Why I Am A Chess Player

Why I Am A Chess Player

Sep 15, 2013, 2:01 PM |

I am a chess player. By that I don't mean simply that I play chess. Being a chess player is one of the things, and an important one, that defines me as an individual. I can't remember when I was not a chess player, I even find it difficult to conceive of not being a chess player and it's impossible to imagine not being able to play chess at all! Maybe I'm addicted in the same way people get addicted to heroin, alcohol, gambling or, apparently, sex. Even when I give it up, and I have on a few occasions, I am still a chess player and, with prolonged withdrawal, I find myself visualising chess positions, playing through opening variations in my head and yearning for a good session. I will never be able to kick the craving!

I'm not alone. There are many thousands of equally afflicted individuals across the globe and, in the age of the internet when you can play online at any time of the day or night, there are many more than there used to be. I'm playing now as I write this piece; clicking backwards and forwards between windows. Chess diverts me from other more useful occupations and sometimes from fulfilling my responsibilities. Chess is also not so great in social situations where the unwary non-player asks a polite question about chess and is treated to an enthusiastic but incomprehensible, to them, account of the wonders of chess. Like the physics specialist or the expert on linguistic theory, us chess players should learn that our passionate ramblings should be reserved for the fellow afflicted.

So why on earth be so obsessed by a board game which consists of shuffling thirty-two pieces around a chequered board of sixty-four squares? I'll try to explain.

I learned how to play chess at about the age of 5. I'd been playing draughts for a while before that but, having been seduced by the design of a chess set, seen in a catalogue, I started building pieces from Lego and using them on my entirely too small draughts board though still playing by draughts rules. This rapidly proved to be unsatisfactory and, having asked dad to buy me a proper chess set, I received a cheap plastic version from a newsagents. This was something of a disappointment as the one I had seen in the catalogue was a "medieval" set so, after a persistent campaign of cajolement, I eventually received the desired set as a Christmas gift together with a much more impressive looking board. I could not have been more delighted!

Somewhere during these negotiations I must have become aware that chess was a different game to draughts and I asked dad to teach me but was disappointed to discover he did not know the rules himself. As luck would have it, however, he knew a man who did and, after a bit of persuasion on my part, he promised to find out. The man in question was Alan Phillips, the headmaster of the school where my father taught, and a former joint British Chess Champion. Rather unwillingly and, I suspect, sheepishly, he consulted the "Old Man", as he was known to all staff, and returned with the rules written free-hand on a single sheet of paper. With repeated consultations of these instructions, Dad and I played our first game of chess. Looking back I wonder why Alan Phillips had not simply recommended a beginners' book as this would have saved him the trouble and given me the chance to learn a little more than simply the rules and whatever I could glean from play.

Dad was not a particularly willing opponent and forever seemed to need to refer to the instructions so I played very little until I discovered my Uncle Tony enjoyed the game and had been a regimental champion when on National Service. Consequently I played against him when we visited, which wasn't often, and he introduced me to "castling" and the "en passant" rule which were not included in our original instructions. He also showed me how to checkmate which had been a mystery to me and led dad and I to simply play to the last piece. Those sporadic visits to Uncle Tony enabled me to slowly improve my game to the extent that I could occasionally give him moderate opposition and a rare game or two at school, given that I usually won, convinced me that I was a pretty good player. This state of affairs continued until the age of 11, in 1972, when my graduation to secondary school coincided with the Fischer - Spassky World Championship match. This contest was certainly the most publicised event in chess history because it was the first time in decades that a "Westerner" had been in a position to challenge the might of the U.S.S.R. for the world title.

The seed of Soviet domination of the chess world was planted prior to the Revolution by Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin (1850-1908) who, at his height, was one of the top 4 or 5 players in the world and had impressive scores against most of his strongest rivals. Whilst he never succeeded in winning the World Champion's crown he was certainly one of the strongest players never to have done so. Chigorin was very much an ambassador for Russian chess and strenuously promoted the game in his own country, but with only moderate success, and his early death in 1908 might perhaps have marked an end to Russian chess glory were it not for the Revolution a decade later.

