Category Archives: 2023

The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era

From the publisher:

“Genna Sosonko is widely acclaimed as the most prominent chronicler of a unique era in chess history. In the Soviet Union chess was developed into an ideological weapon that was actively promoted by the country’s leadership during the Cold War. Starting with Mikhail Botvinnik, their best chess players grew into symbols of socialist excellence. Sosonko writes from a privileged dual perspective, combining an insider’s nostalgia with the detachment of a critical observer. He grew up with legendary champions such as Mikhail Tal and Viktor Korchnoi and spent countless hours with most of the other greats and lesser chess mortals he portrays.

In the late 1980s he began to write about the champions he knew and their remarkable lives in New In Chess magazine. First, he wrote primarily about Soviet players and personalities, and later, he also began to portray other chess celebrities with whom he had crossed paths. They all vividly come to life as the reader is transported to their time and world. Once you’ve read Sosonko, you will feel you know Capablanca, Max Euwe and Tony Miles. And you will never forget Sergey Nikolaev.

This monumental book is a collection of the portraits and profiles Genna Sosonko wrote for New in Chess magazine. The stories have been published in his books: Russian Silhouettes, The Reliable Past, Smart Chip From St. Petersburg and The World Champions I Knew. They are supplemented with further writings on legends such as David Bronstein, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. They paint an enthralling and unforgettable picture of a largely vanished age and, indirectly, a portrait of one of the greatest writers on the world of chess.

Genna Sosonko (1943) was born in Leningrad, where he was a leading chess trainer. Following his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1972, he settled in The Netherlands. He won numerous tournaments, including Wijk aan Zee in 1977 (with Geller) and 1981 (with Timman) and an individual gold medal at the Olympiad in Haifa 1976. After his active career, Sosonko discovered a passion for writing.

GM Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
GM Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

‘Each new story of Genna Sosonko is the preservation of grains of our chess life’ — from the foreword by Garry Kasparov”

Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

 

If you’re a lover of chess culture and literature you’ll be familiar with the writings of Genna Sosonko, whose essays chronicle, in particular, chess life in the former Soviet Union in the post-war period.

What we have here is a compendium of his biographical essays: 58 of them plus a short foreword by Kasparov. Most of them have appeared twice before, in New in Chess magazine, and in previous collections of his essays. In addition to the books mentioned above, some of them appeared, in some cases with different titles, in Genna Remembers, published by Thinkers Publishing and previously reviewed here. One of the essays is based on extracts from Sosonko’s book on Bronstein, published by Elk and Ruby. But, in the case of the books, you only get the biographies, not everything.

If you’re a Sosonko fan you’ll have read it all before. If not, and you’re attracted to the subject matter, this might be a good place to start.

You don’t just get Soviet players, though. English readers will be drawn to the chapter on Tony Miles, billed as The Cat That Walked By Himself, whose mental health problems are treated sympathetically.

But, for me, the lesser known figures are of the most interest. Take, for instance, the stories of two players whose lives both ended in tragic circumstances in 1997.

The brilliant Latvian theorist and tactician Alvis Vitolins was born in 1946. ‘Naïve, unusual and absorbed in himself’, had he been born a few decades later, he would undoubtedly have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, or, today, with ASD, and later developed schizophrenia. “He did not have any close friends. He avoided other people, especially strangers, especially those who were not chess players.” He never fulfilled his potential, his mental health declined and, in 1997, he threw himself from a railway bridge onto the ice of a frozen river.

Then there was Evgeny Ruban, from what is now Belarus, born in 1941. A positional player with a classical style who excelled with the white pieces, but another man with his own demons. Ruban was an alcoholic, permanently broke, and also gay, living in a small apartment with his elderly mother. Like Vitolins he also had problems with his mental health. In autumn 1997, in a state of inebriation, he was hit by a car, dying as a result of his injuries. His mother couldn’t afford the cost of his funeral, which was paid for by the car driver.

Two poignant stories which serve as a salutary reminder that, as well as the grandmasters and champions, we need to hear about those who had the talent but not the good fortune, those who fell through the cracks. You might wonder whether chess was a cause of their problems or provided solace in difficult times. It would have been good if their chapters had included a few of their games, but this wouldn’t have fitted into the format of the book.

On the other hand you may well be inspired by the life of Abram Khasin ((1923-2022): he played at Hastings in 1963-64), who lost both legs in the Battle of Stalingrad, but lived to within ten days of his 99th birthday, playing chess right until the end.

There’s also the exotically named Lidia Barbot-de-Marny (1930-2021), born in Shanghai but with French, German and Russian family roots. She eventually settled in Estonia, where she became one of their leading woman players. “Chess has given me a colossal amount of good things, everything you could say.” Although she never became a master, she was a much loved chess teacher, working with young children in the Tallinn House of Chess.

There are always stories, some happy, others sad, all of which need to be told. The stories of the failures are as important as those of the successes, the stories of the lesser players as important as those of the world champions.

Much of the book is, as you’d expect, concerned with the great Soviet players of that era, but, for me, the real value of Sosonko’s work is in his writing about those you don’t read about elsewhere.

He writes beautifully as well, and the translations, mostly by Ken Neat, Steve Giddins and Sarah Hurst, are exemplary. But at some point you start to realise that Sosonko is, up to a point, playing on your emotions. There are no sources or references, just his memory, which is undoubtedly extraordinary, but perhaps, like everyone’s, fallible. At the start of his essay on Ludek Pachman, he writes about visiting London for the first time to play in the 1972 Islington Congress. He took the ferry from Hook of Holland and then, apparently, had his papers checked in Brighton. If you take the ferry from Hook of Holland now you’d end up in Harwich, on the east coast, nowhere near Brighton, on the south coast, and, as far as I can tell, it was the same in 1972. Once I find something I don’t believe, I start to question everything else.

If you’re looking for a book which will improve your rating, this isn’t for you as there are no games at all. But, if you’re attracted to human interest stories, Sosonko is essential reading. You might want to invest in all his essay collections, and, if you do so, you probably won’t need this volume. If your interest is mostly in his biographical essays, and you haven’t read them elsewhere, this will be the book for you.

As a hefty 840-page hardback it’s more suited for weight training than for putting in your pocket to read between rounds of your next tournament, so you might opt for the eBook instead. I’d have liked some games, and ideally more photographs than the 32 glossy pages we get here, but this would clearly have been impractical.

A strong recommendation, then, for anyone who’s interested in this aspect of chess and hasn’t read it all before. You can find out more and read sample pages on the publisher’s website here.

 

Richard James, Twickenham 12th April 2024

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Hardcover: 840 pages
  • Publisher: New In Chess (31 May 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9083311287
  • ISBN-13:978-9083311289
  • Product Dimensions: 18.06 x 6.32 x 23.5 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era, Genna Sosonko, New in Chess, June 17th 2023, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9083311287
The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era, Genna Sosonko, New in Chess, June 17th 2023, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9083311287
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Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach

From the Batsford web site:

Lessons, motivation and coaching to make you a better chess player.

In an ideal world, any aspiring chess player, at almost any level, would get better with a coach. If that’s not possible, having chess champion coach Thomas Engqvist’s book at your side is the next best thing.

In his series of lessons, Engqvist guides you through not only the most important elements of chess to master but also the psychology, how to marry knowledge with imagination, and how to stay motivated.

Suitable for older children through to adults, the lessons are drawn from chess games through history, from the 16th century to Magnus Carlsen and latest Alpha Zero computer chess. (Reviewer’s note: it doesn’t actually include Alpha Zero, stopping at Carlsen.) It features a range of key players, including Steinitz, Lasker, Nimzowistch, Botvinnik (Soviet chess school), and Fischer. With clear and accessible annotations to give clarity, the games highlight the most important lessons to learn and, just as importantly, how to ‘practise’ chess.

International Master Thomas Engqvist has travelled the world teaching and coaching chess to a very high level for decades – and with this book, he can be your coach too.”

About the Author (updated from the publisher’s website):

“Thomas Engqvist is an International Master from Sweden. He has 45 years’ experience as a chess coach and teacher. He has worked with players at world championship level in both junior and correspondence chess. He is the author of 300 Most Important Chess Positions, 300 Most Important Tactical Chess Positions and 300 Most Important Chess Exercises, all published by Batsford.

