THE BRIAN CUNNINGHAM COLUMN
A Review of the Christmas Blitz Tournament 2015
St. John’s Winter Blitz
On Thursday 14th January, the membership of St. John’s Chess Club braved hurricane force winds, driving rain and the first snows of winter to attend this prestigious event at the Coachmakers. Now in its second year, the St. John’s Winter Blitz is looking likely to become a regular annual fixture. Originally billed as the club’s Christmas/New Year party, the first available club night in 2016 without a league fixture seemed the perfect opportunity, and Brian Cunningham and Phil Sneesby were duly volunteered to do the organising.
Played over six rounds in a Swiss format, the previous year had seen Richard Downing make a clean sweep with an unbeaten 6/6, so the quick playing format seemed to be something of a leveller, ensuring that the top graded players did not win every time. This year there were twelve participants, and play got under way just before eight o’clock. A prize for the winner had been donated, comprising a travel chess set and a chess book. A similar prize combination was also on offer for the highest scoring player graded under 110.
A hot buffet was laid on, comprising baguettes, chips and side dishes and Rod Mills’ wife Wendy made, for the second year running, a superb chocolate cake featuring chess board patterned interior and white and dark chocolate chess pieces (see below).
Phil Sneesby had the responsibility of doing the pairings after each round, trying to organise the draw so that nobody met the same opponent twice, high/low cumulative scoring players met opponents with a similar score, and nobody had consecutive white or black pieces. With only twelve combatants and therefore six boards, one might imagine that to be a relatively simple task. In fact it is counter-intuitive; Swiss pairings become simpler when there are more players in the mix. By the fifth and sixth rounds it was getting very complicated trying to find a draw that worked and was fair to all, not helped particularly by well-meaning club members constantly volunteering information about who they had, and hadn’t already played! It made me think of all the skill and experience in tournament pairings we lost, when we lost John Charman! Anyway, Phil did an excellent job and although some players had to do their best with consecutive black pieces, everybody took it in good heart and gave the tournament their best effort:
In the end this year the two top graded players, Nigel Larter and Ryan Barnes, shared first place with 5.5/6 having drawn their game and beaten all others. Nigel had noticed that one of the lower graded club members, who had been ill recently, had been much enamoured with the 1st prize chess set during the evening and, with Ryan’s agreement, presented the winner’s prize to him. It was an act of generosity and selflessness which showed great character, and made me feel proud to be a member of the club.
The grading prize was also shared between three players on 2.5/6 and, because it was late in the evening by then with no time for a play-off, the prizes were awarded to the lowest graded of the three; Rod Mills who received a chess book, and Alan Holmes, who received a chess set.
All in all, it was a fine evening spent in good company, and everything that a chess club should be.
Copyright © 2016 Brian Cunningham
The right of Brian Cunningham to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved.
Strange things happen. But I’d have said that the chances of Joe Higgins becoming a champion chess player were very slim indeed. You see he really wasn’t very good at the game at all. He didn’t have the temperament for it, had what you might call a scatter-brained approach to the game, and to pretty much everything else as well. For a while though, he could beat them all, and I watched it all happen and stood beside him through the good and the bad of it. I looked after Joe as best I could, and wrote it all down at the time. To the best of my recollection, this is how it happened.
Joe and I were good friends in the days when I played for Barnsley Chess Club. I expect it would help if I explain what kind of a bloke we’re talking about here. A good starting point would be the incident of the annoying slurping noise, because that event serves to paint an adequate sketch of Joe, and what it was like to be around him. We were at yet another new venue for the weekly evening meeting of the Barnsley Chess Club. This time, it was the lounge bar of a workingmen’s club on the High Street, reserved by arrangement for our private use on Tuesday nights. Only three weeks previously the chess club had been unceremoniously evicted from a function room above a pub in the town centre, our metal cupboard containing chess sets, boards and clocks left outside overnight in the rain. The landlord had received a better offer from a local aspiring rock band who wished to use the venue for practice. He had calculated that the band members and their assorted followers would be a more lucrative market for the sale of alcoholic drinks than us old chess players, with our cups of tea, soft drinks and occasional celebratory halves of bitter.
Anyway, on this particular evening Joe was driving me, and all the other players, to distraction. His opponent was one of the school-kids who came to chess club accompanied by doting parents, this one watched over from an adjacent table by his mother, who made eye contact with any of us who glanced her way and nodded imperiously, eyebrows slightly raised and with a glance toward her child, as if to say ‘Watch and learn!’. She would tell any of us that cared to listen that young Tristan was a gifted child and destined for greatness, though in which field it was yet to be determined. She followed the movements and reactions of her offspring closely, without actually following the game, the rules of which she evidently did not fully understand. Occasionally she stage-whispered;
‘Concentrate now Tristan darling, think about what you’re doing.’
It had been Joe’s turn to move for the last fifteen minutes. I leant back in my chair and observed him, my own game having finished in an early, uninspiring draw, as he peered reflectively at the board from beneath the brim of his tweed cap and over the glasses that rested upon the tip of his nose. The grey tufts of hair at the back of his neck seemed to bristle with concentration and the fingers of his left hand drummed repetitively on his folded knees under the table. In Joe’s other hand was an orange squash carton with a straw which he chewed upon thoughtfully. He was breathing slowly through his nose which, on each exhalation, produced a noise somewhere between a resonant snore and a whistle. On every third or fourth inhalation, he would position the bottom of the drinking straw at the exact level of the remaining juice in the carton, and then suck hard through it so that he vacuumed up a mixture of air and liquid with a long resounding slurp. The tension in the room continued to build with every walrus-like snore and orangey gurgle, and I wondered from where the inevitable explosion would come. It came, not from his young opponent or his mother, but from a tall, well dressed young man with long black hair and a ponytail who was the current club champion and playing in a serious league game, rather than just a friendly like the rest of us;
‘For god’s sake Joe, I can’t hear myself think over here!’
