Chess, the election and Rachel Reeves

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Chess, the election and Rachel Reeves

Rachel Reeves & Chess

For the first time since the age of four my feelings are conflicted concerning the imminent general election on July 4th. A committed Conservative since pre-primary school, I voted (once old enough to do so) with enthusiasm in the Conservative cause, until the political demise of Mrs Thatcher, who most helpfully opened the London 1986 world chess championship between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. Sir Jeremy Hanley MP, an expert chess player, suggested the notion to the Prime Minister, only to be asked, now why should I do that? Thinking quickly on his feet, Sir Jeremy replied: Prime Minister, next day your picture will be on the front page of every Soviet newspaper. How could she refuse, and history records that she did not, even shedding a tear at the ceremony, as the band of the brigade of guards struck up the national anthem.

As a chess grandmaster, my political predilections lie with individual decision, self-reliance, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and reduction of nanny state interference. Of course, with Labour and the Lib Dems, the opposites come with their territory. What dismays me about the Conservatives, apart from their addiction to betraying their most successful leaders, is their continental drift towards ever greater state interference, higher taxes, vainly seeking to ban tobacco, reintroducing national service…and a distinct trend in the direction of diminished intellectual power (Sir Jacob Rees Mogg being a notable exception).

In his Divine Comedy, the immortal Dante reserved a special circle of the Inferno for politicians and hypocrites, whom he tended to regard as co-equals. In previous chess columns I have referred to Dante’s use of the game in his cosmological system, to describe the number of angels in the heavens. The formula is that of a piece of corn placed on a corner of the chessboard, and doubled on each square thereafter. This operation results in two to the power of 64 (minus one) pieces of corn, an unimaginably vast number.

Two chess terms are commonly misunderstood by those not fully familiar with the game. One is “stalemate”, which means that one side cannot make any moves and that the game is irrevocably drawn. There is no such thing as a temporary stalemate. Thus the impasse on the western front of the First World War is often described as “stalemate”, but this is quite wrong, since the deadlock was eventually broken by a victorious Allied advance. The same is true in Ukraine.

The other candidate for mis-use is checkmate. The former PM Boris Johnson has often been photographed seated at a chessboard. I am not, though, aware that one of his most energetic critics, the fractious Tory Minister of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker, plays or understands chess. In any case, he should be aware that checkmate terminates the game absolutely, with no possible comeback.

Hence it was instructive to see this perennially rebellious Tory MP — described by the BBC as “senior”, though he is only in his fifties and has represented Wycombe for just 14 years — describing the then Prime Minister’s situation as follows: “At the moment it does look like checkmate, but whether he can save himself, we’ll see.” Baker attracted headlines for using the word “checkmate”, but what he should have said , at that stage of the general sorry leadership debacle, was “in check”. Checkmate was indeed to follow later, as the cravenly treacherous pawns populating the vast Tory parliamentary majority, caved in to vigorous Leftie agitation.

A passage from the Inferno, Canto 34, depicts the final stage of Dante’s journey through Hell, accompanied by his guide, the Latin poet Virgil.

Travelling  towards the centre of the Ninth Circle, Dante sees a huge shape in the distance, while beneath his feet, he observes the sinners of this Circle totally immersed in ice. They are the most depraved of all sinners: Traitors to their Benefactors. Their particular region of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is named after the ultimate betrayer, Judas Iscariot, who was a traitor to none other than Jesus Christ Himself.

The giant figure in the distance is soon revealed as Lucifer, otherwise known as Satan or Dis. This hideous apparition has three equally horrible faces, and below each tripartite head, mocking the Holy Trinity, rises a set of wings, flapping back and forth. This action drives the icy winds which keep Cocytus, the frozen lake of the ultimate sinners, the betrayers, in its permanent condition of stasis.