 

From the back cover:

Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach gives you the opportunity to assimilate the most important chess principles and concepts by following a study plan based on key encounters by over 30 great players.

With lessons from more than 60 instructive games in chronologically arranged chapters, this is the perfect guide for players who want to gain a broad knowledge of chess history and its evolution, but don’t have time to spend hours in what can be unproductive reading.

Featured in each chapter is a highly influential grandmaster who has played his part in developing chess into what it is today. There can be no more enjoyable way to improve your own play than to absorb your personal coach’s explanatory commentaries to exemplary games of past and present chess heroes, including Magnus Carlsen. In this way centuries of accumulated understanding of chess can be learned in just a few weeks.

By adopting the same tactics and strategies as demonstrated by these champions, you can also keep track of your own chess development by comparing it with the overall historical development of chess – and climb the ladder to success.

Swedish International Master Thomas Engqvist has approximately 45 years experience as a chess coach, teacher, writer and player. He has successfully worked with players at world championship level in both junior and correspondence chess.

 

What we have here is a book covering the history of chess ideas in chronological fashion, starting with Ruy Lopez and finishing with Magnus Carlsen. It’s hardly an original idea: the first book of this type was Richard Réti’s Masters of the Chessboard, and there have been quite a few others since then: off the top of my head I’ve reviewed a couple of them here myself. The second Chess Heroes: Games book will take a similar approach (using some of the games from Move Two!), but pitched at a much lower level.

I’d say from the outset is that if you’re knowledgeable about the subject, and have read similar books before, you’re probably already familiar with many of the games displayed by Engqvist here.

But if you’re a club standard player with little knowledge of the history of your favourite game you should certainly read on.

Most of the subjects are represented by just one game, so we quickly whizz through the likes of Greco (‘the first tactical player’), Philidor (‘the first positional player’) and even Morphy until we reach Steinitz (‘the scientific player’), the first of four players to be considered in rather more detail.

According to Engqvist:

The basis of Steinitz’s teachings is to construct a plan which is in accordance with the requirements of the position. These requirements could be an advantage in development, a strong centre, open files etc. One should gather such advantages, one by one, as preparation for an attack. This is the so-called theory of accumulation.

This theory is demonstrated by the following game. As always, click on any move for a pop-up window.

Engqvist adds after the game:

This is why such classic games are much more instructive than modern games. Steinitz’s opponents didn’t realise or didn’t want to realise what he was doing, whereas today’s more knowledgeable players do know – because they have studied such “one-sided” but very instructive classic games.

You might disagree – but I don’t.

Lasker (‘pragmatism and psychology’), the star of the next chapter, also receives special treatment.

In this instructive game, where he defeats Rubinstein’s IQP, he uses the ‘pivot square’ d5 in a variety of ways.

It is indeed a game to be understood in depth and learned by heart, because the idea of a pivot being a source of energy can be used in an untold number of situations.

Engqvist quotes Nimzowitsch’s comments on this game with approval, and makes it very clear throughout the  book that Nimzo is one of his chess heroes.

Although he only gets one game (yes, it’s the Immortal Zugzwang game), the author has this to say:

Nimzowitsch is just as important as Steinitz, since his principles do complement those of his predecessor, However, to appreciate Nimzowitsch’s precepts in depth one needs to also properly understand Steinitz’s classical principles, otherwise the true meaning of Nimzowitsch’s theories will be lost.

and:

In my opinion (reading Nimzowitsch) is much more important than learning from computers, which are very bad teachers indeed, and sometimes incomprehensible. Nimzowitsch must be regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever, teachers…

Controversial, perhaps, and you might well think he’s overstating his case.

The other two subjects awarded more extensive treatment are, predictably, Capablanca (‘The Chess Machine’) and Alekhine (‘The Complete Chess Artist’).

From then on it’s just one game each, even for giants such as Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. right the way through to Carlsen.

Here’s the game used to illustrate Fischer (‘The Aggressive Classical Player’).

Engqvist:

This game is one of Fischer’s best and it is remarkable that he was only 16 years old when it was played. It proves that he was a genius. The good news is that Fischer’s style is possible to emulate,  because it it largely based on positional technique à la Capablanca,  which to a high degree can be learned.

It’s clear from this book, as well as from the author’s earlier volumes, that Thomas Engqvist is an exceptional writer, teacher and annotator. He has also made extensive use of a wide range of secondary sources (but, sadly, he fails the Yates test: he was Fred (Dewhirst), not Frederick Dewhurst). Each chapter is prefaced by a series of quotes by or about its subject, which in itself makes fascinating reading. Computer analysis has been used to correct analytical errors made by earlier authors, but this is done judiciously: he doesn’t go over the top in providing reams of engine generated variations. You might, I suppose, disagree with some of his views, especially on Nimzowitsch, but that’s part of the enjoyment you’ll get from the book. You might also think there’s some simplification and generalisation, but that’s inevitable in a book of this nature.

The production values are, of their type, excellent. The book, like others from this publisher, has a reassuringly old-fashioned look about it. While younger readers may well prefer something glossier and glitzier, it’s not likely to be a problem for those, like me, of the Batsford generation.

Many publishers these days prefer more interactivity, with puzzles at the start of each chapter, or, with annotated games, stopping every few moves to ask you a question. There’s none of that here, just solid, accurate and instructive comments. Different readers will prefer different styles of annotation. The one concession to interactivity is a couple of quizzes with questions like What was Ponziani’s opinion of the theories of Philidor and del Rio?, which I could really do without as they’re testing memory rather than understanding.

I had two other thoughts when reading this book. I often wonder whether chess authors are writing the book they wanted to write or the book the publishers thought would sell. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my impression was that Engqvist really wanted to write something like The 60 Most Instructive Positional Games rather than a book with a historical perspective offering, for the most part, one game per star player.

I also wonder what exactly the market is for this book. Younger readers, if they want a book at all, might prefer something with a more modern feel, while older readers might have seen many of the games before.

But, if you’re, say, 1500-2000 strength, you’re serious about improving your chess and you’re happy with the style and contents, you won’t go wrong with this excellent book from one of the best authors and teachers around.

Richard James, Twickenham 14th February 2024

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Batsford; 1st edition (13 April 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:1849947511
  • ISBN-13:978-1849948043
  • Product Dimensions: 15.04 x 2.01 x 23.04 cm

Official web site of Batsford

Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach, Thomas Engqvist, Batsford, 13th April 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1849948043
Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach, Thomas Engqvist, Batsford, 13th April 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1849948043
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The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston

From the publishers’ blurb:

“This is what’s new in this edition: More accurate and more extensive annotations, computer-assisted. Every game has been examined under Stockfish 14, probably the best analytical engine available for home computers at this time. For the first edition we had only Fritz 4 and 5, which compare to Stockfish like a Model T Ford to a Ferrari, and many games were given no computer examination at all. Thus owners of the first edition will find most annotations here substantially different (and substantially better). However, many general assessments and heuristic notes proved valid and have been retained. ·

Torre’s own annotations to several games have been unearthed and added. These come from several sources: the American Chess Bulletin, his book of the 1926 Mexican Championship tournament, and his instructional booklet Development of Chess Ability. ·

Several games have been added. Some, frankly, are Torre losses, which we give in the interest of presenting a more complete, balanced picture of his play. The first edition, to some extent, looked at Torre through rose-colored glasses; here we aim only for untinted clarity. Also added are the six games between players other than Torre that he annotated for the Mexican Championship tournament book (see Chapter VIII). ·

There are many more diagrams and photographs than in the first edition. Also more thumbnail bios of Torre’s opponents. ·

More ancillary material about Torre’s life and career: pictures, anecdotes, interesting facts, opinions, bits of trivia etc., drawn from the ACB, the Wiener Schachzeitung, the film Torre x Torre, and other sources. ·

A 1927 interview with Torre, published in the Yucatán magazine Anahuac, in Chapter III. ·

Chapter IV, excerpts from the book 64 Variaciones Sobre un Tema de Torre by his friend Germán de la Cruz.”

About the Authors

Taylor Kingston (born 1949) has been a chess enthusiast since his teens. He holds a Class A over-the-board USCF rating, and was a correspondence master in the 1980s, but his greatest love is the game’s history. His historical articles have appeared in Chess Life, New In Chess, Inside Chess, Kingpin, and the web-site www.ChessCafe.com. He has edited and/or co-authored dozens of chess books, and translated three from Spanish, including the original Mexican edition of Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre. He lives with his wife Emily in Paso Robles, California.

