Grandfathers of the chessboard

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Grandfathers of the chessboard

John Nunn

England’s grandmaster grandfathers of the chessboard are back in the news. Last month the three English veterans teams won triple European gold, as that talented generation, which ranked second only to the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s, continued to demonstrate its persistent strength. The nine-day competition, held at Terme Catez, Slovenia, included 21 teams aged 50+ and 30 teams aged 65+.

Their exploits have been recorded in depth by the nonagenarian Leonard Barden in his highly respected and even more tenaciously long lived Guardian column. According to Barden, England’s all-grandmaster over-50 squad of John Emms, Glenn Flear, Keith Arkell, Nigel Davies and Stuart Conquest recovered well from a loss to Montenegro in round two, winning their next five matches, before a defeat by Hungary in the penultimate round. In the final round, having met all the other top teams, they were paired down to England’s second team and won 3-1, edging out Hungary and Italy on a game points tie-break as all three scored 14/18 match points. Arkell and Conquest won individual golds, Davies silver and Flear bronze.

England’s 65+ squad was led by the individual world 65+ champion, John Nunn, who had an impressive win in the final round, sacrificing a knight on f5 to reach a winning queen and pawn endgame.

John Nunn vs. Goran Antunac

European Senior (+65) Team chess championships, Brezice, rd. 9

all annotations, with thanks, courtesy of Chessbase )

1.e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. Bd3 Nf6 7. Qe2 d6 8. g4 Nfd7

8… Nc6= 9. Nxc6 bxc6.


9.f4 and White has an edge.

9… Be7 10. O-O-O

The position is equal.

9… Ne5 11. f4 Nxd3+ 12. Qxd3 Bd7 13. Nf5


White is more active

13… exf5 14. Nd5 Qd8 15. exf5

Black must now prevent Nxe7.

15… Bc6?

A mistake that costs the game: 15… O-O and White is only slightly better.

 16. Nxe7+! Bxh1 17. f6 gxf6 18. Nf5 Nc6 19. Rxh1 Qd7 20. Bc3

Stronger than 20. Qxd6 O-O-O 21. Qxd7+ Rxd7 when Black is better.


20… O-O-O 21. Bxf6 Rhe8 22. Rd1 d5 23. Bxd8 Rxd8 24. a3 d4 25. Re1 Kc7 26. Kb1 Re8 27. Rxe8 Qxe8 28. Nxd4 Nxd4 30. Qxd4 Ka2 Qe6+ 31. b3 Qxg4 32. Qc4+ Kb8 33. Qxf7 h5 34. Qf8+ Ka7 35. Qc5+  

White is clearly winning.

35… Ka8 36. f5 Qf4 37. h3
And now 37. b4 would win.

37… h4 38. Kb2 Qf3 39. Qc3 Qxf5 40. Qh8+ Ka7 41. Qd4+ Ka8 42. Qxh4

aiming for Qh8+.

42… Qe5+ 43. Kb1

14.Qg4 is the strong threat.

43… a5 44. a4 Ka7 45. Qc4 Black resigns 1-0

Peter Large scored with an incisive attack against the ultra-solid Fort Knox variation of the French Defence, then tweeted: “I’ve refuted the Fort Knox!”

Tony Kosten, Chris Baker and Nigel Povah completed the team. Final totals were England 17/18, Slovakia 15, Slovenia 14. Baker won individual gold, Nunn, Large and Povah silver.

England’s 50+ women’s team of Sheila Jackson, Natasha Regan, Petra Fink-Nunn, Helen Frostick and Susan Chadwick also won gold. They were the only women entrants, so competed with the men. In last year’s world 50+ event England women also won gold, finishing ahead of the favourites, China.