Leaving aside such things as regicide, purges and wrong-headed 5 year economic plans, which are irrelevant to my theme if not to those who suffered them, the Revolution turned out to be very advantageous for the development of chess. A number of those in the Politburo, including Lenin, were keen chess players and, amongst their number was Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky (1894-1947) who was a strong, if not world beating, chess master. He advocated the promotion of chess to Lenin and then Stalin - not a risk free undertaking - and did so by emphasising the kind of intellect it could produce in terms which dovetailed perfectly with the Bolshevik ambition to create a new world order:

"Chess develops in man boldness, presence of mind, composure, a strong will and something which sport cannot, a sense of strategy."

There was also the more cynical point that it offered an excellent way to occupy dangerous intellectuals who might otherwise get up to more disruptive counter-revolutionary activities. Chess would show the superiority of the Soviet system over capitalism which, on Ilyin-Zhenevsky's account, spawned degenerate players who were akin to bourgeois gamblers. All Soviet masters were claimed to be amateurs. Spassky was officially a journalist and the diminutive Anatoly Karpov, who became World Champion in 1975 after Fischer refused to defend his title, was a soldier though he has never frequented parade grounds as far as I'm aware. So the workers of the Soviet Union were taking on the pros of the West in their spare time and winning! The reality was, of course, that the leading players were highly trained professionals.

Identified at an early age, promising players were hot-housed in chess academies and those who progressed well received regular salaries, rewards for particular successes and even pensions. Western professionals, by comparison, had to win prize money, play exhibition games, perform simultaneous displays, write, tutor and even, horror of horrors, get a day job to scrape some kind of living. The somewhat tilted playing field notwithstanding, Soviet chess Grandmasters had, by the 1960s, earned an aura of invincibility to the extent that their occasional losses to western masters were headline news, at least in the chess press. They had dominated the Olympiad team tournament for years and, apart from a one year break when the Dutch master, Euwe, had surprisingly beaten Alekhine, they had possessed the world champion's crown since 1927. In 1970, shortly before Fischer- Spassky, there had been a "Match of The Century", a team contest consisting of the USSR versus The Rest of The World. That such a match was even conceived was proof of the perception of dominance of the Soviet Union who were expected to win easily so, the fact that they prevailed by a single point and then only because Portisch had agreed a draw in a won position, was a surprise and the first hint that maybe things were changing. All of this was going on at the height of the cold war with the Cuban missile crisis not far in the past and with the United States and the U.S.S.R., political and military behemoths both, each intent on proving their cultural superiority over the other.

At the age of eleven I was pretty much unaware of the political and historical context of the contest but I followed the reports with great interest in my father's daily paper, "The Telegraph", and, teaching myself chess notation, I was able to play through the games. Secure in my naivety and lack of knowledge I remember being unimpressed by the standard of play and happily convinced myself that, with a bit of practice, I could take on either of the contestants. I learned how wrong I was very rapidly!

Crown Woods, where I was now a pupil, had one of the strongest school chess teams in the country. Unaware of this, I went along to the chess club fully expecting to be one of the better players. I was introduced to Stuart Fancy, two years my senior, who was the de facto organiser of the chess club although a teacher, Mr. Cooke, was nominally in charge. Stuart played two or three games against me and thrashed me each time. I learned afterwards he was one of the top under thirteen year olds in the country, had played in numerous tournaments, and I was therefore somewhat in awe of this chess colossus.

"How would you do against Bobby Fischer Stuart?"

"Well... if he were playing 10 games simultaneously blindfold I'd be very happy to get a draw!"

Lest it might be thought that Fischer had telepathic powers I should explain that blindfold chess is where a player takes on another without sight of the board and is told what moves his opponent has made. Playing 10 blindfold games at once is a pretty good trick but is not in fact an unknown feat with the current record, standing at 56, held by the Polish master Koltanowski who once tried to sell me a painting.

Now with my perception of my own chess prowess somewhat closer to the reality I set about improving my play and, over the next couple of years with Stuart's help, I progressed from being a lower ranking member of the school chess club to the level where I could hold down bottom board of the first team or top board of the second. Further up the hierarchy was Stuart himself, Susan Caldwell, who went on to become the Women's British Chess Champion, and Garry Clark who subsequently reached master strength. With such strong young players in my immediate circle I underestimated my capabilities if anything, and it was with some surprise that I discovered some years later that, in the under 13 age group, I had rated number 8 in the country. I had no idea!

