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Hoc opus, hic liber est: Nigel Short’s ‘Winning’ and other chess books

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Hoc opus, hic liber est: Nigel Short’s ‘Winning’ and other chess books

Nigel Short (Alamy)

In Virgil s   Aeneid  one finds the phrase, “ hoc opus, hic labor est ,  “this is the task, this is the masterpiece”, referring to the hero Theseus and his descent to the Underworld. Descending to the netherworld’s depths is easy – the trick is to get back safely again to the “ upper airs. ”  Less onerous is the annual task of The English Chess Federation in selecting its title (“ liber ” in Latin means “ book ) for their Book of the Year prize. The four finalists have just now been announced and I am grateful to The English Chess Federation (ECF) for the following brief summaries of the chief contenders: 

Masterpieces and Dramas of the Soviet Championship Volume 1 (1920– 1937)   by Sergey Voronkov, published by Elk and Ruby, with a foreword by former World Champion and one of the greatest chess players in history, Garry Kasparov. This book fully lives up to its title: the daunting problems of organising anything in the chaotic times of the post-Russian Revolution. The tournaments were of high quality (greats such as Alexander Alekhine, Efim Bogoljubov and Mikhail Botvinnik were amongst the winners) and there are many historical, dramatic, and competitive games to enjoy. A book of considerable importance, but also an absorbing read.

Next,   Smyslov, Bronstein, Geller, Taimanov and Averbakh  by the prolific American Grandmaster, Andrew Soltis, published by McFarland. Subtitled ‘A Chess Multibiography with 220 Games ,  Soltis says he wanted to explore the lives of five exceptionally talented chess players, but very different men, who survived the horrors of the Second World War and of the brutal Soviet regime and why only one of them, Vasily Smyslov, became World Champion. The way their lives entwined in the competitive, political, Russian chess world after the World War II is fascinating. Interested readers may find my column on Yuri Averbakh , the sole surviving member of the quintet here.

The Chess Saga of Fridrik Olafsson   by Oystein Brekke, published by   Norske Sjakkforlag. A  tribute to the Icelandic Grandmaster who, besides being strong enough to play in the 1959 Candidates’ Tournament, is an iconic figure in his native Iceland.  An elegant attacking player, the book contains 118 games, many annotated by Olafsson himself. The book is much more than a collection of games; many writers contribute to describe his long life (87 years) and varied career, not all in chess. A Saga indeed and an affectionate and beautiful book in every way.

And finally, an important, no holds barred book, which heralds Nigel Short’s entry into the field of chess literature. 

Winning by Nigel Short, published by Quality Chess. Tournament books have been an important part of chess culture. Short has taken an unusual approach – this is a book giving ALL the games he played himself in eight tournaments he won dating from 1987 to 2016. The games are thoroughly annotated and show the drama, the good play, the practical play and sometimes survival play required to win tournaments.

I was delighted to learn that Short is, like myself, an admirer of the Duke of Wellington. Indeed, alert readers will doubtless recall, from earlier columns, that I modelled my youthful chess strategy on the Iron Duke’s campaigns in the Spanish Peninsular War, in particular his defensive coup at the lines of Torres Vedras in 1810, which stopped the French Marshall Masséna in his tracks.

This is Short’s first book and his personal approach along with his lively style creates the hope, say the ECF judges, that he will write another.

There is, indeed plenty of scope for a second volume, which might include Short’s bid for the World Title, as well as his exploits against the British elite, even before he reached his teens. Now picture this: a 12-year-old boy sits at a chessboard. Facing him is a formidable and deadly opponent. The man is an experienced international master, a player who has beaten, nay annihilated, one World Champion (Mikhail Tal) and himself won the British Championship a record 10 times. The scene is Brighton in the summer of 1977. The boy is Nigel Short, the first pre-teenager ever to compete in the adult British Championship, and the hardened veteran is Dr Jonathan Penrose.

After a few moves of play, to the amazement of the onlookers, Penrose offers the boy a draw. To the even greater consternation of those looking on, the boy declined the offer. The game proceeds. First, Penrose almost loses his queen, and then, faced with an inevitable checkmate, on the 41st move, the shattered Master concedes defeat.