Chess masters have, over the past two centuries, devised various spectacular final “endgames” for their own lives. Some of the more eccentric and ingenious methods have included: defenestration (such as Curt von Bardeleben 1861–1924 and Lembit Oll 1966–2019), leaping to their doom from bridges (Karen Gregorian 1947–1989), plunging one way into otherwise impenetrable mountain caverns (Georgy Agzamov 1954–1986), throwing himself in front of a train (Johannes Minckwitz 1843–1901) and, most bizarre of all, ruthless dieting. In 1874 the once portly Thomas Wilson Barnes, a man who had won no fewer than three games against the legendary Paul Morphy, died at the age of 49 after going on an extreme diet. He shed 130 pounds (or just under 60 kilos) over ten months. This method of weight loss, understandably, did not catch on.

It would, however, seem that no prominent chess player has ever actually perished from mental degeneration or the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. I am assured of this encouraging fact by leading Spanish journalist, correspondent for El Pais in Madrid, International Chess Master and expert on Alzheimer’s, Leontxo Garcia Olasagasti.

Alzheimer’s disease is a modern scourge of the elderly. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International (the worldwide federation of Alzheimer’s associations), “There were an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2015.” In addition to the tragic human cost, mental degeneration has a financial cost of £26.3 billion per annum in the UK alone.

Given the absence of Alzheimer’s amongst chess champions, might it be claimed that chess can help to combat the onset of that specific type of disease? There is certainly a body of opinion prominently voiced by Manuel Lillo-Crespo, Mar Forner-Ruiz, Jorge Riquelme-Galindo, Daniel Ruiz-Fernández and Sofía García-Sanjuan in their 2019 paper, from The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14 June 2019: “Chess Practice as a Protective Factor in Dementia.”

Furthermore, there are striking examples of chess champions soldiering on with considerable success into great age. Thus Emanuel Lasker (World Champion 1894–1921) was still performing with distinction in his mid-sixties, inflicting a crushing defeat on future World Champion Max Euwe in 1934. Vassily Smyslov (born 1921 and World Champion 1957–1958) still succeeded in qualifying for the final of the World Title Candidates’ tournament against the youthful Kasparov in 1984. Interestingly, Smyslov’s assistant in that clash with Kasparov was the late , great  Yuri Averbakh, once the world’s oldest Grandmaster. Finally, Viktor Korchnoi (born 1931 and twice World Title Challenger in 1978 and 1981) defeated the young lion, Fabiano Caruana, in 2011, a player over sixty years Korchnoi’s junior and himself challenger to Magnus Carlsen’s throne in their match from London, which occurred seven years later.

Vassily Smyslov 

It has to be understood that chess may be a sedentary hobby or pastime when played socially, but at the highest level of international competition, chess becomes a sport, indeed a strenuous one, and is recognised as such by the majority of nations in the world, though not the UK. An important component of modern sport is nutrition, and in the context of chess, brainpower and the prevention of mental degeneration, or, more positively, the prolongation of mental acuity, is of paramount importance. A vital further element of brainpower and, indeed of chess mastery, is the cultivation of memory. I would say that for chess, memory does not so much focus on recalling vast reams of telephone directory variations and sub variations, but recall of patterns, structures and trends. (See my column of May 18.)

As to the right fuel to nourish the brain, world beating nutritional expert Prof Michael Crawford, Director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, based at London’s Imperial College, has highlighted progress in nutrition knowledge made over the century, as well as some major gaps in implementation of that knowledge. Brain famine caused by shortage of nutrients that support perinatal brain development has unfortunately become a global reality, even as calorie-protein malnutrition was largely averted by development of high yield crops. Whereas protein-calorie malnutrition has not been fully eradicated, the neglect of global food policies that support brain development and maintenance are, in fact, far more alarming. Brain disorders now top the list of the burden of disease, both in terms of cost and numbers, since neurocognitive health, remarkably, is not officially listed among the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and is therefore hardly considered as a component of food policy. Foods with balanced essential fatty acids and ample absorbable micronutrients are plentiful in marine and shore-based foods but deficient as soon as one moves only a few kilometres away from the sea. Sustained access to such foods must become a priority throughout the world to enable each child to develop their intellectual potential, and support a prosperous and peaceful world. Nutrition education and food policy should place the nutritional requirements for the Brain at the top of priorities.