I added to my experience at school by becoming a member of Charlton Chess Club, which had a claim at the time to being amongst the strongest in the country, and had amongst its members former Australian Champion Max Fuller and Scottish International and chess author Les Blackstock. In this kind of company and environment I launched into a study of chess theory and history.

Whilst chess, in its original form, was probably first developed in India in the sixth century AD, and spawned a number of variants worldwide, the game labeled as "chess" today had reached its modern form, leaving aside a little later tweaking, in the 15th Century in Europe. The Gottingen manuscript (1471) is the first known chess book and Caxton printed "The Game and Playe of Chesse" in 1474. Whilst these works were of northern European origin the centres for chess at the time were Spain and Italy from where the early developments in chess theory developed. This period is commemorated by the names of early opening systems such as the Ruy Lopez, the Giouco Piano and Pianissimo and the Greco Counter Gambit.

During the next century or so chess moved northwards, as it was embraced by individual enthusiasts, but standards of play were fairly low and any developments in its theory were sporadic and fitful. By the mid-18th century chess had found itself a centre in the coffeehouses of Paris, particularly the Cafe de La Regence, whilst lesser chess colonies had developed in other northern European capitals including London at Simpson's Divan.

Coffeehouses had begun to appear in the late-17th Century very shortly after the first introduction of the beverage to Europe and, by the mid-18th Century were social hubs and hotbeds of creative and innovative thinking. Amongst many others Rousseau and Diderot were coffeehouse regulars in Paris as were Samuel Johnson and William Blake in London. Modern banking and insurance, many learned societies and most of the revolutionary movements in Europe all have their roots in the coffeehouses. The powers-that-were looked on with profound suspicion. As part of this scene, chess was played very informally with occasional matches for wagers sometimes involving the small number of traveling professionals who, like Wild West gunslingers, would arrive in town to attempt to vanquish the local champion. And around 1740 a new gun appeared in the shape of a young composer and musician, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (1726-95), who was rapidly to be acknowledged as the best chess player of his time and whose book, "Analyse du jeu des echecs", went through dozens of additions and became the standard chess text for the next 100 years.

Philidor was a substantially stronger player than his rivals and his skills were based upon a far more profound understanding of the possibilities of chess and, in particular, the importance of pawns which, hitherto, had been seen as obstacles that got in the way of your pieces and could be sacrificed with scant thought and few concerns. Philidor placed chess understanding on a firm foundation and his over-the-board successes made his ideas very influential.

By the end of the 18th and into the 19th Century the number of players and contests increased and standards improved very much as a result of Philidor's influence but also due to the Industrial Revolution which led to improved transport and communication links across Europe and also between Europe and the United States. This allowed players to encounter each other across the board much more easily and also to correspond. The first full scale international tournament took place in 1861 and was followed by many others. Chess columns and magazines began to appear and clubs were founded in the cities and at the universities.

The first half of the 19th Century is described as the "Romantic" period of chess and was characterised by piece sacrifices leading to daring attacks and with scant attention paid to defense which was considered boring or even ungentlemanly. This changed in the 1870s when Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) won the world crown and shortly afterwards started advocating and playing, with great success, a different style of play which emphasised the importance of strategy, controlling the centre and good defensive techniques. Whilst initially derided by just about the whole chess world, and even described by some as "cowardly", its clear success against Steinitz's more gung-ho rivals such as Johannes Zukertort (1842-88) provided a compelling argument in its favour. It's advocacy by a very strong younger player of the time, Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934), and the support of Steinitz's successor as World Champion, Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), convinced the next generation of players. This style of play has become known as "Classical" and if you read the advice in any beginners' manual today you will find much of it based on the teaching of Steinitz and Tarrasch and their principles are certainly where I would advise any prospective chess player to start.

With sound strategic principles and defensive techniques developed as an essential part of a chess master's armoury the result was a lot more closely fought games and, inevitably, more draws. Consequently, except amongst the very best masters, play was becoming sterile and lacked the imagination that marked the earlier Romantic period. Perhaps a new ingredient was required to shake things up a bit! This was provided by Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935) whose book "My System" (1925) explained a whole new way of looking at chess which became known as Hypermodernism.

