Posts Tagged ‘chess’

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer, Hampstead Theatre 1500 7 December

December 8, 2019



Part of Soviet delegation looking worried

So this was a play about the Spassky vs Fischer World Chess Championship Match of 1972.  It began with the actors playing the Soviet delegation (or Spassky’s team) speaking in what they thought was Russian.  Then they changed to English.

The curse of realism was certainly avoided, often by use of what one audience member near me described as antics.  Nikolai Krogius,  a psychologist and perhaps the leader of Spassky’s team, was played by Rebecca Scroggs, and the resemblance was not striking.


Rebecca Scroggs as Nikolai Krogius


Nikolai Krogius as Nikolai Krogius

Russia and the Soviet Union

More of a concern was the fact that Ms Scroggs  as Krogius seemed the one of Spassky’s team who was most willing to compromise with reality, while the Russian Wikipedia article lays great stress on his pedantic nature and prominent position in the Soviet sports bureaucracy.  Oh yes; Spassky’s team referred to Russia  rather than the Soviet Union, and were equipped with regional accents which might have been meant to indicate that Geller was from  Ukraine and Nei from Estonia.  They also referred to ‘the Kremlin’ (impossible) rather than ‘Moscow’,  ‘the Committee’, ‘them’…


The main problem with the play–allowing that the average punter does not want to know about either chess or Russian history–was that it did not seem to know what it wanted to be about.  The Cold War as a kind of myth (like the Trojan War say) was not really developed (in spite of phone calls from Henry Kissinger), while we had indications of Tennessee Williams (Fischer as a self-deluding fantasist confronting his mother , but you need to be a proper failure for that to work), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (Spassky describing his life in the orphanage), Philip Glass (repetitive music, repetitive movements, stylised video displays), and probably many others.  If we were left with anything, it was the portrayal of Fischer as a deranged narcissistic individual, of an extremity that is probably unfair for the Fischer of 1972 (but not later, see the film).


As for chess, I think you should at least get the words right.  Instead of a match consisting of individual games we had a tournament made up of matches.  The initial drawing of lots (to determine colours) was described by some phrase I didn’t understand, and instead of the score of a game we had a move list.  Spassky’s seconds are shown preparing for Game 3 in the certainty that Fischer would defend 1. d4 with the King’s Indian, when he had already played something different–the Nimzo-Indian–in Game 1.

Nobody even now really understands why the Soviet side didn’t just have Fischer defaulted when he didn’t appear at the beginning of the match, though the play follows the explanation given by Spassky that he just wanted to play.

Fischer and Spassky

You don’t really understand that Fischer had won the Candidates’ Matches in annihilatory fashion or that he had a long history of impossible demands about playing conditions, which seemed to be partly a reflection of a tortured psyche and partly attempting to get an advantage.  He is made to say that he plays not to win but to avoid losing, when one great difference between him and the Soviet professionals of his era was that he played to win (nearly) all the time.  His statement that you only know somebody when you’ve crushed their ego by playing them at chess could have been combined with the similarities between him and Spassky (disturbed childhood in many different places, absent fathers, raised by their mothers, sisters played an important part…)

Fischer’s Icelandic security-cum-minder tells a story about how Flóki Vilgerðarson found Iceland by releasing ravens from his boat until the third one headed of determinedly towards the North-West, whereupon Floki followed it and arrived in Reykjavik.  The suggestion is that Fischer is another such pathfinder; but he refers to becoming The Muhammad Ali of chess so in the world of the play the cult of celebrity already exists.


It all seemed very long, as many people said in the audience.  But I only checked once to see that my watch was still going and it gave me something to think about/disagree with

Prospects for a new team in Division 4 of the London Chess League

June 16, 2019


The table above shows results from the 2018/19 season of Division 4 of the London Chess League in terms of the final position of the various teams, the percentage of possible game points they achieved, the mean grade of the sides they fielded and the mean grade of the teams they faced.  We can see that the position followed the strength (mean grade) of the teams very closely and there was no significant difference in the strength of the opposition that different teams faced.


We can also consider the relationship between grading and percentage of possible game points achieved, as below.


On this basis, using the equation of the fitted trend line, we can estimate what average grading would be required to achieve various points percentages:


We do not believe that relegation operates from Division 4, but team members would hardly enjoy losing all the time, so we presume that a new team would wish to average at least 40% of game points, requiring an average grade of 113.  Or an average grade of 125 would be required for 50% performance.

