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Image I was hoping that the 17-year-old Chinese girl Hou Yifan would win outright in Gibraltar. She has played astonishingly well, beating a string of super elite chess grandmasters of both sexes in the strongest chess open tournament in history. But she lost to Nigel Short in a mini-match play-off to decide the outright winner.

It’s an emotional climax. I watched Nigel play less formidably when he was in London in December for the London Chess Classic. But he always does well in Gibraltar. I suppose the sea-side atmosphere and the sunshine suit his relaxed and risky style. I have a soft spot for Nigel because I love the way he writes.

It may seem strange to like a chess player because of the way he writes but I think the two are connected.  When he writes, he always finds a fresh angle. He can turn an idea as well as a phrase. His vocabulary is extensive. He often plucks an unexpected word out of the air and nimbly slots it into exactly the right context. When he plays, he favours old-fashioned romantic openings like the King’s and the Evans Gambits and isn’t afraid to try something swashbuckling in even the most tense of situations.

In London he played a weird kind of French Defence that goes against all classical principles. Viktor Korchnoi, who was in the commentary room at the time, screwed up his face in disgust. Someone pointed out that the variation had been recommended in a book called Dangerous Weapons: The French. Levon Aronian, who was also playing in the tournament but had a day off and was watching the game, immediately quipped: “It should be called endangered species.”

Nigel won that game but his eccentric tries don’t always work out so well and he fared badly overall in the London tournament.

So I am very glad to see him win in Gibraltar and at the same time very sad to see Yifan pipped at the post after such a brilliant and sustained performance.

In a way it’s heart-warming to see that a middle aged old gent who enjoys a generous glass of wine after a game can still pull out all the stops and quietly deflect the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of a feisty young fighter like Yifan.

Now I am looking forward to reading Nigel’s next column in New in Chess magazine and, of course, to his detailed analysis of his games, both in London and Gibraltar.

Just in case you were wondering what I’m reading.

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I finally caught up with Henry Bird signing copies of his memoirs in a wigwam in Sarnia, on the shore of Lake Huron. “Mr Bird, you are a very difficult man to track down!”

He beamed benignly. “You might have found me recently in the Nest at Amsterdam, in the Bowery at New York, and in the accident ward at Vienna. I tell you, I’ve witnessed many strange things and distressing circumstances, have endured innumerable interviewers without a shudder, and have perhaps been asked more questions about chess than any man living or dead.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because I good naturedly always answer them, and have furnished matter enough in ten minutes for a two-column article.”

“That’s precisely what I wanted to discuss with you — your creativity. Is yours an exceptional temperament in a desert of dullness, or are all chess players creative, do you think?”

“The temperaments of chess players vary greatly. Some get easily disconcerted, disturbed and even distracted; others seem little affected by passing events, a few, apparently not at all.”

“Are they like artists or actors? Are chess games a form of theatre?”

“Some players might think so. Some even like a gallery and don’t object to reasonable conversation.”

“Conversation? I think that would be frowned on by modern chess players.”

“Well, it varies, you know. Conversations or little interruptions which would pass unheeded by a McDonnell or myself, or perhaps a Zukertortian would sadly disconcert a Buckle or a Morphy, make Staunton angry, and drive a Gossip to despair.”

“Gossip, I gather, was not a great chess player.”

“Do you mean great in stature?”

“Hardly anyone has heard of him now.”

“But he has left us a legacy nevertheless. He loved to write. Like myself.”

“It takes all sorts, I suppose.”

“The attitude as well as the deportment and demeanour of chess players at the board shows many varieties: Anderssen and Captain Mackenzie were statuesque; Staunton, not quite so tall as the Rev. J. Owen, seeming to be soaring up aloft. Harrwitz not quite so small as Gunsberg, seemed sinking to the ground, but the story that he once disappeared overawed by Staunton’s style and manner of moving, and was, after a search, found under the table, is a mere canard of Staunton’s which need not be too confidently accepted.”

“Is height an advantage in chess?

“It’s a factor rather than an advantage. Harrwitz disliked being called a small German by Staunton because it savoured too strongly of the sausage element.”

“Really? But how did it affect Harrwitz’s game? Did he hit back with the fried liver attack?”

“I once heard him say of Staunton ‘If he he makes sausage meat of me I will make mincemeat of him.'”

“A little ribbing brings out the competitive spirit, I suppose. I thought the chess players of your era were all gentlemen, Henry.”

“Not a bit of it, old chap. Staunton pretended sometimes not to see Harrwitz, and would look round the room and even under the chairs for him when he was sitting at his elbow, which greatly annoyed Harrwitz, who, however, sometimes got a turn, and was not slow to retaliate. In a game one day, Staunton materially damaged his own prospects by playing very tamely and feebly, and testily complained–‘I have lost a move.’ Harrwitz told the waiter to stop his work, and search the room until he had found Staunton’s lost move, and his manner of saying it caused a degree of merriment by no means pleasing to the English Champion.”

“Of course everyone now knows Staunton’s name because the style of chess pieces named after him must be used in competitions. But, in life, was he full-blooded or wooden, would you say?”

“Staunton was definitely considered full-blooded, and his amiable French opponent, who used to play for £5 a game no doubt thought he expressed himself favorably and forcibly when he said he is one very nice, charmant man, but he is a bloody fool!”