Taylor Kingston
Taylor Kingston

Gabriel Velasco (born 1949 in Mexico City) is a a professor of mathematics and author of over twenty books on mathematics. He has been a chess enthusiast since age 15. Besides Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre, he is the author of Masterpieces of Attack (Chess Digest, 1990), presenting the best games of the late GM Marcel Sisniega Campbell. Velasco lived in Kiev 1985-1987 and shared 1st-3rd prize in a tournament of Candidate Masters and First Category players, earning thereby a norm of Candidate Master of the Soviet Union. Back in Mexico, he won the championship of the state of Guanajuato. He is now retired and lives in Mexico City with his wife and his son Richard, who was was given that name in honor of Richard Réti.

 

You probably know a few things about Carlos Torre. (In the interests of cultural sensitivity we now refer to people from some Spanish speaking countries by their first name, father’s surname and mother’s surname, so he’s now Carlos Torre Repetto, although I’ll refer to him just as Torre in the rest of this review.)

You may know he lost a Famous Game against the otherwise unknown EZ Adams. As always, click on any move for a pop-up window.

A beautiful game, to be sure, and one which is great if you want to teach combinations based on back rank mates. But it almost certainly wasn’t lost by Torre. As explained here on pp484-485, it was quite likely to be analysis which Torre published as a loss against his first teacher, Edwin Ziegler Adams, for whom he had great affection.

The next thing you probably know about Torre is that he won a Famous Game against the not at all unknown Emanuel Lasker.

Again, the finish is a great example of a windmill combination which everyone should know. But it wasn’t, as is demonstrated here (pp356-361) a very good game. Lasker, perhaps distracted by the receipt of a telegram, could have won material with 22… f6 and 23… Qd5 was a losing error.

The third thing you might know about Torre is that he invented the Torre Attack (1. d4, 2. Nf3, 3. Bg5), as he played in this game. The opening bears his name because of his usage here and in other games, but it had been played many times before.

Carlos Torre Repetto played some much better games than this in his very short international career. If you’re eager to find out more, you’ll want to read this book.

Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre, written by Gabriel Velasco, was published in 1993. Taylor Kingston, working with Velasco, translated and expanded this book, which was then published in 2000. I think I may have a copy somewhere, so perhaps you do as well.

Now we have a Second Edition, expanded further by Kingston.

All the games have been re-annotated using Stockfish 14, some more games have been added, we have more diagrams, photographs and biographical details of Torre’s opponents, as well as a wealth of fascinating supplementary material.

Carlos Torre Repetto was born in the Yucatán province of Mexico on 29 November 1904, and, in 1916, the family moved to New Orleans where, under the mentorship of Edwin Ziegler Adams, he made rapid progress in chess.

In 1924 he travelled to New York in search of stronger opposition. After achieving some local successes he travelled to Detroit, representing New York in the Western Chess Association Championship. Here he scored a spectacular success, finishing unbeaten on 14/16, 2½ points ahead of his nearest rivals and 3 points ahead of the even younger Sammy Reshevsky.

The following spring, Torre crossed the Atlantic to take part in the Baden-Baden congress, where, crossing swords with the likes of Alekhine and Rubinstein, he scored a creditable 10½/20. The authors comment that Carlos Torre played somewhat nervously in his international debut. While attaining a respectable 10th place (out of 21), he clearly was more concerned with not losing rather than trying to win.

He then continued, with only a few days in between the two events, to Marienbad, where he played with more confidence, sharing third place with Marshall on 10/15, half a point behind the winners Nimzovich and Rubinstein.

That autumn he took part in his third international tournament of the year, in Moscow. A score of 12/20 left him sharing 5th-6th places with Tartakower, behind Bogoljubow (his greatest tournament result), Lasker (whom he beat in the above game), Capablanca and Marshall. Here, he started strongly but faded in the last few rounds.

However, his game from the penultimate round was one of his best: a delightful minor masterpiece, according to the authors.

He stayed on in the Soviet Union over the New Year, playing in a small quadrangular tournament in Leningrad, where, still tired from his exertions in Moscow, he only managed 50%.

He then returned to Mexico for the first time in more than a decade, winning their national championship with a 100% score. His next tournament was the Western Masters in Chicago, which, as well as most of the top American players, was given an international flavour by the participation of Maroczy. With one round to go, Torre was half a point ahead of the field, facing Edward Lasker, who was in the bottom half of the field, with white in the last round. He was unable to cope with the pressure, played badly and lost. Marshall came out on top with 8½/12, half a point ahead of Torre and Maroczy.

The final thing you might know about Torre is that he once took his clothes off on a bus. Sadly, it’s true. After this tournament he returned to New York where he suffered a psychotic episode which put an end to his brief tournament chess career. He was also suffering from some sort of eating disorder, perhaps brought on by anxiety. He had always had an immoderate fondness for sweets, sometimes eating a dozen pineapple sundaes in a day, but those who knew him in New York at this time report that he was eating almost nothing but candies and fudge. He then returned to Mexico, living there quietly until his death in 1978 at the age of 73, and retaining his interest in chess to the end.

A sad story, then. Here was a young player of exceptional talent who lacked the temperament for competitive chess. Torre comes across as a sensitive soul who, on the one hand was more interested in the beauty of his games than the result, but, on the other hand, was hampered by anxiety which caused him on some occasions to play too cautiously, and, on other occasions, to tire easily and make mistakes.

If you’re interested in chess in the 1920s you’ll certainly want to read this excellent book. You won’t be disappointed with the production qualities either: it’s a good-looking hardback (also available in paperback) of 588 pages. The Games Section covers most of the book: here you have 110 games annotated using the latest (at the time of writing) engines to ensure accuracy.

One of Torre’s most impressive performances was his draw with the black pieces against Capablanca (Moscow 1925). Not many players were able to hold an inferior ending against the World Champion, but he was able (with one exception which Capa failed to take advantage of) to find a string of ‘only moves’.

The annotations to this game demonstrate the improvements from the first edition.

The first edition of the book offered analysis claiming that White could still win if Black played 37… b6! here, but, with the help of Stockfish, this edition demonstrates that Torre could have drawn by following a very narrow path. After the game continuation 37… Kf5?? 38. Nxb7 Ke6 39. Kd3? (Nc5+ was winning), Torre was – just about – holding.

A few moves later, this position was reached.

The game continued 41. Na6+ Kb6 with an eventual draw. Capablanca claimed after the game that 41. Kc3 was winning, but Bogoljubov, writing in the tournament book, disagreed. The first edition sided with Capa, but now, in the second edition, we learn that it was Bogo who was correct.

Here’s the complete game.

The last 100 pages or so offer a wealth of other material including articles and annotations  by Torre himself. The games included here bring the total up to 128. Anyone with an interest in chess history will relish this part of the book.

If you already have the first English language edition, then, you’ll want to know whether or not to buy this version. If you want more accurate annotations, the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If you want the fascinating additional material, the answer is again ‘yes’. If you just want Torre’s best games, or if you’re of the opinion that historical games shouldn’t be subjected to computer analysis, the answer may well be ‘no’.

Instead of the familiar Informator symbols you instead get assessments such as (+0.61/25), indicating that Stockfish 14, at 25 ply, considers that White has an advantage of .61 of a pawn. I find this interesting, but I’m sure there will be those who disagree.

There are other production issues which might divide opinion. If you’re a completist you’d expect every traceable game played by Torre, which isn’t what you get here. White spaces in the book are filled with cute little cartoons. You might like this, but here I think I prefer the white space.

If you have any interest at all in chess history, chess culture or the psychology of chess players, you shouldn’t hesitate.

Gabriel Velasco, Taylor Kingston and the team at Thinkers Publishing should be congratulated on doing an outstanding job to preserve the memory of Carlos Torre Repetto’s life and all too short chess career.

Richard James, Twickenham 12th January 2024

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details :

  • Softcover: 588 pages
  • Publisher: Thinkers Publishing; 2nd edition (21 Mar. 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:‎ 9464201762
  • ISBN-13:978-9464201765
  • Product Dimensions: 23.88 x 4.06 x 17.27 cm

Official web site of Thinkers Publishing

The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston, Thinkers Publishing, March 21st 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9464201765
The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston, Thinkers Publishing, March 21st 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9464201765
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Minor Pieces 67: George Law Francis Beetholme

One of the fun things family historians like to do is the One Name Study. You take an unusual surname and find out everything you can about all the bearers of that name.