That sensational game announced the advent of a new chess prodigy, in the tradition of young geniuses of the calibre of Paul Morphy, José Capablanca and Bobby Fischer. Since his own auspicious debut, Nigel Short progressed with meteoric brilliance to indisputably become the greatest British chess player in the history of the game. He has reached a world ranking of number three and has been the inspirational leader of the grandmaster-packed English team, spearheading them to three Olympic silver medals, behind only the hitherto dominant Russians.

Nigel Short, 1977, Brighton (Alamy)

The highlight of Nigel Short‘s career was his victorious challenge in April 1992, to the living chess legend, Anatoly Karpov, in the semi-final of the World Chess Championship Qualifying Competition. Karpov held the World Title for 10 years, until he was deposed by Garry Kasparov. He is probably one of the three or four greatest chess players the world has ever seen.

Beating Karpov raised Short to the pinnacle of world chess, a position he reinforced in January 1993 by his victory over the formidably talented Dutch Grandmaster, Jan Timman in the final of the World Championship Qualifying Competition, a result which enabled Nigel to challenge Garry Kasparov himself in a match for the World Championship Title. Sponsored by The Times newspaper, this challenge took place in 1993 and resulted in honourable defeat for Short. It should, though, be remembered that no native born British player has ever come that close to world domination since Howard Staunton demolished the leading players of Europe between 1843 and 1846.  

So, what made Nigel so devastatingly effective over the chessboard? Short is a tough pragmatist, self-educated and self-reliant. His physical appearance belies his ruthlessly aggressive and starkly individualistic approach when in play. Short is tall, softly spoken and mild, not at all the stereotype of the mad genius which Bobby Fischer fitted so well. However, in a particularly endearing trait, he not only means what he says, he also acts upon it. 

Short ‘s career has been studded with glittering successes, first prize in tournaments and match victories around the world, but there have also been, as distinct from the careers of Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, the occasional equally stunning setbacks. When he was only 14, Short was thrown, by well-meaning chess officials, who wanted to encourage and accelerate his progress, into the shark pool of the 1980 London International Tournament, with a line-up including the World Title Challenger, Victor Korchnoi, who was not even able to win first prize, such was the strength of the competition. Short was unable to avoid a disastrous last place; he was just too young and inexperienced for this murderous field. In a time characterised by national engines of pre-teenage Grandmaster creation, this might sound anomalous, but four decades ago pre-pubescent Grandmasters were not then as numerous as Milton’s leaves in Vallombrosa. However, Nigel overcame these early problems, developed enviable mental toughness and when he went one game down in the semi-final against Karpov, he did not become discouraged.

In fact, Nigel had a grand strategy for the all-important match against Karpov. Both he and Karpov, as opposed to the brilliantly destructive Kasparov, are architectonic players, pure stylists, who seek to expose and make visible the inner harmonic workings of the dynamic interplay of the pieces. Where others would simply see a discordant chaos of clashing chessmen, Short and Karpov, perceive almost infinitely beautiful patterns, networks and fields of force. In the past, Short had laid the accent on such pure thought: the superiority of his thinking apparatus, over that of his opponents. But defeating Karpov required a new dimension of combat: physical as well as mental fitness now became of vital importance – it may even have proved to be the deciding factor.

For the showdown against Karpov, the 26-year-old Short was determined to be at the peak of physical strength. The plan was to play longer games and wear down his 41-year-old (and slightly paunchy) opponent. The war of attrition, to drain Karpov’s energy, would suddenly transform into a Blitzkrieg when the former Champion was suitably enervated. This did, indeed, happen. Games three, four and five of this 10-game match were mind-exhausting marathons, but then Short struck to take games six and eight with lightning victories. Chess may seem all in the mind, but the mind is connected to the body.

Anatoly Karpov Date: July 16, 1985 (Alamy)

The challenge to Karpov took place in the Andalusian city of Linares in southern Spain. Linares is famous for two other things apart from chess. It was the birthplace of Himilke, the wife of Hannibal, and the city also boasts a fountain from which Hannibal is reputed to have drunk. Local legend has it that those who, emulating the Carthaginian general, drink from this fountain, will inevitably return.

