Published in Kingpin 12 (Spring 1987)
Published in Kingpin 12 (Spring 1987)
By my watch it is now some seven months since Tony Miles died. I was playing with the England team in Leon when the news came through. I remember coming down to breakfast that morning, picking out the usual assorted items from the buffet, going over to where some of the squad were already sitting around a table – the same routine as every other morning. As I joined the others Nigel Short said to me something along the lines of
‘Well, Stuart, of the three of us who played in Ohrid, me and you are the only two still alive.’
I didn’t catch his drift. Then he said,
‘It’s Tony. He’s dead.’
Thwack. A kung-fu shot to the gut. Nuclear fall-out at the back of the throat.
Later, I realised that Peter Wells had also been on that trip to Macedonia, so that we were four Englishmen in Ohrid, not three. We were three now remaining. In Leon there was a short spoken tribute and a minute’s silence before the round. Everyone stood up. I didn’t play that day. I had a side-bet with Joe Gallagher that someone that afternoon would begin with 1…a6 and 2…b5. No one did, but I saw something which looked like 1…Nc6. We were not being frivolous: it was at the same event 21 years earlier that Tony had famously beaten the World Champion with what later became known as the St George, but also, in recognition of Tony’s home town, the Birmingham Defence.
Subsequently I saw the obituaries and read hundreds of tributes posted on the internet. People sent me clippings from the UK press. I chatted with Genna Sosonko to assist with an article for New In Chess. I exchanged bar anecdotes and e-mails with friends and colleagues.
I did not attend Tony’s funeral. I was flying from Spain to Moscow on the following day, and the travel alterations would have been awkward. Many from the chess world came to pay their last respects (including some from abroad, and not only those who played in the 4NCL the next day): Tony would have been surprised and flattered. He also would have fallen into celestial hysterics over a final gag that was considered but, in view of the sad occasion, rejected as being possibly upsetting to mourners not thoroughly au fait with Tony’s marvellously laconic delivery when achieving Grandmaster status 26 years previously. As is well known, upon making his final GM norm in Dubna, 1975, Tony sent the BCF a telegram with the words, ‘A telegram. Tony Miles.’ The symmetric and (unfortunately) unanswerable response to this famous missive was nearly: ‘A wreath. Mickey and Tara.’ Reluctantly (one hopes), they actually wrote something more conventional. As memorable send-offs go, that would have taken first prize in all categories.
Recorded on my computer are twelve games that I played against Tony. The first was in 1981, at a Highbury Quickplay, where I lost on time in a still reasonable position. The next clash was at the ‘City Quickplay’, 1984. I recalled an episode from this encounter to Genna Sosonko for his New In Chess tribute, but unfortunately, speaking from memory, I made a few mistakes. Firstly, I was seventeen already – hence a fairly experienced player. Secondly, although the opening was a Catalan, I did not give an early queen check at a4, as I must have told Sosonko. Instead, in a complicated struggle where Tony had hung on to his extra c4 pawn, I played the move 17 Qa1-a3 and announced ‘Check!’. Tony, who had his king on e7 at this moment, arched his eyebrows, looked genuinely surprised, and pronounced loudly and with supreme courtesy, ‘Oh, is it? Thanks.’
Now, knowing Tony as I later did, I suppose this was some kind of mini-gamesmanship, particularly as I had a dangerous attacking position. It was also, of course, pretty funny. Needless to say, I lost the game.
The remaining ten clashes are all regular time-limit games from serious tournaments. The score reads 4–3 in Tony’s favour, with three draws. All games were hard fought; 410 moves of mutual trickery and slaughter, with almost as many cold beers downed afterwards. The list of countries where we crossed swords is truly impressive: Switzerland, Greece, Malaysia, India, England, Cuba, Egypt, Colombia, Cuba again, and Spain. That’s four continents! Typically, we only played one serious game in the UK, at Hastings in 1995/6. Since we both enjoyed travelling to slightly off-the-map locations (Tony made serious enquiries about participating in the Saddam Open one year. I believe the plan was to bus to Baghdad from Damascus) a more common scenario was that of 1997, when we played in Egypt and Colombia back-to-back in the same month, mainly because no other English GMs expressed an interest. We went to the Pyramids at Giza, and a week later flew by helicopter over Colombian oil-fields. Unfortunately, when I was mugged and robbed by four burly natives of Cartagena de las Indias, ‘big Tone’ had already slung his hook. He made a good bodyguard. With his Aussie leather hat and chunky Mercedes he presented a solid exterior. The anxiety and stress were present, but not always noticeable. He once confessed to me that a kind of nervous tension made him grind his teeth while he slept, and that the doctors could do nothing about it. ‘Have a look,’ he said, suddenly opening his jaws. Inside, like flattened piles of white linen, the tops of his lower teeth were all ground down.
In the last round of the Commonwealth championship in Malaysia in 1992 he overslept, arriving for our game with a huge time deficit. Playing one of his Miles/Colle/London systems a tempo he nevertheless achieved a comfortable advantage, until a blunder somewhere let me escape with a draw.
He was a perennial visitor to the Capablanca memorial in Cuba, and several times won the event. Twice I accompanied him, twice we were the only English, and twice he beat me. We shared evening boat rides across the river in Cienfuegos in quest of local seafood, and idly smoked fat Montecristo cigars in the splendour of the hotel lounge in Varadero. Tony made a point of returning time and again to play in Cuba, despite the zero appearance fee (he had to pay his own travel), and poor prizes. I think he used to argue that as a professional he could ‘treat himself’ to one such event a year (I imagine more out of self-respect than financial arguments) – and his choice invariably fell on Cuba. It will be a different event without him.
We always maintained good, even close relations. In the summer of 1996, when I was selected to take Tony’s place in the English Olympiad squad following one of his ‘mental breakdowns’ in China, he suddenly arrived in London at the venue of a European Club Cup competition, bright and breezy, demanding to be put back in the team, and saying that he had made a full recovery. I remember him coming over to me, bear-like, half-raising an arm as if to grab me by the throat, and then laughing. ‘Don’t worry. It’s not you I want to kill,’ he said. ‘It’s Sedgwick.’ (International Director David Sedgwick was high on Miles’ Most Wanted list, and Tony would on purpose mis-spell that gentleman’s name on mailed correspondence, to see if it still arrived. It did.)
Whatever the truth of Tony’s new condition, the decision was not reversed, and I played (two games!) in Yerevan. Tony, true to style, came along anyway, at his own expense, and found a job as Bermuda captain. He behaved normally, and thus made his point to the BCF. But China had been very serious, and sadly this was not an isolated incident.
Tony lost both his parents suddenly, within a few years of each other. When his father died he would often call me up to have a chat. Part of the reason was that I had spoken to him of my own bereavement when my mother died, not long before. At that time I was playing for Slough, Tony’s team, in the 4NCL. He suggested we play a tournament in Andorra together, and that we travel by car and ferry to Spain, sharing expenses. He took his Mercedes, and we shared a cabin on the P&O service between Portsmouth and Bilbao. As I told Genna Sosonko, who included it in his New In Chess piece, Tony snored so loudly that I had to get up in the night and seek refuge in the bar. What Sosonko omits is that it was there that I met my girlfriend, Veronica. She joined us the next morning for the trip to Andorra (Tony, unsurprisingly, had no objection to a blonde on the back seat), and – although he did unchivalrously maintain her in the mountains for half the event – she did resurface and rejoin me later in the tournament, and for everything since then too. So, thanks to Tony’s elephantine snoring, Veronica and I met. In a way, we feel we have his blessing. He used to call us now and again, and once when he was driving through Spain he meant to pay us a visit, but somehow the road wouldn’t let him. The longest road, chess, never let him.
The last time I properly saw and spoke to Tony was in Ohrid, Macedonia, in the summer of 2001. He seemed well, and in good humour. He wore a T-shirt advertising a bar in San Jose, Costa Rica (I think): the slogan said, ‘Liquor in the front, poker in the rear.’ (An absolute gem, which passed us all by at first.) He had the room next to mine, and would often knock on my door to say he was going down to lunch, or popping into town to visit the internet café. Sometimes we would meet in the village in the evening and have a drink. He asked me, ‘Will you be at the British this year?’ When I answered negative, he said, ‘Oh. It’s just that I’ve decided to win it. You could try to be second.’ And when I eventually held the draw with Belyavsky in the last round to qualify for Moscow, Tony was one of the first to congratulate me. Ironically he had lost to Nigel Short in the last round. He would not play many more tournament games: he came first equal in an Open in Canada, then (despite serious preparation) a poor British Championship, even withdrawing in the last round, and a 4NCL weekend.
