Category Archives: Richard James

Child Genius

While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.

If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.

Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.

If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.

In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.

1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.

2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.

3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.

4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.

Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.

Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.

Richard James

T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

Richard James

I’ve Got a Little List

Firstly, a quick correction from last time. The study I referred to last week was actually commissioned by the EEF, who paid CSC to conduct it.

Most English chess players will be aware that, before doing anything of any importance in chess you should consult an organiser from Twickenham of below average height. So if CSC wanted to consult me, here’s what I’d tell them. (To be fair, they consulted me several years ago at the start of the project, but more recently I’ve only been speaking informally to some of my friends who work for CSC over a pint or a curry.)

Regular readers will know that I’ve always been sceptical about the research concerning chess making kids smarter. Apart from whether or not ‘making kids smarter’, whatever that means, is as desirable an aim as it sounds (I think it’s not) I have two problems.

1. Can we be sure that the improvement in kids’ maths or problem-solving skills is long-term rather than short-term? One possible interpretation of the failure of the EEF/CSC project to achieve positive results might be that the effect is indeed only short-term. It’s possible that if they’d tested the kids immediately after completing the chess course they might have produced different results.

2. Can we be sure that, if chess does actually improve kids’ performance at maths or problem solving, that the same, or even better, results, could not have been achieved using other games, perhaps simpler games which wouldn’t need investment in chess sets and the involvement of professional chess tutors? While I’m sure most kids will benefit, socially as well as academically, from playing a wide range of games, perhaps some kids will find chess too hard and would gain more benefit from simpler games.

There are, I think, several reasons (apart from making kids smarter) why you might wish to promote chess for kids. I’ve got a little list.

1. You might want to teach lots of kids how the pieces move.

2. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing low level competitive chess.

3. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing adult standard competitive chess.

4. You might want to produce champions and future IMs or GMs.

At the moment there are various projects designed for 1, 2 and 4, but little or nothing designed for 3. It’s not just because I’m an adult competitive player who has never had any ambition to become an IM or GM, that I consider number 3 to be the most important. But before you start any project you have to decide what your aims are and how you’re going to get there.

There also several methods you could use when promoting chess for kids. I’ve got another little list.

1. You can put chess in the classroom specifically as a non-competitive learning tool. Children will be playing simple games and solving puzzles using subsets of chess, not playing actual games of ‘big chess’. Many of the projects that have reported positive results have used this method. This will certainly achieve point 1 above. Whether or not it will achieve the other aims will depend on the local and national chess infrastructure into which kids who want to take things further can move. However, it will only work in schools that are fully committed to the project.

2. You can put chess in the classroom as a low-level semi-competitive activity, teaching kids the moves quickly and then encouraging them to play complete games of chess. This is the model that has been encouraged by CSC, although it’s possible some tutors and schools will have taken a slower, less competitive approach. They run inter-schools competitions, some schools take part in international competitions via the Internet, and kids are invited to visit the London Chess Classic, where they can get some instruction and watch the likes of Magnus and Vishy in action. This way, you’ll be achieving both the first and second aims, possibly at the expense of ‘making kids smarter’.

3. You could promote chess in secondary schools through a network of inter-school and inter-area competitions. If you’re linking up with adult chess clubs and competitions this will achieve our third aim above, but at the expense of the first two, and possibly also the fourth. At the moment, though, because of the nature of ‘adult’ chess clubs and competitions, as you’ll have seen if you’ve read my two recent articles about the Thames Valley League, are not really suitable for kids of secondary school age.

4. You could follow my suggestion. What I’d do is identify the areas I wish to work in, which, for several reasons, would be more deprived areas of the country, and this is what CSC are doing at present. I would establish a professionally staffed Junior Chess Club within the Borough which would meet at weekends and possibly also some evenings. This club would run courses for both beginners and intermediate level players as well as providing competitive chess, possibly including competitions for all ages as well as just for kids. This club would also provide outreach for schools within the Borough who wanted to run chess within their school. This could be non-competitive chess on the curriculum as a learning tool using mini-games, a quicker course on the curriculum (as CSC are doing at the moment), or a chess club which might be before school, at lunchtime or after school. Of course it doesn’t have to be just a junior chess club. There could be a section for adults, classes for adult beginners, for parents who want to help their kids, clubs in libraries, clubs for seniors and retirees, clubs for immigrants, using chess to help them integrate into their new community and much else.