We now consider the possible requirements for the specific boards, using the opposition faced by Team 9 (which scored 46%).


So we see that someone playing on Board 4 would meet opposition with a mean grade around 130 and should be of a strength to have a meaningful game with opposition graded between about 100 and about 150.  (Some figures in red italics are affected by the presence of defaults.)

Prospects for Lewisham 2 in Division 3 of the London Chess League

June 2, 2019

Happy chess players celebrate promotion

Now that Lewisham Chess Club’s second team has secured promotion to Division 3 of the London Chess League, we can ask what lies in store next season.

The table below shows the ranking of the various teams in this year’s Division 3, together with the average (mean!) grade of the teams they put out and faced, based on information as at 1 June.



The first thing to note is that there is no real difference between the strength of the opposition the various teams faced.  Intuitively enough, the teams with higher mean grades also tended to finish in higher positions, as is shown in the graph below.



We see that you really need to put out teams with an average grading somewhat over 140 to ensure survival.

Next we ask what this means for the various different boards next season.  In Division 4, over 8 boards (as opposed to the ten in Div 3) Lewisham 2 averaged 149, so we take the team ranked 9 in Division 3 with an average grade of 147 as a proxy.



So we would say that someone playing Board 5 would face opponents with an average grade about 160 and should be of such a strength as to have a meaningful game with players graded between about 190 and about 140.


More about playing chess again…

April 23, 2019

Main London Chess League venue 

We give some more reflections on playing league chess in London now as against in the North-East (mainly) 30 or even 40 years ago.


Active chess-players now seem to be either people (men) of retirement age or people (not all men in fact) from Eastern Europe–certainly a diverse group in terms of origins.  With a few exceptions, there is not much evidence of juniors–possibly because there is less time or willingness to organise chess clubs in schools.

I had thought that with the far greater number of players in London you would be more likely to end up playing opponents of the same strength.  In fact the reverse seems to be the case–with large teams (8 or 10 boards) you end up with a an even match somewhere (say on the middle boards) and a mismatch somewhere else (say on the lower boards).


The fact that there is a shortage of public space in London (like church halls and community centres) is hardly a surprise.  You tend to end up doing what you can in a pub, but that won’t really do for chess.  It’s rare to encounter a venue that has sufficient space for both a match and casual games on the same evening.


My recollection is that it used to be common practice for somebody to be on hand to welcome the visiting players and show them the toilets and other necessities (this could even be the visiting captain if he was familiar with the venue).  Now it seems that if you arrive early at an away match (and manage to find your way in) you wait like nervous sheep outside a slaughterhouse for some guidance.

The common practice of playing to a finish on the evening is surely to be preferred to adjournment or adjudication, but the quick-play regime means that you get far more possible infringements and penalties, which means that the captains get distracted from their games…

Another point possibly connected with premises is that in my past clubs used to have some ongoing activity in the form of an internal tournament and would also play matches with other clubs while in London it seems to be the other way around–there may (or may not) be some internal activity in between matches.



Old, slow, weak and stupid: playing chess again, 30 years on

April 1, 2019

Back view of the author after losing (picture from Lewisham Chess Club)

The experience of playing competitive (club) chess again after a break of 30 years gives rise to some interesting reflections.


It’s easy to decide that the whole thing is pointless.  Over the past three decades, computers have if not totally solved chess then reached the stage of being able to play better than any human player ever could.  In addition, while 30 years ago one merely weak, now one is weak old, slow and stupid.

In addition, it is certainly true that chess is a negative-sum game, in that the pain of defeat is greater than the joy of victory.  There are some rare cases where both sides get pleasure from a well-played draw and some very rare cases where even the loser feels he has played well and so is pleased with his efforts, but these hardly detract from the general point.

This is different from sports such as rugby (where you might not even know the score as the game progresses) and tennis, where you can have a healthy run around the court even in defeat.

So what is the point?  

A long time ago Aristotle asked of tragedy why people took pleasure in witnessing events that would be extremely distressing in real life.  His answer, which seems still to be the correct one, is that working out of these experiences in watching a play enabled one gto better deal with them or the threat of them in real life.