Reading all those appreciations and tributes after his death, the obituaries and press columns, the magazine articles, I didn’t feel I had anything much to add. The biographical details, the career signposts, everything was already out there. Now, with more distance, the initial shock over, I feel it more natural to take the time to say something. Because I liked him? Yes, but also because I identified with him. And because, I suppose, he would have done the same for me.
As it happens, I have already written about his character in a rather juvenile two-act play based loosely on events in a Kuala Lumpur hotel one evening in 1992, when everyone got drunk and Joe Gallagher and I decided to go to Borneo. Tony chose not to join us, and his character becomes a headhunter in the following chapter. Tony would sometimes gently enquire if my book of short stories was ever going to be published: he was probably preparing a lawsuit.
On the same note, I had such a memorable time with Tony in Cuba, 1996, that I was inspired to pen an epic poem on the subject, also, of course, unpublished. Tony doesn’t feature, but his hat does. (‘I wore my trusty hat/Antipodean, that/is made from a wombat.’)
I saw on the web a photo of the 4NCL tribute after Tony’s death: it included a chessboard with the moves 1 e4 a6 2 d4 b5 added. I was somehow angered by this: is that one game more valuable than all the others that Tony played that began from the initial position? As Bronstein says in a recent New In Chess interview: ‘I’m more than 12–12 and Zurich 1953.’
In Reykjavik we went to the cinema with two girls to see Titanic. I was doing a spot of match-making, and Tony received visits and phone-calls from one of the girls at his hotel, even though he hadn’t told her where he was staying. He wasn’t too upset though.
Once, in Colombia, before a game, Tony told me that my opponent was, in his opinion, particularly vulnerable against 1 e4. I did some preparation, played 1 d4, and won convincingly. ‘I see you took my advice,’ he said after the game, smiling.
In Crete, during the 1992 Heraklion Open, the organisers provided free rental cars for players: I ended up sharing with Tony, as well as Russian GM Palatnik. Tony usually drove us to the venue, but one day Palatnik asked if he could drive instead.
‘You drive?’ asked Tony.
‘I drive in Russia,’ said Palatnik.
We climbed in. There followed what can only be described as a white-knuckle virtual reality dodgem ride – Palatnik missed vehicles and pedestrians by inches, observed no laws of the road, refused to use his mirrors, and was not averse to changing lanes suddenly on blind bends. By a succession of miracles we arrived unscathed.
‘I thought you said you drove in Russia,’ said Tony, disbelievingly.
Palatnik, nonchalant and thoroughly unconcerned, nodded, and said drily,
‘I drive tank in Soviet Army.’
Laugh? We nearly died.
Despite great off-the-board comradeship we never had a peaceful, pre-arranged draw – it was somehow accepted by both parties that a gentlemanly fight was the order of the day. The games I won were messy, tactical, with time scrambles; the games he won were controlled and even. On my first visit to Cuba he played 3 exd5 in the French and just outplayed me. Over the years I learned that if he offered a draw in the late middlegame it generally meant I had a decisive advantage. His nose-blowing, coughing, j’adoubing routine did not bother me at all. On the contrary, the more he fidgeted the better I assumed my position. What did disturb me was when I would play a complex-looking move and he would calmly – after barely a few seconds’ thought – write down (covered by the ubiquitous gold watch) his reply. That really scared me.
I think it was in Macedonia that I said to him, à propos of a conversation on music, that my favourite band of all time (barring The Beatles: they don’t count) came from his home town, Birmingham. He only needed one guess: ‘The Electric Light Orchestra?’ And not because of ELO ratings, either.
These verses, from a song called ‘Birmingham Blues‘ (a track from the Out Of The Blue album), now seem strangely poignant: the lyrics even include a pun (unintended) on Tony’s surname:Been across the ocean
Thanks, Tony. See you around.
First published in Kingpin 35 (Summer 2002)
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Adrian Harvey reviews
The average life expectancy for males in the nineteenth century was forty-six.1 What is striking about this selection of major figures in Victorian chess is the very long lives they enjoyed. With the exception of Zukertort, whose lifespan was average for chess players of the time, the ten men sketched by Harding reached an unusually ripe age, living into their sixties and occasionally (Blackburne) into their eighties. But what sort of lives did they lead? Harding’s fascinating text provides a great insight into their careers and times. This review focuses on players who made a living from chess, and eight of the ten could be described as professionals. However, let’s start with the two exceptions, William Evans and Arthur Skipworth.
William Evans (1790-1872) was a strong player, though not a master, whose ‘fame rests on two great achievements: one in his professional life, the other an innovation that rightly bears his name, Captain Evans gambit, the greatest chess discovery of the present age’ (George Walker quoted on p.9). Since its debut circa 1825 the gambit attracted great attention and is still used by masters at the highest level. Evans’ achievement in the wider world stemmed from his work on improving navigation, particularly the use of a system of green, red and white lights for maritime safety at night. Evans earned his living as a ship’s captain and was rewarded for his invention. Chess played no part in his commercial life. The gambit he pioneered brought him fame rather than wealth and secured his place in the pantheon of chess luminaries.
By contrast, Arthur Skipworth (1830-1898) contributed nothing to chess theory. Although he competed in many tournaments he was noted less for winning them than for withdrawing from them when he’d lost hope of finishing in a respectable position. Skipworth served as a Church of England clergyman in various parishes in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, notably Tetford. One suspects that it was more of a chore than a vocation. His true love was chess, where he attracted attention as both writer and administrator. He wrote a number of chess columns, edited and The Chess Players’ Quarterly Chronicle and organised the Counties Chess Association (CCA). Essentially a provincial body generally hostile towards professional players, the CCA staged numerous tournaments in Britain. Skipworth protected it jealously and opposed any organisations he regarded as likely to interfere with it, notably the short-lived British Chess Association (p.152). Unfortunately Skipworth, ‘a dictator both in Tetford affairs and the CCA’ according to Harding, was prone to venting his dark side in his chess columns.
Harding suggests that Skipworth had a romantic relationship with Louise Rogers, who along with her husband was sharing the house in which Skipworth died (pp.155-8). While it is strange that Skipworth left everything to her in his will, I think it more likely, given that he was such a disagreeable man, that his principal motivation was vengeance on his wife from whom he had long since separated. Naturally this is just speculation but it seems to accord with the sort of person Skipworth had shown himself to be. His will reeks of revenge, for neither did he leave anything to his sons, his sole flesh and blood.
Most of the other subjects in the book could be described as professionals: Staunton (1810-1874), Löwenthal (1810?-1876), Steinitz (1836-1900), Zukertort (1842-1888), Bird (1829-1908), Burn (1848-1925), Gunsberg (1854-1930) and Blackburne (1841-1924). They depended on journalism for much of their income and some used their pens to take swipes at one another in columns dripping with venom. As a historian I must confess to enjoying these outpourings of invective because they shine a light on material that might otherwise have remained in the shadows. Howard Staunton, the first great Victorian chess player, established the template for such journalism.
Staunton was poor, talented and very conscious of his position in the world. He used his chess column to settle scores and he became embroiled in numerous disputes. A characteristic example can be found in the Illustrated London News of 26 June 1858 where he replied to a claim in Leslie’s American Illustrated Newspaper that Morphy was the better player:
‘as an attempt is made upon the strength of it to institute an unfair comparison between two eminent players – Mr S has won a considerable majority of the games, both when giving a knight and when yielding a rook also’.
Acutely mindful of his standing, Staunton would scrutinise the press ferociously for any mention of his name. I therefore find it difficult to accept Harding’s claim that Staunton did not lose a match 6-0 to Zytogorski, as was reported at the time. If the report had been false Staunton would surely have said so in print. In similar fashion, Harding claims that Staunton could not find the time to play Morphy (p.67). While this is possible, one should not underestimate how vain Staunton was. As far as he was concerned he was undefeated and it was simply a case of his making the time to beat Morphy!
From the 1860s, Staunton, the first goliath of Victorian chess, was succeeded by Steinitz, who like his predecessor ran several chess columns and went on to edit his own journal, The International Chess Magazine. Like Staunton, Steinitz used his chess columns to pursue feuds, notably with rival columnist Hoffer. Harding provides an excellent account of these battles and the numerous highs and lows in Steinitz’s career.
While his examination of Steinitz is usually very thorough, Harding’s treatment of what is arguably Steinitz’s most significant contribution to chess, the modern school of chess theory, is speculative. Steinitz always clearly stated his substantial debt to ideas pioneered by Paulsen (International Chess Magazine v 1889 133). Harding, however, suggests that The Philosophy of Chess, a book by William Cluley (1808?-1858), greatly influenced Steinitz (pp.201, 369). Cluley was a very minor player. His only known game against a strong master is a loss to Löwenthal in a simultaneous display where he received knight odds (Era, 2 July 1854). Cluley’s book appeared long before Steinitz ever visited Britain and Harding cites no evidence that Steinitz ever read it. The book’s contention ‘that there is no advantage in having the first move’ (Cluley, p.94) bears witness to its slightness and superficiality. In view of all this I reject Harding’s contention that The Philosophy of Chess exerted any influence on the chess theory Steinitz devised.