To be fair to CSC, I’d add two points. Firstly, I understand that something like my proposal above is already happening in the London Borough of Newham: what’s happening there sounds great to me. Secondly, CSC has already had some success in producing young players through its schools who are excelling in both national and international competitions. This is great news which should be celebrated.

So my advice to CSC in the wake of the negative result of their study would be this. Concentrate on providing opportunities for competitive chess and move away from the idea of chess making kids smarter. Concentrate more on chess in the community than chess in schools. And bear in mind, most of all, that ‘big chess’ is just too hard for most kids of primary school age. They’ll learn the moves, sure, but will find it very hard to get much further. I’ll consider this in more detail next time.

Richard James

Chess Doesn’t Make Kids Smarter

Perhaps you saw the recent headlines here in the UK. It’s now official that chess doesn’t make kids smarter. Before I look at this more closely I’d like to take you back in time to 1993.

At a concert in leafy suburban Richmond, the then Mayor of Richmond, Anne Summers, met a successful local businessman, Stanley Grundy. Stanley had just read an article claiming that chess made kids smarter, based on this paper. He offered to provide financial support for a project to encourage chess in schools in Richmond, and so the Richmond Chess Initiative was born. If you have any experience in reading and assessing scientific papers you’ll be able to pick lots of holes in the validity of the research, but for now we’ll let that be. In Richmond, unlike in other parts of the world, there’s comparatively little scope for making kids smarter. It’s an affluent area of London with many bright kids with parents who are prepared to support them academically and ambitious for them to be successful. The RCI was successful for several years. More schools started after-school chess clubs, players from Richmond schools excelled nationally in both individual and team events, we ran an annual inter-schools championship which attracted several hundred players, and even ran two international events. Looking at the overall standard of play in the school clubs, though, it didn’t seem to me that chess was making kids smarter. Stanley wanted to run a study in Richmond, but the resources were not available. He was unwilling to listen to my objections that there’s a very big different between putting chess on the curriculum and running after-school clubs for kids who, for the most part, already know how the pieces move. Eventually the RCI started to wither away: schools became less interested, numbers of participants in our tournaments declined and Stanley’s money was running out. But we’re still there, running Richmond Junior Club and putting chess teachers into after-school clubs in the area.

Since then there has been much more research on the subject, with most studies showing positive results for chess improving kids’ mathematical abilities. You’ll find a very useful summary here.

Moving forward, the chess education charity Chess in Schools and Communities decided to commission their own study, the results of which have just been published. To their surprise, but not entirely to my surprise, the results were negative. This was how the press reported it.

Well, there’s a lot to say. First of all, it’s evident that the Daily Telegraph journalist hadn’t actually read the report. The survey had nothing at all to do with ‘pushy parents sending their children to chess classes’ but involved kids in deprived areas learning chess on the curriculum. I was in fact responsible for the original CSC curriculum, although it was never the curriculum I would have chosen to write, but I’m not sure to what extent if any this was used in the study.

So why wasn’t I surprised that the results showed no correlation between chess instruction and academic performance? Firstly, many of the studies showing positive results were not based on kids learning how the pieces move fairly quickly and then playing semi-competitive games, but involved kids using subsets of the board, pieces and rules to develop thinking and problem solving skills. While there is much that is excellent about CSC, there has always, it seems to me, been a conflict between two very different aims which would involve approaching chess in very different ways: chess as a non-competitive learning tool and chess as a competitive activity, and they’ve been trying to do both at the same time instead of just concentrating on one aim. The second reason for my lack of surprise was that the testing took place a year after the completion of the study, rather than immediately afterwards. It seems reasonable to me to assume that, because most of the kids enjoy their chess lessons, this will make them happier and more confident in the short term, but that this effect would gradually wear off.