I have an interest (I’ll explain more later) in the very rare, and now, I believe extinct, at least in that form, name BEETHOLME. I randomly typed ‘Beetholme chess’ into Google and discovered that one of their number, George Law Francis Beetholme, was a published problemist.


#3 777 Chess miniatures in three 1908

Here’s one of his problems, a mate in 3 anthologised by the very interesting E Wallis (the subject of a future Minor Piece) in his self-published collection. I don’t know where or when it was first published: if you know, do get in touch.

Beetholme is an area of Keswick, in the Lake District, and for centuries the name was common in nearby Kendal, often in variants such as Beethom.  Our interest starts with John Law Beetholme, who was born in Liverpool, but moved to London where he worked as a solicitor. His eldest son, George, born in 1826, originally worked in his father’s legal practice, but, in a radical change of career, decided to become an artist. His paintings, very collectible today, were landscapes, often featuring mountains, rivers and waterfalls.

This pair of highland river scenes is, at the time of writing, on sale for £1750.

I don’t know whether or not he was a chess player, but, according to his obituary, he played an excellent game of billiards.

Islington Gazette 06 October 1904

His only child, a son, George Francis Law Beetholme, born in 1857, was, like his father, an artist. It was he who appears to have been the chess problemist. Here’s a mate in 2 from 1882, which was reprinted in the Adelaide Observer a few weeks later, so it must have been quite highly thought of.


#2  The Illustrated London News 11 Feb 1882

Sadly, there’s not much more to say. Perhaps he was already in poor health: five years later he died at the age of only 30. The cause of his death was given as Phthisis (tuberculosis) and Morbus Cordis (heart disease).

I’ve only been able to find one other problem, published later in 1882, though there may well be others around somewhere. There are a lot of duals involving discovered checks with the knight in some variations, which perhaps wouldn’t be acceptable today.


#2  The Illustrated London News 9 Sep 1882

George Law Francis Beetholme, then, was very much a Minor Piece in the world of chess problems: perhaps even, you might think, a pawn. A promising career cut short by ill health, I suppose.

You might be wondering about my interest in the Beetholme family. George the artist had a brother named John, born in about 1839, who also lived a bohemian life following artistic pursuits, although he used a pen rather than a paintbrush.

John L Beetholme (Lawreen)

Using the nom de plume J B Lawreen (sometimes J Beetholme Lawreen) he was, from about 1869 onwards, a writer of comic sketches and sentimental music hall songs.

London and Provincial Entr’acte 14 July 1877

In the same business, then, as Noel Johnson, except that he wrote the words while Noel composed the music. There’s no evidence that they ever collaborated.

London and Provincial Entr’acte 27 October 1877

In 1879 he married a dancer named Emily Willis, but the relationship didn’t last long and he later had an affair with Mary Elizabeth Bonsor, born in 1862, who had been orphaned at the age of only 3 when, a few weeks after her mother’s death, her father, in a fit of despair, took his own life. Two children were born: a son named John, and a daughter, whose name was registered as Alice, but who was later known as Lilian or Lily. In 1924 Lilian married a 63 year old widower, John Judd Abrahams: they had two sons. One of their grandsons, Steve Abrahams, who now lives in Tonbridge, has been researching his family history.

Steve has a strong DNA link with me which suggests we’re somewhere in the region of 4th cousins. I know from my shared links that it concerns my maternal grandmother’s family, and he knows from his shared links that it concerns his paternal grandfather’s family. There’s no obvious connection from our family trees so it’s a question of identifying a point where one of my relations and one of his relations might have been in the same room at the same time.

One possible scenario is this. John Judd Abrahams was born on 31 December 1860 in Gillingham Street, very near Victoria Station. According to both birth and baptism records his parents were David Abrahams and Ann Judd, who had married in Brighton in 1855. David was a servant, presumably working in hotels or boarding houses, and it’s quite likely Ann was in the same industry. Unfortunately the relevant page from the 1861 census, which might have been very informative, is lost, but there’s no indication that David and Ann spent any time together after their marriage, or that they had any (other) children. Steve also has no Abrahams DNA connections going any further back, so it’s plausible that John’s father was someone staying at or visiting a boarding house near Victoria Station. The relevant branch of my family was, at that time, mostly in the Northamptonshire village of Croughton, but there’s one possibility.

My great great grandfather Robert Padbury (he changed his name from Badby) had a brother named William (born in 1831) who served in the 97th Regiment of Foot. He was in Canada in 1856, and in India for the Indian Mutiny in 1857-58. On 1 June 1860 he was transferred to Madras. Might he have been in London a few months before that date awaiting instructions? Might he have travelled from India by boat, and then to London by train? He wouldn’t have arrived at Victoria Station, which only opened in October 1860. Might he have been in England on leave? Might he have been staying in a boarding house in central London and looking for a good time? I don’t know: I wasn’t there: but this theory would make Steve my 3rd cousin once removed, which would be about right. It would also make the short-lived problemist George Law Francis Beetholme the paternal 1st cousin of the wife of my 1st cousin 3x removed.

(Just to conclude William’s story, he returned from India, marrying in 1864 in Croydon, served by regular trains from Victoria,  and fathering two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. )

Join me again soon for another story of a chess family with an unusual surname.

Problem solutions: click on any move to play them through.

Sources and Acknowledgements:

ancestry.co.uk
findmypast.co.uk
Wikipedia
Steve Abrahams
Yet Another Chess Problem Database (yacpdb.org)
ChessBase

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Richmond Junior Chess Club 1975-2006: Part 5

I left you last time as the calendar ticked over to replace the 1 with a 2. January 1 2000. A new century.

The year 2000 was one with an international focus for Richmond Junior Chess Club. In January, we hosted a team of five young players from South Korea. They came over with our friend Jinwoo Song, a regular competitor in our rapidplay tournaments, who was now coaching in his home country. We ran a four-way team tournament, with six players in each team. Jinwoo played on top board for the Korean Krushers against the Richmond Raiders, the Richmond Rebels and the Richmond Renegades. They also played a match against Sheen Mount Primary School.

In July we had a visit from a Czech team from Frydek-Mistek, whose players have had a long association (continuing to this day) with English juniors. We ran a rapidplay tournament including some of the South of England’s strongest juniors, followed by a match between our team and theirs.

Here are two games: click on any move for a pop-up window.

But it was clear that the times were changing. Junior chess – and childhood itself – was becoming very different from when I was growing up.

In brief, and I’ll write a lot more about this at another time and (perhaps) in another place, it was changing from a hobby for older children into a learning tool for younger children.  The primary school chess clubs about which I was sceptical provided very little retention. Up to 2000 we were able to feed through the stronger players into our morning group, but at that point some sort of football league for children of primary school age started up in the borough, so we were no longer able to do that to any great extent.

Another thing that had changed was my relationship with the parents on our committee. When I was running the club unpaid I was seen as a friend, and, because I was doing it for free, was respected so much that I received an award from the BCF (as it then was) and it was even proposed that I should be nominated for an award in the Queen’s honours list. Every Christmas I’d receive enough wine and chocolates to last me until Easter. Even now I still exchange cards with a number of the parents from that time every December. But now I was being paid I was just a dispensable employee of the committee, so the gifts stopped. While I had enough money to buy as much wine and chocolates as I wanted throughout the year, for me that wasn’t the point.

I eventually reached the conclusion that I wanted to leave Richmond Junior Club at some point, and, because 30 years seemed like a good length of time to run the club, decided that the 2004-05 season would be my last. This would give the committee time to identify a replacement for me.

As chance would have it, in January 2002 a young man approached me after one of our Richmond Rapidplays offering to help. He appeared friendly and enthusiastic, and, although he wasn’t a very strong player, he was good enough to work with less experienced players. So the committee agreed to invite him along and give him a trial.

Everything went well: he was very popular with most of the children, and most of the parents also liked him. In addition, he seemed to be very much in tune with what we were trying to do. He also had contacts with a lot of strong players, which was very helpful.