With the important exception of Blackburne, the vast majority of professionals depended on journalism for much of their livelihood. Gunsberg, for instance, was a prolific columnist. However, journalism was not their sole source of income. Staunton and Bird wrote books; Staunton and Löwenthal performed administrative roles within chess clubs and associations. Chess often supplemented their main occupation. Henry Bird was an accountant and Amos Burn a businessman. The only professional who earned most of his living from playing chess was Blackburne, who devoted much of his energy to giving exhibitions and competing in tournaments and matches.
Although chess players enjoyed comparatively long lives, were they financially comfortable? The easy answer to this is probably ‘not very’. But in this they were no different to the majority of the population who were not chess players. Except for Amos Burn, whose business left him comparatively well off, all the players we have designated as professionals relied on donations to relieve a straitened old age (pp.263-4). It was rare for them to bequeath much and some, such as Gunsberg, died bankrupt (pp.310-11). Only one, Zukertort, seems to have died destitute (p.256), but he was unusual since he was a drug addict. Harding suggests that Zukertort’s period of absence in 1879 in Dublin might have stemmed from a romantic relationship (pp.240, 256-8). Naturally it is very hard to evaluate such conjecture and it is quite possible that the reason was his dependency on laudanum.
Harding has produced an excellent book that will be of immense assistance to scholars for a long time. Thorough research has created this richly footnoted text that is a delight to read. Generously illustrated and packed with source material, including copies of wills, letters and such like, the book also contains entertaining annotated games. There are remarkably few errors. The only one I noticed was on p.84 where the name Cochrane appears instead of the correct Löwenthal. The book is written in an accessible style that is likely to appeal to the general reader and Harding must be commended for producing such an appealing work.
Eminent Victorian Chess Players: Ten biographies
Tim HardingJefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2012 406 pages paperback, 61 photos $49.95
1. D.Butler & A. Sloman British Political Facts 1800-1979 (London, 1980) p.295.
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How well I remember Steinitz!–short, squat, and stout, with thick red hair and beard, rejoicing in a nose unusually small for one of the Semitic race. He smoked and sipped claret and water, or gin and water–scrupulously iced notwithstanding the coldness of the weather–all the time he played. He rarely rose from his seat during a game, in this respect being a contrast to most of the other players, and especially to Zukertort, whose excitable nature induced him to walk about and follow more or less all the other games in progress in addition to his own. He thought out his moves with his arms folded on the table before him, and did not stroke his beard or twirl his moustache. Nor is there any failure in my memory of Zukertort, whose figure was the very opposite to that of Steinitz. He was short and thin, with a brown beard, over which, while thinking, his fingers were perpetually moving; the nervous twitch that he gave his head was peculiar to himself; his countenance indicated great intelligence and determination.
Tchigorin and Noa was young and sallow, with black beards. Rosenthal, the French champion, and Winawer, from Poland, were seedy-looking little men. Mackenzie was a fine, manly fellow who would have been distinguished in almost any company. Sellman was stone deaf. I recall how Zukertort once confided to me that dominoes was the game at which he really played best, and not chess; that he considered himself to be the best player in the world at dominoes, and that Rosenthal came next; and also how Bird assured me that the quality of chess play was steadily improving, and that he himself played a far stronger game than he had done when he met Morphy twenty-five years before.
Sir Henry Cotton, K.C.S.I, Indian & Home Memories (London, 1911)
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Hello. Can you help?
My 14-year-old son’s looking for a web-site where he can spend some spare time each day posting about chess games. He wants a forum which is free and not at all stuffy and where he can say whatever he reckons about anything going on in the chess world without giving his name. He’s got loads of opinions to share, about masters’ playing styles, opening repertoires, their choices of tournament, physical appearance and all that sort of thing and he’d also be good at copying in stuff he’s seen at other sites (though not books, as he’s got none).
He’s a friendly lad, and it would be first names all the way. He’d use the forum to address direct any masters who’ve just had a big tournament win or are gravely ill. He’d have plenty of elementary questions for the odd expert with time on his hands, as he wants to feel part of a community, however insignificant. He could post tons of chess quotes off the top of his head. Off the Internet recently he got a list of dates of birth and death of all the masters, so he could get in fast each day to wish anyone from Philidor onwards a “Happy Birthday” or put “R.I.P.”.
He’d also get things moving by hunting down any empty comment pages and posting “First!”.
He’d be great at provoking debate, with comments like “Magnus would have slaughtered Tigran” or “Tigran would have slaughtered Magnus”. He’s got attitude and would be in his element in scraps over who’s being ignored or unignored or who’s a troll or who’s got duplicate accounts. His spelling and grammar are a bit shaky, so it should be a site where such things don’t matter.
If there are quiz positions he’d join in enthusiastically. Even if ten people had already pointed out the mate in two, he’d give it in a post of his own, letting everyone know how fast he’d solved it, with or without a computer. And he’s got a great sense of humour. Just the other day he saw a short game won by some old German player called Post. Quick as a flash he shouted out “Post haste!!!”. My wife and I were in stitches over that one. Then he brought the house down by adding “Last Post”!!!! It took him less than 15 minutes to jot down dozens more, like puns on Euwe/you. The one I particularly loved was “A Tal story”!!!!!
There must be a free chess site somewhere out there that would be ideal for contributions like that. Am I alone in not knowing?
(Name and address withheld)
A big family too – one that’s grown from 60 member countries in 1970 to 158 in 2012. Its vast bawling brood of small and poor satellites has made FIDE the world’s second largest sports body after FIFA.
Membership and birth rate aren’t the only FIDE circuits now wired into the developing world. Its ‘democracy’ is a travesty and its elections are bought. Corruption is the default setting when one-country-one-vote means an atoll declaring independence will be welcomed into FIDE before the tide’s gone out and with the same voting rights as the US and China.
The last honest FIDE president, Iceland’s Fridrik Olafsson, was ousted by a block buy-up of the developing-world vote in 1982. Florencio Campomanes had learned two things from his friendship with the Philippines’ brutal president, Ferdinand Marcos: how to get to the top by rigging an election, and how to stay there by rigging a few more. Campomanes’s successor in 1995, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was already leader of the Russian republic of Kalmykia. For chess it was president squared, bad governance cubed.
As well as a liking for referring to themselves as ‘families’ (Mario Puzo’s come to mind), FIFA and FIDE share a low turnover of chief office holders. FIFA has had two presidents in the past 38 years, FIDE two in 30. Seven presidents have served the International Olympic Committee in its 116-year history. The stale reek of inertia clings to all these bodies. All have been beset by scandal. No one would try to call a Fantasy Corruption Play-Off between Sepp Blatter, the late Juan Antonio Samaranch and Ilyumzhinov.
But what of FIDE’s eccentric Godfather? It would be easy to sneer loftily at Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, his bizarre theories, his abduction by aliens, the murky multimillion dollar deals, the courting of international pariahs and murder of political opponents, so let’s. Since his ‘election’ in 1995 Ilyumzhinov, shameless narcissist that he is, has used the FIDE presidency mainly for self-aggrandisement, assisted by a sinister retinue of goons. He proudly claims that chess has ‘helped raise the image of Kalmykia’, the impoverished Borat republic of which he was president until 2010. But what has he achieved for FIDE, or for chess?
Kirsan’s supporters say that he has invested much of his own wealth in the world championship and other elite events. But where Ilyumzhinov’s spending ends and where Kalmykia’s begins has been bitterly debated. He ploughed $100m into ‘City Chess’, his black-and-white-elephant theme park, and lavished $50m on a Buddhist temple in Elista. The money might have been better spent restoring the city’s only children’s hospital, in disrepair and lacking essential medicine and equipment, or building the airport he’s been promising the region for years. Of all the Russian states Kalmykia is the second poorest, after Ingushetia, and has one of the highest unemployment rates (12%). Should anyone with such a wayward sense of priorities be presiding over an international organisation let alone running a country? Ilyumzhinov has put money into chess but has also extracted a lot from it, the most recent example being the eye-watering charges extorted from member federations at this year’s Olympiad.