‘Sorry Noel’ said Joe, but continued with occasional slurps, though a little less noisily, as he pondered his move. Joe seemed to feel that he had plenty of time to consider his options. The clocks were set for one hour for each player, and are designed so that only the clock for the player whose turn it is to move is ticking, while the opponent’s clock is paused until it is their turn to move. The game that Joe was playing had reached the middle-game stage, about twenty five moves each having been played, and Joe had about ten minutes left of his one hour. I noticed that his young opponent had used up hardly any time at all. He sat there fidgeting distractedly with his I-Pod headphones and eating crisps, while his legs and Nike trainer-clad feet, which did not quite reach the floor, twitched constantly with nervous energy. I could see him wishing that he had insisted on a quick-play format for the game with just fifteen minutes each to complete all moves, and willing this old fool in front of him to hurry up and make a move.
Suddenly, Joe seemed to stiffen up in his chair and stop breathing altogether, his face taking on a purplish hue. He had evidently found a killer move and his opponent sensed the change in atmosphere and began a frantic search of the position to try to work out what Joe had found. Joe dropped the now empty juice carton, which bounced off the table and skittered across the floor, and picked up his queen with a flourish. He extended his arm forward, keeping the piece high above the board and then, as it began its descent towards the square that Joe had chosen, he suddenly froze. Joe’s face, which had at first registered a triumphant confidence, now began to break into a series of almost caricature emotions, first hesitation, then puzzlement, bewilderment, horror and finally a kind of resigned acceptance. Young Tristan, who had quickly worked out the situation, sat back and grinned smugly, saying;
‘You’ll have to move it, now you’ve touched it. That’s the rules you know!’
He looked to his mother for support and she beamed back a reassuring smile, then stared hard at Joe, challenging him to disagree. I walked over to have a look, and realised fairly quickly that Joe was in serious trouble. The move that he had intended with his queen, bringing a seemingly devastating attack to bear on Tristan’s king, was illegal as it left his own king in check from a bishop down one of the long diagonals. The bishop attack that Tristan had set up on the previous move could have been simply defended against by Joe with a pawn advance, but the only option he was left with now was to exchange his queen for Tristan’s bishop, with a lost game and no choice but to resign and get it over with. Joe was now red in the face and glanced at me sheepishly, even apologetically, as if it mattered to me that he had made an error. He replaced the queen on its original square, flipped over his king so that it lay on its side, centralised the levers on the chess clocks so that both stopped ticking and said:
‘I resign. Good game. Well Played!’
Tristan, who had never been taught the correct etiquette for both winning and losing at chess, punched the air and whooped, while his mother commenced a solo round of applause, and actually even said ’Bravo!’, as if he had just completed a virtuoso Chopin piano concerto at the Royal Albert Hall. Although he had hardly spoken all evening, Tristan now became keen to loudly explain the manner of his victory to his mother, to Joe and everyone else in earshot;
‘Shall we analyse the game? Would you like to? It was all book stuff until you pushed on e5. Not sure that was sound! Then the blunder of course, but anyway you were clearly behind…….’
‘Can we go home?’ whispered Joe to me.
‘Yes please’ I replied, and we donned our coats and walked outside into the chilly November night. Behind us I overheard Noel and Surinder, another of the top club players, talking to Tristan’s mum about the possibility of him joining the club’s squad for a match against Sheffield the following week. I had already been selected to play at board three (there were six players per team with each team nominating their strongest player on board one and their weakest on board six) and I knew that Joe would have loved to get the call-up as well. As we walked up the hill and through the park towards the estate where we both lived, neither of us spoke, but it was a companionable enough silence. Joe whistled softly to himself and as we turned into Joe’s street he burst into an impromptu chorus of ‘Don’t laugh at me, ‘cause I’m a fool’, twisting his cap in both hands and doing his very best Norman Wisdom impression.
‘See you Saturday Joe’ I said, laughing as I crossed the street towards the bridge over the railway line and my house at the far end of the estate.
Joe’s sixty-third birthday party, which took place the following Saturday evening, was memorable for the wrong reason entirely. I rang his doorbell at around eight-ish and the door was opened by Joe’s wife, Evie.
‘Hello Tom, how are you? Come on in. Joe keeps asking what time you said you’d be getting here’ she said, squeezing my hand and kissing me on the cheek while carefully balancing a tray of tempura prawns in the other hand. I made my way down the hallway, ducking nimbly to the left as several of Joe and Evie’s grandkids and their pals came hurtling down the stairs and into the living room. Joe and all of his friends and family were sitting on a variety of chairs, stools and cushions positioned around the walls of the room facing inwards toward the centre. I shouted a cheery hello to all present; some of whom I knew well, and most of whom were already well into their third or fourth drink. Joe was sitting in his favourite armchair, holding court, wearing a green and red party hat and a ‘World’s Greatest Granddad’ badge on the lapel of his cardigan. He had a bottle of Abbot Ale in one hand and half a pork pie in the other.