After a while the committee appointed him as my deputy, with the intention that he would take over when I retired. CRB checks (as they then were), which had been introduced in 2002, were carried out successfully.

Meanwhile, my views on junior chess, in particular the best ways to teach beginners and promote chess in schools, were changing.

In 2000 I started developing a website, chessKIDS Academy, promoting online chess services for children. I sold the original domain some years ago and am no longer developing or maintaining the site but you can still find it here.

In 2001 a new school, Hampton Court House opened (it’s still there under the same name, but under different ownership and management), taking children of both primary and secondary school age. Its Director of Studies, Guy Holloway, was a keen chess player and wanted to make chess part of the school. I was invited to become involved and we used the school as a venue for a few tournaments. The school was more than happy to accept children who had struggled to fit in mainstream schools, as well as a bunch of eccentric teachers. It was, in many ways, an ideal environment for me, and I soon became a valued member of the school community. Getting to know all the children, not just those who played chess, as well as the parents and the members of staff, not all of whom were interested in chess, taught me to wear a teacher hat rather than a chess hat when thinking about how to promote and organise chess in schools.

By now I was reading extensively about various aspects of childhood: child development, educational theory, parenting, the history of childhood, as well as looking at the history of children’s chess, which again enabled to contextualise my views.

In 2003 I published two articles in CHESS. The first outlined my issues with primary school chess clubs and promoted chessKIDS Academy. The second published the results of an experiment carried out to investigate how children made decisions over the chessboard. I promised more articles, but never wrote them.

In 2004 I started investigating the Steps Method, used extensively in The Netherlands and also in other West European countries, which offered a very different philosophy to that of our after-school chess clubs. Looking also at courses based on methods used in the former Soviet Union, it was clear to me that this must have been an influence. Although I had some reservations about how it would fit in to our system, most of it made a lot of sense to me. I could see exactly why the primary school chess clubs in our area didn’t produce any significant retention.

Everything I was reading confirmed my opinion that promoting mass participation in chess in primary schools, while superficially attractive, was, in the long term, counter-productive.

But my views proved unpopular with parents and teachers, who didn’t want me to stop their children having fun playing low level chess, and with my chess teaching colleagues, who didn’t want me to stop them earning a living.

Over the previous few years there had been a decline in standards (we were doing just as well in competitions against other areas, so this was nationwide) and also in behaviour. While most of our children were genuinely enthusiastic about chess and wanted to be there, we were also attracting children who were less interested, and, consequently, in some cases less well behaved who were being signed up because their parents saw possible extrinsic benefits which might help them academically.

Two of our members from this period are now International Masters. Here’s a game from Yang-Fan Zhou.

Callum Kilpatrick sometimes plays for Richmond in the London League.

In February 2005 the world of Richmond Junior Club was turned upside down when a boy made an allegation of sexual assault against our young deputy director, who vehemently denied that any impropriety had taken place. The boy’s father, quite correctly reported the allegation to the police and social services. As it happened, a few years earlier one of the parents on our committee had been discovered with child pornography on his computer, and social services jumped to the conclusion that RJCC was the front for a paedophile ring. As a (then) middle-aged bachelor who spent a lot of time with young children I felt I was under suspicion myself.

The Crown Prosecution Service decided there was a case to answer, but were forced to drop it because the boy wasn’t prepared to testify in court. Our parental committee (I played no part in their decisions in this case) decided to keep him on but watch him closely, hoping this would give him the opportunity to seek help. Of course there was now no way he could take over my role as club director, so, in the short term, I had to remain in place, although my heart was no longer in it. The allegation against my deputy and potential successor was only one reason.

At the end of April 2006 we were contacted by the organiser of a foreign tournament in which our deputy director was taking part, informing us that he’d been arrested. Telling us the reason would have been a breach of confidentiality, but of course we had our suspicions. We eventually discovered that the reason for his arrest made it impossible for him to continue working with children. When he returned to England he was removed from his post at RJCC, although he continued playing in tournaments, even holding an office within the British Chess Federation until the start of the following year.

Meanwhile, by September 2006, other arrangements had been made, and Richmond Junior Chess Club was now, after 31 years, being run by someone else. What happened then is not my story to tell.

At the end of this five-part, 30+ year saga, I have some final thoughts.

If you know me you’ll know that I’m an extreme introvert, quiet, self-effacing, non-confrontational. I’m not an amazingly strong chess player. I’m not good at addressing an audience or controlling a class of children. Exactly the opposite of the qualities expected of a leader, you might think, but, nevertheless, I ran the strongest junior chess club in the country – and one of the strongest in the world – for many years, with methods, philosophy and governance very different from those used in any other children’s chess club of my knowledge. Yes, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and to meet the right people, most importantly Mike Fox, but I suspect you need something more than just luck.

I’ve always known that without chess I wouldn’t have had a happy and worthwhile life, and that the least I could do in return was to devote my as much of my life as I could to helping children play chess. But, as I didn’t come from a chess background, today’s primary school chess clubs wouldn’t have helped me much, and nor would today’s professionally run clubs have been suitable.

The introduction to chess I had in the 1960s was ideal for me, but now junior chess, at least in my part of the world, was no longer for teachers like me (classroom management skills, which I don’t have, are required), nor, more importantly, for children like me.

I eventually realised that the problem was societal rather than specifically chess related, and that my friends and former colleagues in the junior chess world were meeting demands from parents and schools. But I didn’t think it was doing either chess or children any favours.

There are signs that things might be changing: I’ll have a lot more to say about this another time, and probably in another place. If you’d like to speak to me about the way we used to run our club, feel free to get in touch.

 

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Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin

From the publisher:

“Almost as fascinating as chess is the community of chess players. In every major city in the world, you are guaranteed to meet interesting people when you walk into a local chess club or chess cafe. This book pays tribute to one of those characters who gave colour to the chess world, the Russian grandmaster Alexey Vyzhmanavin.

The best chance to bump into Vyzhmanavin in the 1980s and early 1990s was in Sokolniki park in Moscow, playing blitz. You could meet him at the 1992 Chess Olympiad as a member of the winning Russian team. Or in the finals of the PCA rapid events of the 1990s, frequently outplaying his illustrious opponents with his fluent and enterprising style. In Moscow in 1994, he reached the semi-final, narrowly losing out to Vladimir Kramnik, having already beaten Alexei Shirov and Viktor Korchnoi. Commentating at a PCA event, Maurice Ashley described Vyzhmanavin in predatory terms: ‘He’s a dangerous one, looking like a cat, ready to pounce’.

For this book, grandmaster Dmitry Kryakvin has talked to dozens of people, enabling him to give a complete picture of Vyzhmanavin’s life. The result is a mix of fascinating chess, wonderful anecdotes, and some heartbreaking episodes. The stories are complemented by the memories of Vyzmanavin’s ex-wife Lyudmila. They revive his successes but also reveal the dark side of this forgotten chess genius who battled with depression and the ‘green serpent’, a Russian euphemism for alcoholism. He died in January 2000 at the age of forty, in circumstances that remain unclear. The stories and games in this book are his legacy.

Dmitry Kryakvin is an International Grandmaster from Russia and an experienced chess trainer and author. For New In Chess he wrote Attacking with g2-g4: The Modern Way to Get the Upper Hand in Chess

————————————————————————————-

There’s always a demand for biographical works and games collections concerning lesser known players. Here we have a book about Alexey Vyzhmanavin, who, for a short time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of the leading Soviet/Russian grandmasters.

Viorel Bologan provides the Foreword.

(Vyzhmanavin) was a very inventive and enterprising chess player, with deep and precise calculation skills. His best games featured in this book constitute great learning material. I must add that I rather liked the style of the book: it’s not a simple collection of best games – it’s a history of his life, bright and tragic. The narration of the author, Dmitry Kryakvin, is complemented by the memories of Vyzhmanavin’s ex-wife Lyudmila and stories from his friends.

Bright and tragic. This sums up Vyzhmanavin’s short life, with its highs and lows. A player of exceptional natural talent, particularly at speed chess, but his life blighted by his mental health problems and addictions to gambling and alcohol.

A fascinating book with an important story to tell – and some great chess along the way as well.

Right at the start, though, I should explain that I have one issue. Not, I suspect, to do with the book itself, but to do with what I assume was an editorial decision made by the publishers.