FIDE is a toxic brand. Under Kirsan it has become, to quote Nigel Short, ‘a cowboy organisation mired in sleaze and shunned by corporate sponsors’. Repellent to investors, FIDE has been forced to sell its rights to organise the world championship cycle to a maverick entrepreneur convinced that chess will become the next great spectator sport. ‘If I had a plastic chess set each time Ilyumzhinov said he had a commercial sponsor or a great deal for chess,’ says Malcolm Pein, ‘I could teach the world to play.’ It could be argued that individuals like Pein and Kasparov, with established reputations within the game, have done more than FIDE through their charitable work to popularise chess and advocate its educational value. What has FIDE done apart from making chess compulsory in Kalmyk schools and bunging tinpot backwaters a few vote-winning initiatives?
Ilyumzhinov lost the confidence of the world’s elite players long ago. He’s mismanaged the world championship, played fast and loose with time controls, schedules and venues, introduced unpopular and barmy rules like the zero tolerance default time, and repeatedly broken promises and contracts.
Is FIDE in urgent need of reform? The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) thinks so. As a result of legal action Karpov took over the fraudulent presidential elections in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2010, CAS has compelled FIDE to rewrite its rules governing elections. That FIDE needs further reform is incontestable. The real question is, is this dysfunctional family capable of reforming itself? Not under its current head. No president should be allowed to serve more than two successive terms in office. Will FIDE ever become properly democratic? Unlikely, because the smaller countries are never going to disenfranchise themselves.
A version of this post appears in the November 2012 issue of CHESS in answer to the question ‘Is FIDE in Urgent Need of Reform?’ With thanks to Sam Aldridge for his comments.
by Frank Brady
402 pages, hardback
Crown Publishers, 2011
Belgrade, 30 October 1959
Mikhail Tal has won the Candidates’ Tournament. After the closing ceremony he invites fellow participants to a little party. The old rivalries are forgotten and everyone is in a celebratory mood.
Alexander Koblenz, Tal’s trainer, recalls the occasion:
As I looked at Misha’s happy face, I couldn’t help recalling his father . . . I thought of how happy he would have been had he lived to see this day. And since I was the toastmaster, I proposed a toast to our fathers! It seemed an innocent enough toast, but you should have seen Fischer’s reaction!
His eyes filled with tears, and he immediately let the party. How was I to know then that this gifted youth’s often aggressive behaviour was the result of a deep personal tragedy? Only years later, when reading an interview he had given in the early 70s, did I understand why Fischer had been upset on the occasion and had left.
‘My father left my mother when I was two years old, I have never seen him. My mother only told me that his name was Gerhardt and that he was of German descent. Children who grow up without a parent become wolves.’1
Some wounds never heal. Bobby’s mind was scarred by a sense of being deserted and rejected by his father. But not all children from broken homes become wolves. Both Botvinnik and Spassky shared a similar background but did not develop this kind of personal aggression. Bobby did find childhood father figures in Carmine Nigro and Jack Collins, but the first association was brief and the second turned sour over the years. Brady, however, maintains that Bobby didn’t regard Collins as a father figure.
To return to the interview, it is significant for another reason. Bobby mentions that his father was German but does not say that he was Jewish. He was not obsessed with his own roots then. The world saw two Fischers, one in 1972 and the other in 1992. There is little to suggest that Bobby was a serious anti-Semite before 1972. He became one only later and the Worldwide Church of God had nothing to do with it. He turned to anti-Semitism only after he left the church and began reading anti-Jewish tracts.
Something Brady does not mention is why he fell out with Fischer. After all, he had a long and close friendship with him and his book Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy resulted from it. Their relationship cooled because Bobby objected to Brady mentioning his Jewish roots.
One question has always troubled Fischer fans. For him chess was life itself, so how could he have lived without it for so long? This book provides the answer. Chess had ceased to be the ruling passion of his life. What he sought was a hate object and he found it in anti-Semitism. He was a self-hating Jew who desperately wanted to purge himself of his Jewishness and preach the gospel of hate to others. I take issue with Brady’s claim that Fischer’s proselytizing zeal was similar to his mother’s, because she fought for idealistic causes whereas Bobby didn’t.
One problem I have with this book is Brady’s descriptions of Bobby’s rivals, which tend to be superficial and stereotyped. He doesn’t seem to understand their motivations. He makes much of Bobby’s feeling disturbed by Tal’s staring antics during play, but although young Misha liked to tease there was never any malice in it. It hurt the sensitive American but Fischer’s resentment of Tal lay in his bad score against him (0-4). The two later became friends.
Similarly Brady suggests that Geller insulted Bobby by offering a draw during the 1970 Interzonal in Palma de Mallorca. Not exactly. It’s true that there was no love lost between them. The burly grandmaster from Odessa exuded confidence, nay, arrogance whenever he played Fischer. Geller had won three consecutive games against him, so Fischer had a score to settle. When they met in round 12 they were joint leaders. When Fischer chose a quiet line with Black, Geller thought a half point would suit the American so offered a truce on move 7(!). Fischer’s first reaction was to laugh. Geller too began to laugh, believing he was doing his opponent a favour. Suddenly Fischer stopped laughing, leaned forward and said, ‘Too early.’ Geller turned puce and soon blundered a pawn.
Although the game lasted 72 moves, the outcome was never in doubt. Geller played like a beaten man. Bobby won the Interzonal with 18½ points out of 23, 3½ points ahead of stalwarts like Larsen, Geller and Taimanov. His only loss was to Larsen who came second.
That brings me to an interesting point. Bobby’s final ascent began with his victory over Petrosian in the Match of the Century. This was followed by his 6-0 wins against Taimanov and Larsen in the Candidates’ Matches 1971 and the victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship. He dominated the international scene only during this period (1970–1972) and a large part of his career was marked by withdrawal and absence. Much has been said about his demands of organisers which have been described as selfish, unreasonable and unrealistic. Rightly so in quite a few cases, but an interview in Brady’s book puts them into perspective:
Q: Fischer threw epic tantrums at his 1972 championship match with Boris Spassky — over lighting, chess sets, orange juice, audience noise. Were his antics a ploy?
Brady: I don’t think so. Bobby looked upon chess as a great art. When he played, he was like Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall. He wanted silence, respect, proper lighting; he didn’t want people with candy wrappers in the audience.
There are factual errors, inadvertent or otherwise.2
Bondarevesky was not Tal’s trainer. Koblenz was. Benko was not a Hungarian freedom fighter. He was essentially apolitical and was needlessly hounded out by the Communist regime from which he sought freedom by moving to the USA. It’s also suggested that Reshevsky was the only US grandmaster in 1954, but what of Reuben Fine and Isaac Kashdan?
Fine was of course a legendary figure who shared first place with Paul Keres in AVRO 1938 International tournament ahead of Botvinnik, Euwe, Alekhine and Capablanca.
Kashdan led the chess renaissance in the USA in 1930s and represented his country in five chess Olympiads winning a record total of nine medals.
There is also an occasional element of hyperbole. When describing the Soviet chess phenomenon he writes that more than seven hundred thousand players registered for one tournament. Really? That’s the population of a whole city!
One little omission is an account of Viswanathan Anand’s meeting with Bobby, a singular encounter he describes in an interview with Der Spiegel:
But the major limitation of the book is that there are no games. It’s like reading the life of Mozart without the music scores. I think at least a few games could have been included. Two famous encounters against the Byrne brothers, if nothing else:3
But we shouldn’t be too harsh on the author of a book that is already 400 pages long. Its main virtue is that it fills the gap of those missing years 1972–2008. You do come to know what Bobby felt and did. What is particularly admirable is Brady’s evenhandedness in describing Fischer’s relationships with others, especially the women in his life. At times there is real pathos.
Zita Rajcsanyi met him in Los Angeles in 1992. This was before the infamous Fischer–Spassky Return Match.4 At that time he was practically penniless. When Bobby sheepishly showed her his room she couldn’t believe the way he lived. Barely thirty-five square feet, his living space comprised a small bathroom and a single bed. ‘He was ashamed of his poverty’, she later recalled. Books, boxes and tapes were piled high. The content of the tapes? According to Zita, they contained Bobby’s conspiracy theories. He told her he was planning to write a book proving how the Soviet players cheated at chess and that he’d recorded his thoughts on the matter.
In the end his efforts to woo the much younger Zita failed. Bobby fared better with Marilyn Young, a young Filipina woman. He is said to have sired her child, Jinky, but Brady has his doubts. Although an Icelandic court dismissed the paternity claim, we may not have heard the last of this story.
Last but not least is Miyoko Watai, a Japanese chess fan whom Bobby met in 1970s. Decades later she was to play a major role in his release from incarceration in Tokyo. She was devoted to him, married him and has been formally confirmed his widow. So why did she not accompany Fischer to Iceland and live with him? Her personal and professional commitments seem to have got in the way. Nevertheless, she and Bobby were in constant touch by e-mail and telephone. She came to Reykjavik as much as her job working for a pharmaceutical company and editing a chess journal allowed. There was always hope that some day they would settle down together.