On a trestle table at the far end of the room under the bay window, Evie had laid out a ‘spread’. I could see that all Joe’s favourites (and mine) were included; egg mayonnaise and prawn cocktail vol-au-vents, giant dill pickles, cheddar cheese and pineapple cubes on cocktail sticks arranged on a tin foil wrapped half-melon ‘hedgehog’ and spicy vegetable and minced beef samosas. I poured myself a beer and loaded up a paper plate with food. At the other end of the room, Joe’s two married daughters, Cecilia and Rosemary, had organised a dance floor area on the new polished parquet flooring that was Evie’s pride and joy, and were arguing good-naturedly about which were the best records to get people dancing. A ‘Rat Pack’ medley was playing on the stereo system and the first strains of ‘New York, New York’ were ringing out. Several of the other guests were forming a circle on the dance floor and I watched Joe leap up out of his chair, crisps and peanuts flying in all directions, and sashay across the room towards the dance floor hollering;
‘These vagabond shoes, dah dah da dah!’
As he reached the polished wooden floor, I saw him step down onto a stray prawn vol-au-vent that someone had dropped. His leg slid forwards, arching his off-balance body backward, both arms cart-wheeling to try to maintain an upright position. I watched in slow-motion as Joe fell back towards the floor, the back of his head colliding with the edge of a kitchen stool as he landed with an almighty thump. Joe lay perfectly still on the floor as Evie and the girls screamed in unison. I ran forward and tried to see if he was breathing alright. Joe’s breath was irregular and coming with a gurgle and I quickly rolled him into the recovery position and undid the top buttons of his shirt. He immediately began to breathe freely but I could see that a trickle of bright red blood was running down the back of his shirt collar from under the hairline at the back of his head. Cecilia turned off the stereo while her sister grabbed for the phone on the wall and started to dial 999.
I didn’t travel in the ambulance with Joe. There had been a bit of a scrum to do so and eventually Evie and Rosemary had gone with him, while Cecilia and her husband Eddie stayed behind to hold the fort. Rosemary’s husband Dave and I followed on in a taxi. We arrived at the casualty department just behind the ambulance but could not follow it right up to the entrance doorway, where all vehicles except those belonging to the emergency services were banned. By the time we had paid the driver and walked inside through the pedestrian entrance, Joe and the girls had been taken through the waiting area into one of the examination booths where a doctor was shining a torch into each of Joe’s eyes and asking him questions.
Joe was conscious but very befuddled and answering monosyllabically and inaccurately. He caught sight of me and gave a sheepish grin.
‘Who’s a doddery old fool then?’ I said by way of a greeting.
‘I am’ said Joe, and we all started giggling hysterically.
Surinder was driving the team over to Sheffield in his seven-seater people carrier, when we got the call from Tristan’s mother. We were on route to Tristan’s house and Noel and I and two other regular players, both called Neil, were already on board. Noel snapped his mobile phone shut and said,
‘Damn it, he’s got Glandular Fever of all things! It looks like we’ll have to forfeit Board 6.’
I thought of Joe immediately.
‘We could always give Joe Higgins a call. I know he took a tumble on the weekend and dented his bonce, but he reckons he feels absolutely fine now. What do you think?’ I was asking the whole team but knew that it would be Noel who would answer.
‘Look, I know he’s your mate Tom but he’s not exactly Garry Kasparov is he?’ said Noel.
‘Neither are you’ I replied, annoyed with his snobbery. ‘Anyway, if you think he’ll lose then it’s no worse than forfeiting that board is it?’
‘It’s the reputation of the team’ said Noel petulantly, but Surinder was already spinning the car round in the entrance to someone’s driveway.
‘It’s only a game of Chess, not the Olympics. Give the bloke a break’ said Surinder. I grinned thankfully across at him from the front passenger seat, while Noel fumed quietly in the back, and reached for my phone to give Joe the five minute warning.
We arrived at the pub with a few minutes to spare and bought ourselves soft drinks at the bar. Joe and I wandered through to the back room where the six chess sets and clocks were set up ready for the match. Joe looked a real sight with a bandage wrapped round the wound on his head, and without his customary tweed cap, but he assured me that he felt fine, if a little light-headed. Soon enough, the opposing captain make a formal welcoming address, announced the pairings and wished everyone a good game and we settled down to play. I quickly became entirely engrossed in my game, a tricky variation of the Ruy Lopez, with me playing the black pieces and always on the defensive against an opponent who knew the subtle intricacies of the resulting middle-game well. I played at my best and was rewarded with a hard fought draw, agreed after just over an hour and a half, with the complexities of the position reduced to an even balance. Glancing up, I saw that all the other games were still in progress except for Joe’s which had finished with both players having left the room.
I politely declined my opponent’s invitation to analyse our game and stood up to have a stretch of my back and legs, which were numb from sitting still for so long. Noel looked across the room at me expectantly and I mouthed the word ‘draw’. He pulled a face as if to say ‘that won’t be enough’, noted a half point next to my name on his match sheet and resumed his own game. Wandering out into the bar, I found Joe sitting on his own, nursing what looked suspiciously like a double scotch.
‘Drowning the old sorrows?’ I asked. Joe smiled but I could see that his lip was trembling and I thought for a moment that he was about to cry.
‘Actually, I won my game’ said Joe, ‘though I’m not really sure how it…’ His words tailed off and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply a couple of times, before continuing.
‘Tom, when you’re playing do you ever hear a kind of……, no I mean feel like sort of……. Like different sounds or noises in the position, coming up through the board, through the pieces?’
I noticed flecks of foam forming at the corners of Joe’s mouth.
‘Oh Joe, this is my fault. You’re still concussed. We need to get you home and then straight to the Doc’s.’ I was really panicking now because I had noticed some blood trickling out of Joe’s left ear.
‘But you should have seen me’ said Joe weakly. ‘I played such a game, such a game!’