Perhaps now we can take a different approach to chess and stop making dubious claims about chess making kids smarter. I’d go along with the two education experts quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, with whom I agree about both Mozart and chess: “Children should play chess and listen to Mozart for pleasure and as an antidote to the widespread addiction to digital technology and social media sites. Parental encouragement of their offspring should stretch beyond concerns about test marks to a love of what it means to be civilised and that includes Mozart and chess and lots of other things.” Or Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity which carried out the report: “Teach chess for its own sake – for its intrinsic value and the enjoyment pupils gain from it.”

Next time I’ll consider how chess organisations might take a different approach to promoting chess. If you’ve been following my articles over the past couple of years you’ll have heard a lot of it before, but now seems a good time to repeat it.

But before then, your homework for the week is to go away and read the complete report, which you’ll find (although I’m puzzled as to why the first two conclusions, at least at the time of writing, appear to be identical) here.

Richard James

No Change

So I went along to the Thames Valley League AGM for the first time for some years. As I’m currently captaining a team in the league I thought I ought to be there.

Still very much the same people who’ve been attending for the past 40 years or so. No change there. And, of course, no discussion of the real problems facing the league.

There was much discussion on adjudications. Yes, adjudications. If you live on Planet Sensible you’d be more likely to find Elvis playing chess with the Loch Ness Monster than a league which still has adjudications. But there you go. That’s where we are. Over the past few years there have been maybe 5 or 6, but last season nothing happened. There were three games with no result recorded. It transpired that one was an adjournment which the two players hadn’t got round to playing off, but the other two were indeed adjudications, one from one of my team’s matches, which the league secretary, due to a combination of health problems and pressure of work, hadn’t sent off to the adjudication secretary. Fortunately they didn’t affect league winners, promotion or relegation. These days, of course, most games which would in the past have gone for adjudication will have their results agreed followed by consultation with Stockfish or Houdini, but there will always be a few which are genuinely unclear. You might ask yourself why the league has an adjudication secretary at all, given that there are so few adjudications, but he’s been in the post for several decades and no one wants to upset him by telling him his services are no longer needed. You might also wonder, as one or two did at the meeting, why the positions for adjudication could not be sent directly to the adjudication secretary, but, until a few years ago, he didn’t have access to email and no one had thought to change the rules once he entered the current century.

There has been some talk in the ECF in recent years about not grading games decided by adjudication, and it’s even been proposed that events which allow adjudication shouldn’t be graded. Extreme, maybe, but my view is that adjudication, at least outside primary school chess clubs, should have no place in the modern game. My view also is that adjournments are fine for consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes, but shouldn’t be forced on anyone. If the league wants to be attractive to stronger players, and to attract new players, playing to a finish in one session should be the default option. Yes, it doesn’t suit all older players. It certainly doesn’t suit me. Although I’ll always agree to finishing in one session, I inevitably panic in the quickplay finish, and, if I’m anything less than a queen ahead I’m likely to run short of time, blunder and lose. It’s a price I’m prepared to pay for the survival of the league.

The good news from the evening was that my Chess Improver posts have more readers than I thought. My Surbiton friends had read my recent piece on Keith Arkell’s visit to their neighbourhood. More surprisingly, I discovered that the league Chairman had read the column from several months ago in which I annotated my win against his King’s Gambit. Perhaps, then, I should use this column to make some proposals. If you’d like to support me or make alternative proposals please get in touch.

We agree the time control at the start of the game. At present the order of precedence is:
1. Slow time limit with adjournment or adjudication of unfinished games
2. Faster time limit with intermediate time control
3. Faster time limit with no intermediate time control

I’d propose instead the following order of precedence:
1. Faster time limit with intermediate time control
2. Faster time limit with no intermediate time control
3. Slow time limit with adjournment of unfinished games (no adjudication)

Personally, I’d prefer 1 and 2 the other way round, but I know I’m in a minority on that one. If you play in the Thames Valley League, or even if you don’t, what do you think?

Richard James

STREXIT

In the past three weeks I’ve looked at three events designed to bring chess to a wider public.