Each of these relationships left a positive mark on Bobby and soothed his restless spirit. The last period of his life spent in Iceland was his most contented. This little land offered him peace and rest. I was particularly enchanted by his visits to the bookstore and long walks in the countryside. He would have lived peacefully but his turbulent life had already taken its toll on his health and he could not be saved. He was moved by what his devoted friends did for him and those last words still linger in the memory.
‘Nothing soothes more than the human touch.’
Rest in peace.5
‘The book Endgame by Frank Brady (New York, 2011) thanks us for assistance but should not. On 1 December 2010, the day after receiving an “uncorrected proof’”of the book from Dr Brady, we spontaneously sent him a list (several pages long) of errors noted during our quick skim of the work. He at once forwarded our list to the publisher, but it proved too late for the corrections to be incorporated. However, the publisher did mistakenly add the acknowledgement to us which Dr. Brady had also submitted.’
(Chess Notes No. 6929)
I have a foreign name. Not foreign to me, of course, nor to most people reading. But it is foreign in the country where I live. Foreign in origin and foreign in construction. The first name starts with a sound their language does not know, the last with a letter they would not normally pronounce. Not just a foreigner’s name, but foreign in itself. So, when asked to say it, or to write it – they struggle.
Of course they do. Everybody struggles with a foreign language. But they try, and that is all that can be asked of them. They try, because it’s common courtesy to try. It’s a simple measure of normal human respect for one another. You try and get people’s names right. You try to get basic information right. Because it’s not so hard to try. And it follows from this, that when people don’t try, when they don’t make that minimum of effort, there is an absence of respect. An absence of effort demonstrates an absence of regard. If they can’t be bothered, it’s because they can’t be bothered with you. You’re not worth it.
How you are represented tells you what you are worth: tells you what you are. Are you worth a minimum of respect, the minimum that’s normal – or are you worth less even than that? Chessplayers find ourselves, perhaps more than is good for us, exercised by questions of representation. The failure to get basic facts right, the failure to care whether or not that matters. The first thing we look for is the light square in the right-hand corner: as often as not, we fail to find it there. It may seem trivial to other people, but those same people would never miss the arc off the penalty area, the bails off the wicket, the tramlines off the court. It’s just as easy to get the chessboard right – but they don’t. It matters less to get it right. It often matters not at all to get basic information right. Chess facts are not facts that need to be respected.
It’s not the information itself that matters, not so much. Nor, even, the failure to get it right. It’s the persistent, endemic failure to get it right. It matters that people simply can’t be bothered to get it right. It doesn’t really matter if somebody can’t pronounce my name, or if they spell it wrong. The name remains the same regardless. It only really matters if they can’t be bothered. And normally, with chess, people can’t. Media people can’t. Why should they? We’re an out-group. We’re people who do not merit that minimum level of respect. We’re only chess.
Not all that long ago (at least, it was after Kingpin last came out) Bloomsbury published Ronan Bennett’s novel, Zugzwang. Not, to be honest, a novel I much liked, but an important event for the publisher, seeing as the book was serialised in the Guardian. Not so important, though, that they could be bothered to get basic details right. They got the corner squares right – but much more than that proved beyond them. It shouldn’t have. It wouldn’t have, had it mattered to them to get it right. But it wasn’t worth it.
During the course of the novel a game is played between the narrator, St Petersburg psychiatrist Otto Spethmann, and his friend, the pianist Reuven Kopelzon. (The moves were in fact – as is revealed at the novel’s end – played by Danny King, Bennett’s colleague on the Guardian, and Andrei Sokolov.) After Sokolov/Kopelzon’s 46th move, we are presented, on page 266, with the following diagram. It is captioned:
After 46…Qc7. Can Spethmann win the all-important f-pawn?
Yes he can, you may think. Though you may also think that this is a little easier, what with the black queen actually being on c5, than it would be if it were on the c7 square it has apparently just moved to. Still, let it pass, you may additionally think. Presumably the position is before 46…Qc7, not after? If that were the error it would be unfortunate, but not so important. You’d still know what the position was after Black’s 46th. But you don’t – because it’s nothing to do with move 46. On his 46th move – you can find the game in a database – White played his king to g8. His queen was standing on g5. Move 46 simply doesn’t come into it. (The diagram position is, in fact, that after White’s 44 Qg7.)
This might not be obvious to a copy-editor, assuming that they had no knowledge of the game, or its notation. Though, if they had no idea what that notation meant, all they had to do was ask somebody who did. Like the author, perhaps. Or somebody. Anybody. But, obviously, they didn’t.
Then there is the error in the diagram on page 196, one Kingpin readers may spot in less time than it takes to solve a puzzle in the Times.
The caption says:
After 44…Ke7, Kopelzon says it’s a draw.
The position is a few things, but none of them is a draw. It is, depending on who is to play, either won for Black (White having just made a move neither King nor Spethmann would ever have played) or, if White is to play, illegal.
Kopelzon/Sokolov did indeed play 44…Ke7. But this time the position isn’t even from a different point in the game: it never occurred at all. The closest equivalent position is that obtaining not after Black’s 44th move but his 42nd: at which point, all the pieces save the black king matched the locations in the diagram, but Black played his king, not to the impossible e7 square, but to e8.
Does this matter? Of course it matters. It partly matters because it’s an insult to the reader and their intelligence, if he or she has even a basic knowledge of the game of chess. (And if chess doesn’t matter, why publish a book around which it revolves?) But it also matters because if the reader is not a chessplayer, or if they know only the very basics, they are simply going to be misled. They will think they are confused – when in fact, it is the diagrams that are confused.
These simple errors were first (I believe) mentioned in print by Stephen Poole in his review of the novel in the Guardian.1 Mr Poole might agree that they would be obvious to anyone who plays the game. They might be obvious to anyone who knows no more of chess than its system of notation – a situation perhaps comparable to knowing no more Russian than the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Let us take that comparison a little farther. Occasionally an English-language book may need to reproduce a Russian word in the script in which it normally appears. Now surely not everybody in an English-language publisher can be expected to know Russian (any more than they can be expected to know chess, or its notation). So they might not know, on sight, if it had been properly rendered. But that is the point, is it not? Because they didn’t know, they’d have to think about how to address that problem. Or whether to address it. So – if they were asked to print something in Russian and didn’t know for sure whether or not they had got it right, would they, do you think:
(a) take a punt and hope for the best? or
(b) do their best to find out?
I suppose it would depend how much they thought it mattered. But I think they would try and get the Russian right. I also think that if they inserted a map, or a photograph, or a diagram, into almost any other book, they would try and ensure these things were labelled right. I think they would try and ensure these things communicated the information they were claimed to communicate. But when it came to a couple of chess positions, they didn’t bother. These diagrams didn’t have the same significance. Naturally they didn’t. Because it’s only chess.
The errors didn’t stop there, by the way:2 here is a diagram from page 261 (the second of two on that page) depicting the final position. The caption is:
After 52.Kg7. Black is in zugzwang. Whatever Kopelzon does, he will lose the f7-pawn, and with it the game.
Black is in zugzwang. Really? Is he? In what way is Black in zugzwang? It is his move, but in what way is that connected to his inability to save the pawn on f7? A pawn which he is not adequately defending and which he could not adequately defend even if he had the right to pick up his king and plonk it down on any square he felt like.
Is Black losing because it is his turn to move? Plainly he is not. Plainly not only is the f7 pawn falling as per the paragraph above, but if it were his turn to move, White could also win without difficulty by, for instance, taking the pawn on d6. Or by exchanging queens. White is winning all right, whoever is to move. But zugzwang has nothing to do with it.
In this instance, though, my inclination is to absolve the publisher of any error. There is a limit to how much they can be expected to know and while diagrams are one thing, concepts are another. Some things they are entitled to take on trust from the author. Assuming it was the author who wrote the caption.
Assuming it was the author, this raises a question. How can it be that Ronan Bennett – in a novel entitled Zugzwang, which opens with a definition of that concept and which in its plot hopes to demonstrate its meaning – actually doesn’t seem to understand what it means? How is it that he thinks it is present in a position where it’s not? Why the failure of understanding? Was the failure of understanding purely his own? Or was he badly advised?
Well, it is only chess, which, when I was rather younger, used to feature heavily on the BBC, which, when I was rather younger, used to consist of two television channels and some radio stations. There used to be The Master Game. There used to be television programmes following the world championship. There even used to be television programmes about the Kasparov–Short match. But nowadays when I think of the BBC – and it probably helps in this regard to live abroad – I think of their website, one which I’ve seen described, not rhetorically and not unreasonably, as the best in the world. In particular I think of its news coverage, which I check daily and which is comprehensive in every regard. Every regard, except chess. Which is invisible.