I didn’t see Joe for a couple of weeks after the match at Sheffield. He was kept in hospital under observation for several days and then allowed home with the proviso that he took complete bed rest with no visitors. The diagnosis was that he had suffered a fractured skull and some bruising of the brain. This had triggered, on the evening of the game against Sheffield, a minor aneurism in the brain, which was not life threatening but which might leave him without full mental function, in particular affecting his memory and speech.
When I did get to visit him he seemed fine, a little befuddled perhaps, but then as far as I was concerned he had never been anything else. Evie made us both a cup of tea and we chatted about this and that for a while. I asked him if he remembered how he had felt during the chess game at Sheffield and Joe replied that he couldn’t remember anything about it. He did say though that he would like to get down to the chess club again soon as he was getting really fed up staring at the same four walls. I got the OK from Evie and agreed to pick him up in the car and take him to the club the following Tuesday evening.
As it happened it was a good, stress-free evening to reintroduce Joe to playing chess as there were no serious matches scheduled; just random friendly games between the club members. Joe didn’t play for the first hour or so, he just seemed content to be out socially, and watched my game and a few others. Towards the end of the evening, Noel, who was the top ranked player at the club, offered to play a simultaneous game against up to a dozen opponents, as long as they were from the lower graded group of players. This involved twelve boards being set up on a long table with the players arrayed on one side and Noel on the opposite side playing a move on board one, then moving on to board two and so on, playing with alternate white and black pieces. No chess clocks were used but as a general rule each of the players was expected to have made their move before Noel arrived at that board, or within ten seconds or so thereafter.
My personal view was that this sort of exhibition was just about Noel showing off and I declined to get involved, but Joe sat down to play and rolled his shirt-sleeves up theatrically. Several of the club members fetched drinks from the bar and settled in as observers and commentators. Soon play commenced with Noel moving swiftly along the line, making his moves without much thought as the standard variation openings were played out. Noel played each move with a nonchalant, staccato stabbing motion, flicking the piece forward with a double wrist movement reminiscent of a striking rattle-snake. Each piece landed on the intended square, but was rarely positioned exactly centrally, and his opponents often felt obliged to tidy the board after him. This was designed to intimidate and, or, annoy his opponent. I would have been impressed except that I had watched Noel play chess for many years and knew that he had always moved his pieces with slow, deliberate precision until about a year ago when he had seen a documentary about Bobby Fischer and decided to model himself on the great man’s physical playing style.
Things began to slow down slightly as each board entered the middle-game stage and neither Noel, or his opponents could simply rely on book memory, but had to study and decipher the position afresh following each move. Noel obviously began to feel that he had control of the majority of the positions in play, and commenced an extremely irritating narrative, explaining the flaws in strategy of each opponent. Some of the observers giggled sycophantically as he derided his adversary’s moves, but I ignored him as far as possible and found myself increasingly focused on Joe, who was behaving very strangely indeed. By the look on Joe’s face he was distracted, even bored with the game and appeared to be concentrating on some kind of external beat or rhythm, indeed his left foot was tapping away in tune to some private melody. Unlike the other players he was making almost instant replies to Noel’s moves, though I noted Noel pausing for longer and longer at Joe’s board each time before he moved on.
One by one the other games finished, either by Noel check-mating his opponent or by their resignation in unwinnable positions. The focus of both Noel and everyone else in the room was by now almost entirely on Joe’s game, which had reached an endgame consisting of a king and one rook each with an equal number of pawns on each side, spread across the board. Such positions are notoriously difficult to decipher, even for the strongest of players, and are also very easy to lose by either player making an unforced error. Many of the observers were huddled out of earshot of the protagonists, discussing the position, and general consensus was that the game was equally balanced and therefore drawn. Eventually, after spending several minutes staring at the board, Noel said;
‘Well, it looks like you’ve found your way to a draw this time Joe. That bang on the head obviously knocked some sense into you!’
He looked round at the room, chuckling at his own witticism, and began to walk away towards the bar intent on getting a drink.
‘Oh, we can’t agree a draw yet’ said Joe, to stunned silence in the room. ‘Not with all that noise still in the position. Everything’s building around your d-pawn and the vibrations are getting fiercer rather than dying away. I want to play on for a while.’
Many jaws dropped, including my own.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, everyone can see it’s drawn.’ Noel made a facial gesture over his shoulder, indicating that Joe was off his rocker. ‘It’s a good result for you. Take it while you can.’
‘No thank you’ said Joe, ‘I’d rather play on.’
And to everyone’s amazement, so they did, only now Noel was giving every move his utmost concentration, while Joe continued to make instant moves as he seemingly applied his attention elsewhere. Several moves later, after a long study of the position, Noel stood up, grabbed his coat from the back of an adjacent chair and walked out of the room. As he reached the doorway he turned and shouted ‘I’m not having any more of this. I tell you it’s drawn. Do you lot hear me? It’s a draw!’ and with that he was gone.
Surinder and I exchanged glances and I saw him raise his eyebrows at Noel’s prima donna behavior. Several of us walked over to the board for a good look at the final position. I immediately thought it was a clear balanced draw, but then Surinder began to shove pieces around the board, trying out various options and it gradually became obvious, first to him, then, with Surinder’s explanations, to me, that Joe’s pieces were subtly better placed than Noel’s and that gradually he would have been able to exploit this imbalance until the pressure on a particular pawn was such that an exchange would be forced, leaving Joe with a winning position.
Meanwhile, Joe had wandered off and was trying unsuccessfully to extract a Mars bar from the confectionary machine, without realizing that all his coins had been rejected and were lying in the receptacle under the selection buttons. He had somehow managed to get his arm inside the machine itself and was now firmly stuck and calling for help.