If I’m reading a Best Games collection I really want to see the complete games. Here, in the majority of cases, we don’t get all the moves, but only join the game after the opening, or, in some cases, at the start of the ending. This is something I find very frustrating: while it’s good to see how the winner exploited his advantage, I’d also like to know how he obtained that advantage in the first place, which might teach me something about the opening.

I appreciate that this is their house style, and that the decision was no doubt made for economic reasons, but for me it rather spoils what is otherwise an excellent book.

Vyzhmanavin had a difficult family background, with an alcoholic father. His mother was a kindergarten teacher, and he didn’t discover chess until his teens, when, accompanying his mother and her pupils to a summer camp, he chanced upon a chess book.

He had to start his playing career against much younger children, but, supported by Lyudmila Belavenets (daughter of pre-war Soviet master Sergey), he won books as prizes and rapidly became addicted to chess. As she later wrote: I am completely sure that it’s not necessary to start studying chess at the age of 4 or 6. When a teenager comes to the chess section, this means that it was his own choice.

I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments.

Kryakvin writes:

We are all products of our childhood, and what we discuss here and now is very important in understanding what happened to Alexey Vyzhmanavin later. Alexey didn’t have any of the things that we love so much and sometimes value so little at home: warmth, loving and caring family members.

For him, much more than for most players, his childhood is the key to understanding both why and how he played chess.

He soon discovered the chess pavilion in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, where he honed his exceptional talent for blitz chess. By 1981, at the age of 20, he was beating players like Bronstein and Vaganian: you can see the games here.

By this time he had been conscripted into the armed forces. joining the sports unit, where he could pursue chess rather than military training. After his two year conscription period ended he signed up for another six years, winning the Armed Forces championship on seven occasions.

By 1985 he was approaching GM strength, winning this fine attacking game. Click on any move for a pop-up window.

By the late 1980s he was, like his father before him, experiencing problems with alcoholism and mental health, but in 1988 his life changed when he married a fellow chess player, Lyudmila Didenko, as she is now known. Soon after their marriage a daughter was born. Lyudmila’s moving recollections of Alexey play an important part in this book.

There was more good news in 1989 when Vyzhmanavin, now with a 2555 rating, finally attained the grandmaster title.

Here’s an example of his play from the following year.

He continued to progress, playing for the successful Russian Olympiad and European Championship teams in 1992, and reaching a peak rating of 2620 in 1993.

But, by the mid 1990s his problems with the ‘green serpent’ were getting worse. His results started to decline, and his marriage broke up, Lyudmila filing for divorce in 1996. He played little chess that year, and, despite sharing first place at Cappelle-la-Grande the following year, soon gave up completely.

By now his life had spiralled out of control, and, in January 2000, at the age of only 39, he was found dead in his Moscow flat.

A tragic story, then, of a talented but troubled man who was unable to control his demons.

As usual from this publisher, the book is well produced. The translation is excellent and the game annotations serve their purpose well. As is usual with New in Chess books, active learning is promoted by questions inviting readers to find the best continuation. Given that Vyzhmanavin excelled in positional chess, most of the questions involve planning rather than calculation. If you feel the purpose of this book is to inform rather than instruct,  they’re not necessary, but they don’t do any harm.

If you’re interested in the human side of chess you’ll certainly want to read this book. If you’re interested in chess life in the last days of the Soviet Union, this is also a book for you. If you enjoy powerful positional chess, particularly in queen’s pawn games, you’ll learn something from this book. I’d suspect you’d have learnt rather more, though, if you’d been able to see the complete games rather than, in the majority, just the conclusion.

Dmitry Kryakvin has done an outstanding job in producing a fine tribute to Alexey Vyzhmanavin, a man who deserves to be remembered for both his life and his games.

Before I leave you, I have one further question prompted by reading this book. Should international and national chess organisations do more to help members of their community suffering from problems in the areas of mental health and addictions? I consider this an important topic which isn’t being discussed enough. Of course it’s quite possible that Vyzhmanavin might have turned down offers of help anyway, but what do you think?

Richard James, Twickenham 30th November 2023

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Softcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: New In Chess (31 January 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9493257819
  • ISBN-13:978-9493257818
  • Product Dimensions: 17.15 x 1.19 x 23.09 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin, Dmitry Kryakvin, New in Chess, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9493257818
Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin, Dmitry Kryakvin, New in Chess, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9493257818
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Minor Pieces 66: Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson (2)

We left Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson last time, having just married Jane Ann Richards and joined the RAF on war service.

Before I move on, my thanks to Brian Denman, who has sent me a whole pile of Noel-Johnson’s games. I’ll add a few earlier scores here: as always, click on any move for a pop-up window.

Even in 1924, as an inexperienced 20-year-old, he was capable of playing strong positional chess, being particularly severe here against his opponent’s Dutch Defence, and not being distracted by the magnificent view from the roof of Australia House. William Henry Watts was, apart from being a civil servant, a prominent chess journalist and author.

In this county match game from 1936 he won quickly against his Essex opponent’s rather unsophisticated opening.

In another county match game he took a notable scalp when one of England’s finest amateurs, perhaps in time trouble, lost the plot.

Finally, for the moment, another game against Yeeles, which might, as Brian suggests, have been played in a club match, but also fits in with the 1937 county championship final. He was lucky here, as Yeeles stood better before giving up the exchange for no obvious reason: perhaps again a time trouble blunder.

Returning to his life story, Reginald and Jane had two children, Patricia, born in Chester in 1942, and Christopher (who sadly died in 2010), born in Surrey in 1946. During this period his work for the RAF took him to India, and it was only in 1947 that he was able to resume his chess career.

He wasted no time in picking up where he left off.

Tonbridge Free Press 30 May 1947

His final game was a textbook example of strong positional play, his pressure on his opponent’s backward c-pawn eventually leading to material gain. Click on any move of any game in this article for a pop-up window.

Although he’d been living in central London since at least 1929, he maintained his loyalty to Kent, playing in county matches as well as the county championships.

This game from a match between West/Mid Kent and Metropolitan Kent had a curious conclusion. White thought he had no defence to Black’s threats, but in fact he had a slight advantage.

In 1949 he won the Kent Championship for the eighth time. In this game from the first round  he again demonstrated strong positional play, winning material, but returning it for two far advanced connected passed pawns in the centre.

In this county match game he missed a tactical opportunity, but his more active pieces still made life difficult for his Sussex opponent.

Noel-Johnson also remained loyal to Lewisham. In this National Club Championship game his international opponent blundered, allowing a smart finish.

Facing another international opponent in a London League match, he gave a textbook example of how to play against the Dutch Stonewall, taking advantage of Black’s weak dark squares and undeveloped queen’s bishop to set up a decisive pin.

This game bears testimony to Reginald’s considerable endgame skills.

1951 marked the centenary of the Great Exhibition in London, which included the world’s first international chess tournament, and it was only right that the 1951 Festival of Britain should also include some chess. Reginald Noel-Johnson, by now a respected organiser and populariser of chess as well as a very strong player, was involved, and television cameras were present.

Marylebone Mercury 11 May 1951

In case you’re unfamiliar with some of the personalities involved: David Farrar CEM Joad Eamonn Andrews Sir Ronald Storrs

(Sir Ronald founded the first chess club in Palestine in 1918, hoping to unite Arabs, Jews and Christians stationed in Jerusalem, and to help promote peace and understanding. It didn’t work out: it closed within a year due to tensions between Arabs and Jews.)

In 1951 Noel-Johnson organised a London Transport team who travelled to Hastings Chess Club.

Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 11 August 1951

The home team won 21½-8½, but König and Noel-Johnson, on the top two boards, against Winser and Waterman.

(Chess was a very big thing amongst London Busmen at the time, a story I should perhaps investigate further.)

In October 1952 the National Chess Centre re-opened, just across the road in Oxford Street from the previous centre which had been burnt down during the war. Noel-Johnson was very much involved in its re-establishment. He was also honoured by being appointed President of the Southern Counties Chess Union in 1952-53.

Here’s another game, this one from the 1952 county championship, resulting in a minor piece ending.

This game was played on top board in a county match at the National Chess Centre. It looks like White miscalculated or misjudged the position round about move 20.

The 1953 National Chess Centre Championship gave Reginald another chance to demonstrate his positional mastery.