“A fool? He was a Shakespearian scholar, and a prolific author, wasn’t he?”

“He liked his stories, certainly.”

“What kind of stories?”

“His celebrated stories about Lowenthal and Williams, though very amusing to chess ears, are unrepeatable, though extremely funny as Staunton originally told them, and as MacDonnell repeats them; but they are probably not strictly founded on fact, and are lacking of the respect to which the memories of two such amiable and chivalrous chess players as Williams and Lowenthal are entitled.”

“Talking of reputations, it’s undoubtedly a great honour to have a chess opening named after you, particularly on the very first move of the game — 1.f4 — but how do you feel about The Bird’s lack of respectability?”

“Its reputation has fared a lot better than that of Miss Rooster.”

“Miss Rooster?”

“Miss Rooster, on one occasion when her dearest friend, Miss Pullet called, was found so absorbed in studying a problem by the great Schwerlagerbier, that her visitor could not obtain even a sign of recognition. After various unsuccessful efforts to attract the attention of the fair enthusiast, Miss Pullet departed, and meeting an acquaintance immediately afterwards jocosely remarked that she had left Miss Rooster engaged with thirty-two men, whereby she acquired the reputation of being a dangerous coquette. To this thoughtless jest Miss Rooster ascribed the circumstance, that during the remainder of her life she walked in meditation fancy free.”

“An apotheosis to which I can only aspire, dear Henry.”

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1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.e3 Bg7 4.d4 Nf6 5.Bd3 0-0 6.0-0 c5 7.c3 b6

I have been reading a book called Bird’s Opening by Timothy Taylor, which I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I was put off by the fact that Bird’s Opening has a very dubious reputation in the chess world. But Timothy Taylor has been playing it for over 30 years and his enthusiasm is undimmed. He’s a terrific guide and he takes you on a fascinating journey through 53 vigorous games.

Taylor plays the Bird to win but you could equally well play it like I do  — to lose yourself in its endless possibilties.

Playing over some of these games, I was reminded of a passage in the introduction to another book I have been reading recently, in which Simen Agdestein talks about creativity at the chess board. The book was on the Stonewall Dutch, which, if you’re in a creative frame of mind, could be seen as the Bird reversed with a missing tempo.

“It’s in general important to vary your openings; at least it is for me. You have to be inspired and some new food to chew on is always great. That keeps your creativity alive. And creativity is definitely necessary when you play the Stonewall. What’s fun about throwing out moves you know in advance? … I’ve deviated from the main lines, although I knew nothing wrong with them, just to get something new to ponder over.”

How refreshing!

There is only one game in Timothy Taylor’s book by the great Henry Bird himself, so I decided to go off on an adventure and track down the eccentric English genius to find out more about him. He was quite hard to catch up with since, besides having passed over to the other side,  he’s always had a propensity for foreign travel.

More of that next time! In the meantime, here is a position from the Stonewall Dutch (or the Bird reversed).  The main line is 7. … Qe7 but that spoils the  symmetry with the game up above, which is from Danielsen-Halldorsson, Reyjkjavik Open 2002.

1.d4 f5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 5.0-0 Bd6 6.c4 c6 7.b3 0-0

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Chucky, the chess genius

When Lanying wants to be nice to me she calls me Chucky. This is not because she thinks I look like a killer voodoo doll but because I am cute like Charlie Brown, affectionately known as Chuck to Peppermint Patty.

It’s a bit embarrassing when she calls out “Chuck!” in the supermarket and everyone looks round in bewilderment (no-one is called Chuck in England) but generally I don’t mind.

There is another Chucky I have been thinking about a lot recently — Vassily Ivanchuck, who is one of the world’s top chess players. In January he was ranked third, in July he was ranked thirtieth and in August he crushed all opposition to win the FIDE Grand Prix in Armenia.

I’ve always thought rankings in chess were invidious. What I admire is creativity. Chucky is a very creative player. He’s even invented his own variant of chess called “Kissing the Queen.” Chucky is so good at chess that he probably doesn’t realise how difficult his game is. Even to play within the rules you have to have a very sharp eye because the queen cannot be taken or sacrificed and an attack on the queen must be treated like a check so anything that puts your queen in danger is not allowed.

But a couple of weeks ago he was knocked out of the chess world cup by sixteen-year-old Wesley So from the Philippines.

“I should leave professional chess,” he declared. “Chess is killing me. Chess is playing against me! Chess is destroying me!”

The following week he had to issue an apology. “I ask the forgiveness of my supporters, friends, colleagues in arms, and numerous chess lovers, for the emotional interview. I was very upset after losing, but am not in any circumstances planning to give up chess!”

This outburst and subsequent retraction has only made me think more highly of Chucky. Chess is an emotional game. It appears to be a game of logic but it is in fact very emotional and can be very creative, as long as you are not thinking about your ranking. If you are thinking about your ranking you play safe. You play like a computer. The game becomes dull and ends in a draw.

I like players who use their imagination and take risks. Chess players should be emotional about what they are doing. If they never feel like giving up, they are not committing themselves enough.

If you watch Vassily Ivanchuck in these videos, you can see how excitable he is, particularly when he is explaining how to kiss the naked queen, which wins the game.

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