The evening following the club simultaneous match I was flicking through a copy of British Chess Magazine while I waited for my boil-in-the-bag prawn curry to cool.
I noticed an advertisement for the ‘37th Annual South Yorkshire Chess Congress’ the following weekend. The format was described as a ‘5 Round Swiss’ which means that players are matched randomly in the first round, then winners play other winners while those who lost their first round match play each other, and so on through all five rounds. The winners of such tournaments occasionally post a five nil score but more often than not the winner’s prize is shared between several players on four, or four and a half, out of five (a half point is awarded for a draw).
I had been pondering Joe’s new found prowess at the chess board and decided that this might be a good way to test just how good he had suddenly become. I phoned Joe and he said he was up for it and so I logged on to my computer and found the on-line registration page. There were three sections in the tournament dividing the players into skill groups, the Minor, Major and Open. I signed myself up for the Major section, which would be tough, but where I could realistically expect to score a couple of points, maybe even three. Then I thought for a few moments before signing Joe up for the Open. I decided that a test ought to be a proper test and the Open section would bring him up against the strongest regional players and possibly even a few journeymen International Masters or even Grandmasters. That would soon sort out the real level of playing strength that his knock on the head seemed to have induced. I made the decision not to tell Joe that he would be in the Open until we got there.
The fee for entry was £50 each which I paid on my credit card and I decided that I would treat Joe to his buy-in, seeing as how he was going to be my guinea pig for the weekend. If Joe played as well as I thought he might, the first prize of £750 was even a possibility in which case Joe could pay me back out of winnings. I phoned Surinder to see if he was interested only to find that he was already signed up for the Major and so I was able to agree that we would travel with him in his car for a three-way share of petrol costs. I enquired if Noel was also going and was secretly pleased to find out that he had other commitments that weekend. We travelled down to the venue on Friday afternoon, leaving earlier than the normal fifty minute journey time would require because we didn’t know if the usual Friday rush-hour traffic would cause us problems. In the car, I confessed to Joe that I had put him in the Open section and I expected him to react badly but he just said OK as if he wasn’t really bothered how strong the opposition was going to be. Surinder thought we were both mad, and said so;
‘Do you know who will be playing? Almost certainly Hepple and Clarke and they’re both International Masters. You might even find Jonathan Arlett making the journey over from Manchester, he’s a full-blown Grandmaster now. And last year it was won by the Dutch Grandmaster, Bart Hendricks. I reckon you can kiss your fifty quid goodbye!’
‘We’ll see’ said Joe, and started humming tunelessly and staring out of the window at the passing traffic. We arrived at the venue, a large gymnasium within a college campus, with about an hour to kill before the tournament was due to get underway at 7.30. The first round pairings had already been posted on a large flip-chart board in one corner of the room. In the Open section, Joe had drawn International Master Freddie Hepple.
We found a fish and chip shop a few hundred yards down the street from the venue and ate our supper with our fingers, straight from the wrapper, while walking back up the hill. Surinder was talking Joe through some opening theory that he thought he might try and although Joe made all the right noises, I could tell that he wasn’t really listening. By the time we got back to the gym there were chess-players everywhere, older men mostly but with several teenage boys and a few women and young girls dotted around as well. Mostly, they were standing in groups talking about which openings they would try or which opening moves they might expect to get from the people they had been paired against. Others were sitting alone at tables around the perimeter of the main playing area, reading chess books or checking through databases on lap-top computers. In the hallway there was a chess equipment and book stall where several players were thumbing through copies of the latest books on chess theory, while the stall owner despaired of any of them actually making a purchase.
At 7.20pm the tournament controller called for quiet while one of the senior staff members from the college told us where the fire exits and toilets were located. The controller then explained some specific local rules for the tournament, including the requirement that all mobile phones be switched off, the owner of a mobile which went off during the match being subject to instant disqualification. He also explained the time controls for the tournament which were to be forty moves each in an hour and a half followed by an additional fifteen minutes to complete all remaining moves. We were then asked to find our seats promptly and at just after the advertised start time the controller said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please start white’s clock.’
There isn’t really very much to say about my game. I had the white pieces and opened by pushing the queen’s pawn. We ended up in a variation called the Queen’s Gambit Declined and I didn’t feel that either of us had any kind of significant advantage during the entire game. We agreed a draw after about one hour. Surinder was mooching about outside the hall in very low spirits; he had blundered away a rook early on and resigned shortly afterwards. I consoled him as best I could, knowing it is very dispiriting to lose the first game of a congress because the whole weekend stretches out before you and you have probably already blown any chance of winning.
We both wandered back inside to see how Joe was faring and there he was again, making instant replies to every move that Freddie Hepple made and looking as if his mind was elsewhere. I studied the position and it looked absolutely equal to me without any perceptible imbalances or weaknesses. Both players had lost two pawns and a knight so the material still on the board was identical and positioned in such a way that neither side had a significant dominance on important squares, or sectors of the board. As we were observing, Freddie pushed one of his pawns forward, offering its capture for no material return but at the same time threatening to open up the position to later attacks down the newly opened file that Joe’s capturing piece would have just vacated. For the first time, Joe did not move instantly.
Freddie had about thirty five minutes left on his clock while Joe still had nearly a full hour. I could see that Freddie’s pawn gambit had been his twenty eighth move, so both had plenty of time to play their remaining twelve moves before the 40 move time control. But Joe didn’t move. He just sat there looking at the board as minute after minute ticked away. After ten minutes or so, Freddie got up and went to the toilets, and then to the cafeteria to fetch a tea, but when he came back Joe had still not made a move. The large hand of Joe’s clock crept ever closer to the flag that would drop when his time had expired. When three quarters of an hour had elapsed, Freddie leaned across the table and whispered;
‘You know it’s your move, right?’