In 1954 the British Chess Federation published its second (and first full) grading list. Reginald Noel-Johnson was there on 3a (209-216, or about 2300 Elo), along with Alfred Lenton, and several of his other erstwhile opponents. At the age of 50, he seemed to be playing as well as ever.

But at that point he became a lot less active. By the 1955 grading list he’d slipped to 4a (193-200, approaching 2200 Elo).

One reason might have been that he was now becoming active in the musical world as a composer. I’d imagine that his work at Ricordi’s (he’d moved from Chappell’s) involved, on occasion, being commissioned to write incidental music.

Back in 1933 he’d been writing songs in the style of his father, his setting of Weep you no more, sad fountains, an anonymous Elizabethan verse set by everyone from John Dowland to Roger Quilter, being admired for its combination of freshness and charm. “The harmonic scheme in the accompaniment is never dull and the melody has a quiet flow and a beautiful ending, suitable for soprano or tenor”, according to the West Middlesex Gazette (27 May 1933).

Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of this or any of his other music, but I recently heard Ivor Gurney’s setting in a recital. I rather suspect Noel-Johnson’s setting was closer to that of Quilter.

Judge for yourself here.

In 1952 Noel-Johnson had composed the music for Enid Blyton’s Noddy Song Book, and these were used for a children’s play produced over the Christmas holidays in December 1954. No, I wasn’t in the audience.

It was repeated the following year, when the cast list included ‘Ronald’ Corbett as Mr Whiskers and Jinky, while older children could watch the Famous Five in the evening.

In 1953 an ice pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor (pantomimes on ice were very big in those days) included a ballet based on Morphy’s Opera House Game, with music by Noel-Johnson.

There was a new job for him in 1958, when he was appointed general manager of Ascherberg, Hopwood and Crew.

You might have expected that Reginald’s chess career had come to an end, but in 1974 he unexpectedly turned up playing for King’s Lynn, in Norfolk. He was rapidly appointed match captain, and was involved in a ‘chess happening’ forming part of the King’s Lynn Festival.

Lynn News & Advertiser 30 July 1974

In 1975 he reappeared on the grading list at 190, seemingly having retained his strength into his 70s, despite a 20 year long absence from the board.

He didn’t appear in the next two grading lists, but returned in 1978, now living in Worthing, on the south coast. That year he was down to 181, but by 1982 he was up to 194, and, after a decline the following year, back to 192 in 1984. This would be about 2150 – pretty impressive for someone in his late seventies.

In this game he renewed acquaintance with an old Kent rival, now promoted to the rank of Canon within the Church of England, who left it far too late to develop his queen’s knight.

Here, he faced a Cannon rather than a Canon. John Cannon was a strong Sussex player who, I believe, claimed to hold a record for the number of county matches he played.

Noel-Johnson also started playing in tournaments again, favouring those in Devon, often playing in Paignton and occasionally in Torquay. In 1981, despite a last round defeat, he shared first place in the top section at Paignton.

Birmingham Mail 14 September 1981

In one of the key games from this event he scored the full point against one of the other joint winners, who went wrong on his sealed move.

In 1981 he changed his allegiance from Worthing to Rustington: I wonder if this was under the influence of his old friend Eric Smith. Perhaps it was he who had enticed him to the delights of Sussex in the first place.

In this club championship game from 1981 he switched from his usual 1… e5 to the Sicilian, scoring a quick victory. He clearly knew his opponent well.

Brian Denman tells me that in 1982 Noel-Johnson reached the Sussex final, and, if he had won, he would have been the oldest champion. However, he lost both games against Feliks Kwiatkowski. Here are a few more victories from Brian’s files.

The last game I have is a loss, from 1987.

In the final years of his career his grade, inevitably, fell into decline, last appearing in the grading list on 159 in 1991, at the age of 87.
Reginald never lost his interest in chess, though, as my friend Guy Holloway recollects.
Noel-Johnson’s daughter, Patricia, was the very first school secretary at The Harrodian School. In those days I ran the chess club and, one day (around 1995), 90-year old Reginald came in to play a simultaneous against a large group of ten-year old boys and girls. He was in sparking good form and gave the youngsters their first taste of ‘playing against a champion’.
After the simul, on returning to Worthing, he sent Guy a postcard, written partly in French, reproduced here with Guy’s permissioin.

Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson died on 27 December 2000 at the great age of 96, his death being registered in Windsor and Maidenhead.

Two of his brothers also had interesting stories to tell. Dennis, who, you may recall, changed his surname to Cullum, achieved fame as an athletics coach, specialising in hammer throwing. You can read more about him here.

Reginald’s youngest brother, George Douglas, had been a member of the Territorial Army (Artists’ Rifles) in 1937, but in 1939, with war imminent, joined the RAF, flying Hurricanes in Greece and eventually rising to the rank of Squadron Leader. He retired from the services in 1956.

War often brings people from very different backgrounds together, and so it was with George Douglas Noel Noel-Johnson, who, in Heliopolis in 1945, married a secretary in the WAAF named Catherine Lucy Gunn (she was now spelling her name Katharine Lucille).

Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser 06 July 1945

They would have three children, Clive, Mark and Sally, and, while her husband died relatively young in 1972, she would live on until 2018, reaching the age of 98. I must show my appreciation here to Clive and Sally for generously sharing so much family information through their online trees.

Her parents had met while working in a mental health hospital, and Catherine, the youngest of four children, lost her father to pneumonia when she was only 2. Her mother, Edith Mary White, was the daughter of a groom, and the granddaughter of an agricultural labourer from near Warwick. Her grandfather, Thomas White, had a cousin, Sarah, who married Robert Padbury. Robert had many granddaughters, one of whom, Florence, was, in 1921, working as a housekeeper to a farmer whose wife was in Hatton Lunatic Asylum. She was no doubt unaware that her third cousin Edith had been working there ten years earlier. Florence had an affair with her employer: their daughter was my mother. This makes Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson, if my tree is correct, the brother-in-law of my 4th cousin once removed. And, you might recall from the first article, he played on two occasions against my father’s kinsman Alfred Lenton.

Noel-Johnson and Lenton, despite their very different backgrounds, had a lot in common. They were both mainly positional players, Noel-Johnson playing in classical style, as opposed to Lenton’s hypermodern approach. Lenton was slightly stronger in the 1930s, playing for England on several occasions, but Noel-Johnson retained much more of his strength into old age. Both took a break in middle age, returning to chess in their retirement, and both remaining active in the chess world into their tenth decade.

We should certainly thank Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson for his services to chess, both as a player and an administrator, over more than 70 years. I believe it’s important for the whole chess community to keep the memory of players such as him alive.

 

Sources & Acknowledgements:

ancestry.co.uk (family trees of Clive Noel-Johnson and Sally (Noel-Johnson) Giddings)
findmypast.co.uk/British Newspaper Library
Wikipedia
BritBase (John Saunders – thanks also for his RCNJ games collection)
ChessBase/Stockfish 16
Brian Denman (thanks for his RCNJ games collection)
Guy Holloway
YouTube

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Minor Pieces 65: Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson (1)

Here’s another game played by Alfred Lenton (see here and here), from the 1936 British Championship in Bournemouth against Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson, the subject of this Minor Piece. Noel-Johnson seemed ill at ease against Lenton’s favourite Réti Opening. (Click on any move in any game in this article for a pop-up window.)

Link

You’ll see from the tournament chart (click on the link for further information) that Alfred’s opponent Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson finished on 50% – a very respectable performance. Unfortunately, the only complete games of his that appear to survive from this tournament are losses.

In this game against the up-and-coming Frank Parr, a blunder on move 31 allowed a fatal double threat.

In this game another oversight gave allowed the eventual tournament winner a fine finish.

However, we do have the conclusion of this game, in which Reginald demonstrated excellent endgame technique to exploit his pawn advantage.

Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson (pictured on the left) had an interesting story to tell. Let’s find out more.

We’ll start with his father, (William) Noel Johnson (no hyphen: that came later), a cellist, conductor and composer. Here’s how he was described in Brown & Stratton’s British Musical Biography (1897). Again, from two years later: Here we have a successful composer of music mostly for home consumption: songs, short pieces for cello and piano and so on. Music which, perhaps sadly, has now gone out of fashion: I haven’t been able to find any recordings of these songs, but a later work, comprising three short piano pieces, has been recorded for YouTube by Phillip Sear, a specialist in this type of repertoire.