Nette Robinson staged a combination of a blitz tournament and a jazz gig, which appealed to both chess and music fans. Nette is also a talented artist, and has combined chess with art in the past.

Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan brought their Chess for Life roadshow to Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: they’ve also given talks in other chess clubs and in less formal venues.

The ECF started a new initiative to promote chess by staging simuls in pubs, with Keith Arkell kicking things off in a hostelry not too far from me.

All three events were great and thanks are due to the organisers and participants, but their success in reaching out beyond the local chess club membership was questionable. Of course this is very difficult. There’s an enormous gap between the enthusiastic social player and even the weaker club player. We get people turning up at our club who think they’re really good at chess because they’ve won a few games on the Internet, but some of them find it hard to cope with real chess with the clock ticking and soon disappear.

Meanwhile, our local chess league, the Thames Valley League, is slowly shrinking. Not so long ago there were nine or ten strong competitive clubs in the league: now there are only three or four. Some of it is natural, but more and more higher rated players are pulling out of the league because they’re no longer prepared to risk playing a game which might not finish on the night. Everyone in this country has been much concerned recently with the possibility of BREXIT, but in ThamesValleyLeagueLand we’re seeing stronger players exiting their local league: not BREXIT but STREXIT.

I’ve explained the league rules before, but I guess I ought to provide a brief recap for new readers. Matches take place on weekday evenings, starting in theory at 7:30 but in practice more like 7:45. We have a choice of a 2½ hour or a 3 hour session, but most clubs prefer the former option. Before the start of the match the players in each game have to agree on the time control. The three options, in order of precedence, are, a slow game with adjournment or adjudication (I won’t bore you with the complicated rules about this), playing to a finish in one session with an intermediate time control and a quickplay finish, or playing all the moves within either 75 or 90 minutes. So a player who prefers slower chess can insist on the first option.

I was on the Thames Valley League committee for many years but resigned some time ago due to my frustration with the inability of the Committee and the club representatives at the AGM to come to terms with the problem. The people who turn up every year to the AGM are very often those who, like me, have been playing in the league for the past half century or so. They’re resistant to change and naturally prefer slower time limits. It’s in the nature of elections, whether chess or political, that people tend to vote for their perceived self-interest rather than for the interests of the community as a whole. So we were getting constant cries of “We don’t want faster time limits: they favour younger players and are unfair to older players like us”.

By and large, younger players prefer faster time limits, while older players, naturally enough, prefer slower time limits. In addition, stronger players tend to prefer faster time limits while weaker players tend to prefer slower time limits. What has happened to the Thames Valley League in recent years is that several clubs have withdrawn their first team from the league while continuing to run teams in lower divisions for weaker and, often, older players. Even the committee should understand that the whole concept of adjournment or adjudication will be very strange for a younger player coming into the league via junior competitions, just as it will for the hobbyist who has previously played exclusively online. While the league has made some positive decisions over the last decade or so, unless the Committee is prepared to come to terms with 21st century chess, it’s questionable whether or not the league will exist at all in a decade’s time. It will see me out, I guess, but not much more than that.

By the time you read this article, this year’s AGM will have taken place. Will anything change? Probably not, but you never know. Watch this space for the latest news.

Richard James

Wednesday in the Pub with Keith

My increasingly busy social life recently took me to the small riverside suburb of Thames Ditton, a short journey from me, to witness the start of a new English Chess Federation initiative to bring chess out of the ghetto and into the community at large by taking chess into local pubs, with a grandmaster taking on all-comers in an informal simul.

The first of these events, run by the ECF Publicity Manager Mark Jordan, took place at the George and Dragon (an appropriately chessy name, I suppose), and the guest grandmaster was none other than one of the heroes of last week’s article, Keith Arkell.