But Joe didn’t answer, even seemed oblivious to the question. Then, with just three minutes left on Joe’s clock he seemed to snap back into consciousness, back from wherever he had been for the last hour. Declining the offered pawn he played a quiet looking move with his queen on the back rank. Freddie responded after a few minutes consideration but now Joe was back to instant response, making move after move without pause. They were still two moves short of the time control when Freddie Hepple toppled over his own king, stopped the clocks and offered his hand to Joe in resignation.
In the car on the way home I asked what the long pause had been all about but Joe said that he couldn’t remember. Later that night I had already been asleep for several hours when the phone rang. It was Joe and he sounded as though he had not been to bed at all. He began to speak without any greeting,
‘Can you imagine being the conductor of a big band, you know, a swing band like Glen Miller, and somewhere in one of the instruments in the woodwind section there is a slightly damaged reed which makes the occasional note fractionally off-key? It was like trying to find that instrument, that off-note, amongst all the other sounds.’
The receiver went dead as Joe hung up without waiting for my response and I knew that he had been up all night trying desperately to find the right analogy for what had happened to him in the game.
Joe dozed in the back of the car for most of the journey down to the venue on the morning following his victory over the International Master Freddie Hepple. The roads were much quieter as it was early on a Saturday and Surinder made good time, parking up the big Toyota with half an hour to spare before the start of round two. When we got to the playing hall we walked across to the flip-chart board to check the results and pairings.
In the Open section there were about twelve players on one full point, having won the previous evening, including Joe. At the bottom end of the results chart, the same number of players had zero, having lost. The vast majority of competitors had half a point, though not necessarily from drawing a game the previous evening as the tournament rules allowed a half-point ‘bye’ for those who either couldn’t, or didn’t want to travel on the Friday evening. Joe had drawn a player named A Harrison in round two, with a grading of 197.
While we were perusing the score-board the tournament controller came over for a chat and we learnt that Joe’s win the previous day had caused considerable controversy. Joe’s English Chess Federation grade of 67 would have usually made him cannon-fodder in even the Minor section. In rough terms a chess player is awarded, for each game played, his opponent’s grade plus fifty points for a win, plus zero points for a draw and minus fifty points for a loss. A player’s current grade is based on all his games played in the previous season.
Freddie Hepple had been graded 217 and was ranked as an IM (International Master). The very best players in the world, GMs (Grandmasters) were ranked around 270 and above, although just to confuse matters, the international chess world used a different ranking system entirely. As nobody had ever heard of Joe Higgins before, some of the top players in the tournament had asked for a double-check on his grade and his background. The controller had made some frantic calls to various chess organizations already this morning, but to no avail. Joe Higgins seemed to be just an ordinary chess club duffer!
Play started and I found myself unable to concentrate properly on my own game. My opponent played an unorthodox opening, pushing his ‘g’, or king’s knight pawn, two squares. I stared at it for ages, trying hard to remember what the opening was called. Something ridiculous? That was it, ‘The Grob’. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be any good but couldn’t for the life of me remember how I was supposed to play against it. I made a few desultory moves, got into trouble and resigned early. The fact was that I was too engrossed in what was happening with my friend Joe to be able to concentrate properly on my own game. I walked across the hall towards the Open section, stopping to glance at Surinder’s table and I was glad to see he had the game under control and, barring a blunder, should be able to record a win. As I approached the table where Joe’s game was in progress I saw that a small crowd of observers were gathered.
Joe was making instant moves again and while his opponent’s clock showed nearly an hour gone, Joe’s clock registered less than ten minutes played. The position looked incredibly complex as most of the pawns and minor pieces had been exchanged off, leaving both sides with a queen, two rooks and a couple of pawns each in a very open and tactical position. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it and would have been happy with a draw as either white or black. Joe’s opponent Andy Harrison obviously felt the same and offered Joe the draw after surfacing from a particularly long, head-in-hands think. But Joe didn’t even seem to hear him and just kept making moves, obeying some inner directive that was clear and obvious only to him.
Soon Joe had promoted one of his pawns to the eighth rank and now had two queens on the board, as well as his two rooks, but rather than making the win easier this seemed to just complicate the position even further. I found it almost impossible to calculate the escape routes for either king, with mating threats seeming to come down every rank and file. Still Joe kept finding instant moves and still his opponent kept finding himself desperately seeking accurate responses. In the end, Andy Harrison made a blunder, and Joe was able to simply push his remaining pawn forward, giving a ‘discovered’ check-mate with his newly promoted queen. Joe’s opponent stood up quickly and stumbled away from the board without even shaking hands. He was red in the face and fuming angry, ignoring several of his friends who wanted to show him how he could have found better moves than he did. Joe noticed me watching and said;
‘What do you fancy for lunch?’
As we were munching on thick slices of deep-crust pizza, I asked Joe what had been different about that game from the one the previous evening, why no long pause for thought. He replied that, unlike in the game against Freddie Hepple, his opponent had made not just one but several less-than-perfect moves and it had just been a case of playing the correct move in reply each time. Surinder and I looked at each other and I could see that, like me, he was also completely bemused by the change in Joe but I could also see in his eyes something that looked like worry, or even fear.