I can follow nearly everything else. I can follow non-league football in the minutest detail. I can follow3 netball, squash or bowls. I can even sometimes follow chessboxing,4 should I wish to, which I do not. But I cannot follow chess. It is not there. Even when the world championship takes place, it is not there.
The Anand–Kramnik match went unmentioned on the site until it was all over.5 During the match, there was nothing. Before the match, there was nothing. No television programmes – that I can understand. But there was nothing. Not even the smallest of stories in the smallest of corners, nowhere, even in the most extensive news source in the world. If Jean Baudrillard thought the Gulf War did not take place, he wanted to try locating the world chess championship. He’d have had more chance of meeting a man who wasn’t there.
This time I saw it coming. The same thing happened in 2007, when Anand won the tournament in Mexico City.6 It was mentioned – but only after it had finished. And not even the same day it had finished, at that. I noticed that – and I remembered that. So, forewarned, if not forearmed with anything effective, I wrote to the BBC, once the match had actually started and still nothing had appeared, once I was sure they were going to do the same again.
I wasn’t expecting anything to change, so I wasn’t too disappointed (let alone surprised) when it didn’t, when the first mention of the match again came after its end. There was something odd, though, something that hadn’t really attracted my attention in 2007. When that first, rather-too-late report appeared, it was located not in Sport – which God or British attitudes to chess forbid – but in News. Specifically, the part of News which is devoted to South Asia.
That makes the paucity of coverage particularly strange. Because if chess, in Britain, can be considered obscure, Viswanathan Anand, in South Asia, is not. Is definitely not. So if we’re considering the world chess championship not as an unfashionable contest in an unfathomable mind sport, but as an event in the career of a famous Indian sporting personality – why mention it only once?
I don’t know and nobody will tell me. It’s not as if I haven’t asked. Of course it’s an unfathomable and unresponsive world we live in – the unresponsiveness of the BBC is a small thing in comparison. But it would still have been nice if I had received a response to my enquiry. Any response. At least that way they would have acknowledged my existence. But no matter. Nothing needs to be said. Nobody needs to be replied to. It may be sport, it may be celebrity, it may be culture, but it is not culture enough for the BBC. Because it’s only chess.
If chess is culture then The Apprentice, which this year began its fifth series on the BBC, is the culture of bullying. It’s notable for The Apprentice that. It’s notable for its catchphrase borrowed from the US original. And it’s notable for having made Alan Sugar notable for something other than efficiently making money out of inefficient computers.
One of the unrecognised geniuses competing for the hundred grand a year – a salary that you would have thought, them being so talented and all, they’d be pulling down already – was one James McQuillan, who is, or so we are invited to believe, a ‘former child chess champion’.7 Which information surprised me. Not least because chess is a small world, and I am part of that small world and yet I’d never heard of him. And when I tried to trace him using an internet search consisting of his name and the qualifying term chess, the only results I got referred me to sites discussing the TV programme. All of them reproducing the claim. None of them, however, actually questioning it.
Or next to none. Within the small world of chess, there was some sceptical discussion. A thread on the English Chess Forum found essentially nothing to back up either the description of McQuillan,8 or the specific claim, apparently uttered by McQuillan himself, that
‘when I was younger, I used to be very good at chess, in fact I ranked 21st in the UK’s league of young chess players when I was nine years old.’9
This claim may yet turn out to derive from reality, but, as it stands, seems to rest on nothing. Nothing proven. Nothing, indeed, by way of evidence at all. It depends, like God, solely on the basis of our faith. Of which quality, where media coverage of chess is concerned, I have no more than Richard Dawkins. No faith: nor, in this instance anyway, any charity.
In this matter I am the most ungenerous of sceptics. Still, there’s never any shortage of the credulous (The Apprentice itself is testament to that) and while it may seem odd to apply the epithet credulous to the profession of journalism – normally home to cynicism in much the same way that Lord’s is home to cricket – in this matter there are no sceptics among their number. Not one example from outside the chess community of anybody challenging McQuillan’s claim. Dozens repeating it. Not one questioning it. Not a scrap. Not in all the myriad coverage of this series. Not so much as a question mark.
A simple ‘oh really?’ would have sufficed. But even that crumb is denied us. Even that token. Nobody checked. Nobody asked. Nobody bothered to ask. If it’s chess, you don’t need to bother. You don’t need to check. It’s only chess.
You don’t need to check. You don’t need to ask. You can take anybody’s word for anything. This is how non-stories become stories. This is how chessboxing gets coverage that chess does not. If nobody knows or cares about the subject matter, what matters isn’t the reality but the stunt. The less substance there is, the better: the stunt is all the more effective for that.
Chessboxing is a joke. It is a freak show and a farce. It is followed by hardly anyone and played, if that’s the word, by hardly anybody. It is a sport with no professionals, a combination of two disciplines in which barely a single competitor is as good as mediocre in either. Yet the BBC – which will report neither the national league nor the national championship in chess – has over the past couple of years run half-a-dozen items on this obscure circus, on television and its website. This, of course, has a cumulative effect, providing the stunt with some apparent substance: it must be real, think the news sources, because it’s in the news.
So even somebody as sharp as Marina Hyde will write about ‘the continuing success of chessboxing’ as if one club and a couple of events constituted success, rather than one club, a couple of events and a lot of media coverage constituting the illusion of success.10 Meanwhile, on a rather lower level, the Metro will solemnly reproduce the claim by the promoter, one Tim Woolgar, that 2016 is a ‘more realistic target’ for getting chessboxing in the Olympics – more realistic than 2012, that is – without appearing to consider for a moment the absolute sheer ludicrousness of the idea.11 Let alone saying so. Let alone saying ‘do me a favour’. Let alone saying ‘nonsense’.
Why not? Partly because the writers know nothing of chess and therefore have no standard of comparison, and do not therefore say that if chess is not important, then chessboxing, with a fraction of the following that chess has, cannot be important. That if a sport with professionals and clubs all over the country is too obscure to mention, then one with no performers of any recognisable standard – nor any clubs at all save one in London – cannot possibly be of more significance. Let alone be potentially an Olympic sport. So much is obvious: but only if you know something about it. Or only if you care enough to ask. Even if you only care enough to ask ‘oh really?’
Partly it’s that. But more importantly it’s because it treats chess as a joke. Chess and boxing – isn’t that a funny combination. Chessboxing is reported not because it’s serious – but because it’s not. Because it is a freak show.
Who cares what you say about it? You can say what you like about it. So can anybody else: and you’ll take their word for it, and repeat it. Because it’s a joke. Because it’s only chess.
As long as it’s chess, you can even take Guy Ritchie’s word for it. The Hitchcock of Hatfield becomes, improbably, an impeccable source. Such was the judgement of Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian’s East European football correspondent, who in a piece on the England–Ukraine match entitled ‘The brains of Ukraine who quotes Shakespeare’ cited the aforementioned ‘brains’ – Ukrainian midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk – as quoting, not just the aforementioned William Shakespeare, but the aforementioned Guy Ritchie.12 In particular Tymoshchuk quoted Revolver, Ritchie’s so far unrecognised classic of 2005, in which chess plays a role. (Would that the same could be said of Ritchie’s actors.)
Well, if Ritchie is a poor man’s Quentin Tarantino, Tymoshchuk is a poor man’s Eric Cantona – though perhaps he too, will end up appearing in films as well as quoting them, given, as he is, to lines like ‘it is only a dead salmon that swims only downstream’. I’m not sure I’d consider that profound even if he had added ‘grasshopper’ at the end, but clearly it impressed Mr Wilson, who began his piece: ‘Anatoliy Tymoshchuk makes things happen’. Not at Wembley he didn’t, but he is apparently able to make things happen to Mr Wilson’s journalistic judgement.
Revolver, apparently, cites an 1883 book The Fundamentals of Chess, which, according to the movie, advises its readers that ‘the only way to get smarter is to play a smarter opponent’. This advice, full of useful wisdom that it is, appears among the nuggets quoted by the learned Tymoshchuk – and subsequently, by Wilson. Now personally, if I were presented with a piece of information from one of Mr Ritchie’s movies, I would be inclined to check it. I think I would be so inclined even if the information had the ring of truth about it – which this quote doesn’t. Even if, for instance, the book appeared to have an author. Which it doesn’t. Or if the language – in particular ‘get smarter’ – sounded like it might have been used in a book apparently published in the 1880s. Which, to me, it doesn’t.
Now, having noticed these hard-not-to-notice anomalies, I would be inclined to search Google for the mysterious book with its 1883 publication date, and if I found nothing except references to the movie in which it is cited (which is precisely what happened when I did precisely this) I would then check the title against the online catalogues of several major deposit libraries. When I did this, too, and yet found nothing I would conclude that the 1883 book The Fundamentals of Chess did not, in fact, exist.
