Wednesday, 1 January 2020

John Skinner

For about twenty years John Skinner was a member of Kenilworth Chess Club from the mid 1980's to the mid 2000s. Sadly, John died on Tuesday, 26th of November, 2019, aged 89. Along with a couple of other club members - Bernard and Phil - I went to John's well attended funeral which was held a few days later on 10th December.  

I knew John throughout this period and by way of celebrating this part of his life, I wanted to share with other club members some personal recollections.

He started at the club around the same time as myself when the club met in the crypt of the Catholic church in Kenilworth, St Francis.

In the world of chess, Bobby Fischer was his idol. His favourite open as Black was the King's Indian Defence and he followed closely the wisdom as set down by Golubev in his book on the matter (although John usually refered to him as Gorbachev!). As White the Reti was his favoured approach. Both of these served him well at Kenilworth - and I presume before this. John was a lifelong chess player and it formed a very big part of his life. As long as he was playing – which was up until just a couple months before his death – he was studying! I am not a good enough chess player to say whether John himself was any good but I always took him to be a middle-ranking club player who was regularly selected to play in various club teams.

And John fully engaged with the life of the club. He came along on a couple of weekend chess 'jollies' to such exotic locations as Huddersfield and Runcorn! We all knew how to have a good time back in those days!

He also took an interest in club juniors. When a very young Paul Lam started attending - in his metaphorical short trousers - John was always happy to give him advice and a few pointers. These were the days when Paul had 'no idea' what he was doing and John would advise not just what Paul was doing that was wrong – but took the time to explain why it was wrong.

But let Paul speak for himself:-

'I'd known John since joining the club almost twenty years ago but other club members will have known him even longer. Like many others at the club he was very kind and helpful towards me as a junior. The first time we played, I naively neglected my development in order to launch a crude pawn storm against John's castled king, only for John to rebut it and slaughter me mercilessly, teaching me a valuable lesson!

I found John to have a great sense of humour and you could chat to him about a range of things, other than chess. He had some good stories about his time in the police force! At the 2001 British Chess Championships in Scarborough (I was playing in the U13s and he was in the Atkins tournament - or it could have been the Yates), he kept my mum company in between rounds and I gather they spent most of the time talking about gardening!

Roy and I paid him a visit earlier this year and although frail, he was still sharp as a tack. We had an excellent time! When Roy suggested that the two of us play a game, his response was 'So that's why you came here Roy, you sadist! You just wanted to witness an execution!'

Remembering John's penchant for the cut and thrust of attacking play, I opted for safety first against his Latvian Gambit. It was a young guy running away from an old guy, oh the shame! John played superbly to hang with me to the endgame, when I found a decisive pawn sac, provoking the comment 'Well that was a dagger to the heart'. Feeling somewhat guilty, I offered an honourable draw, only for him to respond 'Not having it Paul, I'm not Joan of Arc', cracking a smile. Not the turn of phrase he was looking for I think, but I understood!

RIP John, you'll be missed.'

Bernard Rogers was always particularly glad to see John on a Thursday night – not least because he was the only club member who could keep up with Bernard when it came to beer consumption. And keep on playing tolerable chess! John was a man of many talents.

I understand John served his National Service in the RAF military police, loved it, and so, in civvy street, became Police Constable Skinner eventually reaching Sergeant in the Coventry Force after a period in the C.I.D. - and it was a 'Force' in those days, not a 'Service'. John could be a bit sensitive and it was not possible to say anything critical about his beloved Police Force. In fact there were lots of areas of life that were off limits. He was not averse to putting his hand in his pocket in support of causes or to undo what he considered an injustice – a quality I greatly admired. 

I was born in the early 1950s when morality, values and the general view of the world was very different from today. Now, John was a policeman in precisely this era and he must have found the social revolution of the sixties a major challenge. John's clarity about his views and values made it easy to navigate around them and maintain an easy, long term, friendship.

Throughout this period John was restless and lived for a while in Ireland – breeding dogs – then in the Scarborough area and then for a time in Blackpool. But he kept up his links with the club and would always come along when he was back in the area.

For a good part of the time I knew John I would visit him at home on a weekly basis and play a few one-hour games. He also played Tom Swallow (ex-club member) on the same basis. Cakes and scones were provided by his partner Eileen who would pass comment about what the neighbors would think - me turning up early afternoon, pulling the curtains together (to be clear - to keep the sun out) staying for two/three hours and then leaving a smile on my face! Lovely woman and a great support and companion to John. They had what seemed to me the best of all possible domestic worlds by living in adjoining bungalows and NOT knocking a door through. That way each others' company was on tap when they needed it but a tap that could be turned off by either John or Eileen when they had had 'enough'. I have never seen a happier couple.

I think John and Eileen met in the early eighties, a few years after their respective wife and husband had died.

A bit of a 'culture vulture' and avid fan along with Eileen, of University Challenge, Countdown and the Times crossword. He had a penchant for 'classical' music but also, fifties 'rock and roll'. He was a proficient drummer and mouth organist AND, I understand, a bit of a smoothy on the dance floor.

So, John was a man for whom I had great respect. He made a valuable contribution to local chess and I found him good company. He is someone I will always remember fondly.

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