I well recall that after a stirring speech by Prof Crawford on the value of marine based nutrition, Nigel Short repaired downstairs to the dining room of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, devoured a Dover sole, and by adhering to healthy, brain-friendly piscatory dishes, scored one of his most impressive results in the last of the Staunton Memorial Tournaments, which I organised with Barry Martin, the world’s most prominent chess playing artist. When I scored my first Grandmaster result at Nice 1974, I lunched every day on pizza “frutti di Mare”, spread generously with mussels, prawns and other seafood delicacies.

In parallel to correct brain nutrition, cultivation of memory power is also important for success in chess and most Mind Sports. The World Memory Championships have been dedicated ‎for twenty-seven years to fighting mental degeneration, especially in ways which are accessible, inexpensive to implement and easy to operate. Exercising the brain extends its ability and longevity. The brain is like a muscle: if you do not exercise it then it atrophies. I believe that memory techniques are the answer.

Examples of memory techniques in chess range from Paul Morphy’s displays against eight Master-strength opponents in the late 1850’s, without sight of the boards, through to Magnus Carlsen’s ability to recognise any position thrown randomly at him from any World Championship match from the past century or more. The current absolute Guinness World Record for games of chess played blindfold simultaneously is held by the then 28 year old Timur Gareyev, who contested 48 games at once in Las Vegas, December 2016, scoring 80 per cent, wearing an actual blindfold and taking 23 hours. All this time he spent cycling on an exercise bike on which he rode the equivalent of 50 miles.

The following personal experience from China demonstrates how teaching mnemonic techniques followed by regular practice led to the apparent reduction of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. In 1991, my late friend Tony Buzan and I founded the World Memory Championships. Since then, competitive memory has grown into an international phenomenon, now involving over 40 countries worldwide establishing what aspires to become a major new Mind Sport on the global stage at a local, regional, national and international level.

The purposes for the World Memory Championships were and are: to promote Memory as a new Mind Sport, and in so doing to expand opportunities for “Mentathletes” in all countries. To redefine the art and the science of Memory by establishing new norms, benchmarks and records, and to provide certifications and rankings for these. To reintroduce Memory as a fundamental skill for all ages, thereby reinvigorating faith in and enjoyment of memory skills. To demonstrate that Memory is the basis of creativity. To recover and validate the mnemonic systems of earlier human cultures and to revive the traditions of oral memory. To create a global community of like-minded individuals fascinated by exploring the power and potential of Memory and the human mind. It is my ambition that memory, a crucial facet of chess, may ultimately come to complement chess as a vibrant international sport.

Here is an interesting testimony from an octogenarian Chinese lady doctor who demonstrated how studying the fundamentals of memory helped her to combat symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and I believe that such mechanisms are also present in chess.
“My name is Kuang Liqun, an 80-year-old retired doctor. I am delighted to report to you about the results of my participation in brain-training exercise. I trained myself with mnemonics, freed myself from the trouble of Alzheimer’s that had reached 1-2 stage, and restored my brain to youth.

“I used to exhibit three symptom behaviours of Alzheimer’s disease. Firstly, I was always confusing time, place and space. The second symptom was that my habits and customs had changed and I became introverted and moody. The third symptom was that I couldn’t remember things which happened recently, but did remember what happened a long time ago. Importantly, I found a good teacher who trained me in mnemonics. By 2011, the teachers encouraged me to participate in the 20th National Chinese Memory Championships and even going on to the 20th World Memory Championships of the same year. The final vindication and rehabilitation: I have now won the Senior Category (for over 60’s) section of the 20th World Memory Championships.”

I increasingly believe that memory training and chess, combined with brain friendly nutrition, can combine to form a powerful aid in fighting Alzheimer’s. Maybe it is time for our medical authorities to prescribe a daily game of chess, eating some fish, or even seaweed, as in Japan, combined with regular training in mnemonics.