Turning from battles over the chessboard to chess politics, Nigel Short in 2018 made brilliant use of every opportunity to make a bid to become elected as President of FIDÉ, the World Chess Federation. Disgracefully, that selfsame English Chess Federation who are now pondering the merits of Nigel’s book, failed to support him and, sadly, even obstructed him. Nevertheless, Nigel emerged from the electoral process with the glittering prize of FIDÉ Vice President to his credit. 

One of the reasons for my admiration of Nigel is that he succeeded in two areas where I harboured ambitions, but ultimately failed. These are winning the World Championship and taking a high post in FIDÉ. As far as the former is concerned I never made it past the first qualifying stage (known as the Zonal) , while I spectacularly failed to be elected as FIDÉ General Secretary in 1986. 

Short’s travails with his national federation bring to mind an episode from another illuminating new book from Elk and Ruby: Yakov Vilner, the first Ukrainian Chess Champion and the first USSR Chess Composition Champion: a world champions favorite composers by Sergei Tkachenko. Here we learn the truth about a brush with death at the hands of Soviet executioners for the immortal Alexander Alekhine. Tkachenko writes:  

“Gradually, I managed to put together a true account of those events. I found clear evidence that the versions that Alekhine was saved by important Soviet functionaries were incorrect. Historical facts and memoirs pointed to the undoubted fact that his salvation was down to the modest Jewish lad Yakov Vilner, who, at the time the Grandmaster was arrested, was working as a clerk in the Odessa Revolutionary Tribunal.” 

How did the modest clerk save Alekhine? This book does not give details. Perhaps Vilner saved him by eating the charge sheets against Napoleon and Josephine, as does the loyal clerk, Tristan Fleuri, working in the Department of Public Safety, in Abel Gance ’s 1927 epic movie  Napoleon .

The episode of conflict with the National Federation, to which I refer, arose when the Soviet chess authorities began to undermine Vilner, in a way that foreshadows the social media storms nowadays which are often a prelude to a campaign of Cancel Culture. I quote: “In fact, the attacks on Vilner started according to a well-developed procedure – with angry letters from ordinary chess fans. The aim of such “signals“ was to provide an official excuse to the relevant organs and services to take actions against an awkward person.” 

Plus ç a change , indeed!  

Short, however, not only survived but also prospered in the teeth of official opposition. Vilner, sadly, did not, succumbing at a relatively young age to the asthma which had bedevilled his entire career. 

My column last week “ Dr Siegbert Tarrasch and his search for meaning ” prompted reader Martin Tucker to  incisively  enquire, via  TheArticle’ s   rating facility, about my views on Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead. My interpretation is that Nietzsche believed 18th century rationalism had driven the presence of a deity from the world. In order to function in a universe without the meaning imbued by the Divinity, human beings have to become SuperHumans, endowed with the moral and intellectual strength to confront this vacuum knowing that there is nothing afterwards. In short, since Nietzsche did not believe in God, then humanity, in Nietzsche ’s view, must develop the strength to face the universe alone, without the prop of faith. 

I have, during the past week, been reading Professor Michio Kaku’ s   The God Equation , published by Allen Lane. In his conclusion, the eminent theoretical astrophysicist, agreeing with Einstein, does not believe that the God who created the universe interferes in the affairs of mere mortals. And then Professor Michio, co-founder of String Field Theory, moves very close to what I understand Nietzsche to be saying: “In the end, I believe that we create our own meaning in the universe… if the meaning of life were available for free, then it would lose its meaning. Everything that has meaning is the result of struggle and sacrifice, and is worth fighting for.“ 

Here are two games demonstrating Nigel Short’s struggles and sacrifices against the world’s greatest: 

First, Nigel Short’s win against Garry Kasparov in 1987. The notable features of this game are Short’s material sacrifice to gain control of the light squares, followed by advancing his own king to join in the attack, during the middle-game. 

And from the World Championship semi-final match between Nigel Short and Anatoly Karpov in 1992 . A mighty struggle against the former World Champion, 1974-1984, who had contested a titanic series of five championship matches against Kasparov totalling 144 games. Few expected Short to forestall a sixth Karpov-Kasparov match. This was the key win which broke Karpov’s resistance. 

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus” ,  containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwells .


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