‘This sort of thing just isn’t supposed to be possible’ said Surinder. Joe shrugged and helped himself to the one remaining slice of pizza. That afternoon I barely even made an effort in my own game, resigning after ten moves to the obvious incredulity of my opponent. I joined the growing crowd around Joe’s board in the Open section and watched him demolish yet another strong opponent without even breaking sweat. I noticed one of the other players in the Open section kept wandering across from his own table to observe the position. He was tall and slender with prematurely grey hair, probably only in his late twenties, and was dressed rather flamboyantly in a mock military tunic with large brass buttons, reminiscent I thought of The Beatles in their Sergeant Pepper period. This I learned was the Dutch Grandmaster, Bart Hendricks. Several times, I observed him remonstrating with the tournament controller, though it did not appear to be about his own game or opponent, as he seemed to be winning without much difficulty.
With a perfect three out of three score, Joe was one of four joint leaders going into the final day of the competition. Before we left the tournament hall that evening they made the draw for the following day. Joe had drawn the black pieces against a Dr Jacob Kunda, who had a grade of 203. The other top pairing featured the Dutch GM Bart Hendricks, with black, against an upcoming junior player, Ben Saunders, who had recently won in a major event at the British Championships at Hastings and was being tipped for great things in the future.
Our journey home was quiet and reflective, each of us content with our own thoughts, tired out as only a full day at a chess congress can make you. Surinder dropped Joe and I at a pub near home and I bought us a couple of pints. We settled down in a quiet corner and my hopes that Joe would provide a comprehensive explanation of what was going on inside his head were soon dashed. He was as uncommunicative about his new found chess skills as ever, it was as if he did not really understand the change any better than any of us, but more, it was as though the chess thing was going on outside of his own consciousness, as if he were just the machine making moves ordered by a higher external intelligence.
When we arrived at the tournament venue the following morning we were greeted by a small delegation who mostly seemed rather hostile. Two chaps thrust mini-recording devices under Joe’s nose and asked him for a quote. One was a journalist from the British Chess Magazine, alerted the previous evening by a puzzled tournament controller, the other was a hack from the local paper, in search of something to pad out the ‘sports and social’ section and now suddenly excited to be onto a controversy with which he could impress his editor. The remainder of the welcoming party consisted of the Grandmaster Bart Hendricks and several of his friends plus an assortment of the other competitors in the Open section. They pushed a rather sheepish looking tournament controller to the front who said that, while there was no suspicion of foul play, the unheard of, and unexplained, improvement in Joe’s playing strength meant that he had no option but to request that Joe surrender his mobile phone and submit to being frisked, all, we were to understand, being in the best interests of the reputation of the congress in particular, and the game of chess in general.
So that was it, they thought Joe was getting external help, possibly electronically via either a smart phone with a strong playing program installed, or via some kind of wire-tap communication with a strong player elsewhere. Joe thought it was hilarious. He explained, honestly that he didn’t have a mobile phone, wouldn’t know how to use one, and he turned out all his pockets onto a table revealing a rather disgusting collection of snotty handkerchiefs, coins, polo mints and general fluff. He even consented to being inexpertly frisked by the college handyman who declared himself to be ‘security trained’. Having found no evidence of electronic devices, we bought ourselves mugs of tea and fortifying Kit-Kat biscuits at the cafeteria and made our way to our respective boards.
In due course the announcement was made to ‘start white’s clock’ and on my board, having drawn the white pieces, I pushed my king’s pawn forward two squares and pushed down the lever to start my opponent’s clock. He appeared a few moments later looking a little out of breath and mumbling about the local Sunday bus service, glanced briefly at the board before pushing his own king’s pawn forward one square, a French Defence, before wandering off to get himself a cup of tea.
I noticed that Surinder was off and running, moving pieces around the board rapidly in what must have been a familiar opening for both players. Meanwhile Joe’s opponent, Dr Kunda, had not yet arrived and Joe sat there fidgeting while the seconds and minutes ticked away on his opponent’s clock. My game was one of those that all chess players of all playing strengths are familiar with, in that every move was perfectly obvious, all the pieces seeming pre-destined to be swapped off, all the aspects of the position level and uninteresting and all that was really required by both sides was some technically accurate king moves in the endgame for a draw to be forced. We played for fifty odd moves, but could have agreed the half point by about move ten.
My game was dull enough for me to be fully aware of what was happening over on Joe’s board. Half an hour after the scheduled start time, one of the tournament controllers told Joe that his opponent had called to say that he was ill, effectively forfeiting the match. There wasn’t a player in the hall who believed the ‘sick-note’ story and general consensus was that the good doctor Kunda preferred not to risk his grade, and reputation, against this freak performer. With the full point in the bag, Joe wandered about aimlessly looking at the other games in progress. I noticed that he was followed closely by two of Bart Hendricks’ chums who watched his every move closely, intent on discovering the secret of his ‘external help’.
Joe loafed about near the bookstall for a while and leafed through a couple of chess books but found himself with two amateur detectives looking over his shoulder all the time and, much as he had found the controversy amusing earlier on, I could tell that he was getting rapidly fed up with the unwonted attention. Eventually, Joe put down the book he was perusing and wandered off to the toilets, his two shadows in hot pursuit. When he had not reappeared after ten minutes or so, I decided to investigate and, my draw offer having been accepted, I left my opponent fruitlessly searching our final position for some kind of advantage and walked across the hall into the gent’s toilets. I was greeted by the oddest of sights. One of the Dutchman’s young minions was standing on the toilet seat in one of the cubicles, peering over into the next cubicle and I could clearly hear a disgruntled Joe telling him to where to go.
‘Are you OK in there Joe?’ I shouted.
‘No I am not!’ Joe replied, ‘This idiot won’t leave me alone!’
I grabbed the amateur sleuth by his coat and pulled him down and out of the cubicle whereupon we both crashed into his accomplice, the three of us ending up in an untidy heap on the wet tiled floor. There was an unseemly scramble to see who would rise first.