Each of Lucifer’s mouths holds a sinner. According to Dante they are the three most heinous sinners of human history, all traitors to a benefactor. In the central maw hangs Judas Iscariot, while in the left and right jaws of Satan they see Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads protruding, while Judas is pitched in headfirst; only his legs protrude, with all three mouths constantly masticating their victims, tearing the traitors in pieces, while never actually killing them.

I like to imagine that there is a region of Dante’s Ninth Circle, especially reserved for traitors, who not only betray their benefactors, but who also get their chess metaphors hopelessly wrong.

A possible saving grace amongst the overwhelming canaille, representing our current political class, is the Labour Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, a former junior chess champion, and still possessed of formidable forensic and chessboard skills. This week’s game (below) is a sample of her play aged 16.

More recently she challenged the well-known Tory and UKIP donor, the late Stuart Wheeler, to a game, pursuant to a disparaging comment he had uttered concerning the female ability to play chess. She promptly invited Stuart to enter the lists in a public game, whereupon he contacted me to act as his mercenary stand-in. Flattering though it was to be invited to join the ranks of the Conservative Condottieri, I felt that such a substitution would be missing the point of the challenge. Hence I declined. As far as I know, that game never took place. Had it done so, I am more than confident that Rachel would have emerged victorious.


Rachel Reeves vs. Abigail Cast

4NCL, March 1995

1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6. a3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7 8. Be2 Rc8 9. O-O Nge7 10. b4?!

Stronger is 10. Nc3.

10… Nf5 11. Be3 a6 12. Qd3 Na7 13. Nc3 h5?

This relaxes Black’s hold on the g5-square. Much better is 13… Be7 or …h6.


White fails to exploit Black’s misstep, with: 14. Bg5. This would have given White the initiative.

14… Nb5 15. Na4 Qd8 16. Nc5 Bxc5?!

Black should prefer either 16… Nxe3 or …Na7, when White’s further initiative is halted.

17.bxc5 b6 18. a4 Nbxd4 19. Nxd4 Nxd4 20. Qxd4 bxc5 21. Qf4 c4 22. Qg5?

There is no gain in exchanging queens. Better to cover the c3-square to deter c4-c3.

22… Qxg5 23. Bxg5 d4 24. Rc1 d3?

Both 24… c3 or …O-O are stronger tries.

25.Bd2 g6?

Black does better after 25… Rc6 or …O-O.

All of Black’s hopes now rest on White needing to sacrifice in return, in order to prevent the advanced passed connected c- and d-pawns from advancing to queen. But this is a forlorn hope, and although Black struggles on for a considerable time, the game, for all intents and purposes, is already over, White’s extra piece being more than sufficient.

White won in 74 moves.

And who gets my vote? No longer the chaotic Tories and certainly not Labour, in spite of Rachel Reeves’ undoubted chess strength. Now that my old school comrade from Dulwich College, Nigel Farage, has dramatically become its leader, I shall be voting for Reform.

Finally, some dates for your diaries! The annual CHESSFEST is happening across the UK next month, when events in Hull, Liverpool and London will celebrate the rich chess legacy that connects people from all walks of life in a celebration of chess.

Lucky Hull plays the first move on Sunday July 7th (10.00-16.00) at Princes Quay Shopping Centre, before the festivities pass to London on Sunday July 14th (11.00-18.00). Here, the entirety of Trafalgar Square will be occupied by every chess activity that you could imagine.
Finally, the celebrations conclude in Liverpool at Chavasse Park on Sunday July 21st (11.00-1600).

These are free events and there will be activities to suit all strengths, ages, and preferences whether you best enjoy blitz, to more leisurely outings at your own pace. Top players will be present for coaching and simultaneous displays. There are giant 3D demonstration boards re-enacting encounters from the past and many more ways to profitably spend a fantastic day out.


Ray’s 206th book, “  Chess in the Year of the King  ”, written in collaboration with Adam Black, and his 207th, “  Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius  ” (which discusses their relationship with chess) are available from Amazon and Blackwells.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 84%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 74%
47 ratings - view all

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