The three following games demonstrate the chess gerontocracy at work:
The first is Max Euwe vs. Emanuel Lasker in Zurich 1934 where the veteran Lasker sacrificed his queen to paralyse White’s forces. The second and third are two games by Smyslov and Zoltan Ribli fought in the World Qualifier of London 1983. In both, White’s attack resembles more a tactical tsunami by the youthful Mikhail Tal than a game by the normally more stately 62-year-old Smyslov.  Finally, the third game which I mentioned earlier: Fabiano Caruana vs. the nearly 80-year-old Viktor Korchnoi from Gibraltar 2011.

Viktor Korchnoi

Garry Kasparov, in my opinion the most formidable chess champion of all time, competed at the age of 60 in an online elite chess tournament, centred on the hub of St. Louis, base of the multi-millionaire chess philanthropist Rex Sinquefield. This was a different kind of competition from the type of events in which Kasparov was accustomed to triumph. Those were classical clashes of chessboard arms, with face-to-face combat conducted under relatively sedate time controls. This was something different.

The St. Louis event, apart from being held online, was played at a rapid time control, and, the most marked difference of all, according to so-called “Varied Baseline” rules. This means that instead of the games beginning from the usual starting position, pieces are randomly shuffled at the start, so, apart from the fact that the eight pawns on each side retain their normal formation, the pieces arrayed behind them can end up on any initial square.

Given the Covid-19 crisis, online chess, as I have argued frequently in this column, certainly represents the mass involvement future of chess. Indeed, Kasparov claimed to have enjoyed the experience, in spite of performing poorly, with three losses, five draws and just one win. In one horrific case (see the loss against Caruana at the end of this column) Kasparov simply blundered a piece after losing control of his mouse. Of course, I personally regard this Varied Baseline or shuffle chess variation on the standard game as a heretical abomination to be cursed, condemned and anathematised. Why do elite Grandmasters dignify shuffle chess with their attention? Could it be the lure of gold, or, more plausibly, the belief that disrupting the familiar start position might somehow level the playing field?

If the need arises to exercise the chess-playing brain in new and exciting ways, then I recommend taking up the oriental chess variations, Xiang Qi (Chinese chess) or Shogi (Japanese chess), which have respected cultural pedigree, rather than the relatively recent perversion that is shuffle chess.

But was this wretched deviation from true chess the cause of Kasparov’s debacle? Was it his relative lack of experience over the years since his retirement in 2005? Was it the fast time limit? Or can his setback be attributed to the fact that the ex-World Champion is almost twice as old as most of the other competitors?

Many still believe that our mental capacity automatically declines as we age, with brain cells dying off daily throughout life. In this view, brain power diminishes with age, until finally, if you live long enough, you inevitably submerge into senility.

Against this gloomy prognosis, consider this — our minds/intellect/intelligence do not consist of a limited number of brain “cells”, which die daily and cannot be renewed. The abilities of that incredible  (1.6kg) bio-computer in your head arise from the number of interconnections made between those cells; and that number is essentially infinite in its growth potential.

IQ testing first began with the French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 and early studies, that compared older and younger groups, tended to demonstrate that the latter were far more intelligent. Therefore, he concluded, mental functioning declines with age.

Such studies were known as cross-sectional and were carried out in a very simple fashion — in fact too simple. Two groups, one of older people and one of younger, were each given a time-limited IQ test. But a new factor entered when the pressure of the time limit was removed. Older people took a little longer, but gained appreciably improved results, quite comparable with those of the younger groups. The extra time needed was accounted for by two facts — the older people were unfamiliar with the type of tests used, which were familiar to younger people; and the older peoples’ brains contained more years of experience and therefore had more information to process when considering the questions.
Eventually, the longitudinal type of psychometric test was developed, whereby tests took place over a subject annually for many years, comparing the results of the same people against themselves. In many ways their results improved with time.

