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BBC: The Master Game revived on DVD

  • #1

    The Master Game – Let the Show Begin

    John Saunders looks back on the classic BBC programme

    The first two series (1975/6 and 1976/7) involved only UK players and were played as eight-player knock-outs. This was a very unusual tournament format in those days (they are still quite rare), but there were good reasons to use it: to keep the number of games (and programmes) to a minimum, and also to circumvent draws (which were resolved via tiebreaks at a quicker time limit). The first game was played at the then standard international time limit of 40 moves in 2½ hours, with adjournments. A replay was played at the rate of 40 moves in an hour, with the rest in 30 minutes, a second replay at all moves in thirty minutes and a third replay at fifteen minutes for the whole game.

    Series one featured Bill Hartston (winner), Jon Speelman (runner-up), George Botterill, Tony Miles (semi-finalists), John Nunn, Michael Stean, Jonathan Mestel and Howard Williams. Hartston seemed to be on the ropes in the first round against Stean, but held him to a draw before winning the replay. He was equally lucky against Botterill in the semi-final, which went to three games, but again he triumphed after playing “any old rubbish” (his phrase, referring to 2...Ìc6 after 1 d4 Ìf6 2 c4). The tournament favourite was Tony Miles, recently qualified as Britain’s first OTB GM, but he succumbed to Speelman in the semi-final. The book of the tournament recorded that he “shed a manly tear” after this disaster.

    In the final Speelman was offered a draw in a level end-game, but turned it down with what eventually proved to be an unsound pawn sacrifice.

    So Hartston’s pragmatism brought him the first Master Game title. The following year he was to triumph again and had the second trophy to adorn the other speaker of his stereo system (he made that comment just before winning the final game against Nunn). The players were Hartston (winner), Nunn (runner-up), Botterill, Miles (semi-finalists again), Short, Jana Hartston (as she then was; now known as Jana Bellin), Julian Hodgson and Peter Clarke.

    GM Tony Miles (1955–2001) was one of the great stars of The Master Game

    Botterill was very lucky to emerge from his quarter-final pairing with the 15-year-old Julian Hodgson, after being a piece down in one game and only scraping a draw as the flags tottered. In the semi-final Hartston was more assured than he had been against Botterill in the first series, but Miles once again succumbed, this time to Nunn. He was a bit lucky to draw their first game but he was hit by a thunderbolt in the second.

    Nunn blundered in the final so once again Hartston was the winner. In future series the quality of Hartston’s bon mots (“This is an important game for theory. John has been drinking coffee during the interval, and I’ve been doing yoga. Always wanted to know which is better...”) was to persuade the programme-makers to promote him to the expert’s chair beside Jeremy James, but not before he and Tony Miles represented the home nation in the vastly stronger international line-up in 1977, headed by World Champion Anatoly Karpov. The other players were Werner Hug (Switzerland), Jan Hein Donner (Netherlands), Helmut Pfleger and Lothar Schmid (West Germany), plus the redoubtable Bent Larsen (Denmark). Hartston bit the dust in the first round, losing to Pfleger, but Tony Miles really rose to the occasion this time, despatching Schmid and Larsen in good style to reach the final against Karpov.

    The 1977 Miles-Karpov final went to a third game (after Miles had done well to draw game one, and there was a steadily played draw in the second). It was played at G/30 and came down to a frantically-played heavy piece ending. Miles was under pressure, but he passed up a chance to draw when Karpov momentarily blundered.

    Mimic Like a Grandmaster

    The introduction of leading overseas players into The Master Game had some interesting side-effects. Previously, British chess fans had only experienced their chessboard heroes via the written word and photographs (unless one was lucky enough to have met them in the flesh at a post-Hastings simul, say), so to have them talking to us via a cathode ray tube was bliss. Those of us who lacked the deep reverence due to grandmasters and were prone to mimicry were parroting their various catchphrases and other linguistic oddities whilst playing our friends at the local club. I regret to say that I utilise the first person plural here with good reason as I was one of the irreverent brethren.

