Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Chess Crusader - A review

I have been reading and reviewing books for The Chess Circuit during lockdown.  I thought I might share these reviews here from time to time. Where better place to start than with the latest work from a writer the Leamington League can proudly claim as one of their own? Carl Portman is truly on top form in Chess Crusader...

Chess Crusader by Carl Portman

A review by Ben Graff

“I am clear that the most wonderful thing about chess is the opportunity to play it, and it is my sincere hope that everyone reading this book finds something equally significant and enjoyable in their lives.”

Carl Portman – Chess Crusader

Do you ever wonder what the opponent sitting across the chess board from you is really like? Where their journey through life has taken them, leading up to your first encounter? It is inevitable that we all make judgements, approximations, but who can tell? 

Those who read Chess Crusader will be privileged to learn much about one of the foremost writers and advocates for chess today, in Carl Portman. From his chess adventures, through to his work, relationships and other passions, Carl radiates positivity, good sense, and a determination to live every day to the full.

Carl endured a terrible childhood with a violent stepfather, filling the emotional void around him with friendships, music, and a love of Aston Villa. Yet perhaps no day was more significant than that on which he first entered the school chess club and was welcomed in by Mr Lenton. “All I could hear were clocks ticking… Other than that, it was silence. Perfect, wonderful, beautiful silence… I am often asked why I play chess, and one of the things I have treasured most is the tranquillity.”

Carl was on his way. Chess would ultimately take him all over the world. He has captained an England team, met with some of the most famous figures in the game, attended garden parties at Buckingham Palace, and worked with prisoners on the margins of society. He truly knows how to build connections and bring people together. His skill as a writer enables all of us to share in these and a host of further experiences. 

Carl simply has the knack for making things happen. Can you imagine the legendary Grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky staying at your house? Well, he stayed with Carl. They analysed the then in progress second Fischer-Spassky match in Carl’s front room. From Polugaevsky’s thoughts on Fischer, through to his shock on learning that Carl drank tea in the evening, this is a lovely tale nicely told. 

Carl also befriended Patrick Moore and they played both correspondence and over the board chess. Something again that Carl had instigated, which few others could have brought off. Carl’s other adventures include playing his hero, Karpov, and being the last man standing in the simul. A night to savour. He has also been coached by Michael Adams, who shared with him the idea that amateurs would probably improve if for a whole season they played every game out and did not take draws.

There are lots of interesting anecdotes, including Short’s view that his world title defeat to Kasparov was not the pinnacle of his career – rather it was defeating Karpov in the Candidates final. I also loved Carl’s story of the time he was reflecting on Tony Miles brutal review of Eric Schiller’s book Unorthodox Chess Openings in the restaurant at the Gibraltar Chess Festival. Only for a colleague to whisper that Eric Schiller was sat at that table behind them. It could happen to any of us!

Carl includes a very funny chapter “Saints and sinners,” building on his observation that there are two types of opponents. “Those that behave themselves and those that do not.” His list encompasses the starers, the clock bangers, and the kickers (including one very famous chess author, who while not explicitly named, most readers will be able to work out from Carl’s clues.) Carl has always been known to have an aversion to opponents eating at the board. Having read the following, who can blame him? “One madman once mutilated half a melon in front of me and he only had two teeth in his head. It was ghastly, and I had nightmares for weeks.”

Carl’s work with prisoners and his life and loves away from the board also form key components of his book. He highlights that Karpov has said that “Chess gives prisoners the key to a free world.” I was particularly touched to learn about the large volume of letters Carl receives from prisoners – and the huge positives the game has brought inmates – in terms of purpose, confidence, and self-esteem. 

The story of Carl’s MoD career is also impressive and engaging. Having left school at sixteen to work as a farm hand, he would go on to build a significant career in logistics. A considerable achievement and his recollections are either funny, or in the context of his work near the site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sensitive and thought provoking. 

Carl writes movingly about his amazing wife Susan, and her brave battle with cancer. This book is a love story on top of everything else. Carl shares that, “As soon as Susan walked in my heart missed a beat – she had brought fish and chips! What a girl… She brought colour and laughter into my flat…Susan was like no other girl I had ever met.” The two would be friends for many years, before ultimately buying a house together in 2007 and marrying in 2012. As Carl notes, the news of Susan’s illness “…was of course a life-changing moment but we draw on all our strength and love to stand together and fight.” I am sure they know that many others stand with them.

This is a book with chess at its core. The story of a man who overcame considerable adversity, to achieve so much and to give even more back to others. Carl’s energy, humour, and enthusiasm for life shine through on every page. Chess Crusader is a fantastic work and another terrific contribution from a writer at the peak of their powers.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

A night of surprises, a familiar outcome

"Life is not what you expect: it is made up of the most unexpected twists and turns."


