to, of all places, Hounslow.
At Heathrow I bumped into Nick Faulks, south-west London chess stalwart and Bermudean, and met Kim Chong, one of my Welsh team, in person for the first time. Despite my offering her several chess books, she sensibly decided to invest in sleep. I opted for whisky and coffee, doing some “chess work” (vandalising books with coloured biros) and completing the entertaining The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
The young ladies next to me on the plane, Yasmin Forbes and Daisy Carpenter, are part of the first ever Jersey women’s Olympiad team, powered by the sheer force of their board one, streamer “Lula” Roberts. Among their tens of thousands of mobile photos were their team outfits – sponsored by chess.com, Chessable and a fintech. “Puma pulled out though”, they tell me. Quel dommage! I looked down at my BA-supplied Shirgar Welsh butter and wondered what could have been …
From Yasmin’s dad, Garry Forbes, I learned much about the Jersey chess scene and the attitude of “small nations” (who have their own 10-nation league – apparently Wales want to get in, but are “too big” – maybe lose Anglesey?). The Channel islands, for their size, have always seemed to have properly solid teams, but the likes of Andorra and the Faroe islands are as orcas in a garden pond. Small nations also get representation in the Candidates’ cycle – will we one day see the world title contested by someone who is willing to cross the North Sea for four hours by boat just to play one game? It must certainly breed determination to avoid draws among those Faroe islanders – and a hardiness to weather conditions.
Teenage girls being what they are, the flight wasn’t the quietest, but I was very impressed to see them hack into the airplane’s console and play games against each other while the rest of the plane slept. After a slightly rough landing (you never want to see a member of the cabin crew looking panicked, especially with only her big eyes showing behind a mask), we disdainfully charged past a sea of queueing, plebeian non-chesso travellers, ran the early-morning gauntlet of helpful volunteers and intimidating soldiers, and flopped exhausted on to a coach with Team Eritrea. Cue much bowing and namaste-ing and demanding selfies by airport volunteers.
The sheer levels of manpower and resources being thrown at the 44th Chess Olympiad are astonishing, especially given the rushed bidding process. Yet more astonishing is the number of people wanting selfies with chessplayers, but apparently here we’re all celebrities. The volume of suitcases I’ve brought is worryingly diva-like, but they really are mostly full of chess books.
We left Team Eritrea at a hotel near the airport, and reached our own, halfway to the tournament venue – the Four Points by Sheraton in Mahabalipuram, which is about 30 miles down the coast from Chennai. Supposedly, the strongest teams are closer to – or even at – the venue, England (and, ahem, Jersey) among them. We have been told not to leave our hotel except under armed escort. As I suspected, most of “real India” will have to be seen from the shuttlebus window. Alex Bullen, one of the Welsh team in the Open section, escaped and brought back news of roving packs of dogs on the beach. It’s a real-life Plato’s Cave situation. With us are Uganda, South Korea, Bolivia, Chile, Zimbabwe, Timor Leste and Nick Faulks’ Bermuda. Yes – Bermuda of the famous “Bermuda party”. Oh dear.
Hotels, each filled with special Olympiad staff, are booked out with free accommodation, internet and meals so tasty I will certainly be even larger on my return to the UK. There have been small issues: one of the Welsh team’s luggage has gone walkabout in transit; various rooms have been switched; and I remain technologically incapable. But overall things have been going unexpectedly smoothly (so far!).
Yesterday, the Chennai branch of the Welsh chess lending library opened, and I did some coaching sessions with Kim and Hiya Ray – a gloriously underrated 1600. It resembles the feeling of being dealt a “shiny” in a football card pack. She is going to take some stopping this one.
Past midnight I was still blitzing practice openings with Kim, before demanding she watch a GingerGM video about one of my games (coaches are very powerful). Morning brought a phone call which I nearly died trying to get to from the shower – “Yes I am aware there is breakfast, I went yesterday!” – and another quick coaching session with Hiya.