I would be right to do so, since the book does not, in fact, exist. It is fictional. Not unreasonably, given that the film which cites it is, itself, a work of fiction. This does however mean that while one may ‘quote’ the movie, one may not claim that ‘the quote ‘the only way to get smarter is to play a smarter opponent’ from Revolver is drawn from an 1883 book, The Fundamentals of Chess’. Because you can’t draw from a book that does not exist. You can draw from a film which does exist, but not from a book which it invented. The evidence for its existence is rather less compelling than the evidence for Mr Wilson’s credulity.
But I’m inclined to wonder if he would have been less credulous, whether he would have taken a Guy Ritchie film on trust, had it not been that the subject was chess. Regarding which theme he could safely assume that nobody knew about it and nobody cared. Of course he could. It’s only chess.
I’m not, as it happens, into Guardian-bashing, that newspaper having been my daily choice for the last twenty years in which I lived in England. I was never so fond of its sister paper, the Observer, but they did, to their credit, deal properly with a case of plagiarism I once brought to their attention. It involved a well-known writer’s reminiscences of a televised football match from the year 2000 which appeared in 2007 as one of a series of short pieces about memorable sporting events.
When I originally read the piece I noticed that it seemed to have the date of the match wrong. This didn’t matter in itself, but because I was bothered that my memory seemed to be at fault (I was sure that the match had taken place on the same day as an important event in my life) I tried to locate a contemporary report. When I did – one had been published in the Independent – I found it was not, in fact, my memory which was unreliable but that of the author of the Observer piece. They had assisted their recollection of the match by copying, as if they were original reflections, large chunks out of the Independent’s report. (They had even mistaken the date of the report as the date of the match, thus explaining the anomaly which had attracted my attention.)
This constituted plagiarism, and the plagiarism was referred to the newspaper in which it had appeared. (It was also reported in Private Eye.) The Observer subsequently stated that the writer would not write for them again and this appears to have been the case. Rightly so: it’s hard to see how else a newspaper should react when it discovers it has played unwitting host to the plagiarism of some other publication. If journalistic ethics mean anything, they mean not tolerating the pilfering of one another’s work.
I mention this by way of example as well as introduction, since the Observer’s lead was very much not followed by the Spectator when that publication’s chess columnist was caught reusing, without permission or acknowledgement, the work of Edward Winter, chess historian and author of the longstanding Chess Notes column.
Mr Winter has written several times about the almost entire disappearance of chess from the Guinness Book of World Records (it’s only chess, I suppose) and his note #4682, from 29 October 2006, discussed the deficiencies of the 2007 edition as regards our game.13 This note included such passages as
‘ “The world’s biggest-selling book” is the boast on the back cover of Guinness World Records 2007’
‘pages 8-9 document such pivotal attainments as “most heads shaved in 24 hours”, “fastest time to drink a 500-ml milkshake”, “longest tandem bungee jump”, “fastest carrot chopping”, “largest underpants”, “most socks worn on one foot” and “fastest person with a pricing gun’’.’
Mr Winter must have been surprised – though not perhaps entirely surprised, given the identity of the author – when a piece by Ray Keene appeared, late in 2008, in the online periodical Chessville, dealing (among other items) with the Guinness Book of World Records and illustrated with an image of the same edition as that discussed by Mr Winter.
Keene’s article will have seemed familiar to anyone who had read the earlier piece in Chess Notes. It contained, for instance, the following passages:
‘ “The world’s biggest-selling book” is the boast on the back cover of “Guinness World Records 2007”.’
‘it documents such pivotal attainments as “most heads shaved in 24 hours”; “fastest time to drink a 500ml milkshake”; “longest tandem bungee jump”; “fastest carrot chopping”; “largest underpants”; “most socks worn on one foot” and “fastest person with a pricing gun”.’
Sad news. Although not really news to anybody who had already read the same in Mr Winter’s column. The very same. And very much more of the same, since other passages had similarly been lifted – in their entirety – from the original article and used in the Chessville piece.
On being informed that they were using plagiarised material, Chessville were persuaded to remove and amend the offending sections. Such is the advantage of online publication: you can try and correct your mistakes. Another online document relating to the scandal which has been much amended is Ray Keene’s Chessgames page, which has undergone numerous deletions in order to remove criticisms of its subject. Nevertheless at the time of writing it is still possible to read his own barely believable – and barely literate – explanation of the multiple coincidence of Mr Winter’s phrasing and his own:14
‘i have an email note to myself from feb 2007 to write at some point about the guinness book of records -and the wording i have is the one quoted here- at the same time i also bought the book to check the facts-i have never read ed. winters chessnotes for ages…’
Well somebody did, Ray. Somebody obviously did. But Ray’s likely story continues…
‘the first mention i cd find in chessbase archives of these comments-when i looked back- was in feb 2008. all i can think of is that somewhere winters comments may have been quoted without authorship or attribution so i regarded them as being in the public domain -i wd never quote ed. and i never knowingly read what he writes.i am -of course-happy for chessville-for whom btw i write entirely free of charge- to append any genuine attribution for any quoted material-no problemo!’
No problemo for Ray, at any rate. Anyway, by Ray’s own admission, he used work he found elsewhere without acknowledging its source, which might be thought a tad improper. But the fact that no other actual source, save Mr Winter’s own work (and its subsequent with-permission appearance on ChessBase) appears to exist, may lead us to conclude that the only place where ‘Winter’s comments may have been quoted without authorship or attribution’ is in fact, the oeuvre of Ray Keene.15
Or perhaps he came across the material in an online version of the 1883 work, The Fundamentals of Chess.
Still, once the plagiarised material was removed (and Ray’s explanation offered) that might have been that. Had it not subsequently been discovered that the Chessville piece had itself already appeared somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ was the Spectator of 7 June 2008. This fact had apparently slipped Ray’s mind when he was composing his defence of inadvertent copying (and advising the world that he didn’t get paid for Chessville pieces anyway). He forgot to mention that it wasn’t even the first time he’d copied this particular piece. It had already appeared as a Spectator article entitled ‘Dumbing-down time’.16 A most appropriate title. Because Ray must think we’re really stupid.
The Spectator article, you will already and rightly have assumed, mentioned the ‘boast’ that Guinness is ‘the world’s biggest-selling book’, displayed an interest in various records involving carrot-chopping, pricing-guns and so forth: it was almost exactly the same as the Chessville article. So coming as it did several months before that piece, the Spectator article therefore constituted the original plagiarism. It’s in that magazine that Mr Winter’s work was first used without acknowledgement or permission and passed off as Raymond Keene’s. (Mr Winter estimates that more than a third of the Spectator article comprised work originally written by himself.)17 Unlike the Chessville piece it appeared in printed form and cannot therefore be amended. It still exists in unaltered form, available to read, with Raymond Keene posing as the author of passages that were in fact written by Edward Winter.
How the editor of the Spectator felt about the reuse of his magazine’s material elsewhere, I have no idea. (Curiously, when their piece was published – and challenged – Chessville made no mention of its original publication elsewhere, leading one to speculate that the reason they did not know about it may be that nobody had told them.) How the editor of the Spectator felt about the fact that his publication was reusing, without permission, material previously published elsewhere, I have no idea either. I have no idea, because he will not say. Two enquiries on the matter have failed to elicit so much as a response.
The affair was, just like the incident with the plagiarism in the Observer, reported in Private Eye.18 But in this instance, no action of any sort appears to have followed. No responsibility has been taken, no reply has been made to enquiries. There has been no removal of Ray Keene from the Spectator’s roster. But why should they care? It’s only a chess historian who’s been plagiarised. It’s only the chess correspondent who did it. It’s only chess.
They’re right, too, in the pragmatic sense, if not the ethical. Because it doesn’t matter. One might have thought that the Spectator might have come under scrutiny for the paucity (and paucity of principle) of their response to a serious breach of professional scruple and journalistic ethics. But it’s not just the Spectator that doesn’t give a damn. Private Eye excepted, nor does anybody else. Outside of Private Eye it doesn’t appear that anybody is interested in so much as asking why the Spectator is happy to employ a serial plagiarist – even after plagiarised work has appeared in their own publication. But to my knowledge, they have not.
No wonder Ray keeps getting away with it. You can get away with it forever as long as you get away with it at the right people’s expense. Because we’re not talking about a body of people who are entitled to the minimum of respect. We’re not talking about anybody who matters. We’re talking about nothing, and nobody. We’re talking only about ourselves, and to ourselves, and only to ourselves. We’re the invisible people. We’re just not worth it. We’re only chess.
But here’s the rub. Just because we are regarded in this way, because we are considered to be of no importance – is it really necessary for us to behave as if we embraced that role? Because we lack that minimum of respect, are we obliged to act without self-respect? We want to be taken seriously – can we do that and yet have such an equivocal attitude to this clown?