We made our debut in the U-8750 KO cup last night, with an evening of high drama or farce, depending on the generosity of your perspective. Ultimately we won without losing a single game. However, that does not really tell the full story. Anyone who has read this far is as well placed to predict the outcome of each match as those intrepid spectators who spent their evening observing the action, only to be called away moments before the end of the proceedings. (Perhaps fortunately there were no such watchers, but if this report does not bring the crowds in next time, I don't know what will.)

These last eighteen months of lockdowns may have changed society beyond all recognition, but some things remain the same. Rob Reynolds is still too inclined to take draws and our very own Rod Webb has retained his unique approach to clock management. From the confines of Board 2, I watched both these phenomena play out on Boards 1 and 3.

On Board 1, Rob seemed to pick up the exchange very early against Phil. Phil did make it hard and to be fair, these positions are never easy. That said, it was a bit of a let off for us when Rob offered a draw with plenty of wood on the board. Geddit! So 0.5 - 0.5.

On Board 3, Rod seemed to be in a level endgame against Andrew Cottom, with one crucial distinction. Rod had four minutes left, Andrew over an hour. At which point, Andrew followed Rob's generous example and offered a draw. I expected Rod to bite Andrew's hand off. Instead of which, he sat there in blissful contemplation as his clock ticked down. In the end I couldn't help but lean over and ask Andrew to clarify if he was offering the draw. Andrew obliged by repeating the offer more clearly, breaking Rod's zen like train of thought and to my relief he accepted.  So 1-1, from the only two games where we were in trouble.

The last three match ups all went to the wire. I had a blistering attack against Richard Liszewski. Better even than last week's against Paul Roper, at least for most of the night. I thought a mate was inevitable, but I simply couldn't find it. In the end I simplified into the wrong ending, two pawns up, but with opposite coloured Bishops. I still thought it would be straightforward, but I could not get it right. I ran very short of time and had to take a draw that felt more like a defeat. Very painful, as I'd certainly had the best position of the evening.

Still, Will was better and Roy was miles better, so things still looked good. In what seemed like seconds, Roy's game against Jason Gillespie swung from won to lost and then to a draw. I don't have the chess expertise to describe this extraordinary series of events, but there it was. Another draw and 2-2.

Will, while in a decent position seemed to have far fewer winning chances than his colleagues. Yet he found a way to see it through. In a time scramble, Warren Archibold's radar let him down and Will pounced to be the hero. A really well played, nicely controlled game. Will held his nerve where his team mates had not managed to hold theirs! Well done Will - definitely our man of the match.

So, we progress to the next round. Bernard R will be back from holiday and in the captain's seat next time around. Our matches aren't always the most relaxing watching for any captain, but Kenilworth's 100% start to the season is still intact! Maybe we just make things harder than they need to be to keep everybody entertained! Maybe.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

KCC Still in the Pink - Except for Mr Pink!

The club's winning start to the season stretched to 4 games last night, as we triumphed 3.5-1.5 in our Open KO Cup quarter final (aka the first round!) away at Shirley. But in the process our unbeaten individual record went for a burton, as Joshua was given a right going over on Board 3 by Darren Whitmore. Still, we can hardly lament that too much, as for a large part of the evening I figured something far worse was going to happen. All five boards were in a highly fluid situation, but we appeared to be losing on Board 3, and slightly off the pace on boards 4 and 5. And not clearly winning on Boards 1 and 2 either! But maybe what was once known as "the Chinese hour", when China's men's team all seemed to shift into overdrive, has (temporarily, I'm sure!) become the Kenilworth hour, since the match moved decisively in our favour as 22.00 came and went.

On Board 5, Bernard C got out of a rather awkward middle-game and into a good knight v bad bishop ending. I'm not sure whether it was worth him playing on in the final position, but possibly relieved at surviving an uncomfortable position, Bernard was happy enough to take a draw against Jonathan Dale. Joshua duly disappeared down the plug hole (have I already mentioned he lost horribly?) but Andrew kept his impressive start to the season going, by defeating Dave Thomas on Board 2 after a slightly hair raising game. His extra queenside pawn was countered by Dave's kingside pressure, but at a crucial point the tide turned. Andrew won two pieces for a rook and took over the whole board to secure the win and level the match. Another fine win with the Black pieces for him.

Meanwhile, I was trying to win a bishop v knight ending against Phil Purcell, but apparently my belief that I was much better was a total delusion according to Mr Fritz. Nevertheless, I was too stupid to know this, so kept pressing and eventually Phil's resistance just failed in severe time trouble. I sacrificed my bishop to get my king in, and with the Black king too far away to help out, my h pawn could not be stopped from queening. Then, having reached 2.5 points to ensure victory on board elimination, another point arrived almost immediately as Lionel (welcome back!) turned a bad/lost position into victory when Keith Ingram tragically blundered a whole piece. So a comfortable looking margin of victory in the end, but it was anything but that for most of the evening.