Pleasant enough, I suppose, but they rather remind me of the pieces I was expected to practise when I was learning the piano many years ago. Hardly imaginative or profound but they served their purpose at the time.

Between the songs and the piano pieces, in 1902, Noel married Rosina (Rosie) Johnson, twenty years his junior and not related in spite of the shared surname, with four children being born in London: Reginald (1904), Kathleen (1906), Eric (1907) and (William) Brian (1908). The family then moved to Whitstable, Kent, where two further sons were born, Dennis (1913) and (George) Douglas (1915).

Many years later, in 1975, Kathleen would look back fondly on their time there. But the family’s idyllic seaside life was shattered in January 1916 when William Noel Johnson, now living near Southend, died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving Rosie a widow with six young children.

In the words of his last song, “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”.

The Stage 29 June 1916

It can’t have been easy for Rosina, and it appears that the family also had financial problems.

The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald. 26 February 1916

The 1921 census found them, now having changed their surname to Noel-Johnson, perhaps to honour their late father, split up.

Rosie and Reggie, perhaps he’d just left the Masonic School, were living in a boarding house in South Kensington. Rosie had found work as a secretary, while her eldest son, following in his father’s footsteps, had an apprenticeship at Chappell’s, the music publishers, who had published some of Noel’s compositions.

Eric was at a boarding school on Clapham Common, just a few doors away from what is now Ray Keene’s residence. Kathleen, Brian and Douglas were ‘inmates’ at the Actors’ Orphanage in Langley,  Buckinghamshire. Dennis had been adopted by a childless couple, Henry and Ethel Cullum (were they family friends?) and had taken on their surname.

It appears that, very soon afterwards, Reginald moved to somewhere in South or South East London, taking up chess at the same time. The first reference I can find is in February 1922, just a few days before his 18th birthday, playing on Board 13 in a county match between Kent and Essex. He must have gained rapid recognition as a pretty useful player. He seems to have been the only competitive chess player in his family so perhaps he learnt at school.

The following year he played on top board for a Men of Kent team in a friendly match against a Ladies’ Team, drawing his game against Miss Edith Charlotte Price. The Men of Kent were west of the River Medway, while the Kentish men were on the east.

The Kent & Sussex Courier 02 March 1923

In 1924 Noel-Johnson took part in his first public tournament, travelling to Weston-super-Mare for the West of England Championships where he was placed in the Second Class Section A tournament. This proved a great success, his score of 8½/9 demonstrated that he was already much more than a second class player. He also finished in second place in a Quick Play Tournament: clearly a young, ambitious and improving player.

The county selectors eventually noticed this and promoted him to one of the top boards in the county team.

He didn’t have far to go for his next tournament, the Kent County Championship held in Bromley in April 1925. The format of the top section was interesting: four sections each including six amateurs and two visiting European masters.

Birmingham Daily Post 13 April 1925

In the first round Reginald attracted considerable attention for the hard fight he put up against his Latvian opponent (retrospectively rated 2386 in 1925 by Rod Edwards.

He had a strong attack for the pawn early on and, much later, came close to drawing the ending.

He finished on 3/7, an excellent score for someone with so little experience at that level.

The four section winners entered the final pool, with the remaining competitors playing three more rounds using the Swiss System to determine six further prize-winners. You’ll see that he won all three of these games.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph 20 April 1925

Later in the year, he had a county match game published in the British Chess Magazine. His opponent’s name is remembered today through the Wernick Cup, awarded since 1922 to the winner of the fourth division of the Surrey individual championship. Jack Redon, who will be the subject of a future Minor Piece, won it in 1923, as did a certain RD Keene in 1962.

It would be some years, though, before he played another public tournament, but he remained very active in club and county chess, winning the county championship for the first time in 1927, and again in 1931 and 1932.

Here’s a position for adjudication from the decisive game of a 1931 county match: Noel-Johnson was white against John Harold Morrison of Middlesex.

The players and spectators thought Black was winning but Yates gave White a win on adjudication.

White has two ways to win.

1. Rxc8 b3 (1… Rxc8 2. Bxc8 b3 3. Ba6 bxa2 (3… b2 4. Bd3) 4. Bc4+) 2. Rxb8 bxa2 3. Be6+! Kxe6 4. Re8+

or, perhaps more simply,

1. c6 b3 2. c7 Rb6 3. Rxc8 bxa2 4. Rf8+!

Although his main club was Lewisham, Reginald also played for Clapham Common, where his brother Eric had attended school.

Here he is, facing Richmond & Kew in an Alexander Cup (Surrey KO) match.

Richmond Herald 11 March 1933

By the summer of 1933 he had time to take in another public tournament, travelling down to Hastings for the British Championships. He played in the Premier Reserves, in effect the third division, and, as you’ll see, finished a point clear of the field, drawing his first encounter with Alfred Lenton along the way.

Link

In 1935 he won his fourth county title, defeating Walter Yeeles in the final. Here are the two games: he was close to winning in the first, but made no mistake in the second.

1936 saw his only British Championship appearance, which you read about at the start of this article.

This was also the year when his club, Lewisham, won the London League for the first time (they’d repeat their success the following year). Noel-Johnson arranged a presentation to the match captain, in the presence of two world champions.

Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westerham Courier & Kentish Advertiser 02 October 1936

In 1937, as well as taking the Kent title again (just as two years earlier, winning the second game against Yeeles after a draw) he took part in a small semi-international tournament to celebrate the centenary of Worcester Chess Club, finishing on 50%. At this point Rod Edwards on EdoChess gives him a retrospective rating of 2165.

The Kington Times and the North Herefordshire Advertiser 18 September 1937

In 1938 Reginald took part in a simul against Alekhine at the Charing Cross Hotel. He’s pictured here at the left, alongside Elaine Saunders, C Chapman, HH Cole, H Israel and Walter Yeeles.

British Chess Magazine March 1938/Chess Notes 3817

In the final of the 1938 Kent Championship, Noel-Johnson had the opportunity for a classic double bishop sacrifice, calculating accurately right to the end to give his opponent no chance.

Francis Tims Collins would later join the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and was tragically killed on the evening of the 27th of November 1943, when the RAF Lancaster in which he was a navigator was shot down over Heuchelheim, Germany.

In November 1938 a weekend tournament was held in Bournemouth, with the players divided into groups of four. This would be called a quad tournament in the USA: I’ve often wondered why this format (extensively used at Richmond Junior Club for many years) has never taken off over here. The top two sections each featured four county champions, Noel-Johnson winning his section with 2½/3 against the champions of Devon, Hampshire and Essex.

As county champion again, he played on top board in this county match against Surrey, who fielded the confusingly named but unrelated Laurie Alexander and Frederick Forrest Lawrie Alexander on the top two boards.

The Croydon Advertiser and Surrey County Reporter 27 January 1939

Here’s his game, a pretty clear-cut win.

Noel-Johnson encountered young Elaine Saunders again in a living chess display in Croydon later in 1939.

Croydon Times and Surrey County Mail 10 June 1939

Later that month, a match between Metropolitan Kent and West/Mid Kent resulted in an exciting finish. At the close of play the score was 25-24 in favour of the Mets, with just the top board, between Noel-Johnson and the long-lived Philip Coy, for adjudication.

The result was a win for Reginald, making the score 26-24.

But then the Second World War intervened and Noel-Johnson’s chess career was mostly on hold, although he did take part in a tournament at the National Chess Centre in 1940. Here, players were grouped by the first letter of their surname, and he won the Rare Letters section ahead of Harold Israel.

In the fourth quarter of 1940 Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson married American born Jane Ann Richards in Kensington. And on 22 November that year he was appointed Pilot Officer in the Administrative and Special Duties branch of the RAF for the duration of hostilities.

His life had changed. He was no longer a bachelor working in music publishing and playing chess in his spare time, but a married man serving in the armed forces. You’ll find out what happened next in part 2 of Reginald’s story.

Sources & Acknowledgements:

ancestry.co.uk (family trees of Clive Noel-Johnson and Sally (Noel-Johnson) Giddings)
findmypast.co.uk/British Newspaper Library
Forces War Records
YouTube/Phillip Sear
Wikipedia
BritBase (John Saunders – thanks also for his RCNJ games collection)
chessgames.com
British Chess Magazine
EdoChess (Rod Edwards)
ChessBase/Stockfish 16

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