Because our overall view of Ray Keene, for all the justified criticism, seems to be equivocal. He retains a prominent place in the world of British chess, small world though it may be. He does not keep this place because he is indulged by the editor of the Spectator, although he is. Nor does he keep it because the editor of the Times knows no better, although he does not. He keeps it because too many people in chess are content for him to keep it.
There are people in denial. And there are people who cannot possibly be in denial, people who know more than enough about Ray Keene but pretend not to know, because it suits them. There are people in chess who will not work with Ray Keene, will not take his money and will not treat him as the respectable figure he would like to think he is. But there are plenty of others who, because it suits their purposes, are prepared not only to sup with the Devil but to toast him at their table.
There are minor figures who are prepared to act as his gofers – Sean Marsh and Steve Giddins being recent recruits to his shoe-polishing team. But is it really necessary, for instance, for Chess Monthly, one of the country’s two best-selling chess magazines, to devote several pages of a recent issue to a fawning interview with the Kirsan of Kensington? Is it really ethical? Is it really dignified?
I do not think it is. I do not think that it behoves chess to behave in this way and I do not think, in the end, that it benefits us. And I do not see how we can ask other people to point the finger if we will not point it ourselves. We cannot say chess matters but act as if ethics in chess did not. Or is it, to us as well, only chess? Is it, to us as well, not worth it?
I think it’s worth it. It may be only a game, but it isn’t only chess. And I think we are worth it. I think we’re entitled to our minimum of respect. And I think we are entitled to a minimum of self-respect.
For how can we ask for respect – until we are able to respect ourselves?
First published in Kingpin 40 (Autumn 2009)
by Frank Brady
402 pages, hardback
Crown Publishers, 2011
It all began with wedding bells in Moscow. Regina Wender, a vivacious medical student met Hans Gerhardt Fischer, a handsome scientist in 1933. Regina was from the USA and Hans Gerhardt from Germany. Both were Jews. However, Hans Gerhardt had changed his name from Leibscher to Fischer to make it sound less Jewish even as anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany. The two fell in love and were soon married.
A few years later they were blessed with their first daughter, Joan. But soon they began to fear for their future during the Great Terror in Russia. By that time their marriage had also come under strain and they separated. Regina left Moscow for Paris. Hans-Gerhardt, not wishing to be far from his daughter, followed. With the drumbeats of war resounding in France after Hitler’s conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Paris was no longer safe for the estranged couple and their child. Regina returned to the USA, taking little Joan with her. As Hans-Gerhardt was German, he was not allowed to settle in the USA, so he found refuge in Chile. Regina received little or no help from him. For her it was a question of survival. She moved from place to place in search of a job. In June 1942 she fell pregnant with her second child. She sent her daughter to stay with her father Jacob Wender during pregnancy. The second child was born in Chicago on 9 March 1943. The baby was named Robert James Fischer. Hans-Gerhardt was listed as the father on the birth certificate although he had never entered the United States.
As I read this account in Frank Brady’s book and recalled the rest of Bobby’s life, I was struck by the irony of it all. When Bobby was very young he avidly read Russian books and magazines. He admired the play of Soviet grandmasters. Russia was no less than chess heaven for him at that time. However, he developed a lifelong aversion to Moscow and the Russians after he met with rather condescending treatment on his one and only visit in 1958. Yet who could deny that his roots went back right there? There would have been no Bobby Fischer but for Moscow. Then there is the greater irony: while both his parents escaped from anti-Semitism, it claimed him, their gifted son and poisoned his existence to the end.
But we are anticipating the rest of the story. Regina’s travails began after Bobby’s birth. After being discharged from hospital she had nowhere to go. Finally, she moved into a home for single mothers. But when her daughter returned to Chicago the home refused to let the elder child stay with her and ordered her to leave. When she refused she was arrested by the police for disturbing peace and she, Bobby and Joan were forced to move out. She refused trial by jury, was ordered to have a psychiatric examination and found not guilty by a judge. Fortunately, she landed a job as a typist and managed to get a one-room accommodation. Not that this lasted long. The family wandered from place to place and finally settled in Brooklyn, New York.
Now comes the question. If Hans-Gerhardt never entered the United States, was he really Bobby’s father? It has been suggested that Paul Nemenyi, a scientist, may have been the biological father. On her return from Moscow Regina had reconnected with this old friend she had known from her student days. Nemenyi offered her much-needed help, sending cheques from time to time. He also used to visit the family. Regina, however, denied that Nemenyi was Bobby’s father. She claimed that she had travelled to Mexico in June 1942 to meet her ex-husband Hans-Gerhardt, and Bobby was conceived during that rendezvous. This appears a bit improbable, considering their strained relationship and the location of their meeting. If this ‘re-union’ had taken place, Regina would have had to travel all the way to Mexico and Hans-Gerhardt from Chile. Regina’s version would have had greater credibility if Hans-Gerhardt had taken any interest in his son thereafter. But he never did. Hans-Gerhardt re-married and returned to Germany years after the war. He died in 1993. If Hans-Gerhardt was not the biological father, why did Regina register him as the parent? She just did not want her child to be called illegitimate. Fair enough. Paternity is a sensitive issue.
Brady writes that paternity has never been proved one way or the other. But even he has serious doubts and prefers to call Hans-Gerhardt Bobby’s father for the record.
He is at pains to dismiss a number of misconceptions about Regina Fischer, some of them quite contradictory. Many of these were a creation of the popular press. If some hacks called her an absent mother who spent too much time on political activity, others called her an interfering mother who was disowned by Bobby. Both are far from truth. Regina was a responsible mother who loved her son till the end. Bobby never broke up with her and was always attached to her.
Brady’s description of the mother and child is too good to be missed. Here is an endearing example. Bobby, like many young children, needed to be persuaded to take a bath. The only way was to get him a chess board so that he could study any position that he fancied while soaking in the bath tub. This created its own problem. Bobby would not want to get out of the tub, immersed as he was in his own enjoyment of the position. Then his mother had to give him a tap on the head with a peremptory command, ‘Get out of the bath tub.’
Regina had no doubt about her son’s talent. But she was also concerned about his character. She wanted him to read good books and learn languages. She herself was a political radical. But she did not impose her ideas on her son. All that she wanted him to do was to develop liberal, humane values. It was not to be. Bobby became a reactionary without the virtues of the Left or the Right.
Regina felt that her son’s obsession with chess was not healthy and his life lacked balance. When he turned to Armstrong’s Church of God, she did not interfere. But when he tried to win her over to his new faith she drew the line and wrote to him that Armstrong and his church were feeding him mumbo jumbo.
A good and tolerant life was the best life, she said; call it a religion if you like. After that they both agreed not to discuss his religious views or hers. Neither mother nor son was willing to make a convert of the other.
Yet she was driven to write to him when he refused to offer financial help to his nominal father, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer when he and his family were in dire straits. She was concerned both by his lack of generosity and racism. She knew her son’s magnificent egoism and wrote:
The greater the person’s mind and talent, the greater the destruction . . . Don’t let millions of people down who regard you as a genius and as an example to themselves . . . even if you were an unknown just being a decent person is a job these days. It’s easier to shut your eyes. But that’s what people did in Nazi Germany while people were being tortured and murdered, children gassed to death like vermin. It was more convenient not to want to hear about it or talk about it because then their conscience would have made them do something about it. So if you are now going to be mad at me, don’t be. Remember, whatever you do or whatever happens I’m still your mother and there is nothing I would refuse you if wanted or needed it, and nothing would change it.
(Letter from Regina Fischer to Bobby Fischer, June 26, 1974)
Sadly, Bobby did not share his mother’s sense of responsibility to society, and his own reading of hate literature led him to deny the Holocaust itself. Regina Fischer passed way in 1997. A grieving Bobby wanted to attend her funeral. But that was not to be . . .
(to be continued)
1) In the book Brady claims that Hans-Gerhardt and Regina decided to leave Moscow as anti-Semitism was on the rise in Stalin’s Russia. But there was no such policy way back in 1938. It was to come much later. It’s more likely that the Fischers were regarded as aliens with radical political views incompatible with Stalinist orthodoxy.
2) Regina divorced Hans-Gerhardt in 1945 on account of non-support when she was living in Moscow, Idaho. Brady points out the ironic coincidence of a marriage and then a divorce both occurring in cities named Moscow .
3) Paul Nemenyi passed away in 1952.
4) The book has some rare photographs, and one of them shows little Bobby in the bath tub receiving a tap on his head by his mother.
Kingpin reader Eddie Onslow quizzes the tournament director.
Eddie: You are often regarded as a real know-all.
Stewart: I know.
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