    My particular favourite was Vlastimil Hort (above), with his lugubrious self-castigations, delivered in a rich Middle European accent: “Yes, yes, of course, he plays Beeshop ee six... oh, what am I to do?... Vlastimil, you play vaary slowly!”, etc.

    However, probably the all-time favourite for those who like mimicking GMs has to be Viktor Korchnoi, with his odd mixture of falsetto and basso profundo, words interspersed with asthmatic breaths (like musical rests), then a rapid burst of beautifully articulated syllables, as if he were racing to make the time control. I would need a musical stave to annotate this accurately but let’s try: “Here [rest] I play [rest]... er... beeshop ee FAIVE [fortissimo] [rest] with possibEEELITY of rook [rest] c7 [rest] as in my game [rest] with [rest] AnatolykarpovinNINEteenseventyFAIVE!”. Wonderful stuff – if only Mike Yarwood had watched The Master Game. I may be mis-remembering, but I always felt Viktor fixated on the number ‘five’ – certainly this featured strongly in my own rendition of his dulcet tones.

    We haven’t room for a full blow-by-blow account of seasons four to eight, but I should list the winners: 1978/79 Larsen; 1979/80 Lothar Schmid (beating a distinctly “dischuffed” Walter Browne in the final); 1980/81 Nigel Short; 1981/82 Eric Lobron; and 1982/83 (finally) Tony Miles.

    Another Master Game star: the teenage chess prodigy Nigel Short

    One cannot help feeling particularly sorry for Tony Miles, even though he won that last series, beating Karpov in the final, as it was never screened on British TV as the result of some stupid TV industrial action which everyone has long since forgotten about. Two years previously it had been bad enough when he had had to lower his flag to the young pretender to his crown as Britain’s top chess player, Nigel Short, and then these annoying TV malcontents deprived him (and us) of seeing him beat Karpov through absolutely no fault of his. I’ve made it worse by giving three of his Master Game disasters. So let’s finish with Tony’s triumph in the final Master Game series against the World Champion.

    Two series of The Master Game are being released on DVD. Each series features all 13 original episodes in a two-DVD set. The DVDs are region-free and will work in all countries. Series Six was filmed/broadcast in 1980-1. Contestants included: Bent Larsen, Nigel Short, Svetozar Gligoric, Vlastimil Hort, Robert Byrne, Tony Miles, Lothar Schmid and Jan Hein Donner. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Running Time: 6 hours 30 mins.

    Series Seven was filmed / broadcast in 1981-2. Contestants included: Andras Adorjan, Nigel Short, Walter Browne, Eric Lobron, Raymond Keene, Larry Christiansen, Miguel Quinteros and Hans-Joachim Hecht. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Also included on this special edition is a bonus BBC documentary – The Lowdown: The Master of the Game – which follows the rise to international success of a young Matthew Sadler. Running Time: 7 hours.

  • #2

    There was also a book that was made of the series with games, interviews etc. Sometimes you find it in second hand book shops as I did once.

  • #3

    These are brilliant.

    All (or close to) are available on YouTube.

  • #4

    Scottrf wrote:

    These are brilliant.

    All (or close to) are available on YouTube.


    I lot of them used to be on youtube, but I think they've all been taken down.

  • #5
    Quasimorphy wrote:

    Scottrf wrote:

    These are brilliant.

    All (or close to) are available on YouTube.



    I lot of them used to be on youtube, but I think they've all been taken down.

    Oh really? I guess because they are selling the DVDs.

  • #6

    Release Date: Monday 29 July - RRP £22.99 per series / CHESS Magazine subscribers £20.69 per series / £40 for both series TO ORDER CALL 020 7288 1305 or online from the Chess & Bridge Shop.

  • #7

    Are these available digitally yet?  Itunes does not have it nor does Amazon.

  • #8

    they should rather make a new master game show that would be awesome.

    Would be funny to hear Nigel talk nowadays.. would be really funny if people who dont like each other play each other but for real, the old show was a bit too tame a new show would be really awesome, were people really talk stronger

  • #9

    Does anyone own these BBC DVDs? I'm Deaf and need subtitles, so I'd love to know if it comes with English subtitles! So excited to maybe watch these!

  • #10

    Is there a series 7?


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