And the same thing happens when you play a game as when you watch a play.  The famous English virtue of character is reflected in how you react to defeat, and if (as you ought to be) you are playing people of the same approximate strength you will have an unfavourable outcome half of the time.  More specifically, chess does give you some insight into:

–whether you are inclined to take a decision (play a move) that makes you feel comfortable rather than one that is the best you can do,in the circumstances;

–how you react to unavoidably unfavourable situations (like playing a much stronger opponent)–of course, the only sensible thing to do is get your head down and do your best, but fantasising and cursing fate are both very popular;

–how you react to unfavourable situations that are due to your mistakes–not by flailing about is a good answer;

–how you make difficult decisions when there is no time to do a proper job.

Old, slow, weak and stupid

It is not clear how far what you learn here is easily transferable to real life, but the insights gained can hardly help.  Responding to the old, slow, weak and stupid point, the interesting thing here is that these learning experiences originate from the levels of conscious incompetence or conscious competence.  When you have reached the level of unconscious competence, so that you do as well as you’re going to without thinking about it, you don’t really get this kind of learning.  The same is true of foreign languages for instance–much of the educational value comes at the beginning when you realise that there really are different ways of doing things from those you take for granted.

Along the same lines, it is true that chess tends to be played by young males in the same way that they do maths homework–some do it better and more quickly because they are cleverer, but very few want to grapple with situations where there are many ways of tackling a complex problem.  Which approach leads to difficulties when they start doing maths tutorial problems at university.

Now the kind of insights to be gained from playing chess are much more useful to the the old, slow, weak and stupid fraternity and have actual lives and real decisions to take than to the young, fast, strong and clever who do not.

Joseph Henry Blackburne lived here

June 4, 2017


50 Sandrock Road

J. H. Blackburne dominated British chess during the second half of the 19th century, and at one point he was the world’s second most successful player.

He is perhaps best known for losing heavily to Wilhelm Steinitz and for taking it badly, but according to the biography by Tim Harding he was living in 9 Whitbread Road, Brockley at the time of the 1901 census, later moving to 45 Sandrock Road and then number 50 in the same road, where he died on 1 September 1924.


45 Sandrock Road

So number 45 has changed over the years more radically than number 50, but not as radically as the place in 9 Whitbread Road.


Presumed site of 9 Whitbread Road

Now then, it is known that Blackburne was bombed-out during a German raid in the First World War, but the dates are such that it’s unlikely the view above came into being that way.


J. H. Blackburne (1841-1924)

Now then Steinitz apparently lived in Shoreditch, which only adds to my suspicions that he was really Karl Marx on his day off…

Bobby Fischer Against The World, Greenwich Picturehouse 24 July

July 25, 2011


The structure of this documentary was fine:  fit the backstory of Bobby Fischer (and of chess) into the run-up to the famous 1972 match with Spassky and the match itself,  then cover what became of him afterwards.  I was certainly struck by how good-looking  Fischer was in his prime, and by the way he sounded like an articulate and educated man in interviews (unfortunately all of that was to change quite radically).

But there were lots of things left hanging:  most obviously some interviewees were never identified that I noticed.  There was one guy talking about Fischer coming to dinner and then no longer being welcome because of his loony anti-Semitic views.  Was that the Asa Hoffman we saw earlier? I wondered.  No, he spoke of his wife Joan [Bobby’s sister] dying, so it must have been Russell Targ I suppose.

Then there were the points the film really should have covered and didn’t.  For instance, towards the end we saw the deteriorated wreck of Fischer wandering round Reykjavik and haranguing the Icelandic neurologist whose name I forget.  He was followed around by a Japanese woman, completely unremarked-upon in the film, who must have been Miyoko Watai, Fischer’s suppositious wife.

I’d have liked to have known more about Fischer’s older sister Joan, who suffered the same disturbed upbringing but had the protective effects of being female (and also, according to the film, a different father).  As well as wondering how she turned out, I would have thought that an older sister who must at least have helped bring him up would have been Fischer’s best chance of a normal human relationship.

They should have asked Nikolai Krogius (the psychologist in Spassky’s team) whether Fischer would have been better looked after on the Soviet side, I think the answer is certainly yes.  Why didn’t Spassky claim the match by forfeit?–He had more than one occasion to I think.  He must have been under orders to play and win, poor man.

So who would you look to if you wanted to explain Fischer by comparison?  Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were men of similar abilities from the same milieu but were spared the disastrous upbringing, which is more reminiscent of Truman Capote or a number of other American writers.  Then there’s Lee Harvey Oswald–turned out better than him, anyway.

but yet the pity of it, Iago!