‘We know he cheats’, said one of them, ‘We just don’t know how!’
‘What he does is not possible without help’, said his friend, almost petulantly.
We stood up and used paper towels to dry ourselves off and it was all a little awkward, none of us being in the slightest bit inclined towards physical violence and a little shocked to have found ourselves wrestling on the toilet floor at a chess congress! Content, at least, that they would not discover Joe’s secrets here, they wandered off to find, and report back to Mr Hendricks.
Joe opened the cubicle door and he looked flustered, angry and upset.
‘I thought it would be fun to be a good player’ he said, ‘I didn’t want everyone to hate me for it’.
I felt suddenly guilty for the fact that I had used my friend as a guinea pig, and I realised that whatever was causing him to be able to beat all comers at chess was not necessarily a good thing at all. I knew that what I should have done when the phenomena first became apparent was got some proper medical help, and I resolved that the following day I would take Joe to see his General Practitioner; despite the fact that I knew he refused to visit doctor’s surgeries on general principle.
Out in the playing area the other top board game had just finished and, as expected, the Dutch GM had prevailed without difficulty. I could see him conferring with the tournament controller and knew that the subject had to be the final pairing, him against Joe that afternoon. We were later back to the hall than planned after our lunch, which had been soup and sandwiches in a local café. The service had been terribly slow and the food bland and unappetising – not the most auspicious start to Joe’s appointment with destiny that afternoon. Joe had been sullen and morose over his lunch and Surinder and I did not speak much either. I was worried about the turn of events, and felt stupid for not having realized that Joe’s sudden inexplicable expertise would not have been welcomed with open arms by all. I wanted this afternoon’s game over quickly and to get home so that a proper medical analysis of his condition could begin without delay.
We approached the table where Joe would be playing, which had been set up slightly apart from the others, the extra space conferring ‘top board’ status. Bart Hendricks was already seated, surrounded by his cronies and other spectators, players from the Open section group who had largely forgotten about their own entirely academic matches. The atmosphere was intense and aggressive. It felt as though Joe represented an underhand, snide challenge to the natural order, something low and vaguely unappealing. I realized that any thoughts I had harboured about popular support for the underdog were going to be very far from the mark.
Joe sat down and offered a handshake to his opponent, who responded with the briefest of touches, as if responding with a firm handshake would infer an acceptance that Joe had every right to be there. Both players sat eying each other up while the controller said a few words about ‘fair play’ and ‘honour of the game’ and ‘best man win’. Joe looked miserable, as if he would very much rather be elsewhere. The GM looked as though it was beneath his dignity having to play someone as ‘wrong’ as Joe evidently was. The game began with a flurry of moves, a standard Queen’s Pawn opening, and Hendricks, who had the white pieces, moved every piece as if he was firing a bullet from a gun. Although Joe was moving as quickly as he had been in the earlier rounds, he showed no sign of enjoyment, not even the vague, satisfactory distraction and foot-tapping I had observed previously. Eventually, the game, which had been tight and closed, opened up in such a way that Hendricks was able to check Joe’s king. There were several defensive moves available, including moving the king to an adjacent square, but this time Joe did not move instantly.
He looked at the faces of his opponent and the various onlookers and what he saw there was a clear and direct message that they did not accept him and never would, that they distrusted him and thought him a cheat; that they objected to him disturbing the natural order; that he was and would remain unwelcome in their company. Joe returned his gaze to the board and then looked up at me with a tight-lipped grin, and I knew then that he had resolved to do something unexpected. Joe picked up his king and there were several gasps as any move that he made with it would lead to a poor position for him. He looked closely at the black king and turned it over several times in his hand while he pondered what he would do next. After a minute or so, Hendricks raised both hands in exasperation and complained loudly to the controller that Joe should make a move with the king immediately.
Suddenly, Joe stood up, put the chess piece in the top pocket of his shirt and said,
‘I’m going home!’
With that he walked out of the playing hall, with Surinder and I in hot pursuit, while behind us all hell broke loose.
My mate Joe Higgins never played chess again. He claims that whatever powers he had experienced left him at the chess board while he was contemplating a response to the Grandmaster’s move. I did take him to see the doctor and that was the start of much medical attention that he was to receive in the coming months. Now, three years later, he has been given a clean bill of health and remains as absent-minded and socially inept as he ever was. He is also one of the happiest, most contented people I know.
I stopped going to chess club at about the same time as Joe did, never really finding that I could get interested in ordinary everyday chess again, having seen what I had seen when Joe found those brief but wonderful, frightening talents. I continued to follow the game though and enjoyed the chess magazine articles that ensued about his aborted game, which of course Joe was deemed to have lost because of his having removed a piece from the board, and gone home with it. Had he not done so, he would have been obliged to move the king, a fact that the assembled experts at the time felt would have been near suicidal but which subsequent analysis has shown was the correct move, giving him a small but important positional advantage. But the chess world soon forgot about Joe Higgins, and the black chess king that sits on Joe’s mantelpiece above the gas fire is the only reminder of a few strange days that we experienced together several years ago.
And that would have been the end of the story, except for something that happened just last week when Joe called on me one afternoon and found me with a chess game set up on the kitchen table. I was looking through a game that the new world champion Magnus Carlsen had won against Vishy Anand in their recent world championship series, a game which all the pundits at the time had declared to be obviously drawn. Joe made himself a cup of tea and sat down beside me to look at the moves. We didn’t speak. After a while I noticed that Joe’s eyes were half closed and that his foot was tapping rhythmically on the tiled floor. His face wore the most serene expression. He looked happy and at peace, for all the world as if he was listening to the most beautiful music imaginable.