When I was back in high school, I set myself a list of goals to achieve before I turned 30. Okay, many people make these lists (as our Facebook news feed so often annoyingly reminds us), and it’s not like I ever actively pursued my list. Still, having recently turned 29, I couldn’t help but do a little sneaky stocktake to try and work out how 15 year old David would have felt about the current state-of-play. Would he be satisfied? Impressed? Disappointed? Certainly he would have wished I’d kept more hair, but what about the rest?
The answers , if there are any, are probably more a matter for private introspection. But there’s no doubt that turning 29 seems to have kicked me into gear as I rush to get a couple of these (very subjective) boxes ticked. For example, last week I took the entrance exam for Dutch classes here in Amsterdam.
Yep, that’s right: after two years of living in the Netherlands, I still don’t speak the language – which is very embarrassing, but surprisingly common in this city. Dutch has got to be one of the world’s most useless languages to learn, given that the vast majority of the 20 million people speaking it are completely fluent in English. Still, by all reasonable measures of fluency, I can still only claim to speak one language, in staunch defiance of my ‘Before-30’ goal of polylingualism. Hence, with less than 12 months to the self-imposed (and objectively irrelevant) deadline, I’m signed up for a ‘Nedlerlandse Taalcursus’. Giddy up, jongens.
But another of the stipulated things-to-do before the so-called ‘peal’ anniversary of my birthing into this world is to have written a book. And this one I really thought I would have knocked off by now. Given the amount of prattle and blather I can produce on this blog, you’d have thought this would be an easy task to achieve, but sadly not. Well, I can proudly report that I’m (sort of) on schedule to produce a laborious tome before the big three-oh.
Back in 2007, it was proposed to me that I should write a book on the Portuguese Gambit, an extremely unorthodox and rare chess opening that, as it happened, I was best placed to write about. It turned out that despite my meagre rating, I was the strongest player in the world regularly employing the gambit. Actually, this was not so much serendipity as the fact that the vast majority of strong chess players consider the opening complete garbage. Still, this presented me with a rare opportunity to carve out my niche, and so I began discussions with some chess publishers.
The editors of most chess publishing firms are themselves grandmasters, and unfortunately (but perhaps not too surprisingly) most of them expressed grave concerns with the soundness of the system. That’s putting it mildly, mind you. In any case, various external situational complications (don’t you love euphemisms?) led to me being unable to take on a new literary project anyway, and the idea faded away into the Canberran setting sun.
Fast forward to May 2013. The final match of the Four Nations Chess League is taking place in England. My club, Guildford 2, is paired against the division leaders Wood Green 2, and we need an upset victory to avoid relegation to the lower division in the next season. I’m paired with the black pieces against Grandmaster John Emms, also an esteemed author of many books that includes The Scandinavian, the definitive work on the opening that encompasses the Portuguese Gambit. Naturally (in order for this story to be worth recounting), I whip out my favourite eccentric gambit and, as Caissa would have it, win a swashbuckling victory that propels our team to an improbable victory and thus safety from relegation.
Emms contacts me a few days later, and whaddayaknow, he’s not just a well-published author but also one of the editors ofEveryman Chess, one of the world’s biggest chess publishing houses. A few emails back-and-forward, some jovial negotiations, and *bam*, I’ve signed a book contract. Assuming I can keep to the stipulated schedule, I should be delivering my manuscript just shy of my 30th birthday; how convenient…
Six years haven’t really changed anything about the Portuguese Gambit from a theoretical perspective. It’s still considered dodgy and unsound, and unsurprisingly I’m still the highest-rated player to regularly keep it as part of my repertoire. But the good news is that I’ve been given the green light to write the book in as long-winded, lyrical and turgid a fashion as I want (which, as readers may have noticed, can be very long-winded, lyrical and turgid indeed). I plan for the book to be a complete repertoire guide against 1.e4 for wild tacticians, lovers of chess unorthodoxy or crazy coffeehouse hacks. It will be practical and honest, with an up-front disclaimer that the opening is fundamentally unsound (though I’m yet to discover a refutation). Unfortunately, given the fact that strong players usually steer clear of my ‘junky’ openings, the book will have to reply mainly on my own games for illustration purposes – including, naturally, the win against Emms. Let’s see if that makes it through the editorial procedures...
As part of my preparation for the writing process, I’ve been employing my proposed repertoire at every opportunity in over-the-board and internet games of late. Fortunately, 1.e4 is so common that this means I’m getting a lot of practice (and material?) for the book. For example, a fortnight ago I faced a variation against the Portuguese I’d never seen, and which hasn’t been published anywhere before. Naturally, it’ll make its debut in the book. I was playing in the 4NCL Rapid Championships in Daventry, England, and was sitting on 5 out of 6 going into the last round. The very talented Alan Merry was the surprising leader on 5.5/6 and we were paired against each other, I (fortuitously?) with the black pieces. Here’s how it played out.
(If you’re interested, a report on the 4NCL Rapidplay weekend is here.)
Well, at least it’s book-worthy. I’m still a long way off finishing the thing, or learning Dutch for that matter, but at least the wheels are in motion for a couple of Before-30 ticks.
I’m giving up on doing a handstand, though. That thing’s impossible.