Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Universal Mate

When I first heard the term ‘Sicilian Defence’, I thought it had something to do with the Mafia. It is, in fact, the most common opening to the game of chess, and any connection to Cosa Nostra is, as far as I know, coincidental.

I became school chess champion at the age of 11. That inspired me – principally to believe I was a far better player than was the case. Nevertheless, confidence, however misplaced, begets enthusiasm. Subsequently, this ultimate test of strategy, tactics and nerve fascinated me to the furthest reaches of my adolescent brain. Over the years, my obsession with the game has waxed and waned, but, as mental exercise goes, nothing has ever matched it. I have fond memories of an old classmate who used to bring his pocket chess set to high school. How many kids, I wonder, have ever been reprimanded by a teacher for surreptitiously playing chess under a classroom desk? The word ‘obsession’ is not used lightly.

I was 27 years old when the inaugural (PCA) World Championships took place at London’s Savoy Theatre in the autumn of 1993 (Figure 25.1). This was something not to be missed. One Saturday afternoon, I spent four hours transfixed, as Russian genius Garry Kasparov and Britain’s Nigel Short battled to outsmart each other (Figure 25.2). As it happened, neither did; the game was drawn. Members of the audience were given the opportunity to wear headphones, so as to listen to a masterful commentary without any noise disturbing the players, which I thought was a smart idea. Another unexpected bonus was being seated next to none other than Stephen Fry (Figure 25.3) – another ‘chess nut’ – whom I found to be as charming and as quick-witted (Figure 25.4) as he is on television. It was a magical afternoon.

Figure 25.1: I was there. Kasparov versus Short. Game 12 of 24

Copyright 1993 First Call (now Keith Prowse) Ticketing

Figure 25.2: The two combatants, fighting for supremacy inside a hushed London theatre. This was the view from the centre of Row D.

Copyright 1993 Times Newspapers Ltd

Figure 25.3: The incomparable Stephen Fry - actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter, film director and lifelong chess enthusiast

Copyright 2011 scrabblesaturdays.tumblr.com

Figure 25.4: 'e4' was the opening made by Nigel Short, anticipated correctly by Stephen Fry - 'That's my Predict-A-Move!' - and countered with the Sicilian Defence by Garry Kasparov. The game unfolded as follows:

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 Nc6
8. f4 Be7 9. Be3 O-O 10. Qf3 Nxd4 11. Bxd4 b5 12. Bxf6 Bxf6 13. e5 Bh4+
14. g3 Rb8 15. gxh4 Bb7 16. Ne4 dxe5 17. Rg1 g6 18. Rd1 Bxe4 19. Qxe4 Qxh4+

20. Ke2 Qxh2+ 21. Rg2 Qxf4 22. Qxf4 exf4 23. Kf3 Rfd8 24. Rxd8+ Rxd8
25. Kxf4 Kf8 26. Ke3 Ke7 27. c4 h5 28. a4 bxa4 29. Bxa4 h4 30. c5 Rh8
31. Rc2 h3 32. Bc6 e5 33. Kf2 h2 34. Rc1 a5 35. Bd5 Rd8 36. Bg2 Rd2+
37. Kg3 Kd7 38. Ra1 f5 39. Kxh2 Rxb2 40. Rxa5 e4 Game drawn.

Copyright 1993 Paul Spradbery

Armed with even more confidence, having inhaled the essence of Kasparov (!), I entered a chess problem-solving competition organized by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. I progressed quite well, but there are always better players out there. Thank heavens there are. One of life’s quiet pleasures is being able to take on a complete stranger in the universal language of chess, where one’s spoken language is immaterial. Thanks to the Web, there now exist Internet Chess Servers which facilitate games and discussions online. Some, such as the Internet Chess Club (ICC) (see link below), require subscription, but many others are free, and available to novices and grandmasters alike.

In pre-Internet days, I occasionally played speed chess, by telephone, against a former university pal, then living on the west coast of North America. It was wonderfully surreal, made more so by the eight-hour time difference and delay in the analogue transmission. The main drawback was being unable to see each other’s board and, therefore, temporarily oblivious to any lapses in communication. One game came to an abrupt halt when he took my queen with a knight which I was certain had long since departed.

To my delight, my six-year-old son has become similarly addicted to the game (Figure 25.5). He is presently trying – bless him – to organize a chess club at his primary school. He loves the video game Chess Titans, which is integral to Windows Vista. Beating the computer for the first time really lit his touchpaper, and he has yet to return to earth. I doubt he could beat the great Kasparov, but I know he would not lack the confidence to throw down the gauntlet. Plus ça change …

Figure 25.5: The latest instalment of 'Man versus Machine'

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery


Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery

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