Michael Basman: pioneer, teacher and populariser of chess

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

David Rowson

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

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

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

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

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

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