Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Short’

That's me in the blue shirt

I was looking forward to the London Chess Classic all year and I was really glad I took some time off work to go along. I thought I might get bored but I couldn’t get enough of it and only failed to turn up on the two Sundays when I had to do some domestic duties.

It took such a huge chunk out of my life that I’ve been busy catching up since then and haven’t had a chance to write down what I learned from it.

One of the great things about chess is there is a very informal feeling about it. You can rub shoulders, quite literally, with all the great players and even have a chat in the toilet if you’re so inclined. Personally I can’t stand it when people talk to me in the toilet. Well, in truth, when they’re in the middle of a game, the players also tend to have a distracted and distant air that discourages trivial banter. But I did hold the door open for Nigel Short. I was going to say, “Well, Nigel, you really made a mess of that position, didn’t you? What are you going to do now?” That’s one of the few occasions in my life when, in retrospect, I’m glad I held my tongue.

But look at the position.

Kramnik has just played 19. … d5. Nigel’s bishop on b3 is entombed and White’s position is hopeless.

But you’ve got to admire these players even when they are losing. I came home with a headache on a few days because it’s really hard to follow 4 simultaneous games for hours on end and at the same time keep up with the exhaustive analysis in the commentary room.

Octagenarian Viktor Korchnoi managed to do not only that but also to play 25 simultaneous games while he was at it. Twice. “The first simul was a bit tough,” he complained. “I discovered I was up against two or three serious players.”

One of the highlights for me was listening to Julian Hodgson comment on the games. I wish he’d been present in the public commentary room for longer but he got heckled by some soccer fans and disappeared to the VIP room never to emerge again.

The final day of the tournament was an anti-climax. The games just fizzled out and Kramnik won without much fanfare. The prizes were awarded in the Savoy Hotel on the other side of London and the audience wasn’t invited.

Can you think of any other sport where the winner skulks away and is given a trophy in secret but where you can meet the players in the toilet in the middle of the match?


I suppose there are those who like to read chess books and those who don’t. I love reading chess books. I like to think I read them purely for pleasure but at the back of my mind there has always been the dim hope that one day I might benefit from all the reading I was doing and become a better player.

For years it didn’t happen and I’ve come across the same complaint from other people. For twenty years they had read chess books and followed master games but their chess skill remained largely unchanged.

Last year I found myself in the position of having no spare time. By January the situation had improved slightly but reading chess books was still out of the question. However, I was missing chess badly so I decided to buy some videos from Chessbase. I found I could spend between 10 and 20 minutes every night watching a video clip.

Something miraculous occurred. I got better at chess. I could measure this in two ways. First of all, I could play rapid games against Shredder at increasing levels of difficulty and occasionally win. And secondly I got pretty pleasing scores when I played against test positions or games of the sort provided by Igor Khmelnitsky, Daniel King and Jeroen Bosch.

I suspect my chess has also got stronger because I have stopped using Fritz. I used my own judgement instead of checking everything with the computer. I used to be always in the habit of using Fritz to check what I read in books. I have always been sceptical about experts in the past but the players who present these videos are chess legends: Nigel Short, Viktor Kortchnoi, Alexei Shirov, Garry Kasparov. I’ve learnt to trust them. I’ve also found that it is easier to find strong moves if you are trained in human chess thinking rather than trying to follow the correct but sometimes unfathomably complex advice of the computer.

But another measure of how much I’ve improved might be my growing taste for endgames. Endgames are difficult, in my view, because you need to calculate precisely. You can’t rely on instinct or strategic concepts.

There aren’t many good chessbase videos on endgames. Not that I’ve found so far anyway. The best endgame lessons I’ve come across have been in the collected games of Kortchnoi and Short. Short’s commentary is particularly clear.

But I’ve recently started to read a book that I bought because it was half price. It’s called Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov by Tibor Karolyi & Nick Aplin. It’s not as effortless as watching a video but neither is it as dry as I expected.

Here’s a position that arises from analysis of Karpov’s game against Vaganian in Leningrad, 1969.

Black to move

Karpov was Black. The correct moves, according to the book’s authors are

49…e4! opens the passage for invasion. In opposite-coloured bishop endings you often have to play aggressively. 50.fxe4 Ke5! (White must go one way with the king, then the Black king invades in the other direction. Just like taking a penalty in soccer).

Like soccer, yes. Pretty easy, really, isn’t it?

"Why do people read this stuff, Nigel?"

I have to admit from the outset that I don’t have a natural talent for chess and have never been very good at it. But I nevertheless find it very relaxing both to study and to play.

I read a lot of chess books that are aimed at the serious student. They can be very daunting. Just the number of chess books that are published every year is intimidating. How do people find time to play when there is so much new theory to be absorbed every year?

Well, they play more and more blitz and rapid games. Earlier this month I was watching Alexei Shirov analyse one of his rapid games that he’d played two years earlier. He had clearly spent far longer analysing it than he had spent playing it.

I found this comforting. I, too, spend far more time studying chess than actually playing it, particularly over the last few years when I have hardly played at all. But this year I have started to play again more regularly. Shirov, I must say, is an inspiration.

Another inspiration is Nigel Short. I once read an interview in which he admitted to reading chess books in bed without a board. He was very proud of his extensive collection. But in an article in New In Chess this month he wrote that Garry Kasparov had confided to him as long ago as in the nineties that he no longer read chess books. Since then Mr. Kasparov has written several of course. I bought one, the first volume of My Great Predecessors, and queued up in the London Chess Centre to have Garry sign it. I read all the text and played through some of the games but much of the analysis was too difficult for me.

As Nigel says, somewhat sarcastically, “Garry’s analysis is far too intimidating and requires one not only to take out a board and set but to painstakingly grapple with labyrinthine variations. No – it is far easier to plonk them on the shelf and admire the hard covers in their nice red dust jacket…”

Which is what I’ve done with mine for the last few years.

It’s true there are also books for what they call “club players.” A club player is a talented amateur who has less time to study because of his day job. Club players go in for wooly positions in which “ideas are more important than concrete variations” or else try to trip up their opponents with dastardly and often dubious opening surprises. To date New in Chess has published a weighty 13 volumes of astonishing “Secrets of Opening Surprises,” with which these unstuffy students of the game can catch each other out.

“No need to study large quantities of stuffy theory, but an immediate return on your investment of time. And lots of fun while going at it!”

I am not even a club player. I am too busy and too anti-social to go to clubs. And if I studied an opening surprise, I am the one who would end up being caught out by it.

The big problem for someone like me is waiting for a line I actually know to come up in a game. By the time it finally appears, the chances are I’ll have forgotten all the theory I ever knew about it.

So I am starting this blog to document my thoughts on chess before they are lost to posterity. You could see it as an expression of my long hours of lonely preparation for the chances that never came. As I have heard Mr. Kasparov say somewhere “nothing in chess is ever wasted.” And now I am proving him right. (He is always right, of course.) For I am going to share, at last, the untold secrets of my chess knowledge.

The distilled wisdom of half a century is here!

(Or very soon will be.)