The Birmingham Blues

Stuart Conquest

 

©Mark Huba

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.

©Mark Huba

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.

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.’

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
To the south sea isles
Yeah I travelled to the east and west
For miles and miles and miles
And I’ve been long gone,
And boy I’ve got the Birmingham Blues.

Across the world I’ve seen
People and places
Could be the same
But with a different name.

I wouldn’t change the things
I do for anything
But I’d just like to hear the message
Of the streets again
Give me a ticket,
’Cos boy I got the Birmingham Blues.

I’ll go and stay a while
And all the folks I meet
They’ll say ‘You won’t stay long
You got them travelin’ feet,
You’ll soon be long gone.
’Cos boy you got
The rest of the world blues.

Across the world I’ve seen
People and places…

(J.Lynne/1977/JETMusic.)

 

Thanks, Tony. See you around.

 

https://youtu.be/yF83aaIV0Jo

 

 

 First published in Kingpin 35 (Summer 2002)

Read Tony’s hilarious ‘Has Karpov Lost His Marbles?’

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