Whilst Nimzowitch's ideas were initially controversial, they were really a development on the principles set out by Steinitz and Tarrasch which, influenced by the latter's didactic style of writing, had become to be seen as incontrovertible axioms. Nimzowitch showed in his play and his writing that things were not so simple and his advocacy of unbalanced positions was a shot in the arm to cure creeping sterility. Steinitz, Tarrasch and Nimzowitch together form the triumvirate on which modern chess thinking is based and their concepts and vocabulary are central to chess understanding. More advances have been made since then of course but these must all be understood in the light of this important earlier work.

With an early interest in history generally and a fascination for the development of ideas in many fields I devoured the literature which, by the 1970s due to the chess boom had become voluminous. I was especially taken by the openings which seemed at first like magical incantations. The Queen and King's Gambits, the Nimzo-Indian Defense, the Ruy Lopez, the King's Indian Defense, the Sicilian Defense, with its picturesquely named variant, the Sicilian Dragon, grabbed my imagination and, with play and study, I became a reasonably competent aficionado of a few of them. I also studied the games of great chess masters of the past and their names resonated to me like poetry: Philidor, Morphy, Zukertort, Steinitz, Tarrasch , Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Nimzovitch, Reti, Bogolubov and the rest. Modern leading players such as Tal, Petrosian, Larsen, Ljubojevic, Polugaevsky, Korchnoi, Timman and so on were, to me, demi-gods! And, of course, Fischer!

Bobby Fischer was an amazing player and his talent, together with his obstinate demands for better conditions and higher fees, attracted worldwide publicity, huge public interest and, wonder of wonders, sponsors! Suddenly chess was something you wanted to be associated with if you were a company and, for many youngsters, it became a cool thing to be involved in. Clubs tottering along with aging and dusty memberships were suddenly inundated with young members, school chess clubs proliferated and the Sunday Times sponsorship of school team chess in the UK introduced 1000s to the joys of competition. In 1972 the UK had no Grandmasters and had in fact had no players of real international prominence for at least 40 years. The entrepreneur and chess enthusiast, Jim Slater, offered a very generous prize of £5,000 to the first national to win the title which provided a very juicy target for a group of extremely talented teenagers. In 1975 Tony Miles won the prize and was soon joined at the top level by his formidable phalanx of rivals. Miles managed to beat U.S.S.R Grandmaster and World Champion Karpov, much to latter's annoyance, with the cheeky little defense developed by UK players, the St George, and fellow UK GMs started seeing success internationally and beating prominent foreign players, including the "Russians", on a regular basis. There was once a joke, which only chess addicts find funny, referring to an imaginary Russian phrasebook for the use of British chess players. It only contained two phrases: "Congratulations on your victory" and "Do you want a draw?" The joke was now out-of-date!

From my lowly position somewhere in the ranks of the club players I watched these developments with approval and nationalistic pride and took the leading players as my role models. The typical Eastern Bloc player looked like a businessman, all suited and booted, but the leading British players in the late seventies came from a different and rather subversive mold. Jon Speelman and Jon Mestel sported flowing locks and beards, rather reminiscent of Billy Connolly, and wore shabby clothes, as did slightly lesser lights such as Emmanuel Rayner, Kevin Wicker and the previously mentioned Les Blackstock. They combined a laidback attitude with what were clearly razor sharp intellects and gave the impression that what they did came easily although, of course, it didn't. Under their influence the chess in the UK became very hirsute and predictably scathing comments were to be heard from the crusty old guys of the previous generation. They were now has-beens with scalps ready for collection. I frequently saw the new crop of masters at the tournaments I entered and I have managed to play a few of them over the years with, I must admit, depressingly negative results.

My teenage self was entirely entranced and, as soon as I was free to do so having entered university, I grew my hair long and dressed in a similarly threadbare manner. I had by now realised I would never become a Grandmaster but at least I could look like one! And chess had become a major part of my life and would remain so because, by now, I was an addict.