The event took place on a Wednesday, the club night of the local chess club, Surbiton, and their members, including IM Mike Basman, were out in force. Although the event was well enough supported, there were few from other clubs in the area (I was the only one from Richmond) and not a lot of interest from the locals. Not that the organisers weren’t doing their best: there was a placard outside the pub advertising the event (“Free Entry. Beginners Welcome.”). Of course it’s difficult. Chess has not had a high public profile for some time, and although grandiose claims are sometimes made about the number of chess players worldwide, the harsh truth is that most people who claim to play know little more than how the pieces move. They’ll look at you blankly if you try to make an en passant capture or mention Magnus Carlsen.

It was still a great evening, though. The pub was welcoming, the beer was excellent and the company was good. Keith is a perfect ambassador for chess: friendly, easy-going and approachable. I was able to play a game in the simul and get Keith to sign my copy of his book Arkell’s Odyssey, a sometimes painfully honest autobiography and games collection.

I had the chance to play Keith in the simul. Remembering Natasha Regan’s advice, and seeing her sitting two boards away from me, I knew I had to avoid two things: playing black in the QGD exchange and reaching a rook ending. So, as Keith sportingly gave everyone choice of colour, I selected the white pieces. My reaction to his unusual 5th move was pretty feeble (6. cxb5 or 6. c5 would have been more challenging) and I soon felt obliged to offer a queen exchange. I then followed the second part of my plan by trading off rooks as soon as possible. Needless to say, little good came of this. In the resulting minor piece ending Keith used his knights like Capablanca, but I was still in the game until trading off the wrong knight on move 34. It seemed natural to give him doubled pawns rather than a passed pawn but I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that my move was a mistake. In the resulting position his powerfully placed bishop and knight dominated my forces and he soon won a pawn. The engines tell me 34. Nxc4 was equal. This is something that happens time and time again in my games: not trusting my judgement to play the move I think is correct but doing something else instead because it vaguely looks right.

In the final game to finish Keith was left with knight, e and g pawns against his opponent’s knight and f-pawn. It was completely drawn but Keith entertained the spectators by playing on and on, manoeuvring this way and that, before eventually conceding the half point to his doughty opponent. Perhaps this explains one reason why Keith has been so successful over the years. His determination never to give up the fight for victory, allied to his consummate endgame skill, must have converted many drawn games into wins over the past 30 years or more.

You can see some photographs from the event here

Bridging the gap between social players and club players is, of course, very difficult. Perhaps clubs could do more to publicise themselves locally and be more welcoming to newcomers, perhaps offering coaching sessions or more general advice. Some clubs are good at this, others less so. I hope this will be the first of many such events attempting to bring grandmasters, club players and social players together. Congratulations to Mark Jordan and Keith Arkell, and also to the Surbiton members who supported the event, for making this a very enjoyable evening.

Richard James

Not Just for Christmas

The day before Nette Robinson’s chess gig you read about last week, I was lucky to be able to attend another great chess evening.

GM Matthew Sadler and WIM Natasha Regan visited my chess club to give a talk based on their new book Chess for Life. Matthew also played some simultaneous blitz chess before and after the talk. This volume looks at how chess players can maintain or even increase their playing strength in their forties, fifties or later in life, and was inspired in part by Matthew’s successful return to the game after a gap of 10 years.

The book features a series of case studies outlining this theme, along with interviews with a variety of players ranging from top grandmasters (Judit Polgar, Nigel Short, John Nunn, Jon Speelman, Yasser Seirawan) to strong amateurs.

Some chapters cover opening choices. We learn how Pia Cramling has made subtle changes in her 1. d4 white repertoire over several decades, and how Sergei Tiviakov developed and modified his pet Black defence to 1. e4: the Scandinavian with 3…Qd6.

Two of the book’s heroes are Capablanca and Keith Arkell, both of whom favour a style involving playing simple moves quickly, putting pieces on good squares and heading for the ending. Such a style will require less energy and be less stressful, leading to fewer time scrambles, and as such will be attractive to many older players.

Here’s Matthew Sadler describing his preparations for the 2013 London Classic Rapid tournament:

“I decided that I needed some inspiration, someone I could try to copy. A player who took decisions quickly, whose style was smooth and effortless who would help me out of the agony I was currently experiencing when trying to formulate a plan. You can imagine that I thought at once of Capablanca!”