A semi-final at home to Leamington or Stratford in the New Year now awaits us, as we attempt to hold on to a trophy we have won 4 times in the last 6 editions.

No prizes for guessing this week's song. I'm rather amazed its taken me this long to get round to choosing it!

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

As Easy As A, B, C!

What an amazing first few days for KCC in the 2021-22 Leamington League, as our A, B and C teams all kicked off their campaigns with identical 3-1 wins, without losing a single game.

The C team, under the leadership of club stalwart, icon, Chairman and all-round legend Bernard R, got the ball rolling last Wednesday by winning an away match against Stratford A. Bernard himself and Phil were victorious with the Black pieces, while Bernard C and Ben made light of the disadvantage of the White pieces by holding the draw!

Then two nights ago, the B team pulled off a terrific win over Banbury A in the club's first home match for 18 months. My informant tells me that Ben produced the game of the night to despatch Paul Rowan, and the evening's other victor, Bernard C, made it a very bad night for the Rowan family by defeating Dan. A bit of history, too, as Jude must surely have become the youngest ever Division 1 top board when drawing an exciting game against Georgs Vikanis. Mike rounded off the match by drawing a long game against Gary Jackson. It seems as though even when IM James doesn't turn out for Banbury, they can always make sure there's a Jackson in the team! Which is rather serendipitous for the purposes of this report, as will become apparent.

So the pressure was on the A team to continue the club's excellent start to the season when we took to the field last night against what was a strong Olton A team, even though familiar face Alan Lloyd was missing from their line-up.  Mike was in action for the second night running, and after his long draw of the previous evening, he notched up a short draw this time round, against the very solid Nick Roberts, an old Warwickshire Select team mate of mine. And then things moved decisively in our favour. Joshua, as usual against Mark Cundy, was being gradually outplayed until Mark's time trouble intervened and Joshua uncorked his inevitable cheapo to win the full point from a clear blue sky. We'll take it! And then Andrew, after sitting out the 2019-20 season, brought home a very convincing win against Olton's board 2 debutant, Bruce Baer. From what I saw this was definitely the classiest game of the evening, and emphasised what a great boost it is to have Andrew back in the team. For much of the evening it looked like I would suffer the ignominy of being the first person in the club to lose a game, but somehow Phil Holt failed to find the win that we both instinctively knew was there, and which his excellent play deserved. And Mr Fritz confirms that it was indeed there - several times!

And not content with winning the match, we also relieved Olton of the Division 1 trophy, finally taking possession of the historic trophy (donated to the League by Phil's dad in 1949 - and first won by Kenilworth Chess and Draughts Club!) that we won in the truncated 2019-20 season.

So, wins for our A, B and C teams, and reference to a couple of Jacksons (though regrettably not 5!) There could only ever be one song to accompany this article. Take it away, Michael!

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Game of the Month - September 2021

Yes, I know. It's been a mighty long time between posts, but give me a break, for goodness sake. Everyone needs some time off occasionally to recharge their batteries. And I could point out that in the last year, there have been precisely two items on this Blog that haven't been written by me. So I guess everyone else must have been even busier than me.

Anyway, the Blog is back with a bang, as I am able to present a truly remarkable game. In fact, its so remarkable that you probably won't believe your eyes when you play through it. And in a break from tradition, I'm going to with-hold the names of the players until the end of the article. All I will say is that they should both be well known to all KCC members.

Play chess online

A game like no other ever published on this site! But now its time for a bit of background information. This encounter took place on Lichess at the rather taxing time limit of .......... 15 seconds for the entire game!! (Yes, it was an ultrabullet game. Harry Golombek would not have approved!) This may have been a contributory factor in the quality of some of the moves. The player of the Black pieces could only be our very own mighty atom, Jude Shearsby, who wields the fastest mouse in the west. We can put his participation in this frightful time format down to youthful exuberance, but his opponent Indian Grand Master Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, was surely old enough to know better, having turned 16 a couple of weeks earlier!

Another fantastic scalp for Jude - Praggnanandhaa is the fifth youngest GM in history and is currently rated 2617 in classical chess! (Though his rapid rating of 1821 could do with a bit of work - its actually lower than Joshua's - though I know who my money would be on in a match!

After 10 moves of the above game, Jude was 1.6 seconds ahead of Pragg on the clock - much more important than a mere pawn, of course. After 20 moves this advantage had grown to a ginormous 4.1 seconds - and Jude had taken only 3.9 seconds (!!!) to this point. When White lost on time, Jude had a massive 9.7 seconds left, so had taken only 5.3 seconds for the entire game. Scarcely believable that anyone can be so fast. I need a lie down just thinking about what playing at that speed might be like.

An absolutely brilliant result for Jude, the likes of which the rest of us can only dream about. As Spock almost said on Star Trek. It's chess, Jim, but not as we know it!