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.