Matthew demonstrated this Capablanca game which wasn’t included in the book, making particular reference to the way Capa used his knights. When one knight left a square there was another ready to take its place. This was an interesting idea for me as I’d read elsewhere about having your two knights on different circuits, which seemed like more or less the opposite advice!

What Matthew and Natasha didn’t know was that, for a short time between 1922 and 1923, Edward Guthlac Sergeant, the loser of this game, was living in Teddington, about half a mile from our club venue where the talk was taking place! About five years later, my mother and her family would move to Teddington, running a grocer’s shop just round the corner from Sergeant’s previous address. In 1934 they’d move again, into a house at the far end of Sergeant’s road, which is where I spent the first two years of my life. But that’s a story for another time and place.

In the second half of the evening Natasha spoke about Keith Arkell, and in particular his love of the QGD Exchange Variation and rook endings. Natasha provides some interesting statistics in the book. His results with the QGD exchange against 2400 players between 1987 and 2014 are nothing special: 16½/34, but against players rated 2200-2399 he scored a massive 27/34, and against players rated below 2200, an extraordinary 21/21.

Keith reaches a rook ending in 14.7% of his games compared with an average of 9.1%, well above the other players considered in this book. In comparison, Capablanca’s rook ending score was 11.6% and Karpov, rather surprisingly, slightly below average at 8.8%.

This game has everything: a QGD Exchange leading to a rook ending where Keith has an extra pawn with four pawns against three on the king side: one of his specialities.

You can see some photographs of the event here.

Meanwhile stop for a moment and think about the title of Matthew and Natasha’s book, which, by the way, I’d strongly urge you to buy.

Chess for Life. Chess is a game for all ages, not just a game for small children in primary school chess clubs. You can still play chess, and maintain most of your strength, into middle age and beyond. Think for a moment of the great Viktor Korchnoi, who recently left us. There was an old slogan for people thinking about buying their children a pet for Christmas. A pet is not just for Christmas: a pet is for life. The same is true about chess. Last week we heard how Nette Robinson brought chess into the community through combining a blitz tournament with a jazz concert. Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan are bringing chess into the community through a series of talks based on their book. Next week you’ll hear about another new idea about how to take chess out of the ghetto: one in which the aforementioned Keith Arkell is playing a part.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 7: Nette Sings, Daniel Plays

If you were wondering why I was posting so much about chess and music, there was a good reason. It was inspired by a recent event which I was fortunate to be able to attend.

On Friday 6 May, jazz singer, artist and chess player Nette Robinson hosted an evening of chess and music in Hammersmith (as it happens, opposite my old school).

The format was a blitz tournament with the qualifying event before the gig and the semi-finals and finals, played on Purling Dark Chess boards, during the interval.

The blitz event was a 5-round Swiss with the top four going through to the semi-finals. Pall Thorarinsson (Iceland) won the qualifying tournament with 5/5, followed by FM Andy Smith (Ireland), Jim Stevenson (Scotland) and WIM Natasha Regan (England) on 3½/5. Other strong players such as David Okike (Nigeria) and Rick McMichael also took part, along with John Foley, Director of Educational Development and Training at Chess in Schools & Communities and Phil Ehr, former ECF Chief Executive. Stewart Reuben was also present at the event.

In the semi-finals two games were played, with each player having 3 minutes for each game. Andy Smith beat Jim Stevenson 2-0, while Pall Thorarinsson eventually defeated Natasha Regan in an Armageddon decider. The final, between Andy and Pall, also went to an Armageddon, and was decided when Pall made an illegal move. There were prizes of prints of Nette’s chess art for the successful participants.

The jazz band providing the music comprised Nette Robinson (vocals), Keith Arkell lookalike Dominic Ashworth (guitar), Andy Trim (drums) and Dan King (bass), with Nette’s husband Tony Woods playing the saxophone in some numbers. Yes – THAT Dan King. Daniel, alongside his talents in various aspects of chess, also has an exceptional gift for music, playing both acoustic and electric bass in various bands. Speaking to Nette and Tony after the gig, they were very complimentary about Daniel’s playing, saying that, although an amateur, he performs to professional standards.

