John Littlewood 1931–2009

John Littlewood, who died last September, was a brilliant chess player, a fine coach, an ebullient writer and a gentleman. A supporter of Kingpin since its early days, John contributed several articles and book reviews. His last piece for Kingpin, an appreciation of the gifted Dutch master Gerard Welling, brimmed with the infectious delight in chess which marked all his writing. We give below the first article he wrote for Kingpin (issue 13, Spring 1988).


Self-sacrifice in Chess

John Littlewood

I’ll let you into a secret not even known to my son Paul, although he’s one of many who’ve profited from it: for years now, in my role of National Coach, I’ve been deliberately losing games to young players to give them some encouragement… It all began with friendly games with Paul but rapidly moved to Nigel Short, Raymond Keene, John Nunn and Jonathan Speelman, to name but a few. Of course, just like a boxer throwing a fight or a jockey nobbling a favourite. I’ve had to proceed very cautiously so as not to make it too obvious to the players concerned, although the occasional blunder in time trouble is permissible, especially as I grow older. You must realize that at times I’ve had to win for various reasons, some of which will soon become apparent.

Why then am I revealing all this now, after years of silence? Whilst the Spycatcher syndrome may have something to do with it, the major reason is undoubtedly that I am deeply resentful of the fact that for a number of years Nigel, Ray and John have been avoiding me like the plague, persistently refusing to play in weekend tournaments I frequent. Paul has given up playing friendlies with me (I’m beginning to wonder if he suspects). Only Jonathan who, along with Nigel and tony, has finally sussed me out, continues to accept my gifts happily (he’s no snob, bless him!), though perhaps more to humour me than anything else. What proof have I of all this? Clearly, if my word is not good enough, the only real evidence lies in the games themselves which I advise the readers to peruse carefully whilst bearing in mind the following relevant points:

1. Not one of my young opponents except Paul (he’s like that!), has ever annotated a game they’ve won against me. Furthermore, in their understandable anxiety that the dreadful truth may be revealed, they’ve also discouraged others from doing so. In view of the undeniable egotism of most grandmasters, this fact in itself proves something.

2. As a result of my unselfish form of encouragement, all these young players, with the exception of Paul (he wouldn’t give me the satisfaction!), have since become grandmasters. Inevitably, this means that all, except perhaps Jonathan, will hardly acknowledge in public the extent of my contribution, so their comments and the language they may well be couched in will have to be taken with a grain of salt.

3. Prior to the British Championship in Chester, the proud Tony Miles, insulted by my repeated offers of a point, had disdainfully thrown his county game against me and had even put the boot in by allowing me to win it brilliantly. At Chester he went even further: after I had presented him with a completely won game (see 20 Rb1…), he ingeniously managed to throw it in such a way that I could not turn down the point without broadcasting my strategy to the world at large. It is highly significant that since then he has chosen to escape me by emigrating to the States (Ray’s method was to leave the BCF, whilst Paul is doing his damnedest to give up the game). What more conclusive proof is required?

All this talk is fine, you may say, but how about a game to demonstrate that ploy in action? As a matte of fact, there are so many games where I’ve deliberately and almost maliciously  allowed my opponent to win that I prefer instead to quote one which shows the cunning Nigel redressing the balance in such a subtle way that only top experts could suspect the hidden machinations.

John Littlewood – Nigel Short
British Championship, 1977

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 Ne7 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 c5 7 Nf3 Qa5 8 Bd2 Nbc6 9 a4 Bd7 10 Be2 0–0–0
It must be remembered that both players are trying to throw the game, so Nigel refrains from 10…f6 which he and I know gave Korchnoi a win against Timman, whilst I try to transpose into White’s losing line, as we shall see.
11 c4 Qc7 12 cxd5 Nxd5 13 c4 Nde7 14 dxc5 f6
Since I could see why Nigel would want to transpose into a winning game, I suspected he had something up his sleeve so wrongly refused to play the ‘superior’ 15 exf6 giving Black an open g-file.