So what's the pull and the fascination and why do so many otherwise intelligent people waste so much time playing it? Non- players or occasional players are dimly aware of those things called openings which they think of as a set series of moves, that Grandmasters typically think far ahead and even that they have most of the game worked out even before they sit down at the board. All of these beliefs are distortions of the truth.

There are 20 possible first moves in a game of chess leading, hardly surprisingly, to 20 distinct positions. Some are better than others but all have been played by somebody, sometime. Black, always the second player,has 20 possible replies all of which are legal against any white move. So after white moves once and black moves once there are 400 possible positions! I'm not going to go on ad nauseam but suffice to say that after a few moves there are literally billions of possible positions most of which are absolute nonsense! A good player tends to go for positions which are not nonsense and that takes a bit of practice and study.

A good chess game is like composing a story in the form of a dialogue and experiencing one can be like partaking of a journey through fascinating scenery. A chess game, like a story, has a beginning, middle and end or, in chess parlance, an opening, middlegame and ending.

Embarking on a chess opening is like stepping on to a path surrounded by swamps, or boiling lava if you prefer. The foundations of the path may be sturdy or shaky but you are likely to regret it if you miss-step. These paths diverge from each other or sometimes converge. The paths with the stronger foundations are usually those that have been tested by many players before and, in particular, by the masters. Chess openings are not fixed moves but the fruit of a few centuries of master play and analysis and you do well to take into account their experience when considering your options. So perhaps all you need to do is remember the right paths but, if you think this, you'd be wrong. Whilst a good memory for variations is essential if you want to play competent chess it's actually more important to understand the ideas behind the moves as you really can't memorise everything. No-one can. Paths can become obscure and one's opponent will be keen to spring surprises which everyone, including the very best, will sometimes find themselves having to face. Thinking flexibly and with a deep understanding is therefore what is needed to survive the opening.

If you've managed to navigate through the opening without falling into something nasty you will now arrive at the middlegame. Depending on the route you've taken you may find yourself on open plains (an open game) with you and your opponent sniping at each other from a distance, or crouched behind mutual barricades trying to break out and mate the other guy (a closed game). Whatever kind of middlegame, if things have gone well for you in the opening you will find yourself on the attack whilst your opponent defends. Very often, however, things are not so clear and one finds oneself in a position which can be described as "evenly balanced" or "unclear". Whatever the nature of the position, each player will try to protect his own weaknesses, exploit the weaknesses of the opponent, or create a new one. Competent players will usually have a pretty good idea, at least in general terms, as to the plans of his opponent and will do their best to circumvent them if on the attack of neutralise them if on the defense. At the highest levels the most common result of all this will be a draw, as brilliance is required to vanquish another world class player but, at lower levels, a decisive result in the middlegame is pretty common. If a draw has been avoided and neither player has found anything decisive against the other they will now enter the endgame.

The endgame is reached when many of the pieces have been swapped off and the board looks fairly empty. This is the realm of the King. The King is a weak and vulnerable piece in the opening and middlegame and, since a game is won by trapping him, he spends most of his time cowering behind a wall of pawns hoping his minions will deliver him victory. Once the ending is reached and many of his opponents pieces are missing he has less to fear and can and, in fact, must venture from his refuge and take full part in the battle. It is now that he can cooperate with his pieces to help to trap his opposite number or to shepherd a pawn to promotion. A well-positioned King in the ending is often decisive.

Playing a good game of chess adds a lightness to my step and provides a boost to my ego and I can play over the game afterwards with a warm feeling of achievement. It is those good games which get me through the times when I have not played well or, sometimes, so badly I wonder whether I should give up playing altogether. I'm sure every seriously addicted chess player, including the masters, will relate to such feelings. At the highest level, however, a chess game can reach a level akin to a profound work of literature, a great work of art, a symphony, a mathematical proof or a brilliant new insight in physics. When Kasparov defeated Topalov in particularly amazing fashion one commentator was moved to comment "You could spend a lifetime analysing the variations!" Chess players have never been known for their sense of proportion but then that's probably true of most creative people!

Is chess art, science, sport or simply a board game? I think it's all four and I love it! And that's why I'm a chess player, will forever be a chess player and can conceive or no other state of being!