It strikes me that this is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing a lot more of. We need to promote chess to adults as well as to young children. We need to take chess out of the ghetto of primary school chess clubs and draughty church halls and get the message out about what a great game chess really is for all ages. We also need to promote the message that chess is an art as well as a game, and, given Nette’s expertise in both art and music she is in an ideal position to do this. Being young, female, attractive, talented and charismatic also helps, of course!

I took some photographs at the event, which you can see here.

Clips from this and Nette and Daniel’s previous chess and music gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes are not (yet) available online, but here’s a number from another Bull’s Head gig, featuring Nette’s Little Big Band. If you listen carefully you might just hear me clapping at the end.

Nette would admit that her chess is not yet at the same level as her music or art, but she’s making excellent progress. In this recent game played at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club, she defeats an opponent with a grade of 141.

Daniel doesn’t play so much these days, concentrating mainly on making DVDs, broadcasting, writing and teaching. Here’s a win from back in 1989, when he was much more active as a player.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 6: Other Voices

These days it’s much harder to become a specialist in more than one field, but there are some who manage it. There are others who excel professionally in either chess or music while choosing the other as a hobby, or who play chess in their youth before switching to music.

In this week’s article I look at some lesser known examples of chess playing musicians in a variety of genres.

A musical contemporary of Smyslov and Taimanov, and, like the former, a baritone, Derek Hammond-Stroud (1926-2012) was a keen amateur chess player who competed regularly in the London League. His musical specialities were German song and opera, and Gilbert and Sullivan: you can see him here as Jack Point in a 1975 production of The Yeomen of the Guard, along with the delightful Valerie Masterson, who, as far as I know, doesn’t play chess. I haven’t been able to find any of his games online, but there may well be someone out there who played him and kept the score of the game.

While I never played Derek Hammond-Stroud in the London League, I did play my next musician there (it was a draw, since you ask, but not sufficiently interesting to post here). I also once played in a bridge tournament against the great violinist Alfredo Campoli, but that’s another story.

Welsh chess international Francis Rayner was an award-winning child prodigy pianist who continues to be very active in both music and chess. Listen to him here playing La Cathédrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral), a beautiful piece by Debussy.

In this game Francis outplays GM Daniel King, about whose musical prowess you’ll hear much more next week.

Chess is not only popular amongst classical musicians. Leon Rosselson (1934-) has been writing and singing satirical and political songs for more than half a century. In this clip (and if you’re a Tory or a Republican you should probably look away) he’s performing alongside Hounslow’s finest, Robb Johnson, another political songwriter.

As a teenager, though, he was a promising chess player. Here’s a brilliancy prize winning game from the 1952 British Junior Championships.

Another folkie, Nic Jones (1947-), has been a passionate chess player all his life. As far as I know he’s never played competitively, but he’s clearly knowledgeable about the game as one of his albums, which has shamefully never been legally available on CD (the owner of the rights refuses to release them) The Noah’s Ark Trap. Here’s a lovely track from that album. Sadly Nic’s recording career was terminated by a catastrophic car accident in 1982, although he’s made some live appearances in recent years.

Moving on to the field of pop music, Bono (Paul Hewson) was an active club and tournament player as a young boy and claims to have played internationally, although his dad seems to dispute this. In 2014 he met Kasparov when Garry paid a visit to Dublin.

Ray Charles was, and Bob Dylan, for all I know, still is a keen chess player, but again neither played competitively and there seem to be no games available.

New age composer, pianist and singer Jason Kouchak (1969-), however, is a serious competitive player, and is also involved in many other aspects of the game. He installed a giant chess set for children in London’s Holland Park and is also involved with Chess in Schools & Communities. I’m afraid Jason’s music doesn’t appeal to me but that’s my loss: you may well feel differently. Here’s a sample with a chessy title.

Jason’s current FIDE rating is 1729 so he’s a decent player. Here’s a game against an American chess author.

Next week I’ll consider how chess and music can continue to work together: until then I hope you enjoy the games and at least some of the music.

Richard James