15 0–0 Ng6 16 a5


To this day I don’t know if I made the right decision, since the very next time I met him he opened 1 e4 c6 2 Ne2? which again compelled me to win the game; only later did I learn that he had already played the move before in some obscure tournament at Hastings…
But this blatantly bad move really annoyed me; was Nigel trying too hard to show everybody that he was in fact throwing the game and did he really know that I knew he knew all about my little secret? More importantly, could I now refuse to carry out the obvious exploitation of Nigel’s deliberate error?

17 a6 Nf4 18 axb7+ Kxb7 19 Bxf4 exf4 20 Ng5!


Nigel was itching to play 20…Ne5 allowing 21 Rxa7+! Kxa7 22 Qa1+ followed by 23 Rb1+ winning but rightly deemed it too obvious so took the more diplomatic course.
21 Bf3 h6!!
Forcing me where I want to go.
22 Ne4 g5!!
There is no possible explanation of Nigel’s last two moves outside the context of the theme of this article, as even the most sceptical reader must surely admit.


23 Nd6+ Ka8 24 Nb5
In conclusion, may I point out that Nigel, Tony and myself are not the only ones using the ‘losing strategem’! Consider the case of Karpov: having tried unsuccessfully to throw one of his matches against Korchnoi (the latter is my age, so, unlike the youth of today, retains certain moral scruples), he then managed it brilliantly against Kasparov only to find the young world Champion doing his utmost to return the compliment in Seville!? 1–0


John Littlewood – Nigel Short
Bolton, 1984

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 Nc6 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nd7 6 Nb3 a5 7 a4 Be7 8 Bb5 Ncb8 9 0–0 0–0

 10 Qe2 b6


11 Be3 c6 12 Bd3 Na6 13 c3 c5 14 Nbd2 Nc7 15 Rfd1 Ba6 16 c4 Re8 17 b3 dxc4 18 bxc4 cxd4 19 Bxd4 Nc5


20 Bxc5 Bxc5 21 Ne4 Qe7 22 Nfg5 h6 23 Qh5 Qf8


24 Nf6+ gxf6 25 Nh7 Bxf2+ 26 Kh1 1–0


John Littlewood – Tony Miles
British Championship, Chester 1979

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 e6 3 b3 Nc6 4 Bb2 d6 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 Nf6 7 Nd2 Bd7 8 Bd3 Be7 9 0–0 0–0 10 f4?! Nxd4 11 Bxd4


11…e5! 12 Bb2 Ng4 13 Qe2 exf4! 14 Rxf4 Ne5 15 Raf1? Bg5 16 Bxe5 dxe5 17 R4f2 Bh4 18 g3 Be7 19 Nc4 Bh3 20 Rb1


during the next few moves I am in a tragi-comic situation from which I’m just given time to unravel myself…

20…Bc5 21 Ne3 Qg5 22 Re1 Rfd8! 23 Qf3 Rac8!


24 Kh1! [24 Qxf7+ Kh8 25 Qf3 (25 Rfe2 Rxd3!) 25…Rxd3] 24…f5!? [24…Rxd3? 25 Qxf7+ Kh8 26 cxd3 Bxe3?? 27 Qf8+] 25 Rfe2! [25 exf5? Rxd3!] 25…f4? 26 gxf4 exf4 27 Qxh3 Bxe3


28 e5! Qh6 29 Qf3 Kh8 30 Bf5 Rc5 31 e6! Qf6 32 Bg4 b5 33 Qb7 Re5 34 c4 bxc4 35 bxc4 h5! 36 Bf3 Qxe6 37 Rg2 Qf6


38 Rd1! Rg5 39 Rxd8+ Qxd8 40 Qf7


40…Qb6?? 41 Qe8+ Kh7 42 Be4+ g6 43 Qe7+ Kh8 1–0

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