Professor David Suzuki, a geneticist at the University of Columbia, has persuasively argued that although genes do play a fundamental role in determining human character: “The really important genes are not the ones which tell us what to do, but the ones that give us the ability to change behaviour in response to our environment”. In other words, there are genes that create what we recognise as free will. Professor Suzuki claims that the whole evolution of higher mammals is the story of genes handing over control to the brain, so that people have become more and more capable of behaving independently of their genes.
The contradiction between free will and determinism is one that has run throughout philosophical debate from early times to our own, taking on different forms at different stages. A celebrated passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost sets out the problems. The fallen angels, cast into the pit of hell by the Almighty, ruminate on how they got into that situation:

Others apart sat on a hill retir’d
In thoughts more elevate and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate
Fixed Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end in wandering mazes lost.”

The great German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716), for example, articulated the view that circumstances are ruled by absolute logical necessity; everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. In my estimation, Leibniz scores highly, since he once wrote that he approved of rational games, such as chess, for they helped to perfect the art of thinking.

Leibniz essentially promulgated a creed of optimism, but his Theodicy of 1709, in which he expressed his views about the nature of evil, was satirised mercilessly, and quite possibly somewhat unfairly, in the person of Dr. Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide. A Panglossian formulation would typically go: “everything is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds,” and this while Pangloss and his companions were facing a multitude of sequential disasters, such as being caught in shipwrecks, captured by pirates, partially eaten alive or escaping from the great earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon. It’s the best of all possible worlds, selon Pangloss, because there is no alternative. This philosophical viewpoint was succinctly, and without a hint of irony or satire, expressed by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man of 1734:

All nature is but art, Unknown to thee,
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.”

Others, notably Voltaire, followed by every subsequent slave abolitionist, social improver or revolutionary, would have been appalled by the postulation of a rigidly deterministic framework, one that seems to place us in a clockwork universe, where “God” releases the spring at the start of time and we all shuffle along pre-determined paths, until that spring finally winds down.

A different aspect of this argument is the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Are we all little more than a distillation of the genetic material of our forebears, or are we capable of being moulded by the influences to which we are exposed in our own environment? Determinists would probably argue that the most accurate indicator of human potential is the genetic hand dealt to them at conception, and that there is little that can be done to alter this. Clearly, and particularly in terms of physical development, this is going to be an important factor: if the parents are both below average height, their offspring is unlikely to become a basketball champion. In terms of mental development, however, the brain is capable of assimilating phenomenal amounts of information and, the more it is stimulated, the more it will have the potential to achieve at any age. In fact, the brain thrives on stimulation. The more it gets, the more powerfully it evolves, at every stage of its development.

Even the immortal Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo described his work as merely “freeing the image that already existed inside the block of stone”. It is possible to view on-going human potential in the same terms. If you use your brain as it should be used, the scope for developing your brain power is limitless. History offers ample instances of brilliance in life’s later years, from Michelangelo to the indestructible choreographer Martha Graham. The key factors include:

Staying socially involved: among those who decline, deterioration is most rapid in older people who withdraw from life.

Being mentally active: well-educated people who continue their intellectual interests tend to increase their verbal intelligence through old age.
Having a flexible personality is important: one study found that people most able to tolerate ambiguity and enjoy new experiences in middle age, maintained their mental alertness best through old age.

Indeed, much that we learn from great creative minds, contradicts the notion that brain power automatically diminishes with age. Interestingly, the work of the acknowledged geniuses tended to improve as they grew older. This was the case with Goethe, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Verdi… In many instances, their supreme masterpiece was their final work, produced in old age. Thus Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is regarded as more impressive than his First Symphony. The same might be said of Mahler’s Tenth when compared with his First, while Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is deeper and richer than his early effort, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (which Heminges and Condell had the instinctive good taste to omit from The First Folio).

Multiple evidence indicates that by using the brain well and properly as you get older, you physically change it, improving and streamlining its synaptic connections and hence its power of association. The autopsy on Einstein’s brain after his death is a case in point. Einstein’s brain revealed that it contained 400 per cent more glial cells than the norm. Since these cells specifically aid interconnectivity in the brain circuits, the effect would have been to boost his power of association, between apparently separate items, far beyond the average. Of course Einstein may have been sui generis in this respect, but it is an encouraging pointer for less exceptional mortals.