The Welsh men’s coach, IM Adam Hunt (wow, did they luck out there!) led the willing to the opening ceremony; the unwilling – me and the wasters of the men’s team – were having a rest. The coffee here is pretty strong, and I’ve been living off it for several days. Khushi Bagga, the Welsh women’s No 4, has arrived, and I’m promised my board one, Olivia Smith, from Mumbai soon. Tomorrow the event proper starts and Wales are up against, gulp, India 2, a team playing on home soil and full of titled players. Time for another coffee, I reckon.
A glorious queen sac can be irresistible and fans will always applaud it. But winning the game is even better – a lesson I learned the hard way in this totemic position from early in my playing career
An instructive position! Context later, but what would you, as White, do here? Do you long for the security of exchanged queens? Qxb8, Ne4, Rhe1 or maybe even f4 straightening out the doubled pawns? White is after all a pawn up; the rest, as they always say, should be a matter of technique.
Should White keep the queens on with Qg5, then point everybody at g7? Surely Black’s kingside couldn’t survive the firepower of White’s entire army? Or is this a mirage?
Is Rd6 your choice, preventing the queen exchange with an awkward self-pin? Dominating Black like a sumo wrestler sat on a cat?
Or is there something else – something which makes your heart beat faster, dreaming of glory. A taste of immortality. A portal in time to the great chess romantics of the past. To be included in great tomes of tactics books and legendary sacrifices. A kiss from Caissa herself? Can White play Qxf6?!?!
Let’s split the options into four:
The Dull – f4
The Daring – Qg5
The Dominating – Rd6
The Dramatic – Qxf6
Bet bet bet now! (Obligatory Banzai! music). Betting ends.
Now for some background.
A long time ago, I had started work as a chess teacher. In an effort to test this new-found professionalism, having spent most of my chess life up to this point hacking and worshipping the g5 square, I entered a proper chess tournament (as did future team-mate FM Julian Way). The tournament went bizarrely well. I finished joint fourth with IM Chris Baker in a very strong field. GM Keith Arkell came first, netting the princely first prize of £100.
In round seven I was paired with White against FM (and future GM) Michal Matuszewski, the pre-tournament dark horse. I had been having a strange tournament, scoring my first ever win against an IM, but also suffering in a couple of terrible games. I was very, very nervous, and then shocked to find myself in the above position having played some offbeat nonsense and invested very little time. Here I sank into thought. What to do?
Thanks to my friend and chess history devotee Kevin Henbest, I was thoroughly familiar with the game Nezhmetdinov-Chernikov, surely one of the most beautiful queen sacrifices ever played:
Now, back to my game. Somehow I was a pawn up against an FM, but here I was with a chance to emulate the great SuperNezh himself. My usual calculation was failing me completely; the sacrifice was like a black hole drawing my thoughts away from every other line. Qg5 and Rd6 looked good, then dangerous, then drawish and seemingly dissipating my advantage, then a blur of lines I couldn’t concentrate on because THEY WEREN’T THE GLORIOUS QUEEN SAC!
After attempting to consider the alternatives I returned to stare longingly at Qxf6. I couldn’t see the win, but felt it must be there. Surely only a coward would shy away from such a move? Having taken nearly an hour, I punted.
The game went as follows:
A few months later, proudly showing this game to my friend, FM Thanasis Tsanas, he responded with utter disgust. “You were winning! Why would you play this? Karpov would never play such a move!”
I had been fully expecting praise, maybe even light applause, for my bravery. Yet here was an FM telling me off! Something in me, a crazed romantic, got a lesson that day. Rare and entrancing as a queen sacrifice is, it should not come at the expense of the position. Chess wins are not the result of hit and hope.
What would I do today? Well, older and wiser, I now realise many games between strong players are decided not by tactics or queen exchanges, but by domination – controlling the board and not allowing your opponent’s pieces space to breathe. Rd6 is the key move, and the computer agrees. While the other moves should win with perfect play, Rd6 is the truly brave move – self-pinning, calculating to see that everything is working tactically, and having faith in one’s pieces (and scorn for your opponent’s prospects).