In fact, far from the brain cells dying off with age, their synaptic connections can be physically improved by proper exercise of the brain. Constant challenge and the solving of problems will physically improve your brain.

Having dealt with physical stimulation, and stressed the little-recognised fact that the brain is actually part of the body, we move on to the vital area of mental stimulation. One important branch of this comprises mind sports, brain-teasers and puzzles.

On 21 January 1995 the Daily Telegraph published an article stating that its readers were exhibiting an insatiable demand for items such as these, as expressed in their reader mailbag; accordingly, from that date it appointed a full-time Mind Games Editor and now regularly devotes an entire page to the topic. Meanwhile, the Times went on to publish bridge and chess articles every day, the latter formerly written by… chess Grand Master Ray Keene… before I switched , with far more personal freedom of expression, to writing for TheArticle.

How can you increase your creativity? Most over-forties are widely expected to be suffering from a lessening of their creative drive. It is a commonplace of Academia that no worthwhile research in mathematics, for example, is done after the age of 26. In fact, most people are locked into a negative spiral regarding creativity, falsely believing that the higher the number of ideas generated, the more the quality deteriorates i.e., as quantity increases, quality decreases.

Memory systems can be adapted to simple and effective everyday use. These include the “memory theatre” or memory palace, and my aforementioned mentioned colleague Tony Buzan’s patent speciality, the colourful Mind Map, which helps you to remember complex formulas, lists, lecture material or notes for tests, exams or presentations. The Mind Map is fun and exciting, as well as extremely useful.

Mind games, and chess in particular, have always been regarded as important. Throughout the history of culture, prowess at mind games has been associated with intelligence in general; and mind games have an extraordinary pedigree. According to Dr. Irving Finkel of the Western Asiatic Antiquities Department at The British Museum, game boards have been discovered in Palestine and Jordan dating back to Neolithic times, around 7,000 years BC. Astoundingly, this predates our current knowledge of when writing and pottery were introduced in those societies. Since many of the board games, such as Pharaonic Sennet or the Royal Game of the lost city of Ur, were found in tombs, it is likely that the shades of the departed had to play a game with the gods of the underworld to ensure safe conduct into the after-life. Board games are no longer regarded as a sort of IQ test for the dead, but they do retain their potency as symbols of intelligence.

My conclusion is that chess strength and mental strength in general, with due deference to the Leibniz dictum concerning rational games, can be maintained as one ages, but the conditions must be conducive. In my opinion online chess, rapid chess and, in particular, the hated shuffle chess are not helpful, indeed inimical, to the ageing brain. The great Botvinnik, the Red Czar of Soviet chess, produced some of his most creative masterpieces in his mid- to late-fifties. Botvinnik attained the perihelion of his chess brilliance when, at the age of fifty, he wrested the World Championship in 1961 from that coruscating tactician Mikhail Tal, who was a quarter of a century his junior!

Another World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, scored one of his most impressive tournament victories at New York in 1924 aged 56; Viktor Korchnoi qualified for the World Championship final when over fifty, while Vassily Smyslov reached the final of the World Championship Candidates Tournament in 1984 at the age of 63. The key, as noted above in the IQ tests, is that more time for profound thought is required as one ages, and if granted, the greatest heights of creative genius can still be attained. I am all in favour of popularising chess online and reaching vast audiences, such as the 70 million for the recent online chess Olympiad. It should, though, be noted that the triumphs of Botvinnik, Lasker, Korchnoi and Smyslov, were all achieved with hours to finish the games, not minutes, as has recently been the case.

This week’s games include three of the supreme masterpieces of chess strategy, played by Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) in his fifties: Botvinnik vs. Tal (1961), Botvinnik vs. Keres (1966), and Botvinnik vs. Portisch (1968).

It is worth noting the spectacular rook sacrifices with which Botvinnik delivers the death blow against both Keres and Portisch.

Further, here is the dreadful debacle suffered by Garry Kasparov aged 57 against Caruana in 2020, aged 28, during the recent shuffle chess fiasco. Botvinnik, Kasparov’s erstwhile mentor, would be turning in his grave.

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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